How could the grown-ups let this happen?



Naomi and me eating  candy, 1960

“Hatred has a weight to it. It’s a force, has a target. I was the recipient, the human bull’s eye, even though it was not aimed personally.”
Journal entry, Sept 25, 2004

“I went over to Naomi’s house. We had a play and made up funny outfits with the costumes. I stayed for supper. It was Shabbus so she couldn’t write. We couldn’t play Clue until Shabbus was over.”
—Diary entry, March 21, 1959

It was Big Judy, our favorite babysitter, who first told us kids about Nazis. Big Judy liked to scare us with stories like The Bad Seed, about a little girl who everybody thinks is good, but who kills people she doesn’t like or who have something she wants. But Nazis were not just a made-up story. They were real.

I remember walking home from school along North Prospect Street, turning over in my mind this idea that some people — grownups, even — hated Jewish people, really hated them, enough to kill them, just because they were Jewish. And that meant, yes — it had to mean — they would hate Naomi, a little girl just like me, for a reason that felt like…no reason. How could this be? Why didn’t anyone stop them?  A potent combination of fear, dread, and helplessness swirled inside me — so strong I gave it a name: “The Feeling.”

The Feeling would go away and then come back over and over again in my life. It arose this summer, as I watched images from the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The torches.  Swastika banners. Confederate flags. People, mostly young white men, chanting, “You will not replace us.”  “Jews will not replace us.”


Ad in Hampton Chronicle, 1926 Courtesy of Franklin County Historical Society

When I saw the circle of torches, I flashed on images from nearly 100 years ago, when the KKK message of white nationalism came into the mainstream. Klan members were elected to political office, controlled school boards, held mass marches and open community rallies like the one in 1926 in Hampton, Iowa, my father’s hometown. My fear tells me a story that this mindset will overtake our country, like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, like my old, recurring nightmares where evil beings have taken over everyone’s minds, and no one knows but me and I am desperately trying to save my family, my friends, not knowing who I can trust. But in reality, the first challenge is to not let fear overtake me, to not let fear solidify into a mono-dimensional story of Us and Them.  To take time to attend to The Feeling. This is a continual process, not a one-time thing — but it feels urgent now.  I am a grown up. How do I not let “this” happen?

In 2004, I experienced first-hand the vitriol of overt white supremacy. I was managing the UNtraining website at the time. We were planning a public event to introduce our approach to working with “white liberal racism” — the mostly unconscious white social conditioning we all receive growing up in this country. One morning I went to check the UNtraining emails, expecting the usual curiosity and excitement about the work we were doing. Instead I discovered that a white supremacist group had found our website, had copied and posted parts of it on their own site for their readers to comment on. We were flooded with emails — racist and homophobic slurs about our founders, and scathing comments about the stupidity of liberals. One guy was so incensed he said he was ready to buy a baseball bat and start smashing heads. I read all this in a growing state of shock. Hot, cold, breathless, hurt, sickened, outraged. A whirlpool of fear, dread, helplessness.

Finally I got up and began moving around the house. Who should I call? What if some of these people came to our event? Were we in danger? Then a jolt of realization hit me — this was just one moment, one instance, of what people of color potentially face every day. Besides pervasive indirect and unconscious racism, this is what is out there and most often directed at them.  I was just getting a taste, puncturing the buffer my white middle class privilege provides.

I called Jim, one of our event coordinators who had studied extremist groups and had been reaching out to dialogue with people who had white supremacist views. He helped assess the threats and concluded that they would not likely translate into action.  Nevertheless, the day of our event we made sure the security guard was near the entrance and stayed in the room with us.  No raging bat-wielding neo-Nazis came.  However, one polite, mild-mannered proponent of “white civil rights” did.  His name was Lou.

As soon as Lou walked in, I knew he was different from the other 85 attendees of our program. In his 70’s, he was formally dressed, with a red, white and blue silk handkerchief in the breast pocket of his well-tailored dark suit jacket. I can’t remember the name of the group he was with, but Lou was one of the people Jim had been reaching out to. When we opened the floor for a few people to say why they had come, Lou said he felt European- Americans were being discriminated against and he was concerned about that. In the moment of silence that ensued, UNtraining cofounder Rita Shimmin deftly responded, “This is a public workshop and many different viewpoints that are out in the world are here too.”

