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Wednesday, July 18, 2012


The other day, for the first time in a long, long while, I decided to sit outside. There wasn't anything I particularly needed to do, the baby was asleep, and for once I wasn't feeling that ever-present anxiety, the need to do something, a feeling that plagued me all throughout college.

It was a nice day, probably around 85 degrees, which is too hot for my furnace of a husband, but perfect for me. There was a nice breeze, the trees were whispering, and for once I didn't care what they thought of me. I sat on the swing sitting out on the patio, stared up at the clouds, and out at the freshly-watered grass of the yard. And I took my shoes off.

It's a simple thing, but it got me thinking about how, when I was a kid, I never wore shoes outside. I used to play in the mud, making 'soup' in rain puddles with wild onions, pebbles and flower petals. I captured worms, and frogs, and bugs, and none of it was 'gross,' none of it was 'dirty.' It just was. I used to feel so comfortable outside, just exploring the yard and woods out back for hours, pretending I was an Indian. Back then I actually knew what the plants were called. I knew the names of the constellations.

All kids start off that way. To them, nothing is 'dirty,' nothing is 'wrong.' They don't understand those concepts until older, more 'mature' adults instruct them in these things. We slather them in soap and sanitizer, because we know how disgusting it is out there, in the real world.

I know that it's been proven that excessive use of sanitizer actually makes kids more sick, because they don't get exposed to all the germs and such that are out there. They aren't able to build strong immune systems, and when something big hits, it's that much worse. Because of that, I know many parents are attempting to move away from that over-protective instinct to keep the kids 'clean.' But I think there are a few more areas in which we try to sanitize the world, which have similar repercussions.

It's come to my attention that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been rewritten to take out all uses of 'the n-word,' as well as the word 'injun.' This may be old news--I know I heard about it for the first time quite a while ago--but it wasn't until now that I was able to really understand and communicate why it bothers me so much.

Though I'm sure that those responsible and involved with the project had 'good intentions,' (and we all know what they say about good intentions), I don't think they could have possibly understood the book, Twain's intentions, or the repercussions for rewriting the work.

Ever heard the word 'satire?' That's what Twain's book was supposed to be. A satire, which condemns racism. Huck Finn is a book many schools at least used to require kids to read in English class, along with anti-racism classics like To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Heart of Darkness. It's a good book for teaching colloquialism and other literary devices, but taking out 'the n-word' effectively destroys Twain's entire intent for the work, it obscures the entire message he was trying to make, the theme--another, very important literary device--he was trying to convey.

I'm not trying to say that we should allow kids, or anyone for that matter, to use 'the n-word.' But taking it out of the book eliminates a learning opportunity. They can't learn about it, they can't ask 'what is this word, and why is it wrong?' , which opens the door for broader discussion about racism in general.

It seems like all over the world, there is this fear of asking questions when it comes to racial issues. It's the boogeyman in the closet, the devil himself, and if you speak his name he'll come to bite you in the ass. But what people don't realize is that this fear actually helps propagate racism.

I read an article a couple months ago about a boy in Britain whose mother was asked by the school sign a slip declaring him a racist for asking another boy if his skin was brown because he was from Africa. The boy was seven.

Why does this happen? Because we are afraid to address the issue of race. We're afraid to even mention it. Maybe people think that eliminating the 'n-word,' and taking other such steps, will help eliminate racism. It's a nice sentiment, but it won't work. It's too small of a goal, and it doesn't address the root of the problem. If you go to the doctor and he diagnoses you with cancer, you want him do eliminate the cancer--not prescribe you some painkillers and send you on your way. Vicodin might address one of the symptoms, but if the cause goes untreated, after a while the Vicodin won't be enough, and you'll die.

I think most people would agree that the root of racism lies in fear and ignorance. We are afraid of the 'other,' afraid of anything different. That's why we're so obsessed with zombies, and vampires, and werewolves. they're easy to fear, and it's guilt-free; they're obviously monsters, so it's okay to fear and hate them. But this innate fear of anything 'different' is why kids are made fun of so much in school, it's why people try so hard to 'fit in' in school, at work, or wherever. And it's why people exhibit racist behavior. They see something different, something they don't understand--and because they are unable or unwilling to ask questions, they either resort to hate and violence, or they try to change the 'other' to be more like them.

This is what happened in the British colonies in India and Africa. This is what is happening today, with the U.S. trying to force other countries to adapt the same political system. It's easier to look at something 'different' and say 'well, my way is better' than to say 'huh, I wonder if there's something I could learn from this.' People never want to learn about anything that they fear. Look at the people who ban Harry Potter. I've personally spoken to many people who 'hate' Harry Potter and think it's 'evil,' including my own parents. But many of them have never even read the books. They make assumptions without ever even trying to learn about the subject. If they did, they would know that Harry Potter is much like Superman. He as born with amazing abilities, and he uses them to fight evil. Just because we call if magic rather than alien technology doesn't make it any different. 

The only way to combat this fear, this ignorance, is by learning--learning about other cultures, other people, other customs, religions and beliefs. That is the only way to fight racism. But if we keep trying to 'sanitize' our world, if we keep trying to keep our children 'clean,' when they are eventually exposed to something different, they won't know how to deal with it. If we keep trying to alleviate the 'symptoms' of racism, like changing the language in a book, we will be ignoring the cause of the problem. If kids can't ask questions, they can't learn. And they won't even know to ask unless they're presented with a reason to do so.