(Originally published as my Mombian newspaper column.) As a child, there were two things I thought were unfathomable and absolutely morally wrong: nuclear war and Nazis. To see both in the news again as real threats to our country sickens and appalls me. But while nuclear war felt like a broad threat against all humanity, Nazism felt more personal. It was hate largely directed against a group—Jews—of which I was part. (It was only later in life that I added “queer” to that list as well.)
My family was not particularly observant, but I was very aware of our cultural heritage and our difference from most families in the predominantly Christian town where we lived. My brother and I ate plenty of hamburgers and fish sticks like our peers, but we were two of the very few kids in town who had ever tasted gefilte fish or latkes. Nazis, although they did not harm me or my family directly, harmed people who were like me. I could immediately relate to that and understand why such hate was wrong.
I was lucky enough, however, not to face overt anti-Semitism while growing up—just an underlying systemic favoritism towards Christian holidays and representation in my schools. It was hurtful in its own way, but did not put life and limb at risk. But I have also walked through this world as a White person and as someone not immediately read as Jewish. (My red hair makes most people guess Irish.) I could, if I choose to, ignore the existence of racism and anti-Semitism and probably get on fine for most of my days—that’s a privilege I carry. Of course, ignoring such things because they do not harm me would be the height of selfishness. And they do harm me, for they harm any society in which they fester. Aside from direct harm to the people they target, which is bad enough, they separate rather than unite us, strain friendships and potential friendships, and limit our ability to work with, learn from, and love others.
Perhaps the neo-Nazis and White Supremacists have done us a warped sort of favor, though. The neo-Nazis champion a broad-based hate that hits people of color, immigrants, Jews, LGBTQ people, and many more. Maybe this resurgent threat across multiple identity groups will finally spur us into a united action towards a more just society.
That takes leadership, however, and if the Trump administration has demonstrated anything in the aftermath of Charlottesville, it is that it is sorely lacking in that department. The burden then, is on each of us to take leadership in whatever way we can, whether that means attending rallies, speaking up when we hear biased remarks, donating diverse toys and books to our children’s schools, or making sure our own children have them on their shelves. We can also keep pressure on our other elected officials and business leaders to make sure they know that we will not tolerate support for those who espouse racist or other hateful ideas or actions.
And those of us who have privilege of any kind, by virtue of being White, male, Christian, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, or anything else should think about how we can use that privilege to be an ally to others in times like these. As a queer Jew, I am angered and frightened by what has transpired in Charlottesville and beyond. I hope there are allies out there who will support me and others who share my identities. As a White person, however, I know that the danger is worse right now for people of color, regardless of religion or LGBTQ status, and I hope I can be an ally in turn.
My identity as a Jew gave me an initial awareness that some people are hated, oppressed, and targeted by violence simply for being who they are. My identity as a lesbian added another layer to that understanding. I cannot in good conscience, then, turn away from any other group that is similarly targeted.
Those of us who are White should start, perhaps, by reaching out to friends and neighbors of color to ask if there is anything we can do to support them personally. On a wider scale, we can listen to what people of color are saying about the events of the past few weeks and the impact of both systemic and overt bias in their lives, seeking out readings or videos from publications like The Root or Colorlines (without presuming that those publications represent the full spectrum of views and opinions of people of color). We can weave that information into what we know of privilege and oppression from our own identities, and use that to guide our actions. And we can help our children understand, in age-appropriate ways, the implications of race in our society—Google “how to talk with your kids about race” for a slew of tips from a variety of sources.
When I first learned about the Holocaust as a child, the other thing that shocked me, aside from the pure horror of the genocide, was that the United States took so long to take action, even after reports of the atrocities began coming out of Europe. Let us not make that mistake again as the same underlying hate gathers renewed strength on our very shores.
In the end, though, the so-called “Greatest Generation” of Americans fought the Nazis during World War II and won. We must now unequivocally do the same against the neo-Nazis and their White supremacist ilk, or we will have no cause to speak of our country being great ever again.