Jim sat next to Lou and engaged with him until it was time to do an exercise in dyads, sharing an early experience we had had around race. Jim introduced me to Lou and suggested we pair up. I took a deep breath and prepared to listen. Lou told me about growing up poor in Brooklyn, with Italians, Jews, Germans, and Irish people in their neighborhood. His family was Italian. He talked about being in college and joining the NAACP. He had a lot of disagreements with them when he realized they were “just looking out for their own people.”  So he quit. Now, he said,  he is looking out for his own people.  Lou got a little emotional telling a story from when he was on the police force.  There was a black officer who did his job well and whom everyone liked. He was appointed to a higher position but he just couldn’t pass the exam to become a lieutenant. The black man felt badly and this was painful to Lou. This story ran into one about a San Francisco 49er coming to a “Cops for Christ” meeting.  (“Cops for Christ” is an international evangelical / apocalyptic organization, geared specifically to policemen.) Lou was talking fast and I couldn’t always follow him, but it felt like he was doing his best to share some of the experiences with people of color that shaped him.  They were complex and not what I might have expected.

At the end of the workshop, when people shared parting thoughts, Lou said he hadn’t known what he would find here, but he was treated better than he expected. Reflecting back now, I realize I didn’t have The Feeling when I talked with Lou. I was cautious, yes, and chose a story to share that was not super-charged for me. His ideas were set, he wasn’t really open to our multidimensional viewpoint, but he was in the room, jumping in to the activities, not sitting out in judgment. His stories were not political rhetoric. They were real, personal and human. In a different situation I might have argued with his basic assumptions, but I was there to listen.

The events in Charlottesville have resulted in a plethora of “I am not a racist” or “He is not a racist” statements from public officials.  The narrative that a person is either a good white person or a bad racist is dangerously simplistic.  It keeps us from being aware of what is actually happening, who is standing in front of us in any given moment, and who is standing with us. Because of the history of white dominance in this country and the legacy we all carry, consciously or unconsciously,  we are ALL on a spectrum of white supremacy conditioning. Let’s not lose the nuanced understanding of this.

The point for me, the hard work of it, is to become aware of how “whiteness” affects me, how being white shapes my views, my reactions, my deepest fears.  For example, in a recent TIME magazine article, “What White America Must Do Next,” Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., chair of African-American Studies at Princeton, says:

“What is required of white Americans now is something much more than a sentimental condemnation of [racism]. Ask yourselves: Can you truly give up the idea that this is a white nation? Can you imagine this country as a truly multiracial democracy?”

2010 Census pie chart

2010 U.S. Census

So, can I? My first and conscious response is yes.  In line with my heartfelt values, I say yes, that would be wonderful.  But if I keep looking, I also find some disconcerting conditioning embedded in my mind. For example, images implanted of who Americans are —  they look mostly like me, with a few people of other races added so it feels like equality.  What if the people in power in this country actually reflected the overall demographics?  There would be a lot more people of color in top and managerial positions in government, business, education, justice, law enforcement — all of our institutions.  If I feel into this part of my white conditioning, I find unease, discomfort, fear of loss. Some treasured piece of my identity threatened. We (white people) can share power as long as we still are in the majority, in charge, choosing when to open the door and when to close it.  I hate seeing this in myself. I hate admitting it. But if I can’t feel my own human vulnerability at the root of it, I will dehumanize others who actively express extreme forms of white supremacy beliefs.  Fear of being replaced. Something precious being taken away. Our children’s future. Our dignity. Our land. Our rights. Our values. Our identity.  Sound familiar?


Me, age 9

“Why didn’t anyone stop them?  How could the grown-ups let this happen? “

I am a grown-up now.  So how will I stop “them”? First, I do not let “them” take over my mind and heart. I pay attention to my tendency to panic and solidify reality into a bad dream. Action that comes out of fear and aggression  just adds more fear and aggression to the world — or numbness and avoidance of any feeling. So attend to The Feeling. Give that scared part some love. Do I really believe in the basic goodness of humanity? Of society? How do I bring that about right now in this moment?

I remember that I am not alone. Besides the great number of friends, allies and people actively writing, protesting, working in all their different spheres of influence, it helps to  remember that the vast majority of people in this country are not neo-Nazis or KKK members. I was struck by a comment quoted in the recent issue of  Teaching Tolerance from a conservative Christian high school student, who wrote in The American Conservative magazine, “[The alt-right] has swallowed up most of the guys in the senior class at my school. Every discussion devolves into things like which girls are ‘feminazis,’ celebrities dating outside their ethnicity being ‘white genocide,’ and so on…I’m genuinely scared that it’s going to spread to the point where I won’t have anyone I can talk to like a normal human being.”

How do we cultivate a multidimensional viewpoint: to stay connected as human beings and still say NO — and at the same time, to say YES, here’s what we want.

People who voted for Trump or who support him are not evil people to be written off as all the same. Polarizing into hard lines of Us and Them is not going to bring out the best in this struggle for our country’s future.  In fact it will bring out the worst.

