Sunday, May 18, 2008

when your parents just don't seem to get it

It's a difficult thing when your parents forget some of the moral lessons they worked so hard to instill in you.

I never had any black friends growing up in suburban western Pennsylvania. My neighbors and everyone at school were as white as my family. We saw non-Caucasians from time to time, but for all I knew, most of the rest of the world was as white, culturally and racially, as I was. To my parents' substantial credit, they raised all four of us with a clear moral understanding that it was wrong to denigrate anyone based on the color of their skin. As much as it was possible in such a situation, we were raised to be color-blind.

So I've been a little disappointed by some of the e-mail I've been getting from my mother the last few years. A few years ago, she shared an outraged e-mail about how the U.S. Postal Service was honoring Islam with a set of Ramadan-themed stamps, even though Muslim had killed thousands of Americans on 9-11. When I would get these things, I would chalk it up to her infamiliarity with the Internet, debunk the claims of the e-mail, and remind her to check those things out on before forwarding them, and move on.

Then on Wednesday, I got an e-mail from her about Barack Obama and what a disaster he would be for the United States if he were elected president.

Now I'm an Obama supporter, it's true, but if someone wants to question his qualifications, that's fine. You can complain that he's too liberal, or that he lacks the requisite experience for the job, and while I might disagree, I won't begrudge you the right to say your piece. I probably won't even begrudge you the right to send such a critique to my e-mailbox, especially if you're a good friend or a close relative.

I draw the line at racist crap, though, and my mom (I'm sad to say) crossed that line. The e-mail was a collection of quotes allegedly culled from "The Audacity of Hope" and "Dreams of My Father." As near as I can tell, the quotes are all accurate ... as long as your notion of acccuracy isn't affected by little details like changing the meaning of a quote by removing it from its defining context.

The basic thrust of the e-mail is this: Barack Obama hates white people, is sympathetic to al Qaeda and its goals. You'd have to be insane to vote for him.

Racism is an ugly little snake. It feeds on ignorance and fear, and uses them both to stoke the fires of its own hatred a little bit higher and a little bit hotter. My mom's no dummy, but for some reason she's willing to shut off her filters when someone she trusts forwards this crap to her, and then she allows the hateful little people who spawn this e-mail to use her to spread their hate further.

She knows better than this. Why does she do this?

The really sad thing is, I called her up on Saturday to talk with her about it. I had just spoken to my oldest brother. He was so repulsed by what she had shared that he actually had set up his e-mail account to reject anything from her address. I realized that I was letting something simmer and stew that I needed to address head-on.

So I explained to her why I found the e-mail objectionable: not because it attacked Barack Obama, but because it was racist and because it pandered to fear and hatred. I tried to explain what a reasoned criticism of a candidate would look like, and why this one completely failed to pass the muster.

I explained that it ran contrary to the values that she and dad had tried to pass on to us, and that we were passing on to our children, and I might as well have been talking to a wall.

She could not see what the problem was. To her, it was just a different, and important, perspective on the man who likely will be our next president. She could not understand why I thought it was racist, or why Brian found it so objectionable. As far as she could see, she was the wronged party in this whole affair, because we weren't listening to what she had to say.

It was sad to see, and more than a little painful. My mom raised us to be tolerant and respectful, and now, for whatever reason, it looks like she's forgetting in her age the lessons she taught us so well in youth.

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