I was never prouder of my country than the night that Barack Obama was elected president. Like much of the country, I was hopeful that an end was coming to racism, that we were approaching an age of enlightenment, where people truly were treated as equals.
Unfortunately, that has not been the case. In some ways, we are divided more now than ever. Some of this stems from financial insecurity, but the fear and anger I see has to come from another place. I am struggling to understand the division in society. If we can find out what is causing it, then certainly we can do something to stop it.
Most people my age are now parents of teenagers. We know how fast the early years have gone; in a blink, these children will be adults and making decisions that may affect the world. How we guide them is crucial. Teenagers are impressionable, in some ways more so than young children. Parents have tremendous influence, either for the good or bad. They see what we do, how we act, and either embrace or reject it. They see our reactions to the news and absorb many of our beliefs and values. They will take these with them as they become adults.
We grew up in the post-Vietnam years; the Civil Rights Movement was still in its infancy; education had not yet moved to an environment of inclusion and acceptance. Though we campaigned for equality for all, for the most part, we lived mostly among people who were just like us. Pointing out the differences of others was common. Being Italian, Irish, Polish or Jewish meant you were just as likely to be ridiculed as if you were black. Perhaps that is why many of my generation are sometimes baffled when someone takes offense at a racial comment. It was common to throw about insults; everyone was a target. They were words, nothing more. There was no underlying fear that things would escalate.
Today our world has expanded. Without even taking the vastness of the internet into consideration, we interact with many more people than our parents did. People don’t stay at the same job for their entire career. We are not living with the same neighbors. Those we share a history with are scattered about the country or even the world. In our lives, we have been exposed to a larger number of individuals than our parents were, with differing backgrounds and ethnicities. Yet in some cases, our old patterns of relating have remained. Change is difficult; honestly, sometimes it is difficult to even see that change is needed. In some cases, we really don’t know how to act. We don’t want to be told what to do, what to say (or not say), how to act. Patterns of speech are ingrained. Years ago, insulting others was almost a form of communication. We grew up with these people, so they knew it was a joke, that we didn’t really believe that they were stupid or a drunk or cheap.
In a way, this adds another dimension to our being the “in-between” generation. Not only are we potentially supporting both our children and our parents, but we are also caught in a cultural shift. We grew up using phrases that today would result in a school suspension. While threatening “to kill someone” for touching our stuff was understood to mean “It will make me really, really mad,” today, those words are taken literally. There are many words that are now taboo that we used casually then, without malicious intent, and few, if any, took offense.
The word normal no longer has meaning. A family is no longer necessarily comprised of a father, mother and their biological children. People of all abilities are in our schools and in the workforce. We have become an integrated society. Perhaps because of this, some people feel threatened; they don’t know how to act, what to expect. People fear the unexpected.
Our kids have spent their entire lives with people who are different. I live in an area that prides itself on diversity, so my kids have friends of differing colors and cultures; they have one, two or four parents; some have adopted siblings. None of this makes a bit of difference. My children do not make racial jokes; they frown and object when they hear them. I am proud of them, but it sometimes feels like they are judging us for not preventing these things to begin with.
Bad things keep happening. For most of us, it is happening to someone else. It is sad, but we are far enough removed that it has only a fleeting impact. We don’t see how we can change things, or how we may be contributing to the problem. We all want to keep the status quo and won’t see what is in front of us. We ignore the fact that these things can happen to anyone, in any place.
Every time I hear of another senseless act of violence, I worry that next time might be close to home. The next shooting could be in my town. Someone I love could be the victim of a traffic stop gone horribly wrong. The rules have changed. The lines between good and bad are blurred. Innocence is not always assumed.
We are now being faced with the absurd reality of teaching our children how to react if they find themselves in situations we never even considered when we were young. We need to teach our girls how to not be assaulted; we need to teach our children how to not be shot if stopped by a police officer. We need to prepare them for the bad, while trying to assure them that people are good.
I am starting to see that my generation has a bigger responsibility here. We need to take a look at ourselves and ask whether we are contributing to the problem. We need to be more aware of what we say and do and how others are perceiving our words and deeds. Words truly matter, perhaps more now than ever in history. Technology has made it possible for our words to travel the globe in a matter of seconds. There is no time to change our minds and take them back. Good intentions are not enough, not when people’s lives are at risk. Not when our children’s futures are at stake. Like our parents, and their parents before them, we all want more for our children. To make this happen, we need to step up and say enough. Enough anger, enough violence, enough hatred.
I am talking about this here, because this is a parenting issue. It is not a racial issue, it is not a sexist issue, it is not a gender issue. It is a human issue. Remaining quiet is being complicit. Enough voices in unison can make a difference. We need to become the change we want to see in the world. We need to act. Now.