Imagine a young, growing country that had a crucial industry. The logistics of that industry required that every new town and city was built around an open cesspit. Now, these pits were god-awful health hazards that stank to high heaven. They often caught fire and sent toxic smoke through the towns that held them. But the industry was incredibly lucrative – the economic engine of the whole country relied on it.

So the town fathers built their own houses well away from the cesspits and convinced people that the toxic fumes and smoke weren't just a terrible, necessary evil but were actually a tonic that helped their children grow up strong. These wealthy leaders reasoned that poor people lived in filth anyhow and so lying to them about the cesspits wasn't really hurting anything. Besides, there were some scientists who claimed that the awful smoke might kill off other airborne diseases. These wealthy men clung to the idea that they were doing a good thing for their communities while they made themselves richer.

Millions of people died from diseases caused by the cesspits, but the deaths were usually attributed to something else. Anything else, really; nobody wanted to acknowledge that this industry they relied on was destroying so many lives. A very few towns either never had cesspits or got rid of theirs, but the stench from nearby towns tended to drift over and cover everything anyway. The smell was so pervasive that people mostly got used to it, and it was common fashion to either argue that the cesspits were a good and necessary thing or to pretend that they just weren't there.

Over time, the industrial process became less and less important to the country's economy, but the cesspits remained. They were deep and foul and entrenched and removing them entirely would be a whole lot of work and money and required engineering know-how that frankly a lot of places just didn't have. A few people argued loudly for removing them, but everybody else argued that the cesspits were fine. They'd grown up with the cesspits, and their health was just dandy, so why make a fuss?

Some towns, run by people who had a sense of how dangerous the cesspits were were but who lacked the political will and support to remove them, covered over the cesspits to keep people from falling in. They planted decorative bushes around the borders of the pits, planted lots of flowers, etc. Town leaders declared the problem was solved, and most new people grew up thinking that the cesspits had been filled in; some didn't realize that the cesspits even existed.

But the sealed-off cesspits still filled the towns with a low-grade stench, not nearly as bad as before, but it was there. And people still died; not as many as before, but the covered pits still were an ongoing source of sickness.

Some towns, though, remained proud of their cesspits. They yearned to return to the time when the cesspit industry was strong and their towns were flush with money and national importance. They ignored all the people who'd died, and in fact the modern inhabitants stubbornly insisted that the toxic smoke from the burning cesspits promoted good health. At worst it weeded out weak people who weren't strong enough to survive anyhow. The children in these towns were taught about what a brave and wonderful history the cesspits had.

People in these towns stank, and they were proud of their stink because to them it represented wealth and power and a proud community history.

Meanwhile, the people from the covered cesspit towns were aghast at the places that still had open, burning cesspits. How could people live with such flaming poison in the midst of their towns? It was awful, and the people in those towns were terrible and backward, clearly.

People in the covered towns prided themselves on their hygiene and became a little obsessed with smelling good. They had taken the old adage "cleanliness is next to godliness" to heart. Bad, backward people stank; they were good people and did not stink.

But the people in the covered towns did stink a little bit, because everybody was still fumigated with cesspit vapors every day. There was no way they could grow up there and not have the stink on them. It was just that nobody could smell the stink they'd grown up with.

And if anybody else pointed that out ... oh, no. The covered town people would pitch the worst fit. How dare these outsiders accuse them of stinking? How dare they?

It was more important to be thought of as good-smelling than to actually be good smelling. And so a whole lot of people refused to even acknowledge the problem the covered cesspits were causing, so they didn't do anything to help the vulnerable people in their communities who were still being sickened and dying from the toxic vapors.

Their deeply-held personal belief that they had to smell good to be a good person was completely getting in the way of their acknowledging that their own communities had a problem that needed to be fixed for the sake of everybody's health.



If someone accuses you of behaving in a racist way, or you haven't been accused but you're feeling defensive anyhow? Stop. Take a hard look at your own actions and inactions. We all grew up near those figurative cesspits in one way or another; the stink is on us. How could it not be? It's hard work to fix the problem, but we gotta try, and we can't do that if we're digging in our heels yelling a bunch of how-dare-yous.