Just before winter break, my various timelines were awash with pictures of a young man forced to have his hair cut by a wrestling referee. You’ve no doubt read some of the stories, no doubt seen much of the commentary. I don’t see much about it now, it’s been a month or so, but I don’t want to forget about him.
I cannot comprehend what it is to be that boy, to have this awful thing happen with so many people watching, and then to see it amplify and echo across the internet for days after. Still, I couldn’t stop thinking about him, and all of those adults in the room with him. I couldn’t imagine why they didn’t do something to stop it. I also, embarrassingly, wasn’t sure enough that I would have.
There are those who want so badly to ignore what it means to cut a young Black boy’s hair like that. Anti-blackness causes us to see his hair before we see him, that assumes he’s a problem, a risk, a violation. Anti-blackness lives in a nasty little part in the back of our brain. It is the racism that refuses to investigate what sort of lens has been layered just behind our eye, that makes it so easy, too easy, to hold up all these forms of racism while we swear to ourselves and anyone who is listening that we aren’t racist.
There’s hardly anything I can do to help the young wrestler, hardly anything any of us can do for him, right now, to make the situation better. However, what we can do, what I can do, is think about the places that this sort of racism, this anti-blackness, has seeped into my own practice, my own life and my own community. It’s what I’ve spent a good portion of my winter break thinking about.
It’s ‘Just’ a Christmas Story, Right?
There’s that scene in “A Christmas Story,” which seems to be so many people’s favorite movie and plays for 24 hours straight every Christmas. It’s one of those movies that I feel like I have seen every bit of like 100 times, but have never watched all the way through all at one time; but there’s this scene where the family goes to some racist-ass-named Chinese restaurant where the wait-staff (who are the only other people there), try to sing Christmas Carols and sing “fa-ra-rara-rah” instead of… shit…whatever, you’ve seen it probably, and, if not, you get the point.
So that scene came on while I was with family and because I couldn’t just tweet about it, and because I was sitting in my in-law’s home for days without all of my most typical distractions, I thought about that scene—a lot. Probably too much.
The scene is this moment of supposed-humour being broadcast, to millions of eye-balls, to young and old eyeballs, year after year because tradition and all that. In most White houses, it is harmless to laugh at, but rude to call out. It’s the exact sort of thing that would say, “don’t take things so serious,” and “it’s just a joke.”
But it’s also this moment of othering—a message that says there are people not like me, and they wish they were, but will only ever be a shallow copy. Also, and the biggest also, is that they are just different, just that much enough different from us in in how they speak, talk, and eat, that the difference itself makes them funny.
But, it’s just a joke—and surely it does nothing to the kids when they see the adults laughing at the scene, year after year, when we are, we swear, the very last person to be racist except maybe a little bit when we’re taking a break from all that and we’re home and it’s Christmas anyway, and we are miles and miles from anyone who looks or sounds like what they’re making fun of. And come on, Tom, it’s just A Christmas Story and just let it go.
Racism is the Water We Swim In
It’s just a moment, but one of a whole mess of moments, that have built the nasty bundle in the back of my head, in, I would venture to guess, most of our heads. It is writers not mentioning race or skin color unless it is something other than White, it is the teachers that expect less from the Black kids in class, that assume the best about the White kids. It’s all the messages I got growing up that Black people were to be feared, avoided, that they were just that much different.
I’ve been trying to do this reflection better. I’ve kept this piece sitting open on my laptop for a week, mostly written, just waiting for a list of personal and detailed times that I’ve fallen prey to the racism inside of me. I wish it was that easy. As much as I was taught racism, I was taught not to see it, certainly not in my own actions, my own words, certainly not my own teaching.
The examples that came easiest were ones I’d spent the longest seeing and addressing, and I don’t want it to sound like it was all old news for me. It’s not. In my classroom, I’m still apt to see Black boys as behavior concerns, and Black girls as less capable. Professionally, I am less likely to assume intellectual study of Black colleagues and more likely to assume “natural” talent. Mind you, these are things that I know live in my head, that happen pre-consciously, and that I do my best to recognize and un-learn (and have only thousands of personal lived experiences to work against them). But I know when I’m not doing my own work of staying focused on that, they can slide in too easily; and I know that I have a lot more work to do.
But racism is the water that we swim in, and there’s no way, swimming all this time, that I haven’t swallowed some.
Which is why reflecting on racism, on our own personal racism, is not a singular act for a free afternoon. It is a process, and un-learning. I can keep trying, I must, because there are kids out there, like that young wrestler, being hurt every day by the adults in their lives who don’t see them through clear eyes.