Bringing to life the importance of consideration
Last Thursday, my friend invited me to an event called DiversiTEA here on campus. I had little idea as to what to expect, other that I would be gifted with free tea (who can say no to that?). But the ideas and thoughts I received while there were far more valuable than any tea could ever be.
One part of the event that really remains with me was a modest activity. Everyone was given a paper star, with each color—red, green, blue and yellow—representing different people, their role in society and how society viewed them. Blue represented the white male, yellow for the white woman, green for the black male and red for the black woman, the star I was so fortunate to receive. The rules of the activity were simply this: The facilitator makes a statement that pertains to your star and subsequently you do to it what she asks.
The statements the facilitator said originated, I believe, at the beginning of the 1700s. To those with a blue star, she began with “you are a respected and privileged member of society. Your voice is heard and your rights as a citizen are protected,” followed by, “leave your star alone.” To those with a red star, she would read off phrases such as “…you are nothing but an object. You are worked, beaten and raped by an unforgiving owner. Your close family members have been sold to another plantation,” telling those to then remove a point from their star.
I did as I was told. By the end of the activity, we had progressed to the 1960s, which promised slight change but resulted in little variation in the way I treated my star. I sat back in my chair and remained silent, almost as if a class had ended and I was waiting for the throng of people to exit before I myself left. I had no great moment of realization. To me, the statements read were mere fact, things taught in history books, things I grew up learning as a black girl. It wasn’t until I looked up across from me and saw a girl—so full of joy just minutes ago—reduced to hushed tears, that I realized. She sat quietly, eyes reddened with sadness, tears rolling down her cheeks, which carried the weight of a frustration, cried by thousands before her, tears that held the pain of a past that should be unknown to her, but tears that even 100 years later are being shed on young, beautiful faces, that resemble the hurt brought on by our American past. It was then I realized my own foolishness in accepting what I had been told as simply history, as opposed to the lives and the stories of those who walked this earth before me.
I looked at my little, red star, missing three points, folded and crumbled and distorted to a state unrecognizable from its initial shape, resembling now nothing more than a worthless wad of red construction paper, while the blue star had nothing but a single fold. One. Single. Fold. I realized then that the issue is less about how past affects the present and more about people in the present failing to acknowledge how the past has affected each of us.
Some may counter that American society has progressed, and these problems no longer hold validity. It’s true—we’ve progressed as a society. But if we’ve come so far, why are events such as DiversiTEA still necessary? We may not be living in the 1700s, but society’s negative views on minorities and people of color today have, in a way, not been destroyed but merely diminished.
I can remember an instance a year ago at my high school. In class, we had begun to talk about racial issues at the school. I claimed, as a minority, that the school indeed did have some problems in the realm of race relations—but my white counterparts insisted on telling me I was wrong and that racial issues did not exist at our quaint, suburban school.
I was shocked to hear this: How could they tell me what I was feeling as a minority? How could they simply write off my emotions like that, so carelessly and without regret? It’s circumstances like these that are the problem in today’s society. The problem (largely) isn’t blatant racism or flat out discrimination but small things, like this simple classroom conversation. Instead of taking a step back to understand my perspective, they were quick, as the majority, to completely disregard my opinion, and no one could even fathom why this was wrong. These small instances, what many would refer to as microaggressions, demonstrate the lack of progress of American society.
One can almost view America today as a renovated car. It started out rusty, paint-chipped and beaten, and a little paint and polishing made it look new. But underneath the shiny paint is the same, old car; we haven’t progressed as much as we like to claim we have. And the beaten, old car of America shines through, without hesitation, in the actions of many today.
We have to realize that the past is not all forgotten; it’s not some distant tale. Despite our efforts to remove ourselves from the affliction caused by those before us, we are still very much tied to it. It’s who we are, where we come from: It’s American history.
We have to make an effort to understand one another, to understand that although we are connected to our past—we don’t have to make the same mistakes that were made then. If we’re going to proclaim and boast about our “extraordinary” progress, we need to start matching our actions to the words that we speak. It’s 2017, America. Time to change.