By Cami Thomas
My cellphone glowed brightly on top of my coffee table, the vibration of a call rumbling through my apartment. It was early for a Saturday but by some miracle I was awake enough to click accept and hold it to my ear.
The familiar voice of an acquaintance buzzed into my ear. She was frantic almost, and I asked her to slow down. She asked if I was in Virginia and I told her that no, I was home in St. Louis. She explained that she’d been watching the news and that there were white supremacists marching through the streets with torches and guns, spouting Nazi rhetoric. Knowing my past experience with similar sightings in my hometown during the unrest in Ferguson, she warned me to stay indoors. Things like this have a tendency to spread, and if we’re seeing this in Virginia, it won’t be long until it happens somewhere else.
I promised I would stay safe, and hung up the phone. Hours later I scrolled through Twitter to see the extent of the chaos in Charlottesville Virginia. I clicked past images of hundreds men, yelling and marching with the flames of tiki torches shining a grim shadow across rows of hands positioned in the Nazi salute.
An onslaught of feelings shot through my body. Sadness at first, then confusion. I wondered, how is it that armed men carrying fire torches did not warrant the type of police response that I saw in Ferguson? After all, I had my phone taken and a police rifle held to my head for walking down South Florissant Road after the curfew. I became angry at the comparison because I know from firsthand experience that my passive approach to mourning was met with aggression, but men literally holding fire and wielding the Nazi salute was considered less of a threat.
I became worried for my own safety, knowing I would be traveling into rural areas in the coming weeks. I reminded myself to map out the most public, safe gas stations and to wear a baseball cap low above my eyes when I drove through small towns.
I was taken through an emotional rollercoaster, but I did not feel surprised. I didn’t see these images or have a fit of disbelief. There was no, “I can’t believe this is happening!” moment because frankly, there’s nothing surprising about this. Not at all. Imagine my disbelief then when I logged on to Facebook to be met with posts that indicated shock and awe.
“I can’t believe this is happening! In 2017!”
“Beyond words. I can’t believe what I’m seeing happening in Virginia.”
“This isn’t us! This isn’t what this country stands for. I can’t believe this”
I’ve spent the last few years going down the rabbit hole of intricate and detailed conversations on racism and its impact in modern America. There are hundreds of books and research and statistics that can support a thorough analysis of modern day American racism. So I’ll keep the following sentiment as simple and clear cut as I can possibly can.
If you are surprised by what is happening in Virginia, then you have not been paying attention.
If a group of men marching through a college town spouting racist rhetoric is shocking to you, then you have been sheltered. If this is the first time you’re truly realizing that racism exists in the United States, then you have been avoiding what’s directly in front of you.
If you’re surprised by anything happening in Virginia, I want you to answer the following questions. What did you actually think the Black Lives Matter protests were about? What did you think the No Ban No Wall movement was about? Ask yourself; did you ever stop to wonder why millions of people were marching in the streets, blocking highways, sitting during the national anthem, walking out of class, and gathering outside of airports? Did you think millions of people chose to gather, to be arrested, to be beaten, to be tear gassed, to be fired from jobs, to be harassed, to lose sleep, all just out of boredom? Ask yourself why you didn’t process their message, their pleas for help, their warning that racism was lurking and boiling under the surface of the country.
I stumbled across a Facebook post from an old classmate. It included three close up images of men from the white supremacist rally. The status rambled on about how disgusting it was that the men who participated in this rally would likely be returning to work on Monday, sitting in the office amongst everyone else.
People of color have been saying this for years. Towns across the United States have raised their voices to say, “There are white supremacists here. They sometimes infiltrate our police forces and schools and local government. When this happens, they wreak havoc on our communities. Please, recognize this and help us.”
These men are not the fringes of society. They do not gather in the night by torchlight only to retreat back to their dark caves in the forests. No, the men who participated in this white supremacist rally will return to their offices on Monday morning. Some will write out lesson plans for their middle school class. Others will clock in at the factory. Some will hop into their police cruisers. Some will offer a weak smile at me as I hand over money, requesting twenty dollars be put on pump three at the gas station.
If you’re surprised, then you haven’t listened to your neighbors. If white supremacy shocks you, then you didn’t notice when your black coworker came into work, eyes red because he’d been crying over the Philando Castile verdict. Or that your Muslim classmate was too shaken up to attend classes after the Muslim travel ban went into effect. You didn’t notice that your Hispanic acquaintance always feels the need to carry around three forms of ID, whereas you simply carry your driver’s license.
If it took a literal public Nazi rally for you to recognize that racism exists in the United States, then we’re in a lot more trouble than you think. Any healthy relationship has a foundation of trust. So if you claim to love everyone, that you see everyone as American, then trust the people of color who have been trying to warn you about this for years. Trust your roommate who doesn’t feel safe when pulled over by police, trust the girl who says she’s too scared to walk to class in her hijab, trust the people who gather in the streets to demand justice and to warn you that this country is downright dangerous for some of us.
Know that people of color in the United States have been fighting a battle for decades. And it’s hard to fight a battle when the people around you don’t even believe you when you say you’re at war.
So now you see it. A white supremacist rally in Virginia has hopefully confirmed that people of color not making this up, that racism is very real and it’s very dangerous. I hope you see that these racists walk amongst us everyday and are so deeply intergrated into every day life that I never know if the person I’m talking to is a white supremacist that will shake my hand by day and then attend a Nazi march at night. I never know if the officer who’s pulling me over is a friendly family man who will crack jokes with me, or someone who sees me as a plague upon his country. I never know who I’m talking to or what lurks beneath the surface and therefore, I’m in a constant state of high alert. I have never experienced the luxury of feeling safe, because until racism is addressed and dismantled, I am not safe. That is a fact and has been my reality for my entire life. It’s the reality of millions of Americans.
You see it now. The men with torches and guns flaunting proudly through Virginia, driving through a crowd of peaceful protestors have showed you what millions of people of color have been trying to communicate for years. If you’re full of outrage and disgusted by the blatant display of racism, that’s good. Also realize that while you might feel disgusted or disappointed, there are people of color who are feeling traumatized and terrified. Avoid telling your friends of color that you, “can’t believe this is happening in 2017.” Because chances are, we very much do believe it and have likely tried to warn you.
If this is the first time you’re truly realizing that racism exists in the United States, admit that you’re late to the fight. People of color in the United States have spent the last hundred years laying the framework. That said, welcome. We’re glad to have you. Check on your friends of color, do some reading, and evaluate the ways you may accidently be complicit to upholding racist systems. Then roll up your sleeves, because we have work to do.