All-American Boys

The R-word.

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Disclaimer:  Racism, police brutality, and racial profiling are not always connected topics.  Each can be as dangerous with or without the others present.  This post is in reference to a particular book and specific incidences of the three intertwined.

 

“But here are the words that kept ricocheting around me all day:  Nobody says the words anymore, but somehow the violence still remains.  If I didn’t want the violence to remain, I had to do a hell of a lot more than just say the right things and not say the wrong things.”  Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely, All-American Boys

It’s easy to sit in my culturally diverse suburb, and teach at my 40/40/10/10 school, and feel like a well-adjusted, culturally blended, superior-minded adult.  I, thankfully, grew up in a home that didn’t judge based on things the eye could discern.  And I sit in my house as I write this with my sweet black widow neighbor to the left, an Asian family across the street, a black couple next to them, and a multi-generational Hispanic family to my right.  AHHhhhh, what a lovely world it is that the pot is finally melting us all together!

But what about when the news stories hit.  What about when another case of police brutality involving an unarmed black man, or child, tops the headlines.

What then?  Oh, we don’t riot or vandalize each other’s lawns.  But our neighborhood quietly, politely starts to show lines of division.  Helen next door solemnly dons her “Justice for Michael Brown” shirt, while Dan down the street quietly applies a “Back the Blue” bumper sticker to his new truck.  Helen probably feels like the police are the new KKK, and Dan down the street can probably quote you all the times police have shot unarmed white men who don’t make the news.  And the family of the cop around the corner probably looks over their shoulder a little more for a while.  But neither will engage the other in any sort of debate.  Neither will call the other foul names.  Because nobody’s racist anymore.  Right?

I just finished reading All-American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, and I’m not sure why this isn’t required reading.  Right. Now. (For the record, I hate required reading…but hear me out…I’m making a point.)  Probably for the same reason the teacher in the book was discouraged (by administration) from continuing The Invisible Man after a student at their school was beaten by a security guard.  It’s too much.  It gets students all fired up.  Last year in the classroom across from me, an actual fight broke out after an essay about police brutality was assigned.  Oh, people talk about it all the time in one-sided discussions with like-minded friends.  But it’s no wonder people avoid the topic in mixed company.

For people like me, the “Oh I can see both sides and I know people on both sides so I’ll just stay quiet unless someone asks and then I’ll make it clear I see both sides” people, there is a lesson in a quote that expresses what has been tried and tested throughout history, through religious persecution, the civil rights and women’s rights movements, in times of war, and certainly amid the horrors of genocide:  IF YOU ARE NEUTRAL IN SITUATIONS OF INJUSTICE, YOU HAVE CHOSEN THE SIDE OF THE OPPRESSOR. – Desmond Tutu.  So, in essence, “seeing both sides” is the same thing as not standing for either, including the one you think is right.

Just as there are non-violent ways for police to apprehend innocent-until-proven-guilty-subjects and place the alleged crime in the hands of our multi-cultural justice system, there are ways to go about reading books like this one and discussing these topics with young people in a non-provoking way that promotes unity and affects change.

Just like this book.  Two writers from two different sides of American culture, who came together to write a book where the characters’ worlds were pretty well blended – much like the high school where I teach – but were fiercely divided in a time when headlines pit one against the other.  To them, and in the real world of 2017, being racist didn’t necessarily mean overtly hating other races…it meant subconsciously siding with your “own kind” regardless of the facts, or what is right.

And if you don’t think real old-fashioned racism still exists, ask yourself this:  Did your parents ever give you the speech?  The list of ways you have to behave if the cops stop you?  Never fight back.  Never talk back.  Keep your hands up.  Keep your mouth shut.  Just do what they ask you to do, and you’ll be fine (pp. 50, 289)…?  Just checking.

This chapter in American history has to end someday, right?  And it’s clear it’s not going to end with the older, scarred and divided generation. And it’s not going to end with or because of the polite generation I’m in.  It’s going to end with our kids.  Our students.  Our future.  They have to learn how to argue without fighting.  They have to learn how to disagree without hating.  They have to learn how to be different without excluding.

Because what if they don’t?

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