We are all living on planet earth in a critical moment.  There have been other critical moments, but this one is ours. So, Janet, don’t walk around in a cocoon. There are other human beings in your world every day — the clerk at the corner store, the people at the library, the guy buying gas at the pump next to yours.  Every interaction is a potential moment of connection. A choice to be numb or a choice to feel human together for a split second.

People everywhere are coming out to show support — to express themselves in protests and rallies. There are community meetings, interfaith gatherings, lawsuits, campaigns, articles, interviews, conversations. How did Nazism gain such power before World War II?  Yes, they used political and military power, but they were also masters of media, spreading messages of fear and divisiveness. This allowed for intimidation at the personal and local level, demanding local police make lists of “undesirable” people in their communities. Pitting neighbor against neighbor. Ultimately forcing people to make terrible choices — to protect their families or have their lives destroyed.  They also played on a very human capacity — to ignore threatening information. To not want to know, because then one would have to act, to change, to give up the illusion of safety we hold — the buffer of privilege between ourselves and pain, suffering and death.  As the buffer dissolves, we struggle against a whirlpool of fear, dread, helplessness.

Instead of The Feeling, can I simply feel? Simply act in the ways open to me? Expand my view of what spheres of my life I can influence — and go for it?  Participate in supportive circles so when I lose heart or stamina for meeting the madness, others can be there with me, and I can do the same for them?  To these, I say YES.


Some interesting resources:
– Robin Chancer: “When you love someone who loves Trump
– Gregory Mengel: White Conservatives and Black Lives: Why White Conservatives Don’t Get Black Lives Matter and How to Shift the Conversation
– SMART, a progressive alternative to the politics of division

Writing this post was a challenge. Many thanks to Judy, Bob, Naomi, Rhonda, Robert and Lisa for support on this one!

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7 Responses to How could the grown-ups let this happen?

  1. Great post! Thanks for taking yourself through the mill on this one! You’re addressing a really hard block — i totally recognize “the feeling” — the crushing fear and despair when I realize what I/we are up against when we encounter evidence of hate, whether directed at ourselves or others…
    Scared world…you point to ways to keep in touch with sanity and love within ourselves.

    Blessings for all your good work on these challenges!
    p.s. love your 9 year old! Very recognizable as the Janet I know and love today!

  2. B.j. Lates says:

    Janet, this is so powerful. Hope you don’t mind that I “shared it” on my facebook page. BJ

  3. Sharon says:

    Thought maybe you could write or submit this to the Bank Street College NYC Occasional Papers Series-info below! Very interesting!
    View this email in your browser

    Call for Papers

    Occasional Paper Series #40
    This land is your land, this land is my land
    From California to the New York island,
    From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf Stream waters,
    God blessed America for me.
    Woody Guthrie’s God Blessed America—written in February of 1940 in New York City, shortly after a frigid cross-country trip—was a direct response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. With a few edits over the next several years, including changing each stanza’s tagline to “This land was made for you and me,” it became This Land is Your Land, a song now known the world over, which many would agree is a classic statement of American patriotism.

    But why? In a lesser-known original verse, Guthrie wrote:
    One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
    By the relief office I saw my people
    As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
    God blessed America for me.
    Is that a statement of American patriotism?

    In this issue of the Bank Street Occasional Papers Series, we invite contributors to take Guthrie’s transition from declaration to question as an invitation to reflect upon the complexities and contradictions of patriotism—here and now. While Guthrie was an American, the relevance of his inquiry extends to all lands, far beyond the borders of the United States.

    Submissions Due: February 1, 2018


  4. billbb46 says:

    Thanks for this, Janet! I’m in full agreement and can understand that this was hard to write. There’s an easy tendency to other those who other us and those we love. It’s an important reminder to engage in dialogue to remember that they have their histories and experiences that led them to the place they are. I’ve never heard of someone transforming from people shouting at them. It’s when we slow down, put aside our triggers and have conversations that the potential to hear and even understand each other arises.

  5. lindamgardner says:

    Challenging – in exactly the necessary way Janet. Thank you. Very thought provoking. Since I was young I’ve often wondered what I would have been courageous enough to do re Nazis. And worked to see the truth of what I has happened and is happening here and to see that now is my time to act. Sometimes it’s really hard to see through/past the conditioning, to actually acknowledge the state of things and then to see the reality of how I am affected and what I can do. Current political situation makes the problems more blatant and easy to see but not always the answers to effective responses.

  6. Jill Lessing says:

    Beautiful writing, Janet! Thanks so much for your thoughtfulness and how articulate you are. I appreciate your personal revelations and willingness to share your vulnerabilities.
    Sending you much love and many blessings.

  7. June Gillam says:

    Love hearing from you!!!!

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