Nuances of nationalism, illusion of diversity must be faced in H-F

Viewpoint: 

The commentary below represents the ideas, observations and opinions of the author.

I was still half-asleep, and fully cursing the rising sun when national headlines of Homewood-Flossmoor High School students in blackface came across my screen.

I wish I could say that the news of suburban white boys painting their faces black left me anything more than disappointed. 

I wish I could say that I sat straight up in bed, my body assuming the 90-degree angle reserved for the most unsettling and egregious news.

In truth, my phone was locked and back on the charger less than five minutes after I saw the story.

Not because the media is bursting at the seams with anti-black rhetoric and violence these days — well, that, too — but because I attended H-F from 2009 to 2013. And these boys may as well have been my former classmates making the same tired, racist jokes.

Contrary to the painfully politically correct remarks of community members, expressed with shaking heads and furrowed brows, about just how “unlike H-F” this incident was, I recognized the H-F I saw in the headlines.

When I was a student at H-F and managing editor of the nationally recognized Voyager newspaper, I spent more of my time than was wise debating white classmates about why their jokes about Africa were racist, yes, even when they “meant it in a good way.” Or how the added “ah” sound didn’t soften the N-word coming from their mouths, no, not even if your black friends allow it. I was exhausted by the passive-aggressive blows my white peers shot at Obama’s “policies,” half-baked arguments that were audible regurgitations of what they heard at home. 

And, of course, there was the nationalism. 

At a community forum following the H-F student walkout, H-F principal Jerry Lee Anderson reminded residents, “We can allow the tenor of our nation to influence our community, or we can empower our community to influence the tenor of our nation.” 

Ironically enough, unchecked nationalism seems to be one area of national discourse where Trump has actually united the country. In my time at H-F, a handful of years before the 2016 election, teachers and peers viewed nationalist attitudes through a white-washed lens of patriotic pride. Not only was nationalism harmless, it was dutiful. 

Naturally, Trump’s America First agenda has since illuminated the dark underbelly of nationalistic pride in a country that was built by slaves and now is arguably maintained by immigrants. 

At H-F, I implored my peers and teachers to more closely examine the disdain they held for those who did not stand for the Pledge of Allegience or hold their same nationalistic views. In a Voyager column, I urged my peers to recall the dismissive attitudes they held toward so many of the national tragedies inflicted upon people of color. I encouraged them to remember the mocking tone they used to parrot black girls whose diction and cadence they found worthy of ridicule. 

Only then, I told them, could we engage in a dignified discussion about the nuances of nationalism. 

Of course, these were the big moments. There were also the micro aggressions. There was the persisting belief throughout junior high and high school that my community, a subdivision nestled between Flossmoor Road and Crawford Avenue and dominated by black families, was “unincorporated Flossmoor,” an assessment that seemed to have more to do with my neighbors’ color than our proximity to Matteson. There was the incorporation of “black-on-black crime” statistics into discourse about police brutality, a thinly veiled derailment of any attempt to hold officers accountable. 

This was a time when H-F’s black student population was just creeping past 50 percent. Today, it stands closer to 70 percent. Several of the students I interviewed for our coverage of the blackface incident expressed disbelief at the racial insensitivity (and outright racism) they have experienced at H-F, given the numbers.

How, they asked, in a school dominated by black students, could their classmates be so anti-black? To this question, I can think of no better response than that of Flossmoor resident Matt Epperson, at the community May 5 peaceology forum: Because we live under the “illusion of diversity.” 

Here in Homewood-Flossmoor we pride ourselves on sending our kids to school with black classmates. When the new black family moves in to the neighborhood, we pat ourselves on the back for not packing up and leaving. We give ourselves credit for the small talk we make with the Nice Black Lady on the next elliptical at the Racquet Club. 
And these things count. 

Still, like many residents expressed at the forum, we are polite when we should be human. 

Indeed, countless (white) residents expressed a desire for a sense of intimacy within our community, where now we prop up our diversity like a sort of golden egg, some fragile treasure whose survival can only be maintained by delicate, gloved hands.  

But diversity isn’t some thin-shelled treasure that will shatter at human touch. No – diversity only works when we stop being afraid to be clumsy, and awkward, and wrong. And, above all else, when we stop understanding race and racism as “black issues.” 

Frankly, black people didn’t create this mess of racism and hate. I can scarcely imagine a logical scenario in which we have become the designated problem solvers. 

In any case, sitting in the forum and listening to these people who are presumably parents, neighbors and friends of the students with whom I sparred over political rhetoric and racist stereotypes years ago, felt like the best kind of full-circle moment. Not because their being allies erases the hurt, but because it salves the wound.

As one resident shared in the forum: “Forgiveness without acknowledgement of hurt is not possible.”

Let’s keep the conversation going.

 

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