Ten feet. Ten feet of space was all that separated me from a man who chose to ornament his body with symbols of hate…
I was volunteering at a back-to-school event in early August of 2016, where hundreds upon hundreds of families crowded into a local high school to receive free backpacks, school supplies, haircuts, bicycle helmets, and an assortment of other goodies. Outside, a band played while children bounced from inflatable house to inflatable house. Dozens of community organizations showed up to help facilitate the event and the local police intermingled throughout the crowd, fostering good will with all who attended. There’s a feeling you get when you know you’re doing something good. That day, as I watched the smiling faces of the children eagerly going from table to table collecting their event swag, I knew I was a part of something good.
I have to admit though, after about an hour at the event, all of the faces started to blur together. I’m not much of a people person and my threshold for smiling and being nice to people is fairly low. My mind began drifting towards the endless back-to-school to-do list I had created for myself and the herculean effort it would take to complete it before school actually began.
But something brought me back to the faces in the crowd. Not something, but someone. A pretty little someone. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the prettiest little girl across the hallway from me. She couldn’t have been more than 2 years old but she was picture perfect in her little romper. She had blond hair, blue eyes, rosy cheeks and her face could easily have graced the cover of the latest baby fashion magazine. She stood alone as her mother perused the information at a nearby table. She had that look, though. Moms, you know that look. It’s the calm-before-the-storm look toddlers get when you know they’re up to something but you just don’t know what yet. I imagine it to be the same look a cobra gets just before it strikes its prey. And just like that, she was off. In a blink of an eye, she had run over to an encasement on the wall that housed a fire extinguisher and was reaching up with all her might to try to pry it open. Part of me wanted her to succeed in her mission so that I could be amused by the chaos and folly that would undoubtedly follow. The mother in me, however, instinctively began to lunge in her direction to prevent her from causing herself or anyone else any harm.
Her mission was aborted by a man I assumed to be her father. Since my focus was on the toddler, who by estimation was about two and half feet tall, the first part of the man I saw was his calves. I immediately noticed that the entirety of his left calf was tattooed. I live in a city whose motto is “Keep Austin Weird” so it’s not unusual to see someone tattooed from head to toe (sometimes literally from head to toe). It was what he had tattooed on his leg that made the blood rush from my face. The tattoo was that of a cross I had recognized from videos and articles about the Ku Klux Klan. I thought to myself, surely this had to be a mistake. How could such a pretty little girl belong to a man who would tattoo a Ku Klux Klan insignia on his body? Perhaps this was just a regular cross—a sign of Christianity—that I have misidentified. My eyes zoomed out so that I could see more than this man’s disembodied calves. He had more tattoos. These were on his neck. One was of the Nazi SS; the other was the number 13.
Nope, I had not been mistaken. This man, who was only ten feet away from me, had permanently affixed to his body symbols of America’s oldest, largest, and most violent domestic terrorist organization as well as the symbols of a genocide that resulted in the murdering of 11 million people. I didn’t know what to do. My head was spinning and I began to panic. In a moment of clarity, I did what any self-respecting citizen does in these types of situations…I took out my smartphone and I tried to snap a picture. Unfortunately, my nervousness coupled with my general technological ineptitude prevented me from getting the picture before the man disappeared into the crowd. For the remainder of my time at the event, I stood in fear, scanning the tattoos of the passersby for symbols of hate. I saw none, only Disney characters, names of loved ones, tribal bands (I don’t know why people still get those), and a random assortment of other ink art.
But what if I had seen another man or woman with a Nazi SS or KKK blood cross? Realistically, that person could not or would not hurt me in this venue. Not physically. But make no mistake, I had been hurt that day. No matter how much I’ve read about it or watched videos about it or taught classes on it, nothing…and I mean NOTHING…could’ve prepared me to see hate up close and personal. You see, I’m from the North, where racism is *usually* more subtle and nuanced. I managed to live 40+ years without ever encountering a Klan member or Neo Nazi or whatever he was (at least not to my knowledge) before that day. I’ve heard many southern Black folks muse that they rather live in the South where the racism is more overt and you can tell who’s who. In my ignorance, I’m sure I’ve agreed with this statement on more than one occasion. And I thought I was prepared to stare hate directly in the face. After all, I’ve spent the last 13 years teaching on a campus adorned with Confederate symbolism.
But this was different. Confederate symbolism is one thing but there’s no hiding behind the romantic Gone with the Wind fantasy once you tattoo a swastika on your neck. It means you support the inhalation of people based on race, ethnicity, religion, and sexuality. That given the chance, you would harm me. Or worse, you would harm my child. Our children. Seeing that man…having that man in my personal space…shook me to my very core.
On that day in August 2016, I learned that the boogeyman is real and now I look for him in every tattooed person in the crowd.