I have a relative that talks about “when the coloreds moved into our neighborhood” (I am not kidding you). And another that goes on about a former colleague that says “aks” instead of “ask” (and believe me, it’s more about her ethnic background than grammar).
And I love both of them dearly.
Confessing that scares the pants off of me.
You see, some of my closest friends have been people with skin that has a different color than mine. And I’ve never had the courage to tell them of my ridiculous relations. I’ve never told them that people that I’m related to can be so thoughtless and hurtful. And I’ve never told them that I forgive those relatives for it and still see the awesomeness that is in their souls (because, for reals – who am I to judge? My faults would fill up quite the lengthy book). Admitting this still gives me the shivers, because I know how much my friends – yes, people that I love and that have awesomeness in their souls, too – have been hurt by just such words.
Words have power, y’all.
They have the power to heal, the power to destroy, and the power to change the world – but only if we let them. I currently live in a foreign country (and stink mightily at foreign languages), and my experience has shown me just how much words can be a stream of meaningless sounds – until we attach a meaning to them.
It’s time to change those meanings.
Racism has a lot of words associated with it – almost all with terrible, hateful meanings attached to them. Scientists have discovered that this is because of something they’ve termed “outgroup hate” – and that it has it’s very origins with the dawn of man.
Why Racism Exists
Apparently, back in caveman-land, we humans realized we needed to help each other to get along and survive. This developed into community, which developed into the need for “ingroup love,” or loving and taking care of the people within our community, our group. Well we, silly, logical, but oh-so-shortsided (and frightened) humans took the leap to say if we need ingroup love, then clearly we need to hate those outsiders to protect our clan – and thus began “outgroup hate.” As Benjamin Franklin would say, we chose security over freedom and got neither and deserved less. You see, out of this outgroup hate sprang the beginnings of racism – and the loss of our freedom to simply be who we were meant to be, and to love others for their own unique selves.
Clearly it is time to reclaim that freedom.
In our globalized world, we are all a part of the same ingroup – and we need to strengthen that group with some ingroup love.
It is to the younger generation that we look to for the change. All research points to education as the key to eliminating distinction and bias. We need to educate our children beyond hate for the other and into a world where that doesn’t exist. And that means we need to reclaim those words. In order to take away their power, we must teach the next generation these words with new meanings, meanings with love and grace attached to them. This does not mean that we forget our past. Ignoring what has happened invites us to make the same mistake over and over again (reference back to my own faults…). This does mean that we need to take away the power of the past to hurt us.
The recent brew-haha over H&M’s use of “cutest monkey in the jungle” on a sweatshirt modeled by a non-white child is the perfect example. This shirt got randomly assigned to a model’s pile of clothes. That model happened to be african-american (actually it turns out he’s swedish, but that’s neither here nor there). This is a victory. If the twenty-something style assistant that was throwing different outfits into piles to be modeled during the style shoot didn’t give two thoughts to who should model the shirt, this is victory. If the photographer taking the picture didn’t look at that kiddo with a shirt that said monkey on it and think “oops, can’t do that, he’s african-american”, that’s victory. If the mother of the child (as she’s stated) didn’t look at the shirt and think “why are they putting a shirt that says cutest monkey on my clearly african-american child?” that’s victory. Not one of them looked at the children during the photo shoot and said “well, he’s got dark skin, and he’s got light skin, so I need to be careful about what shirt goes where.” Instead, all of them looked and saw two children. They gave them shirts. And they moved on. They were not giving one thought to the color of skin.
Racism ends when we stop paying attention to the color of people’s skin.
So let’s reclaim those words. Let’s allow monkey and black and cracker to become what they are – words that are beloved by children everywhere, because one is a beloved friend in Curious George, one is the color of a crayon, and one is a delicious snack that our mom sometimes gives us. Let’s allow all of these words to no longer have the terrible, ugly, awful connotations that they had decades ago. Let’s allow that twenty-something fashion assistant to think that monkey is a term of endearment for small children, and take away it’s power to hurt and harm and destroy us. Let’s allow ourselves to let go, to forgive, to grow beyond the fears of the past. Let’s allow our children to be wiser, stronger, and less fearful than our generation. Let’s encourage, educate, and motivate them to move beyond our hangups and start seeing everyone as part of the same ingroup, deserving of the same ingroup love.
Carmen Westbrook is the CEO and co-founder of Aina Giving, a socially responsible company that develops craft projects and tutorials for highly screened, trusted nonprofit charities. If you’d like to be a part of the Year of Giving Resolution, join the Aina Crew and get 12 free projects – one per month – to help others from home.