President Obama’s speech about Trayvon Martin addressed the context of prejudice. Whether or not you believe the president’s motives were personal or political, he mapped out a terrain more complicated than any single criminal trial could fully capture.
He also pulled from his own lifetime to convey what it is like to be profiled “through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
Our values are formed through suggestions intertwined and projected on us over our lifetimes. We provide one another a subtle permission to collude against those we find threatening, distasteful or strange. The objects of our ire often respond to the environment in which we place them, and frequently adapt, acting out a story for which the stage was set. That’s context.
So, when we see a young black male in a hoodie at night – or any other time for that matter – we experience a visceral response that resonates like the pluck of a guitar. The feeling vibrates deep within us and stirs a heightened awareness digging deep into our gut to form judgments. The process isn’t all that different from when we encounter two men being intimate, an unwed pregnant woman, or any foreign phenomenon we perceive to threaten or contradict our beliefs or way of life.
Profiling and bigotry are evident in racism, homophobia and gender bias, and each has complicated histories that continue to impact us to this day. But socially acceptable violence, intimidation or abuse of others is not innate. It is positively or negatively reinforced by societies — mainly adults — who have strong ideas about who is good or bad, right or wrong, and safe or dangerous.
Visceral responses can be strong, and fighting against them can be a great undertaking. But those responses are not the problem we face today. How we act after our gut reaction — or how we feel entitled to act — is what leads to problems. And when we create laws and construct society to reinforce our negative responses, it institutionalizes our actions as appropriate behaviors even when those actions harm others.
As a result, we use our political power to stand our ground, define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, profile people of color and ban abortions — presumably so the actors on stage act more like us. But more often than not, the actors adapt to the stage and mimic our preconceived expectations. We build the stage yet express anger when actors fit squarely in the role we’ve defined for them.
We talk endlessly of wanting a better future for our children, but we don’t even speak their language, and I’ve seen nothing in the past two weeks to suggest they’ve even been invited to the table for the discussion.
We claim we want youth to inherit a better country than the one we inherited, but all we do is reinforce the biases and ideals of a world to which they barely relate.
If in the course of two weeks you are exhausted by conversations about race, it is because the way we talk about social justice is old and tired. By all measures, youth understand acceptance, inclusion and diversity in ways we will never comprehend, probably because they didn’t grow up sheltered and attached to the outside world by a single landline. They are the product of a worldwide web, and they aren’t interested in the wicked one we’ve woven.
Young people created the collective consciousness we signed into when we signed up for Facebook and Twitter, and they consider diversity, fairness and equality without the baggage we bear. They have learned to convey complex thoughts in 140 characters or less while we’re stuck rinsing and repeating.
It’s not President Obama who’s late to the game or “leading from behind” when it comes to social issues; it’s those of us who see everything “through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away” who can’t see.
It’s time to retire our tired, old, insular, xenophobic conversations and move aside so a younger generation can leave our biased baggage behind.
Tony Plakas is the CEO of Compass Community Center. He can be reached at TonyPlakas@post.harvard.edu or you can follow him on Twitter @Tonyplakas.
Copyright © 2013, South Florida Sun-Sentinel