Commentary: We must stand up and challenge racism

The Rev. Ruth Santana-Grace of the Presbytery of Philadelphia stands with other religious leaders at a "Stand Against Hate" rally at Independence Hall on March 12.

A beloved family member returned to New Jersey and posted on Facebook that he loved making fun of the "dot-heads" in gas stations. Another family member, a cousin I had not seen in 40 years, connected with me and then posted disparaging comments about immigrants, African Americans, and "libtards." Then another family member posted a "funny" cartoon of an SUV running over a crowd that read: "All Lives Splatter. I don't give a f- about your protest."

Every day, in my classroom, I see what family members do not see: real faces, real fears, and real tears. For 18 years, I've been honored to teach in a Shangri-la of education - a high school of high standards, diversity, and relative racial harmony.

Last year, one of my Muslim students used her persuasive speech to highlight hiding inside her classroom in her mosque in South Jersey while angry protesters gathered outside. She was frightened, in the freest of all nations. All she wanted to do was to practice her faith peacefully.

Another student, a Sikh, was detained at an airport in Los Angeles and told to take off his turban.

This year, several students shared what it was like to be black and young in America. This, again, was part of persuasive speaking, incorporating ethos, pathos, and logos. They spoke from experience. One student discussed how his mother was accused of shoplifting at the Cherry Hill Mall. An honors student from an affluent neighborhood said the police stop him all the time because of his looks. Another told us how her parents taught her to behave around the police.

Why would so many want to discredit such testimony?

I have students of industrious parents on green cards. Some fear leaving the country, even for a wedding. Other students have parents who have been in America illegally for years, and these students naturally arrive to school scared, wondering if Mom or Dad will still be around when they go home from school.

When I read that a man shot an Indian man in Kansas, telling him to "Get out of my country," I want to protect my Indian students from those who possess so much hate.

How do I do that? Do I turn the proverbial other cheek? Do I offer the other one to be hit as well? Do I confront the hate? Begin an online battle? Do I lay out a reasoned response, grounded in logic, compassion, and hope, wrapping arguments in the Gospel, quotes from Washington and Jefferson, statistics from the Holocaust, and in the tears of my fellow charges?

Do I hit? Or simply hit "unfriend"?

I have done all. (Hitting happened in my youth). And all, simply not comforting.

One morning last month I discussed a Facebook situation with my wife. She was upset that I challenged the racism. She wanted to avoid a family crisis. I said I could not sit idle and allow casual racism to flourish. Would I have had the courage to stand up against "funny" comments against the Jews in the 1930s? Would I have harbored runaway slaves, even though it was illegal?

It is not only for my students that I fight. I fight because diversity makes us rich. It makes, or made us, the envy of the world. When a British woman in England told me she didn't like renting to Indians because they were dirty, I thought: Wow! Such blatant racism! Thank God I live in the United States!

It sounds hokey, but I savor the diversity in my classroom, the mixing of ideas, the energetic discussions. I was raised in such diversity. But, as my wife points out, so many people, and some family members, were not raised that way.

"But that doesn't excuse racism," I said. She agreed.

Later, after the "Lives Splatter" was deleted, she said maybe she was wrong about fighting. "Maybe we have to fight," she said. "Maybe your appeal had an effect."

I'm not sure. I just know that we need to make more connections with people who are different. We need to meet across tables, have tea, break bread, entertain different ideas, and be willing to listen.

We are a cloistered society. We are a tribal society. It just takes more of us to say, "Enough."

Walter Bowne is a writer in Cherry Hill. walterbowne.com

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