It's Not Pie
By now, many, if not all, of you will have seen the video making the rounds of social media, a video which features high school students from Hoover High School and Spain Park High School flinging around absolutely abhorrent racist and anti-Semitic language, implying the holocaust was a good thing, and laughing about it. I won't share the video here (or anywhere else) because it's truly awful. I watched it once and it made me ill. These are teenagers, kids around my own children's ages, spewing the most vile slurs and thinking it's funny. Yes, they appear to be drunk. Yes, they're young. No, those aren't excuses.
By far the most popular response that I've seen to this horror show is, "WHAT ON EARTH IS WRONG WITH THEIR PARENTS???" and to a certain extent, I agree. My kids, and the kids of literally every parent friend I have, would have would have been grounded back to the Stone Age if they'd uttered even part of one of those epithets, even in "jest." At some point in time, or perhaps consistently over time, the parents of these students, either overtly or tacitly, signaled to their children that there were certain groups of people it was acceptable to hate.
But this isn't all on the parents. Some of this is on us.
We're particularly upset about these racist and anti-Semitic slurs because they have reached the level of obvious condemnation. Our culture took decades to recognize that these terms were so patently awful that they should be edited out of the common parlance. But racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, socio-economic bias all boil down to one thing - refusing to see people who aren't like us as real, as human. And this is the water in which we swim, the air we breathe, the culture we embrace.
We embrace it when we casually accept mention of immigrants coming to take away "American" jobs.
We embrace it when we blame the battered wife for not leaving her abusive spouse.
We embrace it when we mock transgendered individuals for at last, sometimes painfully, coming to grips with the person they were born to be.
We embrace it when we claim that God wants us to exclude someone because they're gay.
We embrace it when we say that black athletes should not have the right to protest the slaying of our brothers and sisters at the hands of the police by kneeling during the national anthem.
We embrace it when we look the other way instead of speaking out when we encounter racism, sexism, homophobia, in our daily interactions.
We embrace it when we say a million little things, things that don't "feel" discriminatory - for example, that all South Americans are hard workers, or those of Jewish descent are good with money, or African Americans are natural athletes. These casual stereotypes restrict, label, and dehumanize. They chop us up into the categories of "us" and "them."
I look back at the casual racism I grew up with and, with the slightly less blurry vision of an adult, I'm appalled. My beloved grandmother dropped the "n" word with absolutely no compunction (it was years before I knew what she meant; I didn't meet an actual non-white person until I was in grade school. I grew up in Utah.) My mother's homophobia was so vocal and so legendary that in college I finally told her I'd have to leave the house each time she insisted on using the language she was using. I recall a kid on my debate team, when asked to do something by one of our coaches, retorting, "Do I look black to you?" The insane thing is that for most of my formative years I had no idea that there was anything wrong with this because it wasn't just my family using this language, behaving this way. It was nearly everyone I knew.
Famously, Nelson Mandela claimed that no child is born hating, that hate is learned. And he isn't wrong. But we all have a natural aptitude for hate. We have an ear for it, as surely as Mozart had an ear for tunes.
There may not be a single fulcrum for hate, a single identifiable cause. But hate is almost certainly spawned and exacerbated, at least in part, by the belief that everything is scarce and we must battle for what we get. We live by division; we think somehow if we are part of an insider's group we will be safe, special, secure. In order for there to be insiders, there must be outsiders. And the outsiders are everyone who isn't like us.
We treat life in general, and love in particular, like pie. In order for me to have a piece I feel is large enough, your piece must be smaller, and some people can't have any pie at all.
The toll it takes on us socially is monumental: a divided society in which hate crimes are continuous, law enforcement officials can murder people of color with no fear of consequences, a gay man must fear keeping a picture of his husband on his desk because it would be legal for his boss to fire him based on his sexual orientation, and one in three girls will be sexually assaulted before the age of 18.
On an individual level, the impact is at least as heavy. Forbes magazine published research in 2015 indicating that our brains process social rejection the same way they process physical pain - as far as our brains are concerned, a broken relationship isn't that much different from a broken bone. People we live, work, and play with are suffering under the unimaginable burden of ongoing, micro rejections on a daily basis. Do you think this video came as any shock to the students of color at Spain Park High School and Hoover High School? Not a chance. Their peers have been denying them access to the pie for years.
What's surprising is not that these students from Hoover and Spain Park High School were expressing absolutely legendary levels of racism. What's surprising is that a) it was caught on video, and b) we don't have more videos just like this.
I would love to say that I think that this video's gonna change things - that now that there's a broader awareness of race problems in these suburban schools, we'll begin to seriously combat it. But that's not going to happen. There may be some blowback for these individual kids. College opportunities might start looking pretty grim and limited. And, who knows? Maybe there will even be some in-school suspension. And then everyone will pat themselves on the back and feel like the issue has been addressed, and shake their heads and mutter something about inadequate parenting whenever the topic comes up again.
I'm not letting the parents off the hook. Or the kids, for that matter.
But I will also tell you that this is on all of us. And until it feels real, and personal, and immediate, we will continue to be complicit.
Last month, my youth Shakespeare company, Bards of Birmingham, began rehearsals for "Henry V." There's this part in the play where Henry has to read the list of the names of the dead who have just been killed in battle. I had the actor playing Henry read that passage. Nobody really listened. It felt dry and removed and unimportant.
Then I handed her another list of names to read aloud. I said, "This is the list of all the students and teachers killed in the Parkland shooting."
A few of the young actors looked at me in horror. All of them shifted in their chairs, suddenly alert.
My actor barely made it through the list. Her lip was trembling, her eyes were wet. A few of the other actors wept openly. When she finished and handed me back the sheet of paper, her hand was shaking. Nobody spoke; the room was shrouded in a silence so heavy it felt like an act of blasphemy to break it.
I asked, "What was the difference between the two lists?" Both lists had been of real people (the Battle of Agincourt was a historical event.)
One of the actors offered, "Those kids at Parkland? They could have been us."
That's it, in a nutshell.
Until we look at acts of hate and think, "They could be talking about me, about my sister, my brother, my child," it will just be something that happens to other people. It won't feel real. Other people won't feel real.
Until we take it personally it will continue to not touch us, which means we will continue to be complicit.
Until we care that someone else gets pie as much as we care that we, ourselves, do, we'll continue to be okay with hoarding it, and with others hoarding it as well.
The good news is: love isn't like pie. Acceptance is unlimited. Inclusion has no boundaries. There is more than enough for everyone; and the marvelous thing is that the more we give away, the more we have.
Love is not like pie.
It's like magic.