As Black History Month draws to a close, I can’t help but marvel at how far we have come as Americans. At the same time, I can’t believe we have not accomplished more. Despite all that we have overcome, there is no denying that racial tension still exists in our country. It’s hard to imagine what life must have been like for people of color sixty years ago. Reading the stories of fallen heroes, both black and white, who fought for equality still causes a lump to form in my throat. When I sit with friends from various ethnic backgrounds, it makes me sad to think that society might have prevented us from knowing each other in such a capacity just a few decades ago.
We can kid ourselves and pretend that the election of an African American president serves as proof that racism has been eradicated, but the wrong discussion between blacks and whites still brings about palpable tension. How can one person dislike another solely on the basis of melanin? It sounds ridiculous when you think of it that way, doesn’t it? That dislike exists on both sides, but why? How long can we justify animosity towards one another because of the deeds of our ancestors?
I had the pleasure of meeting Ruby Bridges a couple of years ago when she came to speak here in Orlando. I was as giddy as a teenage girl at a Babysitter’s Club book signing (I so just gave my age away there) while I stood in line to enter the room where she was going to be speaking. Posted outside on a large easel was the historic Normal Rockwell picture of her; a young African American girl being escorted by guards into an all-white school. She began her speech by taking us back to that day, forcing us all to relive it with her. She was an amazing story teller, and recalled every detail of her first day as a first grader at William Franz Elementary School.
The thing that amazed me most is that despite being spit at, or having her father fired from his job as a direct result of her decision to attend the school, she didn’t hate white people. She took her mother’s advise and sought God’s guidance and protection, and found comfort in knowing that there were good people in every race just as there were bad, as evidenced by the kind teachers who went out of their way to make her feel welcome. One thing that she couldn’t stop stressing was the fact that hatred was a learned behavior. Blacks and whites had an unnatural aversion to one another because they were taught by their parents, teacher, even government officials that this was normal behavior.
A child’s mind is like a sponge. It readily absorbs whatever is poured into it. Rather than waste precious time teaching our children intolerance for variations in skin color, why not focus on things that matter in life? As a parent, I understand that I have a tremendous responsibility to raise my children to be decent people. I know they will encounter people who hate them for superficial reasons, but I’d like to think that the upbringing I give them will help them understand the very message that Ruby Bridges spreads to this very day: good and bad exist in all groups of people. We should never condemn and entire group the actions of a few. Love the people who treat you well, forget about the ones who don’t, and trust that good deeds don’t go unrewarded as bad deeds don’t go unpunished.
Take advantage of the remainder of this month not just to teach your children about the people of various backgrounds who made positive contributions to our society, but to educate them on the importance of open-mindedness. Let this month serve as a reminder of how our country was and still is suffocated by the strangling hands of prejudice, and use that reminder as an inspiration to do our part in eradicating bigotry.