When white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine blacks inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Charleston in 2015 there was a gnashing of teeth among some about how white society was complicit in Roof’s actions.
One journalist, a South Carolinian writing in the Washington Post, pulled no punches when describing how whites, particularly Southern whites, were responsible:
So I and every other white South Carolinian who has let the racist jokes go unchecked, who has looked the other way at some sanctioned act of bigotry, who has not taken the time and effort to listen to what black people have to say about their experience, is, in some sense, responsible for Dylann Roof – even as he remains responsible for his own actions. Every white South Carolinian … is responsible for Dylann Roof. He is our child. We should have never let him fall into whatever hell he occupied when he decided to go into that church. Of course, 99 percent of southern whites will never go into a church, sit down with people and then massacre them. But that 99 percent is responsible for the one who does. We white southerners – those of us who left, the others who stayed, and even those millions who have migrated to the Sun Belt – are all Dylann Roof. We are all responsible. We cannot shirk it. We cannot go forward until we fix ourselves. We must organize ourselves, educate ourselves and come together to fight against white supremacy. If we don’t, there will always be another Dylann Roof around the corner. And in the mirror.
At the time I disagreed, and I continue to disagree with the idea that every white South Carolinian, or every white Southerner, or all whites – take your pick – is responsible for the heinous actions of one, or a handful, of extremist bigots.
I was reared by parents who actively pointed out the errors of racism and bigotry, and I have done the same with my children. I was told right from wrong, warned of the perils that would befall me were I to commit such idiotic acts as using racially charged terms and expected to live it. My children have been imbued with the same expectations.
I’ve instilled in my children the idea that while we can’t undo the past, we can make the present more tolerable by realizing that we’re no better or worse than anyone else just because of our background.
We need to listen to those different from us, recognize that their experiences and backgrounds give them different perspectives, but also understand that self-flagellation for sins we did not commit doesn’t move the ball forward in terms of reconciliation, either.
Our society has many flaws, including racism, but I am not going to bear the cross of hateful acts committed by the intolerant, even if others insist I do.
So where is this going? Last week one of my daughters got a glimpse of ugliness that I never witnessed in my many years of schooling.
She attends a magnet high school in a well-regarded school district in South Carolina. I will not name the school, for reasons that hopefully will be obvious.
The weekend before last she received a group text from a friend’s boyfriend. It said simply, “Join me and (his girlfriend) as we kill all blacks with the KKK.” It was followed with a second text, an attachment that was an application for the Ku Klux Klan.
My daughter was upset by the texts and told the boy that it wasn’t funny and that he was to stop.
She showed it to me later and we contacted the school. The school took the matter seriously and took action against the boy, though it would not disclose what action.
However, my daughter is now being harassed by the kids who were part of the group text, and others, being called out in particular for being a “snitch.” Already shy, she now dreads going to school.
I can tell her all day long she did the right thing, but it’s not much consolation when she walks into class and kids are talking about her, or are sending her text messages about how she’s ruined someone’s life because she went to school officials about something she knew was wrong.
I can tell her that we don’t get many chances in life to do the right thing in truly difficult situations, and that most people take the path of least resistance when those few opportunities present themselves, but it doesn’t make it any easier to handle the glares, the whispers or being blocked on social media when you’re 16 years old.
I don’t know how this happens, that a 16-year-old boy, whether simply showing off in an utterly misguided fashion or displaying some very serious problems, thinks it’s OK to voice such views, never mind send them to others via technology.
Where does someone at the age of 16 even get such ideas? I don’t know.
But I do know that if anyone ever tries to pin the blame for the racially motivated actions of others, past of present, on any of my children, especially my 16-year-old daughter, who is currently dealing with being ostracized for speaking up when everyone else failed to so much as utter a peep of protest, they’re going to get a stern word or three from a certain father.
Bottom line: if we’re ever to reach any sort of understanding regarding the past, it will be through compassion, empathy and standing up for right, not by ladling out, or taking on, heaping doses of collective white guilt.