I’ve spent a busy week working at my company’s office in the East Village in New York City. There’s something about being in such a vibrant place that makes you feel alive. I don’t really fit in here, as it seems like it’s all young, affluent hipsters, but I have enjoyed walking down the street and soaking in the sights, sounds, tastes, and even smells of the city. (I apologize to my friends in the city for not getting together, but I’ve been booked solid all week, day and night.)
Then I read about Dylann Roof, a deranged white supremacist who looks like that kid from Home Alone but with a haircut that would shame even a Mormon apologist. The photo of a glaring loser with a superfluous ‘n’ in his name and the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia stitched on his jacket is both appalling and ridiculous because you don’t imagine a pathetic figure like that could be capable of causing so much pain to so many people. My heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones because of this evil act.
It’s easy to call this a senseless or random act, but it’s neither. What happened in Charleston was a deliberate act of hatred based on racial prejudice. So many people in the US have worked to overcome the racism that has been a pervasive and persistent element of our republican democracy, but one double-n Dylan reminds us again that it’s still with us and will likely remain for a long time to come. Surely we should be well beyond this narrow bigotry, and yet we aren’t.
I used to think that racism was born of ignorance, that it was difficult to be prejudiced against people you knew at work and in your neighborhoods. My father-in-law was in many ways a gentle man, but he had an almost casual attitude of prejudice against black people. To him, what I called Brazil nuts were “nigger toes,” and a lazy job performance was “nigger work.” I was appalled, but I figured that, being a potato farmer from Idaho, he had very little interaction with African Americans. He didn’t know better.
But the Dylann Roofs of the world live and work in a multiracial society. South Carolina, after all, is 28% African American, which is more than twice the national average. Newspaper articles quote Roof’s black friends. Sure, they say, he told racist jokes and talked about starting a race-based civil war, but no one took it seriously.
Maybe that’s the problem. We see racism as something from the past, and even though we recognize overt examples of racism, such as several well-known police shootings recently, we ignore the casual racism. Even when we organize and protest, we generally focus on egregious acts of prejudice or hatred, but we don’t notice what’s going on around us every day. We think that racism is that something that happens to other people, and it’s caused by nutjobs and criminals, not us.
If we are going to reduce acts of subtle and overt racism, it has to be us. We have to be active and vigilant in eliminating the racism we see around us. In my childhood, we sang a very simple Primary song:
I want to be kind to everyone,
For that is right, you see.
So I say to myself, “Remember this:
Kindness beings with me.”
Perhaps we need to resolve that racism ends with us. We may not have the power individually or even collectively to erase prejudice and hatred, which seem to be basic human traits, but we can work to make our own surroundings and environments more tolerant and less racist. They say that when someone does something kind for you, you should “pay it forward.” It’s time to start paying forward tolerance, respect, and inclusion, as well as kindness.
Am I naive? Of course. No one believes there’s an easy solution to these problems, but I am determined that, at least in my own life, racism ends with me.