A Reflection on Racism
January 18, 2010 § 1 Comment
Last June I posted a bit of a rant related to racism and homeschooling. Last week I had occasion to mentally visit the topic again and this morning I have time to write about it… fitting for MLK day I guess.
My Hannah is eight years old. She is the first of my children to have been homeschooled from the start. Last week she and I were talking and somehow the conversation wound around to racism. Hannah really had no idea what racism is, it never occurred to her that people would think less of someone based on the color of their skin or where that person’s ancestors had come from. “That’s stupid”, was her honest assessment of the very idea.
I couldn’t help but contrast this to my oldest daughter’s, Ashley’s, experience which I wrote about last June:
When schools do try to teach diversity it is frequently out of context or worse full of politically correct social agenda. I remember my daughter coming home from third grade heart broken one day, “mommy,” she asked sadly, “Why are white people so mean to black people?” I was floored. Where do you even start with that? Her class had been immersed in Black History month for about six weeks. Story after story about the horrible meanness of white people. She had learned what no child should ever learn, that something was wrong with people like her and by extension with herself because of her skin color. We were able to point out that while some people were bigots that bigotry was a product of education and environment not of her ethnicity and that our family had several friends and even relatives with a variety of racial backgrounds and skin tones. Do I trust the schools to do a great job teaching my children about the beauty and diversity of race, creed and culture? In short, the answer is no.
The experiences of my daughter’s couldn’t be different and I think they illustrate something profoundly wrong in how our society deals with issues of race.
Some people would read the two stories of my daughters and be sure that Hannah was missing something and that Ashley was better off. They would re-spin the two antidotes and say that Ashley came home with a heartfelt understanding of race issues, that she had learned how cruel and unjust society is and would be better equipped to go out and try to rectify the errors of the past, while Hannah is sheltered and unaware, that she is part of the problem since she isn’t sensitized to the struggles of minorities in society and unaware of the bias that she benefits from.
In my mind Hannah has escaped the brainwashing. She doesn’t see herself as better because of her race, she doesn’t see others as inferior based on their race, she doesn’t even see race — she just sees skin-tone and that only as a description no more an indicator of status than hair-color. Ashley’s paradigm had been shifted to see RACE, to see a victim and a villain, skin color meant more to her than a descriptive quality, it carries with it a crippling of the historic victim and a hobbling of the historic villain. I may be totally wrong, but I do not think this is what Dr Martin Luther King had in mind when he spoke of his dream. To be judged only on the content of one’s character is much closer to Hannah’s colorblind world view than the painfully pan-tone aware view that Ashley had foist upon her in a public school classroom.
There is nothing empowering about believing that you are a member of a “victim class”. In college in my required women’s studies classes I often found myself taking the minority view that women are not the poor hapless victims at the hands of evil men, especially white, privileged men, and that they had instead a varied history that reflected more than the monotonousness world view presented in my college classes. I could actually get away with speaking my mind on this subject in class because, being female, I was free to reject the role of victim. The men in my class were not so fortunate – the villain is not allowed to reject the role, no matter how removed from them by actual history or circumstance. If a man in the class were to point out that it was women for instance who put their daughters into corsets or to point out that in a many cultures women and the children benefited from most of the double standards (women and children first in an emergency) he would be soundly put in his place a a perpetrator of the horrible male hegemony. Sexism is a charge that is hard to slough off, racism is worse.
Over the last year I have seen one thing very promising coming from our current president’s historic role as the first American President of African extraction. We are quickly getting over the villain thing. The first half of the year was peppered with accusations of racism against those who opposed the president’s agenda. Don’t like the government handing out money hand over fist — you must be racist. Opposed nationalization of health-care — again you are a racist. The tea-party movement was labeled racist and the media was so enamored with that line of attack that MSNBC actually cropped a shot of an gun tooting protester to hide his dark skin – while the presenter prattled on about the raciest, gun-packing, protesters. And people started to question the whole idea of racism as a political motivation. They could say in their hearts, “I don’t have a thing against my neighbor who is black (or Asian, or Native American) where do these people get off calling me racist because I don’t want to government in control of my healthcare.”
There were people who were excited to vote for Mr Obama because it was their chance to prove to the world, to themselves, to history, that America has grown beyond a racist past and that we no longer need to be hobbled and burdened by the roles of villain and victim — when the left and the media went right on playing the old race card it felt like something of a betrayal. But of course they have only illustrated the classic problem of victimology. When wrong doing is assigned as a function of birth it can never be made right because it was unjust to begin with. Little children should not be segregated into groups of historic victims and historic villains. We should each be held accountable for our own actions, not the actions or circumstances of our assumed ancestors. There is no way my children will be able to compensate my neighbor’s children for historic racial injustices. First off my children’s ancestors were not the slave owners of American History and the neighbor’s emigrated from Sudan less than two year ago. A bit flippant of an assessment, perhaps, but also an illustration of the reality of today.
The civil right’s movement of Dr King was working to address actual wrongs. Wrongs in the enforcement of the law, inequalities in educational opportunity and civil discourse. Moving onward, moving towards something better requires a letting go of the past. The wrongs of history can not be set right, only learned from. The desperate attempt, even well intentioned, of rectifying past wrongs with present injustice can never set those past wrongs to right. It could only perpetuate a circle of oppression and oppressor with the roles changing but the tragedy always the same. No little girl with dark skin should ever come home from school feeling like she isn’t smart enough, or good enough or pretty enough because her skin is dark. Not little girl with light skin should ever come home from school thinking she is bad, or her family is evil, or that she owes some debt she can’t repay because she was born with light skin. Far better if every little girl would have to have the completely foreign idea of racism explained to them and then be able to wrinkle up their nose and declare the whole thought of judging people on such petty things as “stupid”.