We can do more to end racism

The recent 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the ?I Have a Dream? speech by Martin Luther King Jr. brought to mind the question of just how far we have come in combating racism in the United States, Kansas, Marion County and Hills?boro.

I realized the day before that the anniversary was coming. To me, that alone was a bit disturbing. I had heard of no plans to mark the event in our schools or community. So, even though I am a language arts instructor, and this type of thing is not technically in my curriculum, I decided something needed to be done to commemorate the occasion. My English III students watched the MLK speech via Youtube and took part in a discussion of its main points.

For the most part, they showed little or no reaction.

Did I find my students? lack of interest surprising? Not really. Every year, as we study the classic novel ?To Kill a Mockingbird,? I have them journal about the book. I ask them whether they believe racism exists in Hillsboro.

Rarely, and I?m talking maybe one or two a year, do any express that they believe it still does. The vast majority of teens, including our African American students, write that they are not aware of any obvious prejudice in town.

I know, however, this is not the entire truth. I have heard the disparaging comments made by members of the community about races that do not have white skin.

During Black History Month, I have overheard questions about why there is no ?White History Month.? Acquaintances have wondered aloud why only one or two players on NCAA basketball teams are white.

I have seen local residents look disapprovingly on couples of mixed race. I have been a witness to comments about the president that, though I know this is overwhelmingly a Republican county, clearly carry additional animosity about his race than what they would simply based on his political persuasion.

Now, I don?t want to give the impression that I think I am perfect. Far from it. I struggle to avoid judging people based on their outward appearances. I have to fight the urge to walk around homeless people of all races. I seldom give the benefit of the doubt or any of my cash to ?panhandlers? at Wichita intersections. I know I need to make improvements.

But, during my 50-some years of existence on this planet and my 20-plus years of experience in public education, I believe I have developed some level of under?standing concerning racism that continues to fester 50 years after the call for civil rights hit its crescendo. Allow me to share a few of my observations.

First, our tendency to reject others who are different from us is more culturally than racially based. This might explain why my students don?t see racism as prevalent in Hillsboro. The other races they encounter are from a similar, if not identical, culture as their own.

I can think of only a couple of children of color who have attended our schools who are not closely associated with whites of the community. They have been adopted, are part of mixed-race families or arrive in our fair city as Tabor College students. They are expected to blend in with us.

And, I would venture to guess, most of the Tabor kids who stick around after graduation have an extensive exposure to the mainstream white society found here.

Hillsboro is also accepting of students from vastly different cultures. I?m talking about students who are clearly foreign, perhaps from Africa or Haiti. We whites want to be helpful and welcoming to them as they adjust to our culture, though an effort is seldom made to understand theirs. They are more of a curiosity than a trend.

Second, many of the biases against African Americans are deeply rooted in previous generations. I believe most residents who are products of the Depression era have made and are continuing to make an effort to improve their acceptance of people of color. But, they were also responsible for passing on to the next generation many of the prejudices and generalizations of their day.

People my age heard the jokes and were privy to negative comments about African Americans. We were taught, albeit often indirectly, not to mix with them and even to fear them. And, those of us who are post baby boomers still struggle to shake off these inherited biases.

My third point is one espoused by African Americans themselves. As comedian Bill Cosby and other spokesmen have expressed, and as I have heard others agree, some members of American ?black culture? are not helping their cause. They need to stop degrading each other in movies, music and other media. The ?N word? needs to go away forever.

People of all races need to take responsibility for their own behaviors. All of us need to be held accountable for our words and actions. This does not, however, provide an excuse for our not doing everything we can to eradicate racism.

Finally, I believe we as educators need to do a better job of presenting diversity in our mostly white classrooms. Whether it be art, music, language study or journalism, we need to inform our students of the existence of viewpoints and cultures other than their own to help them develop empathy with everyone, regardless of race, creed or ethnicity.

We need to help our youth understand the various peoples who populate our city, state, country and world, realizing that we may well be sending Hillsboro and Marion County students out into an environment vastly different from the one they experience here. Then, when they come face to face with cultures foreign to them, they will be prepared to battle the ignorance of racism with knowledge.

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