I grew up in a small town on the banks of the Erie Canal in Western New York. There I was afforded everything, absolutely everything a boy could want while growing up. Great schools, tons of kids, beautiful downtown with movie theaters and pizza joints and Ice cream shops and many other businesses that kids wouldn’t notice on their way to those other destinations. The people were outstanding. Many of my best friends and guiding role models are still residents there and it will always be my home.
Simple demographics would indicate a largely, though not wholly homogeneous environment with mostly white people. It was in New York but to be honest it was Midwestern in almost every way. Lake Ontario right up the road and low, flat, arable land in all direction.
Being from a multicultural family, not to mention a very large one, made my life somewhat unique, but I was just one of the kids in town. There was an underlying strain of racism that occasionally reared its head as it does in nearly all places if you are ingrained enough in the community to see it. Being highly attuned to it by sharing a home with my large family that included a couple of older brothers that were African American and an older sister that was Vietnamese it shocked me whenever it came up.
The word—the one that rhymes with bigger—was one that hit my ears as purely evil. I was shocked it was still used. I wish I could go back to that level of innocence. In some ways I have as people aren’t as free with their casual hate when you are a grown up. But some grown ups felt real comfortable letting it fly around when I was a kid. It was a tiny small portion of the otherwise wonderful community and it was reprehensible.
But it gave me a sense of how it happens. I saw kids who would never have dreamed of using or thinking such things about classmates grow into teenagers that had awful and shameful ways of viewing the world. How could they avoid it when it’s put into them by their elders? I had the benefit of not having such things put in my head.
With that awareness I’d try to honestly assess if I was a person that would go along with popular opinion or if I’d have had the insight to see the flaws in the system if I were, say, a young man in the south in the early 1800s. Would I have been appalled by slavery, an opinion I obviously had now, a hundred plus years later. If I did recognize the evil as evil would I have said anything? Would I have expressed my unpopular opinion in front of my elders and community leaders that would greet these opinions with scorn? Would I have had the courage to act on my beliefs?
The truth is I knew the answer I wanted to believe. I also knew that it was unlikely to be the one that was true. I believe fully I’d have recognized the evil as evil. I believe I’d have said so in front of like minded people. I believe I would have not been perfect in terms of confronting the reality in front of people who were powerful and disagreed. I believe I would have fully supported the north in the war, but I probably wouldn’t have done much to try to tear down the system that was evil until that point. It’s not perfect but it’s as objectively accurate as I can be.
The same game with similar questions I’d ask myself about what I would have done were I a German in the 1930s. Or if I were a member of any aristocracy. If I were a land owning gentleman in times of feudalism. It was an interesting game and one I’d play because I had to. You see, we were past those times. To a kid those black and white pictures of police officers brutally attacking protesters with darker skin than theirs in the south or the military needing to be called in to combat the virulent hate spewed at a little girl walking into a school were ancient history. Might as well have been civil war era as far as I was concerned. There was some racism, but it was going away. It was really a pathetic thing, I thought, to see grown ups being so stupid. I played the game not to practice for when it was my turn to find out what or who I’d be. I played the game because those things were behind us. I’d never have to confront these things. That’s what I thought.
The same rights, and the road out of naivete
I see now that it was naive. I saw that when I started to express consistently that of course gay people should have all the same rights as me. I was disgusted by the hate that others classified as something else. I should also note that early in my life, not really knowing how hateful I was being, being a cog in a wheel of hate, I used wildly offensive terms, well, one term, a bunch as an insult. I knew better. I didn’t know how harmful my use of it was. But when I gained any sense at all, certainly by the time I left my teens, I never ever used it again and was firm in my belief in equality. It’s not a heroic stance just a conscientious and responsible one. But at least I knew that I’d be willing to say what I believed. To anyone. Anywhere.
All of a sudden I feel like I’m in those times I thought were left behind. I feel like there’s something I should be doing to denounce the fear mongering being propagated by our supposed ‘leaders’. By the blame being thrown in all directions by a society that seems to be suffering from a collective sense of victimhood. By people in the most powerful country in the world.
To reply to targeted acts of evil by generalizing hatred is akin to throwing up the white flag in place of the one that has always stood for the place one could train there eyes regardless of their place of origin if they wanted to make their life better. Of course that was always a myth of sorts but it was always one that we defended. But now there seems to be no amount of our national character and identity we aren’t willing to throw away in response to fear. You can call it anger, but you’re lying only to yourself. It’s fear. This place was never meant to be the safe haven for cowardice and hate. It was supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave.