Monday, May 24, 2010

Everything Old Is New Again

I found myself watching an old movie last night and being struck by the fact that much of the dialogue seemed exactly like many of the things we are hearing today from the "Teabaggers" regarding America. The movie was Betrayed, starring Debra Winger and Tom Berenger, from 1988. It is the story of an undercover FBI agent (Winger) sent in to gain the trust of and investigate a suspected white supremacist/militia sect in the Midwest and its leader (Berenger).

Berenger's character and his friends uses phrases like, "our America," "they're taking it all away," and "before they take over..." They lament a lost time when "things were different" and harbor resentment for immigrants and minorities. They teach their children that Affirmative Action is punishing white people and rewarding minorities. They refer to Jews and African-Americans as "dirty" and Arabs as "Abba Dabbas."

In one particularly disturbing scene, Berenger's six-year-old daughter is relieved to no longer have to "keep secrets" from Winger and proudly recites racist propaganda about "dirty rabbis and niggers" to a shocked and horrified Winger. My skin literally crawled as the words effortlessly rolled off of the tongue of a seemingly innocent little girl. In another scene, the family attends a camping weekend with hundreds of white supremacists where the children are taught more hatred, as well as how to use firearms. The targets at which they aim are derogatory, cartoonish depictions of Jewish and African American people.

I felt angry and hurt that children were and are being taught to hate people because of the color of their skin or their religious beliefs. It reminded me of a personal experience at around 12 years old when a girl who was new in my neighborhood and had quickly become my friend, was surprised when invited to my house for dinner and my two brown-skinned brothers sat down at the table. She looked confused and uncomfortable as she asked me, "Who are they?" Upon learning that they were my brothers, she became quiet and silently ate the dinner my mother (who looks much like me) had prepared, then politely asked to be excused from the table and retreated to my bedroom. Once I joined her in my room, she sheepishly asked me, "Are they really your brothers?" before expressing both confusion and disapproval and saying, "but they're black." Upon my confirmation of their and my own blackness she didn't speak another word to me, she simply gathered her belongings and unceremoniously walked downstairs, out the front door, down the street and out of my life. She never again spoke to me. Ever.

Compounding the insult and injury of the movie, the Teabaggers and my recollection of that long-ago-but-still-painful memory is the recent news that a study reveals that today's kindergartner's still exhibit a preference for lighter skin. Watching a video clip where young children exhibit colorism by attributing positive qualities to lighter-skinned children and negative qualities to darker-skinned children simply broke my heart. Hearing a singsong child's voice explain that this other child was ugly, mean or stupid "because he has dark skin" seemed so antiquated and unbelievable. But nonetheless, it is happening in 2010, in America...Not just in rural towns, but in places like New York City and Atlanta.
Video: 'Show me the dumb child'

It stings even more to think that these children are not being overtly "taught" these things. The majority of the children who took part in the studies are not children of white supremacists and militia members who are indoctrinating them with these ideas. No, they are drawing these conclusions and perpetuating racism, colorism and stereotypes simply by observing what goes on around them and in the media. They are picking up on subtle and not-so-subtle social cues that teach them that light is right and dark is bad. Like the old 1970's saying went: "If you're black, get back,  if you're brown, stick around and if you're white, you're alright." It is 40 years later, so these children need not ever know such a saying or such a thought process.

What it all boils down to is simple... Even in 2010, it is not enough to "not teach" hatred and racism to our children; we need to actively teach them tolerance, equality and brotherhood. I sometimes find myself thinking back to that girl who shunned my friendship upon realizing that I was black. I wonder if today her children would be allowed to play with mine. We have to break the cycle.