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Teachable moments

The poet Langston Hughes published a series of short stories from 1943 to 1965 about Jesse B. Semple, aka "Simple," a "wise commoner" who reflected on the black American experience of the time.

In one tale, Simple declares that just as the elephant stands for the Republican Party, the ostrich should stand for American liberals: Too often, they react to controversy or uncomfortable situations — especially regarding race — by putting their heads in the sand.

Here in Boulder, this ocean of mostly-white faces, we may use all the politically correct labels — African American, Native American, GLBT — and we may yearn to be accepted as the tolerant, supportive people we believe we are, but we are not immune from the taint of prejudice or "ostrichism."

Two February news stories vividly illustrate that we are not as prejudice-free as we sometimes imagine.

First, a third-grader's provocative science fair project, entitled "Does Skin Color Make a Difference?" was pulled by Mesa Elementary School after several teachers raised concerns that it might hurt the feelings of the school's minority (3 percent Latino, 3 percent Asian American) students.

Then on Feb. 23, two young Latino men were accosted by Boulder police, handcuffed and shoved to the cold, wet ground — before questioning — in the upscale Chautauqua neighborhood after a woman phoned to report what she called a "robbery." The woman told police the men's skin color convinced her they couldn't live in such an expensive area — yet one did.

In the wake of the Mesa incident, many, including a school board majority, have said the school did the right thing in removing the girl's exhibit. It was not, they argued, "good science" — there were no controls, the sample was too small to be statistically significant (standards we doubt were applied to other projects). They said the project might offend and stigmatize not just minority students, but white kids who "gave the wrong answer" (though the girl's conclusion was studiously free of such finger pointing). They have taken pains to point out the wealth of "diversity" education at Mesa.

Interestingly, few African Americans have endorsed the school's decision. To many, the whole affair was less about protecting students' feelings than about dodging a difficult issue. As one put it, "The only one it offends is those who don't want to deal with it."

Too often, schools want to keep the discussion of race in neat boxes, as if it's appropriate only on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, during Black History Month, or when teachers feel "comfortable" and in control. But life is messy. Racial prejudice is awkward, and sadly, pervasive. Trying to control how and when and why it's discussed, even to "protect kids' feelings," does, at some level, simply reflect our fears.

The woman who called police on the Latinos has acknowledged that, in her words, "I had a prejudice that I didn't even know I had."

We applaud her post facto self-examination, while pointing no fingers: She could be almost any of us. Most of us give well-intentioned, even "sincere," lip service to racial equality and diversity, but we live (by choice) in an environment where we seldom have to live our words. It's easy "armchair" philosophizing.

Of course, judging by skin color isn't just a "white" problem: In Boulder, some light-skinned half-African Americans and biracial people aren't considered as "authentic" as their darker-skinned counterparts — by their own peers.

As difficult as they are, both recent incidents present this community with "teachable moments." What then, should we do?

Certainly, making an effort to expose ourselves and families to other cultures — through books, the arts, film — is a good idea. For those who can, it can't hurt to spend time in places — whether Denver, San Francisco or Hanoi — where the faces are not all the same as ours.

But in a town where feel-good community forums are too often offered up as evidence of "progress," we think individual vigilance is the real key. Let's all take advantage of our own "teachable moments," when we default to stereotype or presumption, to deliberately stop and examine what we feel, and why. Let's seek out and own our prejudices, not bury our heads and proclaim some kind of easy, untested purity. Because in the end, very few of us are pure enough to do much finger-pointing.

March 1, 2001

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