Tuesday, September 17, 2019

How Do We Remember?

I stumbled across it quite by accident two weeks ago…what purported to be the only photo in existence of the first plane hitting the Twin Towers in New York 18 years ago. And this photo was accompanied by a caption that said something like “Never forget” or “We must always remember.”

I have many thoughts about remembering, forgetting, and perhaps even the importance of allowing things to be forgotten. Some of these I’ve talked about before, and some will wait for some other time. But right now, a week after the 18thanniversary of that terrible day, I want to talk about how we remember.

Because how we remember, and what it does to us is important.

18 years. That’s a long time, and yet, not a long time. To put this into perspective, let me talk about something that happened 15 years before I was born…Pearl Harbor. Obviously, I don’t remember whether or not it was still a raw wound in June of 1956. I don’t recall whether or not it was still a raw wound in December of 1959, 18 years after the attack…when I was three years old. I probably wasn’t even aware of a thing called Pearl Harbor until I was about 10 or 12 years old…a good 25 years later, by which point, as horrific as it was to people who remembered it, it was the stuff of history books to any Baby Boomer who wasn’t from a military family or didn’t grow up in Hawaii.

But there is one thing I was aware of once I became aware of what Pearl Harbor was, and that was how the desire to “Remember Pearl Harbor”, and by extension, the people killed in that attack turned into a hatred of the Japanese. Not just those who planned the attack, not just those who were ordered to carry it out, not just the civilians trying to live out what they could of a normal life during wartime…but of all Japanese. Americans of Japanese ancestry (can you say “Manzanar”?) and Japanese who weren’t even born during the war. Our desire to “not forget” metastasized into a hatred of Japanese that lasted for decades; and it’s only within the past 20 years or so that the Japanese, along with other Asians, have come to be seen as “model minorities” rather than examples of the “yellow peril.”

What am I getting at? 18 years after the attacks of September 11th, what has happened to our resolve to “never forget” or to “always remember”? Has it been something that would honor those who were killed that day, or has it, like what happened to the Japanese in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, metastasized into a hatred of Muslims…all Muslims.

I think that we all know the sad answer to that question. An answer that shows that we didn’t learn a lesson from the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

But really, how do we remember those we lost? How do we remember them and honor their lives? Do we remember them by seeking vengeance on “those people”, whether they were involved or not, and forgetting that they too live in fear of those extremists? Or do we more properly remember them by trying to make the world a better place for all of us…a place where there aren’t any violent extremists from any religion? And let’s admit that there are Christian extremists, Jewish extremists, Hindu extremists, Buddhist extremists, and others, as well as Muslim extremists…all of whom give a bad name to the religions they purport to represent. I think that if we’re wise, we know what the answer to that is.

The question now is, how many of us are wise?

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Dress Codes and Accusations of Racism

I used to teach at a school that had a very precise dress code. And of course, with a very precise dress code, students were always trying to find ways around it. Some parts of the dress code were particularly hard to enforce…especially if you were a male teacher.

We could handle enforcing the rules about blue denim, ripped clothing, clothing with writing on it, untucked shirts, or any of a number of dress code infractions (no matter how petty or stupid we thought they were); but there was one rule we didn’t want to have to deal with.


You couldn’t win this one. If you called a girl out for showing too much, she would turn it into an accusation of you looking where you shouldn’t be looking. You just couldn’t win.

And then one day, bless her heart, one day Laura, one of the administrators, dealt with it that in a way will not be forgotten. Upon seeing a girl who was practically falling out of her blouse, she said to her in a loud voice, “Put those things away!” and then took her to get a sweater.

There was no way that anyone could accuse Laura of anything inappropriate, and we had very few of those incidents after that.

So what does this have to do with accusations of racism? Well, it’s not going where you think it is, that’s for sure.

This has nothing to do with the fashion choices of people of certain ethnic groups, and everything to do with a conversation that came up in a Facebook group devoted to library workers.

It seems that a library worker was wondering how to approach patrons of certain demographics about their behavior and that of their children, without seeming racist. And the moment they asked that question, the torches and pitchforks came out, accusing that person of being racist for simply asking that question.

The problem is that I know that as with the girls showing too much cleavage at my old school, some members of some ethnic groups will turn any interaction with a white person that doesn’t go their way into a racial issue…whether it was or not. I have seen it done, and sometimes I’ve had to put on my “Laura hat”, and tell those people to “put that attitude away.”

And as with the male teachers who didn’t want to call out a girl who was practically falling out of her blouse, and would probably try to ignore her if she was totally naked, there are many white library workers who don’t want to deal with behavior issues of patrons of color, and may indeed cut those patrons a lot more slack than they would white patrons, because they don’t want to deal with accusations of racism.

The poor library worker who innocently asked this question was really trying to do the right thing, but knew, as do I, that unless you’re really careful (and sometimes even if you are), some people in certain groups will turn an interaction that might have gone fine with anyone else into a racial confrontation. And for even suggesting that this was a problem (which it is), they were accused of being racist, and the conversation got so nasty that comments had to be turned off.

What can we do about this? First of all, all of us need to admit that it happens, and is a problem, rather than immediately accusing someone with a question like this of being racist. Second, those of us who are in those demographics need to remember that not everything is a racial issue, and that sometimes we’re just wrong.

Finally, when we see a situation like this, those of us who are in those demographics need to “put on our Laura hats” and say, “Put that attitude way!”