I think I now know what hate sounds like. I know this because I heard it just the other day while I was sitting in my car, waiting for a traffic light to change, just sitting there waiting like people do, not expecting anything to happen out of the ordinary, not expecting to hear the sound of hate because that would be something out of the ordinary. My date and I were waiting at a traffic light in Elmhurst. We were in the right-hand lane, a small sedan was in the left-hand lane, and a large truck was in the left-turn lane. Although it was a little cool outside, I had my window rolled down because I like the crispness of Fall weather, the certainty of the changing seasons. I come from the South, a place where seasons don’t always change, where the certainty of that is not always certain.
But the South is also a place synonymous with racial and ethnic hatred, a place that once turned racism into a daily routine. Even though I know this, I like to think of the South where I come from -- that of sunny beaches and friendly yahoos and boiled crabs with cold beer -- rather than the South everyone else imagines: Rednecks and wooden shacks and thick, swollen accents. Race equality is not a certainty in the south, maybe not even close, but most of the hatred, historical or not, has been for most Southerners an embarrassment, something we like to imagine we’ve outgrown or, at least, suppressed.
Occasionally, I might have heard someone use the N-Word, perhaps the most dangerous word in the human vocabulary, and maybe I saw acts of covert racism that I in my naivety never recognized (a white family being served in a restaurant before a black one). But other than the ugliness of a KKK rally I once covered as a newspaper reporter, in my 20-or-so-years of living in the South, I never, not once, saw or heard an overt act of racial hatred like the kind I heard the other night, sitting in my car, waiting for the light to change in Elmhurst, waiting for anything except what did happen, to see and hear a man in the large truck lean out his window and yell: “Hey! Why don’t you go back to your own country?!”
It was then that I noticed the Asian couple in the brown sedan between us. The man looked quickly over at his companion, presumably his wife, and they exchanged nervous glances before he inched his car forward, going as far as he could go without pulling into the intersection itself, just far enough to no longer be lined up with the screaming man in the truck.
And then I looked over at the truck. The screaming man was young and white, about maybe 25, and he was grinning and saying something to his companion, another young white man. The screamer was very animated as he talked, waving his arms around. A skinny cigarette dangling from his lips bounced around as he spoke. A hat with some kind of insignia was posed on his head, tilted back, and the whole image reminded me of a cartoon, a nasty dirty cartoon about the South, about the kind of Southerners that give the South a bad reputation, the kind that most of us try our best to ignore. Despite the colloquial notion around the country that they are simple but innocent oafs, “Good Ole Boys” are not good and they most certainly are not boys. In the South, we had another term for them, one not so endearing: We called them stupid.
Sitting there as a passive witness to this hatred, all I wanted to do was get out of my car, walk over to the Asian couple and apologize. Why? I guess I felt some sick kinship with these stupid people, if for nothing else but the color of my skin. I wanted to apologize for the entire white race, to tell this innocent couple that not all of us are like that, not all of us are that stupid. I suppose I felt the collective white guilt that sociologists like to talk about, that subconscious notion that whites (especially those of us from the South) feel the shame and guilt of the sins of our fathers.
But the truth is, I simply sat there, my date and I both startled by what we just heard, and then the light changed and everybody was back on the road, back into their own lives: the stupid people o to be stupid again, my date and I to to dinner, the Asian couple to to who knows where, a place where they have to live, a place that may never be as accommodating as we all would hope. I’m not sure what we should do with stupid people. Is tolerance a learned behavior? Can the sound of hatred be silenced by education, enlightenment? As a teacher, I like to think so. But as someone from the South, I think I know better.
(Editor’s Note: The column submission titled “What hate sounds like” by Ron Wiginton — who is the faculty adviser to The Leader — was originally published by Chicago Public Radio and reprinted by The Leader for this issue due to its relevancy with regards to the 2016 U.S. presidential election.)