When I was growing up in a small town in the South, I was given a unique perspective, on two levels. The schools that I went to were public and private, in a town that had three colleges, as well as monuments to both fascism and racism. Rome, Georgia is both the home of Shorter College, Berry College, and Georgia Highlands College and the final resting place of Nathan Bedford Forest, the founder of the KKK. His grave monument stands at the highest point of one of Rome’s major landmarks, Myrtle Hill Cemetary.
While some may dismiss that as simply an unfortunate relic from the past, they should stop to consider that the KKK is still granted permission to march downtown, while the Berry College lesbian gay bisexual student union chapter, which has been applying for permission since 1993, is denied. I’m not sure which is more amazing, that we have a LGBSU chapter at all at one of our major campuses, or that the KKK is still marching through our streets, but it made for a stark contrast in perspectives growing up.
In grade school, I was sent to a private school by my parents, who simply wanted myself and my sister to have the best education we could have. They were both the first in their families to graduate from college, so they valued education and wanted the best one for us. Unfortunately, my parents could not have anticipated the culture into which they were about to introduce us. They grew up poor in a poor area, but their parents, my grandparents, didn’t want them being looked down on. So they went out of their way to either buy or make the very best clothes for their children. The result is that the other kids picked on them mercilessly as being fancy, and well-to-do. My dad and uncle had rocks thrown at them on their way to school. Keep in mind, this was shortly after the depression, in Alabama.
So my parents dressed me in my cousins’ hand-me-downs, shirts with motorcycles on them, mostly. They wanted me to fit in, and be like the other kids.
…And then they sent me to a private school, populated with the children of the richest people in our town.
I was immediately targeted for ridicule. Six years of unrelenting bullying and ostracism ensued. It got so bad that in 6th grade a girl I had known since first grade wrote me a note. In this note, she told me that she was sad that I had been bullied at our school since she knew me, and that she wanted to help. She told me to “get rid of the glasses” and get contacts, to lose some weight, that everyone was wearing penny loafers or docksides, not tennis shoes, and that people were wearing oxford button downs or Izods. She was careful to point out that I MUST get the ones with the crocodile on them, NOT the ones with the fox, or penguin, those ‘weren’t real’.
While there are many that might dismiss her actions as being snotty and superficial, I would argue that she genuinely cared, or else she wouldn’t have bothered. She was 10. Her parents were obviously talking through her. Plus I’m thankful that she thought enough about me to give me a glimpse into her world. But then I had a choice: invest (heavily) in a system which I had already written off for rejecting me, or get away from the source of my rejection. I chose the latter and asked repeatedly to change schools.
I got my wish and spent Jr. High through HS at a public school, where I learned my new name: “Faggot”. I wasn’t “out” in school or anything, and not particularly gaydar-tripping, that was just what you called people you don’t like, to make other people hate them also. I went from getting beaten up by spoiled rich kids, to getting beaten up by kids raised in poverty. Thanks to the girl who wrote the note to me at my previous school, I was able to glean that the source of my ostracism there was my resistance to assimilate, but what was the problem now? I didn’t wear anything particularly outlandish, and I mostly kept to myself. But still, I attracted bullies.
I soon learned that the reason why, was because I wouldn’t play football for my school, who was the top AAA rated school 4 years running. These were football players trolling me, while the coaches looked on and said nothing. Afterward, the coach would always say “Well, if you’d just play ball for us…”.
This culminated in a classic schoolyard brawl, where I found myself at the center of a crowd of other students all watching. This circle was pierced only by the windowed corner of the building. I had been knocked down face first, and as I tried to get up, the guy who shoved me jumped on my back, started choking me with my shirt collar, and slapping me back and forth across the back of my head. As I tried to get him off of me I look up, to see one of the coaches standing in the windowed corner with his arms crossed and an approving smirk on his face. Clearly, he liked what he was seeing. It was ‘just’ to him. It was ‘right’. He just stood there smiling while it happened, while his classroom full of students did the same.
That’s when it hit me… Just like the prejudices of the rich are passed down, so are the prejudices of the poor. This bully that tormented me was bigger than either my current aggressor or the authority figures who enabled him. It was bigger than any economic class. It was a system which perpetuated prejudice and condoned manipulation.
