By Jay Kirell
I’ll be open about this. I’ve had racist family members, racist co-workers and sometimes even racist friends.
As a child I grew up around relatives who never gave a second thought to tossing out words you wouldn’t say unless you were surrounded by those you trust.
Words that I won’t repeat here, but you know what they are. But more than words, was the general view that people were a certain way because of what race they were. Blacks were lazy and on welfare. Latinos were illegals who lived 15 to a house. Arabs were all terrorists waiting to happen. Asians were like three different variations of slur depending whether they were Japanese, Chinese or Vietnamese. Jews were…
Well, Jews never got spoken about much, probably because even the racists in my family had enough sense not to go on a rant with my father around.
When I graduated high school, one of the racist members of my family helped me get my first job. I didn’t even interview for the position. I just walked into the parks department with my relative (who was connected with Republican politics in Nassau County) and after they shared a few laughs I had a job doing maintenance at one of the public pools.
By the time I got old enough not to need a relative to help me find employment, I took a job at a Wal-Mart while I was going to college. The manager who hired me really liked me. I started out just working the cash register and after a few weeks they moved me to the accounting office.
One day the manager came up to me and told me how much she appreciated the job I was doing and how much she liked having me around. She then pointed to some of the workers on the floor, “not like those ____,” she said, motioning towards the black and Latino workers in the store. “You’re white, you’re not lazy.”
Having also worked in the accounting office, I had access to all the paychecks that came in every two weeks. I sometimes would compare my per-hour salary with other cashiers. Turns out I had a starting pay a little over a dollar more than the other, minority cashiers.
Racism and the general anti-otherness that exists in the military was evident during my time in the Army. I’ve chronicled it somewhat in my other writings, but never really made it part of a larger point.
Namely, that there were guys that I served with in Afghanistan who were white supremacists, racists, anti-Semites, and had horrible, terrible, abhorrent views on nearly every type of human being who weren’t them and their “kind.”
And those guys trained me. Those guys protected me. Those guys made sure I came back from every patrol alive. Some of them became my friends despite their views.
Those guys had, and showed, a willingness to help me.
Just like my relatives did to help me find a job.
Just like the manager at Wal-Mart did by paying me more.
And throughout the entirety of my experience in and around racists and racism, I finally realized part of why this country’s racial wounds aren’t close to getting healed anytime soon.
At no point in time did I ever want to call out racist views. I wanted to survive a war. I wanted to keep my job. I want to not make it awkward every time I see family. The racists were more often than not in a position of power over me. That doesn’t excuse my lack of courage as much as it explains it.
So I smiled and nodded. Laughed weakly along with jokes I didn’t find funny.
And the racists went along believing their views were fine and normal, because a “normal” person like me was laughing and smiling and nodding along.
Because while standing up against bigotry and racism is all well and good when we’re communicating on social media or when we’re amongst like-minded individuals; when we’re among those we know, those we grew up with or those we’re forced to be around, activism takes a backseat to just wanting to make it through the encounter.
Such is life when the racism you hate comes from the racist you love.