Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr Day. Tuesday the country’s first black president gave a State of the Union address and still I feel we are so far away from the dream Martin Luther King had that it frightens me.
I’ll be honest, race isn’t really something I think about on a day to day basis. I’m a black women, I’m in an interracial marriage, and I have interracial children. At times throughout my life I have had to think about race and my racial identity’s impact on how others perceive me. I have felt the sting of racial prejudice on more than one occasion. When my mother married my stepfather, a white man, I remember many more instances of stares and disapproval than my husband and I do now. Early on in my career I worked in a predominantly white town and a parent insinuated that she couldn’t trust my professional opinion because of my race. However, for the most part, my lighter skin color has protected me from racial stereotypes. It’s embarassing and sad to admit but it’s true. People by and large have no idea how to identify me racially or ethnically. As if it’s really their role to do so. My whole life I’ve gotten these questions: What are you? or Are both your parents black? or Are you sure you’re not bi-racial? Yes, these things have all been said to me, as a child by other children or as an adults by other adults. I’ve also been told, “but you don’t look black” which seems so strange, as if there is a color chart somewhere identifying someone’s race.
Still, as a person who lives in this country-not just as a black woman, I am scared about the lack of progress we’ve made on race issues. Sure we have a black president, but I’d be willing to bet the vast majority of this country is against it. Remember when President Obama had to show his birth certificate to prove he was a US citizen? That idea would be absurd for a white president. Stories like Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, and Eric Garner show me that as a country, as a society, as a culture we may actually be farther away from Martin Luther King’s dream than we were when he was preaching about it.
What are we doing to change? I can’t breathe has become a rally cry for our nation that some are continuing to ignore. #blacklivesmatter is stopping traffic outside of Boston and still it’s not enough. One in three black men will end up in prison in their lifetime and there is a vastly disproportionate number of black boys receiving special education services and disciplinary action in schools. The issue is such a concern that the NEA has published a position piece on the matter and several states have written laws to address the discipline disparity among black youth. I see this happen in my own school. I work tirelessly to ensure that black students have equal opportunities to learn and grow and demonstrate their gifts, but I feel like I’m being blocked at every turn. I’m tired of having to help boys prove that they are worthy of the same benefits as other students, and I know the boys are tired too. It’s much easier to accept the fate others have dealt for you than it is to walk your own truth and stand up for yourself.
“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
So what do we do? I think we need to stop ignoring and start listening. There is a real problem in our culture when we don’t treat all people with decency and respect. The problem has been ignored for far too long. I am choosing to no longer remain silent about the issues I see in my own community and will name the problem as I see it to the people I feel need to hear it. I read this piece this weekend and felt empowered by it. If all we have to do to be the change we wish to see in the world is listen, it seems like a pretty simple step to take. Will you take it with me?