January 15, 2010

Every Parent and Teacher Must Teach Tolerance

Today is Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday.  Happy Birthday to a great man, a powerful speaker, an inspiring leader. 

This is, naturally, a great time of year to talk about race relations, prejudice and tolerance; it is a time to take stock of our progress as people and families, as well as nations.  While there have been many steps forward, there is still a long way to go. 

And that brings me to something a bit controversial that I believe needs to be said: Racism is not a one way street.

I fully acknowledge that WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) are in the majority and that they contribute a great deal to the racism in this country.  But the other half of the story is in the hands of various minority groups.  Equal responsibility falls on their shoulders to work towards fixing racial issues. 

One of the schools I went to last year as a substitute teacher was populated almost entirely by African-American students and was a low-income school.  It was only a middle school, meaning that the students were between ages 12 and 14, but there was a metal detector at the entrance of the building.  During one class, a girl wandered in from the hall, and when I insisted that she return to wherever she was supposed to be, quite a confrontation developed.  After cursing at me (including the F-word), the girl turned to go, but whipped back around when she got to the door. 

"Did you vote for Obama?" she demanded.  I am white.  As much as I would have liked to answer, and have a real conversation with this angry young woman, my training told me to avoid politics in public school.  Besides which, the question itself was inappropriate. 

I refused to answer, except to tell her to return to her class.  She smirked at me: "I thought so."  Then, giving the finger to the entire class (especially me), she left. 

I'm fine with a middle school student having issues with authority.  That's perfectly normal.  Her cursing and aggressive behavior were rather unnerving, but when she turned the issue into one of race, I felt sick.  And, although the most extreme, this was not the first or last time I've encountered racism in the public schools.  In that school, the simple fact that I was white made me a lesser person. 

My issue here is that these kids were fairly young, and that such intensely racist behavior is learned.  Whether it is blacks holding prejudices against whites or whites against Hispanics is irrelevent.  Where are they learning it?  All parents, teachers, coaches, mentors, grand-parents, everyone who influences children need to be honest and tolerant. 

Honesty means simply telling the truth about your history.  Were you racist in your youth?  Did you have to deal with prejudice in your home town?  Acknowledge your mistakes, if you made any, and talk about some of the things you've done right.  Don't let your child's only influence on the issue of race be their friends. 

Tolerance, like any other virtue, must be taught.  It absolutely must be discussed openly and taught by every parent of every color.  When that begins to happen, we'll see some amazing progress.

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