Sunday, April 18, 2010

Diversity day.

This past week at our school was diversity day. Diversity day consists of our school hosting about 25 guest speakers/presenters who cover topics from gang violence to hula dancing. The day begins as an entire school then the kids and teachers break and attend 3 sessions. Overall, it's a pretty rewarding experience for our community, especially since Boulder isn't exactly what I would call diverse.

Our diversity day last week began in the new gym listening to a 81-year-old man who was a survivor of the Holocaust speak about his experience. I can't even begin to put into words how powerful his presentation was for both me and the kids. We were all mesmerized. By the end of the speech, many adults and students were moved to tears. This man was 1 in 83 of his extended family to survive this atrocious period, and he escaped death several times by pure luck or being in the right place at the right time. He concluded his presentation by pointing out examples of pure hate that continue to exist in our world, and I felt a mixture of discouragement, motivation to act, and confusion. As I debriefed the session with my kids, I could tell the same emotions were inside of them. Although we've come a long way since the Holocaust, how is it that we still haven't learned acceptance of every human being?

Another notable moment in my day was when I attended a session titled, "There is Not a Racism Problem in the United States." When I saw this claim, I knew that the presentation would at the very least be interesting. I want to share what he had to say but I feel like I need to say first that I left the presentation feeling really stirred up and upset - so much so that when I came home, I couldn't shut-up about it for hours. (Thanks Angus and Mom.) I even woke up at 3 a.m., tapped Angus awake and shared with him my newfound insight on what I would've said to the presenter if I had thought of it 8 hours earlier. Don't you hate that?! It's like thinking of an awesome comeback for a bully 3 hours after she slammed your books to the floor and called you fat.

Anyway, the presenter was a 47-year-old Mexican American man who grew up in inner city L.A. and moved to Colorado a few years ago. He's been speaking to students - mostly high school students - for the past several years on (and I quote) "crap." Initially, he began by saying that he acknowledges that there is racism in America but he doesn't think it's a problem. Here's his reasoning: If you put a bottle of vodka on a table, that bottle of vodka isn't a problem. It's only if the wrong person picks up the bottle, drinks a lot of it, and does something stupid that it becomes a problem. So therefore, the person is the problem. Racism is the bottle of vodka. Get it? The argument could pretty much be used for anything. Basically, what he was saying is that each individual person is responsible for their own actions. If a person chooses to blame his/her "crap" on another person, that creates a problem. So, if we'd all take responsibility for ourselves, things like racism and crazy drunks wouldn't exist. Sounds like a pretty good plan, but let's face it...not everyone is going to take responsibility for him or herself. He seemed to acknowledge this, but what I found problematic was that he had no strategies for these kids who ARE willing to take responsibility to combat racism. It seemed to me that he was saying, "Racism exists so just accept it." From here, he proceeded to tell the kids that all the racial stereotypes are true and moved into telling racial jokes. Of course my 11 - 14 year-olds (mostly white, may I add) thought the jokes were hilarious and laughed at each one. It was at this point that I found myself squirming and feeling really uncomfortable about his message to these impressionable minds. Normally when people joke about race I think the message is for people to look at how backwards our society is even now, years and years past segregation. But his message seemed to be different. By telling us about his life and how he finally found success by working hard and not blaming his "crap" on other people and stating that stereotypes are true, I think he was suggesting that it's up to the individual person to overcome racism. I guess I just feel funny about this because it's not always about hard work and dedication. Our country is founded on principles that make it difficult for all people to have the same opportunities. I just don't buy the philosophy that it's as simple as "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps."

Although I didn't have a functional brain after the presentation and didn't get to ask a question, I did come into school the next day and bring this up with my kids. It was really interesting to hear what those who were in the session had to say. I hope that I at least got them thinking at a deeper level about race and individual responsibility versus the responsibility of a society. After all, these are the minds that are our future.

All in a day's work, a restless night, and an honest conversation.

1 comment:

  1. Do you have any kids who aren't white? I wonder how they felt about the jokes. They may have been laughing out of peer pressure. I wonder if some of the children (even the white ones) felt the same way you did, and woke up in the middle of the night saying to themselves "why didn't I speak up?" or "why did I laugh at that?"

    Its a hard and impressionable age. I'm glad they have you to present a "counter" perspective :)