On March 20, as U.S. Rep. John Lewis walked to a meeting on Capitol Hill, Tea Party protestors hurled racial slurs at him. They also yelled homophobic comments at and spat on U.S. Rep. Barney Frank. These cruel actions toward two people who have endured much discrimination brought tears to my eyes. Of course I know this hatred toward any type of difference or threat to the status quo has been alive and well for centuries. However, to see this nastiness saddens me immensely.
I learned of the nastiness while watching the Sunday morning news. I sat with my beautiful little girl eating pancakes on a warm spring morning. The news came on and my daughter immediately knew who Lewis was. She said, “Why would anyone call a hero a bad name? He is one of the reasons why my friends and I can all be friends.” I smiled at her because at that moment I knew I had raised her to be a lovely, accepting and open-minded child. Although my daughter knows the story of Lewis — she learned it in the Philadelphia public school system— I decided to take out a picture book and show her how he was treated by the horrible White racists in Selma, Ala. She looked at the pictures wondering how humans could treat one another in that way. I explained that hatred is taught and that I had taught her to love. She also said something profound, “But, mama, these photos were taken a long time ago, they’re in black and white, this really mean stuff doesn’t happen anymore, does it? I thought we learned to be better to each other. We elected Barack Obama, right mama?”
There have been many instances in which I have talked to my daughter about racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination. I have always had frank conversations with her and in front of her. In my opinion, talking openly is how children learn about the world.
The only way to stop the hatred around issues of difference is to begin when we are children and to continue that education throughout the college years and beyond. I believe these young children, if educated lovingly, will redeem our shameful behavior. But, we have to spend time telling them about our nation’s history – those things we are proud of and those mistakes we have made. We also have to make sure that they understand how sacred justice and equality really are to our nation. As I watch my sweet child and her friends of all racial and ethnic backgrounds play together, I know that it’s possible for future generations to know better than to ridicule an African-American hero or spit on a gay leader.
I even think it’s possible for an older person to change. I know this to be true because I grew up with a racist, homophobic father. He blamed his lack of success on African-Americans despite never meeting one, nor living near any Black families. He attempted to raise me and my siblings to believe his racist ideas. I am grateful to my mother who told me to ignore the evil words and hostility and to focus on love. During my dad’s last few years, he had a massive stroke and as a result, had to move to Nashville, Tenn., to live near my sister in a nursing home. To his surprise, his roommate was an African-American man. Although my father kicked and screamed at first, he came to form a deep friendship with his roommate. Before he died, my dad told me how wrong he was about African-Americans. He admitted to not knowing anything about Black culture, that he just needed someone to blame for his unhappiness and that he was wrong.
My father died a much better man. My daughter has a much better grandfather to remember.
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).