Recently, I joined a few friends to see Glennon Doyle Melton, author of Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing your Messy, Beautiful Life. Glennon looks the part of your white suburban soccer mom who struggled with addiction issues and feeling disconnected in motherhood. She shared a story that has stuck with me. It has given me pause to look at what I am really teaching my children about equality. This is how I remember the story she shared.
At the breakfast table one morning, a newspaper article referencing the civil rights movement sparked a conversation between Glennon and her elementary-aged children. After discussing injustice and prejudice, her youngest asked, “If we had been there, mommy, would we have been marching too?” Before Glennon could answer, “Why, yes, of course,” her oldest jumped in, “No, probably not. I mean, we are not marching now.”
We are not marching now. This stung. It continues to ring in my ears as loudly as a July 4th firework finale. It is important to me to teach compassion to my children. Was I showing them how to be compassionate “with qualifiers” though? Be kind to others ALWAYS- except when it requires getting out of your comfort zone or only if it is convenient or when it’s beneficial to you. That little story made me question if I was really teaching my children why we need to stand up for others and what that looks like in our everyday lives.
When I was an elementary classroom teacher many moons ago, I conducted the “blue-eyed” experiment to give my students a chance to understand and feel injustice. The children had no idea why I separated them into two groups- or that the reason simply had to do with their eye color. When the blue-eyed group answered questions, I either ignored their raised hands or was short- tempered and quick to be irritated by their responses. I praised the other group and made comments like, “If only other students would be as smart as you.” The children at first looked puzzled, but as the experiment went on, they seemed to fall into their roles unknowingly. The final blow was when I told the blue-eyed group that they would not be able to go out for recess but instead would be required to do more work in the classroom. One small boy from the privileged group looked at his best friend’s sad blue eyes and blurted out, “But that’s not fair!”
I had actually anticipated grumbling right from the start. I had thought the class would rebel and tell me I was being unreasonable. It disturbed me to think how hard we had worked together to cultivate a compassionate classroom to only realize how difficult it is to stand up for yourself against an authority figure. It also illustrated to me that when someone is being treated with respect and dignity, it is hard to let go of that status and take a risk for others. One student later said she started thinking that the “blue-eyed” group of students must have actually done something wrong and they deserved to be treated that way. Isn’t that what we start to tell ourselves? Those people must have done something to deserve this reaction?
I often wonder what that lone boy who stood up for his friend is doing today. Is he still marching along side others, or has he given up like many of us? It is no longer a gut-response, something we blurt out. Instead, we carefully calculate the risks. We worry about the repercussions. We don’t even put ourselves in a situation where these decisions need to be made. We hide, we stay in, we watch from the bleachers. We cast down our eyes. During the beginning of the Politically Correct era, we were told to put blinders on so we would not see our differences. Now that we have worn them for so long, we don’t even see the problems.