Reflections on Race

I have fond memories of playing board games as a kid, and when I became a parent, we started playing board games with our kids. While we may have begun with Candy Land when my daughter learned her colors, we eventually progressed to others. One of my favorites as a kid was Guess Who? In the game each player picks a character, and the other player has to try to guess it by asking questions like “Is your person wearing a hat?” I distinctly remember playing the game with my daughter when she was about 5 or 6. As I tried to narrow down the list of possibilities, I asked her “Is your character black?” She responded “No.” and we continued to play. When it got to the end and I made my guess as to who her character was, I discovered I was wrong. How could I be? When I asked who her character was, she showed me.

(Photo courtesy of Hasbro Games)

“Reagan, you said your character wasn’t black.” I said.

“He’s not, Daddy. He’s brown.” she replied.

That’s when it hit me. She didn’t have the same concept of race that I did. She really didn’t know what I meant by “black.” In our home we had never really talked to the kids about race. They knew lots of people, and many were of different racial backgrounds. We didn’t point out that “THIS” person was black or “THAT” person was hispanic. As far as my kids were concerned, they were just people that looked a little different than they did. They certainly had the beauty of innocence, and that game of Guess Who reminded me that I needed to remember to be like them.

My kids didn’t know stereotypes. Yes, they live in a rural part of Virginia which still struggles to step away from its Jim Crow heritage at times. Despite the geography, they haven’t been exposed to racist attitudes in the ways that I was back in the 1980s. I can still remember a much older relative explaining to me how black people were made. “In the Bible,” she said, “after Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, Adam was mad at Eve, so he went into the jungle, mated with a gorilla, and that’s how black people were made.” As a kid, I took that information to heart. I didn’t question it, because, after all, I was supposed to respect my elders, and they certainly wouldn’t lie to me. Would they? Black people came from monkeys. Black people were all on welfare. Black people had so many kids because they had sex with their relatives. The list goes on. It wasn’t limited to black people, either. When Chinese people had children, they threw a bunch of silverware into the air, and they named they children based upon the sounds the forks and spoons made when they clinked along the floor. It amazes me even today how these things were shared 30 years ago.

I share that story with my college students when I teach US History. I tie it into the lesson on the Jim Crow era, and how such ignorance was spewed without question. I explain that while I’m not a Biblical Scholar, I know enough about Genesis to know the story I was told is not actually in there. My assumption is that my older relatives parents and grandparents, who were raised at the turn of the century and in the middle of Jim Crow, simply accepted those truths because they had no reason to think otherwise. Thankfully I had parents who, despite the environment, encouraged me to learn, and in doing so, I didn’t accept everything I had been taught as irrefutable fact.

Despite my desire to disregard stereotypes and accept everyone for who they are regardless of race, my implicit biases still exist. A few years ago I was teaching a Dual Enrollment American Politics course at my high school alma mater. In our initial discussion about the class and what was important to the students regarding politics, I had a black student raise his hand. “We need to legalize marijuana and tax it,” he said.

“Great…” I thought. “Here we go again. Another black kid wanting legal pot…” The reality of the situation was that, yes, he was black, and yes, he supported marijuana legalization, but that was something I supported, too. I’m not black, and yet my bias had popped up simply because of a racial difference. I had a preconceived notion of this kid based on his pot statement. As the class progressed through the semester, I learned that he wasn’t just a black kid who supported relaxing drug laws. He was quite intelligent. He was a student in the Chesapeake Bay Governors School program, and he would go on to become valedictorian of his graduating class. In fact, he was the first African-American male to be valedictorian in the school’s history. He certainly proved my initial bias wrong!

Despite my attempts to accept everyone regardless of what they look like, I fully acknowledge that my human imperfections exist, and I do lapse from time to time as I did with my student. Still, I make every effort to be a positive role model for my kids. I may not be able to correct the sins of the past, but I sure can try to prevent them from recurring, and I believe my kids will be the generation to make this world far more beautiful than it is. As a college professor, race isn’t one of my research focuses. Yet, in my history courses, even when discussing Ancient Greece, I discuss the concept of race. It’s an important thing to talk about. Embracing diversity is a good thing, and discussing how we got to things like Jim Crow and Apartheid is important as it can help us prevent going back there.

We need compassion and empathy. I need to accept my privilege and use it for good. In Season 11 of the new series of Doctor Who, the Doctor takes her companions back to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Here they meet Rosa Parks, and they must assist her in maintaining the history, including her famous act of refusing to move to the back of the bus. Despite some historical inaccuracy, it is a sci-fi show, after all, the episode culminates with her refusal. What made the episode interesting, however, was the duo of Graham and his step-grandson Ryan. Graham is an older white gentleman while Ryan is a black millennial. Such a combo certainly did not fit in the American South of the 1950s, but they played their part in the episode. Graham had to take a seat on the bus with Rosa Parks, and he had to remain seated to force history to occur. The expression of the actor, Bradley Walsh, was phenomenal. I could feel his pain in supporting something historically wicked in order to preserve the future.

That episode, and the racial attitudes depicted in it, remind me of the importance of having an open dialog with my kids about their friends. They have a diverse group of friends, and I love that. I don’t know all the things they hear at school, but I want to be sure that they know in our home everyone is welcome. Whereas I may have been criticized for having black friends as a child, they will not be. They will not have to fight their implicit biases the way that I do, because they simply won’t be raised to have them in the first place. That’s something I can control, even if it means I have to lose a game of Guess Who.

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One Response to Reflections on Race

  1. Don says:

    Good job Matt.

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