Friday, December 7, 2007

paper clips

I just finished watching the documentary Paper Clips. What a great little film. It really got me thinking of the power that one person really does have to bring about change, even from something seemingly small. In brief, a principal of a middle school in Whitwell TN was trying to come up with a project to help teach her students about diversity. Whitwell is a depressed rural community of about 1600 people - 97% of whom are white and protestant. They decided to study the Holocaust, and in the course of their studies needed a way to visualize what 6 million was. Paper clips chosen because they were worn by Norwegians as a silent protest against Nazi policies. The students started writing letters to people, and it slowly gained speed. From just a few paper clips to start, they have now gathered more than 30,000,000.

As the film started, I kept thinking how interesting is was that a school in the South would start a project like this. Whitwell - as described in the documentary - is 20 miles from where the Scopes Trial took place, and 100 miles from the birth place of the KKK. The assistant principal described growing up in a home where racial slurs were common, and even though he had a black roommate in college, he used them himself at times, even in front of his roommate. This just confirmed my stereotype of the South as being the center of all racism, based on my vast experience with books and movies and NEVER having visited the South in person. And then, the man talked about how people from the North and the West assume that all folks from the South are racist, ignorant hillbillies. While this project was started to teach their kids about diversity, he hoped it would also teach others about people from the rural South. OUCH. Here I was, feeling a bit of the 'I was raised in Boulder, went to school in Berkeley, aren't I the queen of tolerance toward all men' and he nailed it. That's exactly what I think. Ignorant, intolerant hillbillies. Not exactly consciously, but there nonetheless.

The actions of the Germans are of course an extreme example of intolerance run to the extreme. As are the actions of The KKK in the South. People don't just wake up and decide to eliminate a race of people. A judgement is made made based on something, and that judgement takes hold.

I know, this took a bit of a dark turn, but think about it. I'm not saying you're in danger of running out and grabbing a pitchfork, but how tolerant are you? Is different inherently bad? Really cooking my noodle is how to teach my own kids tolerance in a place where there aren't a tremendous number of people that are all that different from them. Guess I'm not as different as those 'hillbillies' from Tennessee after all.

It's just amazing to me what little sponges these guys are. The first thing that Alex does when he sees anyone is smile. He also loves to attack chins. It could be from the teething, but I like to think it's because he gets smothered with kisses all the time, and so he thinks that's how people greet each other, with complete and total happiness. Katie addresses him as Alex, but also as handsome, because that's what I call him. Katie is a little parrot - everything we say, she repeats. It's a good check for me - helps me to actually listen to what I say. Hopefully more good than bad will be absorbed by my little sponges.


Mia said...

I live in good ol TN. I can say that racism is alive and well, but not the norm. In fact I can say that racism has been alive and well all of the places I have lived, but not the norm. I grew up in an all white suburb of my small TX town. The only other Hispanics at my elementary school were my brothers. I was probably more accepted there than I was at my more diverse Jr High and HS where I was obviously ostracized by the other Hispanics who thought I was trying to be white. Crazy huh! What is more important to me is that in this culturally diverse America where interracial marriage is common, where the lines of what art forms belong to one culture or another are routinely crossed, and where study and adaptaion of another cultures' history and lifestyle are more common it is becoming increasingly more blurred to define what makes us different. Right now my greatest goal is to teach my children that kindness and respect are essential to all, relationshihps. I hope to teach them that this respect should start with respecting themselvs, and what makes them unique. I also want to strongly encourage curiosity about other peoples (but hopefully not in that nosy kind of way). As for implementation... my only place to start is by setting a good example through my actions, which of course could always be better.

chosha said...

There are ways to take your kids out of your society and let them experience the rest of the world that's out there. Travel is the obvious one, but pricey. But your kids are so young there are heaps of cheaper ways to expose them to other cultures. You can read to them from picture books that feature ethnically diverse characters, introduce them to food from other cultures (and later when they're older tell them what you're having for dinner and challenge them to find out an interesting fact about that country before they come home. You can encourage them to learn another language, especially one like Spanish that is spoken by so many people in your own country.

It's awesome you want them to be open to all kinds of people. Good luck making it happen!