When my children fight or argue – I never make them just kiss and make up. I never force them to say “sorry” or shake hands and go about their business. Instead, when they are at loggerheads, feelings are hurt, people are angry and frustrated – I make them stop and think. I ask them to imagine how the other person feels. I question them to elicit an understanding of the broader situation. It doesn’t matter to me whether they hurt each other on purpose or by accident – either through misunderstanding or callous oblivion. It doesn’t matter because my endgame isn’t to get an apology – my endgame is to prompt a change in their behavior and create thoughtful human beings.
To this day – if you ask them “What does sorry mean?” They will respond, “Sorry means I’m not going to do it again.” An apology isn’t a get out of jail free card, it isn’t a platitude or means of placating someone so that they can go about their business again without dealing with hurt feelings. Sorry is supposed to mean something. In fact, if ever there were an occasion where my child could not commit to not doing “it” again or refused to try to understand the other point of view – I would not let them say they were sorry at all. That was primarily because if you apologize without understanding, without wanting to change – then the apology is insincere, it can not ever be sincere because it is either unconcerned with or ignorant of the pain caused. It requires the wronged party to do all the heavy lifting of forgiveness despite knowing that “it” will happen again.
Lately, I have had a lot of difficult conversations about race in America. These difficult conversations have almost exclusively been with people who are upset with being perceived as racist – usually after having made some racist comments. “I’m not like that!” “I’m color blind – everyone is the same to me!” “That’s not what I meant.” “You’re racist for saying, Black Lives Matter!” I’ve heard it all. And it all boils down to the same thing: I enjoy my privilege and the trappings of my life – this racism stuff doesn’t affect me personally and since I have never said or done anything I believe to be racist I can not be judged alongside violently racist white supremacists.
And that’s the problem. When some white people hear the word racist they only think Skin Heads and KKK hoods – they don’t think Amy Cooper or Lisa Alexander. So, in their minds, they can’t be racist. It’s like claiming a little extra on your taxes but feeling really good about yourself because you are not a murderer. Just because you haven’t killed someone doesn’t mean you’re innocent. We tell our kids all the time. – you shouldn’t be trying to be better than the lowest common denominator – you should be trying to be your best.
So how do you know when it’s worth your time to talk to someone about race?
When that person cares enough to do the heavy lifting themselves – when they stop asking you to defend your position and take the time to educate themselves on the historical context of the situation. After teaching for twenty years, you learn a thing or two. There are the kids who do all the work and then some, the kids who do all of the required work, those who do some of the work, those who do barely any work, and then there are those who do none. There is another category though – the child who does barely any work throughout the marking period and in the end – when it may impact him/her – asks to do “extra credit” work to improve their grade. I think you know where I’m going with this. “Extra credit” in this context is not extra credit. When students would ask me for it, I would always respond the same way,
“You are not asking for extra credit.”
“Yes I am, can I have some?”
“Actually, you are not. You are asking for replacement credit.”
*Confused look from slacker student*
“What you are really saying is, ‘I did not value the assignments you worked hard to create for me and so I did not do them. I now want you to create additional work that can be done quickly and easily to replace the work I did not do.’ You want replacement work. Extra credit is when you have done all the work that has been assigned and you want more- extra.”
These students expected me to do all the hard work without taking the responsibility of doing any themselves and even wanted me to do additional work to accommodate them.
This is the way I feel about uncomfortable race conversations. If you do not care enough to do the work of educating yourself about how systemic racism has affected people in this country then it’s not really worth my time to attempt to influence your opinions – you clearly don’t value them. If you want to appear that you care by asking me to do the work of educating you about systemic racism in this country – it doesn’t seem like you sincerely care enough to make any meaningful change because you don’t care enough to put in the work.
If, however, you care enough to actually attempt to educate yourself, I will be happy to help you find a way to understand. If you care enough to look into the historical context of race relations in America, I am more than thrilled to engage with you in as many uncomfortable conversations as you need.
At this point in American history, it is not enough to cry a collective “sorry” and then carry on about your lives without making any changes.
Sorry means I won’t do it again.