Never underestimate the power of ignorance, particularly as we kick off a new year. I recently completed my second Empowerment through the Arts tour in South Africa. This year, I took my sister's Boston-based dance company, the OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center. It was 10-full days of learning dance, teaching dance, and learning about South Africa's tragic history of apartheid. Nothing, however, could prepare us for the hands-on learning experience we were to encounter on one rainy Wednesday afternoon.
We decided to take a trip to the Apartheid Museum. The museum captures the essence of that dreadful era of the human experience. Unfortunately, my daughter was in a fussy mood, which led my wife and I to finish our tour a bit early. While waiting on the bus, my sister Muadi came out of the museum nearly in tears and signaled me to get out of the bus, what she told me next will hopefully enrage you as much as it enraged me.
While walking through the museum, there is a larger-than-life image of black men being strip-searched. Check the picture out for yourself here. The picture is being covered by 4 South African artists trying to add dignity to the photo, but you get the idea. While walking through the museum, Muadi noticed several White South African high school female students observing the photo. One of them said to her friends "Wow, cute butts!" She then proceeded to rub her fingers across the behinds of these men, much to the amusement of her friends. Muadi lost it.
Muadi spent the rest of her museum visit "enlightening" the girls about their ignorance but these girls felt very free to continue with their boorish behavior. They called one of our Black students a dog and made symbols with their fists as if they were going to attack us. Once they got behind their chaperones, they began singing MC Hammer's "Can't Touch This." With all of this in mind, I thought I should have a word with the two White female chaperones of these 15 or so White high school female students. The story only gets "curioser and curioser" from there.
I politely asked the chaperone if I could talk to her about what had transpired and she said she refused to talk to me until she got her girls in front of security. Once they were "secure," she proceeded to tell me that what they did was no big deal and that the girl was just touching the behinds, not trying to stick her finger in them. By this time, my other sisters were out along with one of my best friends and a massive debate ensued about the teachable moments these chaperones had denied these students. By the time the debate was over and these girls were rushed to their vans (protected by South African employees of the museum), rest assured their comfort level had decreased significantly (poets do have a way with words after all).
The ride back was the worst of the trip. Most of us were in tears. Though our high school and college-aged youth were all from Boston, this was their first major experience with racism. No stranger to a Klan mask or two myself (story for another day), I was more incensed at the fact that as we begin 2008, there are still seemingly insurmountable obstacles we face as it relates to racial appreciation and respect for others.
What made those girls so comfortable in the shell of their ignorance? Would they do this at theHolocaust Museum? Why is it that, according to my friend and guide Napo, most older Blacks (20 and up) exit the museum in frustration while most Whites she sees leave the museum with smiles and probably wondering what they're having for dinner? Lastly, why is it that most youth of all ages, races, and nationalities, leave the museum with a sense of indifference? Quite honestly, until that incident occurred, some of our own students were bored there and even some Black young South African students I saw came out of the museum as if they were visiting a museum of Greek antiquity as opposed to a place representing their own parents' experience.
I do not claim to have all the answers on this one. What I do know is that the way we as Black people degrade ourselves on television makes it a little easier for others to degrade us. I know that in America as well as South Africa, there are areas where we are more segregated now than during the Apartheid and Civil Rights Era (all the same movement in my eyes). Lastly, I know that if we do not teach our youth of all backgrounds about the turbulent past we have all faced on this planet such as Slavery, the Holocaust, and other atrocities, all of our fallen freedom fighters from Steve Biko to Benazir Bhuttowill have died in vain.
If you are a young person reading this, I encourage you to break the chains of your complacency and really learn about the struggles that led you to enjoy your Ipods, video game consoles, expensive clothes, cars, and cell phones. Use the power of this ever-shrinking world to see (or at least read about) the sweatshops your clothes come from, the millions who die for the diamond necklaces and watches you go into debt over, and the many more millions who die around the world (and in America) simply because they are a woman, a child, Black, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, etc.
For those who are a bit more seasoned, I challenge you to engage our youth and not be afraid of them. The lessons that can be learned from you are enormous, but your silence in the face of the vapid materialism, ignorance, and violence amongst our youth gives the impression of acquiescence. For all of you reading this, just ask yourself one question: would you want someone rubbing their hands on a picture of the behinds of one of your ancestors who gave their life for your freedom? The answer should be obvious. This is a new year. Let us not proceed by repeating old mistakes. It does take an entire to village to raise a child, but it also takes an entire village to raise a racist. Each one teach ten and let's wake up!