When I read my last column in the Carroll County Times , “Intolerance Can Be Found In Our Backyards,” I was upset. The beginning of the column that I submitted had been deleted. When I inquired as to why, I was informed that the editors did not print this part of my column for a number of reasons.
I began my last column by citing three jokes that were heard by concerned Carroll County high school students and shared with me. Because the jokes included inflammatory words and harsh stereotypes, the editors felt the need to omit them. From their point of view, including these jokes would have provoked a flood of angry letters. Moreover, the editors felt that people already know this kind of thing exists. While I understand that editors have this prerogative, I would like to address each of their points.
Perhaps, I can give you some idea of what was omitted. One of the three used the “N” word and dehumanized African Americans. Another one made a reference to Jews and poked fun at the atrocities that took place during the Holocaust. The third joke revolved around a disturbing part of American history; the lynching of African Americans.
Were these jokes inflammatory and did they use harsh stereotypes? Absolutely. It should be noted that these jokes actually were heard in our schools' hallways, and I have corroborated this with a number of students. Also, I discovered that jokes of this nature, while not the norm, are not all that rare. My purpose in sharing these jokes was simply to bring this kind of intolerance to the public eye. Confronting and dissecting intolerance is something I do in my college classes as well. Why? My purpose is not to sensationalize or elicit an emotional reaction from my students. But I find that too often we “walk on eggshells” when we discuss intolerance. By bringing it out into the open, my students and I acknowledge it, discuss it, and hopefully learn from it.
The editors' second concern was the reaction it might have triggered in the community. Diversity is not an easy thing to write about. I can think of few subjects that stir up more controversy and emotion. In that sense, it is not like writing about computers, math, entertainment, or the weather. Actually, I was somewhat surprised that the Times would even be open to a column like mine.
As a columnist, the possibility of negative feedback from some members of our community has not and will not dictate what I choose to write about. This is no different from what I teach. When it comes to discussing diversity in my classes, I typically “take chances” that most teachers do not take. However, I do this in a disciplined, balanced way. First, I do my homework. I work hard at knowing and keeping abreast of my subject matter. Second, I try to be as objective as possible, and encourage differing points of view. Finally, I put a lot of effort into making diversity “real;” that is, relating it to my students' life experiences. When analyzing these sometimes volatile issues, I encourage feedback, both positive and negative. In the process, we hopefully learn something valuable, however uncomfortable it might be.
Lastly, the editors claimed that community members already are aware of intolerance of this nature. While intolerance in our community and elsewhere is commonplace, awareness of intolerance is a challenge. Because of our background and life experiences, each of us sees the world around us with a different lens. One of those lenses we wear is denial.
Much of the research dealing with perceptions of race relations shows that whites and racial minorities live in different worlds. Whites tend to think that racial intolerance is a thing of the past whereas Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans are more apt to see prejudice and discrimination as still very much a problem.
Years ago, I remember reading a statement made by a former Superintendent of Carroll County Schools. In short, he stated that our schools were free of racism. He pointed to the absence of in-your-face racial intolerance among individuals. At that time, I wrote an editorial to the Carroll County Times , questioning the Superintendent's assumption, and suggesting that he needs to look harder and deeper before coming to this conclusion.
About a decade ago, I remember a string of incidents with racial overtones. These incidents occurred at South Carroll High School , Westminster High School , McDaniel College , and elsewhere. Reactions by school administrators were generally that these incidents occurred because of a few “bad apples.” As far as I know, there was absolutely no attempt to assess whether this behavior might be symptomatic of a larger problem. The principal of South Carroll High School at that time said he and other administrators were working on a long range plan to make people more aware of the need to tolerate each other. If there is such a plan, the public should know about it.
Cornel West, author of the classic Race Matters and professor of religion at Princeton University , makes the argument that we have never really had an open, honest dialogue about race in this U.S. . I would argue that holds true for others types of diversity as well. For Carroll County to initiate such a dialogue, the media needs to do its part. While we do not want to sensationalize racial issues or the subject of intolerance, we do not want to ignore or gloss over them either. And if we assume the public is already aware of these things, we need to back that up with hard data.
For thirty years, I have lived in this county. During this time, many of our leaders have remained silent on the issue of racial intolerance. Perhaps it is then not surprising that Carroll County still has a less than stellar reputation when it comes to race relations. People in positions of authority in Carroll, including religious, business and government leaders, human service and health care professionals, journalists, and educators, need to ask questions, collect data, and find out what we think. Does intolerance merit more attention in Carroll County ? How pervasive is it? And what can we do about it? If we do not bring this issue out into the open, we will never know.