So, I've been thinking a lot about race and racism and privilege lately, and as I often do when I ponder how narratives work in society (which is like the motherfucking THEME here at Unnatural Forces, I could have named this blog "Yet Another Post on Narratives"), I start wondering how we get taught about them, how we pick them up, how they influence us as we mature. Like, I spent a week last spring asking everyone I know how they learned about rape. And I couldn't pin down how or when I learned about it - as in, who taught me "no means no," which I at least knew in high school? When was this talked about? Did my friends and I ever discuss it? I can't really remember, but it was fascinating to me how we all managed to absorb something about rape, but not really enough to be all that helpful in navigating the world as sexual creatures.
Anyway! Thinking about the "Apples to Apples" game last night wherein the white ladies debated whether the KKK or "going to the gym," was more evil, I was wondering why I had this strong physical reaction to the KKK that no one else seemed to have (except maybe the black dude, perhaps, but I am not going to guess what he was thinking or feeling). And in one of those rare eureka moments, I realized my gut reaction could be traced down to a single moment when I was a kid.
And, ok, also: I try to: 1) not be an asshole; and 2) be aware of my privilege, so I may have recognized what was wrong immediately last night without this event. I would hope. BUT! I have this very strong fear reaction to any mention of the KKK. Which: I am a white lady? A Jewish white lady, and, yeah, the KKK are not too fond of my kind like AT ALL, but still, the KKK is most known for terrorizing black folks. So: where's the fear from?
Well, the fear is from when I was like 12 years old, and I saw an art exhibit on the KKK. Seriously.
Ok, when I was wee, I took a LOT of art classes. And I took some classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, from when I was like 12 to maybe 14, before I went over to the Moore College of Art to take classes there. And the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is a great museum, and if you are ever in my home city of Philadelphia, you should stop by, but also, I used to go there with my dad a lot. My dad and I did the art museum thing all the time as I was growing up; this was our, like, buddy bonding time (thanks, Dad). And we were terribly fond of the Academy (even the building the museum is in is a work of art unto itself).
So. I think this was right before I started taking classes there, so I may have been 11 (this was before the internets as we know them, Readers, I can't find this exhibit online or a reference to it, so I am fuzzy on my age here). Anyway, there was an exhibit at the museum when we went one time on the KKK. I think the exhibit actually had the word "evil" in the name. It was created by a man who had infiltrated the KKK for several years, and had collected all kinds of propoganda and paraphenalia and the hoods and robes and all things KKK, all jam-packed and overflowing in these couple of rooms.
There was a warning outside the exhibit about how the material might be disturbing, but of course my dad and I marched right in. An aside, but an important one: I was not allowed to watch violent movies or shows growing up if they were fictional. My parents, especially my mother, really ascribed to the belief that watching fake, cartoon, movie violence desensitized children to real violence. So, whereas I could watch Dirty Dancing when I was 8 because that was just sex and that was just fine in my family (sex! not something to have shame about! well done, Mom and Dad!), I couldn't watch violent, fight-y, people dying movies. I COULD, however, watch documentaries. REAL violence was ok, because it was important to know about what went on in the world, to know the real ham that violence did, to see what awful things violence wrought. And so while I may have been kinda young, my dad didn't blink an eye and we marched right into that exhibit.
It scared the everloving shit out of me, that exhibit.
I think, actually, this has a lot to do with the fact it was an art exhibit. I mean, art is about conjuring an emotion in the viewer. So the point of this exhibit was to look at, artistically, how is evil portrayed and personified. How did these objects and clothing create fear and hatred? What was it about the symbolism that drew out and nurtured bigotry? This was no dry, historical look at the KKK; this was examining the very malice, the very horror, all the underlying emotions that were and are the KKK through the rituals, costuming, propaganda, symbols, art. Which meant basically, you were suddenly witness to this very palpable disgust and enmity, this very real attempt to strike fear.
While I think we all pick up tidbits of historical information on the KKK, this exhibit basically put it all together for you: you had the robes and the hoods looming around you. The propaganda was everywhere, pictures, paraphernalia, personal statements. There was a speech being piped in. You were completely engulfed in it, and you were in the midst of so much hatred all at once, standing in the center of the exhibit room, that all you could do was be afraid.
Now, thinking back on it, it was very reminiscent of the occult.
I think when kids normally learn about the KKK, they discuss it in history class (assuming they are even taught about it in class). They see a picture in a textbook. The teacher tells the class about it, and everyone murmurs about how terrible and unjust and unfair those folks are, but they don't really understand the emotions behind those wacky white people with the silly white hoods. I remember thinking they looked ridiculous, the first time I saw a picture of the KKK. And I wondered how they even saw from out of their hoods, because it was like a goddamn Halloween costume where the eyeholes didn't line up. I couldn't feel the malevolence. I didn't understand what that directed hatred would look like, feel like. What it meant to know that when those KKK speakers were talking about the Jews, they were talking about ME. They hated ME. For NO GOOD REASON other than they despised the blood in my veins. They hated me for being. For breathing. And I could only try to imagine (which: I will never manage to get even a little close to understanding) what it must have been like if you were black, to be surrounded by such hatred, such sheer animosity, such absolute motherfucking evil.
I seriously had nightmares for nights after that exhibit. But it also put together the evil of the KKK in ways that I could never have experienced otherwise. We go through Holocaust museums, and at least in DC, they give you a picture of a child, and you travel through the Holocaust with your child, seeing the personal items - the shoes, the clothing, the family photos, the pictures of the camps, and then often learn about the death at the end. A personal connection has been made, an emotional tie, and it hurts. But we don't really teach racism in any similar way. No one enters into the experience. It is not recreated. This exhibit at the Academy showed me evil, and it made me fear it. Fear it right down to the bottom of my belly.
I am not suggesting anyone take their children and find some real examples of oppression and scare the shit out of their kids (parents, don't write me). But I am so thankful that I walked through that exhibit with my father. Because no matter what my childhood fears were (and wooo, did I have a lot), they all paled in comparison to that kind of blinding hatred and violence.
So, I guess the moral of the story is: there are times to joke about things that suck in the world, and there are ways to make those things that suck the punchline of the joke such that one does not make light of what is just horrendous (like, see?). But when you are talking about "evil," there really are some things that are legitimately fucking evil in this world, and minimizing that terrible evil, especially when you are not afflicted by it, is not ok whatsoever. Or: I never want to play "Apples to Apples" again. The end.