I’m taking an online course this semester on the history of the American Civil Rights movement. It’s something I’ve always been interested in, and of course in the past few years, I’ve felt a connection to that movement through my involvement in the LGBT community and its struggle to repeal DADT and to gain the right to marry.

The first requirement of the online course is to post an introduction. As part of our intro, the prof wanted us to mention why we were taking the course, and what our interest in the movement was. This was my intro:  

My name is Rachel; this is my third semester at [college name].  I’m an English major and I work in Human Resources in NJ. I have always been interested in the Civil Rights movement, and have spent a significant amount of time following race issues on blogs and in the news.  I’m really looking forward to this class.

Most other students posted similar intros – small bits of personal info, maybe a mention of their involvement in race issues or how they never spent much time on it before, which made them want to explore it now.

One student, however, posted a fairly lengthy response in which he indicated a) he was only taking the course because it was required for his major (history); b) he has little interest in the subject matter, and c) he’s never really had experience with discrimination, outside of reading Black Like Me, which details the social experiment of John Howard Griffin, a white man who spent six weeks in 1961 traveling the country and passing as a black man.

Sooooo many things about this intro bothered me.

I’m not sure how one can be a history major, and yet find certain periods in history to be irrelevant or uninteresting. I think the Civil Rights Movement is one era of American history that is incredibly important to the way our country continues to shape itself, and it was a watershed period in our history. His attitude about it is so dismissive, and I find that really insulting.

I also am bothered significantly by the last statement, about his lack of experience with discrimination. The statement in his introduction was actually much longer, and included the phrase, “I am not black, nor have I ever experienced discrimination…” – as if one can only be discriminated against if one were black. It implies that any other type of discrimination is imaginary, less valid. The statement continued on with an explanation of his initial hesitance in being assigned Black Like Me as a course reading, and how he didn’t realize before reading it that it was actually written by a white man. I guess my interpretation, really, is that he didn’t see much credibility in claims of discrimination until they were validated by the account of a white man.

And then there’s the idea that his major experience with discrimination came from reading about someone else’s social experiment that took place about 50 years ago. In the past 50 years, of course, there have been incredible amounts of discrimination taking place, and though he claims the book really opened his eyes, it’s pretty clear that he felt no compulsion to contribute to the fight against racism and other kinds of bigotry.

The incredible ignorance and privelege that came out of this student’s statement really rankles me, and I’m so frustrated. I really want to post a response to him detailing my frustration, but I know that’s inappropriate. And I’m going to have to continually remind myself, as the semester continues, that I have to be respectful and patient, that there is no reason to take his obvious lack of social education as anything personal.

But when I meet these obvious examples of willful ignorance, I find that I get angry, afraid and frustrated all at once. It boggles my mind that in this world, where all kinds of terrible things happen to people on a regular basis because of the way they look or sound or what they say, there are people who can say with comfort, “I’m not really interested in all that.”

I have been called selfish on a fairly regular basis since I was a child, but even I am not as selfish as that. I recognize that there are battles to be fought, and though I can’t always get on the front lines, I realize that I can support the fight for equality in other ways: voting, donating money, or even just having conversations with people I disagree with. I recognize that I have a social responsibility to other people, and it’s not about what’s easiest or best for me.

I had that conversation with Jacob this morning, actually. I took him with me to the polling place this morning, and he was wide-eyed at the process. He watched me push all the little buttons in the voting booth, and then in the car asked me who I voted for, and why. We had a fairly detailed conversation about the party split in America: I explained that the Democratic party has a significant interest in social justice and welfare programs, and they tend to advocate for personal freedoms and public support system, while the Republican party (what he called “Repelicans”) often places an emphasis on self-sufficiency and privatized systems. I tried to be fair and balanced in my explanation, and I think I succeeded in refraining from being derogatory about Republicans and conservatives (sometimes, I readily admit, that’s hard for me). I explained that as he gets older, he will learn more about our country and the people in it, and he can make those choices for himself. He grinned and announced that he would always vote Democrat.

I just have to keep reminding myself that not every fight is my fight in particular, and I need to pick my battles carefully. And as long as I work to teach Jacob to think about the choices he makes and the positions he will hold as he grows up, I’m doing ok.