Here’s what happens when white supremacy goes viral

In the wake of Charlottesville, minority communities have been bombarded with imagery, rhetoric, and painful questions—all of which have severe mental health implications.

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN BAZEMORE, FILE
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JOHN BAZEMORE, FILE

Confederate flags, boldly displayed swastikas, and torches in the night—these were the images broadcasted out of Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white supremacist rally spiraled into deadly violence nearly two weeks ago. In the time since, footage of the rally has dotted publications and television screens, as has the now infamous rhetoric that followed from politicians, including President Donald Trump’s failure to unequivocally condemn white nationalism. For minority communities feeling precarious, the onslaught has been especially painful, and many are still seeking clarity and closure.

While Charlottesville arguably marks a boiling point, it wasn’t a surprise for many people. Minority communities have felt increasingly precarious since Trump’s election, which ushered in a sea of hate against already marginalized bodies. Tracking conducted by ThinkProgress after the election revealed a spike in violence targeting Jewish, Black, LGBTQ, Muslim, and Latinx communities in particular.

The recent violence in Charlottesville has again renewed the anxiety across those communities — and taken a toll on many people’s mental health.

“One of the images that stood out to me was when all these White Nationalists and Neo-Nazis carried torches across the University of Virginia,” clinical psychologist Monnica Williams told ThinkProgress.

Williams, a professor and director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Mental Health Disparities, has conducted extensive research on the link between racism and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. That link, she argues, creates race-based traumatic stress injury, something that imagery out of Charlottesville inevitably triggered in people with lived experiences of racism and discrimination.

As Williams watched the events of Charlotteville unfold, she knew it was inevitable that the tragedy would be triggering for people of color—especially, she said, for Black Americans, who repeatedly experience racism. What wasn’t as obvious was the extent to which Charlotteville would captivate global attention. For a week, blatant images of white supremacy went viral, while those experiencing trauma were forced to watch.

As Williams feared, that proved especially frightening and triggering for Black Americans. Black Lives Matter Washington, D.C. activist Tracey Redd told ThinkProgress that Charlottesville is still on the activists’ minds.

“They [the white supremacists] did it to invoke fear and trauma, and you know what—it did invoke fear and trauma,” Redd told ThinkProgress.

Howard University students visit the site where Heather Heyer was killed when a driver rammed a car into a crowd of demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va., Friday, Aug. 18, 2017. About fifty Howard University students visited site where Heyer died while protesting a white nationalist rally on Saturday Aug. 12. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Howard University students visit the site where Heather Heyer was killed when a driver rammed a car into a crowd of demonstrators in Charlottesville, Va. Friday, Aug. 18, 2017. Credit: AP Photo/Cliff Owen

Redd, who is 25, was in Charlottesville both Friday evening, when white nationalists conglomerated at the University of Virginia, and later on Saturday when protester Heather Heyer was killed after a car rammed into a group of protesters. Redd witnessed it all, and is still reeling. “I can’t really travel by myself right now,” they said after describing a moment where they felt they had been followed.

“Another tragedy that retriggers grief and that trauma…that’s why they say black people are magic, because we are forced to live in this trauma and grief.”

Redd has been protesting alongside BLM since 2013, but they said Charlottesville felt different, namely because anti-racist demonstrators were outnumbered by white supremacists, and because many were armed. At times, they said, it was difficult to differentiate between the militia and police. For Redd, this became emblematic of a larger point: Charlottesville may be a more visceral instance of racism, but racism and its more pervasive nature keeps Redd up at night.

There’s no difference between protesting against systemic racism, like police brutality, and blatant acts of racism, Redd argued—and how police officers responded Saturday signified that, they said. (Charlottesville’s police force has faced criticism for its failure to handle the rally’s violence appropriately.) That point is particularly salient for Redd, who was arrested during the rally for obstructing justice; their court appearance is scheduled for later this month. In the meantime, Redd is still struggling to come to terms with what they experienced.

“I feel like I’m in a constant state of mourning, and I don’t have time to process that grief,” said Redd. “Another tragedy that retriggers grief and that trauma…that’s why they say black people are magic, because we are forced to live in this trauma and grief.”

That feeling is one other Black Americans are also experiencing. Activist Biola Jeje echoed Redd’s sentiments, noting that even something as benign as walking down the street could could prompt her fear.

“I’m side-eyeing every white person I don’t know because I don’t know if this is a white supremacist,” Jeje said. “That’s the fear I live with every day. In any given space, my safety is dependent on whether this person sees me as human.”

Conversations surrounding race have been at the forefront of much coverage relating to Charlottesville, something that has weighed on another minority group singled out by the white supremacist rally: Jews.

“Having a nuanced conversation about anti-Semitism doesn’t negate that racist things are happening.”

While American Jews represent a diverse community across racial and ethnic divisions, the community is by and large seen by popular media as white. While Jews of color have arguably struggled under the weight of the Trump administration’s policies—including the Muslim ban targeting six countries in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as immigration crackdowns—other Jews have, in some cases, been spared the impact. But for many, that illusion fell away following Charlottesville, where marchers shouted “Jews will not replace us!” and proudly wore swastikas as they saluted Adolf Hitler. That imagery has resonated painfully for many Jews—and processing the trauma has proven challenging for some.

