I’ve been mindful of keeping myself away from and above the vitriol that the nation has put on display over that last five days. That has meant trying to limit Facebook time, and discriminating about what news I read, watch, and discuss. I don’t like how politics is shredding the social fabric of our nation, and have hoped that by disengaging and elevating myself I would be able to avoid getting too emotionally involved in any of it until things simmer and I engage the situation with some perspective rather than while slogging through it. But there’s a saying: Hope in one hand, shit in the other, and see which fills up faster.
As a teacher, social issues tend to appear on my radar whether I want them to or not, especially since I teach predominantly poor and minority students. It is those students who most deal with the fallout of corrupt and discriminatory social policies and practices, and it helps me to understand what they are going through at any given time. As such, I could no longer ignore or elevate myself from the current situation when an issue was unexpectedly dropped in my lap last Friday. Maybe I was foolish to try to keep the issues at bay. Maybe I thought that ignorance and apathy would serve me well, or things would go away if I didn’t think about them too much. Regardless of where my mind was, what happened four days ago gave me a chance to think.
I have a student new to me this semester who last week wore a t-shirt from a small college near my hometown of Angola, Indiana. This kid is African-American, a senior, and has made a name for himself in sports and academics. He has shown himself thus far to be affable, focused, and possessing a decent view of his future. He told me the college in question is interested in him for sports; them along with Aurora University closer to home here in Illinois. He said he hadn’t made a decision yet.
I offered my insights into the Indiana university he’s considering. I know it’s in a very small town (smaller than Angola), and that town is a long-time college town since it’s titular university is well over a century old. My knee-jerk reaction was to think of how diverse the institution was, diversity being a key to cultural sensitivity and awareness not just on campus but in the surrounding areas and even the state. “Having been there so long, the school must be familiar with diversity,” I told him. But then I stopped and remembered something. It was like an alarm sounded in my conscience. “Indiana and Illinois are different states,” I said. “You might want to keep that in mind. Indiana is a Trump state.” I found myself concerned with the boy’s safety traveling from the Chicago area across long stretches of rural Indiana, and possibly being off campus in the town where he might be attending college. I wasn’t so sure all of a sudden how far my home state has come with its racist reputation in the last eight years, much less in the post-Civil Rights era. I hated to think that somebody could feel emboldened by the philosophies and practices of the new presidential administration and decide to cause trouble, or worse—harm him.
I realized I was digging a hole instead of endorsing the very state where I was born and raised, and softened my approach. “There are liberal and inclusive pockets in the state,” I continued. “No doubt the big cities and the larger college towns are diverse and have some mindsets attuned to different cultures. Indianapolis. Ft. Wayne. Bloomington. South Bend. Evansville. You can include Lafayette and Muncie, too, I guess.”
I thought back to this encounter numerous times over last weekend. I second-guessed myself about what I told him, how I portrayed the Indiana I knew, and how much I may have brought reluctance to him rather than confidence in whatever his decision might be. I haven’t missed the right-wing religious soul and racial homogeneity of Indiana since I left over twenty years ago, but how heavily were my own biases playing into what I told him? I thought about speaking to him again and what I might say, but then I found myself reading a Facebook post from a high school classmate Sunday night that changed my mind.
It seems my former classmate visited Chicago last weekend, coincidentally right in the midst of the protests that were taking place downtown. He posted a picture of himself holding a sign he appears to have found in a parking garage. The sign read “Pro-America / Anti-Trump.” The picture itself struck me as a risky proposition given how it could easily be taken out of context. On the surface, it looks like my former classmate was part of the march and offering his support against Trump. If that were the case, he would stand to lose a lot given his family’s business concerns in Angola, but that’s his situation to handle if people decide to interpret the picture that way. He noted below the picture that the sign was “a remnant left behind.” He added, “Can’t we all just get along.” I wondered if he was joking. Regardless, the message he sent didn’t resonate with humor.
I flashed back to my conversation with my new student, and any second-guessing I did subsequent to our conversation vanished. The picture of my classmate confirmed that my instincts were correct in how I cautioned my student about the nature of rural Indiana. And to answer my classmate’s question (if it was a question; I took it for one despite the missing punctuation): No, we can’t all get along. Millions of Americans wouldn’t protest unless there were called to action by significant threats to their personal well-being and the future of the country. Millions of women especially wouldn’t be moved to organize and protest unless something extraordinary happened, like their new president objectifying, berating, and assaulting them before moving to restrict or deny their reproductive rights. These are merely starters for why we can’t all get along. And we especially can’t all get along when someone, who I hope did it offhandedly and not with malicious aforethought, appropriates a phrase connected to the legacy of police violence against minorities in our country and turns it against a group of peaceful demonstrators who will not tolerate the short-sighted, ignorant, and hate-laden policies that are going to be forced on them because of brainwashed conservatives and religious zealots who voted for a mouthpiece who is bringing their brand of hatred into the mainstream.
I hope my classmate was joking. If he was, it was in poor taste. He’ll have to deal with the fallout of his picture, if there is any, and maybe that’s the best way to tune one’s sense of humor. If he wasn’t joking, then he only confirmed the spirit of what I told my student last Friday. My greatest hope, then, is that my former classmate stays out of the way while change is forged. Perhaps he doesn’t realize it’s far more likely to happen in the city he visited last weekend rather than the city he lives in. I hope, too, that his thoughts and beliefs and like-minded brethren stay away from my student should that young man choose to attend college in Indiana.