Forget about children. Adults are beastlier, having gained independence from parental control, the right to inebriate ourselves with all kinds of drugs, the American privilege of adding lethal weapons to our toy collections, and a whole bunch of advantages that come with age. Beastliness looks uglier on grownups. How do we teach our kids about the nasty parts of humanity? We shield them from the horrors of the nightly newscast when they are little, then slowly, slowly, we uncover their ears.

Max is in fifth grade. Last semester his class studied the Afro-American Civil Rights Movement, which his social studies teacher herself had been a part of. The fifth grade learned about systemic racial prejudice. They learned the N word. And in the here and now people were in an uproar about the failure to indict police officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown. Max saw a video of fires from the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and asked for an explanation. Racism is alive in America, I said. The Civil Rights Movement you are studying in class continues even today.

In social studies, they talked about the shooting of Michael Brown and the protests. “What did Ms. K say???” I wanted to know how his social studies teacher approached such a hot topic.

“She said that a lot of people saw and say a lot of different things, and they are still trying to find out what happened,” answered Max. I marveled at Ms. K’s balance.

However, another kid had a different report on discussions. Ms. K is a somewhat controversial figure. People either love her passion, or detest her theatrics. They admire her ability to spark excitement in the classroom, or they resent her inattention to details and failure to respond to parents’ concerns. One mother expressed exasperation. “Sondra’s now afraid of the police. She asked me, ‘Why do they hate black people?’ I had to defend the police, which I don’t want to be doing, but I don’t want Sondra to be afraid of policemen either. She says Ms. K cried in class. She has them so worked up that Sondra was in tears about the Civil Rights Movement. She asked, ‘How could people be so horrible?'”

Apparently Ms. K had teared up while reading aloud from Warriors Don’t Cry, a memoir by Melba Patillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African American students among the first to enroll in the racially segregated schools of the South. The book captured the visceral hatred, dotted with small breaths of kindness, that rained upon the nine teenagers braving that first year of integration following Brown vs. Board of Education. I clucked at Ms. K’s unprofessionalism, knowing full well I am probably every bit as likely to break into tears in public.

Minutes after speaking with Sondra’s mom, I am speaking to Sondra’s dad, gingerly referring to his daughter’s reaction to fifth grade social studies. I was completely surprised that instead of sharing his wife’s exasperation, Sondra’s dad said, “I think it’s great. If Ms. K can make Sondra feel something about history, it means she’s gotten through and succeeded as a teacher.”

One social studies class, two different student reactions, three different perceptions from parents. The class read Warriors Don’t Cry together. Literally together. The material is so volatile, the school would not allow the students to take the book home. The school wanted to be sure the issues were handled with the greatest sensitivity. The kids were guided as a group by a trusted adult, in which they were  able to immediately ask questions and discuss the material as it was read. With this book, the Civil Rights Movement was no longer a collection of events on a timeline. Instead it developed a heartbeat. And with this history lesson came the introduction of that ugly word. Nigger. I can barely stand to write it. It’s so small, six letters, but it slaps you across the face every time you hear it. It’s a dangerous word. But it’s part of our history, thus part of who we are.

Towards the end of the book, the students were allowed to bring a couple chapters home in xerox copies. Max and I read pages aloud to each other. I spoke the N word. But Max, he substituted it with the word, “purple.” In class, Ms. K had read, “purple,” every time “nigger” appeared in the text. In that choice she managed to convey the weight of the word, its foul flavor.

A friend of mine argued, “She should say it. It’s just a word.” I think he means, Say it—if you cannot say it, you add to its power, which is an idea which relates to the argument that when African-Americans call each other “nigger,” they are taking ownership of the word and removing its fangs.

Another friend said, “There shouldn’t be a word that one group is allowed to say, but another group isn’t. That’s like saying only certain groups can be racist, but not others.”

People often make off-color remarks about white people and men with such flippancy I am embarrassed for them. The idea that only people in power are capable of prejudice is absurd. Blacks spitting venom about whites, women spitting venom about men, non-Americans spitting venom about Americans… hateful thoughts are hateful thoughts, and in that sense, prejudice is ironically blind to race, sex, and country. We are all capable of prejudice: racism, sexism, blind nationalism. The only way we can combat it, is to recognize it within ourselves. I found a quote that says it more eloquently that I can. It was printed on a flier that circulated soon after the 9/11 attacks in NYC and DC.

If Only

If only it were all so simple!
If only there were evil people somewhere
insidiously committing evil deeds,
and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us
and destroy them.
But the line dividing good and evil
cuts through the heart of every human being.
And who is willing
to destroy a piece of his own heart?

—Aleksandr Solzhennitsyn
The Gulag Archipelago

I live in a NYC community of liberals, and when news broke about failure to indict either police officer Wilson in the death of Michael Brown or officer Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, we all ranted to each other about the injustices of society. Then one day my son said, “People shouldn’t say it’s racism, just because the policeman is white and the man he killed is black.” While he may be naive, there is truth in his statement. The system may be rigged, but each individual story is made up of different facts with different players. I admitted to myself that yes, in both cases I had automatically condemned the police officer before I even read details of the events or watched the video of Garner’s takedown. So I looked. And I still believe they should have been indicted. But I now have to admit that the details are not so black and white.

Teaching Kids About Prejudice and Other Ugly Bits of Humanity
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