If there’s a defining moment that sits with you, burning in your gut, as a newfound progressive in Central Texas, it’s when you realize how terrible you acted toward women when you were younger.
I can still remember when a former college editor of mine first tweeted this. It was a connection I hadn’t yet made as a fresh-faced liberal student, or maybe didn’t want to face, until reading those words. My mind raced, thinking back to my troop leaders, my newspaper advisers, my own mother. I recognized I’d at least had the decency to value these women in my life, but not others. I thought back to the female teachers who, despite their obvious passion for education, I would easily dismiss with eye-rolls and guffaws, while treating their male colleagues with respect. I remembered staying silent when male friends, older classmates who I looked up to, wondered if a female teacher “got some” because she wasn’t her regular, “bitchy” self.
It’s not just having grown into my feminism that I’ve felt a sense of shame, but in the ways I’d come to understand race, gender, sexuality, abortion, and many other issues. I can remember in seventh grade, getting what I thought was a “rude” comment on my MySpace page because I had coded into my profile that the Bible said gay marriage was a “sin,” and I therefore didn’t “believe” in it. And I still get embarrassed thinking about the time in ninth-grade biology when I had an emotional standoff with my teacher when she asked why I believed that stem cells shouldn’t be used in such a “life-destroying,” sacrilegious manner, and all I could tell her was “That’s what the Catholic faith believes.”
This is the kind of shame that liberal offspring of conservative households learn to live with as adults. The slow realization that much of what you understood to be true, or felt true, was less so. The mental gymnastics of qualifying your previous bigoted behavior as something that happened because you grew up surrounded by such behavior, and is therefore something you’re continuing to working through. The mental relief felt in finally naming the ways in which you felt ostracized or targeted because you don’t look like your white, monoracial classmates, and can now see how other people of color have been punished in the same way.
I think I'm slowly turning into a radical feminist someone #helpme— Samantha Grasso (@samjgrasso) October 10, 2012
No doubt, it feels both privileged and a bit much to point out this “shame,” falling somewhere on the spectrum between eye-roll-inducing and high-horse preachy, in the tone of self-obsession and self-flagellation. But it’s a shame I’ve encountered again reading the uninformed musings of Mark Conditt, the suspected Austin bomber who killed two people, Anthony Stephan House and Draylen Mason, both who were connected to prominent Black families in Austin, and injured four others: a 75-year-old Hispanic woman, two white men, and Mason’s mother. A FedEx employee and a SWAT officer were also both reportedly both knocked off their feet during separate explosions, the latter during the explosive that killed Conditt, ending his reign of terror.
In 2012 blog posts Conditt wrote for what appears to be a community college class in U.S. government, the then-17-year-old espoused homophobic, anti-abortion views, arguing that homosexuality isn’t “natural” and shaming women who do not want to have children but “participate in activities that were made for that reason” anyway.
The opinion pieces, clearly written to show some sort of engagement with current events for a grade, are poorly-argued, reading like uninformed drivel poured from a malleable mind parroting the most unwavering stances of the far-right. He compared penises and vaginas to nuts and bolts, as if machine parts with intended partners, and supported the age-old fear that marriage equality laws would lead to the legalization of pedophilia and beastiality.
Since these blog posts became a point of media attention, serving as an introduction into the mind of a terrorist who left behind no motive, they have garnered hundreds of comments. But as I pored through Conditt’s posts on Wednesday morning, just hours after he was shot by Austin police, I felt familiarity, disgust, and on a more intimate level, fear. Conditt and I grew up five miles apart, he in Pflugerville and I in the city in which he killed himself by setting off a bomb as SWAT officers closed in. For a decade, twice a week, I attended the Catholic church located just a mile north of his house. When I called my dad to tell him that we knew someone who knew a Conditt family member, he reminded me of how small this community remains despite Austin’s rapid growth.
In its most naive sense, this fear reflected the ideas we all have when someone in a sleepy suburb carries out any level of public violence—the “pearl-clutching” shock that this happened so close to home, in a town where you wonder just how many times you unknowingly crossed paths with this person. But in a way, my uneasiness, and the return of this shame, stemmed from an understanding that Conditt’s semi-formed conservative ideology and “challenged” past didn’t make him a radical person in our community. He reflected the norm.
