My day started with a video. A grainy scene shot on a school bus by a child with a phone; it captured a few seconds of some jolly middle-schoolers from Maryland chanting, en masse: "1,2,3,4, how many niggers are in my store?" Voices brimming with hilarity and excitement, they no doubt repeated that phrase over and over, while children of color heard, listened, recorded, and felt... what? What does a child of color, a black child, feel when his or her classmates sit on a bus singing about "niggers," that most notorious of pejoratives meant to denigrate those with black skin?
I can't imagine. I'm white. I've never had peers caterwauling insults about my skin color. Certainly denigrations have been directed to me as a girl, a woman, but not as a white person. That "privilege" is, it seems, reserved for the cultural "majority:" the permission to reprise, repeat, and replay a caustic refrain that's been chortled for centuries by whites who find the "music" of racism to be entertaining.
But how, one might ask, in the year 2016, with a black president in office, a society inexorably heaving toward acceptance of marriage equality, religious freedom, gender parity, and the hopeful election of our first female president, do we still have white children on a bus, going to a middle school in the great state of Maryland, thinking it's acceptable to sing inane ditties about "niggers?"
We have that because those children have been mistakenly led to believe it's acceptable. Because no one has intervened to teach them otherwise. Because someone, somewhere in their lives, taught, allowed, encouraged, or laughed at that form of racism. We have that because someone imbued those children with the belief that considering the feelings, the thoughts, the emotions of their peers of color was irrelevant or unimportant. We have that because adults raising, teaching, mentoring, and guiding those children are either racists themselves, or people too timid, too misinformed, too unaware, or too narrow-minded to teach them otherwise.
Those children, I assure you, didn't start out that way. Have you ever really looked at babies, at young children, particularly those engaged with other babies or young children, and noticed how utterly pure and unbiased they are? Bereft of hate, uneducated in fear and bigotry, they are as yet unaware of the "other" we adults too often ascribe to people who are different from us.
We see them in preschools, in early grade schools; in parks, in backyards and playgrounds, interacting with kids of every race, creed, ethnicity, orientation, or color; playing, talking, liking, not liking, friending or competing, sharing or not sharing, but all without the filters and assignations of DIFFERENCE. They're just kids in a classroom drawing pictures; building forts in backyard bushes; kicking a soccer ball across fields, arguing over sand toys, or sharing juice boxes. They don't know yet that we live in a country -- a world -- where skin color, religious choice, ethnic background, sexual orientation, or other judicable traits are used as filters, as weapons, to differentiate and marginalize those we can designate as "other."
What we can all do, each of us, every day, without any other tools, positions, access, or power, is teach our children well.
And those pure, unbiased children either grow into their adulthoods guided and mentored to keep possession of their open-mindedness, their love and compassion, their acceptance and empathy towards others, or they're interrupted -- by adults, by older children, by already tarnished peers, by media and online culture -- to learn another language. The language of hate, fear, and bigotry. The language of presumption, suspicion; cultural and ethnic profiling. The language of arrogance and entitlement, of superiority and judgment, of sexism, misogyny, and homophobia. The language of rudeness, disrespect, bullying, and inconsideration. And as they learn that coded, weighty language, our society churns with the vitriol of hate groups, online threats and trollism, the causticness of social takedowns and ugly ad hominem attacks.... and a school bus of children singing, "1, 2, 3, 4, how many niggers are in my store?"
It all starts somewhere:
We don't build a society where the fear of limiting guns, of losing any measure of the 2nd Amendment, trumps all rational thought on the topic, including the fear of losing our children (who die by guns in staggering numbers), unless we'd bred generations of people so terrified and panicked by "others" that guns seem the only barrier to certain death.
We wouldn't find ourselves fighting against one of the most egregious presidential candidates in the history of our country if we hadn't bred generations of Americans so fearful of embracing diversity -- of seeing the value of immigrant contribution, of understanding the shared humanity of ALL people -- that they'd sell their souls to a xenophobic, misogynistic, hate and fear mongering shyster who promises white people to "make America great again."
