A beloved family member posted on Facebook that he loves making fun of the “dot-heads” in gas stations. Another family member, a cousin I had not seen in 40 years, connected with me and then posted disparaging comments about immigrants, African-Americans and “libtards.” Then another family member posted a “funny” cartoon of an SUV running over a crowd that read: “All Lives Splatter. I don’t give a f- about your protest.”
Every day in my classroom, I see what family members do not see: real faces, real fears and real tears. For 18 years, I’ve been honored to teach in a Shangri-La of education -- a high school of high standards, diversity and relative racial harmony.
Last year during a speech, one of my Muslim students highlighted hiding inside her classroom in her mosque in South Jersey while angry protesters gathered outside. She was frightened, in the freest of all nations. All she wanted to do was to practice her faith peacefully.
Another student, a Sikh, was detained at an airport in Los Angeles and told to take off his turban.
This year, several students shared what it was like to be black and young in America. They spoke from experience. One student discussed how his mother was accused of shoplifting at the Cherry Hill Mall in New Jersey. An honors student from an affluent neighborhood said the police often stop him because of his looks. Another told us how her parents taught her to behave around the police.
Why would so many want to discredit such testimony?
I have students of industrious parents who have green cards. Some fear leaving the country, even for a wedding. Other students have parents who have been in America illegally for years, and these students naturally arrive to school scared, wondering if mom and dad will still be around when they get home.
When I read that a man shot an Indian man in Kansas, telling him to “Get out of my country,” I want to protect my Indian students from those who possess so much hate.
How do I do that? Do I turn the proverbial other cheek? Do I offer the other one to be hit as well? Do I confront the hate? Begin an online battle? Do I lay out a reasoned response, grounded in logic, compassion and hope, wrapping arguments in the Gospel, quotes from Washington and Jefferson, statistics from the Holocaust and in the tears of my fellow charges?
Do I hit? Or simply hit “unfriend”?
I have done all. (Hitting happened in my youth).
One morning last month I discussed a Facebook situation with my wife. She was upset that I challenged the racism. She wanted to avoid a family crisis. I said I could not sit idle and allow casual racism to flourish. Would I have had the courage to stand up against “funny” comments against the Jews in the 1930s? Would I have harbored runaway slaves, even though it was illegal?
It is not only for my students that I fight. I fight because diversity makes us rich. It makes, or made us, the envy of the world. When a British woman told me she didn’t like renting to Indians because they are dirty, I thought: Wow! Such blatant racism! Thank God I live in the United States!
It sounds hokey, but I savor the diversity in my classroom, the mixing of ideas, the energetic discussions. I was raised in such diversity. But, as my wife points out, so many people, and some family members, were not raised that way.
“But that doesn’t excuse racism,” I said. She agreed.
Later, after the “Lives Splatter” was deleted, she said maybe she was wrong about fighting. “Maybe we have to fight,” she said. “Maybe your appeal had an effect.”
I’m not sure. I just know that we need to make more connections with people who are different. We need to meet across tables, have tea, break bread, entertain different ideas and be willing to listen.
We are a cloistered society. We are a tribal society. It just takes more of us to say, “Enough.”
By Walter Browne
Walter Browne is a writer in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He wrote this for the Philadelphia Inquirer. -- Ed.
(Tribune Content Agency)