After Charlottesville, friends from across the country called me to check in. Typically, their first remarks were of horror or shock. But for me, horror and shock fell much lower on my list. Instead, I first felt a sense of familiarity.
I remembered my mother’s face as she listened to the news while getting us ready for school. One morning, reporters droned on about how a white man had burned a cross on his black neighbor’s lawn in a town less than two miles away. My mother mumbled that she couldn’t believe “the Klan was resurfacing.”
I remembered the first day of sixth grade when my classmate passed me a note while our English teacher was reading a passage from “Night” by Elie Wiesel. In the note, he had drawn a picture of the Confederate flag with “the South will rise again” written in bubble letters.
I remembered years earlier when our third-grade persuasive writing assignment was to join in on the statewide debate for the new flag that would replace the Confederate bars and stripes flag that was plastered across Georgia’s state buildings. Though in these instances physical violence was absent, the hateful sentiments that enable the kind of physical violence we saw in Charlottesville, colored my childhood memories in Georgia.
And then, I felt confused as people continued describing the events in Charlottesville. As I listened to these well-meaning white friends discuss race in America, I could hear the binary they were creating. They took great care to say that these events were done by “them [over there],” and “we [over here]” would never do that. It was as if they were trying to create a moral dichotomy that would absolve them their responsibility to dismantle the racism sown into the fabric of American society, as if they were distancing themselves from Charlottesville and failing to wrestle with how they are complicit in American systemic racism.
For them, the issue of race was neatly packaged in morality. It was not the ever-present reality that racism impacts even our smallest interactions. The labels of morality that have been attached to issues of racism fail to illuminate the entire picture of events like Charlottesville. These labels of “good” versus “bad” blind potential allies and all of us subjugated to racism to the reality that though some may not be intentionally racist, the system we all operate in is still racist.
The events in Charlottesville were unmistakably horrific and tragic. But so were the deaths of Philando Castile and the controversial acquittal this past summer that mirrored an age-old pattern. So was the assumption that a 12 year-old child playing with a toy gun was an immediate threat that warranted execution. And so is being followed by a white store clerk who continually encouraged me to buy t-shirts that were on sale at the back of the store in the back after repeatedly insisting that I needed the professional blouses I was touching.
Because of the degrees of violence found within racism, a binary centered on morality makes it easy to move people from one side or the other; to identify a racist or a non-racist. The physical violence makes it easy to point at and attack the extremists like those seen in Charlottesville, while failing to do the same to the more subtle daily macroaggressions or to the larger system of racism that engulfs us.
Racism is part of the makeup of America regardless of whether you are old or young, or whether you are in the South or the North. Racism infects every facet of our culture like a virus that attacks a kindergarten classroom. Though some students may have to stay home with fevers and chills, while others are simply congested or have a chest cough, they all still have the virus. Racism in America functions the same way. It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, during times of peace and prosperity and times of chaos. Racism is here under the Trump administration and racism was here under Obama’s as well.
It is time we stop looking at it as just a moral issue from which we can exonerate ourselves depending on how close we are on the spectrum to its most ugly parts and instead treat it like the all encompassing, never ending, harsh environment that it is.