12/10/2014 09:44 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

Hanukah Swastika Gift Wrap Dilemma: What it Teaches About Race

Recently, a Jewish woman walked into a Southern California Walgreens and spotted on a Hanukah wrapping paper a startling discovery: a pattern with bunches of interlocking swastikas in tight formation. For Cheryl Shapiro, it was an affront. It outraged her so much that she immediately demanded that the product be pulled not only from the shelves of her local store but also from the shelves of each and every Walgreens across our great nation.

Of course, this pattern is not a Nazi swastika. The Nazi swastika faces in the opposite direction, and is the mirror image of the swastika depicted on the wrapping paper.

The image in question is basically a Sayagata pattern. This pattern has a long and venerable history, and comes from the Japanese Buddhist tradition. It is seen as an auspicious symbol of good fortune and throughout Asia, you can find it in just about anything from kimono lining to cel phone covers to gift wrap.

I sympathize with the woman, nonetheless, because in times past I have used this pattern to teach my college students a lesson about how symbols travel. The lesson starts with a good, old-fashioned ambush: at the beginning of the class, I bring in beautifully handcrafted artisanal wrapping paper and let the students admire it, and it usually takes about 15 minutes before some student lets out a squawk of disbelief and claps hand to mouth.

You see, this pattern is hard to discern. It's like an Escher print -- there are so many little swastikas that you cannot see that they are everywhere. And to see the symbol suddenly emerge, especially in something so beautiful, is almost like being ambushed.

Are the Nazi swastika and the Sayagata swastika one and the same? Well, yes and no. They actually share the same lineage. They both come from India, where the swastika is a symbol of general goodness, holiness and all-around-amazingness; however, as the swastika traveled across Asia, it became the symbol of the spread of a Hinduism that ultimately became transformed into Buddhism, and so if you look at any map of Asia, you will see every holy site marked by swastikas; and this is a good way to visualize the dispersion of religion as it moved Westward to Japan.

The Nazis took a different take on the swastika, which was purely racial. They saw it as a symbol of the Aryan race, which descended from India, and their vision of it has little to do with religion. And because of its recent history with ethnic cleansing, it is no longer in the West a symbol of general goodness, holiness and all-around-amazingness that it once was.

So what does this mean about the future of the symbol in the United States? Is it irredeemable? Should it be stricken? Should we ban this vision of Nazism? I've read a lot of books on the swastika and almost every debate boils down to this one polarizing question.

I won't answer this question, but I will add a few things right now that might complicate it: First, you have probably experienced the swastika in a hundred different ways already without knowing it. You have worn clothes, sat on chairs, wrapped gifts with this pattern. This is primarily because this almost invisible motif is one of those cool patterns that graphic artists are using now to express an affinity with an Eastern culture that is becoming less remote and ever-more-present. So look through all your recently purchased junk and you will likely find a buried swastika.

But even in America's old stuff, like those beautiful buildings that come from the '20s and '30s, there are swastikas everywhere. Why is this? Because American thinkers created the idea of eugenics -- the extermination of lesser races to make room for greater ones -- that the Nazi's came to embrace.

A case in point: as a related assignment to this unit, I often had my students walk around my quaint college town in the Midwest to spot the swastikas and you'd be surprised where these symbols of racial purity ended up. In the local wine bar -- once a beautiful bank -- it is the decorative border that is the molding. It's so surprising for students to look at these cherished buildings and see that they testify to this terrible past. You see, eugenics had its great start, not in Nazi Germany, but in Missouri.

So as I see it, if you are trying to get rid of this symbol, you need to recognize that it is not something from the outside that must be extinguished and pushed away. Rather, it is at the heart of our own culture. It is what is at the center of our own personal Missouri -- as much a part of our heartland as apple pie.

To think otherwise -- to think that it is that other thing out there -- actually does work that runs counter to our intentions. So in this holiday season in which we are constantly enjoined to meditate on our connectedness as human beings, it might serve the true spirit of the moment to think about our own responsibility in shaping a racial history, and whether or not the things we have done, the institutions we have made, can change.