Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Education: Race and Washington D.C.

TORONTO, ONTARIO - As a white person that grew up in a substantially white suburb, it was difficult to truly relate to the significance of the events in Washington, D.C. today. Tens of thousands of African-Americans cried, wept, and cheered, saying that the sacrifices of their parents and grandparents and generations before had finally paid off in an African-American taking office in the most powerful and respected position in the country. They were intermixed with tens of thousands of people of other backgrounds who were equally excited by new president Barack Hussein Obama and his words heard around the world on this day.

Interestingly, Washington D.C. in a very real sense provided my first exposure to the realities of race in America. The number of African-Americans in my classes in elementary school and middle school could be counted on one hand. I had one elementary school teacher that was Black, but she never talked about her race; she was just our teacher (and a good one, at that). Asians and Latinos were more numerous, but again any substantive difference on the basis of race was never discussed.

In middle school, I had the opportunity to travel to the national Mathcounts competition in Washington D.C. For the first time, I saw an area in which literally half of the residents were African-American. I had never seen anything like it before, but it wasn't any different than seeing the Washington Monument--I had read and seen on television that large numbers of Black people existed, and now I had seen them in person.

One day, while riding Washington's Metro subway system, I was careless with my backpack. In approaching my seat, I moved such that the backpack was flung right into the face of a man in a suit on an adjacent seat. It hit him hard enough that it actually knocked his glasses off. As statistics would predict in Washington D.C., the man happened to be Black. I apologized; the man said he was okay and soon got off the subway. For the remainder of the trip, I was worried that I would forever be tagged as a racist because I had nearly injured a Black man on the Washington Metro. That such an act had nothing to do with racism was something that at the time I had no way to understand.

Eventually, I would have more significant interactions with African-Americans. In my undergraduate years, I had my first boss at a part-time job that happened to be Black. I had a roommate one summer who was a football player that happened to be Black. Each of them actually talked about what it meant to them to be of something other than the race of the majority, and I started to better understand the social context of race and what a day in which a non-white would become the President of the United States might mean.

Yet, I'm not certain that the blatant ignoring of race that occurs in Washington state was so bad from an educational perspective. I wasn't taught that people of "other" races were in any way different than I was, and my early experiences actually served to reinforce that idea--none of the African-Americans I met through high school seemed significantly different than anyone else around me. Some coverage of racial experience in high school instead of waiting until college probably would be wise, but the baseline experience--at least in a place like suburban Seattle--probably did more to prevent the genesis of a racist perspective than any formal instruction could have done.

Now, above all, it may be role modeling by President Obama that leads the way in educating young people about how African-Americans are not fundamentally different than anyone else.

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