I had a high school history teacher who was a Vietnam vet. He once informed us, “Just so you know, I did tours in ‘Nam. Tick me off and I might pull a gun and kill every one of you. And I’d get away with it, too. Just shrug and say, ‘Sorry. Flashback. I thought they were a bunch of gooks.’” His head bobbed up and down when he spoke as if pounding the words in like nails. A matter-of-fact expression on his face. Left eye pinched into a half-wink. Just like someone taking aim through rifle sights.
That same year I had a business law class at the other end of the building. The teacher was a sweet, elfin lady who stood outside her door between classes, greeting students by name, laughing and chatting with them as they hustled to their next class. I, like most of my classmates, loved her. How could you not?
One day she scrapped her lesson plans so we could talk about the upcoming presidential election. There was plenty to discuss. It was a crazy time when an Italian-American woman (Geraldine Ferraro) and a black man (Jesse Jackson) were being touted as possible running mates for presidential hopeful Walter Mondale.
“If you could pick one of those two, who would you choose?” she asked.
Our class overwhelmingly selected Jackson. When she asked why, the demure little lady was assaulted by one-liners and stereotypes about a woman’s place in American society (and government wasn’t among the places). I recall one classmate saying if women were ever in charge, at least there’d be no more war; just tense negotiations every 28 days.
At that, our matronly hobbit of a teacher narrowed her gaze and scanned the room as if taking aim.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “I am shocked. And I have to tell you, this really frightens me.” In that moment, I didn’t think she was actually scared; she just seemed angered by the bold sexism of ignorant teenagers. However, my initial assumption was way off target.
“I am truly concerned that you’d elect a black man over a woman. Were you asleep in history class? Do you not realize what blacks have gone through in this country? And you’d be willing to hand them power? Don’t you think they’ll want some revenge?”
The classroom fell silent.
In my high school, we had a handful of black students. If you were a black kid at HEHS, you were one of two things: either an athlete or invisible. In my neck of the woods, it was a fine, unspoken system that kept order and served us well. Because of that, we didn’t have racial issues to discuss. Sure, we learned about slavery and Jim Crow, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, but those were just history lessons. Those events had nothing to do with us. No one was rioting in our streets, so racism simply didn’t exist in our sanitized world.
However, my tender, affable teacher gave me a wonderful gift that day—a bold, undeniable expression of xenophobia. Growing up in a white world, I’d laughed at seemingly harmless jokes about other races. However, I’d never before heard the motive behind prejudice so perfectly articulated with such raw honesty. I saw the fuel to so much of America’s smoldering racial fire that most of us ignore, and it was alarming. This wasn’t about hating someone simply because of their skin color. In fact, it wasn’t hatred at all. It was the fear of having something taken away, twisted up with ignorance in barbwire knots, choking the heart of an educator who was spreading her sing-song bile to America’s youth.
After she spoke those words, I sat staring at her, trying to keep my jaw from hitting the tops of my clean, white, high top Reeboks that were sticking out from beneath my pegged jeans. At one end of the building, we had Base Camp Commando who had threatened to shoot us. At the other end was our unassuming Fairy Godmother, alerting us to the horrors of black revenge. Thankfully, one of my teachers was joking. Tragically, the other wasn’t.
I would almost feel better if the real threat had been from the Vietnam vet.
Recently discussing our nation’s racial divide, my oldest son said, “I just can’t understand how you can hate someone just because of their skin.” He’d been looking at pictures of suburban, tiki-torch carrying white nationalists, their faces caught mid-scream, twisted into grotesque masks of rage.
That’s when I recalled those words from my teacher—Don’t you think they’ll want some revenge?—and considered how much that attitude had grown like a stage-4 cancer throughout our society. I see it in the thinly-veiled attitudes of loved ones, and I don’t think they’re even remotely aware of it. They’re like my teacher: there’s not an ounce of hatred in their bones, but coursing through their veins is a poison that causes them to perceive other races as a faceless “other” that wants to take something away, a revenge-seeking mob of inhumanity.
“Son,” I said, “it’s not always hatred. A lot of this is simply irrational fear.”
I have many friends and family members who couldn’t wait to see President Obama leave office. Of those, several can point out specific policies they disagreed with; they can soundly discuss the justifiable reasons behind their dislike for that administration. However, just as many spent eight years in a senseless fog, blinded by the notion that everything the man did was another attempt to take something away from the hard-working American and give it to someone undeserving. In their minds, my teacher’s nightmare had become reality when our country elected Obama: we’d given a black man power and “they” would take revenge for centuries of white privilege.
Friends, hatred is not the beating heart of racism; it’s our false assumptions about other people’s motives. Some people cannot see “Black Lives Matter” as an expression of frustration over social inequalities. They only hear unchained black militants screaming “Revenge!” Many of us see NFL players taking a knee during the anthem and we make sweeping assumptions about why they’re doing it. It’s easier to think of them as spoiled, millionaire athletes who are simply disrespecting our great nation than admit the racial divide in our society that we are too uncomfortable to address … because that might demand something of us and upset our fragile peace.
Noam Chomsky says “fears that victims [of racism] might rise up and take revenge are deeply rooted in American culture, with reverberations to the present.” Again, it’s not hatred (although it can certainly look like it); it’s shrouded fear. No different from a child’s illogical terror over the ill-defined monster under the bed.
Crazy, ignorant fear of revenge. They want to take something away from me to pay for something I didn’t do! That’s the root of racism in America.
But what if we looked at the “other” and allowed ourselves enough grace to realize that “they” want something very simple: to have fair opportunities, be treated with dignity, and have a chance to make life better for their kids? Friends, when you get down to it, that’s all any of us want. There is no racial divide in those desires. Those are core American values. Having worked in mostly black inner city schools and suburban white schools (where 95% of the kids went on to higher education), I can tell you that kids in America do not have the same chances; not even close. The question is, however, are we willing to work toward a society in which all of our children might hope for a better life without bristling up in illogical fear, terrified of what they might want from us?
Until we acknowledge how we are haunted by the fear of revenge, racism will continue to tear us apart. And then we will have something stolen from us that is rightfully ours: Our humanity.
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