In 2008, our nation elected its first black president. As a New York Times article by Adam Nagourey states, we are finally “sweeping away the last racial barrier in American politics with ease.” Truly, our nation has come a long way.
We admit our nation’s bloody blunders, among them enslaving, lynching, and mistreating millions of African Americans for much of America’s youth. However, American began to grow up: in 1863, slavery was officially abolished in the 13th Amendment. It wasn’t until the 1957 that the first school in the United States was desegregated. Because of this effort, five African American children had the opportunity to attend a higher quality school.
In 2013, we are no longer a nation who solely elects white Christians into the executive office, but have we really swept away “the last racial barrier” in our nation? Yes, maybe we have reached a certain level of equality in politics, but what is the state of our nation’s racial barrier in schools, in the workplace, in everyday life?
For much of our history, we focus on the tension between whites and blacks, but today, as a wonderfully diverse nation, which serves as a place of refuge, freedom, and new beginnings for “all” people, are we really a nation free of racial barriers?
In 2008, when I saw our nation work together to elect Obama into office, I thought we might be. But that was a happy delusion, nothing more. Our nation is still struggling, and I see it every day in our nation’s youth. No, we may not be lynching or arresting people simply for the color of their skin, but the glares and seething words cut just as deep.
I began teaching at a middle school in Virginia in mid-March, and in this school we have one of the highest ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) populations in our county. Many of our students and/or their parents are immigrants, which leads our class population to be extremely diverse. In my classroom, I strive to create a safe environment, where students feel they can share without judgment.
After prompting the students with the question “What is the worst quality a person could have?” as a warm up to the Greek myth “Narcissus,” my class veered off the lesson plan. We never began the story of Narcissus, you see, because a far greater lesson had worked itself into our path.
One boy in my class shared that the worst quality was being overconfident, and putting others down because you feel superior. This simple statement brought on a string of stories that puts our nation’s racial barriers into perspective.
This boy continued to share a story with the class. He hesitantly looked around at his classmates, looked at me, and then began.
This was the story of how he got a criminal record. He is 12-years-old, and in the seventh grade. He had simply been at a store, walking around, when another kid walked up to him and said, “You dirty Mexican, go hop back over the border.”
This comment engaged them in a verbal battle before my student decided to start hitting the kid, leaving both of them with bruises and bleeding lips. While both children were sentenced to community service for their actions, the other kid served less hours. Why? Because my student threw the first punch.
What the policemen, the courts, and the store’s video didn’t show was that the other kid threw the first punch with his words. No, my student did not play by the rules, but if you hear the same thing over and over you’d get fed up too, right?
A second student, who is from Saudi Arabia, shared an incident that happened at an airport, when he and his mother walked through the security area. His mother wore a niqāb, similar to a burqa or hijab. Fabric enveloped her head, covering her face, so that only her eyes were showing.
As they walked through the security clearance area, a guard asked the man right after my student and his mother to step aside for a random security check.
The man shouted out, “Oh, sure. Let the terrorists go through.”
My student then asked his mother in Arabic, “Are you going to beat his face in?”
His mother answered, “If he says those things, his life is already bad enough.”
Other students continued to share stories in which they are treated unfairly for the color of their skin, or for what they wear, or for how they act. Every day I see troubled warriors, fighting through their youth, looking for the light in an otherwise dark and derogatory world.
So is our nation truly beating prejudice and knocking down barriers? Not yet. We are progressing slowly, struggling forward. We will always have ignorant people shouting out rude, rash, ridiculous things, but we need to continue making progress.
As adults, we need to be open to change. We need to stop fearing what will happen if we open up a dialogue with others about controversial topics. Whether you are a teacher or not, we need to make it clear that our youth and those who are different from us safe and supported. Progress can be made, but shying away from controversy leaves our society stagnant, or worse, leaves our youth to experiment with language on their own, calling each other gay, or dirty Mexicans, or immigrants, whether in online forums or quietly in school stairwells. We need to make changes in this nation, but it begins with each and every one of us fighting for what is the American dream.
In 1957, five African American students were allowed to attend a desegregated school in Little Rock. They were allowed to attend, but that doesn’t mean received a high quality instruction, or a front row seat in the classroom, or respect. Today, no matter the race, sexual orientation, gender or personality quirks, our kids are still up against a lot in their quest to achieve their American dream. Let’s give them a fighting chance: Give up on glares and sever our ties with prejudicial slurs. We’ve come a long way, America, but we’ve got a long way to go. Let’s get moving, and get talking.