While reading shanikka's extraordinary diary about the ongoing slaughter of young black men in this country, I had two visceral reactions. The first I hope we all had -- an overwhelming sense of horror and sorrow at the utter pointless waste of lives. This reaction is, I think, baseline human; you'd be hard pressed to qualify as a human being if, reading once more of the violent deaths of scores of young men, deaths attributable solely the expectations of their killers based on the color of their skin, your first reaction isn't one of overwhelming sorrow and horror. So that, in and of itself, wasn't particularly notable, and isn't a diary.
My second reaction, I think, may be worth a diary. Because my second reaction was to wonder what my parents did that was so different than so many other parents of kids in my demographic. I was raised in a white, middle class, Protestant family in the suburbs of Detroit. There were no people of noticeably darker hue within several miles of my boyhood home. Yet my parents raised three kids who all manage NOT to react to others based on the color of their skin, or their non-Western dress, or any of the myriad markers of the "other" that identify the targets of middle-American violence these days.
I'm grateful, of course, that they did so. This diary is an effort to identify what it was that they did, and how they did it. My goal isn't a parenting primer (as a non-parent, I'm not qualified) but will, I hope, add something of value to the ongoing discussion of racism and violence, and how we might decrease and, ultimately, end them.
To some extent, I'm also responding to this diary, which asks some very useful (and pointed) questions about how we can battle racism. The diary challenges readers to become "anti-racism warriors", and encourages confrontation. There is certainly value in that approach, but in my experience confrontation is rarely successful in changing people's minds, even if they moderate their behavior or language in the presence of the person doing the confronting. (For instance, I've been confronted by folk I consider religious extremists, who informed me that I was wrong to so describe them. I still do, but not around those specific individuals; it's not worth the annoyance. I've also confronted extremists, and members of the Klan, and members of Westboro Baptist Church, not expecting them to change, but because they and their ideas needed to be challenged.) This diary is about something different: raising kids to treat people as universally human. It may not feel as activist as confrontation, but I believe it is just as valid an approach, more proactive, and in some ways far more subversive.
The two approaches can also be effectively combined.
More after the orange arabesque.
So, how did my parents go about raising non-racist kids?
A Disclaimer about TerminologyI don't think that it was their intent, really, to raise non-racist kids. Or rather, it was only part of their intent. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the things they taught that mitigate against racism are all much more broad-based than just race. They wanted us to be more than just free of racist beliefs, behaviors and anxieties; they wanted us to be honest-to-goodness human beings, and to see everyone else as equally human. The lack of racism came along as part of the package.
I'm well aware that it's darned near impossible for anyone in America to be entirely free of racism. I don't claim that I or my sisters are that saintly. When I say "non-racist" in this diary I'm speaking of being sufficiently free of racism to see people as people, individuals as individuals, communities as communities, without assuming that their physical appearance or ethnic heritage is in any way a meaningful predictor of their character. If you have a better definition, please offer it -- but please don't slam me with a lot of complaints that, as a white, middle-aged man, I am inherently racist and just don't know it. I do know it, and do my level best to overcome it on those occasions when it seems to be trying to come out. Most important, I try always to act as though it isn't there at all.
So how did they do it? It's really pretty simple. I've boiled it down to a half-dozen basic elements.
Part 1: Everyone gets Respect
I think the technique started with the simple, obvious, but often overlooked expectation of respect. My parents always -- always! -- treated everyone around them with respect. It didn't matter who they were, how old they were, what color they were, whether they were rich or poor, powerful or powerless. They were human, and being human warranted respect. In return, my parents expected to be treated respectfully, and generally were. On those occasions when they were treated rudely, or crudely, or as somehow "less" than someone else, they responded with unflagging respect and a simple determination that they would not be baited into betraying their principles.
We kids were expected to comport ourselves similarly. The worst punishments I got as a child weren't for lies or laziness or anything like that. The worst punishments were for being disrespectful, and it didn't matter whether the person being disrespected was one of my parents, an authority figure (like a teacher), another kid, or some stranger at the store. We were to be respectful of our fellow human beings because they are our fellow human beings; no excuses tolerated.
