Last weekend, there were two pretty amazing stories in the news. First, it was the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March in Alabama, which was a significant moment in the Civil Rights Movement. That event fifty years ago–and those days of Jim Crow and the blatant, overt forms of racism that were commonplace and accepted in so much of this country— usually feels like a million years ago to me. I am thankful for that.
When I hear the words and see the deeds of so many old, raised-to-be-racist folks, I often have the thought, “Not that I wish them ill, but just the same, it will probably be a good thing when this generation dies off.” I like to see my generation as significantly more progressive, open-minded, and inclusive. Then I see the current generation of kids—my nieces and nephews and other students of mine—and how much more they are exposed to in the media and via the Internet. It seems to be the norm for them to have knowledge of—even if they are not always close with—historically marginalized people. Whether that is White kids having more Black friends, or high schoolers finally being willing to come out as gay, it feels as though we are on a one-way track to equality and acceptance in the current generation of young people. I love it!
But then comes the second amazing news story of last weekend. This was the one out of the University of Oklahoma, where the members of a fraternity, in a party bus and dressed in formal attire with their dates, were filmed while gleefully chanting a song about never letting a Black person—their word choice was not as politically correct as mine—into their fraternity, including a line about lynching. And this is where our seeming express train to equality and social justice jumps the track. What the heck?!?!
I first saw the video last Sunday and was completely floored by it. Of course I was outraged, too, but I was just so totally stunned that this would be happening in a group of college students from the current generation. It disturbed me greatly in that moment, but I also happened to be very busy right then and thus moved my thoughts past it out of necessity. It was two days later, driving alone in my car, when the topic re-entered my life via a talk radio program. Suddenly, the scab that was forming over my initial reaction was violently ripped off. Out came the emotions that had gone dormant in my busy-ness. In an instant, I became so sickened at the thought of this incident and the vivid image of the merry, fist-pumping, tuxedo-clad leader of the hate-filled chant. My gag reflex kicked in hard as a wave of nausea swept over me, and I very nearly had to pull the car over. Then tears came to my eyes in the sheer sadness of the whole thing. I was truly devastated at the thought of young people still living this way. Then I was smacked again with the realization that other people have to exist in their world as the targets of such hateful and narrow-minded people. The final straw was the thought of my own children—each half-Black and half-White—becoming victims of such blatant ignorance. It is a terrible thing to have to consider, to put it mildly.
So, when something like this happens in my country—and yes, I know this is only one incident and that many examples from the headlines of recent months, from Ferguson to New York City, could have been chosen—and my rose-colored glasses are ripped from my eyes, I have to wonder, “How far have we really come?” Seriously. Despite all of the outward signs of progress and of living peacefully amidst difference, how far could we really have come if a bunch of White, educated, middle-and-upper-class, college-age people are chanting gleefully about excluding and lynching Black people?
Like I said, I normally go through the world with rose-colored glasses on. Sure, I am aware of so many of our societal shortcomings, but I also tend to see people as inherently good, and I tend to be naturally inclined toward looking for the ways we are collectively moving forward. I am an optimist and a believer in our greatness. So when something like this blatantly racist chant finds its way into my consciousness, it is a real gut-punch. As I said, it makes me physically (and psychologically) nauseous. And beyond that, it just really makes me sad. Then I start to question my optimism. It is a quick path to me feeling very disillusioned. Are all of my assumptions about people incorrect? Have I given us—especially the younger generations—too much credit? Are we still mostly a bunch of ignorant, closed-minded bigots?
In my moments of disillusionment, it may be hard to see, but I really do my best to grasp for a more forgiving, positive outlook. I have to cling to that outlook in order to keep going. I know that there are an increasing number of examples of inclusivity and social justice in our society today. I also know that, despite the fact that kids may be exposed to a few more things from the Internet and the media earlier than we would like, they are also getting to see a lot more examples of diversity than we were as children.
I guess I just have to be cognizant of the fact that the influence of those aforementioned old, raised-to-be-racist folks isn’t going to just magically disappear simply because Hollywood has become more progressive. Those old bigots had children and taught them what they knew, and now those children have children. And even though awareness in general has been raised and political correctness is a force, those things do not automatically demolish generations of racism passed down. Bigotry is a learned thing. That racist chant on the party bus did not sound like something those students just made up that night. They learned it the way generations before them learned it. I am reminded of the funny-but-wise comment by the comedian Denis Leary: “Racism isn’t born, folks. It’s taught. I have a two-year-old son. Know what he hates? Naps. End of list.”
Perhaps it is best to admit from the outset that what we see as America’s greatness was built on a foundation of racism. Our early and enduring relationship with the American Indians and the African people brought here as slaves set the tone for a difficult and obstacle-filled path to equality and social justice in this country. There are traces—and sometimes full-blown imitations that reveal themselves in viral videos—of those attitudes and injustices that remain today. It is not an easy skin to shed.
But despite these challenges passed down from our ancestors, I also see the signs of real progress. I see people who were raised to be racist but instead have chosen to walk the path of inclusion and respect. I see people who, for all their ancestors taught them, should be swimming in bigotry, but they have chosen to be accepting of difference. And I also see amazing teachers who are showing us all what it means to go beyond mere acceptance and move into celebration of difference. I go on my Facebook feed and see friends who daily share such wonderfully uplifting stories and educational articles on social justice from multiple viewpoints. These are our teachers! See them as such. And finally, I see myself in the mirror and know that every day, in every interaction, I have a chance to teach Love. If I can lead with Love, I believe that we will be a step closer to becoming the people I KNOW we can be. I am ready to take that walk together.
How about you? Where, in your opinion, are we as a country on this path out of our racist roots and toward a model of equality and social justice? Open up your journal and think about your relationship with the issue of race. Ignoring your true feelings and opinions, how were you actually raised to feel about and treat people of other races? What were you taught? Were you more influenced by your parents and family, or by society at large and the messages in school or the media? How big of a disparity was there between the message at home and the one from society? On a scale of one-to-ten, how racist were your parents? Was their racism directed mainly toward one particular group, or was it spread pretty evenly? On that same one-to-ten scale, how racist are you? This is probably something that doesn’t come up in regular conversation—or that you might not dare to admit the answer if it does—so your journal is the perfect confessional. Did you score yourself more favorably than your parents? If so, do you think that is because you had better influences in society as a whole, or did you simply not like what you saw in their attitudes and determined to do better for yourself? Would you say you are more or less racist, on the whole, than your siblings and friends? How about compared to the average American citizen? What is the most overtly racist thing you have ever done or said? How do you feel about that now? What is your reaction to something like the Oklahoma fraternity video? Do you think things like that are more commonplace in this country than we realize, or is that really an abberation? Leave me a reply and let me know: How far have we really come?
Teach Love today,