(From Are We Great, Yet? (part one) – Hate is taught. I’m not saying hate hasn’t always been around, but I am saying we teach it to those around us, to our children. Sometimes we don’t mean to. A comment in passing, nothing really meant by it, can take hold in a child.)
In thinking back to childhood, trying to work out how exactly we learn to hate, I started thinking about play and who the “bad guy” was. There was the usual cowboys and Indians which I was kind of an asshole about to my son when he was growing up. To be fair (to me) I must first admit that my mother sometimes listened to country music. You, reader, might remember “Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys. They’ll never stay home, and they’re always alone, even with someone they love. . . Don’t let ’em get guitars and drive in old trucks; let ’em be doctors and lawyers and such.” Bah, okay, I’m admitting that Waylon’s wise words did seep in a teensy bit, but to be perfectly honest, I thought it was high time we add some responsibility to that tired old children’s game. My son knew what “cowboys” and the U.S. military did to natives, and he knew that the invaders/immigrants brought disease and death and stole from the native people of our continent. At least I kept out the rape part. The point is perpetuating that good guy/bad guy and cowboy/Indian thing was, in my opinion, ignorant and not helpful. And not fun. Nobody wants to be the “bad guy.”
There is another strange good guy/bad guy phenomenon that happens with child’s play: the nebulous “bad guy,” our “bad guy” du jour. When I was very young it was the “Russians.” They were actually the U.S.S.R., but for some reason we didn’t call these “bad guys” the “Soviets” or the “communists;” we called them “Russians.” This was during the Cold War, and they were the “bad guys” of the time, but at that time I couldn’t have even begun to tell you why. I understood the basics of the Second World War, but that was from history class (more on that in a bit). The recent war, the one that mattered (as far as I knew as a young person) was the Vietnam War, and we rarely spoke of it. If we did Mom got mad (at the people of Vietnam, or anyway, that was the feeling I got on the subject), and Dad clammed up since he was not at that time allowed to speak about what he did all those years in Vietnam and Japan. All he could tell us was he “fixed radios” since his unit was not declassified until after 2000 though he did have a couple of hilarious stories about goings-on back home especially in relation to how the timing of mail was on his end (messages arrived in the wrong order, for instance, sometimes weeks apart). So, many years into the Cold War our bad guys were “Russians” since they were the ones who were going to nuke us. I know, I know – kids! Wild imaginations when we have so little actual information to go on.
Some of the generation before fought “communists” or “Japanese” or “Germans” as their bad guys du jour. Since then, kids have had many more including “Iraqis.” We’re always at war. Apparently, this somehow makes us a “good guy” for the kids to be and fight the “bad guy.” Even though nobody wants to be the “bad guy.” Right? We don’t want to stop and look at situations from the perspective of the people on the other side of the conflict, the other side of the gun. You know, like the “Indians,” the Native Americans who, it turns out, weren’t bad guys. They were just here first and did things differently than the Europeans did. These days, we accept that whoever the government is currently not getting along with (for whatever reason, economic or otherwise) is the “bad guy,” and we, the Americans, are the “good guy.” Of course, this opinion and perspective changes depending on who wants what and what we’re supposed to believe/support in our government. Because nobody wants to be the “bad guy.”
And then we grow up. We learn that sometimes conflicts and out-and-out war is about money or resources or ego or religion, or a big fat LIE. We send people to kill and be killed for reasons we’re not really clear on in Vietnam or Iraq or wherever. Children back home, being protected as much as possible from the horror that is war, have little nuggets of information, impressions, about what is going on. We assure them as best we can that we (as a country) are doing what we think is right even when we know we’re not doing what is right so they don’t have to feel our guilt. And they go outside to play with their friends with this strange perspective, this incomplete picture. They know what we told them. Nothing more. They only know what we felt they were ready to know so they don’t have to feel what it’s like to really be the “bad guy.” Nobody wants that.
School text books do a terrible job of presenting valuable history to young minds. History is written by the winner, of course, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned about the hows and whys from the “losers” as well as the “winners.” After all, the “losers” likely also believed they were doing the right thing, and they told their children so. Their children probably ran out and waged war with Americans believing themselves the “good guy.” We aren’t equipping our young people with enough information to use logic and reason to understand how one thing leads to another. For instance, I have to tell people that these recent attacks on the press are scary. I have to tell them why the president saying that the news media are “enemies of the American people” sets off very loud and very serious alarm bells. I have to bring up how Hitler, Chavez, Nixon, etc. rose to power. I have to point out how similar this is to what Putin is doing in his country now with his government channel and his propaganda. I have to point out how and why 45’s clear connection and admiration of Putin and Putin’s tactics set off more very loud and very serious alarm bells. I have to point out why “America First” gives me chills, and not in a good way. (see cartoon above from the UC San Diego Library by Theodor Seuss Geisel aka Dr. Seuss from between 1941 and 1943)
Even when we’re not giving children messages of racism toward individuals, we’re doing them a disservice when we show them a photo of a Japanese person fighting in World War II alongside images of our fellow citizens (who look a lot like that Japanese “enemy”) being removed from their homes, jobs, and friends and herded into internment camps. They didn’t mention those camps ever in history class. That is a serious mistake. Come to think of it, they didn’t mention the Vietnam War in the history textbook either.
When our kids see pictures of religious extremists like those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, the extremists are called “terrorists.” Those terrorists look something like the people we are fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. They don’t know that we’re also fighting alongside people of Iraq and Afghanistan. The child looking on only knows that we’re at war there (or were), and that the enemy has brown skin and is Muslim (even though, obviously, not all Iraqis and Afghans are Muslims (Sunni and Shia) as there are also Christians, Jews, and even Sikhs and Hindus there, too- but are we convincing our kids of this?).
