In America, there are many common experiences we all go through. Getting that first car, fireworks on the 4th of July, and living through the weird era of life known as High School. It’s a place where our sense of self-worth is often defined by which group of people we choose to hang out with. Where we learn to associate someone as worthy of our respect based upon which group we feel they belong to. Many Americans, when they look back on their days in high school collectively, often describe it by which “crowd” they hung out with. Which is part of the problem we have when thinking about reconciling race in America.
Stranger in a Strange Land
I had the privilege of attending high school both inside and out of America. My American high school was in some ways the exception in that nearly everyone in my class had known each other since grade school. So we knew each other more on an individual basis than a lot of other schools. Groups and cliques did form, but not to the degree of there being almost separate tribes of students who rarely interacted with each other. And I know that my experience was an exception.
When I relocated to Copenhagen for the remainder of my secondary education. I was shocked how different things could be. I attended two schools in Denmark. The first a small Catholic private school and then later the international segment of a large Danish public school. There were a couple of common factors that were different than the schools I had attended in America.
Class sizes were small, usually around 20 students. And because of this, there was very little singling out on a group level. When I arrived, I thought I had to look for my “crowd” to fit in with. And I was surprised when there wasn’t one. I was surprised how welcoming everyone was. How willing they were to speak English and attempt to help me along. I admit, I was a little stand-offish at first, because this willingness to engage the kid from another country was foreign to me (pun intended). Groups of friends did form based upon common interests. And there would of course be conflict between students. We are just people after all.
But it was based upon our individuality, not our perceived traits and what clique we appeared to belong to. And while questions of my race and ethnicity did arise. I was more often asked about the American culture I came from. I was always introduced as an American (a refreshing change). No explanation necessary which racial group I felt I belonged to. My physical representation was that of my home country. And for the first time ever, I felt a sense of pride about being from the United States.
When The World Comes Together
I entered an English language IB program for my 3 years of Gymnasium (the equivalent of high school). Our small class of just over 22 was a collection of students from places such as Pakistan, India, Russia, Nigeria, Serbia, Morocco, Finland and, of course, a few Americans. We all spoke English at various degrees of proficiency. And it was during this time period where the crutch of needing to represent my perceived racial group finally fell apart.
During the first week of school, we took a class excursion to the Danish countryside for the weekend. We were meant to connect with our classmates and were split into groups where we discussed aspects of our culture with one another. We were able to ask questions about each other with no fear of judgement . Here the question, “Where are you from?” was not a judgement of character, but the start of cultural understanding.
No one was afraid to talk to someone else, or deemed unworthy based upon their associations. We were truly a collection of people, and that’s how we saw each other. Like all groups, some people connected with each other more than others. But friendships were formed based upon a who they were as an individual.
The first person who I met and talked with at length was Mohammed Usman from Pakistan, who introduced himself by his nickname Uzi. We joked about the nickname being the same as the weapon, his beginning attempt at growing a beard and his interest in math. He taught me about the traditions of Ramadan and about the culture of youth where he grew up. We both realized that the gun culture of the two countries were very similar in some places.
I saw him, and the rest of my classmates, as the people that they were. Even now when I think of my classmates, I think of their names and the classes that I shared with them. The jokes that we told in each other’s presence and what they told me about their cultures. I remembered their stories and the knowledge that I gained from hearing them.
This is what we are missing in America.
A Wrongful Teaching
The United States is a collection of individuals who see themselves as teams. It’s why sports and politics are so popular and divisive. We are taught from a young age to chase great financial success in order to have personal value. And that to achieve success is partly driven by what groups of people we know and associate with.
Instead of receiving a variety of perspectives growing up. We are most often given one, maybe two at best. Our education system is based upon the idea that what we are taught in the one truth, and everything else is false. But we are never asked how we arrived at these truths to begin with. And because there is no room for deviation, this transfers over to our social interactions.
We are asked repeatedly throughout our school years and even as adults what group of people we associated with in school. Which “crowd” did we hang out with. Were we with the nerds, the jocks, the debate team, the theater group? This enforces the idea that all minds must think alike in order to have any chance of getting along. And that we must define and categorize our individuality by what we project on the surface.
It’s this mindset that being “mixed” is considered such an anomoly. If you can’t be categorized. If there’s no one group that you fit into, then how can you navigate the world at large? How can you be anything other than confused? It sets the precedent White is “normal” and that everything outside must be viewed from that specific lens.
In the current climate, we are talking a lot about the need for education. That we need to allow space for the knowledge of “other” into the minds of students. And while this is both true and necessary, we also need to take a different approach to how we educate. If we spoon feed students more facts, then we are simply indoctrinating them in a different form. They will never begin to question. And it’s in that questioning where we learn not only about ourselves, but the people around us.
We must begin with asking our peers, educators, political systems and ourselves not to do more, but to think different. To acknowledge that truth often is a matter of perception and with more knowledge our perceptions can change to be more understanding. Ignorance is growth waiting to be unmasked. And questioning the truth with perspective is where one begins to learn.
Only then can we begin the path of accepting our differences.