Though my white father died when I was 10, I imprinted his passion for civil rights as he worked alongside an African-American friend to sustain a community center, had Social Security documents translated into Spanish and visited young men in prison. When I had children of my own, I learned how intricately their educational experience was tied to that of their peers of color, and we became the rare white family that talks about race. We’re long overdue for the conversation; only then will we understand events like #Ferguson and #Charleston.
As humans, we are creatures of patterns. Views or situations to which we are exposed cause neurons in our brains to “ping” the call centers of our brain cells and forge connections to a targeted network of neuronal “neighbors.” The connections create neural pathways, or ways of thinking and acting that become stronger the more they are reinforced. So, depending on the social ideas, patterns and stories to which you have been exposed, you may have a very different view of the United States.
If, for instance, you are a descendant of slaves, the stories that have been passed on to you are less likely to be about the independence gained through the Revolutionary War and more about the dignities stripped from you and your children, or your ancestors’ lives in slavery. Not only would your family be denied opportunities to reach prosperity, your cultural legacy would boast less to pass on, including books and photographs. Though you have been granted civil rights as recently as 1964 (only 51 years ago) you are expected to make do with inferior housing, schools, and even health care.
The counternarrative to ‘shining city …’
By staying present to friends of color, and just listening (not talking them out of their pain or personal truth), I have learned a counternarrative to that of the U.S. as a “shining city on the hill.” In fact, our country was founded by white colonists who funded the war for independence with wealth created by slave labor. The surplus wealth of our country for half of its lifetime (from the first Jamestown settlement) was generated via a massive slave trade that sanctioned the violent seizing of land and people. Our society had legalized slavery far longer than it has been free. This worldview of white dominance taints everything from our cultural reaction to drugs (crack vs. anti-depressants) to the correlation of education and your ZIP code. Our societal practices still bow to the wealth that white people have been able to invest, save and generate over time.
Holding the perspective of our friends of color requires that we intentionally increase our exposure to the reality and obstacles they experience. Learning the truth about race within the U.S. is like piecing together a quilt as a collective narrative, with each of us holding a square as part of the full design, or truth. Completing the “quilt” ― or truth about race ― is a process of learning and exposure, akin to learning about another country. Each of us brings our square of exposure to the quilt.
Using a course to study Ghana as an example, some learners are students who were born and raised in Ghana. Some have lived there for 10 years; others, only five. Some students travel back and forth between Ghana and the U.S. Still other students have never been to Ghana, but are taking the course remotely. Of course, some do not see any need to learn about Ghana, and they see no need to contribute to the quilt (or truth about race). We all hold aspects of the truth, but none of us hold it all.
Embrace one key practice
The stakes have never been higher. Our divisions as a nation are making us increasingly vulnerable to terrorism and the demands of regimes that oppose our best interests. Our world itself is experiencing the strain of overpopulation and climate change, which will require the intelligence of every young mind.
If we hope to increase prosperity and maximize the quality of life for all, we must encourage each U.S. citizen to embrace one key practice: talking constructively — and with an open mind — about race.
Kate Towle is a community educator whose model for students to develop themselves as civic and intercultural leaders won the 2011 Facing Race Idea Challenge and a 2014 PeaceMaker Award.
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