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Breaking the cycle of racism

Nancy Vogl - November 24th, 2008
Recently, I made an unlikely friend in Traverse City: Rod Nyland, former employee of Hampel’s Guns.
For anyone who knows me, and the message I’m dedicated to sharing, Rod is just about the last person in this town I might be friendly with. Rod is credited with hanging the American flag inverted in front of Hampel’s the day after Barack Obama was elected, and for making a
racial slur against our next president.
I can’t remember how old I was when I instinctively knew it was wrong to make racial jokes or derogatory remarks about people with skin color darker than mine, but I couldn’t have been more than six or seven. My father, my father’s father and both brothers were adept at slinging Ku Klux Klan wisecracks and angry taunts laced with the “N” word, while my mother, relegated to the “barefoot in the kitchen” rule, remained silent.
I, however, despised my family’s behavior and made a vow to myself: “Someday, when I’m all grown up, I’m breaking the cycle of racism with my own children.” Obviously, I wouldn’t have chosen those exact words as a little girl, but I did keep my promise.

I married at 20 and divorced at 30, proceeding down the long road of single motherhood with three small daughters. We had a lot of tough times, but I loved raising my girls. I was determined to instill in them things I didn’t experience growing up. Like not being afraid to be yourself, and sticking up for what you believe in.
When my oldest daughter, Heidi, started kindergarten, I had to fill out an enrollment card. One section had a place where you were required to check a box under “Race.” -- White, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American and Other. For the nearly 20 years I had children in school, I drove the secretaries crazy by insisting to check “Other” and insert “Human Being.”
My girls were taught that who we are as human beings has nothing to do with what we see on the outside, never dreaming that one day the most precious of gifts would be delivered to help me prove this truth.
Heidi became pregnant at age 19 and the father was an African-American teen, who moved in and out of her life rather quickly.
When I welcomed little Tyler into my arms moments after he was born, I fell in love beyond belief. His caramel colored skin and big brown eyes melted me, and his dimples, so deep you could sink quarters into them, reminded me of my grandfather on my mother’s side.
When Tyler was almost four, he walked up to me one day with the most puzzling of looks, and asked “Grandma... am I a color?” I know I must have looked like a deer in headlights. I had no idea what to say! I must have said something that appeased him, as he ran off satisfied; but it suddenly occurred to me he wasn’t asking me what color his skin is – he was asking if he was A COLOR. He must have heard people being called “black” and “white,” and didn’t understand why anyone would be referred to as a color.
As a result of Tyler’s poignant inquiry, Heidi and I wrote the children’s book, Am I a Color Too? - the recipient of six national awards and honors for Best Children’s Book and Best Multicultural Book, including the coveted Christopher Award. The book has taken me across the country, speaking to groups and in schools about diversity, sharing the message that we need to see each other from the inside out.

Tyler, who lives with me part of the year (Heidi is an aspiring actor in Los Angeles), is a part of the Traverse City community, and, as always, was with me this past summer where I’m currently living – sandwiched between Hampel’s Guns on my left and Rod Nyland on my right.
My husband and I moved to our little cottage on July 1 following some really hard times. In essence, we were starting all over again. Soon after moving, I made the acquaintance of my neighbor, Rod, with just an occasional “hello,” but did not get to know him. I presumed we wouldn’t have much in common philosophically, since he worked at Hampel’s.
During the presidential campaign I certainly wasn’t surprised to find that our house was the only Obama supporter on our block, but I had no idea of the events that were about to unfold.
While I have high regard for Sen. John McCain, I was jubilant when Barack Obama was elected as our 44th president. For the first time in years I feel hopeful for our nation, and for my own future.
Tyler was equally excited about Obama winning, perhaps because they share a similar cultural makeup. The morning after the election Tyler, now 12, woke up saying, “I just feel a little bit more special today.”
So, given my love for my handsome grandson and my dedication to spreading a message of unity, imagine my reaction over the article that appeared on November 6 in the Record-Eagle regarding the disrespect for the American flag and the racial slur made by Rod Nyland. I was outraged!
For the next two days I bounced between anger and sadness, when my focus should have been on the optimism I now feel for our country.
But on Saturday morning, November 8, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to look at the situation differently. It occurred to me that if issues of racism remain below the surface of our society and are not brought to the forefront, then how can we ever heal them?
I also felt sorrow for my neighbor, for losing his job after 25 years of loyal service, and for the shame that would follow him for a long time. Regardless of his blatantly deplorable remark, I personally know how hard it is to lose everything, and I don’t wish struggle on anyone.