This is not to say my folks were, or raised us to be, doormats. There are respectful ways to demand that one be treated with respect. My parents chose to model the behavior they wanted and expected, all the time, to everyone they met. At times I could see that it was work to maintain civility; now that I have a few more decades behind me, I know all too well just how hard it can be. But respect is a habit, and my parents had it, and we learned it most effectively by watching them practice it day in and day out.
Part 2: Anger and Temper aren't the same thing
I have been all my life a strong-willed person, and not particularly willing to suffer fools at all, much less gladly. I have the capacity for a lot of anger, and can have quite a temper, and have from time to time paid the price for letting them get the best of me. Still, few if any of the people I have known, worked with, even lived with, would describe me as an angry person. From time to time I've even been criticized for not getting visibly angry over some affront or another. That's not because I'm not angry, but because my parents taught me a very useful distinction: anger and temper aren't the same thing.
Injustice makes me angry. Bullying makes me angry. Mindless violence makes me very, very angry. Any of these things done in my name (like senseless wars carried out by my country, or other white people "defending our race" by killing innocent dark-skinned kids) make me very, very, very angry. Over time, sufficient anger builds to slow, potent rage. But you won't likely see me express any of that in the words or actions we commonly equate with anger, and certainly not rage.
That's not to say I don't lose my temper. I do, and when I do you don't want to be around, but it's less often as a result of a serious issue than in response to an unexpected slight. The little things set me off; the big ones set in for a long, slow burn.
That's because of my parent's second lesson in being human: Anger isn't the same thing as Temper.
Temper is a bad thing, by and large. I can't think of a single instance in which an outburst of temper made a situation better. Or rather, I can't think of such an instance in which a calm, considered response wouldn't have achieved the same or better results, without the drama and inevitable embarrassment resulting from a burst of temper. Temper can result from anger, but in my experience it's more a child of fatigue, surprise, and frustration than it is of real anger. Temper is an uncivil, disrespectful way to deal with a bad situation.
Anger is neither good nor bad; its quality is defined not by its nature but by the nature of our choices in dealing with it. Channel anger carefully and appropriately, and it can fuel a movement for social justice and change on a massive scale. Channel it poorly, inappropriately, and it becomes destructive and alienating.
Which is simply to say that anger must be managed, its potential for harm recognized and continually guarded against, its power carefully channeled, for it to do any good.
Part 3: Interact Broadly
I mentioned that I was raised in a profoundly white suburb of Detroit. This was not because my parents wanted to keep us away from other people, but because they wanted us in the best schools they could find. They were well aware that we were living in an artificially homogeneous environment, and they made sure that we were exposed frequently to other communities and a wide variety of people.
The 1960s and 1970s were not a time of notable harmony between the city of Detroit and its northern suburbs. Many of my classmates never set foot in the city limits; a fair number were afraid to do so, because their parents were afraid. My parents took us into the city often, and made sure we were comfortable with a wide variety of folk. We went to the museums in the heart of the city; we went to cultural events from baseball games to concerts to riverfront festivals. Detroit used to have wonderful Ethnic Festivals each weekend during the summer, with food and music and dancing and all kinds of things representative of the culture being celebrated. We went frequently, learned a lot, had a lot of fun -- and learned that despite cultural and ethnic and racial differences, people are just people.
One of the best ways we found for expanding our comfort zones was through service. My parents were strong believers in the value of service, and made sure we shared that belief. It's hard not to get to know someone, to empathize with them and come to understand something of their life and challenges, when you're honestly seeking to serve them. We were also taught that gifts -- whether of time, talents, or treasure -- are only gracious when offered to an equal, that neither the servant nor the served should feel either better or worse than the other. We all play both roles at various times, and respect for each other as persons of sacred worth is what makes the exchange valuable to both parties.
My parents understood that it's hard to hate or fear people for being different when you know them, and know that you've got a lot in common. Familiarity may sometimes breed contempt, but familiarization breeds respect, or at least tolerance.
Part 4: Keep the Message Consistent
In a lot of ways, what my parents taught us wasn't that different from what other kids' parents taught them. The difference is the depth of my folks' commitment to those lessons.
