Tell us how you would address the questions raised by the quotation below, or reflect upon an experience you have had that was relevant to these questions.
“How can we unlearn the practices of inequality? In other words, how do we increase our capacities not just to act without racism but to actively promote racial equality?” Imani Perry, Professor, Center for African American Studies, and Faculty Associate, Program in Law and Public Affairs, Princeton University.
The bookshelf in my room holds about twenty books that have had the greatest impact on me over the past few years. Toni Morrison’s Beloved forever changed my views of slavery and motherhood; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter made me pause and think about religious hypocrisy. However, the book that has resonated with me the most deeply is Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. Bach’s novella isn’t one that is typically found on school reading lists, but it has inspired me more than any of the “significant” books I’ve read. The novella speaks of defying boundaries, of integrity, and of chasing one’s dreams, and it is a work I have repeatedly encouraged friends and family members to read. Last winter when I was applying for the Telluride Association Summer Program I even wrote the required critical analysis on the book. I have a list of my favorite quotes from the book and I visit them frequently. One of the most powerful is: “Don’t believe what your eyes are showing you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding, find out what you already know, and you’ll see the way.”
When I received my acceptance to the Telluride Association Summer Program last April, I was ecstatic. Not only was I proud to have made it through such a rigorous selection process, but I was also very excited about the seminar I was assigned to. I expected “Race and the Limits of Law in America” to be an eye-opening experience for me for several reasons. First of all, although I am African-American, I had never really questioned in depth what that meant to my identity. I am one of only a few African-American students at my school, and there isn’t a close-knit “black community” in my area. I’d never had an opportunity to have candid and thoughtful discussion about my African-American experience.
The TASP website advertises the program as “designed to bring together young people from around the world who share a passion for learning.” That is certainly true. I met incredibly intelligent, accomplished teenagers from across the United States, as well as far flung countries like Nepal and Macedonia. The TASP alums I had encountered gushed about their experiences, and I arrived expecting to leave with similar sentiments. Instead I left frustrated and disappointed with my seminar. As formal class discussions began, I realized it was not going to be the forum of open mindedness I had envisioned.
Although I know I stand out in my homogenous school and community, I’ve been fortunate to seldom feel the sting of overt racism. I do realize however that racism is a polarizing issue in America, and that it severely impacts many people my age. The majority of my fellow TASPers felt overwhelmingly wronged by society for one reason or another. They viewed racism as hopeless, and asserted that it will always exist. But as we read the transcripts of Supreme Court decisions, and delved into works that explored the African-American experience, entities as far ranging as Christianity, the US Government, and Pop Culture were cited as instruments of oppression. It was alarming that the majority were so intent on commiserating, that they completely closed their minds to alternative opinions, or brainstorming possible solutions. When I would suggest that perhaps not everything is a tool of subjugation, I was called foolish, naive, and even dumb on one occasion. Dissenting viewpoints were unwelcome, marginalized, and suppressed.
I don’t believe that by ignoring racism it will cease to exist, but I choose not to live my life feeling victimized. I refuse to concede that America’s social injustices are unfixable. I feel that an optimistic approach to a solution will always achieve an end, while a pessimistic approach will only impede progress. Many of my fellow TASPers may have known more than I did about the nuances of racial theory, but I feel that the main reason I was an outlier was my refusal to view any situation as hopeless. I just kept repeating to myself, “Don’t believe what your eyes are showing you. All they show is limitation.”
When I returned home from TASP, one of the first things I did was reread Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The themes rang truer than ever, and once again the words served as a source of reassurance and inspiration as I reflected upon my summer experience.
Prior to TASP I had never given it much thought, but I assimilated my positive outlook from my African-American role model, my father. He never made a big deal about being black. Certainly he had experienced racism, but he didn’t let it define him, or me. I developed a heightened respect for my father during TASP, and I was inspired to start a dialogue with him about racism, and his experiences and views. Unfortunately, I will never be able to have that conversation since my Dad died shortly after I returned home.
Thankfully my father had already instilled in me morals, faith, and above all optimism, which will continue to guide me even in his absence… “find out what you already know, and you’ll see the way.” The stark contrast between the convictions of the majority of TASPers and the ideals my father shared with me, have steeled my resolve to see infinite possibilities instead of limitations. Like my father, I want my children to live free of negative expectations about society; I want to be part of the vanguard that moves towards making racism a tragedy of the past, rather than merely bemoaning its existence.