“It is a privilege to learn about racism instead of experiencing it your whole life” (Ahmed Ali).
In eighth grade, my beloved honors English teacher, Ms. Jimenez (or, “OJ“ as she let us call her, an acronym for her first and last name) taught me one of the most important lessons I ever learned.
We were studying the history of World War II. Hitler and the Nazis rise to power.
OJ asked us, “How did the Nazis rise to power”?
The answer was simple for a room of 12 and 13-year-olds.
“Because they were all evil! And followed Hitler, and Hitler was evil”.
It seemed very straightforward.
OJ let us know that this unit’s lessons would be a little different.
For the first assignment, she instructed the class to bring in as many soda can tabs as possible by the following week. The more tabs you brought in, the higher your grade.
Me, being the poor kid that I was and unable to even recall a time when our parents splurged for canned soda over the 99-cents, 2-liters of RC Cola that only my dad was allowed to drink, was indignant. How could it be fair that my grade is lower for something I had no control over?
The next week I turned in the measly five tabs I plucked off the morning beer that our roommate, Danny, drank on the days he drove us to school. I watched with worry as many of my classmates delivered ziplock bags full of tabs and silently promised myself I would do well on the next assignment so my grade didn’t suffer.
For the next assignment, OJ then marched us out to the basketball courts. She lined us up and informed us we each had 3 chances to make a basket from the free throw line in order to earn our A’s.
My heart sank. Sports had never been my thing. In elementary school I was constantly picked last in P.E. and still felt white hot embarrassment over a fifth grade kickball tournament where I kicked with such gusto and mistiming that I fell on my butt and had to limp off of home-plate in front of the entire school. True to my talents, I scored zero out of three. Another F.
The third day, she asked everyone in the room to stand up. She then asked the following groups to sit down:
Those with brown or black or red hair.
Those with brown or black eyes.
Those with brown or black skin.
Those with glasses.
Those who were born in another country, or had parents who were born in another country.
I sat down with the first group and, at the end, surveyed the room of white, blonde and blue-eyed classmates who remained standing. There was just a handful. “Those of you standing, you all have A’s”, she said. “F’s” for everyone else sitting down.
I was incensed. How could this be fair? How could I be penalized for having brown hair, brown eyes, a Korean-born mother? Panic rose in my chest as I realized that I was currently failing the lesson. I was a straight-A, honor student. I needed perfect grades to be able to get into the perfect college. To be able to earn a scholarship. To be able to get a good job and rise out of the hunger and poverty my childhood had been marked by.
Was this even allowed? Could OJ really be allowed to grade our class based on these things? It certainly wasn’t fair, and it certainly didn’t seem like the thing a good teacher would do. What was happening?
On the day of the final assignment, we walked into our classroom to see hundreds, maybe thousands, of bottle tabs spread across the carpet. Our desks formed a circle around the center of the room.
We sat down curiously, awaiting OJ’s instruction for what we knew would be the last hope at recovering our grades. Many of us were panicked- failing – and desperate for the chance to redeem our grades.
“The final assignment,”, she explained, “will be to count these soda tabs. The more tabs you count, the higher the grade you can earn”.
We exchanged glances around the room, realizing every other student was our competition. There was a limited number of tabs to count, and some of our most eager classmates gripped their desks, ready to spring into action.
“But one more thing”, she added.
“Today this classroom is Nazi Germany. And I am a Nazi general. And each soda tab you count represents one Jewish person that you have killed”.
The words fell down like concrete.
“On your mark, get set, GO!” she yelled.
I sat frozen in my desk, watching several of my classmates jump into the center of the room, picking up handfuls of soda tabs and counting furiously.
How can she do this? I wondered. She cannot do this!
Some classmates left their desks and kneeled on the outskirts of the tabs, surveying the counters , measuring whether or not to join. More students joined in. Some counted with a fervor, other’s with less gusto. Some sat down at the front of the classroom with bored-looking faces, ignoring the commotion taking place.
I was frozen in my desk. Wide-eyed and wondering if I was ready to sacrifice imaginary people for the benefit of my grade.
Finally, one of our classmates bursts into tears. The lesson ended.
The mood broke as OJ let us know that we could stop.
She explained that our grades weren’t really failing, but that we just participated in a social experiment.
OJ explained that only one person in the previous three years had passed the unit with flying colors. A girl in the prior year had stood defiantly in the face of this direction. She had refused to count the tabs, and jumped into the fray, stopping others from counting as well. She had shouted at OJ, stood up against a voice of authority, and had told her “This is WRONG”.
This was a day that I learned about the weight of my inaction.
I learned the consequences of my silence.
“How did the Nazis rise to power”? she asked us again.
I discovered that, perhaps, the Nazis rose to power not because of those actively participating in evil, but by neutral bystanders refusing to take a stand against it. Maybe those bystanders refused to even admit what was happening until it was too late.
I regretted, heavily, that I ignored the discomfort and the intuition in my gut that said, “This is wrong”. If everyone in that room had stood up to our teacher, to collectively refuse her instructions, it would have made a difference.
The country is now 13 days into the tide of “the biggest collective demonstration of civil unrest around state violence in our generation’s memory – organized under the rallying cry of “Black Lives Matter”(1).
My silence on the Black Lives Matter movement is seven years late. But I have found my voice. And I am listening.
I am learning. I am understanding the dangers of a binary view of racism where individuals (especially progressives like me) refuse to believe they are part of the problem because we are not “actively participating” in the racist actions we see in extremes across the news (2). I am recognizing my privilege as a bi-racial, white-passing person. I am accounting for my personal responsibility in racism and racist ideas, my silence and my inaction (3). I vow to be an anti-racist, to fight for justice and equality. For dismantling the systems and policies that have kept our Black citizens oppressed. Being an anti-racist is not a destination you arrive at, it is a continual journey(5) and I am just starting out.
I am unlearning the white supremacist narrative that taught my millennial generation to be ‘color-blind’ and the bold-faced lie that ‘racism is a thing of the past’. I see how policing was built on the structures of white supremacy and subjugation (6). How Jim Crow Laws, redlining practices, the “War on Crime”, mandatory sentencing, the “War on Drugs” and today’s prison industrial complex is slavery evolved(7). I’m learning what it means to defund police (6), how to get involved in local city council meetings, and what additional policies contribute to racism.
There is no shortage of information, and no excuse to not entrench yourself in the education needed to take a stand and demand reform. From our councilmen and mayors and police chiefs and state reps all the way to the oval office.
I will never witness another public lynching of a Black man and feel hopeless and unsure of what my part is in preventing it.
This is necessary.
Regardless of race or religion or party affiliation.
This is a fight for humanity.
Black Lives Matter.
List of Current Resources that have helped me thus far:
(7)“13th” by Ava Duvernay, available on Netflix
“When They See Us”, available on Netflix
“American Son”, available on Netflix
“A Class Divided” available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1mcCLm_LwpE
(6)“Police” John Oliver, available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wf4cea5oObY
(2)“White Fragility” by Robin DeAngelo
(6)“Stand Your Ground” by Kelly Brown Douglas
(3)“How to be an Anti-racist” by Ibram X Kendi
“So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo
(6) “No More Money for Police”. (2020). New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/30/opinion/george-floyd-police-funding.html
Rachel Cargle, “The Great Unlearn” Patreon account: https://www.patreon.com/thegreatunlearn/posts
1 Wortham, Jenna. (2020) New York Times. “A Glorious and Poetic Rage”. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/05/sunday-review/black-lives-matter-protests-floyd.html?auth=login-facebook