Slowly, as she made her way around the room, the expression on our daughter’s face began to change.
It had started as a picture of feigned interest; that uniquely teenage ability to simultaneously show just enough enthusiasm to avoid a parent’s ire while also leaving the observer in no doubt that this is not what she wants to be doing.
Soon, however, she was pausing noticeably longer at each of the black and white photographs, carefully reading each word of their accompanying text.
Feigned interest had been replaced by a look that was part confusion, part incredulity. She knew all of the words and she knew the meaning of each one, yet it seemed she couldn’t quite grasp their story. She looked as if she couldn’t understand why she couldn’t understand.
And then, while holding a handset to her ear, a look of horror swept across her face.
Until that point, the photos and the writing had merely been abstract references to improbable events that took place a long time ago. Until that is, a voice on an audio recording suddenly connected the dots, bringing everything she had read in the last 30 minutes into vivid, excruciating focus.
With a new comprehension, her eyes returned to the faces in the photographs; faces that were bursting with hatred, their eyes filled with an apoplectic rage, their angry mouths spitting abuse.
But these faces of fury were not a consequence of some urgent need to protect their group from a violent, abhorrent foe.
They were targeted at nine children walking to school on a late September day in 1957.
Almost exactly 60 years later, just a few steps from Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, our daughter’s face told its own story.
While she is certainly not ignorant of her nation’s history of racial intolerance, on this day her moistened eyes betrayed a new and shocking realization of its ferocity – and its proximity; in distance and in time. The disturbing images from a place within a day’s driving distance of her home and only a few years before her father was born seemed to catch her off guard.
In retrospect, her surprise wasn’t surprising.
Her small group of friends is like a United Nations of ethnicities, happily oblivious to their obvious diversity. When she recently invited the group to our house for a party, it felt as if we were staging a Pepsi commercial. They laughed as they danced to a cheerful soundtrack, relaxed in a carefree celebration of their friendship. All that was missing was the sandy beach on a bright, sunny day. And the Pepsi.
As I observed the scene, my mind turned to my childhood and my own experiences with racial differences. It was not a picture of tolerance and understanding.
I went to a boys-only school in England. That wasn’t unusual in those days but, in a student body of at least 700, I could count the number of non-white students on the fingers of one hand – and have fingers to spare.
In daily life, racial prejudice was pervasive – yet it went largely unnoticed. It was woven into nursery rhymes; it was pasted to the side of jam jars; it was the punchline of a hundred jokes.
At the time, it simply didn’t occur to me that any of this was inappropriate. I just sang and laughed along, oblivious to the discrimination I was helping to perpetuate.
Now I am a white, middle-aged male. In the history of mankind, has there ever been a demographic group less discriminated against?
Yet, if you were to listen to some of its members, you would be excused for thinking the group is engaged in a desperate fight for survival – bravely repelling the evil forces of political correctness and the incessant attacks against the ramparts of its power and privilege. Even when forced to acknowledge one more inconvenient reminder of pervasive racial inequality, a parade of old white men will respond with a mix of fake outrage and the usual, tired platitudes. Their hollow words will not survive the day’s news cycle.
By tomorrow, the familiar bigotry will be back – casting victims as perpetrators; legitimate protest as treachery; defense of inalienable rights as an attack on liberty itself.
Whichever form it takes, the message is always the same: The very fabric of decent society is being threatened by people who don’t look like us, who don’t sound like us, who don’t think like us.
It is a tactic as old as humanity. Convince the people they are under attack. Prey on their anxieties. Then just sit back and watch as hatred and fear are left to thrive, unchecked, from the fertile ground of ignorance. And hope they tell their children.
Because hatred is not a natural emotion. It has to be taught. Young children do not throw stones at others unless someone has told them to do so. Racial differences are not a threat until someone says they are.
So, as the adults in the room, we have a choice to make.
Either we can condition our children to preserve our prejudices by openly denigrating those who happen to look or think differently. Or we can educate and encourage them to see the world in their own way, guided by their own opinions. Maybe they will think like us. Maybe they won’t. But they are thinking for themselves. And we need to be OK with that.
On a rainy day in 2017, I saw a glimmer of hope for a brighter, more inclusive future reflected in our daughter’s eyes; a future where diversity, tolerance, respect, and equality are naturally occurring phenomena. Not questioned. Not contrived. They just are.
One thing is clear. The next generation is better placed than any before it to finally bring an end to the scourge of racism and discrimination.
And – speaking as a privileged, middle-aged, white man – we need to get out of the way and allow it to happen.
25th September 2017