The existence of Black History Month can sometimes spark debate, but it is healthy to take a moment and ensure discussion of people who made no appearance in school curricula for the vast majority of our nation’s existence. Done properly, this can unearth important parts of our history – volunteering for a Black History Month presentation during my time in the Army led to learning about Staff Sergeant Edward A. Carter, Jr., one of the most remarkable soldiers to ever wear our uniform and someone unjustly denied the Medal of Honor for over 50 years because of his race.
Done poorly, it can lead to a high school full of students in Henrico County being shown this:
According to the Washington Post, the video is more than a decade old and has been shown “hundreds of thousands of times” at schools and workshops. It’s worth four minutes of your time, so watch before continuing…
…and be amazed and a bit saddened by what you see. There are a number of failures here, but two seem most relevant:
1) the inability to understand the difference between telling people about a problem and accusing them of being responsible for it, and 2) the crass hypocrisy of using casual stereotyping to portray another group while rejecting it for your own. Note that recognizing this failure doesn’t require anyone to agree or disagree with affirmative action as a policy prescription – you can do either with class, unlike this video.
The event at Glen Allen High School this week which included the video was held in response to a racist song being played over the PA system during a football game in October. The song is beyond awful, and a lesson in tolerance was clearly necessary:
Yet instead of trying to break down stereotypes and teach students to see each other as individuals with equal rights and dignity, this video simply swaps in a new set of negative stereotypes for the loathsome ones displayed by the song. The result is a video which culminates with a preening, blonde man lazily riding a conveyor belt across the finish line of life while holding up a cup with “Yale” emblazoned on its side.
Quite a lesson in tolerance, isn’t it?
Before anyone asks, I am not reacting emotionally because I saw myself in that video. As someone who is 50% Hispanic, 0% blonde, and has never spent a day in a private school, I am the kind of person who shows just how shallow and ridiculous that caricature truly is. The Irish half of my family comes from Grundy, and we would likely still live there if my grandfather hadn’t left to fight in World War II. There are no conveyor belts out of Appalachia, and it is corrosive to portray any race or ethnicity in such a simplistic and insulting way regardless of which race or ethnicity it happens to be. It does nothing to build the kind of respect and dialogue required for equal rights or even a functioning civil society.
Henrico officials originally defended the video, calling it “one component of a thoughtful discussion in which all viewpoints were encouraged,” but the school board chair soon backtracked and began describing the video as “racially divisive.” Hopefully other Virginia school districts will learn from this mistake and ensure such materials are not included in future lessons.
The creator of the video condescendingly dismissed any criticism of it, telling the Washington Post that anyone angered was simply a product of “a society that doesn’t have honest discourse about race.” But there is nothing “honest” about reducing millions of people into a cartoonish villian, and this approach does nothing to illuminate the very real obstacles which practices such as redlining and racial profiling have long posed to minority communities in America. Perhaps a video which actually taught students something meaningful about those obstacles would create the empathy required for a future where they don’t exist.