you're young right now -- say, in your teens or early twenties -- I'm going to make both a guess and a prediction about you.
First, my guess: you probably think that people from any generation older than yours are hopelessly, embarrassingly biased or prejudiced in some way, and their unthinking comments regularly make you cringe.
I know this feeling well. My paternal grandma was an old-fashioned overt racist. Thanks to my mother's stern warnings, Grandma wasn't allowed to use the N-word in our presence, though I'm sure she did it regularly when we weren't around. She'd pass a mixed-race couple holding hands in public and start muttering angrily about how "they think they're so smart, getting right in our faces with it," or she'd see a couple of little boys joyously bouncing on an old mattress in the front yard and talk about how "those people" were bringing neighborhood property values down with their dirty ways, their lack of discipline. Grandma wasn't particularly cruel by nature; her racist behavior had much to do with the time and place in which she was raised, where nearly everyone had a reflexive belief in white superiority.
That brings me to my prediction: in 20 years or so, some of the things you think, believe or say right now -- things you probably don't even think about -- will be considered unacceptably biased or prejudiced to generations younger than you.
Don't think it won't happen. It will.
(When I was a teenager, I didn't think I lived in a time of prejudice. But I grew up in the '80s, when people casually joked about AIDS, when it was possible to use a pejorative like "faggot" in casual conversation and not be called out by anyone, when my brothers routinely played a ball game called "Smear the Queer," and -- this is the part of my teenhood of which I'm most ashamed -- when I nearly drove a close friend to suicide by coldly rejecting him after he gathered all his courage and came out to me. You tell me if things have changed since then.)
My parents taught me to be different from my grandma. I was raised to believe that when it came to people, content of character, not color of skin, was key. I didn't think I was racist, because I wasn't like the people I knew who openly hated people of other races.
But racism is different now.
It's not about open hatred or the use of the N-word, although those elements still exist in our culture. It's not about assuming the superiority of one race over another, or about futilely trying to separate races into apartheid societies. Instead, it's about being able to separate oneself in a more subtle and pernicious way.
It's about watching the news or seeing a trending topic about yet another person getting shot by the police, brutally manhandled to the point of death, or otherwise mistreated and abused by people in authority, and letting pass the subliminal whisper of a thought: "Thank heavens that doesn't affect me." It's about opting to change the channel or click on something more cheerful and pleasant, and not having to lie awake thinking about it all night, not replaying the footage over and over in one's mind, not having to live with the gnawing thought: "That could have been my child/parent/sweetheart/relative/friend/co-worker."
That's racism now. It's taking the path of least resistance when bad things happen to people who don't look or live like you. It's choosing to remain as separated from the plight of one's fellow citizens as one might be from the plight of total strangers in a faraway land one has never seen. It's deciding to tsk instead of act. It's passively choosing not to right the wrongs that exist in a nation that, despite the soaring principles of its founding documents, does not consistently offer equal freedoms, equal access, equality of opportunity, or equality under the law to all its citizens.
And under this definition, despite the things I was taught, sometimes I am a racist. Because it's so much easier. It's easier not to have to engage against injustices that don't directly affect me. I've never had to worry about a police officer shoving a loaded gun in my face, never had to worry about being pulled over for a burned-out headlight because I've only ever received a friendly warning and been sent on my way, never been wrestled to the ground and dragged out of the room because I was sassy to a teacher; it's hard for me even to imagine what it's like to experience these things. It's easier not to imagine, to turn away, to change the subject. Disturbing the universe isn't the proper life work of an introvert, anyway. (Unless it is.)
Here's the thing, though. It may be easier to do nothing in the short run, but I don't think I can stand idly by and watch as others struggle with systemic unfairness, for the most selfish of reasons: because I love my country. Not in the sense of "my country, right or wrong," but in the sense that my country was designed to be good, and I want it to be good. If things continue as they are now -- if one set of Americans has its rights and privileges safeguarded, while another set routinely has those same rights trampled on -- then sooner or later the people of the trampled rights will finally get fed up. If there are enough people who reach that boiling point, they will turn and overthrow the people and organizations that have failed to vouchsafe their rights for so long. And then there will no longer even be the hope of a nation with liberty and justice for all -- nothing but tangled, broken ruins that were once a city on a hill.
So, do I dare disturb the universe? Or do I find out instead what horrors happen if I don't?
Although I don't know a clear way forward from here -- it's surprising how much of adulthood involves stumbling through the dark, however hopefully -- I know I must act to safeguard the rights of all my fellow citizens, to re-teach myself to respond to wrongs instead of ignoring them. Because I want my niece's future children to grow up in a society that's become better, kinder, more honest champions of the things we claim to believe in as Americans.
More to the point, I want there to still be an America for them to grow up in.