Apropos for this time of the year I share two ways New Year’s resolutions can confront racist comments. Resolutions should be very difficult to keep. I know, I just lost half of the people reading this as who wants to end 2018 and start 2019 with a hard task. Spoiler alert-- I am going to lose another group of people as I think we should make resolutions that are political in nature. I am not saying that personal resolutions, like leading a healthier life, are not important but it feels in these times that we should make resolutions that go beyond the personal to those of public affairs (hence, political).
There are cases where I disagree with the very definition of resolution. One meaning of the word is to solve a problem, dispute, or reconcile a conflict. I think there are some issues that we should not try to reconcile, find a middle ground, or see another person’s perspective. There are clear imperative rights and wrongs. Racism is wrong, anti-Semitism is wrong, sexism is wrong, etc. I can imagine people saying, wait we all agree to those sentiments. While I am hopeful that most of us do not make anti-Jewish comments, or use racial slurs, or make sexist statements, I do not think this is enough.
We live in a world where there are more and more people who skirt the edge or outright deny the dignity of groups of people. One resolution that we should consider is not to be silent when we hear comments which dehumanize people. For instance, I recently found myself in a conversation with someone who was against affirmative action and they quickly moved to stereotyping African Americans. I decided, in that moment, to continue to challenge the person’s worldview. There was a time I would have tried to make a comment that would diffuse the situation. However, I believe that silence is seen as agreement and we should challenge all statements that oppress or demean people and cultural groups. As Elie Wiesel wrote, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
In most cases I consider not being silent as the ground floor or minimum requirement when one hears racist statements. Ijeoma Oluo, in So You Want to Talk about Race, challenges people to try to link to systemic effects of racism whenever race is discussed. She provides the example, “Instead of posting on Facebook: ‘This teacher shouted a racial slur at a Hispanic kid and should be fired!’” , you can say all that, and then add, “This behavior is linked to the increased suspension, expulsion, and detention of Hispanic youth in our schools and sets an example of behavior for the children witnessing this teacher’s racism that will influence the way these children are treated as adults.” She provides a second example of someone saying, “black people are always late.” Oluo suggests that in addition to pointing out that it is racist, one should add that “it contributes to false beliefs about Black workers that keeps them from even being interviewed for jobs, while White workers can be late or on time, but will always be judged individually with no risk of damaging job prospects for other white people seeking employment.”
Certainly, many of us do not have the expertise or quickness of Oluo or always have the liberty to respond. In those cases, we should practice reflective action, to make meaning from the experience and transform insights into practical strategies for a time we can respond. An interesting resource is a New York Times piece that asked readers what do they do when someone makes a racist comment? I recognize that this is not easy especially with family and friends. However, resolutions are not meant to be easy.
Please feel free to share an example of a time when you were silent when you should have spoken up? How would you respond differently in retrospect? Do you have a situation in which you were not sure how to respond? Feel free to share the challenge with the group to receive suggestions.
Meir Muller has earned rabbinical ordination as well as a doctorate in the area of early childhood education. Dr. Muller serves as an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of South Carolina. His research interests include cultural relevant pedagogy, anti-racist pedagogy, constructivist theory, and Jewish early childhood education.
In 2016 Dr. Muller was awarded the Early Childhood Teacher Educator Award by National Association for Early Childhood Teacher Education. Recently Dr. Muller has served as lead author of South Carolina’s early childhood state standards and is part of a team of educators developing curricula that prepare European teachers to address bias, prejudice and anti-Semitism. Dr. Muller is also in his 27th year as head of the Cutler Jewish Day School, a NAEYC accredited school for children birth through the fifth grade.