Home > Uncategorized > February 26 – Down with Willful Ignorance!!

February 26 – Down with Willful Ignorance!!

Today marks the end of Black History Month!! Season 3. Over the course of the past four weeks, I have done my best to offer a wide array of topics, individuals, events and contributions in an attempt to make Black History as accessible and relevant to as many of you as possible, while simultaneously keeping them relatively objective. With this year’s final entry, I’d like to deviate and offer up some personal thoughts and opinions. Please accept them as nothing more.

Each year, the most common question that arises from these emails is, “why do you do this if you’re not even Black?” I do not find this question the least bit offensive. In fact, the first time somebody asked me that question, it generated a considerable amount of introspective curiosity which I found quite valuable. For me, the answer comes in 3 parts:

“Why do you do this
As I mentioned in the first email, I do this to remember and honor the courageous acts and countless contributions of African Americans throughout history. As we have seen, America’s history is littered with examples of the injustices and inhumanity Blacks have faced and endured solely because of the color of their skin. Overcoming that struggle, attaining that freedom, earning that equality, achieving that status of common value of respect… these have been hard-fought battles requiring the bravery, hope, sacrifice and incremental contributions of hundreds of individuals and groups, and I believe they deserve a handful of emails at the very least.

if you’re not even Black?”
This is really an interesting aspect of the question and warrants 2 explanations. First, African-American history is specific to Blacks BUT relevant to all. Regardless of our individual race, the African-American experience is a part of our social fabric and has tremendous influence (conscious and subconscious) over how we treat each other today. Furthermore, the lessons extracted from their experience are applicable to all humanity. We each shoulder the responsibility of treating our fellow man with the respect and honor we ourselves expect, deserve, and demand.

Second, as a non-Black, my hope is that the message is free of any perceived self-serving bias. There can be no chance that my words are diluted or discounted as “one person serving his people.” Therein lies my challenge to everybody, black or not, to own this in their own way.

Fear of Human Nature
Perhaps the single-most compelling reason I send these out is because I harbor a fear that hundreds of years of progress will unravel and dissolve. Why? Because it is in our nature as human beings to classify, to categorize, and to simplify. In other words, we instinctively stereotype. It is how we organize our perceptions of the world around us, and it is a fundamental tool for complex decision making and rationalization. For better or worse, these stereotypes carry with them both positive and negative connotations, and this is, to me, the root of racial prejudice. While others may not agree with me, I believe (as the Broadway production “Avenue Q” musically put it) that “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” and that this is natural. That said, what really matters then is whether or not we properly manage this automatic, naturally-occurring, race-indifferent racist tendency in all of us.

The first step to properly managing this tendency is by having enough self-awareness to know that it’s there. Unfortunately, this self-awareness (which I believe was far greater in previous generations) has given way to something I call Willful Ignorance. For me, this is the dangerously dismissive attitude I see so many people take towards this topic when they say things like, “yes, but that was decades ago,” or “I’m not a racist and we don’t live in racist times anymore, so we don’t have to talk about it.” That unwillingness to have a dialogue about race and prejudice is the perfect breeding ground for a return to ignorance… and it could get worse with each successive generation.

When I talk about Black History each night with my 14-year-old step-daughter, I get the distinct impression that racism is an ambiguous, amorphous, conceptual theory because she has the benefit of living and learning in a very diverse community, and hasn’t really witnessed racism first-hand. I see that as a blessing AND a curse, because while it’s beautiful she won’t face the same struggles as an Asian-American that a girl her age might have faced 2 or 3 generations ago, she’ll also be woefully unprepared if we ever do regress. I’d only be guilty of facilitating that if I failed to have these conversations with her. And so we talk.

And so it is that my greatest wish coming out of these emails is that you also talk… with friends, with families and with yourself. Dialogue is key because only by keeping the dialogue alive can we maintain a level of self-awareness sufficient to keep our own racist tendencies in check.

Happy Black History Month, I hope you’ve enjoyed the 2010 season, and as always, thanks for reading.

francis

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