Monday, 1 June 2009
Actions speak louder than words or why I'd like to slap the prom queen
A few days ago I read an article that winded me. It upset me. It angered me more than I can say. And my anger revealed a basic truth about myself: there are limits to my open-mindedness. I am not proud of this for, although I reject and resent those who attempt to silence me, there are people I would like silenced. So this is less of a polemic, for a change, and more of a confessional. Bear with me.
Beliefs are important.
But beliefs only come about on issues where more than one answer is possible. You don't believe in breathing because without it you die. There is only one way to deal with the issue and that is to breathe. You don't believe in what is given, natural and non-negotiable. Belief is about conscious espousal. Belief is about choice.
And here is where my trouble begins.
There are certain things where I don't believe choice exists. There are some issues on which I feel there is only one natural reaction. And when, on those issues, someone disagrees with me, I experience it as a violation of the laws of nature.
Take racism for instance.
I struggle with it. Not just because of its intrinsic injustice and irrational rejection of some human beings in favour of others. But because to my mind it is unnatural and therefore it should not exist. And this is not just a moral 'should'. It is physiological. It should not be possible for racism to exist. The equality of all human beings is not up for debate. It does not need to be believed to be true. Yet it does. In practice, it does. Because unless you act like it's true then it stops being true for many people.
And here is my problem. I do not accept the racist's right to their convictions. I think they deserve a thorough beating. I am ashamed to be saying this. But it is true and the urge to hit someone overwhelmed me when, a few days ago, I read an article in a back copy of the New York Times. Here is the issue: At Montgomery County High School in Georgia, USA, black and white students mingle freely in the classrooms and corridors but every year, without fail, they hold separate proms.
On the face of it, that's no big deal. Schools are no longer segregated and what's in a party? Well. Everything. Actually.
First of all I can hardly believe this occurs in the first place. And let me say that segregated proms are not a Montgomery County specialty but take place across the rural South of the US. Only last year, actor Morgan Freeman offered to pay for an integrated prom at Charleston High School in Mississippi, his home state. This was to be the first prom of its kind and students supported the idea but a group of white parents rejected the offer and held a rival prom for the 'white folk'. That then the white folk dully attended, perpetuating the problem.
The segregated proms are organised outside the schools by parents and student committees. While all students are welcome to the black prom, few if any white students turn up. The white prom on the other hand is governed by an unspoken rule that keeps black students at bay.
Omerta in the schoolyard.
Black students, the New York Times report, have put pressure on Montgomery County High to hold a single school-sponsored prom to no avail.
Students are quick to note that interracial friendships and couples are common at Montgomery County High School. White parents don't always approve but what they don't know, can't hurt them.
We are not like our parents, say the students.
Bullshit you are not. If you go to the white-only prom they throw for you, you are as much part of the problem as they are.
And the fact that the students interviewed discuss what is natural as a breakthrough in public morality ('we have black friends, we have black boyfriends') simply underlines the hypocrisy of it all.
Your friends are the people you want to spend the prom with. Your boyfriend or girlfriend is the person you want to go to the prom with. What fun is a prom that excludes the very people you are supposed to share it with? What good is a celebration that excludes and humiliates the people you want to share it with?
And how come, neither love, nor friendship, nor moral outrage stand in the way of hundreds of students attending such proms, year in year out?
We are not racist, say the students. It's just how it's always been. Our parents refuse to pay for mixed proms and having segregated ones is a tradition.
It's how it's always been.
To hell with that.
'It's how it's always been' was the argument used to defend slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, the criminalisation of homosexuality. 'It's how it's always been' has been the argument in favour of the continuation of all repressive practices in human history. And I have news for you: it is a lie. No social practice has always been. Every social practice is human made and can be unmade by humans. And few have been so lucky as to be able to affect social change of this magnitude by simply not going to a party.
Beliefs matter. But actions matter more.
These kids say they believe in one thing, but when it comes down to it, they do another. It's hard work, living up to your beliefs. Standing up to Dad. Missing parties and whatnot. Practicing what you preach is hard work.
I understand them, I know reading about their predicament has put me in the same position they are in, of believing in one thing and wanting to do another. You see, although I believe in everyone's right to hold and express any belief they choose, my action of choice in this particular isntance, if only distance permitted, would be to go over to that white-only prom and kick their righteous racist asses to hell and back.