Virtually everyone I grew up with went to church. True, there were the occasional Jewish kids, and one friend who was a Unitarian, and a handful of Mormons, but everyone was more or less a part of a spiritual community, and those communities had a remarkably similar set of basic teachings. They all taught respect; they all taught the value of civility; they all taught an ideal of peace. And those teachings were repeated at home, in most homes.
The difference at our house was that my parents didn't just teach us what they wanted us to learn; they modeled it. They lived it. I know that every culture has an inherent sense of "them" to contrast with its "us", but I am pretty sure that the "other" in my parents' hearts were a lot different than the "other" in most of our neighbors'.
Neither race, nor age, nor poverty, nor religion, nor any of the usual cultural borders were acceptable criteria for the alien. We were never actually told that there was an "other" out there, but hints crept in from time to time. We'd be out and see or hear something and be told, "Some people act like that" or "Some people talk like that" or "Some people believe that" -- "but we don't." This was said in a way that made it clear that we weren't any better than they were -- but our actions/words/attitudes could and should be better than the ones they were exhibiting.
Actually, the only time I can think of ever getting a clear statement from either of my parents that there were in the world "others" to whom we were inimically and utterly opposed was during the 1972 Republican National Convention. My mother was watching every horrible hour of it, and clearly getting angrier as it went on. Knowing she wasn't going to vote for Mr. Nixon no matter what happened at the RNC, I asked why she didn't just turn it off if it made her so angry. She responded flatly, "You need to know what your enemies are doing."
This general attitude covered a lot of ground. For instance, where it was fairly commonplace for people (particularly politicians) to talk about the evil, Godless Russians or Chinese, my parents made sure that we understood that while Americans might have serious differences with the leaders of those nations, and their cultures might seem strange, their people were mostly just like us: they had families, and worked hard, and wanted their kids to inherit a better world than they had been given. In much the same way, we were raised to understand that any generalization about a group of people was inherently unfair and inaccurate, and only made it harder for us all to get along. After all, would we want other people to judge us based on some stereotype? (I recall my mother once using Richard Nixon as an example of what people in other countries might expect me to be like...)
The only acceptable criterion for the "other" that I can recall is this: with a generous margin left open for grace and circumstances, you judge people by their actions. You keep an open heart, and hope they'll find the light, but it is acceptable, even necessary, to recognize that people who behave badly -- the disrespectful, small-minded, hard-hearted, hateful, and vengeful; the willingly ignorant and the wantonly cruel -- these people are indeed "other" and should be dealt with carefully. Changed where possible, confronted where necessary, even from time to time avoided as needed to stay healthy. But understood as "other" and unapologetically opposed until defeated, outlived or, better, converted.
Part 5: Be Christ-like
Much can be and has been said about the relative value of organized religion, the difference between religion and faith, and between faith and spirituality, and all the rest. I'm not entering into that discussion here. Rather, I'm making an observation about how my parents used their faith and our family's religion to make points about how people should relate to each other.
I really dislike the reflexive jingoism of "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets, and have considerable suspicions as to the real nature and intent of many of the folk who wear them or toss that catchphrase into discussions. Still, the question itself was a central, if differently phrased, part of our family life. We were United Methodist Christians -- that is, Christians who happened to belong to the United Methodist Church -- and as such we were expected to act, to the best of our admittedly limited ability, like Christ.
That's a hard expectation to meet if you try to do it all at once, but remarkably straightforward (though not always easy) if you take it one day, one person, one situation at a time. And that's how we were taught to live.
The nice thing is that you needn't be Christian to take this teaching to heart. Every religion I've ever studied (the major Yawhistic faiths, various Asian religions and philosophies, even neo-paganism) has one or more central figures, and central teachings, that people of good conscience and generous heart can choose to emulate or embody. Obvious examples include Christ, Gandhi, Ruth, Dr. King, and the Buddha. Some find role models close to home, good people who just aren't famous for it. If you choose someone living, or recently living, or likely to be "demythologized" by historians, don't let their limitations get in your way. Don't let their occasional human lapses blind you to the fundamental truths revealed by the greater arc of their lives.
