I often think about the 16-year-old Black girl who took my honors English class a few years ago. She was the only person of color in the class, and I allowed myself to believe over the course of the year that her writing skills were not on par with the other students.
Objectively, I can see now that though she most certainly struggled as a writer, her skills were comparable to many of her White peers. But at the time, I pulled her aside and suggested she not take the tough AP class that 95 percent of her class would go on to take—that it might be best for her to stick with a regular English class the following year.
I thought I was kind to her. I thought I had her best interest at heart. I worried that she would be stressed and anxious and that she would put undue pressure on herself. I would have never considered my behavior racist.
But I see now that I was complicit in the systemic—albeit hidden—prejudicial policies and culture of the school. Moments such as these may seem small, even harmless. But I realized that small and seemingly harmless acts are often the building blocks of oppression.
And today oppression and systemic prejudice is just as alive and well as it ever was.
The Banality of Evil
The year before I became a teacher, I traveled to Poland with a group of educators and Holocaust survivors to visit concentration camps with a program called the March of Remembrance and Hope.
One day, we all sat on bare wooden pews in an old synagogue waiting for an esteemed rabbi to come speak to us. After a while, it became clear that something must be wrong because the rabbi was very late.
The organizers of the event tried to call, but no one could reach him. A storm pounded on the synagogue roof and the tension mounted as everyone began to shuffle around, wondering if the rabbi was okay.
Suddenly, he burst through the doors, drenched, with bloodshot eyes. He had been attacked on his way to the synagogue, finding himself in an alleyway cornered by some young Poles who beat him, sprayed pepper spray in his eyes, and screamed, “Poland for the Poles!” And then, with more grace than I could ever muster after such an experience, he continued with the talk he came to give.
I was stunned and overwhelmed. I’d come to study history and found myself steeped in the harsh reality of the present—a reality my naivete had led me to believe no longer existed. Even though I would never deny historical evils such as the Holocaust or slavery, I was still ignorant to how such evil might exist in the present.
Discussing the incident later, a Holocaust survivor who traveled with us said that he did not hold any grudges against the Nazi soldiers or their present counterparts, and that to refer to all of them as evil was a great mistake.
I almost couldn’t believe what I heard. To me, it was clear that the Nazis represented the essence of evil. But he explained that to call the Nazis evil was to separate them, their behavior and the consequences of their actions as “other.”
Doing so allows us to excuse ourselves from our own role in the creation of those evil thoughts and behaviors. By seeing these hateful acts as the fringe, we fail to recognize the seeds for them in the mainstream.
The survivor was not alone in his beliefs.
Hannah Arendt, a German-born political theorist, famously coined the phrase, “the banality of evil,” arguing that evil is not necessarily radical, but instead a result of willingness to conform without consideration of the consequences of one’s actions.
Her ideas struck me that rainy day listening to the bruised rabbi’s story, and they strike me now during this particular moment in our nation’s history.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Only months ago, White nationalists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, inciting violence, hatred and even death. Days later, President Trump held a rally in Phoenix where thousands of his supporters cheered his insinuating and angry rants.
His supporters cheered him when he pardoned disgraced Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, they cheered him when he ended DACA and they cheered him again when he called peacefully protesting Black football players “sons of bitches.” They excuse his allies such as John Kelly when they make racist or ignorant remarks.
Meanwhile, many Americans, journalists and commentators alike spoke out fervently against the White nationalists in Charlottesville, and decried Trump’s actions.
Virginia’s governor said at a prayer rally soon after Charlottesville, “Let’s be honest, [White nationalists] need to leave America because they are not Americans.” But such thinking is dangerous.
They are Americans, as are the thousands of people who continue to show up to Trump rallies, who post in his favor on social media or who simply quietly go about their daily lives believing in the “Make America Great Again” ideology. Other-izing them excuses each of us from recognizing how we are complicit in the smallest details that feed this ideology.
These supporters don’t always have torches or Nazi flags. The day after that rally in Phoenix, those Trump supporters may have put on suits and ties and walked into perfectly ordinary office buildings to sit in meetings with everyone else. Worse, they may have adhered to school dress codes and marched into classrooms to teach.
While some White nationalists may wear robes and flash swastikas, most are White millennial males who have only recently left the public school system, and their younger counterparts may still be sitting in the seats they only recently left behind. As a teacher, I think about these young people. Our schools produced them and we are vulnerable to continue producing them. And they are our responsibility.
Every day I watch as students segregate themselves in school cafeterias, just as the system segregates them with fewer opportunities for students of color to access advanced courses and enriching curricula, just as communities continue to turn a blind eye to widening school segregation.
High school students carry blatantly racist signs at pep rallies while administrators simply “look into the matter” to determine how to handle it.
Students carve swastikas into desks when no one’s looking or post overtly racist comments and photos on social media. And students receive mixed messages about right and wrong, such as when students come together in protest of racism but are disciplined by schools for doing so.
In so many ways, our educational system is built and supported by inherent racial bias and behavior. Is it hypocritical for me to be outraged at a White nationalist rally when I am complicit in systemic racism and prejudicial policies every day?
Separating the White nationalists or alt-right from the rest of society lets us excuse ourselves from owning our part in it. So, while I denounce blatant acts of racism and oppression, I will also take responsibility for them. I will recognize how I empower extremists when I ignore or comply with the racism of the mundane.
Outrage is not enough. Ownership and action are the only way forward.
And what about that Black female honors student I told to take a less rigorous class? I will not pretend that I was ignorant. I wasn’t. I knew all along how unfair it was for her, and I took part in the injustice.
I should have empowered, not limited, her. In hindsight, I would have encouraged her to take the class, been honest with her about what to expect from it, and spoken out about the clear racial divide within the “general” and advanced courses in our school.
Next time, I will not make the same mistake.