Ignorance stalks us wherever we go. Stupidity too—it’s easy to lash out in anger or dismissiveness. And maybe arrogance as well, to think that none of these apply to us. To me. We—I—live a great contradiction.
It’s so prominent in the political debate in this country right now—filibusters and sit-ins over gun rights, refusing to consider Supreme Court nominees, etc.. One side decries the other side’s actions, even though the first side has used the exact same tactic in the past. Both sides do it.
And so it goes. And that’s just in politics.
I read a lot. Some might say too much. In that reading I come across portrayals of overwhelming ignorance. Just this morning, in a matter of pages I read about The Colored Motorist’s Guide that told black people in the first half of the twentieth century “where they could and could not sleep, in what towns the citizens would shoot them if they stayed after dark,” and then that “deaf schools banished sign language, declared it backward and a threat to the wholesome spoken word, subscribed to the theory that sign language would encourage the deaf to marry only each other and create a perpetuating race of non-hearers, and swaddled the hands of their most defiant students in thick cotton mittens.”
Granted it’s fiction (We Love You, Charlie Freeman), but both examples seem to be based on reality (Negro Motorist Green Book and early 20th century deaf education). (Another form of ignorance would be to assume everything you read or can Google is accurate.)
We become so afraid of what’s different that we let ignorance prevail and justify our own injustice.
I’ve been reading a lot about slavery lately: Copper Sun by Sharon Draper, Roots by Alex Haley, Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup, Freeman by Leonard Pitts Jr. It’s hard to read about one of our nation’s great sins. I was reluctant to do it. But sometimes we need to call out the evil and name it for what it is. What is so terribly shocking is the powerful ignorance and contradiction that existed, both North and South.
At the end of the Civil War a Southern plantation owner decried how unfair it is of the North to impose their values on the South and completely upend their way of life. He lambasts the North for taking away their culture, their way of life, their very livelihood.
It’s an ironic little speech, considering it’s a tame version of what was done to the slaves.
Meanwhile many Northern soldiers decried Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation for making the Civil War about slavery, when they only joined up to preserve and protect the nation. Many Northerners saw blacks as beneath them, just as many Southerners did.
As if the war had ever not been about slavery. It’s also worth pointing out the political nature of the Emancipation Proclamation, which only freed slaves in the rebel states. It was only one step. A big step to be sure, but it did not free slaves everywhere. More contradiction.
And we continue to pay the price of slavery today: The injustices that were allowed, the dehumanization of people, the racism that leached into the bone and marrow of our nation.
Ever since then we’ve paid the price: Poll taxes, vagrancy laws, lynchings, riots, “separate but equal,” real estate red lining, sundown towns, mass incarceration, the drug war, predatory lending.
It’s tempting to think we’re finally putting it behind us, but were not.
Just last week an independent candidate for U.S. Congress put up billboards declaring, “Make American White Again.”
Sometimes it’s outright racists. More often it’s not.
More often it’s the subtle lies of systemic racism, where bias and prejudice play a role in tiny decisions and actions, that are impossible to blame on a single “bad racist,” yet result in appalling disparities along racial lines. We see these gaps in wealth, education, housing, employment—practically every sector imaginable.
Yet we somehow like to think we’re post-racial. That somehow a black president changes all that. Perhaps, much like the 7 out of 10 white Americans who in 1946—the middle of Jim Crow segregation in the South and less overt but still damaging racism in the North—said “Negroes in the United States are being treated fairly,” we’ve got it completely wrong.
The fact is, the downtrodden and oppressed have been correct in calling out injustice for 400 years (who better to call out injustice for what it is?). In Trouble I’ve Seen, Drew G.I. Hart makes the case:
“Given our history, do we really believe that a people group that benefited from the racial system—socially, economically, politically, or merely psychologically—and whose intuitions were repeatedly wrong for the first 350 years has now suddenly, 400 years in, gained an advantage in interpreting these moments over those whom have been historically oppressed? Even more implausible is that, at this exact moment, the majority of black people who have been right about their own experiences for the past 350 years also instantly, and all at the same time, lost their ability to interpret their own experiences.”
Hart’s point is that the marginalized in society often have a more accurate view because they’re not blinded by their own power or their perspective is not altered by their own privilege.
He quotes theologian Jose Miguez Bonino:
“A social location determines perspective. It conceals some things and reveals others. We have sometimes referred to this in terms of the ‘epistemological privilege of the poor.’ The poor are not morally or spiritually superior to others, but they do see reality from a different angle.”
Here is where it comes back to the ignorance that plagues our political discussion and so much of our life today. When we’re limited to our own viewpoint, it’s hard to see what others see, hard to find common ground, hard to have compassion.
One way to combat that ignorance is to immerse ourselves in other perspectives. If you only get your news from MSNBC, you’re going to have a certain perspective. If you only listen to Rush Limbaugh, you’re going to have a very different perspective. A lack of international media exposure is how I missed the Haiti food riots in 2008.
If you only ever live and work among the dominant culture, you’re going to have a hard time understanding other perspectives. (And when you bring power into the mix, it gets interesting because those in the marginalized culture are often forced to understand the dominant perspective in order to survive. It doesn’t always go both ways. You don’t have to tell the slave that they don’t understand how hard it is to be a master.)
If you only read books or watch TV/movies about white people, you’re going to have a certain perspective and you’ll miss out on an opportunity to understand the perspective of others.
If you’ve never walked into a room where you’re the only member of your race, gender, orientation, religion, class, political view, etc., then it’s hard to understand what it means to be marginalized.
None of these things are easy. I’ve tried and failed at many of them. It’s easy to get defensive, angry or dismissive. In my case, it’s easy to be lazy.
But it’s why I seek out diverse books. It’s why I intentionally try to read different perspectives. Those fresh voices help me see past my own ignorance. Sometimes it makes me uncomfortable. Sometimes I don’t entirely understand. But it helps me get there.
When daily realities seem so hopeless, I think that’s one way we can find a ray of hope.