At this moment, facing national news coverage of the West Virginia primary elections, echoes of racism, ignorance, and prejudice sounding throughout the national media, I am saddened and afraid.
An Associated Press exit poll found that “one in five white Clinton voters said race was an important factor in their vote and about 85 percent of them voted for Clinton against Obama, who would be the first black major-party presidential nominee.” In a state that is 95 percent white, this might be expected: one can argue that it’s human nature to fear the unfamiliar. We’ve made national headlines for this. We have also made national headlines for some of our residents’ overwhelming lack of information. On Wednesday, The Daily Show openly mocked interviewees’ ignorance, and with valid reason. The ideas represented are obvious examples of what my friend Pete refers to as “ignorance with confidence:” the worst possible kind of ignorance.
So I sat in my car this morning, in the parking lot at school, listening to West Virginia Public Radio’s coverage of recent press. In their piece on West Virginia Morning, “Racial, religious prejudice hurt Obama in W.Va.,” Scott Finn and Anna Sale presented the issues frankly and clearly, and I watched the rain and felt a stone of hopelessness growing in the pit of my stomach. I listened to interviews with the state Democratic and Republican chairmen, and cringed as they expressed the idea that West Virginians aren’t really racist; that if a person were to ask the question directly, West Virginians would deny being racist—the interviews just came off incorrectly. This made me feel even worse, simply because that thinking—the direct question of prejudice versus the ingrained and slippery submerged reality—obscures and oversimplifies the problem. It’s the same when people say: “I’m not racist, I have a Black friend,” yet still exhibit prejudiced behavior. Kids do this all the time: “I’m not racist, I just wouldn’t trust “a Mexican”… or “a Jew”… or “an Arab.” Fill in the blank. It’s frustrating and frightening, the lack of logical thinking: again, ignorance with confidence. I see it when I teach a Holocaust unit and kids express sympathy with the Jews, yet prejudice against African Americans… When I show Hotel Rwanda, and they voice the opinion that those Africans are different from Blacks here… And I’ll not even discuss the stereotypes that so many hold about West Virginia, which now seem to smack of some truth! People exhibit a strange inability to translate thinking across barriers, to see how hate is hate, no matter where and how or why it rears its ugly head. And that hate is destructive, always.
As a teacher, I think it’s my responsibility not so much to teach what’s “right” (too subjective and close to indoctrination for me) but to teach kids how to logically evaluate all the information they’re given, and how to seek more information when a logical solution is evasive. I’ve written about this before, but it’s critical in a discussion of prejudice because hate is clearly illogical. Like the woman on The Daily Show who stated she wouldn’t vote for Obama because she’s “…had enough of Hussein,” we don’t always have the ability to distinguish between distortions and facts. A shared name does not equal shared beliefs; why isn’t this obvious? What if his name were Adolf? Maybe it’s the result of culturally faulty synapses, but, according to current media evidence, we’re just not making logical connections in West Virginia.
It’s distressing and daunting. It’s another task to add to the list of things that I must do as a teacher. It’s culturally ingrained and deeply concealed, and it takes a national political issue to reveal it. When I discussed it with my class this morning, their thinking was that only the most outrageous, most controversial interviews were excerpted on the news, and that only a small cross section of voters must have been polled. But this is oversimplifying, as well. And maybe it is true, too, that press coverage is biased, but again, it doesn’t account for the fact that hate is here, it’s our problem, and we’ve gotten very good at avoiding actually dealing with it.
My rainy parking lot moment, listening to the radio, my sadness at the already poor national image of West Virginians, my responsibility as an educator—all these lead me to the same place. I have got to turn that stone of hopelessness into a grain of hope. I am only one, but I hope I make a difference. I hope the kids who leave my classes can see logical patterns, and communicate those to others. I hope my kids won’t embody and reinforce those awful stereotypes about West Virginians; they can change them by not stereotyping other people. I hope for the future, because, even with all the progress we’ve made nationally, the West Virginian present just isn’t good enough. Ignorance with confidence? Not in my classroom.