“I think the biggest thing that’s resonated for me post-Charlottesville is that the progressive left only sees Jews as white people,” said Anne Buckwalter, 23. While conversations about race are important, Buckwalter said, the intersectional nature of what happened in Charlottesville is being buried, leaving many Jews like herself feeling isolated and unheard.

“Having a nuanced conversation about anti-Semitism doesn’t negate that racist things are happening,” she told ThinkProgress. “White supremacists don’t consider Jewish people to be white. To have some progressives saying Jews are white, you can’t be oppressed… we’re also definitely struggling and feeling threatened, we’re feeling excluded from communities.”

“It’s never been acceptable to say I’m not racist because I have three Black friends. Why is it acceptable to say the president isn’t anti-Semitic because he has Jewish family members?”

The hardest part, Buckwalter said, is feeling alienated from progressive and activist communities. “I don’t think anti-Semitism needs to be the center of every discussion, but it needs to be discussed,” she added.

Buckwalter also pointed to a connection many on all sides of the political divide have drawn: Trump’s Jewish daughter, son-in-law, and numerous staff members. “It’s exhausting to wake up every day, to have a president not on your side,” she said. “It’s never been acceptable to say I’m not racist because I have three Black friends. Why is it acceptable to say the president isn’t anti-Semitic because he has Jewish family members?”

While white Jews grapple with the complex space they occupy, other Jews are feeling the weight of identity on numerous fronts. Jason Daniel Fair, 32, told Jewish Week that Charlottesville brought his “intersectional identities” to the forefront of his mind. “I felt attacked on multiple sides, all at once,” said Fair, whose mother is a white Jew and whose father is Black. He called the events “doubly triggering.”

Remaining cognizant of the trauma people of color—Jewish or otherwise—are facing due to visibility alone is something many white Jews are working to emphasize. Rebecca Ennen, who serves as deputy director for the non-profit group Jews United For Justice, said the events in Charlottesville were traumatizing for the wider Jewish community, but they were also a wake-up call.

Brittney Cain-Conley, lead organizer for Congregate Charlottesville, with hat, gets a hug from a supporter after she addressed the crowd during a vigil on Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017, held at the site where a car plowed into a crowd of people protesting a white nationalist rally on Saturday in Charlottesville, Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Brittney Cain-Conley, lead organizer for Congregate Charlottesville, with hat, gets a hug from a supporter after she addressed the crowd during a vigil on Sunday, Aug. 13, 2017, Credit: AP Photo/Steve Helber

“There’s been a lot of conversation within the Jewish community about whether white Jews have been showing up institutionally as well as individually against racism,” said Ennen, 35, who credited movements like Black Lives Matter for sparking much of the contemporary conversation surrounding racial justice. “It’s obvious that a white Jewish person walking down the street or driving in their car is not going to be treated by cops in the ways that a person of color, specifically a Black person, would be. Light-skinned Jews are not being targeted for police brutality in that way.”

But, Ennen said, that doesn’t mean they aren’t targeted for being Jewish, something Charlottesville made clear.

“It’s very hard for people to understand,” she said, explaining why both Jews and non-Jews alike are struggling with the nuances of anti-Semitism after Charlottesville. “I might be white and experience other forms of oppression. You can look to Islamophobia. There’s plenty of white Muslims who aren’t targeted racially the way Arab or Black Muslims might be, but they’re not exempt. They’ve being treated abominably in this Islamophobic environment.”

These images, that work in conjunction with structural racism, chip away at a person’s self-esteem.

While many feeling targeted work to process the events in Charlottesville, another effort is unfolding. Post-inauguration protests have pushed marginalized factions to rally together and have hard conversations, but many argue it’s important to remember why white nationalists gathered on August 12: to defend the statute of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

“These are public displays of racism,” said Williams. “It’s a daily reminder that white people are still in charge.”

These images, which work in conjunction with structural racism, chip away at a person’s self-esteem, said Williams. Additionally, their continued existence could cause people feeling vulnerable to become hyper vigilant and untrusting, she continued.

While the lingering effects of Charlottesville will be felt for a long time, Williams’ research indicates that efforts towards healing are important. “I find ways to make a difference,” she said, speaking to her own coping mechanisms. “I encourage people to not just feel paralyzed because the problem is too big. It’s about everyone.”

Many people seem to be doing just that. Since the tragedy in Charlottesville unfolded, activists have pushed for Confederate monuments to come down, in addition to demanding the cancellation of other planned white nationalist rallies. Organizers like Ennen have also found themselves invigorated to push for efforts like housing justice and fighting police brutality. She said she’s seen heightened interest from many members of the Jewish community looking to tackle their trauma and grief in a constructive way, which has encouraged her.

“I appreciate where people are trying to bring compassion and a commitment to action rather than being mad at each other,” she said. “Both for our safety as white Jews and the safety of Jews of color.”

Redd felt similarly about defending their own community. Even though they were still unnerved by the tragedy in Charlottesville, the following weekend they bused to the next anti-racism demonstration in Boston, Massachusetts. They described it as almost therapeutic to be among a like-minded community.

“I don’t live a life of fear because then I wouldn’t leave the house,” said Redd. “You can’t let fear dictate your actions if you can help it.”