It used to be a hypothetical question. ‘If you were alive during World War 2‘, we were asked during a High School Ethics and Social Studies class, ‘What would you have done? What would you have done to save the Jewish People from the Nazi Regime?‘
A lot of my classmates boldly declared their desire for change no matter what. They’d punch Hitler, they said. They’d set up deadly traps and sneaky tunnels to get out of Nazi Germany. They’d use their wit, their wiles, and every weapon available.
‘What would you have done if you were personally hunted by the Viet Cong?’ We were then asked. ‘What if you were the victim, and not empowered to fight?‘
In many outbreaks of violence and fear, students and academics are targeted. When you remove the source of knowledge and critical, respectful debate (the teachers explained) you increase the fear. You increase the ignorance. My classmates again loudly expressed their desires for intellect and resistance. They’d fight, they said. They’d go underground with their information. They’d stand up no matter what.
Then the shooting happened in Ferguson, America, and my classmates were silent. Some of them didn’t believe me when I told them and accused me of sharing ‘fake news’ that couldn’t be proved. Then Nazi and Confederate propaganda started showing up during Trump Rallies in 2016. And recently, a public appearance by Nazis and Domestic Terrorists was made in Charlottesville, America. I’m hearing nothing from these previously outspoken classmates of mine. The silence is deafening.
Sure, we might be in Australia – a world away from the actions of people in America – but in the 21st Century we’re privy to an international world. An interconnected world. A world where one event affects thousands, because we hear about it instantaneously.
Slowly, surely, some people are becoming more public with their bigotry and racism. Extremism and Radicalism are becoming safety concerns internationally as tensions rise and the memories of WW2 fade in the public conscience. Very few people are holding these racist and bigoted people accountable for their violent behaviour, and those racists and bigots are taking advantage of this inaction.
Growing up, I was never permitted to forget. My father liked dressing up in camouflage gear and replica guns and running around the house with my brother, pretending to ambush each other in a fight. He would watch war-movies like Khartoum and Zulu Dawn every few weeks. He glorified the military, went to every ANZAC day parade and went out of his way to point out tanks, servicemen, and military memorabilia everywhere we went. He read books and biographies of soldiers, sat all of his children down and told us about the glorious sacrifices our family members made on the front line, and read military magazines like a star-struck child. He never served, but he desperately wanted to.
My father never served, but was obsessed with the idea, because his father (my grandfather) did. My grandfather forbade my father from joining the army largely (I suspect) because he had PTSD. My grandfather served, and until he succumbed to Dementia, lived a nightmare ever since. He had a short temper, drank, and would refuse to talk about his time working for the Army despite a solid decade or more of service. My great-grandfather, and great-uncle, were the same. They served, yet would never talk about it. They never went to the parades celebrating their service. They never participated in my father’s enthusiasm for death and violence on a military scale. They never pulled out their medals or their photos, and seemed actively relieved when their grandchildren changed the topic from their past. They didn’t like talking about Nazis, Fascism or Genocide; they saw it first hand.
Once was more than enough.
All this started to unroll as I grew older and pieced things all together. It suddenly made sense why my veteran grandparents were un-enthused to hear about the replica WW2 items my father bought from a sale. Why they were far, far more interested to hear what literature I was reading and what drawings I did. To some degree they pushed my father to the side…which only further fuelled my father’s obsession.
Watching this as a child helped me to see how people can become dogmatic, and then Radicalised. Rejected by their idols, and unable to act in the way they desire, they further commit themselves to fallacies and fantasies until they totally lack self-awareness. I seriously doubt that my father is even aware of how he looks to actual military servicemen. Silly….sad…awkward. A man who wears a uniform on the weekend, all for a few compliments from strangers who don’t know that he’s not an actual soldier and never was. A man who spends more time with the cadet program on the weekends than with his own children. A man who resented his father’s advice for peace and a civilian life, after suffering PTSD and displacing his family for years to move from post to post. My grandfather wanted to break the cycle of military careers in our family, and my father did everything he could to resist that. He was at least partly successful; all but one of his children aspired to a career in the army.
In case my tone is not clear; I am not excusing my father’s behaviour. It’s mal-adaptive, selfish and (quite frankly) concerning. As an adult nearing the age that my parents were when they had me, I look at my father’s growing obsession with the Army (and war) with discomfort. To the brave servicemen who enlist with genuine good will in their hearts and a desire to protect the rights of their country – I wish them my sincerest kindness and support. Yet, this is not what my father was doing. Towards the end of my relationship with my father I began to grow vocal about my discomfort. I asked him why, yet again, he was spending hours in his shed carving replica guns to play with. Why he was going to the army disposal store, yet again, to spend hundreds of dollars on ex-army supplies instead of paying off his credit cards. Why he had a case full of other peoples’ medals, and why he watched so many action movies that featured war in them. The biggest (literal) red flag from that time, was when I asked my father why he owned a confederate flag.
