Who, Me?

January 18, 2016

It is Martin Luther King Day and I am thinking about how difficult it is to know our own worst capabilities.

I’ve been thinking about an experience in the 1980s. I was living near a Quaker day school that had an ugly, racist incident. The school community awoke one day to find a large surface on the school grounds had been painted with unquestionably racist graffiti. There were KKK-robed figures, there was an African-African head with a bullet traveling through it, there was the ‘N-word’, and there was much more all on display. It took until noon for those responsible to be identified, all seniors at the school, and for them to be expelled for having violated school values the students had known for many years were defining of the school community. Let’s call those 24 hours between the painting and the expulsion of those responsible the Phase I of this incident.

Phase II lasted months longer. This was the push-back from the parents of the expelled students and from their friends and supporters who opposed the severity of the punishment. They pressed hard against the schools’ administrators and board of trustees to reverse the expulsion and to allow the seniors to graduate. In the end, the school stood firm, and those responsible graduated from nearby public high schools, not the Quaker school.

At first I was flabbergasted by the push-back. Surely the parents could see that what their children had done was wrong. Surely they could see that the students were old enough to be responsible for their actions. I could understand parents defending their children and wanting to protect them from harm, but even more I could see that minimizing the gravity of this incident would do their children even more harm.

As the weeks passed, I came to realize something else. For the parents to acknowledge the ugly racism of the graffiti-painting incident, the parents would have to acknowledge their own responsibility for the deeds. They would have to acknowledge that their own households, the ones in which these students had grown up, incubated and nurtured these ugly sentiments. (As the Rogers and Hammerstein song in South Pacific has it, ‘you’ve got to carefully taught:’

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

The parents, I realized, weren’t just defending their children, they were defending themselves; they were defending their own conception of themselves as well meaning and good.

And thus I learned something else: that one of the sturdiest faces of racism is denial.

I have come to accept that I have ugly impulses within me. Some of these I have been taught (likely by well-meaning people) and some arise from my own deep well of selfishness. I know this about myself. Who, me? Yes, it can be me. And so I know, too, that I need to put continuous effort into overcoming these ugly impulses. This is a large part of what leads me to prayer and waiting worship in the manner of Friends. It can be me, but it doesn’t have to be so.

I’ve been thinking about this ‘who, me?’ predicament (this tendency within us all to deny our worst impulses) as I try to understand the stalemate over gun policy in the United States.

Perhaps it’s like this. There many gun owners in the United States, and they know – they are certain — that they would never use their gun to do anything cruel or deadly to another person. It’s beyond comprehension. They can’t imagine what they might do in a moment of despair or fear even as they read daily news stories about shooting after shooting. They may not say it over think it, but deep down they believe ‘that’s not me; that’s nothing I would ever do.’ And so any move to regulate or restrict gun ownership appears to them as questioning their goodness. Each such urging for gun control gives rise to a powerful personal denial

Who, me?

Yes, me. We need to begin by acknowledging that we have ugly impulses, each and every one of us.

Also posted on QuakerQuaker.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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