I just finished reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It made me good and mad all over again.
I had been reading it a week or so ago when I came across a Facebook post of a young man (I’d guess about 15 years old) who started making videos, on his cell phone, of salespeople following him around in stores. You can make a pretty good guess what color his skin is. In a temper, I made a comment on that post, perhaps an incautious one, in that it could have been interpreted as too broadly accusatory. I called out anyone who was reading it, who might be engaged in that sort of behavior, to just stop it!
The thing is, I could be a target of my own comments. Even though I don’t remember ever following anyone around a store because of their skin color, I know my thoughts and actions are sometimes influenced by unjustly negative biases too, and I’ve caught myself, from time to time, automatically having low expectations of people, based on their appearance, before I’ve spoken with them or had a chance even to observe how they actually behave.
But that makes me mad too. I remember when I was very small, when I first became aware of (often subtly) bigoted comments and attitudes, in some of the grown-ups around me, be it towards people of another race, religion, sex, or sexuality. There was a black family next door, for example, and we played and chatted with those kids blissfully unaware of race issues. Over time, I realized that there was some sort of divide, some awkwardness, between ‘my’ people and ‘their’ people. I won’t say who, but I have quite a few relatives and family friends who are quite bigoted, and many more who are but less so. It made me uncomfortable, and the way the adults answered my questions often sounded dishonest, and were unsatisfying. That may be why, when I was in sixth and seventh grade especially, I was obsessed with the civil rights movement and the whole issues of American racism. I’m sure I checked out every single book in our school library on the subject, and I remember when I was assigned to read ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ a few years later, I had already read it several times. It’s still one of my favorite books.
So why am I mad at other people when I, too, catch myself in biased thinking? I’m mad on behalf of myself and every single other young person who inherited that unwanted baggage from each previous generation. And I’m willing to bet that, all things being equal, those adults who passed on those bigoted attitudes wouldn’t have chosen to inherit them either, since they are good in other ways.
Although I’m so conscious of that bias that creeps in, I’ll often adopt an exaggeratedly non-bigoted attitude (even if a person of color is behaving suspiciously or badly, I’ll sometimes pretend they’re not, for example), and for all of us who feel a little bigoted against our own wills and fight against it, young people pick up on subtle cues with astonishing insight. They pick up on those awkwardnesses, those little changes in the way you hold yourself, in the way you think and speak, in the presence of different people, and they all too often internalize it, adopting those attitudes themselves over time, even becoming more racist themselves in an attempt to justify those adopted instincts.
I feel that for every one of these kids who inherit racism, their innocence has been violated: not the kind of innocence that, I think, is often just idealized ignorance (like that regarding sex), but the good kind, where people are just people and they’re all equal candidates for companions and playmates. Little kids treat each other more or less the same when it comes to color, once they’ve asked those funny getting-to-know-you questions that, to adult ears, sound racist, though they reflect only honest curiosity (hence the lack of self-consciousness). The racial divide happen later, when the awkwardness creeps in, as you grow and realize that your very thoughts have become tainted with the quality of injustice that is bigotry. In these subtle little ways, people pass on those old nasty habits of thought and behavior, robbing the next generation of that kind of inner peace that justice brings, and of so many opportunities to have a wider circle of friends, companions, and allies.
That’s how I remember it happening.
Going back to the teen and his cell phone videos: while I felt defensive on his behalf, I was also disturbed that he called one of the women following him around ‘bitch’. Then I felt doubly sorry about how this kid is being betrayed: not only are adults around him behaving badly in treating him preemptively, and therefore unjustly, as a criminal, but he’s been inculcated with at least some degree of sexism already, in that he’s comfortable with calling women ‘bitch’. An epithet on his part would be warranted, I grant, but ‘bitch’? That’s as sexist as those women following him are racist.
In every way, as with the one before, and those before that, the older generation is letting this kid down, as we do all other kids we’re subjecting to our bad example.
But I’m hopeful. I think the internet, even as it’s making our kids more sophisticated and worldly-wise than we might be comfortable with, are also bringing kids in constant contact with others of all races and cultural backgrounds, and they’re communicating freely with them clear of adult interference. They’re learning that others, whose bodily appearance may be different, have the same sort of thoughts and emotions that they do, just as we did on the playground. Now, however, the adults are not present to infuse those interactions with their racism, purposefully or not. Mr. Barack Obama was right, when he observed of his daughters and their friends ‘…when I talk to Malia and Sasha and I listen to their friends and I see them interact, they’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on those issues.’
Kids these days: they’re becoming cosmopolitan, in spite of all of those adults around them who justify their own bigotry by trying, unconsciously or not, to pass it on to their kids. Fortunately for the kids, I don’t think that’ll work this time around.