And then a ray of light…
As a person who was known as an artist, I was honored to be asked to design the brochure for our school’s Black History Month presentation, and the very first MLK day in 1986. To me, it was a sign that things were improving, and that we were heading toward a better future. I remember feeling hopeful, in spite of constant threats of nuclear war against Russia. However, later on that day, I had all that ruined.
While I was in Geometry class, the next class after the MLK presentation, some asshole was running around in the hallway, planting a surprise for everyone. When the bell rang, and I walked out into the hallway, I saw something that made me stop dead in my tracks. Over the Coke machine, wrapping it like a gift, was a rebel flag. Draped over that, right in the center, was a noose.
I had to stand there for a few moments, and just take that in, this thing in front of me. It was like seeing a flying saucer. It was probably more like seeing Bigfoot: primitive and terrifying. What I was seeing in front of me, was terrorism. It terrified me, and when I thought of how much it must terrify its intended target, I just wanted to cry. I wanted to grab it and hide it before anybody saw it, but it was too late. All I could do was just keep walking, and die a little inside.
It didn’t take me long to realize that their aggressor and mine were the exact same.
But why the difference in tactics? My school was of mixed ethnicity, but black and white mostly stayed off of each other’s toes. I felt like, for the most part, the black people at my school were very much like myself. They just wanted to be left alone, so that they could get through the day in peace. I knew that racism existed in my town and in my school, but seeing that kind of thing was new to me, and I will never forget it.
But again, why do I get notes from people feeling sorry for me, and direct confrontations to my face, while they were getting passive-aggressive, covert, underhanded terrorist acts threatening to kill them?
The answer, as I came to understand, was fear. They were deeply afraid of black people, afraid of getting caught for being afraid of black people, afraid of being afraid of black people. That’s why they went to such great lengths to instill fear in others. In contrast, I posed no real threat to them. I quickly learned to appreciate that difference. I didn’t agree with the opinions of my attackers, but at least I knew who they were, and why they didn’t like me. Eventually we grew to at least mutually respect each other superficially, but unfortunately, the racial tensions persisted, seething under the surface. They were never talked about openly. They were never addressed.
That’s what happens when you use fear to fight racism, you drive it underground, where you can’t see it, and where it’s harder to gauge and deal with. …And where it will eventually erupt when nobody expects it. That, literally, is like fighting fire with gasoline. Racism is made of fear. Using fear to fight it will simply build resentments, prolonging and perpetuating it.
Policy is important, but no policy will remove racial tensions until equality is accepted. Even that will bring massive backlash from people who mistakenly believe that this equality hurts them. The only way to truly fight racism and prejudice in general is to approach them where they live, and that is in the hearts and minds of people. As a result, we say they have no mind or that they have no heart when in reality, it is us who lack the patience or guts to acknowledge that they do, let alone the gumption to try and go there. When we act this way, we assume that they are somehow less than human, as humans have hearts and minds.
I would much rather anger white people for eliminating inequality, prejudice, and poverty, than anger black people for NOT eliminating them. Those must happen and are important. But they aren’t the last step in eliminating prejudice. In order to do that, we must address the root causes of it.
Fear is the main cause, but fear of being made poor, or kept poor, by another race can definitely be solved by eliminating poverty for everyone, and by providing a federal job guarantee, both of which can be solved by an understanding of US monetary sovereignty, and humanistic budgeting. Once poverty is eliminated, and we start from a much more equitable position, racism cannot fester to the point that it has.
Once that fear is gone, there’s only the fear of the unknown, of that which is different, as we all have surely encountered in our journeys.
And how do you deal with that?
You pass notes.
You get to know each other as human beings, whether you agree or not.
And never forget that bigotry, prejudice, and racism are results of a corrupt system. That never comes from the bottom. The fear does, but that fear is exploited from the top when it behooves the top to do so. Our job is to remove that fear, not compound it.
There are those who compare modern neo-Nazis with the Third Reich, and that comparison is intentional and unavoidable, but the stark difference between oppressed and oppressor is also present. How often does the former imitate the latter? And yes, even as neo-Nazis terrorize and oppress everyone around them, they themselves are the victims of weaponized poverty. Those who commit this, exploit the subsequent fear and dismay by pointing the finger at other races, then drive off in their BMWs to go play golf with Tiger Woods. This not only provides cover for their crimes, it diverts attention away from major issues by imposing a crisis state. You are made afraid by your division rather than being empowered by your connection to your community.
It’s time ALL of us stopped being afraid to reach out to each other, because no matter who is responsible for the problem, WE are the solution.