by Dante Zappala
As kids, my brothers and I would find a way to the CHA football field after snowstorms. The white landscape was untouched and inviting – barren except for the others who migrated there for the rare opportunity to play tackle football.
My own kids are growing up on that field, now redone and rebranded as SCH. As students, it offers them ample space to run around during the day. On evenings and weekends, we gravitate there to throw, kick or hit a ball – or we simply run around the track. I’ve spent countless hours over the last few years doing recovery jogs on the infield. The soft surface is an oasis of mercy for a weary and tired body.
On a rainy night, I find myself on the track, alone. My recent physical ailments have subsided but I am still hurt. Events over the last few days have weighed on me heavily.
I don’t hesitate as I start storming around the track. The harder I run, the less I’ll think, I tell myself. I am trying to burn aggression and pain. I click my watch at one kilometer intervals. I can’t see my times, it’s entirely too dark, but my pace is slowing. I’m winded. I’m out of shape. I’m defeated.
I jog home slowly. I’m soaked: less from the rain and more from the water I kicked up during a furious run. It’s not particularly cold, but the wind feels like it’s biting now.
If I set out to take my mind off of things, I failed. I’m only more tired when I get home. I’m hungry. But I’m no less hurt.
A well-publicized incident had taken place at the school in recent weeks. A teacher wore a Halloween costume that included a noose around his neck. Some members of my school community were hurt when seeing it and hearing about it.
A noose, to me and many others, evokes the images we’ve seen of African-Americans hanging from trees by their necks as white audiences, sometimes in the thousands, smiled and watched in pleasure. The noose was but one instrument used in the institutionally supported torture and murder of blacks. It is a lasting symbol of an era where blacks were beaten, dismembered, burned alive and hung to the delight of whites, some of whom would even make it an occasion to have a picnic. The noose became both a psychological and physical weapon. Along with a burning cross, it epitomizes white supremacy in a racial caste system.
Seeing that symbol at our school was shocking, but unfortunately not surprising. Racism is a disease. Sometimes its hosts have no idea they are carrying it. The teacher says he meant no ill-will. He did not understand the correlation. Still, ignorance is a poor excuse when you serve a diverse community of students. It is a particularly poor excuse when you are a history teacher.
What is happening at SCH is playing out around the country. On college campuses such as Missouri, Ithaca and Yale, protests have arisen after a string of incidents. They have given voice to transgressions spanning years. Accumulated frustration, hurt and anger are boiling over as people demand a greater recognition and awareness of racism along with substantive action to create safer learning environments.
My own hurt has been compounded by several factors. I see people I care about having to deal with issues they thought they may have somehow escaped in the relative utopia that is SCH. They have to explain certain dynamics to their children before they believe they are ready to fully comprehend them. They thought theirs may have been the last generation to have to do that, but they were wrong.
I’ve read interpretations of this incident and others like it. These also caused me pain. I am aware that people can be willfully offensive. But the passive ignorance has been most alarming. There is a clear lack of knowledge about the structure, history and effects of racism. Many people sound like creationists in a debate about evolution. They deny empirical truth in favor of their belief. And as they complain about an entitled society, they fail to see their own entitlement in denying such truth.
These responses are themselves laced with fear. They fear an erosion of values and principles that are somewhat mythological in nature. Words have never been treated as inherently nonviolent. They want to continue to be the ones who draw the lines. They will cite anecdotes of PC overreach in an attempt to diminish empathy. Underneath, they carry the fear of atonement and reckoning. In the way that a smoker might put off a cancer screening, people would rather not face the damages of racism.
We need to understand that racism persists in such a way that to this day a noose can still impose a physical and psychological threat upon a person. Sept. 11 traumatized most Americans because we came to see ourselves in the Twin Towers and on those airplanes. This form of terrorism had its desired effect as we internalized these events as if they had happened to us.
Just the same, people internalize images of racial terrorism, both current and historical. When we see videos of blatant police abuse and murder, it further ingrains the fact that race-based inequality, injustice and violence are institutionalized. For people of color, these incidents create a present trauma and fear because it could very well be them. Racism does not ask what school you go to or what your personal wealth is. It sees the color of your skin and it applies its rules accordingly. It is inescapable.
I have recovered from my running injury. I have the privilege once again of running in the protected confines of the SCH infield. I can contemplate what I did wrong and what I can do to prevent it in the future. The grass is artificial, making it more accessible and more level than a real pitch, particularly when it rains. To run on this ground is to be imbued with forgiveness.
It is a safe place to figure this out – for me, at least.