It may be weak, but the KKK still breathes

It can be tempting to see the Ku Klux Klan rally at the South Carolina state house this weekend as a reaction to the Confederate flag being removed from the grounds, but they had planned to be there soon after the Charleston Massacre. And while the open conversation might have put the Klan back in a national spotlight, such racism has always been a part of my life, and that of people of color across the country. 

The first time I heard a racial slur directed at me, I was six. Megan, whose last name I can’t remember, used to call me “darkie” on the playground. I remember glaring at her, and deciding not to tell my father. My dad once stabbed a kid with a ball point pen for calling him a nigger. Six-year-old me did not want Megan to suffer the same fate. My grandmother thought my concern originated from a Janis Eyan-style lesbian crush. Really I just didn’t like being called “Darkie.”

Race has never been an easy topic for me. Being biracial and growing up in rural Indiana was a struggle, one compounded by my own class privilege and internalized elitism from my educated family and years spent at prep school. Reconciling what it meant to be Black and not poor was a struggle, because for the majority of my young life, I only saw images of Blackness as poor, with the exception of my family.

Though I may have struggled with my own identity development growing up, I have always known that I am Black. My father, who teaches History of Racism in America, taught me the words Loving v. Virginia 1967 so early in life that I quoted that date in Social Studies all throughout elementary school. His mother, my Nana, consistently told stories of my great-grandparents’ travels back to the Deep South to visit family members. They always left Ohio in the middle of the night to make sure they crossed through the South in daylight. My grandfather’s mother was fair skinned (and maybe biracial), so she sat in the back of the car on the ride through Southern states, just to make sure they remained unbothered. Through these stories, my young understanding of my Blackness became rooted in history and the importance of that history to my current context of growing up in a place dominated by racism.

When I was twelve, I walked down the street in Hayward, Wisconsin with my brother, sister, and my father. Without warning, my dad shoved my siblings and myself into the middle of the road. I turned to look at him and say something cheeky. That’s when I saw him. Just over six feet tall, long beard, a stare so cold I could feel his eyes behind his sunglasses. His shirt depicted a person in a white hood with the words, “The original boys in the hood” blazing in flames, not unlike the banner seen flying in South Carolina this weekend.

In 1991, when my parents first moved to Culver, IN, the KKK came to town to hand out literature. They knocked on my parents’ door. When my sister was in third grade, her “boyfriend’s” parents made him break up with her because she wasn’t white. In eighth grade, opposing players from Knox, the nearest sundown town, called me nigger every time I touched the ball. Players from that same town viciously “horse collared” — an illegal football tackle — my brother in a football game three years ago, shouting “nigger” in his face as he crumpled to the ground. No penalty was called. While bowling two years ago, my sister furiously tapped me on the shoulder, her eyes wide with fear. I looked over her shoulder, my eyes briefly making contact with those belonging to a tall, white man with the unmistakable markings of a swastika peaking above his shirt. A skin head.

The kind of blatant, hateful racism we want to see has extreme and rare in this day and age has been an everyday fixture in my life as a Black person in rural America, and I’m not alone.

As people who live in the United States, we have a tendency to not want to look into our history. For many people, the blood staining our history books is that of their own flesh. For many others, their families are deeply involved in causing those injuries. Our racialized pain is something we do not wish to confront as a nation. We have avoided looking into the proverbial “pensieve” of our history to the detriment of our present.

Scenes from the weekend rally of the Ku Klux Klan and the counter-rally by the Black Panthers at the capital of South Carolina demonstrate this phenomenon. For many, the open racism represented by the Klansmen is the stuff of legends, not the here and now. This blindness is driven by the myth that we are post-racial. As far as we’re concerned, lynching doesn’t happen anymore, police aren’t hosing people down in the streets like it’s 1963, and no one is really racist unless they’re a member of the KKK, which hardly exists anyway.

The truth is that the KKK does exist, and so do racism and white supremacy. They have continued to survive in the shadows of our complacency as a nation. They may be weak, but the Klan still breathes. We cannot afford to be comfortable. Not after Charleston. Not now, and not again. Confronting our history and listening to the stories of our racial pain can only help us heal. Let’s take those steps together.

Header image credit: Politico


Katie Barnes (they/them/their) is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer. While at St. Olaf College studying History and (oddly) Russian (among other things), Katie fell in love with politics, and doing the hard work in the hard places. A retired fanfiction writer, Katie now actually enjoys writing with their name attached. Katie actually loves cornfields, and thinks there is nothing better than a summer night's drive through the Indiana countryside. They love basketball and are a huge fan of the UConn women's team. When not fighting the good fight, you can usually find Katie watching sports, writing, or reading a good book.

Katie Barnes is a pop-culture obsessed activist and writer.

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