We don't get to a place where far too many police officers execute unarmed, fleeing, cooperating, or even ornery-but-don't-deserve-to-die black people, predominantly men, in such numbers that protesters lose track of which event is being protested, unless we'd bred generations of adults imbued with the "fear of other" -- so much so that even wearing the uniform doesn't exempt them from overreaction, brutality, profiling, zealous presumption, and corrupted protocol (see A Matter of Life And Death: Not All Cops Have The Aptitude To Be Good Cops ).
You've got to be taught to hate and fear
You've got to be taught from year to year;
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You've got to be carefully taught.
Those lyrics are not new; they were written in the late 40s by Oscar Hammerstein for the Broadway musical, South Pacific. At the time, the subplot of an American officer loving an Asian woman was utterly shocking, and the play's narrative promotion of racial tolerance and acceptance was a controversial idea. Watching it now, in our world of interracial relationships and cultural progress on so many critical levels, it seems quaint and antiquated, yet those lyrics are still so true... because just yesterday a little black girl on a bus going to her middle school in Maryland had to listen to her white classmates singing, "1, 2, 3, 4, how many niggers are in my store?" Not so quaint, is it?
It's not my place to tell black people how to deal with enduring our American culture, but my status as a white person compels me to challenge those of my own race to think about our contribution to the current landscape. We obviously have a major role in this racial divide, one that has occupied our country since its beginning, so I hope you'll take a moment to set aside knee-jerk judgment or natural resistance toward personal responsibility to consider the following:
It's good to sign petitions in protest, share stories on social media against racism and police brutality, and debate the value of compassion and empathy with those less inclined. It's important to support leaders and politicians who push progressive, humane, and honorable policy positions. It's essential to stand up against hate and bigotry in your workplaces, your communities, your churches and gathering spots. Certainly the need to promote honor, integrity, and acceptance of our fellow man in schools of every age bracket, from preschool to PhD programs, is non-negotiable. But what we can all do, each of us, every day, without any other tools, positions, access, or power, is teach our children well.
Teach them that "casual racism" is as toxic and hurtful as blatant racism; that it includes words, songs, phrases, and stereotypical assignations meant specifically to denigrate. If need be, teach them, explicitly, what those words and phrases are. Most adults know the list well. It's your job as a parent, teacher, adult, to mentor understanding and compassion. Don't let any loudmouthed politician convince you that cultural sensitivity is dismissible "political correctness." It's not. It's being a decent human being.
Teach them that ALL people, regardless of skin color, cultural ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, heritage; whatever, are equal, are human, are worthy of empathy and consideration. Make sure they understand that by exemplifying it in your own actions, words, and relationships. You are their first, best, and most impactful teacher; don't abdicate that role to the Internet and peers over which you have no control.
Teach them that NO race is superior; that, in fact, "race" as a separating factor, a construct, doesn't actually exist. That if you peeled away our skin and hair and differentiated features, you'd find all the same stuff in every one of us. It's not race that defines people; it's spirit, soul, essence. It's shared humanity. So teach them that integrity, ethics, goodness, creativity, joy, and love are found in every permutation of humanity on this earth.
And if you don't have children? BE that teacher for everyone and anyone around you. Live it, speak it, act it, demand it. Don't become a tacit collaborator in the coarsening of culture by allowing racism -- casual or otherwise -- to exist in your sphere. Be fearless. Speak up. Teach, teach, teach by your example. Remember that children come into this world with open hearts and souls... keep them on that track. Help them grow into adults who'll make a legacy of those positive traits, passing them on to future generations, ushering in a world that's fair, that's open-minded; that's better.
Goodness, love, and tolerance are all as teachable, as learnable; as endurable as hate and fear. Teach those. Be the demographic that's contributing to, as Mr. Lincoln called it, the "better angels of our nature." We need as many of those as we can get.