Someone once said that “the problem with the past is it’s not quite past.” Ironically, the hanging of a Black doll and the dragging of it through school at Minneapolis Washburn was a reminder that the past is not quite past us in our so-called post-racial society.
Why would someone hang a Black doll knowing that at the very least it would be attention getting in young people’s consciousness? Some of the young people who spoke at an assembly at the school about the issue said that the perpetrators didn’t mean anything by hanging the doll. A few others said it wasn’t meant to be racist.
Maybe not. You can never really know anyone’s intention unless they tell you. So maybe they were just having fun.
As a student from another school who spoke out put it, “Is it okay to drag a doll around with a rope around its neck and hang it or stomp on it? Is it saying it’s okay to do that to someone? What does it say about us? What would you be trying to say? Why would that be okay?”
This brings up another question: Why are some folks saying it’s no big deal when one community is saying it is? Why is there discussion in some quarters about whether it is offensive or not? To her credit, it appears, judging from her comments, that the principal at the Washburn understands that. What’s troubling is why didn’t some others?
Let’s be clear. Had a swastika been waved around in a school in which Jewish kids attended, it would be understood as offensive and the Jewish community — rightly so — would have responded. And their response would have been respected and understood. Well, at least by most.
So, why would the Black community not be similarly respected? Why is the Jewish holocaust of WWII well known, but the holocaust of millions of Black lives lost during the Middle Passage — the transporting of slaves from Africa to the North American continent — not be well known or held in memoriam? Something is wrong with that picture.
In fact, it cries out that indeed there is a double standard that maybe Black pain is not like others’ pain or that Blacks don’t experience pain at all. Whatever the reason, it clearly says something about the place of Black folks in society. Times indeed have not changed as much as we would like to think.
Ironically, the incident took place close to the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. Everyone should at least know that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a part of the Civil Rights Movement, which sought to win equal rights for Blacks in this country. And he also sought to end the terrorism known primarily as lynching but also carried out in beatings, banishments and even peonage, in which Blacks were arrested on trumped-up charges and imprisoned and leased out to work for private enterprise without pay.
Sometimes these prisoners were worked to death. This went on after slavery for nearly 70 years.
This calls into question the public education system in our country. If this were Cuba, and important parts of the country’s history were left out, it would be accused of indoctrination. But indoctrination too often is what passes for education here in the U.S.
The history that is taught is history that glorifies the republic and, as a result, leaves out all the ugly history of the U.S. annihilation of the native population and its barbarous treatment of its Black members starting with slavery and continuing with Jim Crow.
Even today many Black folks are still experiencing a kind of New Jim Crow. But even if one is ignorant of history, respect means not doing something that someone says is offensive to them. To ignore the plea, play it off or play it down is the height of disrespect.
In the comments section of an article written about the incident in the Star Tribune, over a dozen White respondents all asked, “What’s the big deal?” Their responses demonstrate either their ignorance or their callousness or both. Either way its disturbing that someone would go out of their way to diminish someone else and in this case a community’s pain.
This is a sign of a deeper malaise because these folks weren’t asked what they think. They weren’t polled and thus would feel compelled to contribute their two cents. They voluntarily exposed to the world their lack of understanding and empathy. The times have not changed as much as we would like to believe.
It calls into question why this would be questioned as to whether it was offensive or not. A swastika would have been understood.
Even some young Black folks don’t understand why that is offensive. That is problematic and it speaks volumes to the lack of educating that parents are doing with their children.
One can treat this statement as a cliché or not take it seriously to their peril, but those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. If during the age of Obama racism has been eradicated, why have things not changed that much for Black folks? Well, maybe I should say for some Black folks. But the rest of us are catching hell. We have the highest unemployment rate, dropout rate, incarceration rate. We’re losing our jobs, homes, and some of us, our own minds. So in the context of all that, yes, this is a big deal.
And so as if on cue one of the Black adults associated with the school took the opportunity to chastise the folks concerned about the incident, calling it this mess. She said that instead of concentrating on this mess, folks should be concerned with other things going on at the institution.
Of course she had a point, but it’s just backwards to counter-pose the two ideas. There are plenty of other issues around public education that need to be addressed. Indeed she was right to call it this mess, because indeed it is.
But she is right. There are the issues of the lack of Black teachers, draconian punishment for Black students.
What was telling was how quickly some folks grasped the idea of restorative justice for these kids. Usually they aren’t so lenient or liberal when it comes to punishing kids of color. Restorative justice should be considered in punishing all of the kids in public education.
At bottom this all reveals that we still have a long ways to go. But it’s our hope, like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, that if we put in the work learned from our errors we will get to the goal of a just and equitable society.
Mel Reeves welcomes reader responses to [email protected]