Being a foreigner abroad, you tend to get asked the same questions about your country and culture repeatedly, no matter how stereotypical or silly. Since moving to England, I've been asked about the United States' love for Wal-Mart, college sports, and deep fried foods that arguably shouldn't be deep fried. I'm usually quite good at chalking these up to convenient indulgences or entertaining past times, but there's two things I've never been able to rationalise: our fucked up, racist history and how on Earth Donald Trump became president.
Growing up in Connecticut as a mixed race child in the mid '90s, I wouldn't say I felt a palpable undercurrent of racism. It was surely there, but it almost felt like something reserved for our grandparents' generation who never fully adapted to life in this post-segregation era. If I were old enough to at the time, I most certainly would have bet racism would largely die with them and our generation would be the one to unify beyond race and religion. How blissful childhood ignorance was...
I spent my pre-teen years and beyond living in Florida. Unsurprisingly, it was in the Deep South that I realised racism was alive and well. Whether it was a photo of bathrooms labelled 'white' and 'coloured' hung up in a restaurant; a café owned by a known Klansman called the Koffee Kup Kafé; or people riding around town with confederate flags blowing in the wind on the back of their trucks, racism and bigotry was thick in the air in my new surroundings. It was especially prevalent during my high school years. When I was a freshman I became classmates with Nazi skinheads. They roamed the halls with their steel toe boots and skinhead t-shirts making monkey noises at African American students and calling Hispanic students 'wetback' and 'beaner\. Administration did absolutely nothing about them because unless they witness their offensive behavior or the boys wore clothing that had a 'directly hateful' message on it, it was out of their hands (or sothey claimed).
When Barack Obama became president during my junior year of high school, I was ecstatic. I cried tears of joy as I listened to his acceptance speech on CNN, overwhelmed by the fact I was witnessing history unfolding. It really felt like our country was leaving behind our tainted history of hatred and bigotry, and it was incredible to watch. The next day, I went back to school and I'd never been, nor ever was again, as scared as I was as I walked the halls that day. In an effort to be as intimidating as possible, the Nazis and rednecks hailed Hitler and goose-stepped all over school ground, started fights with students of colors, and spray painted the 'N' word on a school wall with a noose laying near it. People I didn't even expect to be racist made racist comment. And that's when I realised we hadn't really made any advancement in our way of thinking at all, people just felt more inclined to keep their casual racism to themselves when the country had a white president.
Eight years later, when it was time for President Obama to leave office, I thought Hillary Clinton would easily take hold of the presidential seat. I mean sure, she was problematic, but the country would clearly see she was a better choice than this misogynistic, sexually assaulting racist, right? Wrong. Afterwards, assholes accused us 'delicate snowflakes' of overreacting. 'Give him a chance,' they said, 'Stop making assumptions of what kind of president he'll be.' But almost as if we were psychics, we already knew what kind of president he'd be. That's the one decent thing I can say about Trump. He's never pretended to be something he's not. He's been a raging garbage troll since day one, so we knew he'd try to strip away health care rights, hinder LGBTQ+ rights, and empower racists to feel safe.
And that's what's happened in Charlottesville.
Sure, the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue was the catalyst for the march, but those racists didn't fly to little old Charlottesville, Virginia from all over the country JUST because of the statue removal. Just like when I was in high school, they marched and shouted because they knew nothing would happen to them. That onlookers wouldn't touch them. That the police wouldn't do anything. That the administration would remain silent. They felt safe and the worst thing we can do is let racists and bigots feel safe.
We have to fight back. Not with our fists, but with our words. Every time we laugh uncomfortably at a friend's racist joke, we allow them to feel safe. Every time we pretend we don't hear someone yell a slur at another person, we allow them to feel safe. Every time we roll our eyes at our parents' and grandparents' insensitive comments, we allow them to feel safe.
The racist marchers who have been identified have said the only reason they were present was because they don't want to see history erased. What a weak argument. No one is erasing history. We still learn about World War II, without the need of Hitler statues present in the world. Trust me, Americans will never forget its own racist history no matter how many statues we take down, because there's still plenty enough racists desperately trying to take us back to the 1950s.