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November 17, 2017

I had No Idea what Racism was—even when it Paraded itself Right in Front of Me.

I think I was five.

I was with my father, and we walked about a mile from our home to our small town in Indiana to get haircuts.

The barber shop was classic Americana with two brother barbers. Tall mirrors adorned the back wall stretching from an old oaken counter to the ceiling. The weathered counter top hosted glass jars with black combs soaking in blue liquid. On the wooden floor were rather large calico tumbleweeds of hair about their feet. They clipped and buzzed and talked of sports. The sounds of newspapers and magazines turning pages filled any momentary silence.

It was my father’s turn after mineand I bided my time looking out the large picture windows framing the courthouse across the street and the one-screen movie house on the corner. I glanced in the big mirrors examining my short blonde hairs protecting my pink scalp, and I wrinkled my nose.

Seemingly, out of nowhere a parade came down the street! I was excited, and I looked back smiling up at my father still on the leather and steel chair. I expected a matched enthusiasm, but instead finding a scowl on his face. I turned back to the rows of colorful uniforms marching in unison. I craned my neck seeking floats or musicians. I couldn’t see any, so I tried pushing the heavy door five times my size to go on the street to get a better look. My father and both barber brothers yelled at me to stop. Annoyed, I still obeyed and simply pressed my face directly on the window staring wide-eyed at the silky white and purple uniforms.

They were not the uniforms from the high school band nor the military uniforms of the local veterans I was used to seeing. These were more like robes. And each head was covered with a matching hood. Of course, I had no idea what I was looking at. I had no context nor experience nor any exposure to racism or prejudice. Although we lived in a small rural town in the sixties, my father was progressive in his thinking. There were no talks of racism nor slurs in my house. So I didn’t know what I was looking at, and was simply disappointed there were no floats or elephants. I had no concept of what a Ku Klux Klan parade was.

I was five. I had no concept of racial injustice. I didn’t even think about race.

I have often wondered what provoked the KKK parade in my Hoosier town in 1965. I probably won’t ever know for sure, but it may have been in protest to the repeal of the anti-miscegenation law that still banned interracial marriages. Or it could have been in response to any number of laws passed or repealed to enforce and ensure racial equality during that time. Which is why I struggle with the concept of racial disparity. We have laws, right? In this day and age, it doesn’t seem possible there would be such injustice.

So, when I watch the news in this day of social media, I am confused. In fact, I am stunned by the Ferguson shooting, and the numerous incidents since. I admit before the technology existed to record these events so readily I would have said, “There is no way a police officer would shoot an unarmed man.”

I have had the privilege of being white and remaining ignorant while fellow citizens, fellow humans, have known of this injustice for generations. When I see spinning red and blue lights behind me, I simply feel annoyance. I have no idea what it’s like to be pulled over and fear for my life. The concept is simply foreign to me.

I’ve come to the conclusion we need to expand the concept of “white privilege” to include this blindness to racial injustice. I don’t think we do it on purpose—we just don’t see it. We lack the personal experience to accurately interpret the events.

For example, I have no idea what it’s like to lose an apartment because of my color. I do know I have “competed” for apartmentsand the landlords have always picked me. Because I was white? Of course not.

I have no idea what it’s like to be unemployed or to be paid less for doing the same job. Because I’m smarter or work harder? That must be it. More privilege.

I have never heard racial slurs cast in my direction. Privilege. I have no groups protesting my very existence. Privilege.

How would I react if all this occurred to me or my children? Would I be outraged? Would I protest? We probably will never know, because I don’t even have to think about it. And that’s a privilege.

Since we don’t have the context or the history of our community, family, or ourselves dealing with these cumulative injustices both slight and grevious, we just don’t understand. Many try denying the injustice and become angered by those who do speak out.

After all, in their minds there is nothing to be upset about. But we sure have no issue with feeling “outrage” at NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, because no one wants to be reminded we have a problem. (Especially, on a Sunday afternoon with food and drink in hand.) We don’t see the injustice, so we won’t admit to the injustice, and try to make the discussion about something else, like disrespecting the flag.

So, they choose to become outraged at a professional athlete who takes a knee in a non-violent call to end racial injustice, but don’t get outraged when a white officer shoots an unarmed black man? I mean, really? This is what we choose to get outraged about?

