My mom finishes explaining to a group of bored third graders the same story we all heard back when we were kids ourselves, “… And that’s what Martin Luther King fought for; a world in which we embrace each other’s differences.” My mom teaches in a well-to-do district where parent-teacher conferences are characterized by red bottom heels and Chanel perfume, and she often tells me that she fears her students have never been exposed to people of different cultures. This poses a particular challenge to a woman like herself, a Spanish immersion instructor who fights everyday to get her kids to develop a more worldly perspective.
Despite this obstacle, she understands that not everyone has had the same life experiences and that the kids in her class aren’t to blame for the things they do not know. After all, it is her job to teach them. So on this day, after rehearsing her MLK story multiple times in the car, she speaks slowly so that her students are sure to catch every word about how differences are something to be celebrated. “Differences… like how Jacob* is different?” One of the students asks haughtily, pointing to the only Jewish boy in the class.
It’s moments like these that shed light on how what we teach doesn’t always acknowledge that everyone has different views and beliefs and traditions. Rather, it enforces the idea that whiteness is the norm and everything else is just strange, foreign, and at the end of the day, lesser.
Someone turns on the television. They get to hear the President call places like Haiti and Africa “shithole countries,” learn that entire countries are being banned on the basis of their collective faith, and then go to school to hear that same happily-ever-after story about the victory of Martin Luther King and his Civil Rights Movement.
Do we see the irony yet?
I remember being taught the same lesson back in elementary school and feeling grateful that racism was “over”. I watched clips of Ruby Bridges and the Little Rock Nine in middle school and thought to myself, “Thank God we don’t have to worry about this anymore”. In fact, I felt as though we, as a nation, would be able to identify racism if it were to resurface again. I knew what it looked like; segregated water fountains and sit-ins and dramatic police brutality. Explicit signs that read “WHITES ONLY” and men in white hoods and actors wearing blackface on television.
Yet it’s far from that simple. It’s hard to take a step back and recognize that racism isn’t gone just because we were told so. And yet, it was worth taking a little extra time to realize that the world around me was changing. Although the type of racism I learned about back in school may have subsided, it has only reinvented itself and infiltrated our society in other, more deceptive ways.
For Feryal Nawaz, as a woman of color at SU, her experience has had incredibly racist moments. “If I tell people I’m American… [they ask me] where I’m really from. I get that a lot. People have this image of an American as a white person, and as a person of color, when I tell someone I’m American and they don’t believe me, it sucks,” she says. “If you see something, like any [racist] or discriminatory behavior happening and you don’t speak up about it, especially as a white person with privilege, you are part of the problem [and] you are just as bad as the person being discriminatory.”
“People have this image of an American as a white person, and as a person of color, when I tell someone I’m American and they don’t believe me, it sucks.”
Julio Burgos agrees. “I think people should definitely educate [those] who make jokes, because the reason why they feel that it’s fine to joke about [race] is because they haven’t experienced it.” But based on his own experiences living in Miami, he admits that when it comes to learning about why “harmless” jokes about race are wrong, “A lot of [people] aren’t going to understand, so how do you break that? I wish I knew.”
Simply put, racism doesn’t look the way it used to. Nowadays, it’s your aunt complaining about affirmative action at the dinner table because “minorities have so many advantages.” It’s your friends singing along to every single lyric in a rap song, n-word included, because “it’s not fair that only black people can say it.” It’s laughing along with everyone else when someone in the group makes a racist joke. It’s refusing to stick up for other people because you’re not interested in drama, because apathy is complicity. It’s believing your friends when they tell you that a racist comment doesn’t actually make them racist.
Because that would be crazy right? We know what racism looks like.
… Don’t we?
* Name has been changed