Growing up I was something of a freak of nature trying to fit into a world that really wasn’t designed for me. Because of my family situation, I learned quickly that I was reliant on the generosity of others and this posed a pretty serious problem. Humans don’t seem to be designed to accept freaks of nature, it is the unknown and I was scary. So I had to be kind, I had to be soft and I had to be willing to see the beauty in everyone around. A sense of superiority was not an option and I was quick to disabuse people of the notion that I thought highly of myself. What resulted was a complicated status, I was the friendly and lovable alien with tech secrets. In this role, in having to find ways to connect with people, I ended up doing a lot of teaching. People trusted me more than their teachers in a lot of cases. If you had a question, you asked the walking enclicylopedia. I learned that people genuinely don’t know anything beyond what they are taught by their limited interactions with adults, and that adults are just the sum of their limited knowledge. I learned that most people were malleable and that when they believed something wrong, it was not willful ignorance in most cases and that in most of those cases where it was, the willful part came from pain. With the exception of those with real power who stand to gain from falsehoods and who have control over culture, most people just need to be taught differently.
I took a US history class while I was at Stanford that was popular with non-history majors. One day we were talking about why learning history mattered and I said that it served as the foundation of culture. I pointed out that the Black Panthers weren’t in U.S. textbooks and someone was appalled that I suggested they should be. And all across America millions of kids were never being given the option to make that decision. History is one of the most regulated and fiercely fought over areas of K12 education and for good reason, it has the potential to be the most subversive and most destructive subject because it is the subject through which we learn who we are as a culture. History has always served this function, the Bible is a collection of histories constructed to tell people where they came from and where they are going, that’s why access to the Bible and reading brought about the Enlightment, because for the first time people had the choice in how they interpreted source material. History teaches us citizenship and values. And most people never get to take it a level where they learn that it is a construct, so they learn to see the histories they are given access to as immutable.
Racism is a construct, that’s what it means to be an -ism. It is a world view about how the world works and should work. It is a lot easier to get people go along with your ideology if they are taught that it is just “nature” and are never exposed to the fact that people constructed it. Institutions reflect our beliefs, so by the time most people become adults, they’ve been indoctrinated at every level to believe in particular ideologies. Adults can relearn but 18 years of programming is hard to undo, much harder than simply changing the culture and education at an earlier age.
As I entered the classroom I met kids who had been indoctrinated with a lot beliefs and a lot of kids said, “well, no one explained it to us before.” Maybe if you had met some of my white boys before they met me you would have railed against them, calling them bad people and lecturing them on how evil and ignorant they are and they, out of natural self preservation would have rejected you. But I didn’t approach my work that way, they were all my babies, equally innocent, equally in need of love. I repeated over and over again:
“This isn’t your fault. You didn’t create this, but my job is to prepared you for the world you enter. To give you the information so you can make the choice. It is your choices that matter.”
I never met a kid who left my class ignorant and several of the kids, whose views I vehemently opposed personally when I met them are now hardcore activists in college and life. And the lesson here is that the ideologies we are fighting against can be beaten, that most people are good people and that education is critical.
But the lesson here is also that love is critical in the work we do. And so the fiery militant became a loving teacher and in that sense, my children gave me more than I could ever give them. And I’m hoping that you will take what I’ve learned and learn it sooner and faster than I did and spread the word.
Because if we had an army of lovers the conversation would change much more rapidly that any of us can imagine.
When you encounter someone who is ignorant, embrace them, love them in the way they should been loved and weep at their chains until they can unlock themselves, because love is really the most powerful force I’ve ever seen.