Ig­no­rance is no ex­cuse

Arun­del is right to re­quire a di­ver­sity course in school; oth­ers should too

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD -

Our view:

When per­pe­tra­tors of racist in­ci­dents are caught in the act, too of­ten they hide be­hind ig­no­rance. Oth­er­wise in­tel­li­gent people sud­denly don’t know that what they did was of­fen­sive or in­sen­si­tive.

Vir­ginia Gov. Ralph Northam used the ar­gu­ment to ex­plain away why he dark­ened his face with black shoe pol­ish as part of a Michael Jack­son cos­tume: "I look back now and re­gret that I did not un­der­stand the harm­ful legacy of an ac­tion like that," he said dur­ing a press con­fer­ence. The state’s at­tor­ney gen­eral, Mark R. Her­ring, blamed “ig­no­rance and glib at­ti­tudes” for his de­ci­sion to wear black­face dur­ing his col­lege days as part of a cos­tume de­pict­ing rap­per Kur­tis Blow. And it’s not just Vir­ginia; a Twit­ter user took it upon her­self to see if there were racist or black­face im­ages in Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land year­books, and “it only took me 5 min­utes,” she wrote, prompt­ing a quick apol­ogy from Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Wal­lace Loh.

You would think that people would know by now not to dress in black­face, a form of cos­tume worn by white per­form­ers in the19th cen­tury (and, sadly, well be­yond) that de­picted of­fen­sive car­i­ca­tures of African-Amer­i­cans. Paint­ing swastikas on any wall is also not OK. Nei­ther is any de­pic­tion of nooses. Us­ing racial ep­i­thets, a huge no-no. But as the num­ber of hate in­ci­dents con­tin­ues to grow, it has be­come ap­par­ent the mes­sage hasn’t got­ten around to ev­ery­one. On Thurs­day, Gucci stopped sell­ing a black turtle­neck sweater that re­minded people of black­face. The sweater pulls up over the bot­tom half of the face with a cut-out and large, ex­ag­ger­ated lips around the mouth. Se­ri­ously.

The com­pany apol­o­gized and said they would use the in­ci­dent as a learn­ing mo­ment. Ap­par­ently, there are plenty of other people around the coun­try in need of such a mo­ment.

Anne Arun­del County of­fi­cials, to their great credit, are do­ing some­thing about it. Spurred by a racial in­ci­dent that oc­curred at one of its schools last year, they are seek­ing to start con­ver­sa­tions about race that it hopes will en­lighten their stu­dents and make them bet­ter people. Be­gin­ning next school year, all ninth-graders will be re­quired to take a di­ver­sity sem­i­nar in or­der to grad­u­ate. As Lau­ren Lump­kin re­ported in The An­napo­lis Cap­i­tal, adop­tion of such a rule came two days af­ter a Broad­neck High School stu­dent used a racist slur in a Snapchat mes­sage tar­geted at An­napo­lis High School’s mostly African-Amer­i­can bas­ket­ball team, which had just beat the Broad­neck team. The gen­e­sis of the half-credit sem­i­nar, which was taught as a pi­lot be­fore full adop­tion, came af­ter a pe­ti­tion called “Kool Kids Klan” cir­cu­lated around Anne Arun­del High School in 2017 urg­ing stu­dents to join a white supremacy move­ment.

Dur­ing the sem­i­nar stu­dents ex­plore how cul­tural in­ter­ac­tions in­flu­ence sit­u­a­tions and how people from dif­fer­ent back­grounds may in­ter­pret the same sit­u­a­tion dif­fer­ently, ac­cord­ing to the cur­ricu­lum. It is hard to tell how­can­did the dis­cus­sions will be and if the class will di­rectly take on is­sues such as race, white supremacy and Con­fed­er­ate flags. Teach­ers aren’t al­lowed to show po­lit­i­cal views, which gives some rea­son for pause given the racial pol­i­tics of the day. But hope­fully they can spur ro­bust con­ver­sa­tions with­out specif­i­cally choos­ing a side and make the class more than a feel-good ac­tiv­ity.

At any rate, adopt­ing such a cur­ricu­lum is at least a first step in reach­ing the next gen­er­a­tion be­fore racist at­ti­tudes are im­printed on them for a life­time. Ev­ery school in the state should adopt some kind of racial sen­si­tiv­ity train­ing. If they’re not sure where to start, the Anti-Defama­tion League has de­vel­oped cur­ric­ula and is ea­ger to help. We need to find ways for adults to have such un­com­fort­able con­ver­sa­tions about race, too.

Per­haps if Howard County had such a course re­quire­ment, four teens wear­ing hoods and masks would not have spray-painted racial ep­i­thets and swastikas at Glenelg High School last May. The last of the teens was or­dered to serve week­ends in jail un­der a plea deal an­nounced Wed­nes­day.

It may be too late for oth­ers to be en­light­ened, but we should at least work to get to a place where no one can use the ig­no­rance de­fense any­more.

It is hard to be­lieve in Vir­ginia that two highly ed­u­cated men­did not know the mean­ing of what they were do­ing in a state whose racist legacy and prac­tices run deep. In North Carolina, the col­lege year­book of Char­lotte May­orRoyCoop­er­show­st­wom­em­ber­sofa fra­ter­nity in white robes de­pict­ing a lynch­ing of a man in black­face. Cooper is not shown in any racist pho­tos and the Uni­ver­sity of North Carolina de­nounced the pho­tos and said racism is not tol­er­ated on their cam­pus. But why did it take un­til now for them to say some­thing? If that’s not racially of­fen­sive, we don’t know what is.

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