Then I wondered, “What would Martin Luther King do in this situation?” followed by “What would President-elect Obama want me to do?” Without a second thought, I marched out my front door, and knocked on Rod’s door. When he opened the door, his face went ashen when he saw his neighbor, this Democrat-leaning grandmother of a “black” boy, standing inside his porch. I gently said, “I thought you might need a friend,” and proceeded to give him a hug.
For the next hour or so, between teary eyes and an occasional tremble, we sat and talked in Rod’s living room, sharing our feelings about the election, about gun control, about the people we each love and care about.
Rod is soft-spoken, with a gracious demeanor, and I discovered that gunsmithing is all he has known since age 19 (and subsequently found out he’s one of the best in the state). He has two children -- both with PhDs; he remains friendly with his ex-wife; and he has a cat. He’s a highly respected volunteer fireman, is an avid scuba diver and sailor, and was a Sunday School teacher and Boy Scout leader. His “resume” reminded me that most everyone is good, but sometimes even the best of us make horrible mistakes.
I asked Rod why he felt compelled to fly the American flag inverted the day after the election. He lowered his head and struggled for an answer. But I already knew why he did what he did. “You’re afraid your rights will be taken away, aren’t you? And with that, your job?” He nodded sheepishly as his eyes became watery again.
Fear can be an evil thing. It is an emotional response to things we believe we can’t control and it can cause even good people to do things they might not otherwise do. Fear is the foundation of hatred, and fear/hatred begets racism, which is, astonishingly, still alive in the 21st century.
Then Rod said, “Nancy, I know you’re not going to believe this, but I’m truly not a racist. I have a daughter that is most likely to marry a man from India, whose skin is very dark. I have Korean cousins whom I love. I said something I shouldn’t have said, but I was so torn up inside. I’m not good at speaking, and I blurted something out of anger. I’m deeply sorry.”
Let me ask this: What good does it do to continue to condemn those that err on the wrong side of humanity? Doesn’t it only continue to fan the flames of bigotry? It seems to me that forgiveness is a better way, and that is where my heart is with Rod Nyland. I learned a long time ago that most people do the very best they can at any given moment in their lives with the awareness that they have. And I believe that Rod, while not condoning his actions, was reacting out of fear based on what he believed to be true.

After meeting with Rod I met with Tom Hampel several days later, the son of owner Karl Hampel. I wanted to know why the inverted American flag was allowed to fly all day in front of the store. Tom Hampel admitted that the gun side of the business was without a manager that day, and that what happened was terribly unfortunate. “This is a family business, and I’m only involved with the key and lock side,” he said. “Yet the Record-Eagle never said “Hampel’s Guns” in their reporting, so I take what happened very personally.”
I then asked about the messages the store is sending to customers with various bumper stickers and memorabilia, particularly one targeting Michael Moore, as I’d heard it depicted violence towards the filmmaker. Tom happened to have the sticker folded in his pocket in case the subject came up. While I don’t approve of the bumper sticker, especially because of my great fondness and respect for Michael Moore, it was tamer than I expected -- with a “NO” symbol around his face -- not a bull’s-eye as I’d heard. Still, it opened up a dialogue about what is and isn’t suitable when it comes to how we treat other human beings.
A longtime business in Traverse City, a 54-year-old man without a job, and an entire community has been deeply affected by the events of November 5. Yet, I believe everything happens for a reason and I’m trusting that good things will ultimately come out of it.
Thus, it is my hope that Hampel’s will continue to serve their customers for a long time with respect and appropriate behavior. It is also my hope that they re-hire Rod Nyland, who I now believe is far more of a giver than a taker. And, lastly, it is my fervent hope that we can all find forgiveness for what happened here in Traverse City. I know it is what Barack Obama would want.

Nancy Vogl is an award-winning songwriter, author, speaker, and aspiring screenwriter from Traverse City.
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