I have always had a special fondness for and connection with my grandmother. She was always the person in my family with a calm head, and she was the first person who ever told me that I was allowed to standup for and defend myself. I always treasured the gifts she gave me, and still hold onto everything I have of hers. One of the gifts she gave me was a set of earrings that featured a German cross. Grandma was where my 1/4 German heritage came from, and that cross was for her an expression of that heritage.
As a friend of mine has been pointing out, my home state ranks #4 country when it comes to the number of active hate groups within its boarders. So it was inevitable that I was to have interactions with members of hate groups growing up. One such interaction came from a classmate in college with whom I had been spending some time. As we started to talk more, she decided one day confide boastfully about her affinity for the KKK and her activity with skinhead groups. When I visible reacted with disgust/horror to this revelation, she asked, “how can you react that way, you’re wearing that cross?”
This was the first real introduction I had into the mind of a racist. When you oppose someone, there is always a sense of otherness that keeps you from really seeing how their mind and worldview works. Because I had gotten to know her first and then had the hate bomb dropped later, that door had been laid open to me, and what I saw in how she maintained her hate I have seen time and time again.
In that moment, in that confrontation over my grandma’s cross, I saw how crucial visible symbols were for maintaining prejudice. You see, society puts a lot of overt shame on active prejudice, and deep down, psychologically, the remnants of goodness in the racist’s soul push against and create constant conflict with their own racism. So to maintain the hate, they need to convince themselves that society’s objections are just for show, that the opposition towards racism is just an act of political correctness oppressing them and keeping them from speaking the real “truth,” and that in verbalizing what they do, they are actually being heroes and liberators. On their minds, they are not the oppressive majority seeking to hold power and privilege, they are the secret agents of the resistance, leaving behind codes and symbols to be used to free the rest of us. They know that no one will outright announce their support of their “truth,” so they become dependent on symbols to provide themselves the secret proof that everyone really agrees with them. This is how they maintain their hate against all other forces.
They also intentionally tell people that these symbols double as pride, with a wink and a nudge, to give everyone else an excuse to display the symbol without having to worry about being hassled by the perceived minority who can’t see their “reality.” People without hatred in their hearts don’t know to look for, and therefore did not see, the wink and the nudge, so they didn’t pick up on the racism behind the symbol they were adopting. My grandmother sure didn’t. To her, this was a German cross, and she was German and giving a cross to her grandson, she never knew that in the years since WWII it had become a secret replacement for the swastika. I sure as hell didn’t know the real meaning, I just thought it was a nice German cross given to me by my sweet German grandmother. But to the skinheads in my state, I was now in on the “truth” and was giving a secret nod of approval to their actions. They looked at my ear, and saw a secret approval for their beliefs, I was one of their secret agents, and that is why that friend felt that she was allowed to make the statements she did.
I have not worn that earring since that day. I still own it, because I won’t throw out a gift from my grandma, but I also won’t wear it. To me it is just my grandma’s gift and a part of her heritage, so I will always keep it. I just won’t ever display it because I know how it will be interpreted by the wrong people. I refuse to be the excuse for someone else’s hatred, and I refuse to be made an unwitting accomplice to any violence they enact.
As for that classmate, after some heartfelt conversations with me an other friends, she soon switched sides and joined the local SHARPs (Skin Heads Against Racial Prejudice), and then eventually just walked away from skin head culture as a whole.