The Content Of Our Character

I came into this world right in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, so I was fortunate to be too young and oblivious to see the worst of segregation in America. I vaguely remember watching the news and feeling sad when Martin Luther King was assassinated, although I didn’t yet understand the impact of that event.

One of my most distinct childhood memories was of my mother telling me that I was never, ever, EVER to say the N-word. My mom was not a strict or harsh disciplinarian, but she was adamant about that. That word was NEVER to be uttered in our home. I understood, and I never questioned it, nor did my three brothers, to the best of my knowledge.

In the summer before I started 5th grade, there was a major commotion at my school because forced busing was about to be implemented. It may have been an issue among the parents at my lily-white school, but for the kids involved, it seemed like much ado about nothing. Other than skin color, there didn’t seem to be much difference between us. By the time I moved on to high school, I was sitting in classrooms alongside kids of all colors. And it was just…school. I don’t recall racial tension, or gang violence. Maybe I was still oblivious. But I don’t think so.

Civil rights seemed to be taking hold. And working just fine.

By the time my kids came along, I had really expected racism and bigotry to be a thing of the past, something that we, as a nation, had finally outgrown. But I became more aware of bigotry when they were growing up than I had ever observed or experienced as a child. And the conversations I had to have with them about it were heartbreaking. And shocking.

What enlightenment could I offer my daughter, then 10, when she came home from school in tears, because one of her little classmates had called her a “dirty Jew” and said she wished my daughter’s ancestors “had all died in the Holocaust”? Put a positive spin on that one!

Most parents thought it was difficult to talk to their kids about Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings. You think its tough explaining what a blow job is to a 12 and a 10 year-old? That was a walk in the park for me, compared to the day earlier that year, when I had to explain to my outraged 10 year-old son why three white men in Jasper, Texas had tied a black man, James Byrd, Jr., to the back of their truck and dragged him to his death.

“How can people do such horrible things,” he asked? I had no good answers. How do you explain white supremacy to a kid? I can’t even explain it to myself!

A few days after the 9/11 attacks, my daughter, by then in high school, came home and told me how ignorant people were. Her friend, Kunal, had reported that his temple had been vandalized in the wake of the attacks, and anti-Muslim sentiments had been painted on the building. We agreed that the vandalism was despicable.

But something else was on her mind. “Mom, Kunal is Hindu, not Muslim! The vandals were so stupid they didn’t even know the difference. Not only are they bigots, they’re clueless bigots.”

And such is the nature of bigotry. It is fully rooted in ignorance.

Apparently, bigotry is a seed that is planted very early in some people. Once it takes hold, it’s difficult to uproot and excise. And it grows and becomes something unspeakably evil in the human heart. Perhaps it even supplants the heart altogether. How could you hate so blindly and still claim to have a heart?

In 2008, this nation elected its first President of color, the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. At that moment, I believed that there really was some hope for our country to become the color-blind and open-minded nation that the Civil Rights movement had begun to push us toward so many decades ago. I fervently hoped that racism and bigotry were finally loosening their grip.

Yet, here we are, five years later, and the level of hatred and bigotry I see now is perhaps the worst I can recall in my lifetime. It’s rampant throughout society. And nowhere does it seem more evident to me than in our own Congress.

This is totally conjecture on my part, but I think the reason nothing is happening in Congress these days, save for the 40+ attempts to overturn health care legislation that has already been passed, signed into law, and upheld by the Supreme Court, is because Congress is still made up mostly of old white guys, and I don’t think those old white guys can get over the fact that there’s a black guy in charge!

My message to Congress is this: Wake the fuck up!

We have an extremely well-educated, intelligent, savvy pragmatist leading the country now. He was fairly elected. Twice! The color of his skin should have no bearing on how you do your jobs. Your obstructionist games are not making you any more popular, and your insistence on accomplishing absolutely nothing of value on behalf of the American people isn’t really the best way to get yourselves re-elected. And we all know that’s really what you’re worried about. You’re obviously not concerned about your constituents.

Now, with that said, I will leave you with something to ponder.

Skin color is just that. It’s a color. An identifier. Like having red hair, or green eyes, or being tall, or having dimples.

Skin color does not define an individual, nor does ethnicity, or religious sect, or gender identity. These things make us neither better nor worse than anyone else. They just are.

Our President is no less capable, and deserves no less respect, than any other president simply because he’s bi-racial, just as Foo Fighter guitarist Pat Smear is no less skilled and talented at rocking the house because he is. The new Miss America, Nina Davuluri, is no less poised, intelligent, and lovely because she’s Indian-American. Ellen DeGeneres is not one iota less funny because she’s gay.

What defines us is, as MLK said so many years ago, the content of our character. Being kind, being thoughtful, helping someone who needs help, protecting someone who is smaller and weaker, respecting others, even if they don’t look or worship or vote the way you do – all of these are aspects of character. And all of these come from within. Below the skin. From the real part of us that matters.

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