Sunday, August 20, 2017

does this post make me look like a nazi sympathizer?

Working at Homeboy Industries comes with a certain cachet. Most liberal-to-moderate people love the story of the radical priest who rode his bicycle into the middle of gang fights and refused to see gang members as evil incarnate. Today even law enforcement gets the basic axiom that “hurt people hurt people.” In grant applications, I boast about working with the “least likely to succeed.” Tour groups pull up to our headquarters by the busload, partly because people with tattooed faces are still something of a sideshow attraction, but partly because they’re moved by the idea that all these tatted-up gangsters have changed their lives for the better. Sometimes tourists sit for hours in our postage stamp of a garden, listening to stories of pain, confusion, relapse and redemption from literal killers.

So it’s hard to remember what things were like back in the day. In 1988, when Homeboy was a tiny jobs program at Dolores Mission Church, gang members were the subject of fear-mongering news reports, (most) cops hated Father Greg, and Homeboy Industries received bomb threats from community members who saw his work as condoning society’s most hideous elements. When police responded to gang homicides, they would tell radio dispatchers that there were “no humans involved.”

Fr. Greg at a funeral in 1990. (Photo by Anacleto Rapping, Los Angeles Times.)
Homeboy’s mantra is that we will stand with the demonized until the demonizing stops. And it’s through that lens that I’ve been reading an endless feed of Nazi-hating with growing discomfort.

To be clear: I am not talking about hating on white supremacy an institution, because um, yeah, it’s bad. I’m not talking about hating on elected officials who are tepid and slow in their response to public displays of hate, because those guys have power and a platform and they can do better. I’m talking about your “average,” disaffected white guy who joins a scary-ass movement because he’s scared. I’m not equating that guy with gang members, exactly; this is not apples to apples, because gang members invariably come from poor, disenfranchised communities and white supremacists do not always. But sometimes they do.

And just as gang members who choose to heal—because gang membership has failed to bring them safety or happiness, because someone showed them a bit of kindness and opened a door to another way of life—will tell you that they’re no longer falling for the myth that their “enemies” are their enemies, so will ex-Nazis tell you that people of color and Jews are not their enemies. Both are groups who fell for a lie perpetuated by white supremacy. White supremacy as an institution wants gang members to keep killing each other, and it wants poor angry white people to hate everyone who isn’t them.

Nazi gang member.
My friend Marcos.
Fr. Greg maintains that no kid ever joined a gang because he had a choice. I wouldn’t say the same is true of people who join militias and neo-Nazi groups, but I would bet money that they are all suffering. Just not for the reasons they think they are. White supremacy works its magic by saying You’re not poor because of complicated and fucked-up trade policies that favor multinational corporations, and you’re not angry because the parents you want to love maybe treated you super shitty. You’re poor and angry for a much simpler reason: because of THOSE PEOPLE.

My feeds are full of white people yelling at other white people to stop being Nazis. To stop being racist. To implicate and flagellate ourselves if we want to be taken seriously as non-Nazis. They’re full of vague condemnations of what their other white friends aren’t saying (“Can’t help but notice that some of you are awfully quiet,” observes the collective Big Brother). They’re full of people saying If you voted for Trump, get out of my life right now.

At best, these kinds of posts are cries from people who want to make the world a better place and are frustrated by their own helplessness and the complacency of their own people. Many of these people regularly do the things that actually make a difference: call their electeds, donate money and time. That’s more than I do on many days.

But it’s also a looootttt of virtue signaling and a lot of deflection. “Maybe if I proclaim loudly that I hate Nazis and, better yet, that white people all suck, no one will notice that on some level I’m a white person who likes cake also.”

At 8 am, seven FB friends shared this sketch. By 10:30 am, the backlash had shouted them down.
I tend to read these kinds of posts as if they’re intended for me. Then I proceed to wrestle with my privilege guilt (going strong since 1995) and my lack of activism, and I cry some more white tears, and nothing really changes for anyone who is oppressed. So yes, I’m wondering even now if some of my exhaustion isn’t just so much defensiveness. I could gaze deep into my own navel here. But if there is someone who has actually been social media-shamed into being a better citizen, I would like to meet them.

I love seeing Americans stand up against fascism and hatred—showing up at rallies, putting on angel wings against Fred Phelps and his minions. But I can never work up a lot of energy for people taking swings at easy targets, which is what declaring your disdain for Nazis on social media and painting them as subhuman basement-dwellers is.

I’ve read three things recently that speak to what I’m working through here:
  1. This post by Myriam Gurba, a queer Latina/Polish writer who is suspicious of the essentialism and religiosity present in “whiteness is terrorism” ideology
  2. This Clickhole article, whose headline gets to the heart of what I see as the real problem: My Republican Colleagues Must Condemn Racist Violence and Go Back to Peacefully Passing Racist Laws
  3. This post by Karissa Tucker, a young white writer and soul-searching Christian, who ponders the gap between caring and activism
Next to me right now, AK is reading a book called Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. She just sighed and said, “I wish Trump’s father had read this.”

Because pain and cruelty create hate, create a lack of empathy.

Nazis: not a fan of my people.
To be honest, I’m scared of posting this, because maybe it will come across as just another white person being defensive. But I’m also queer, part Jewish, and even the WASPy side of my family is full of literal genetic mutants, so we would be first on the eugenics chopping block. Blue eyes aside, I am not exactly Aryan race material. And the people I love the most in this world are brown. That doesn’t mean I understand what it’s like to be them, or even that I’m not racist, but it means I have a personal stake in white supremacy not winning.

Maybe it sounds soooo 2015, but I still think love wins. So, dear justice-hipsters who love Homeboy and who are denouncing whiteness and Nazis, and pretending morality is an identity and not a thousand daily decisions, if you really want to be ahead of the curve, try some radical love. It hurts, and it’s hard, and I wouldn’t ask anyone to do something that would personally put themselves in harm’s way. But that’s what makes it radical.


Nancy Freund said...

Really? I'm the first to leave a comment here?! This is the most thoughtful, beautiful thing I've read in a long time, and I am so grateful to have found my way to it, and to have had some life experience that makes me think I understand it. Thank you, Cheryl.

Sandra said...

Well done, Cheryl. I had this conversation with Andy last week and was dismissed for saying that "those people" should be listened to. Certainly there are core adherents who won't accept anyone who seems "different" -- which is damn close to fundamentalist anything (e.g. my mother who is a "Christian" and hates gays and blacks).
There is only the opportunity for change if we do listen and not in that intolerably condescending I'm-educated-so-I-can-understand way. If we listen and encourage dialogue instead of posturing there may be a chance for the upcoming generations.
And that's what we try to do in class.
Thank you for this amazing post.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Cheryl. Somewhat along these lines, I think you would appreciate this "On Being" podcast episode with Civil Rights activist Ruby Sales:

nomdeplume said...

I see your point but there's one thing I can't get past: Nazis want to see anyone not "Aryan" exterminated. You can talk about the thousands of circumstances that led these white people to extremism but the second you start calling for genocide, you lose me. Gangs form out of a need to survive because every day is an existential fight for survival. Nazi groups form because they're afraid for the white race - despite the fact that the white man is still the most privileged and powerful in this world. At least the Germans of the 1920s-1930s had real problems - poverty, starvation, disease, post-war destruction. Germans were, rightly so, truly oppressed prior to the rise of Hitler.

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