White Nationalism and White Supremacy are not identical beasts. I am not sure if I could explain why, but I could feel it in my bones facing him. It felt as if we have been treating White Supremacy with too many antibiotics and had created a drug-resistant super-virus. It felt as if our desire to sooth the discomfort of the prejudices in our country had led us to ignore the root cause and the growth had festered. My soul aches.
For the past 24 hours, I’ve been highly aware of a spot on my right side, at the bottom of my ribcage. Judging from our respective heights and the position of our bodies, it’s where I imagine the knife that the crowd said they saw in the self-described White Nationalist Nazi’s hand would have gone if a mother holding a baby had not pushed him away from me before people started the outcry that they saw a knife. Like a ghost limb, I feel a wound that is not there. I suppose the wound is in my heart.
At the entrance to the airport, where we held signs with verses of love, and cheered when detained students were released, I turned from the police officer guiding the Nazi away from the crowd and rested my weary head on a friend’s shoulder.
For weeks I’ve been seeing people joke about wanting to punch a Nazi, but after being close enough that I could have done so, I do not feel like its funny. I only feel really, very sad. I’m sad for him, and I’m sad for me. I wish the officer that stepped in had searched his coat pocket where he stowed whatever was in his hand, rather than just patting down his pants pocket and directing him away. Maybe it would have created a much needed intervention.
I had started to talk to him, hoping there was some way to connect, some way to reach him. I could not find a foothold. I felt helpless to do anything other than place my body between him and the many children that were around the airport entrance with signs. When he asked me whether I understood evolution, and whether I grasped that I was inferior to him because I was a woman, I turned around. I told him I was not going to engage him any further, but I would place my back between him and the crowd.
He could have done anything to that back; I understand that now. It was the most peaceful thing I felt like I could do. I was not alone, I had plenty of people looking out for me, and another man began to engage him. He assumed at first that the man was there to support him because of his appearance and went in for a handshake; but the large, white man actually had a “Not One Inch” shirt on and was there to push back against fascism. “Nah bro, I’m not with you,” he had said to him. I do not know what I should have done. The White Nationalist felt dangerous. He told me he had been on the same websites that I knew had radicalized Dylann Roof. He told me that he believed in fighting for there to be all white nations in the United States and Australia.
Like my siblings in the back seat of my mother’s car growing up, he started saying “why are you pushing me” while pushing me. It gave the illusion that I was the one moving him. I stayed in front of him. I was not sure what to do, but I figured that if he was at a point where he was shoving me, I didn’t want him shoving the women and children around me that were cheerfully chanting that “Love not hate, makes America great.”
It was only afterwards that I would understand that he was trying to get us to attack him, when his friend told a spectator that they (what I would call a cell of white men radicalized on the internet) were trying to get footage of themselves being attacked to send to Fox News.
He kept pushing at me as I stayed between him and the crowd until he was shoving me and my body was whipping back and forth like a rag doll.
Just then one of the mothers with children that I was trying to keep him away from pushed him off of me, his sign with the Nazi SS symbol tearing from his hands as she did so.
Then there was an outcry about a knife, an officer appeared, I tried to explain to the officer that the men who had stepped between the White Nationalist and the women and children and I were being protective not aggressive, and the officer guided the young man away.
The children were crying. It was so upsetting. I did not feel tough, or strong, or brave, I just felt really, very sad.
Making enough assumptions to bury himself, he had thought he would catch me off guard with his embrace of evolution. Yet, I knew where his comment about evolution and my inferiority came from. It was an old staple of racist theory in the United States ever since Ralph Waldo Emerson studied Scottish scientist Robert Chambers racist theory that “The stars and all the heavens had developed from spontaneous electrical generation, giving rise to every form of life through means of elaboration from the lowest, simplest organism to man’s apex in Europe.”*
He did not know that people in airports keep asking me where I go to school because they see me desperately studying to try to understand the roots of dangerously flawed logic like that which had infected this young man. Still, I did not know how to reach him. I’ll study harder. I’ll love harder.
Samuel George Morton, the most revered of the white supremacist school of anthropology developing in the 1800’s in the United States, argued that the superiority of the Europeans was due to their Egyptian origins. In his Crania Egyptiaca, he claimed that the Egyptians only looked like they had curly dark hair because they were wearing wigs over their straight, blonde hair.** People really believed this… !?!?
Josiah Nott of South Carolina argued that the Torah applied only to white Westerners and that non-white people had other scriptures that told their stories… yes, he claimed the Pentateuch told the origin story of his ‘real America’ while excluding the Jewish community that actually wrote and preserved the Torah.***
As intellectually cartoonish as these thoughts seem, they were respected in their day, leading Emerson to write that the lives of the poor were “not worth preserving,” and leading Theodore Roosevelt to a preoccupation with “race suicide.”
Perhaps the truly alarming thing is not that White Nationalism is rising, but rather that it has always been here. Seeing it upon the desk of history, we have shifted the papers to hide it from view; but it has remained, residing in the minds and writings of some of those scholars for whom our history books reserve the most praise. Their unquestioned legacies lending unquestioned legitimacy to current teachers of radical racism that follow their defunct and disproved ‘science’ based in head measurements of stolen skulls.
I sincerely believe that we will not defeat White Nationalism without facing that aspect of ourselves, of our past, of our history.
I have seen that whether it be Ida B. Wells use of investigative journalism, or Zora Neale Hurston’s use of anthropology, solid facts do have an impact upon culture. Information – truth – does matter. Facing the truth does help. The work of those women and many other men and women did help us.
Yet, we need so much truth right now. How will we make our cousins see it?
We have to face the truth about ourselves. We have no entitlement to goodness, and neither do our heroes. We’ve got to face who we are and who we have been as white people in this nation if we are going to find out who we could be.
I do not have all the answers, but I’m not going to stop trying to find them. No matter how much it hurts. Six months from today, I fully expect to look back and say, “you knew nothing six months ago”: just like I said six months ago, and six months before that.
*Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People, New York: W.W. Norton & Co, p. 178
**(Ibid) p. 193
***(Ibid) p. 195