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The Photograph: On the Banality of Racism

My mother died on Winter Solstice. Months later, the family gathered to go through her remaining things. Some costume jewelry, old mementos and the like.

Among her things were some photographs from my father. Photos from his enlisted days. World War Two. Men on military equipment. Men climbing palm trees. Hanging out. Friends at beaches.

Photos I’d never seen before.

My siblings were around me, looking through the assorted objects set out on long tables, going through my mother’s other things. In that moment, it was as if I was alone in the room, surrounded by the detritus of a life lived long, lived well. Surrounded by some things that would be treasured, and others that would be thrown away.

Because that’s what life is: an odd collection. An assortment of things, only some of which have value to the living. Some of which had value only to yourself. And you’re gone now.

Flipping through these photographs, one startled me so much I almost dropped it. It wasn’t my father. It wasn’t anyone I knew. But it was one of the photos from World War Two. From the Pacific theater.

The fading black and white picture clearly illustrated some military talent show. A thing to entertain the soldiers in their free time in the midst of a harrowing war. A war that would leave some of them, like my father, alcoholics, not quite recovering from all that they had seen or done.

But I’m dancing around this thing held in my hands. This photograph.

The person on the makeshift stage was a white man. Wearing black face.

I almost dropped it. I wanted to rip the photograph in two. I wanted to burn it.

I wanted to hide it. Reshuffle it into a pile of photos my siblings were unlikely to go through. And then I paused. Took a breath. And I realized I had to take that photo home with me.

I had to stare it in the face. This horror, this mockery, because it too was part of my legacy. This racism. This casual dismissal of another human’s life. Of their dignity.

I needed to make sure I knew that along with the photos I keep on my ancestor altar I didn’t forget this one. Because…

Even though it wasn’t my father, it was someone he knew. And he cared enough about that photo, at one time in his life, to save it. He found the comedy sketch at some talent show in the middle of hell – this enlisted friend of his in black face– humorous enough to have kept that image.

Even though I was sure he had forgotten it in the decades that followed, at one point in my father’s life the picture meant something to him.

And that sort of racism is part of me too.

Even though I fight for justice. Even though I stand with the families and friends of those killed by the police. Even though yes, some of my best friends are Black. The build-up of hundreds of years of systemic oppression and racist assumptions are still there.

I hate to think that things flow in my blood, because that’s its own sort of eugenics-leaning racist trope.

And yet things do flow through a family’s understanding and shared experiences. Like our childhood name for Brazil nuts. Calling them something so vile I won’t repeat it. Who taught us that?

My mother insisted she never taught us to be racist, or to treat people differently. And yet my family is full of the sort of casual, unconscious racism that infects far too many white Americans. An ordinary racism. Not foaming at the mouth. Not directly violent. Just…opinions that prop up systems of inequity and injustice. Opinions that kill slowly, over time.

If a brown or Black person showed up for dinner we would welcome them with open arms. Every last member of my immediate blood family.

But a large portion of my family also says things about people on welfare. Even though we were on food stamps for part of my childhood, “that was different.” That was us. We weren’t taking advantage of the system.

And a large portion of my family says things about immigrants, even though they often work alongside them. Well, but those immigrants have learned how to become legal so they’re OK. They’re not like those other people.

A large portion of my family says things about Muslims, and when I counter that, they say that of course they don’t mean every Muslim.

A large portion of my family says a lot of things.

And I’ve argued with them for years, off and on. Taking breaks when the shouting grew too hard, then coming back again.

Just like I argued with my father, starting at around age thirteen. About the fact that there was no such thing as “Asian drivers” and that mentioning that they were Asian in that context was racist. He insisted, “No. That’s not racist. They just drive that way in their own country.” Because they surely weren’t Americans. And they didn’t know any better.

It wasn’t anything bad that he was saying. It’s never anything bad.

But all of this casual, banal sort of racism is bad enough. It props up harm and eruptions of hatred.

In my adopted city, just like my former home, police kill young Black men for reasons that are never reason enough. And in my adopted city, two young Black and Muslim women were just terrorized by a white man on a train. And three other white men stood to defend these young women. Two are dead now. One is recovering from his injuries. Turns out the killer had assaulted a Black woman just days before.

And near my former city, a white man killed a Black man over a political argument on the bus. And in Maryland a young Black man was killed for not stepping off the sidewalk. And in my former city, the coffee shop where I used to sit and write, –a worker owned a collective of rag tag beautiful young people of all races and genders, but largely people of color– more than once have had their windows smashed by white supremacists.

And in my adopted city last week, racists gathered, insisting they were only there in support of love and free speech. It wasn’t about hatred. It’s never about hatred. Except for when it all too suddenly is.

And all of this connects and traces back to that photograph. That one photograph in a pile of so many others unnoticed, unwanted, hidden away, neglected. Not out of shame. But because people had forgotten it was even there.

Or perhaps they didn’t want to look.

Until we dismantle the lie of white supremacy in all its guises, our communities will continue to be broken, and ripped apart.

So I’m not going to forget it’s there. I’m going to remember to look at this hideous photograph, this piece of history, and then I’m going to look into my heart every day.

And I’m going to question my assumptions. And every day, I’m going to show up again.

And try to fight.


Author’s note: I thought long and hard about not including the photograph in the cover to this essay. I didn’t want to hide it, but I also did not want to traumatize any people of color, nor do I wish to exploit. After checking with a trusted friend, I decided that the honest thing to do was to let everyone see exactly what I was talking about.

Note two: The subtitle of course, riffs off of Hannah Arendt’s phrase, “the banality of evil.”


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