Recently, I accidentally did a favor for a white supremacist. It could have been a totally forgettable favor, but I’m still thinking about it now.
It began when I went for a coffee run with my toddler. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, I saw an opening before a long line of traffic. I was about to go for it, but I saw a man hobble past. Even though I could have made it without cutting him off, I felt an uncharacteristic wave of patience wash over me and I slowed down, holding up the line of cars behind me, to let him cross.
He didn’t gesture thanks or anything—and as he passed me, I caught sight of a very large swastika tattooed on his neck.
This is the South. It’s unfortunately not the first swastika tattoo I’ve seen, but it is the first time I’ve been accidentally nice to someone with one.
What reason could a person give for paying someone actual money to carve a swastika permanently, and prominently, into their skin? Based on my experiences reading the comments section of The Tennessean as well as having been raised in a fairly conservative part of California, I’m sure he would say it had something to do with “cultural pride” or “heritage.” Not-so-secret code words.
I’ve seen the mental gymnastics people do to justify their hatred for others. Maybe he’d say he doesn’t harbor an explicitly active support for genocide…but the tattoo says he has no problem with being associated with genocide, either.
I did not grow up Jewish, nor did I know many Jewish people in my small, homogenous Christian hometown.
Of course, a swastika sighting used to disgust me before my conversion, too. But while I was learning about the Holocaust in elementary school, while it seemed so long ago and so surreal to me, it wasn’t for my husband. Indeed, thousands of miles away my husband and his classmates at Jewish day school were being taunted by other kids when they left campus for the day.
Yes, kids taunt kids. But I was certainly never called derogatory names due to my religion or ethnicity and I can’t think of any of my (white, Christian) childhood friends who were, either.
I don’t mean to come off as this newly Jewish white lady who had a baby and is suddenly “woke” now that these issues personally affect her, though to be honest there is some degree of that at play here.
The truth is, my world expanded before I converted. I moved to a big, diverse city for college, met people who were different than me, had my eyes opened to the hard fact that—newsflash—racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia are far, far more prevalent than many people in my hometown would have liked to acknowedge.
Now, I wonder what some of the people in my hometown would say about this past weekend. There is no way they missed what happened in Charlottesville. Do they still think white supremacy is a thing of the past? Are they okay with being silent?
And what about the Man with the Swastika Tattoo, the man for whom my Jewish child and I patiently missed our green light so that he could take the time to cross the street. Does he really hate us as much as his tattoo would have us believe? Yes, it was only a minuscule act of compassion we bestowed upon him, but it was compassion.
Do I think he would show compassion to my child, to our family, to the millions of people in this country who don’t look like him? Something about that permanent, prominent Nazi symbol, identical to what we saw on the news on the streets of Charlottesville last weekend, where three died and many more were injured, answers that question for me, and it’s not reassuring.
When I think about the man and his tattoo, now, my reaction is deeper than disgust. I think of my son, growing up Jewish in the South. Yes, he is white and financially comfortable and born to straight parents and therefore is insulated from much oppression that others face. I know I also come from a particularly privileged place, and that my own hate-free childhood leaves me feeling completely unprepared for how to deal with this.
But I am still my son’s mother, and like any mother, I want to shield him from every hateful, ignorant jackass out there. I’d like to shield everyone’s kids from that.
You may think this is the moment where I decide that I’m glad I showed this stranger even this small act of kindness, as he was having difficulty walking, and hate only begets hate and all that. The part where I utter sage words about spreading beauty and light and how the next generation will be the ones to end all of this madness if only we set the right examples for them.
But I don’t think it’s all that far-fetched to assume that Swastika Man at the very least had no objections to a regime that would have killed my son, my husband, and most of our family if they had the chance. Who still would today, if given the opportunity.
So, no, this is not a “difference in politics,” regardless of what some in power might try to have you believe. Neo-Nazis don’t disagree with us; thy are violating the basic social contract.
So no, I wish I hadn’t been kind to him. Obviously I don’t want to teach my child to hate. At the same time, I want him to have enough confidence and self-preservation to understand that he doesn’t owe favors to people who would willingly eradicate or expel anyone different from him.
This man and his kind, when they’re encouraged to do so, plow down people who stand up to them. They’re not frozen in time somewhere far away. They live down the street from many of us.
So no, we won’t brake for Nazis. If we can help it.