When I was in third grade I had a sleepover at a white supremacist’s house. His daughter and I were school friends and she invited me over. I didn’t know who her dad was, but I did know that she and I both liked tetherball and reading. That was more than enough for eight-year old me.
I was at my grandmother’s house when my mom said it was time to go. Upon hearing where I was heading my aunt shrieked, “You can’t let her go over there! Her dad is in the KKK!”
I didn’t understand what the KKK was, but I knew from my aunt’s tone that it was a big deal. My mom, clearly irritated by having to have this discussion in front of me, gave a response that I will never forget. She said that she didn’t think it was fair to punish the daughter for her dad’s choices. Plus, with my blonde hair and blue eyes she knew I’d be safe.
As it turned out, he was no run-of-the-mill racist. He had been a grand dragon of the KKK in the 70’s. He spent time in jail for related activities and was, along with his son, fined $12.5 million for inciting the murder of an Ethiopian man. I didn’t know any of this at the time.
All these years later, the most remarkable part of the sleepover was that is was completely unremarkable. Her dad worked in his repair shop out back while we “sledded” down their staircase on a mattress we found in the hall closet. Her mom made us lemonade and cookies. We stayed up late, giggling and chatting, and the next morning my mom picked me up and took me home. By all appearances it was identical to every other sleepover I ever had.
But even in my eight-year old brain, the fight between my mom and aunt stood out. It played on my mind. In an old diary I kept at the time I wrote: “I asked her if her dad was in the KKK. She said no. We played tag.”
While that sufficed in third grade, in the years since I have often remembered this story, reframing it through varying lenses at different stages of my life. Even then I knew that a superficial genetic lottery had been the key to my own safety. But the thing is, I had never met my biological father. In fact, I didn’t know anything about him. And despite being a kid, I understood the arbitrary nature of such a judgment, even if it played out in my favor.
I now have a son the same age I was then. He too has blonde hair, blue eyes and, as he calls it “blonde skin.” His dad has brown skin. My son, his parentage unknown, would also be safe. But I can’t imagine letting him have a sleepover at a white supremacist’s house.
And yet I’m glad my mom let me go. I learned a really important lesson that I feel is even more relevant in today’s current state of affairs.
I learned how easy it is to demonize anyone. It is easy to demonize a white supremacist and his family because of a prejudice against their ideologies and actions. It is easy to demonize any group of minorities or religions or skin colors or political affiliations because of the same. There is a seemingly rational argument to be made on all sides.
But the other part of what I learned is that while I had a perfectly lovely sleepover at a white supremacist’s house, it is unequivocally not okay to condone hatred and violence. Yes, I was safe. And yes, as an anthropologist, I can rationally agree that there is no inherent good or bad in the world. But we all exist within the societies in which we live. And as a society we have agreed upon a set of right and wrongs with corresponding value and consequence. We have argued, legislated and fought wars to protect the values we have chosen to unite us all. So it is upon that framework that we must evaluate any situation with which we are confronted.
I grew up thinking that I didn’t hear any overtly racist or prejudiced language. While I lived in a homogenous area where it wasn’t a major topic of conversation, I later discovered that I was wrong—I had heard it. It had simply been disguised in coded language.
I heard things like: “I like Mexicans, I just think people should go through the legal process.” Or, “ Slavery ended a long time ago. At a certain point you have to take responsibility for your own failure to succeed.” Or, “Affirmative Action is just political correctness taking opportunities from other more well-qualified candidates.” Or, “Families are better off when women stay home and look after the kids. I’m sorry, blame biology, not sexism.” Or the old standby, “Political Correctness is the problem with America. No one can say anything without offending someone!”
Where I went to college there were 98 nationalities represented among 8,000 students. I began to hear that coded language played back in my mind as I met new people who broke the stereotypes I hadn’t realized I’d absorbed. I had to confront my own inadvertent prejudices. And I have to be honest, I was both surprised and ashamed to realize I had them. I honestly didn’t know.
When I heard about “illegals” I didn’t think about the horrors they might be escaping from and how absurd it was to expect them to file the right paperwork. When I heard about mass incarceration of black people it didn’t occur to me that it might be unjust. In my experience the cops were usually justly enforcing the law. When I heard about neo-Nazis or the KKK it didn’t occur to me that anti-Semitism was happening in America. I thought that was a WWII European issue. The only micro-aggressions I took note of were about women, because those affected me.
What I think is happening for a lot of people in this country right now, particularly those closest to the white, straight, Christian, cis-gender, middle class end of the spectrum, is a sudden confrontation with our own ingrained prejudices.
It makes sense that shame is a part of our reaction. We’ve never, as a country, learned how to deal with the truth of our own racist history. And yes, for most of us it’s easy to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis. But there is a shadow side as well. A side that knows we’ve heard casual racism, prejudice and coded language used by family members, friends, coworkers and acquaintances. And maybe there have been times we’ve stood up to those people. But most likely, we’ve also remained silent at times we felt we should have spoken up.
I have been confronted with many instances where I wanted to speak up but didn’t. Sometimes it seemed like a lost cause. Sometimes it was an inappropriate setting. Sometimes it could jeopardize my professionalism or safety or create unnecessary tension. It was definitely going to make things uncomfortable.
Thankfully I have a diverse group of friends who have been extremely gracious and patient with me over the years, letting me ask awkward questions and give honest answers without blame. They have been more understanding of my silence in certain situations than I’ve been of myself. They have taught me a lot about my own ignorance, and how I can be a better ally.
So here is what I’d like to offer for anyone else who has ever felt this kind of shame and discomfort: intention matters. If you are listening and trying to honestly learn about people and you stumble over the wrong words, most often people will respond kindly, appreciating the fact that you’re trying. If you hear casual racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism or any other prejudice, recognize that you have an opportunity to help. If you feel safe in that setting, recognize that that is your privilege. It is your privilege to choose whether to engage or not. Recognize that not everyone has that choice.
Often these things are said without much thought. They’re colloquialisms we’ve grown up with and never contemplated. Like how most kids don’t think about the history of ethnic cleansing when they play Cowboys versus Indians.
Other times they are perpetuated by sheer volume. The less they’re challenged, the more they persist. The more they’re exposed to light—forced through a lens of rationality and fact-checking—the quicker they die out.
We live in an era of human history in which we are aware of our own insignificance relative to the vastness of the universe. We are specks on a speck of dust in infinite space. There is abundantly more that unites than divides us, but we have to be able to confront our own shame and discomfort in order to find peace with one another, and most importantly, ourselves.
I am an optimist. I believe most try to be good people. But good is an adjective. We are all, at a basic level, people. We are only good people when we choose the actions and beliefs our societies have deemed “good.” We can all make kinder, more empathetic choices and earn the adjective we so generously throw around. We don’t have to be perfect, but we can do better. Let’s do better.