The key isn't who you choose to emulate, but what defines them and, in turn, you. Basically, whatever version of the Golden Rule you hold to, find someone who lived or lives it, and follow their lead. Stubbornly.
Part 6: Understand Reality
My sisters and I were taught to approach people as people, and to expect the same in return, but my parents weren't rose-colored-glasses folk. They understood the world and that the example they chose to provide was not the most prevalent model in use, and they made sure we understood that, too.
It's all well and good to teach your kids that the color of someone's skin, or the religion they follow (or choose not to follow), or the country they come from, isn't relevant to their inherent humanity, and shouldn't be an impediment to treating them with respect and dignity. My parents did that, and they did it well. This ideal they set before us, however, did not prevent them from making sure that we understood, in age-appropriate ways, that not everyone plays by those rules. Some people judge others by their skin color, or their religion, or their nationality, or their economic status. And those same people are likely to judge us harshly if we refuse to accept their viewpoint as our own.
We were taught about the historic and ongoing struggles in this country and elsewhere to establish basic civil and human rights for everyone. We learned to respect and appreciate those whose lives were spent in the pursuit of this goal, and particularly those whose lives were lost it its pursuit. We were taught to understand that goals worth reaching are worth working for, and worth sacrificing for.
I remember seeing footage of civil rights demonstrations and anti-war protests on TV. My parents did their best to shield us from gratuitous depictions of violence as entertainment, but they did not keep us from being aware (as we came of age sufficiently to process it) that there were serious issues in the world, with well-meaning people on both sides, that were important enough to be worth confronting authority and opponents. Those confrontations should always be peaceful, even if the opposition got violent. That they should always be respectful, even if they were not met with respect.
I remember my mother crying one day as she watched TV; both were unusual for her. I was only seven or so, too young to recall whose funeral it was -- either Martin Luther King or Bobby Kennedy -- but she didn't try to shield me from the reality of what had happened, or from its effect on her. She made it clear that a good man had died. That he died because he had the audacity and courage to hold out a promise of peaceful co-existence to people, some of whom were more familiar and more comfortable with hate. That this was a terrible thing, that it could well happen again, and that those were the reasons that more good people must and would follow in that man's footsteps.
In short, we were raised to reach for an ideal world, and in many ways to act as though it were here, but we were also taught to live in the real world, and to understand the stark reality of violence, brutality, and the all-too-common and so often petty inhumanity that human beings are capable of producing.
We were taught to work for a better world, even to model that world, but to live with open eyes in this one, with all its challenges and all its tragedies. The best map is useless if you don't know where you are.
I think that's how my parents raised us to be non-racist, well-rounded, generally good human beings. I may have missed some important elements -- that's one of the hazards when you're trying to sort out specific teachings from teachers who didn't always break life down into tidy lessons -- but I think I've got the main points.
Basically:I think that's how my folks did it. How did yours?
- Be respectful of people, just because they're people.
- Expect people to be respectful of you, but be prepared for the chance that they won't be, and don't let it knock you off your stride.
- Control your temper.
- Don't get truly angry over little things. Channel your anger over big things in ways that will fix them, preferably without hurting anyone in the process.
- If someone is hurting another person, stop them. Use the least violent means possible, but stop them.
- Accept the consequences of your actions.
- Make sure you're comfortable with as many different kinds of people as possible. If you've done this widely enough, you stop thinking of people as different at all; they're just people, who are all a little different and a lot alike.
- Don't focus on the differences, except where you can either bridge them or celebrate them.
- Work for the ideal, but live in the real world.
- Be as good as you can, as often as you can, to everyone you can.
- When you stumble, get up, dust yourself off, laugh or cry as need be, and then get moving again.
I realize after some of the comments that by using the past tense for this diary I've given the impression that my parents are dead. That is only partly true. We lost my father several years ago, much too young, after a long illness. Mom we still have, and though she occasionally shows signs of slowing down she's mostly going strong as ever.
More importantly, I continue to learn useful and important things from both of them, fairly frequently.