“Never Again” means fighting racism now
On August 12th, forces of hate invaded Charlottesville, Virginia. White Supremacists, neo-Nazis and KKK members all hit the streets to “Unite the Right” around a message of hatred towards people of color and Jews. Clean-cut young white men led a crowd around the University of Virginia campus, chanting and juggling lit torches and heavy artillery.
As the story hit the news and social media, I was overcome by a sinking sense of deja vu. Not because the images were horrifying, which they were. Not because Trump continued his slippery slide towards condoning hate groups, which he did.
No, what struck me the most were the liberal white folks flooding popular internet forums to insist, “Not me! I don’t hate anyone! I’m not part of the problem!” And suddenly I remembered Majdanek — and a lesson about facing hate in our own communities.
Majdanek is a concentration camp on the outskirts of Lublin, Poland, where approximately 78,000 Jewish souls died during the Holocaust.
In 1999, when my high school senior class toured the camp, I walked through the gas chambers that ended so many lives. I saw blue smudges on the walls from the poisonous gas that swiftly and efficiently murdered my people. Some of the smudges are clearly hand prints of adults and children trying in vain to escape.
Unlike many other death camps scattered across Poland and Germany, Majdanek is not located in a rural area. Camps in remote areas were harder to escape, and they also hid the sights, the sounds, and the smells of genocide away from the general population. But not Majdanek. Past the barbed wire fence, across a short, grassy field is…a suburb. A neighborhood where families lived, worked, shopped, socialized, and went to school.
Can you imagine being a family living in that neighborhood? Can you imagine, on your walk to work, seeing carts full of the dead leaving the gas chambers? Can you imagine smelling human bodies burning in ovens, wafting through your bedroom window on summer nights? Can you imagine your neighborhood being the site of a genocide? What would everyday life look like, in the shadow of such evil?
More to the point — what would you have done?
You probably have the knee-jerk reaction that you would immediately and loudly denounce this horror. Fight for your Jewish neighbors. Take up arms, if necessary, and risk your life to stop the innocent bloodshed.
Some people did do those things. Some died fighting for humanity. But not enough stood up. Too many chose silence and complacency. Too many said, “Not me! I’m not killing anyone! I’m not part of the problem!” (Sound familiar?)
The reality is that people then — just like people now — often don’t do what’s right. We are too afraid to paint a target on our own backs — and on the backs of our loved ones — to defend groups that are systematically dehumanized, stereotyped, and scapegoated.
Back then, in Majdanek, people turned away from the Jews.
Today, in America, our system is most clearly rigged to oppress people of color. Every single day, white Americans refuse to hold ourselves accountable for white supremacy.
Many of us know about the widespread poverty in communities of color, the dangerous discrimination that pervades our criminal justice system, and the inequality in our workplaces. What doesn’t make headlines is how racism traumatizes black and brown people of all ages, and desensitizes white people to their hardships. From a startlingly young age, children are bombarded by messaging that people of color are less worthy and less human than white people.
White supremacy is thriving, and small atrocities pave the way for larger ones. Before Nazis began imprisoning and murdering Jews, the people of Majdanek had lived through generations of discrimination, victim-blaming, and a steady erosion of Jewish humanity. That pattern is repeating itself in America in the present day, and we’d better wake up before the violence escalates. We cannot afford to believe that any white person in America is immune to racist programming and dulled empathy. We must acknowledge our implicit biases and false perceptions, and then we must begin to actively break the system of white supremacy.
People of color in every corner of the United States live in the shadow of our own Majdanek. They live amongst the unmarked graves of indigenous people who died defending their homes. They see our racist-in-Chief living in a house built by slaves.
Every day they walk streets smudged, not with blue stains from gas, but with the bloodstains of their family members senselessly gunned down by police. In Poland, the real Majdanek stands as a somber reminder of the shame that results when evil meets silence. Meanwhile in America, the “alt-right” marches with pride, not shame.
White people: doing nothing, saying nothing, and denying our culpability is not an option. Charlottesville is the latest step in a dangerous slide towards yet another genocide of people of color. What we are doing now in America is what we would have done in Majdanek.
No more excuses: Let’s get to work.
*This is the collective product of women of color and allies. This piece specifically comes from the voice of an ally.