For those of you who can look at a swastika or a confederate flag and say “Why can’t people just let it be?” I have been thinking: maybe you haven’t had the experiences I have had. Maybe you don’t know the things I know. Here is why we can’t “let it be.”
The Nazis imagined a purified society ruled by what they thought to be a master race. They tortured, mutilated, stole from and murdered millions of people. Not as part of some other plan. The genocide was the plan. Maybe you didn’t know. Maybe you didn’t read the Diary of Anne Frank when you were twelve years old. Maybe you didn’t identify with the young Jewish girl hiding with her family during World War II. Maybe you didn’t read the epilogue, horrified to learn that she died in a concentration camp. That her father found her diary afterwards, read what she wrote about how she still believed people were good, and decided to publish her private thoughts so people all over the world could understand what we lost when Anne was murdered. Maybe you didn’t have that experience.
Maybe you didn’t grow up as a non-theist, being told several times that you were going to burn in hell, as I did. The first time it happened I was six years old. I heard the threat implied by those words: you’re not in the in-group, you’re not good, you’re not worthy. It’s not quite “I’m going to kill you” but more “If someone else killed you, I wouldn’t mind.” I mean, after all, if my soul is damned, why should anyone bother to protect my corporeal form? This is why a belief in the supernatural is so dangerous – it allows people to believe and do terrible things. Every time I meet a new person, I wonder: if they knew I didn’t believe in any supernatural beings, would they see me as less human? Would they care if someone murdered me for it? I am constantly reminded, by the passive assumption that Christian=good – or, at least, that religious=good – that I am seen as less human than other people. Maybe you haven’t had that experience.
I am not a person of color, so I don’t know what that’s like. But here is what I imagine. Seeing a confederate flag in a public place says to me: you are not wanted here, you are not in the in-group. It’s not quite the threat of “I’m going to kill you” but rather “if the police shoot you, I won’t mind.” The flag is not an offense. It’s a message. And the message is: white=good. White is best. All others are less than. Not quite human.
Being reminded that you are seen as not quite human is terrifying. As a human, I rely on other humans to support the environment I survive in. If they reject me, I will die. If they ignore me, I will suffer. If they exclude me, I will not thrive. And any monster may come to take me. A Nazi. A white supremacist. A fundamentalist Christian. A frightened cop. An angry young man who defines his self worth by sexual conquest. Poverty. Disease. Starvation. Any of these monsters could take me, and people won’t mind.
That is why we can’t be quiet. Why we can’t brush aside cruel remarks, or fascist symbols, or racist flags. It has to be called out. In my case, I’m asking: “Will you care if someone kills me? Am I human to you?”
Things you can do if you don’t understand:
- Read the Diary of Anne Frank, a murdered Jewish girl whose spirit survives.
- Watch the film Night and Fog, a documentary about the Nazi concentration camps.
- Listen to a talk given by a holocaust survivor.
- Read a first-hand account of the horrors of slavery in the United States. Consider that people were born into slavery under our system. Families were forcibly separated. For generations.
- Read the books 1493 and 1491.
- Read the book Lies My Teacher Told Me.
- Ask a Jewish friend if they have ever received death threats. They have.
- Read about Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy who was beaten and murdered for offending a white woman.
- Read about Matthew Shepard, who was beaten to death for being gay.
It matters what people think. It matters what people say. It matters what ideas we promote or condone. It matters that public figures are equating a movement explicitly devoted to kicking non-whites out of the country with a movement devoted to highlighting the inhumane treatment of people of color. They are not two sides of the same coin. They are not simply competing theories or opinions, like a disagreement between environmental protection and resource extraction. One is about dehumanizing people, and the other is about re-humanizing them.
BLM might well have called themselves “Black Lives Matter, right? Right? Right….?” Either way the answer has been a deafening silence.
The Nazis gassed people in chambers. It took a while to die. People tried to claw their way out. Their fingernails broke off and stuck in the walls. Sometimes, the Nazis threw emaciated people into mass pits, before they died. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. People.
People did this to people. Ordinary people did this. And not that long ago. And in a culture not far different from our own.
American soldiers took German civilians afterwards into the camps and confronted them. The American soldiers were horrified. Adult men weighing 70 pounds – walking skeletons. Mass graves. Murdered children. The Germans acted like they didn’t know. But it was worse than not knowing.
They just didn’t care.