by Randall Allen Dunn
Last week, someone shouted a racial slur at my wife and daughter as they walked home from the grocery store. Nicki was so shocked she didn’t even see what vehicle the man was driving. I’m shocked that this happened in one of the most ethnically diverse cities of our state.
When she texted me about this, I was really angry. I’ve been dreading this day ever since we became a multi-racial family. The day when our children would have to start listening to the mindless contempt of people who judge them by their skin color and nothing else. Whether it’s a white person who hates blacks, a black person who hate whites, or others who just can’t stomach seeing both races share the same house.
I’m still angry as I type this.
Angry at how cruel people can be, to shout something from a car at a young mother walking down a public street with her two small children, one a five-year old girl and the other one in a stroller. I’m angry that someone can be so ignorant and hateful that they would try to make Nicki and Abby and Noah (not his real name) feel less than human. Angry that someone would dismiss my daughter at a glance, never bothering to discover how special she is.
But as angry as I am, I can’t let myself hate them. I can still be angry, frustrated, impatient, and confounded by them, but I can’t hate them. They’re acting out of blind ignorance. What they need is education, to break through their prejudiced mindset. Not for someone like me to stand up and start a war with them. Hating the haters won’t solve anything.
Still, it’s hard to swallow my pride and my sense of justice, while I wait for those people to grow up and stop throwing stones at my kids.
I’m reminded of the film, “Ruby Bridges”, which chronicles the trying experiences of the first African-American child to attend an all-white grade school in the South. On the first day of school in November of 1960, Ruby (Chaz Monet) is greeted by an angry mob of protesting adults. They wave picket signs and shout threats, upset that the President has ordered them to integrate their school. US Marshals are on hand to ensure Ruby’s safe passage into the first grade.
Unfortunately, all of the other kids’ white parents have yanked them out of school, unwilling to let their children share the same building with a black child. At the same time, all of the white teachers have refused to teach Ruby. They don’t realize – and likely wouldn’t believe – that Ruby is a brilliant child, who tested highly enough to be selected to attend the all-white William Frantz Public School. So Ruby’s mother, Lucille (Lela Rochon), refuses to give in to local pressure, insisting that her daughter earned the right to receive the same quality education given to other children. She knows that they have to take a risk in order to change their lives for the better, or people will simply continue to limit their opportunities because of their color.
Having just moved to town from Boston, Barbara Henry (Penelope Ann Miller), settles in to teach Ruby as her only student. She’s frustrated at the abuse hurled at this innocent little girl by the locals, who won’t even try to accept her.
A child psychiatrist, Dr. Robert Coles (Kevin Pollak), shares Barbara’s feelings. Having seen the protesters shouting threats at Ruby, he offers to provide Ruby some free counseling during her first year.
But he becomes so focused on helping Ruby as a patient – or even a project – that he fails to recognize his own inner prejudices. While his wife, Jane (Jean Louisa Kelly), enjoys getting to know Ruby’s parents, Robert graciously declines every offer of hospitality made by the Bridges. When Robert later asks Jane to make him some dinner, she pretends to be surprised to hear that he’s hungry. She tells him she’s full, having enjoyed a home-cooked meal at the Bridges’ home, and walks away.
Robert later recognizes that while he’s been fighting for the Bridges’ rights, he hasn’t treated them as equals, let alone as friends or neighbors. Which is something the Bridges need far more than they need a professional counselor.
At the same time, Ruby is dealing with more stress than any first grader should ever have to. Every day when Ruby walks up the steps of the school, one female protester threatens to poison her. So Ruby can’t bring herself to eat anything unless it’s packaged, like potato chips and pop. She also hides her lunch so the teacher won’t see she’s not eating it.
Other adults call Ruby nasty names, complaining that they won’t allow their children to attend the same school as a black child. When some white children finally do return to school and join Ruby’s class, a boy tells her his mother told her not to play with her because she’s black. (Of course, they used much crueler words to describe Ruby’s race.)
Most horrifying of all, an elderly woman fashions a doll in Ruby’s image, lying in a makeshift coffin, and waves it at Ruby from the line of protesters.
Adults refusing to associate with a little girl, and refusing to let their kids play with her, and threatening to kill her. All because they don’t like the skin she’s wearing.
It’s hard to wait for such people to grow up.
It’s even harder to stomach the way some of those people combine their prejudice with faith, praying over their meals while shaking their heads at the little black girl who is “ruining their school”. It sickens me that people who believe in a loving God would somehow decide that God’s love doesn’t really extend to everyone.
Years ago, I encountered such a person as I visited an adult Sunday school class. A man talked about being grateful to God and said, “After all, I could have been born Black.”
