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If it’s true that our experiences shape our opinions, then allow me to share an experience that helped shaped mine towards the concept of hatred and racism.
It was just a little over a year ago—August 11, 2016, to be exact—where I stood with hundreds of young Jews and Muslims at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, roughly 40 minutes outside of Berlin, Germany. I stood in a crematorium that was once reserved for Jews, People of Color, the disabled, Catholics, people in the LGBTQ community, and Slavs, among others. I can still recall that acrid smell distilled in the arid air accompanied by an overcast sky.
But what I remember most was a picture of a man who looked just like me, with an expression that proclaimed to anyone who sets their eyes upon it that this man was looking at death.
Would I have been that man? Would I have made that same face? Or would I be the German soldier pointing a rifle at that man who looked just like me, but was going to murder him because I felt racially superior to him? I am a blonde haired, blue-eyed man with German ancestry, after all.
Sometimes I wish I couldn’t remember the feeling of hopelessness in that pit of despair, but on days like today, I am glad that I can recall that memory. Because it was experiences like the one I had in Germany – and multiple experiences similar to it over the past five years – which has made me come to terms with reality and my place in the world. In other words, it was a wake-up call. If it were not for these experiences, there is a high probability I would have been on social media today denying white privilege, complaining about the left, or pulling up some obscure racial black on white crime report promoted by polarizing pundits.
Now I am back in the United States, and some of my fellow Americans think that they can promote an ideology that caused the deaths of millions in Europe and one that has caused turmoil in our country since its inception: racial and ethnic superiority.
What happened over the weekend in Charlottesville is a wake-up call for people who look like me. Neo Nazis, white nationalists, and far right militias tried to intimidate minorities in this country with the result of one person dead and many more being seriously injured. We need to accept the reality that racism– specifically white supremacy – is a cancer this country was born with. Accepting this fact should not make you feel guilty or helpless. In fact, it should fuel you with energy to combat it and put an end to it.
My wake up call in Germany was that I don’t have an answer to what I would have done in 1945, but I can perfectly answer what I would do today.
I would say no. I would fight against any attempt to destroy or harm any racial, religious, ethnic, or national group of people.
I am a man, not an institution. When I say that this aggression will not stand when I say that this hatred and racism will be confronted every step of the way, and when I say the phrase “never again,” I intend to keep my word. I will not sit idly by while the disabled, Jews, immigrants, People of Color, Muslims, women, and LGBTQ folk are being threatened and harmed in this country.
If this is not the America you want to see, now is the time to do something about it. Let this violence be a wake-up call. Take this moment as an opportunity to throw away preconceived notions and work with your friends, family, and the greater community to bring an end to the injustice that is racism once and for all.
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