We are only half-way through the year of 2015, and many can already summarize this year in America with one word: Racism. It has been a major topic that has superseded everything else that the media has tossed our way. Regardless of what occurs, and regardless of the great strides made by mankind, we keep finding ourselves back at this table for discussion.
As an African-American male, it is easy for me to engage in topics on race, racism and being black in the U.S.–however, it becomes even more challenging for those who are not the center of focus within this debate. As a student, you know that when classes start you will have to deal with this conversation. And as a teacher, you know that you will have to facilitate this conversation. So here are a few things that you need to know while moving forward into useful dialogue:
1. History Matters: It may not matter to you, or, you may have your own personal interpretation of history but at the end of the day history is history. I will never forget asking one of my peers about living in Sri Lanka. I asked her about its relationship to India and her smile immediately dropped. Like an idiot, I had forgotten about the history between Sri Lanka and India, and the fact that she was old enough to remember. She was nice enough to tell me that I really needed to firm up on my history. I offended her, and I knew it–through my American ignorance of the world around me. The history of the African American in America is complex, painful, frustrating–and above all else–a consistent, constant struggle. Take time out to visit a Civil Rights Museum, watch History Channel Civil Rights clips online or read the Civil Rights section in the library. It’s all American history, so it makes it your history regardless.
2. Nothing Cultural Is Ever That Simple: African American…Black…Negro…Colored…we have so many names that our identity is like a sand dune–constantly shifting. Now add in the fact that unlike the other races in this country, many of our ancestors did not come here by choice, nor were they free when they arrived. Everything about African American culture is complex–not even African Americans can make much sense about it at times. So please understand that even though you have a few “black friends”, they only represent a small percentage of African Americans. Start with where you are: get to know those friends, their family , their habits, their preferences–and build a trusting friendship. Through trust you will learn about their culture but you will have access to the most important thing and that thing is community.
3. Understand That You Don’t Understand: One of the most offensive things that someone has ever said to me was when an older, well educated, well dressed white man told me that he “understood what it meant to be black in Higher Education–and maybe more than you”. He has since eaten those words, but it was crazy to hear that. I have yet to call Kobe Bryant and tell him that I know more about winning an NBA championship than he does, and I haven’t called Donald Trump to let him know that I understand more about realestate than he does. I have white friends who have decided to take a journey in order to understand what other races experience and that has inspired me to begin my own journeys. We travel these journeys because we know that we are attempting to understand something that we can never be–and to the extent that we always were.
4. Ignorance Is A Great Offender: Facebook is not evil–but some of the posts and comments made by people at times of great racial conflict can be down right stupid. Do you remember what just said about my friend from Sri Lanka? My ignorance of her country, its history and culture offended her. The United States is simply too diverse to assume that we know everything about everyone’s culture. At a recent Unity Prayer Vigil for the Charleston Mass Shooting I (an African American) sat with my friend (a Latino) and was joined by a young woman (Chinese) while sitting in front of kind man (White). The entire room looked like a human rainbow. We all realized that we were different and respected that difference. It opened the door to embrace one another and learn more about one another. People who assume that they understand someone else’s culture without respecting and engaging that person and their culture can never contribute to unity: they can only engage in debate and hate.
The bottom line: the matter of race matters. Whether it matters to you is a question that you will have to answer for yourself. If you are a student/educator that is concerned about civil and human rights, then you will certainly find yourself engaged in conversation on race relations. If you attempt to engage in these talks without encountering resistance and conflict, it could be interpreted that you are unteachable and/or you do not support the valiant efforts of those who truly believe that all lives matter.