I became exposed to the realities of racism during the relatively conflict-free and halcyon days of my childhood. Each year, I spent the months between September and June in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania — a supposedly progressive bastion in an increasingly regressive state. It was here where I learned about the Mayflower, Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt, but not Benjamin Banneker, Sojourner Truth and Marcus Garvey.
My summers, though, were spent on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, at the site of what my grandparents told me was once Travellers Rest Plantation — a sprawling estate supposedly fueled by slave labor that produced wheat, corn and other staple crops. This land is where my grandparents settled down during retirement.
Afternoon walks in Travellers Rest yielded the discovery of many vestiges of a bygone age. I vividly remember walking by long-defunct train tracks, now covered in tall grass, and asking my grandfather why no trains seemed to pass. It was then that I learned how Southern plantations grew the food that fed the rest of the country.
On other walks, we would stroll past a long, willow-lined driveway. The driveway was so expansive, in fact, that the great distance hid whatever sat at the other side of it. Time after time, I would wonder what could possibly be at the end of that driveway. Eventually, I asked my grandmother. It was then that I learned about the elegant homes of slave masters and the depraved conditions the slaves lived in (I refrain from saying “the homes the slaves lived in” because that would be an insult to houses).
Another time, we passed a memorial sign honoring Frederick Douglass, who, according to local legend, was born as a slave in the next town over before escaping and attaining his freedom. At the time, the name meant nothing to me, and my grandparents could tell. So there I stood, on an old plantation in the summer heat, receiving a history lesson about the abolitionist movement.
However, when I returned to elementary school every fall, my classmates and I went right back to learning about the Mayflower, Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt, but not Benjamin Banneker, Sojourner Truth and Marcus Garvey.
It wasn’t until around seventh grade that we began to seriously talk about events like the slave trade, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. But by then it was too late; my classmates had already developed their view of different races. Even though, thankfully, the vast majority turned out not to be hateful racists, they still lacked the history to understand the implications and repercussions of things as simple as the jokes they made toward me and other minority students.
In 10th grade, we read a short story in literature class about the Klu Klux Klan burning down African American churches. After the teacher referred to the churchgoers as “Black” and “African American,” a classmate of mine raised her hand to inform the class that “they prefer to be called colored.” Obviously she meant no harm, but this just highlights the dangers of not informing children of the history behind racially loaded terms.
In 11th grade, when an Indian friend and I were both on the computers in study hall, the substitute teacher approached us. “What grade are you guys in?” she asked. After finding out we were juniors, she asked my friend which colleges she planned on applying to. The teacher then turned to me and asked what I was planning on doing with my future. She then went on to describe the wonderful career her nephew made for himself in the army. She assumed that because I was a Black male, I was not qualified to move on in academia. I understand that she was trying to be helpful, but in doing so she made me feel as if I wasn’t talented or smart enough to be pursuing higher education, an unintentional side effect of her ignorance — of the weight of her comments.
In 12th grade, I received my acceptance to the University of Michigan. Out of the more than 1,000 students of North Penn High School’s class of 2015, to my knowledge, I was the only one to receive an acceptance letter. This achievement gained me the nickname “Mr. Affirmative Action,” a superlative that still angers me to this day. My classmates belittled the work I put in over the past four years, attributing the fruits of my labor to nothing more than winning a random outcome in a genetic lottery.
It was just earlier this year when my sister proudly told one of her school’s faculty members where I was going to college. “Oh! What sport does he play?” the woman asked. Dumbfounded, my sister pressed for some context. It turned out that the woman assumed I was admitted to the University for some athletic ability and not for my academic achievements.
“How is it possible for a 6’4” Black kid to not be good at sports?” she must have wondered. But in doing this, she was inadvertently asking, “How is it possible for a 6’4” Black kid to be good enough to get into Michigan? There must be another explanation.”
Racism is like water; it seeps and thrives in every unguarded action and word. You may not know the water is in your ceilings until mold starts growing, and by then it is often too late. The ceiling must be torn down and a new one must take its place. More importantly, while the ceiling is down and the insides of the house are exposed, it’s essential to tackle the water leakage problem that caused the issue in the first place.
This must be done with racism. We can’t deny the problem that racism exists because, just like mold, the situation will continue to build up and create an increasingly dangerous environment. Likewise, we can’t only offer solutions that replace the ceiling — designating areas as safe spaces or banning this word and that phrase — because it’s only a matter of time before our efforts are proven to be wasted and the problem returns.
Instead, we must tackle the root of the problem by educating young children about the history of race relations. This can be done in many ways, from teaching children about race issues earlier in their lives to encouraging parents to have these hard conversations in an open environment with their young children — like the ones I received from my grandparents.
While these measures may seem like a drop in the bucket compared to tackling the policies that allow for the proliferation of institutional racism, at the very least it will inform people so they will think about the consequences and implications of what they say before they say it.
Michigan in Color is the Daily’s opinion section designated as a space for and by students of color at the University of Michigan. To contribute your voice or find out more about MiC, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.