Of course, I cannot project to know what grand stew of ideology and psychology truly influenced Conditt—nor would I ever, ever excuse it—but I do know my own experience. And there are similarities in the bigoted teenage opinions I’ve had to come to terms with and what his were perceived to be. There are parallels in the classmates who, no shade to them, stayed in our hometown and made lives for themselves, either of their own volition of inability to do otherwise.
In the end, it’s not the physical proximity of Conditt’s presence that disturbed me the most, but the ways in which I can recognize his mental proximity to the tens of other young adults I grew up with.
I can still see a potential timeline in which I could have become the well-intentioned but loosely studied conservative mouthpiece, a byproduct of families that had Fox News on all hours of the day, or that moved near the city during the economic boom caused by Dell Computers. Families that chose to settle in an area close to the capital city, but far enough to away to take advantage of the highly rated school systems in Round Rock, Pflugerville, and Cedar Park. Families that were steeped in all the subtle reminders that Central Texas is still Texas, no matter how “weird” a city seems when compared to its extended territories.
In trying to strictly separate Austin from its surroundings, it’s easy to regard Conditt’s actions as “surprising” or “uncharacteristic” of a city as lauded for its liberalism. But the city, a “blue dot” in a sea of red, bespeckled by other shades of purple across Dallas, Houston, and along the Gulf Coast, is truly a shadow of liberal thought, grappling with a series of systemic failings of Black Austinites, dating back to after the Civil War.
Whereas yuppies praise Austin’s political attitudes and abundance of parks, bars, and seasonal festivals, many of these white residents are oblivious to the shrinking Black population, and the role that its pride and joy—the University of Texas at Austin—has continually played in separating, displacing, discriminating against, and oppressing people of color. The creation of the campus itself forced Black communities to move to the East side of the highway, dividing the city. The names and likeness of Confederate generals can still be found on statues, fountains, and streets; the Confederate States of America flag, one of the “six flags over Texas,” flies inside and outside a university-owned venue that’s hosted performances by the country’s biggest superstars, such as Rihanna and Lady Gaga. Across East Austin, Instagrammable murals “art wash” buildings throughout the Black community, punctuating gentrification and Black erasure.
Concerningly, the city continued to do a huge disservice to Black Austinites by bringing shame upon bombing victim Stephan House and his family shortly after his death, with investigators suggesting that he devised the explosive himself. Mayor Steve Adler has since apologized to House’s family, and yet, the implications of Conditt’s targeting of Black and Hispanic families continue to be overshadowed by his arrangement of explosives in a predominantly white neighborhood, and his intention to send a prematurely detonated package bomb to a white woman at a Downtown spa. The city’s misgivings continue to speak volumes and are indicative of the city’s rightful spot—deep in the heart of Texas.
Clearly, this criticism doesn’t seem like it comes from a girl who was raised Catholic and conservative. In the decade since my spats in high school, I’ve since become informed about Austin’s dark side and passionate about exposing its prejudices and nuances. I went on to join the orientation advising group while a student at UT Austin, taking a mandatory social issues class that required me to examine my privilege and power, and allowed me to better understand my own experiences in secondary school. I took history classes, classes that focused on the African diaspora, the content of which unrooted me from the whitewashed lessons taught in Texas public schools. As I eased into my career as a journalist, I began gravitating to narratives that showcased marginalized students and communities. I had the opportunity to do the work and understand identity and systemic oppression beyond the segments of Fox News I consumed over my parents’ shoulders and what I learned in going to choir practice and mass on a weekly basis. I made friends with people from across the state, from different backgrounds with other opinions, who encouraged me to learn more about systems of discrimination and the ways in which I’ve contributed to them. These experiences were a privilege in itself, and I often think about how different my personal and political identity would be had I gone to school elsewhere, or not at all.
Undoubtedly, no amount of parsing Conditt’s blog posts with my own adolescent growth will explain, excuse, or generate empathy for what he did. He was a monster whose victims and families deserve justice. But these comparisons serve as a reminder that somehow, somewhere along the line, so many of us “liberal elites” in this city may have shared Conditt’s beliefs, if even a fraction. It’s a reminder of how similar Austin’s residents may continue to be to Conditt, despite our breathless insistence that we are not. Maybe not to the extent of senselessly murdering our neighbors, but enough to show that these conservative Central Texas views are harder to unlearn than woke Twitter critics would have us believe.