The opposite of racism is not tolerance or passive acceptance. I was given an example of this as an adolescent, even though it was years later that it became clear to me.
Junior High School, Fullerton, California, 1959. A packed classroom, of thirty students. There are a dozen of us white kids, and we all sit in the front of the classroom. Behind us sit all the Latino kids, recently arrived from Mexico. Many of their fathers work at the Hunt’s Ketchup factory at the edge of town. The Latino kids are respectful, quiet and attentive. But from the teacher’s perspective, they are invisible. Her attention is all to the white dozen in the front, and the rest are ignored. The Latino kids never raise their hands to ask a question, and are never called upon to answer one.
As a keen seventh-grader I thrived on that extra attention, and this bizarre racial arrangement barely registered in my consciousness. Now fast-forward to Seattle, Washington in 1963, when both I and America were waking up to the issues of race. My high school, in Seattle’s South End, hosted an eclectic population of white, black, Japanese, Filipino and Jewish students, so the issues of race and ethnic differences were front and center. I played football, and our team was mostly composed of black kids. Our team’s locker room became a fascinating social laboratory, where traditional roles were reversed: we white kids got the shittiest lockers, had to wait until the black kids had finished showering before we got to, and we were the butt of (mostly mild) taunts and jokes.
This was a totally new experience for both groups. In the midst of the chaotic and fast-paced lives of seventeen-year olds, this locker room lab offered three invaluable life lessons. The black kids saw how they could play a more dominant role in American social life. We white kids got a small taste of what racism is like, even though it was mostly in jest. And all of us saw that we could work, and play, together.
Our head football coach, a white guy, was merely a cipher. We all respected and followed Brennan King, the affable black assistant coach. After winning an important playoff game, Brennan invited us dozen or so varsity players to supper at his favorite haunt, a popular jazz restaurant in Seattle’s black neighborhood on Jackson Street. We had no idea what to expect as we filed in to the spacious basement venue. As soon as the last of us got in the door, the entire restaurant crowd stood up and applauded.
The current website of that same highschool in Seattle offers text in five different languages.
When we moved to Canada, one of the jobs I had was with the Saskatchewan Indian Agriculture Program. Three of us worked out of a small rural office in Fort Qu’Appelle; a Cree, an Egyptian, and myself, the honky. We took great pleasure in gently upsetting everyone’s established racial stereotypes.
The opposite of racism is not passive acceptance. It is reaching out. It is active engagement.