A Period of Teachable Moments: Unwilling(Unable) Learners

Its Black History Month in the US this February. Having for most of my young life been missed by the commemoration, I have the opportunity now to experience life in the reflection seat. I carried myself as a black woman into the United States, with not much hard knowledge about the deep history of race relations in the US. Like MyTears,  I never knew that I would become black until I entered the United States.

Some would say that is the information gap for new African residents to the United States marked by little awareness of the pervasive structures and biases that divide the country into color pockets. When I was younger, the heroes that I knew who were black were, Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Matrin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. I just knew that they had done much for the world, that their struggles had united the world. Such is the wisdom when you are ten.

When I sit and reflect now on my years spent in the United States, I can say that skin color is definitely a defining factor in the way that my daily life is spent. More often than not, my presence in a neighborhood where most people are not my skin color limits my interactions. I may not, for instance be found just hanging about the shops, nor should my pedestrian self ever try and cart home the groceries from my local grocery store – also, I must always produce my identification whenever I present a bank card at the teller. Many other friends do not have to. I also may not flinch when I walk toward someone and they clutch their bag while I walk past. I cannot walk fast if I am walking behind someone as we share a walk way(several people have sprinted away at the clack clack of my heels). I may not frequent local restaurants, as the service is tiered to cater for individuals who have always lived in this relatively moneyed suburb (ours is a student population nestled in a leafy upper class suburb where lots of old money resides.

Please understand that people who do not know any better continue to inhabit every space, particularly college campuses. We were in a group headed to the city for a performance this last week, and some guy cut off the bus driver nearly causing an accident, and he lifted his hands to express his dismay. A fellow student yelled out a racial expletive, and we then knew that the offending driver who had just zoomed off was of Asian descent. A stunned silence followed, and then one of the 6 or 7 Asian women in our group called her out on addressing Asian people so coarsely, which this loud mouthed girl did not acknowledge. It was so clear that the people in the bus wished she did not speak, perhaps because over the last few years, someone always says something racially themed on campus, and people who have done that publicly on campus have melded into the forgotten history of the school.

I was so incensed that we all said little to encourage the student who spoke up. It reminded me of the story – the one that ends something like ” They came for such and such, and I did not raise my voice…when they came for me eventually, there was nobody to stand up for me” Every day, I live knowing somebody will say something incredibly ignorant. That my immediate circle of friends does not tolerate that kind of talk is a godsend, and in these Obama presidency times, I am shocked that people would imagine that racism would be over. Particularly now with those who are wearing the badge of Obama to obscure their biases, the truth will be revealed in the mundane, the day to day and the traffic incidences of our lives. If you are interested in social justice, you have to start preparing to stand up, and speak out against ignorance.

Black History Month is not just about racism, or a few personalities, or even affirmative action. All of these are expressions that have come up in discussions on campus by the way. Black History reminds us never to forget what can happen when a group of committed people decide to create change and dedicate their lives to the passionate call of being your brother’s defender, and keeper – no matter his or her race, age, ethnicity, disability status, veteran status, religion and sexual orientation. It is about remembering our humanity – and understanding that people need compassion too.I submit that this history is filled with teachable moments, which may change lives, just that there are unwilling learners – or are they unable to change?

On a side note, I saw the activist Angela Davis speak this week. I share her enthusiasm in speaking about the Obama presidency, and I love that she called on us to continue to challenge the government to do more.For example, when she spoke on Wednesday, the state children health insurance has been signed into law. I believe we must also call on this presidency to address the pressing issue of minority health care, such as that accorded to Native Americans, black people, Hispanic speaking populations, those in prisons(which she wants abolished!) and other groups.

Happy black history month people!


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