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A question we should ask ourselves

Here’s a question: Are you bigoted?

Wow, I can hear the harrumphing and indignant throat clearing from Shandon to Nipomo.

Heck no, you’re snarling. I don’t have a bigoted bone in my body.

Well, maybe you don’t. Then again, maybe you do.

It’s not an insignificant question, and it’s one we all should ask ourselves. And we should level with us.

Brian Miller, who has been teaching at San Luis Obispo High School for 25 years, has been leading his students down this occasionally uncomfortable road to self-discovery.

One thing Miller didn’t want when he began the exercise was a cautious back-and-forth laced with platitudes.

“Most (school) discussions are probably about tolerance, how we should treat people by their character and not be judgmental, etc. I’m sure this ‘safe’ type of discussion happens in classrooms throughout the county,” he wrote.

Miller took Attorney General Eric Holder’s speech two years ago as a jumping-off point for his students. Holder said we pretend that race is not an issue when in fact it is, and by observing honestly, we can see it, in the way we live our lives, and in particular who we hang out with.

Miller led his students in what he calls “an inconvenient discussion” about prejudice, race and culture.

Part of the exercise was academic and even lawyer-ish, with students drawing distinctions between discrimination and racism.

But they dug below that to grab on to their own reactions in racial contexts. Then they raised the question with their parents. Yikes!

I spoke with Miller and some of his students to ask what they had learned. Perhaps learning is the wrong verb; the exercises crystallized some things they already knew.

For example, personal experience matters, Zoe Rose-Walth said.

Zoe is of Portuguese ancestry, and her mom and family spoke Portuguese around her when she was younger. It led her to become open-minded, Zoe said.

Maya Lord said she has black cousins — their father is from Kenya — and that made a difference in her perceptions.

Maya, who works with special ed kids and attended Pacheco bilingual elementary school, added that growing up, “we learn to notice race.” But what appears to be racism might instead be more of a cultural divide, she said.

Written responses to Miller’s homework assignment seem to bear that out.

Caucasian kids don’t like it when Hispanic students speak Spanish, for example. Conversely, Hispanics consider some of the whites high and mighty; they feel ostracized.

Those are responses to behavior, not race.

That shadowy line where race and culture converge is hard to pin down. But wherever you draw it, the students were unanimous in saying everyone notices the differences. Nick Klosterman said he began noticing in the seventh grade “how ethnicities stick together.”

They also discerned that some segments of society use race to divide people — looking for a scapegoat, as Zoe put it.

Maya said time has moved the discussion forward to the point where “a lot of us don’t see race as much as the older generation does.”

Zoe concurred, but added that “we do have very far to go.”

“You do have something to learn from everything,” Zoe said. “It’s important to see things through other people’s eyes. We need to be empathetic.”

Well, I could go on, but I think you can see how complex this is. It is more important that these youngsters and others throughout the county continue the discussion, in class and outside.

Not everyone will care for that idea. Miller noted the danger a teacher can face from parents who misunderstand or disagree with the exercise. Another student, Kevin Tremaine, said some consider it racist just to raise the issue.

Anyone who thinks that is doing a belly flop in front of the bulldozer of history. Things will change, for the better. Miller and his students are doing their part. Here’s hoping that this kind of exploration is taking place throughout the county and across the land.

And not just with the kids.

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