Before Thursday, Charleston, S.C. was mostly a city that I visited on my honeymoon exactly 35 years ago. Its beauty was undeniable, the food was great; every white person dressed in pastels and nearly everyone who served us was black. And of course, Spoleto had come a couple of years before, so clearly it was cultured.
Then there was that awful murder by cop several weeks ago.
And now I am struggling to find a way to deal with the mass murders. I am too embarrassed to make some claim on this tragedy. I am a white atheist, so I have at least one thing in common with the murderer. I am a woman, which tilts me closer to the six females who were killed. I have found that it is getting harder to negotiate this event as time goes on rather than easier. People box out their positions calling Roof a terrorist, madman, racist, psychopath.
He most certainly was a racist. That is the most central point.
The extraordinary grace shown by his victims’ survivors yesterday actually has contributed to my unease. The essential beauty of their forgiveness robs me of my right to hate and uncouples hate from any legitimate action, at least for me as a white woman. This has provoked a challenge for how to then react. Silence seems a decent option when the air is filled. Stupid, defensive talk vies with wise and thoughtful words by people who know this phenomenon in a real way. Banal calls for understanding and empathy fill in the rest of the discussion.
I know this in my core: too many are comfortable in their easy bigotry. This young man spewed his racism freely before he shot up that church and it raised no alarms. He lived in a world where this was not considered aberrant. How many of us engage with people who express bigotry in phrases that might be cloaked in different language? Prejudice is deft at finding new ways to communicate despicable ideas — it is one of its greatest tools for perpetuating its ugly intentions.
My only right to comment on this is the American humanity that I share with both the killer and the killed. We should all focus on what differentiates and aligns us with both sides of this event. No one wants to see themselves in Dylann Roof, but he is a son of our nation and thus ours. I cannot see myself as one the prayerful dead and I cannot lay claim to the glory of their relatives’ view of redemption. All of this has left me lost and miserable.