I was shocked speechless as the teacher deftly moved the conversation along by asking a new question, to avoid calling the man out for making such an ignorant and hateful statement. I couldn’t believe this person had just linked his bigotry to God, as if God had “cursed” some people with “the wrong color”.
In light of such nonsense, who can blame Ruby’s father, Abon (Michael Beach), for taking down the picture of Jesus from their hallway? Why shouldn’t he be angry that his daughter sees such a painting every day, in which Christ is depicted as resembling the protesters more than he resembles Ruby, even though no one knows what Christ looks like.
And why shouldn’t Abon be dubious about making integration work, having served alongside white soldiers in Korea, risking his life for them, but still being valued less because of his skin color?
My mom told me how some black soldiers who returned home from World War II were lynched for wearing a military uniform. I’m sure those people would never believe that the black men had fought for their freedom, and that the uniform they wore was the only outfit they had to wear upon their return.
Their attackers presumed the uniforms had been stolen.
In the face of such stupid hatred, I honestly don’t have much patience. But I also recognize the futility of arguing with truly ignorant people, who can’t grasp how closely their bigotry mirrors the mentality of the Nazi regime, who were all too eager to burn thousands of Jewish people in ovens. All I can really do, when I hear such mindless remarks or hear about such unforgivable murders, is hold my stomach and try to keep from vomiting at the senselessness of people’s hatred.
Because it’s not just about prejudice of white people against black people, or vice versa. It’s all the racial slurs and racist jokes made about Asians, Hispanics, Indians, Arabs, Native Americans, Jews, Poles, French, Germans, Russians and every other race that people put on their hate list. Every race that people readily dismiss as worthless or untrustworthy or less anything than the rest of us. I have always been disgusted by people’s expressions of personal bigotry, in conversations, jokes, or in violent news headlines.
Yet Ruby handles it in a way that challenges me, and should challenge all of us who must deal with the haters who surround us. As she is about enter the school one morning, Ruby turns back to face the crowd of protesters, though the US Marshalls had warned her never to look at any of them. She mouths something, then walks back into the school building under escort.
Later, Robert asks Ruby what she said. “Did you finally get angry with them?” he asks. “Did you tell them to just leave you alone?’
“No,” Ruby says casually. “I didn’t tell them anything. I didn’t talk to them.”
“But, Ruby, I was there,” Robert tells her. “I saw your lips moving.”
“But I wasn’t talking to them,” Ruby says. “I was praying for them.”
Robert is aghast. “Praying for them?”
“Yes, I pray for them every day in the car. But I forgot that day.”
“Oh. What prayer did you say?”
“‘Please, God, forgive these people, because even if they say those mean things, they don’t know what they’re doing. So you can forgive them, just like you did those folks a long time ago, when they said terrible things about you.’”
I’d like to be able to pray for the haters, the bigots, and the murderers, the way that Ruby did. Of course, it feels hard to do that. But the truth is that it’s a choice I make. Whether to let anger curdle into bitterness, or to pray for those attackers to change, while wishing them well. To keep my heart clean and ready for other people’s hearts to change, even if some hearts refuse to ever open.
My wife and daughter were insulted by an individual, not by a race. Nor was the attack made by a specific political party, age group, United States region, or even a gender, but by a single person who made a bad choice. A person who had listened to lies about others and lies about himself, which led him to lash out at an innocent family. I can’t really hate him. He’s as much a victim of those lies as we are.
But I know who I am, who my wife is, and who Abby is. If someone tries to label us as nothing more than a color, gender, nationality, or any other one-sided aspect, that’s their choice, and their loss. Each person is unique and full in their individual personality. Even the guy who shouted insults at my family. He might have his own wife and kids. He might be struggling at his job. He might have a flooded basement. He might have been abused as a child. He might be scared of black people, without even knowing the reason. He might be any one of those things, or none of them. I don’t know, because I don’t know him, any more than he knows us.
So why would I hate him?
I don’t even know him.
Instead, I’ll stick to what I know. That I’m married to an amazing woman, who’s doing a phenomenal job of raising our kids. That Abby is the most incredible child I’ve ever known, and she continues to make us laugh every day. That Noah is learning to trust us more and more, and loves our family. And that whatever crisis we face, with bizarre tantrums, broken relationships, flat tires, skyrocketing fuel costs, or even a man shouting insults from a fleeing vehicle, we’ll get through it all, and tomorrow is another day.
Another day of knowing who we are.
(Please note: I will not be posting a new Weekly Blog next week. I’d like this one to stay up a while longer.
Find more reviews of “Ruby Bridges” at amazon.com!