My Opa immigrated from The Netherlands in the late 1950’s, and first landed in Washington D.C. Being a foreigner, and a Dutch-speaking person, he would get on the bus, work his way to the back (so that the people who got on after him could have the front seats) until one day, the bus driver stopped him and said, “That’s not where you go. You belong in the front.”
I remember riding the metros in Paris, where people just kind of got on and off at stops, with the only seemingly social rule being that you don’t leave your purse on a seat. On my return home, we were stuck in New York City for a night, and decided to go exploring, so we hopped on the subway. My friend and I, with our poofy white girls vests and Coach purses, stood at the back of the subway car, talking vibrantly (and sleep-deprivingly) of our adventures, when a lady made eye contact with us, scooted over on her seat, motioned for us to follow, and whispered, “You girls need to be careful. You sit here.” Comparing my experience on the Paris metro, and the New York City subway (literally 15 hours apart from each other) made me realize just how ingrained race issues are in American society.
In Thandie Newton’s TedTalk, “Embracing Otherness, Embracing Myself”, she talks about how race is a socially constructed concept–that there is no biological evidence that one group of people is superior to another. When I think about my Opa’s experience, and my own experience riding public transportation, I completely agree: race does not become an issue until we make it an issue.
In its purest form, the cause of racism is fear. The Jim Crow laws, a product of reconstruction, and forced segregation, became prominent during the Great Depression, a time of uncertainty, when so many white men feared their own jobs, political positions, and social memberships would be “handed over to the black man”. So, in order to keep themselves in power, the white man created all kinds of rules and obstacles to prevent the black man from “stealing their jobs”, “taking their political positions”, and “uprooting their social membership” (but hey, if you can explain to me how racism is NOT fear based, but something else instead, I’d totally be up for hearing it).
When I think about racism today, I can’t help but compare to these very fear-based mentalities. People might say, “Oh well, we need to tighten our borders because the Mexicans are taking all of our jobs”–fear of not having a job. They might say, “we can’t let a Muslim be in Congress–they will bring over ISIS”–fear of giving up a political position. Or, “I don’t want that black family moving into the neighborhood–they will bring all of their drug thug friends”–fear of social membership. People will say, “he’s biased because he is Mexican”, “All black people are sucking off the welfare system”, “all Muslims are terrorists”–all fear-based, emotionally laden, not statistically proven statements.
As an educator, I’m passionate about teaching my students the importance of language, and how using words, such as “bitch” suppress over. I strive to teach my students the importance of critically thinking and finding fallacies in arguments, and we even spend a whole day, learning how to disagree respectfully. I focus on teaching my students the importance of seeking their own identities, and with that, viewpoints, and always having solid, reputable, credible evidence to back up their viewpoints. The most disheartening part of this election, for me, is to witness just how many adults are not able to do the very things I’m so passionate about teaching my students.
An interesting social phenomenon occurs in these controversial conversations, because we should not be weary of those who ARE speaking, but those who are silent. For example, a couple summers ago, the hot topic was gay marriage. On my social media, people were changing their statuses, profile pictures, etc. in support of gay marriage, and those who were not in support of gay marriage virtually remained silent. This happened with with Cecil the Lion, the gorilla that was tranquilized at the Cincinnati Zoo, the Standing Rock pipeline controversy–however it happens, whatever seems to be the ‘dominant’ ideology, those who are in favor speak up, and those who are not in support remain silent.
I fear for our country–because as it turns out, more people than we thought still hold onto these deeply racist, fear-based, illogical views. Donald Trump can say all he wants that he is “not racist”, and he can “prove that he isn’t racist”, but what he represents is racism, and what I fear is that all those who hold those racist views, who once remained silent, now feel a surge of power, because now they exist in the dominant ideology (how many KKK uprisings have we now seen?).
Coincidentally enough, my class is reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and the day after the election, we were discussing racism in the United States, and I wondered how many of them hold these deeply racist views that were once socially unacceptable to share, and would remain silent, and whether or not the dominant voice would now be changing, and how that will impact our society.
As Garth Brooks sings, “When the last thing we notice is the color of skin/ And the first thing we look for is the beauty within/ When the skies and the oceans are clean again/Then we shall be free”, and we seem to still have a long ways to go…