When our kids see pictures of religious extremists like the ones who blow up mosques or Planned Parenthood offices, religious extremists who threaten Jewish community centers or who murder members of a black church, we don’t call them “terrorists” even though that’s what they are. Instead we make excuses for them, and we make them famous. Same goes for young boys shooting up or planning bombings in their schools. We don’t call them “terrorists.” We make excuses for them, and we make them famous. And we talk about how important their Second Amendment rights are, how important it is to everyone because “good guy with a gun” and other such bullshit. Because nobody wants to look like a bad guy, right?
It’s not just the pictures and stories in media that are sending the messages about who is “bad” and who is not to our kids. Our schools don’t teach history. Those history textbooks mentioned above recite some dates and facts, and they skip the substance. For black history month we read a paragraph on Harriet Tubman and one on George Washington Carver, and we’ve done our duty. It was pretty much the same two paragraphs every year. Look them both up. Those paragraphs don’t do either of them justice. Harriet Tubman was much more than just an escaped slave who helped some other slaves escape to freedom, and George Carver didn’t just “invent peanut butter.” They were so much more. And let’s look at people like Patrick Henry. They went on and on in history class about the “Give me liberty, or give me death!” guy, but they failed to mention some pretty important stuff. For instance, Henry is recorded to have purchased as many has 78 slaves. Give who liberty, jack ass?
Even those of us who are trying very hard NOT to teach hate are missing some hugely important lessons. Why wouldn’t we? Our educations were incomplete; we weren’t given what we needed so it is no surprise we’re failing to give young people what they need. I’m 50 years old. A single parent doesn’t have extra money often so I’ve gone to school on and off my entire life. Why did I just find out this year that women, even black women, worked in engineering, mathematics, and computers at NASA between 1941 and 1969 (and up until now)? Why aren’t we teaching men and women at school that Marie (Sklodowska) Curie, a Polish woman, (among other notable achievements, obviously) earned Nobel Prizes in both Physics and Chemistry? Why don’t we all know that Curie developed the theory of radioactivity, discovered two elements, held important positions at research universities and eventually died from exposure to radiation over the years of work? Why don’t we all know about Eugene Jacques Bullard, pilot during World War I who flew for France but was born in Georgia in the U.S. to a black father and a Creek Indian mother? I loved biology. It would have done me good when I was little to know that maybe I could go into science. It would have done me even more good if the students around me also learned that it’s a perfectly reasonable choice for me, a female, to go into physics. Or for my Japanese friend (her whole family was working on citizenship) to go into engineering. Or for my black friend to go into mathematics or computer programming like the other women at NASA.
Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, thinks that historically black colleges and universities sprang up because black citizens in America wanted more choices for their education(?!). US Republican Steve King thinks that white men do everything good, that white people contribute all the inventing and creating, and others don’t. This is the stuff we’re teaching our kids so they grow up believing it, just like King. Our ten numerals, the digits? They’re Arabic or Hindu-Arabic. The jet streams were first discovered by a Japanese meteorologist named Wasaburo Oishi. The first polio vaccine was developed by Jonas Salk, an American son of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from Poland. Asima Chatterjee (a woman from India) was a chemist who wrote books and who developed anti-epileptic and anti-malarial drugs. Researchers in Cuba have discovered some promising cancer treatments. Bisi Ezerioha (a black man from Nigeria) is an engineer and race car driver who designs car motors.
By not teaching our children that women have fought for and won rights and opportunities (like being able to go to school or own a business) these students are missing a crucial part of how we got where we are and how far we still have to go.
By saying the Civil War was “about slavery” and not tackling the economics and the moral questions, by white-washing ownership of other human beings, we are leaving our kids with a false sense of pride for a time when there was little for an American to be proud of.
By focusing on the achievements of white American men and only mentioning in passing two or three token achievements from one black woman and one black man they are leaving our children with the false idea that black men and women don’t contribute, that people with brown skin don’t invent and create and write and produce stunning works of art.
While we’re at it, why aren’t we showing our children in school, not just at home, that men take care of children just as well as women do? It’s not enough to adjust thinking so that “doctor” or “lawyer” doesn’t automatically mean “male.” It also means showing our kids that mothers and fathers, parents, are hugely important to society. Their life choices aren’t just for jobs but for roles. Limiting their possibilities in any area isn’t fair.
We’re leading our children to believe that white American men do things that matter. By the omission of vital information, our children are left to assume that non-white, non-male people can’t or don’t do the things that white men can. It is up to us as a society and as parents and grandparents to teach our children that they are responsible for their own actions and the consequences of their actions. It’s also up to us to show them, not just tell them, that they really can do whatever they want. Just as important, our young people need to understand that anyone else can also do whatever they choose to, regardless of their gender, skin color, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation.
Sometimes we teach not just with what we say but with what we don’t say. We need to show our kids that you can’t tell the “bad guys” from the “good guys” or the able/not able people with just a photo. If we don’t show them that, we’re leaving our young people open to suggestions about hate and stereotypes that this planet can’t afford now or in the future. Every child needs to know, for sure, that he or anyone else can be the “good guy” if he or she chooses. Nobody has to be the “bad guy.”
(I’m attaching the link below because it goes with the thread in progress of teaching hate and of hate being so prominent and visible in a way it hasn’t been in my memory. It’s also here because all of this in the essay is in plain sight of children, our future.)
Link: “Hate in the Age of Trump” – photo essay by Van Jones and Johnny Milano