Monday, January 16, 2012

Off Topic: Why MLK Day Was Kind Of A Drag

Without going into too much detail, I had an incident at work that involved a racial slur that bugged the shit out of me. I ended up emailing the guy about it - carbon copying HR of course - telling him firmly to keep that crap to himself. I kept emailing* him until he confirmed that he knew where I stood on the issue. He apologized, which was nice but not really even what I was looking for. I don't give a crap if the dude is racist or not, I just wanted him to keep that nonsense to himself.

Sadly, Martin Luther King Day was the occasion of a similar, more offensive incident in college. It's not really worth repeating the terminology or details of either story. We'll probably always have racist idiots with us - I can deal with that. What is depressing is none of his coworkers told him to fuck off and keep it to himself. In fact, truth to be told, they baited the guy and he did not disappoint. Our HR department's lack of response/leadership (at least so far) on this is kind of a drag too. I found myself wondering about the myriad of reasons why people can shrug off overt expressions of racism from co-workers and family members.

Somehow, I arrived at how history is taught in schools. Lots and lots of well meaning teachers continue to portray the struggle for equality as something that happened in the past. Yes, racism flares up today now and again, but history is the long line of progress through time, inevitably leading us to the foregone conclusion of universal equality. We explore Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fifteenth Amendment in our classrooms and our students are (rightfully) shocked and appalled at the conditions and events that led up to those laws. But I think on some subconscious level, we teach our students that our government will legislate inequality out of our lives - that the government bestows equality, that government protects and nurtures equality. Any struggle for equality - be it Native Americans, women, those with disabilities, homosexuals - is portrayed the same way, often as side bars in our textbooks. (Okay - I know that the average American classroom isn't ready to talk about equality for homosexuals.  Another depressing fact.) 

I'm kind of fucking sick of it. There are a million reasons why someone might not speak out against hate speech from someone they know. But underlying those reasons is this false belief that the struggle for equality is past tense, that someone else will right the ship, that "I'm not Martin Luther King". Sadly, complacency on such issues often begins in history classes across the country. It's not that any teacher has any "agenda" (man, how I hate that word), they're often just perpetuating history as it was taught to them.

There is some hope that the struggle for equality is still alive, that non-violent, sophisticated, modern activism is peculating around us. It remains to be seen if movements such as the "Occupy Wall Street" and the Arab Spring will result in any long term, meaningful change. But on Martin Luther King Day 2012, it's a little glimmer of hope that I'll take.

* - Ideally, I'd've said all this stuff to his face. But my training as a teacher taught me a valuable lesson: document, document, document. I always make sure I have a record of stuff like this; I always make sure that the folks that have the power to hire and fire are in the loop.

1 comment:

  1. Matt, it sucks that your MLK day had to go down like this. Glad you stand up for what is right.