My friend and I were discussing life and somehow the issue of racism came up.
“I don’t talk to racist people,” I told her.
“If I had that attitude, I wouldn’t have any friends,” she replied. My friend is from a post-communist country and is part Roma. Clearly we didn’t bond over this common experience of having been discriminated against in one way or another all our lives – we decided we liked each other when we were introduced before even knowing where the other was from – but when the subject came up we could both relate.
“Everyone where I’m from is racist in one way or another,” she went on. And because I do consider her a good friend, and I like discussing things with her no matter the subject, I didn’t want to just pay lip service to the conversation. I was trying to think beyond the usual cliché of, “I’ve encountered racism at the store.”
Fact of the matter is, I tend to say things very spontaneously without thinking them through. And I’m also good at changing some narratives at times. I really don’t like racists, because I can’t for the life of me see how one group would be superior over any of the others in any way, shape or form. So since I won’t stand for that, I’ll block the racist comments friends and acquaintances I like have made, the oldfashioned way, stuffing them deep down into my subconscious. It’s not an ideal way of living, but I guess in many ways it’s a coping mechanism acquired from a very young age. If those that are meant to keep you safe display behaviors you know are wrong, confronting that when you’re still dependent on them can be traumatic in varying degrees. So you either adapt and become like them (also, because not knowing any better, to you this is the norm), or you block and suppress. No one close to me has ever used the n-word (which, I guess is a decent enough start, or so claims cynical me), and they haven’t really used racial slurs, but the clichés are alive and well, especially with some groups.
I lived in a very bigoted town in Germany when we did spend time there, a town which named the smallest street it could find after prominent Resistance hero siblings. If you’re thinking about Klaus and Erika Mann, you’re way off base. As far as the town was concerned, these people didn’t even exist. And the only reason they acknowledged Hans and Sophie Scholl was because due to some decree, every town in Germany had to have a street named after them. A German professor at university told us. When I muttered that where I lived the three houses that were there wouldn’t even pass for a street, his response was, “this is how you can tell to what extent the town is still sympathizing with the Nazis.”
His comment blew me away, because I’ve only ever rarely heard a few Germans acknowledge this fact. I would never consider this place my home, even if I know the place the way a womanizer knows women. Between my then best friend’s mother who would speak very loudly and in very broken German to my mother, to the History teacher who – in order to appease the Neo-Nazi in the class – openly stated in class that “the number of Jews allegedly killed in the camps is not as high as its purported to be,” and let’s not forget the very left-wing teacher, whose comment after I told him of my problems with the Neo-Nazi kid merely stated, “you called him asshole, so watch your mouth,” I had a lot of bases covered. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
To be fair, there were a few good people, the teachers who liked you as a person, those that judged you on merit, and those who liked you because they really loved France. And friends. The class beauty queen who stood up for me when another Neo-Nazi tried to spread rumors about me, the religious fanatic who was my best friend because we were both always feeding off each other. And the usual teenage drama which has nothing whatsoever to do with bigotry, the best friend who ghosts you and has another best friend when you come back to school after having lived in the States, the group of “arch enemies” that hates you and your friends for whatever reason.
And then there were the ones that really made me understand my friend’s comment about racism and friends. The ones you bond with over a number of things to the extent you either ignore the bad things or you don’t even notice. Two especially come to mind. I’ll call them Anita (because she wasn’t 100% German but had relatives from my mother’s native land), and Traude, because she really was a Nazi, and her parents easily would have named her after one of Goebbel’s kids had they not learned to hide their affiliation. Ironically, both are among the only ones in that place who know the secrets I was willing to share.