Racism, despite popular opinion, isn't as simple as black and white. Not all bigots can be identified by their banjos, shotguns and missing teeth. More importantly, every racist is not a one-dimensional caricature of hate bent on genocide.
This is what disturbed me most as a child, the depictions of klansmen and skinheads as the sole representatives of bigotry. This scapegoating enabled the rest of us to point to them as examples of bad form, ignorant of the required claims of equality and incapable of controlling their emotions.
I was never able to reconcile the images and actions of these villains with the actual people I knew espousing racial superiority. Truth be known, most of the folks who I heard utter these lines were regular, even good people in every other way. They could explain the benefits of spending time with their children, seeking moderation in wealth and happiness, and taking pleasure in the simple gifts of life.
You couldn't help but admire them. Then, as you'd settle into the warmth imbued by such sentiments, they would launch into a sweeping tirade spanning virtually every ethnicity, hammering away on obvious stereotypes and known falsehoods. It shook me to the core.
What was more conflicting was watching these same people, typically the most vocal men, jump to the aid of their neighbors, folks of any color who had been struck by some tragedy, a mother passing away, a tree falling through their house, anything. And they would not rest until the work was done and their fellowman was better.
This is no more strange than the white boys who critiqued their black counterparts in school with vigor and vitriol but would then itemize the accomplishments of any number of black athletes and recite the lyrics of the most underground rap songs.
This is the great irony of the South, and more generally the world. Poor white folks and poor back folks do have much more in common than poor white folks and rich ones. All poor people, regardless of appearance, survive by communal reliance and excel at making the most out of so little.
Yet we are taught to mistrust one another, to fear the Great Other. It works. The rich and powerful just get richer and more powerful, while we point the finger at the guy across the street who has the same beat up car, the same peeling paint, the same lifestyle.
No, the portrayal of racists is wrong because it cannot adequately describe how we are all bigoted in one form or another. The difference is some of us are now realizing this and trying to correct how it affects our actions. Will it be enough?