How to respond to the Nazi sympathizer next door

Haters live among us.

No longer shrouded in white sheets and camo, they shop at Target, eat at Panera Bread and snuggle their dog while watching the “Today” show.

These are the sympathetic portraits painted in recent articles in The New York Times and Politico of Nazi sympathizers and racist supporters of President Donald Trump living in America’s heartland. Both stories have recently drawn fire for normalizing white nationalists and supremacists while failing to include the voices of those targeted by their hate.

“It’s fascinating who becomes humanized for doing inhumane things,” said Desiree Adaway, a diversity and inclusion consultant in North Carolina. “Nobody wants to talk about the victims.”

Normalizing the horrific strikes at the heart of why hate groups continue to exist and are even on the rise in the United States.

We have been normalizing hatred and racial inequality in the United States since its inception. White men who founded the country, measured black lives and found them to be countable as only three-fifths of a person are still the face of our country’s money

Underneath some of the criticism about normalizing racists from some white people is an unspoken fear that the hater among us isn’t just the Nazi sympathizer who takes his bride to Applebee’s for date night. It’s also the person staring at us in the mirror.

Some white people see their own attitudes and beliefs reflected in the words of white supremacists or hear echoes of the same sentiments spoken by their mother, brother or neighbor. So they look for something redeemable in white supremacists to save the image of themselves as good people.

Curbing white supremacy is not about being a good person. It is about confronting conflicting attitudes we hold about race with a radical honesty that some of us do not yet have.

Fortunately, there are tools available. Adaway and her collaborator, Ericka Hines, adapted a framework from Dr. Barbara Love to enable people in communities in North Carolina and around the country to examine their ingrained biases, observe how their beliefs and behaviors perpetuate white supremacy, and then make conscious choices to change.

“We have to understand our biases,” Adaway said. “We all have them. We have to process how those biases lead to prejudices, how segregation works, how white supremacy works and how it shows up in our institutions and practices.”

This is challenging work. It’s far easier to pretend the “real racists” are costumed villains with red necks and Southern drawls. It’s far more difficult to investigate the back shop of your soul, with a sustained commitment to rigorous self-examination and a determination to be the change we refuse to see.

We must also take it one step further by breaking our addiction to separateness.

We are not separate from the Nazi sympathizer who has four cats and likes Seinfeld. But normalizing him isn’t the same as whitewashing his sins or the history of our country. Normalizing the totality of US history is to recognize that we the people have not lived up to the sacred promises of our most cherished documents. It is to accept that sometimes people are exactly who they say they are.

We must normalize the definition of community so that it extends beyond the borders of our limiting beliefs and the width of our mobile phone screens. We can combat the normalization of hatred by normalizing human connection.

Normalize the practice of talking to people who look different from you and have different experiences. Normalize the fear of saying the wrong thing. Normalize saying “I’m sorry” and moving forward. Normalize staying at the table when you would rather walk away. Normalize the fear of not being a good person for the sake of making America great again.

It isn’t the normalization of hate we should fear, but the normalization of our complacency about it. I don’t care whether the white nationalist next door watches Seinfeld. I do care whether white people who say they are committed to eradicating racism risk their comfort to do something about it.

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