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Colorblind isn't the goal

Before I went to graduate school I had the opportunity to teach African American literature at Pinecrest high school. The first thing I had to do was make it clear to them that I was aware of the fact that I was not actually black.

After that was all cleared up, I offered up the fact that while they knew far more than I did about being black; I knew far more than they did about literature, so hopefully, we were all about to learn a great deal. I don't know how I did on my part of the relationship, but they certainly taught me.

They weren't easy on me. But, they also let me ask them frank and probably annoying questions. I peppered them with questions about how their hair is different from mine. They asked me why crazy white girls wear flip flops in the winter. I have no idea on that one.

I asked them why they thought a Black History Month was needed in this day (this was almost 20 years ago. . . ) and their answer stunned me. They told me they didn't want a Black History Month (which, by the way was assigned to the SHORTEST month). It would be wonderful if there didn't have to be a month, if their history was just a part of American history, if it was all just OUR history. How about that?

I remember when a student told me about the older white man who came by and got the same breakfast every morning at her summer job and would never take his change out of her hand. He would just wait until she put it on the table and then pick it up. She wanted to see if she was crazy, so she went in on her day off, when she knew a white girl would be working. The man came in, as always, bought his regular breakfast, and happily took the change right out of the young woman's hand.

I grew up in the south. I knew the stories. I knew about the Klan. I knew our past. But, I also thought that it was all water under the bridge. I thought that because it seemed like the blacks and the whites got along in the hallways, racism was a skeleton in our closet.

It isn't. And it certainly isn't just in the south's closet. It's the drunk uncle in our living room that might not be making noise, but that's just because he's asleep, not because he isn't there.

I remember worrying that when Barack Obama was elected, people might erroneously think, "Whew! Glad we solved that whole race problem. Guess we know we aren't a racist country anymore. Check." I think the fact that it was an enormous deal to have a black president tells us that we have a ways to go. When it is NOT a big deal to have a black president, senator, chief justice, etc., that is when perhaps we will start to arrive. Because that will mean that it is just a part of our lives, like children playing together on a playground--blissfully unaware that it should be a big deal that they are friends. They just both happen to like to play ninja warrior, and that's all that really matters.

So, yeah, I think we need it. We need to ask questions of each other. We need to examine what it feels like to be a minority. We need to laugh at the differences and embrace the variety. We all share stories that need to be told. It's worth listening to those stories and to each other.

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