By Dan Haag
I was born and raised in the heart of the Midwest, a small town combining the musings of Garrison Kellior and the paintings of Norman Rockwell: Boy Scouts, parades, a butcher who knew everyone by name, bikes with streamers, swimming holes, cookouts, potlucks.
Not unlike the towns of the Oregon Coast, it was gentle, small town America.
We were blissfully tucked away from the specter of racism that hovered over larger cities.
Burning crosses existed only in hot, angry places like Alabama or Mississippi and our fields and back yards were for barbecues and freeze tag, not men in white hoods.
World War II and The Civil Rights Movement were over and the good guys had won. The history books said so and there was no need to talk about that kind of nonsense anymore.
Racism was treated like an urban legend: Did you hear about the elderly Jewish couple down the street? Someone shot their dog and stuffed it in their mailbox. Or that the Hindu gentleman around the corner had his new car spray-painted with swastikas?
Surely an exaggeration.
Casual racism was always with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Go to any bowling alley, VFW or Thanksgiving dinner table and you’d inevitably hear someone’s grandpa or uncle share a racist joke, also known as “off-color humor.”
The sentiment was that it never hurt anyone and was always in good fun. Adults were quick to point out to curious youngsters such as myself that it was a generational quirk: “That’s just how people talked when your great-grandma was young.”
It always upset me but I didn’t feel it was my place to raise a fuss.
Soon, I was given three chances to articulate that discomfort.
The first came when a black kid moved into the neighborhood. I was about 12 and he was the first person of color most of us had ever seen in person.
The first day of school, he was late for the bus and got there just as it was pulling away.
When he boarded, a hush fell. All the stupid school bus chatter faded as everyone regarded him with curious hostility.
“Back of the bus!” one of the older kids yelled. Everyone laughed.
I was old enough to know what “back of the bus” meant but afraid of being singled out, I stayed silent.
The second time was during a high school soccer match. One of the referees was a college kid, an exchange student from Kenya.
After he made a call that went against our opponents, their coach got in the refs’ face and screamed, “I’m gonna have your coaching license, boy!”
I knew that “boy” was the same as the “n-word,” but I stayed silent. No need to rock the boat.
After the game, no one offered condolences or apologies to the referee. Instead we lined up and exchanged handshakes with the opposing team, congratulating one another on our excellent sportsmanship.
Finally, my Political Science professor during freshman year of college was African-American.
As he was handing back our final term papers, a student announced he had something to say about the poor grade he’d been given.
Suffice to say that none of it had to do with the professor’s ability as an instructor, only the color of his skin.
The professor merely nodded in acceptance and dismissed us, but not before he got to see the angry student’s buddies reward him with a round of celebratory high-fives.
Not one word of rebuke to them, not one of support to the professor. Because I wanted nothing more than to remain unnoticed, I was silent.
With time and distance, I wonder why the urge to say something, to say anything wasn’t as strong as my need to remain anonymous.
I wonder if the adult version of me is any better, or is his head firmly buried in the sand?
Mostly, I wonder what my voice would have sounded like had I used it when I was offered a chance to show my quality.
Would it have been clear, forceful, influential? I’ll never know.
But I am an expert on how silence feels.
Silence is snake venom. Silence is a knife to the throat. Silence is a malignant tumor.
Silence is a killer.