In my progressive school, we once had a workshop about understanding young adolescents. The presenter was assuring us that it’s normal and healthy for 12 and 13 year- olds to test us, to roll their eyes, to question us, to make foolish choices. And that’s true. But one very wise teacher said, “Yes, but what’s our job? We need to make clear boundaries, clear consequences, and clear statements about what’s acceptable behavior and what’s unacceptable.”
And she was 100% right. That’s the push and pull of the dance and the young people are counting on us to carry our weight in the matter. But confused modern day parents often think that our efforts to understand these kids means we excuse them from it all. And so it continues.
It’s actually a school alum parent who wrote the book “Strangers in Their Own Land” as she sought to understand, as a radical Berkeley sociologist, why working class people in Louisiana would vote against their own self-interest. A commendable task and I admired her for the couple of years she took to live amongst them and talk to them and listen to their stories in order to understand them better. All well and good.
But at the end of the day, these were people who refused to listen to the stories of black folks. Who resented being called out on their explicit and implicit racism inherited by generations of non-questioning acceptance of the honor and gentility of the Southern way of life. Who appeared to love their land, but let the corporations come in and destroy it. To tell you the truth, it really pissed me off, all this effort to “understand” people who as human beings, deserved understanding, but did not deserved to be excused from perpetuating so much that was destroying land, people and culture. Understanding their perspective may be a useful first step, but it’s the next step that’s important—educating them, inspiring them to educate themselves, not to prefer this candidate over another, but to really feel down to their bones the Golden Rule. Not to give them a pass on being a decent citizen just because they were friendly to a white liberal and nice to their dog. Because as the book White Fragility so clearly demonstrates, being a nice person who ignores systematic racism means that on some level, you're attending the picnic at the lynching party.
So just like the parent/ adolescent dynamic, we need to ask, “What’s our job?” and not apologize for being P.C. or arrogant. Some thoughts:
• It’s the job of adolescents to test us. It’s our job to set and enforce the boundaries.
• It’s our job to make purposeful and mindless hatred illegal, uncool and unacceptable.
• It’s our job to make ignorance shameful and not celebrate it.
• It’s our job to teach people to look behind the curtain and see the scared little men pulling the ropes of words like “Freedom! The American way! Honor!” to create illusory special effects.
• It’s our job to include all voices and it’s the people speaking's job to have done the work to back up their point of view.
• It’s our job not to normalize over 10,000 documented lies told by the leader of the land and to hold accountable the fellow politicians who support it, disguise, excuse or ignore them.
• It’s our job to put on a f’’ing mask and stay 6-feet-the-hell-away and to make clear that this is not a personal choice.
And so on. Let's do our job.