“It’s a historical replica like all the other stuff I have” he said, referring to the mannequin dressed in full army fatigues that he had assembled.
It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realised my father’s behaviour is not normal. He spoke about how America ‘defeated slave owners’ in the civil war with pride, yet constantly referred to Australian First Nations people with contempt. He watched movies about Jewish persecution in WW2 yet was perfectly comfortable ridiculing Buddhists and people identifying as LGBTAQI+. His behaviour constantly alienated anyone that didn’t align with his values, such as White Christianity, and Military Discipline. Totally unaware of the fact that he does this, he sparked the sequence of events that led to me cutting him and the rest of my biological family out of my life.
Because as a White woman, this is not okay. I cannot stand by and remain complicit in the actions of my peers, especially if they allow bigotry and racism to continue. Especially if they perpetuate physical and non-physical violence in their daily actions. As the wife of a Person Of Colour (POC), and the daughter-in-law of a POC, and as a friend to POC, I cannot abide by this behaviour. Closing my eyes and distancing myself from the actions of other White People isn’t helping anyone. Letting the poor behaviour of my family slide wasn’t helping anyone. Making excuses for my ignorant friends at the time was actively hurting the people I love – so I stopped.
When I have mixed-heritage children, will they be comforted by me saying ‘Not all White People’?
No, they won’t, because it will mean that their Mama isn’t willing to stand up for them. I don’t want my children to adopt learned helplessness in the face of racism, and that begins with me. My husband has dealt with enough racial abuse in his lifetime, so it’s up to me to shoulder the difference. It’s not up to POC to explain to White People why racism is wrong. It’s not up to LGBTIQA+ people to explain to Cisgender, Heterosexual people why bigotry is wrong. It’s up to us within the community to educate, to explain, and to call out poor behaviour. As much as I hate the association, and as much as I detest having to sit beside racists and bigots and slowly explain how much they hurt people for no good reason, it’s a job that must be done.
I have immense privilege at times due to my skin colour and my background. Some times I feel it more acutely than others. One of those times is when a white bigot is more willing to talk to me than my partner – a certified Psychiatric professional – because my partner is a POC. I swallow my outrage and sit beside the person to slowly, gently, explain to them that different is not always wrong. Just because someone looks scruffy doesn’t mean that they don’t have a brilliant mind, and just because someone has a different religious belief doesn’t mean that they lack goodness and compassion. Small beliefs ingrained from childhood are hard to shake but it is possible. People with privilege, such as White women, need to take the time to have honest discussions.
To put it simply? It’s just like educating a really stubborn child. Everyone was a child once, but for racists and bigots – someone told them that dark skin was bad. Someone told them that loving people of the same sex is wrong. Someone told them to feel bad for their confusion, and to replace that confusion with anger. Someone close to them reacted badly to something new, and they learned how to react badly too. The best way to approach those feelings and misunderstandings within the community is the same way a parent should approach a child. If they’re not willing to listen, there’s no point in engaging in a fight – your points will only land on deaf ears – but if they talk to you in a calm manner and ask questions you’re already on a roll.
Admittedly some people will never change. Some people are destined to live the rest of their lives as a racist. For that situation the best we can do is to protect the ones we love. To sit next to someone on the bus or the train if the situation looks sketchy for them. To facilitate for POC extra spaces and outlets to have their voices heard. To positively support LGBTIQA+ people and give them an encouraging space to discover and freely express their identity. To be the gatekeeper against bigots, Nazis, white supremacists and racists from infringing on the rights and safety of POC, LGBTIQA+, and the general public. Remaining silent and distancing yourself from poor behaviour within your own community helps nobody, and in the long run it only further encourages future bad behaviour. Because you were silent last time. Because you haven’t said anything for so long. Because they’ve known you for years and you let it slide all that time.
So…what can you do?
I can’t speak for what I would have done during WW2. As a white woman, if I wasn’t a Nurse, I would probably have helped keep the country running while the boys were at war. I would have set my mind to thrift so my family could live comfortably during rations, and quietly taken down any Nazi propaganda posters I found. In the 21st Century, we face multiple threats like Global Warming, the potential for Same-Sex Marriage to be ignored by parliament for another five years in Australia, and the growing violence fuelled by radicalisation, nazism, extremism, and bigotry. What am I doing now? I’m stepping to the side so that POC can be heard over the sea of unhelpful White voices. I’m creating safe spaces for LGBTIQA+ people to be themselves in my presence, and reading up on how else I can support the targets of hate and violence. And, when it’s appropriate, I become vocal. I challenge racist statements, call-out bigoted ‘jokes’, and make social situations incredibly uncomfortable for people who try to brush me off. I don’t want to go down in history as a nazi-apologist, or someone who turned away when the marginalised needed support. More importantly…I don’t want history to show 2017 as the beginning of the next White Supremacist movement that destroyed the lives of a new generation, because people like me said and did nothing.
So…what will you do? What are you doing to create a safer world for all?