IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Grew Up Surrounded By Casual Neo-Nazism

When I freaked out over my best friend getting a swastika tattoo, she told me I was being too sensitive.
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Ghia Vitale
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When I freaked out over my best friend getting a swastika tattoo, she told me I was being too sensitive.

When's the last time you had to unfriend someone because you saw them post a link to a Holocaust-denial website? I just did this less than an hour ago, and I don't have the luxury of writing this off as a one-time incident. 

All throughout my life on Long Island, I've seen neo-Nazism thrive here. I remember first coming into contact with neo-Nazi culture when I was about 13 years old. By high school, I knew kids who wore swastikas for shock value, as well as people who had swastika tattoos.

The swastika obsession was a symptom of bigotry's prevalence on Long Island. This area has an extensive Nazi history, including a Yaphank hamlet that once had streets named after Hitler and other leaders of Nazi-era Germany. While they've long since stopped Nazi-saluting the American Flag and took down their swastikas, this community only lets people of "German extraction" live there to this day. It's the kind of place where people wake up to find KKK propaganda fliers littering their streets, cars, and homes. While I never had any run-ins with actual neo-Nazi gangs, rumors were always persisted that they're out and about.

Growing up in a place with such prevalent racist sentiments was rough. I'll never forget how my peers approached me because they were "concerned" about the guy I'm still with today because they thought he was of Jewish descent. He's not actually Jewish, but the fact that he "looked Jewish" to them was enough to make them say something to me. 

As someone who grew up on punk rock, I occasionally saw people show up to shows wearing swastikas. Although the population was tiny in relation to show-goers without a Nazi fixation, the fact stands that I saw my peers adorn Nazi symbols on their clothing and their skin. A while ago, I swallowed the harsh reality that I couldn't get too involved with someone I'd had a major crush on because I found out that he was in a "joke" Nazi band. When I saw them play over 10 years ago, I was a 14 year-old who had no idea that they were singing about Nazism. I told him that wasn't such a funny thing to do with actual neo-Nazi sympathizers around, but he claimed he never saw them. 

Despite having a good handful of friends, I was constantly bullied for my appearance for being obese and "goth." My all-black attire attracted negative attention from people who would've otherwise left me alone. So when kids started approaching me in a friendly way (sometimes even dressed like me), I was pleasantly surprised. More friends meant more people to go to shows with.

My high school senior picture.

My high school senior picture.

The punk scene never welcomed racists and anti-Semites, but sometimes venue owners couldn't do anything about it; other times, they were forced to bear with them out of fear that they'd be violent. Some adults at all-ages venue took a gentler approach with the kids who were clearly being "edgelorded." I'll never forget attending a show where I overheard an old chaperone woman calmly talking to a group of young boys wearing swastikas.

"Why are you boys wearing those symbols?" she asked in the sweetest voice imaginable. "Those people murdered my entire family."

They found the nerve to start talking about "civil rights for whites" to this poor old woman who was kind enough not to throw them off of the premises. 

Among the showgoers I befriended was Dan, a stocky Irish boy all of my girlfriends had huge crushes on. His popularity didn't drown out personal demons like his father's death, insecurity about being overweight, and depression. I thought nothing of his shaved head when we first met. His swastika-covered Xanga page with a profile picture of him doing a "Sieg Heil" motion seemed almost contrastive to his otherwise pleasant personality, but he defended his swastikas, claiming he wasn't a neo-Nazi, but a "nationalist" who had a Jewish brother and black friends. 

At the time, I didn't understand how racist doublethink works. But I did know what National Socialism and swastikas were, so I told him outright that if he had any desire to hang out with me, he'd shut up about it — which he did, aside from speaking freely about "nationalism," which he defined as "being proud of your country and doing what's in the whole's best interest." 

But even that wasn't enough for me to get what was actually going on. When he wasn't talking about nationalism, he was being his generally mild-tempered self and took it upon himself to protect me from bullies on many occasions.

I didn't realize how serious Dan was about "nationalism" until I was at a band practice with him and his other bald-headed friend. I was enjoying the catchy tune they were playing until his friend commented, "You don't even need to be a nationalist to enjoy this song." I then learned that the chorus mostly consisted of the words "Sieg Heil." Much to my relief, they kicked me out of the band shortly after that. 

Fortunately, Dan has since grown up, renounced his beliefs, and moved on with life. 

Before I got kicked out of the band, I went to a friend's party. There, a classmate told me he "didn't like black people" because "they corrupt white children." I said that wasn't true, but everyone tried to "debate" with me to change my mind. And, by "debate," I mean throw a bunch of stereotypes and twisted statistics at me.

"Why else would there be so many black people in jail?" the boy asked, as though his question delivered some groundbreaking epiphany instead of racist nonsense. When I fumed to the best friend I brought there with me, Jessica, she told me she agreed with him.

After this party, I'd repeatedly run into other neo-Nazi sympathizers. They, too, were quick to cite their black friends, Jewish relatives, Latino uncles, and other minority loved ones as "living proof" that they weren't racist, often while cracking racist jokes. 

When Jessica started shaving her head, I thought it was just a part of her alternative style. She was covered in physical and emotional scars, but the swastika tattoo didn't come until she had a mixed bipolar episode when we were in ninth grade. Over the phone, she casually mentioned that she got really drunk at a party the night earlier and got a swastika tattoo. 

I don't remember exactly what I said — I was definitely upset — but what I do remember is Jessica saying, "Calm down. You're being too sensitive."

Those words were the only reasons I needed to walk away from Jessica's friendship. After I pointed out how disgusting her actions were, she accused me of "not being open-minded." Right.

When I reunited with her a few years later, I stayed tight-lipped about her swastika. The day after a sleepover, as I gathered my things, I noticed Jessica wincing as she placed a neon blue bandage on her arm.

"Did you get hurt?" I asked.

"No," she said. "I'm covering up my tattoo so my friend doesn't see."

Turns out, a friend she was going to meet was black. Shortly afterwards, Jessica tearfully confessed, "It was the worst decision I ever made in my life."

Unlike Jessica, most of the neo-Nazi sympathizers I've met came prepared with contorted statistics to justify their bigotry. They never identified as racists, but like her, they called themselves "right." Most people who are racist don't want to be marked the with the R word — yet they're fine with getting swastika tattoos, telling racist jokes, bragging about being friends with minorities, accepting bigoted opinions as truth, and perpetuating racism in every way. 

Because mental gymnastics like this come naturally to racist people, they don't understand why our bones break when they try to bend us their way. They don't understand why we think they're racist when they're friends with minorities. Instead, they resort to fallacious thinking to make themselves out to be the victims. They complain about politically correct crybabies and social justice warriors, only to throw tantrums when someone exercises their own freedom of speech by telling them their views are bigoted.

The people I've met with swastika tattoos want to do all the hating without being hated back. Thus, they minimize their actions by reducing your response to "oversensitivity" and everything else besides them being awful people. 

Tolerance might be a beautiful thing, but tolerating bad things makes the world a worse place. Whenever you find yourself subject to bigotry that refuses to call itself by that name, just remember that they're wearing a swastika tattoo on their tongues.