After reviewing the PBS Frontline documentary, A Class Divided, Professor Stephen Ambra led a class discussion on bigotry and intolerance. However, it was a conversation I had at the break with one of the students that led to a special written assignment.
Sitting in the back of the room, clearly uncomfortable with the discussion, this student confided that the subject of racism was painful due to fact that his father was exceptionally prejudiced against blacks. Hearing the pain in his voice, I asked if he would be willing to write a paper about the experience as a way to help deal with the feelings as well as share with Steve and myself about what it must be like to live with an intolerant parent. “As an issue of privacy,” I assured him, “this would notbe a paper that we would share with the rest of the class.”
That evening, I received an e-mail with his paper entitled, Color of the Soul.
“Apartheid, bias, bigotry, discrimination, illiberality, one-sidedness, partiality, racialism, sectarianism, segregation, unfairness –
“These are words used to describe racism; words that most people cringe at; words that most people nowadays hate. No one would want to use these words to describe someone they know and love, but in my case I have to.
“My father always told me stories growing up, of the black boys who would tease and chase him home from school. One time he told me that they even took his shoes, tied the laces together and threw them over the telephone poll.
“When I started first grade, my dad told me that I should try to stay away from any black kids, and not make friends with them, because they were not to be trusted, that they were sneaky and most of the time, not good people. When I went to school, most of the kids were white, so I did not have to confront the topic right away. But one day in Cub Scouts, a new boy walked in with his dad. This guy was black.
“At first I was scared, I had never seen one so close, and I remembered what my dad had said. For awhile I tried to keep my distance from him, but on a camping trip that our troop took that summer, I had the chance to get to know him. What I found was that this guy was funny and patient, NOT what my father had told me to expect from African Americans.
“When the trip was over, I went home, excited to tell my parents how much fun it was and that I had made a new friend. After explaining the trip to my parents, I told them about my new friend. Once the words were out, my father looked uncomfortable, he shifted in his chair, and spoke quietly to me, reminding me what he had said. I told him that I remembered, but that the guy I met was so nice, that he was not like the kids that bullied him in his school days. He proceeded to tell me that though he may seem like a nice guy and he may seem like he would be a good friend, that when I least expected it, he would steal something from me or lie to me about something.
“That night I went to my room with a heavy heart. How can my dad say those things about my friend when he doesn’t even know him? This was just the first instance where my father showed his intolerance for black people.
“In high school, there was a family of black people in my youth group. The boy who was close to my age was so funny, and my friends and I enjoyed going out to eat together during the summer break. One such night after youth group, I came home and was sitting in the living room talking to my mom and dad about what we had done that night and how much fun it was. When I mentioned the people I went out with, my father immediately perked up. He then asked me if that was the black boy in my youth group, and of course I told him the truth. My father sat in that chair and told me that I was not allowed to hang out with him again. Furthermore, if I ever came home with a black friend, he would disown me.
“The words resonated in my mind, and I could not just sit there and say nothing. I proceeded to tell him that the way he thought of black people was completely wrong, that there were bad people in every race, and that not every black guy is bad, just like not every white man is good. I told him that he was a racist and that just because he does not like black people that he did not have to push that disdain on to me. I liked black people, and I had black friends and he could not change that.
“To this day, my father denies that he is a racist.”
What stood out to me in reading the paper was how this student was not only able to stand up to his father, but made a clear and rationale case for tolerance.
While the issue remains stubbornly intact in spite of 150 years of political, social and intellectual evolution, it’s inspiring to read the words of a young student who clearly recognizes the difference between right and wrong and is willing to speak up, respectfully, even to one’s parents.
That is a change we can all be proud of.