As I navigated the streets throughout the country of Iraq while patrolling for the United States Army, I would pay close attention to one factor above all others – the reactions of the local children. If they were joyful with a welcoming smile, my trepidation about the roads ahead decreased ever so slightly. However, if the children were upset or angry, gesturing signs of disgust and contempt – if they assaulted us throwing rocks or shoes – then I knew it was just a matter of time until the next explosion, the next RPG, or the next ambush. It all just lay around the bend. Children were my “spider sense” and my early warning beacon that let me know I would either experience safe passage or, in the next few minutes, fight for my life.
Perhaps no other window shines more clearly into the souls of the parents than through the light emitted – be it dim or bright – from the children they have raised. “I’ve been watching you,” a country song by Rodney Atkins, truly highlights this concept regardless of the example set by parents. It could be good or it could be bad. Our young children are looking to their parents for guidance, will follow their direction and use their advice as their own building blocks to develop into model adults.
Why I decided to write about this topic is a question many may ask. After hearing the verdict of the Zimmerman trial this past weekend, I have witnessed racial tension thrust back into the national media spotlight, which raised a question I must ask. How do we stop racial prejudice moving forward? Oftentimes the most complex problems have the simplest solution. In this case, the simple answer is in our children. The monkey wrench in the formula however is in reaching the parents.
The parents are “x” in the equation – the unknown variable we have to account for because we do not know their parenting styles, nor how they raise their children. In many situations, parents are also the paradox. Close to their heart, they carry a hope for a brighter future for their children and a deep-seated desire to establish a world free of hate and prejudice. Unfortunately for many, they also carry the tinder required to ignite the flames of hatred.
Thus, we are forced to ask the age-old question, “Which came first? The chicken or the egg?” The problem is that parents are the product of their childhood and the raising of their own parents. The “simple” solution to our problem is already a step behind because our “solution enablers” – present-day parents – are already tainted with the very disease they wish to eradicate. Now, one is left to ponder out loud, “Is their any hope for a cure?” However, all you need to keep in mind is that vaccines are made from the very viruses that cause them.
When you make vaccines, a virus is weakened and introduced into a host body and then the body attacks said virus in order to build immunity. We must take this virus – in this case being the parents who have been raised and taught to hate – and weaken their resolve through education and example. Yes, this will be hard. But just because something will prove to be difficult does not mean that it’s impossible.
A lot of people may say that I am a dreamer, but I have lived this dream before. I spent a year serving in Iraq, and while my tour wasn’t the worst, I defiantly spent plenty of time getting blown up, shot at, and in general, wondering if each guy standing on the street corners had devised plans to kill me. When you are living everyday with that suspense, on the edge, and never trusting the guy right next to you who doesn’t look familiar, it begins to wear you down. You start to develop an “us” versus “them” mentality and anyone who looks you in the face and tells you any different is full of shit. Your ability to trust wanes and your desire to strike first drastically increases.
When I returned from Iraq, I brought that experience back with me. I was uneasy in a room of Middle Eastern individuals. When they would walk in, I would begin to feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I would pay more attention to them than I would anyone else in the room. I actively sought to stay away from where I thought they might be. I was effectively racial profiling.
Very few people would have judged me for that behavior. Regardless I knew it was wrong and I had to find a way to get past it. However, that moral knowledge didn’t make it any easier to change my emotions. When multiple people of one race shoot at you on a daily basis or blow you up, that conditioned response is still hard to shake.
I take great pride in the fact that I am an American and that we are “mixing bowl” of cultures and creeds. I have fought to defend that very ideology an ocean away, and yet here, standing in the shadow cast by Lady Liberty, I was ignoring the promise offered and protected by her continual lit flame.
I began to examine how I was acting and feeling, asking myself the following questions: What type of hypocrite would I be if I came back home and lived in fear of others and spent my entire life in a self-induced segregation from people who have done no wrong to me? What type of coward would allow his fear to force him to make irrational generalizations simply based on what a ridiculously small percentage of an entire group had done to me in the past?
Reflecting on those questions in my mind with purpose and focus, I aimed to use logic instead of emotion. Once I achieved that goal, my emotions stopped controlling me. I have now lost that twinge of fear as I walk into a room full of Middle Easterns. I no longer seek to distance myself from them and I now feel like the American I want to be. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.
This is the only chance we have to eradicate racism in our society, or any society for that matter. We need to face our fears and our prejudices without emotion. Oftentimes, emotions lead us down the wrong path. A man, who is not in control of his emotions, is not in control of himself.
In a recent movie staring Will Smith, he says to his son, “Danger is real. Fear is a choice.” The time is upon us to make the right choice – to chose to lead our children by the example we wish others would set – because it is us our children look to first. The children are watching, and you just never know. Your child might be the one to change the world.
…. Just the rambling of an old infantryman.