I was in the seventh grade when I first saw what pure hatred looks like. My family was driving back from a vacation on the East Coast when, somewhere in the middle of Tennessee, we looked out the window and saw banners praising the KKK and signs that made it clear black people were not welcome there. My older sister and I ducked down in our seats, scared of the evil that targeted us, that maintained our existence to be invalid, and that lurked just outside of our vehicle.
The following year, a group of neo-Nazis came to my hometown to celebrate Hitler’s birthday under the St. Louis Arch. I remember walking through the parking lot of a Walmart about 30 minutes away from downtown St. Louis and seeing swastika bumper stickers plastered on the backs of cars.
My sister has always been more unabashedly outspoken about her beliefs than me. When the neo-Nazis came, she planned to attend a counter-protest held by the Anti-Defamation League across the street from their rally. I also wanted to do something to counteract their hate, and felt ready to take a public stand against injustice for the first time. I therefore fulfilled my duty as an annoying younger sibling and asked her if I could tag along.
My parents were initially hesitant about our plan. My dad is Christian and very conservative, and my mom is the opposite: a liberal woman who rarely attends church. Both of them were wary of sending their two teenage daughters into the middle of a city infiltrated by hate. They also knew, however, that they couldn’t shield us from the reality of the world in which we live. They wanted us to form our own opinions and not stifle our life experiences just because we might face retaliation. We were told to be smart and then sent on our way.
Before we rode the Metro downtown, my older sister warned me that I might not like some of the things that we would see and hear that day. And as soon as the train came, I found she was right: We shared a car with some of those neo-Nazis — people who wished entire groups of other people dead. I looked at a skinhead; he looked back at me.
It was horrifying to be so close to someone who I knew hated me with every fiber of his being, but I felt compelled to act. I considered shouting at him, yelling to others, and even trying to attack him. But then I realized nothing could piss him off more than standing there, than demanding he acknowledge my unapologetic existence and the fact that I was just as much of a human as he was. So that's what I did.
I didn’t (and still don’t) understand how people can lead lives so full of hatred. I don’t know how someone's race can be so inherently threatening to some people. I don't know how these people initially decide that they should live their lives this way or come to believe that if minorities ceased to exist their lives would be better in any way. I desperately wanted to ask this man about these things, about his beliefs and how they came to be, but I realized that you cannot humanize someone who chooses to dehumanize others.
That day I learned that you can never be too young to stand up for what you believe in. I learned that you don’t have to be the loudest person at a rally or the one holding the biggest sign to incite change, either: Simply being present is often enough to communicate that you’re not afraid, that you are willing to take a stand against the abhorrent rhetoric spewed by others.
I now refer to that day as “the day the neo-Nazis came to town,” but I don’t think of the neo-Nazis when I recall it. I remember that day as the day when leaders representing multiple diverse groups in my hometown reminded their neighbors not to act from a place of fear. I remember it as the day I learned that for every person who hates, there are others working to make the world a better place, and that hate can’t silence the voices of those people. I remember it as the day I learned that peace brings people together better than fear does.
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