When I’ve attended athletic events, most patrons around me at professional baseball, football, hockey, and soccer games were drinking, laughing, yelling, standing with hats on their heads, or sitting taking selfies—all during the national anthem. Where was the respect for the flag and our nation that we now seem to suddenly hold so sacred? I’m calling the complainers out on that little bit of white privilege they feel entitled to. How can we say this isn’t about race? We can’t.

Yet we passed so many laws decades ago to make things fair! Where is the America I thought I lived in? I have tried brushing off the disruption of the racial utopia that once existed in my mind using rationalizations that prejudice and racism were reserved to the uneducated and the unintelligent.

They didn’t know better, and they were just scattered individuals. But that argument isn’t holding up now that nationally elected officials are weighing in on this issue opposing free speech and non-violent protests about inequality in our country. How did that happen?

How did that happen? How did we elect officials that take a blind eye to racial injustice and favor white privilege? Well, if we peel back the layers of ignorance from my Indiana childhood experience, we see that the colorful uniforms of the dozens in that parade were actually men. And under those hoods those men were often educated and intelligent individuals.

For those of you that don’t know, the KKK influenced elections at all levels of the government, selecting candidates and releasing slates of those they endorsed and opposed. They were clever and strategic. For a while, they dominated politics in Indiana in the first half of the twentieth century.

“At its peak, the Klan boasted members who were prominent politicians, businessmen, and religious leaders. In some [Indiana] counties, Klan membership is estimated to have exceeded 40 percent of all residents.” (“The Indy Channel,” August 12, 2016)

The Klan primarily used the Republican Party to gain its foothold on the Hoosier State, continuing its use of the Cross and the American flag, with the motto, ”100% American.”

I didn’t honor my Republican heritage this past election, and rather opposed Republican candidates across the board. Not because of the racism accusations, I didn’t believe it. Seriously, in this day and age would the Grand Old Party who won its first presidential election with Abraham Lincoln really allow itself to be used as it was in Indiana?

Would they really put forth a candidate who uses the Cross and the Flag under a thin veil of a patriotic slogan like “100% American?” Oops, my mistake, I mean “Make America Great Again?”

Let’s face it, I’m still that clueless boy from the 60s that had no idea what racism was even when it paraded itself right in front of me. I didn’t see it then, and I didn’t see it again when I watched them parade 50 years later. The parallels are eerie.

We don’t want to believe that racism still exists in America. If it’s brought to our attention, we change the subject. But, it’s time to step up as individuals and come together as a community and demand all are treated fairly and justly. How do we do that? Where do we begin?

Individually, I’ve challenged myself to commit to the following steps:

Purposefully listen to other points of view. Realize that your Facebook and other social media are echo chambers feeding you exactly what you like to hear. You are insulated and don’t realize it. Engage in actual human conversations. Listen as though you have something to learn, and speak thoughtfully and with kindness.

Don’t shoot the messenger. The manner in which another chooses to vocalize their opinions will not always be perfect, nor the way you prefer. Look for the message.

Have some sensitivity to struggles we don’t understand. Let’s remember a quote by Ram Dass, “We’re all just walking each other home.”

We also need to come together and take action as a community. I’ve started taking the following steps with friends and family.

Create a team and work together to keep it simple. If you want to win the war of ideas and ideals in this day and age, you must be prepared to address complex problems using few words with simple concepts. It’s harder than it sounds. You will need to work together.

Show up in small groups and demand accountability. Most politicians, elected officials, and even appointed officials today cannot afford to care much about the concerns of one constituent.

Make a date to fight injustice. If you’re like me, I need to dedicate time or it will never happen. Start a meetup, (Meetup cuz he’s talking about the site) a breakfast, a coffee clutch. Dedicate a specific time on a recurring basis to address racial injustice.

Finally, we all should take a knee, pay attention, and listen. But, when it’s time—stand up. Stand up and use your outrage to fight racial injustice. Who’s with me?

 

Author: Greg Simmons
Image: Wikimedia 
Editor: Sara Kärpänen
Copy editor: Travis May
Social editor: Khara-Jade Warren

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Greg Simmons