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The big picture: When you teach your kids racism, they will perform

It's hard to talk about what the Forest Hills kids have done because it's hard to admit you taught them how to be racist.
Students from Forest Hills Central displaying a Trump campaign flag and a Betsy Ross flag at a football game at Houseman Field.

Students from Forest Hills Central displaying a Trump campaign flag and a Betsy Ross flag at a football game at Houseman Field. /Matthew Patulski

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This past weekend I found myself at a conference in New York City discussing economic mobility for young people and scratching my head at the rhetoric being pushed by presenters and how conference planners seemingly erased the fact that disparity effects that climb. In the midst of my travels, I was alerted to a developing story out of Grand Rapids, Michigan showing pictures of students waving a Betsy Ross flag at a high school football game along with a Trump sign. As the news is breaking more details are released, and they read as one would expect them to: “Forest Hills HS plays against predominantly minority Ottawa Hills team,” “kids waving Betsy Ross flag were with visiting Forest Hills team,” “GRPS parents were outraged.”

In the midst of the details about this local story being released and hearing people say we've cultured an "over-sensitive audience," I am simultaneously watching anger towards a football player that chooses not to celebrate a national anthem that talks about the killing of his ancestors.

I am also seeing the reaction of parents who have intentionally tried to create inclusive spaces for their kids in what still is a noticeably segregated community and activists underlining the obvious. Specifically the open letter from the GRPS parent and the commentary from BLMGR co-founder and Rapidian Community Engagement Specialist Briana Urena-Ravelo on the history behind the Betsy Ross flag and its pairing with a Trump sign come to mind.

People were angered. People were hurt. People were apathetic. But mostly, people were offended by the suggestion that their kids are racist. Let me rephrase that, people were offended that their kids were being called racists, bigots – but mostly any insinuation that their kids are bad people was the real point of distress.

Since I come from the school of thought that believes high school students are competent enough to write laws and grant money, I’m not buying the passive ignorance argument being spread like California wildfire by people who just cannot believe “good” wholesome Grand Rapids kids can in 2016 be actively racist.

But let’s be honest, this isn’t a difficult conversation because “high school kids did something racist.” This community doesn’t want to confront a single unwavering truth: it's hard to talk about what the Forest Hills kids have done because it's hard to admit you taught them how to be racist. “You” being the parents that facilitated the purchase of the merchandise displayed that night. “You” being the community that refuses to admit that there are more hostile spaces than welcoming ones in the city that likes to note its presence on national lists, while simultaneously failing to retain the diverse talent driven into the city for cutting edge jobs and driven out by soul burning racism. “You” being the community that cannot heal because you refuse to see the truth in the experiences of the oppressed and the pain of the past and the present.

In this moment, the community needs to move past the counterproductive moments of being more insulted by the title of resident racist and more moved to action by the intimidation and emotional strife that racism has on people in this community affected by it. The Superintendents of Forest Hills and Grand Rapids Public Schools have released statements calling this a teachable moment. 

I’m inclined to agree with them. This is a teachable moment. The lesson is this: in 2016 teenagers are actively participating in displays of racial intimidation because the community that surrounds them has not done their diligence in socializing more tolerant people.

This isn’t a conversation about whether or not it was a display of patriotism – the Betsy Ross flag is just that, not the American flag. If anything, waving that flag was a reminder of the crusades that created this land with no regard for the natives that occupied it, a reminder of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that built this land using stolen labor and sustaining it through psychological and physical abuse. That flag is a reminder that what it means to be American is everything that flag doesn’t represent.

West Michigan, do better by your children by teaching them inclusion and not intimidation. 

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