Courageous Ignorance

If you’ve seen my photo or met me at a conference, you might wonder what gives me—a white male—the qualifications or street cred to write about prejudice and diversity. And some would consider that racism.

That’s the rub, isn’t it? My provenance isn’t clear from my skin color. Neither is anyone else’s. So why pre-judge my talents based on my skin color?

Sure, I could tell you that I’m a quarter-Swedish, a quarter-German and half-English. That might explain my light skin and blue-green eyes. But like you, I don’t define myself by the phenotypic expression of melanin. My identity is more defined by the fact that my maternal grandfather was a German Jew whose parents escaped the

Asking about another person’s experiences is the first essential step toward preventing prejudice and racism. © Can Stock Photo Inc. / monkeybusiness

Asking about another person’s experiences is the first essential step toward preventing prejudice and racism.

© Can Stock Photo Inc. / monkeybusiness

Holocaust, that my paternal grandmother was a public elementary-school teacher in New York City, that my divorced parents are both health-care providers, that my wife is an immigrant from former Yugoslavia, and that I’m an Orthodox Christian. Whew. At most gatherings, those last two factors usually grant me some type of minority status, albeit an invisible one.

Look Around

After escorting a high-ranking administrator around Belknap, the camp where I’m about to spend my 33rd summer, this person remarked, “Chris, this is a beautiful camp. I just wish there were more minority children.”

“But there are,” I insisted. And I wasn’t talking only about the few Asian, African-American, and Hispanic campers we had, each of whom made a wonderful contribution to Belknap. I was also talking about the socio-economically disadvantaged children—of which there are many in central New Hampshire—whom I had helped to bring to camp since the early 1990s.

“See that boy there?” I asked. “He comes to camp in a car with his mom, like most kids, but unlike most kids, he lives in that same car. With his mom.” Silence. “There are more minority children here than you might imagine.”

As this administrator eventually did, I’m sure you also accept that there are different types of diversity, such as socio-economic or religious or geographic or sexual or ethnic. You might also concede that my minority status—at least in some circles—gives me a sense of how valuable multiculturalism is. But surely I don’t have any experience with racism, so on what ground do I stand teaching about equity and diversity?

Close To Home

I don’t have to go outside my own extended family for evidence of racism. My grandfather, for example, fought against the Japanese from the U.S. Navy base in Eniwetok, in the South Pacific, during World War II. He had pointed words to share with me about the creators of the Nakamichi tape deck that my parents bought me for Christmas one year.

Or consider my Serbian mother-in-law, who is fond of reminding me that Croatian Ustaši killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs—Nazi-style—during World War II. Things are tense in my house when American friends point out to her that Serbs perpetrated their own brutal brand of nationalist violence during the Balkan wars. “All nationalities have blood on their hands” is my standard attempt at diplomacy, but it does little to defuse racism when the finger-pointing starts.

And for goodness sake, don’t get my mother-in-law—an otherwise warm and generous person—started on the 500 years of Turkish domination over the Balkans. Longstanding historical injustices, such as slavery, anti-Semitism, and imperial yokes are powerful fuel for contemporary discrimination. And while I’m grateful not to have been on the receiving end, I’ve borne witness to enough bigotry to see how harmful it is.

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