Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ignorance DOES NOT Equal Hatred!

I am a 36 year old disabled woman who has been variously labeled "fat", "crazy", and "a hippie weirdo." I now try to embrace labels that others use in an attempt to "shame" me into being someone more "acceptable". I am passionate about issues of race/racism, criminal (in)justice, fat acceptance, and mental health advocacy. I blog at My Name Is JuJuBe and I am on the team at The Intersection of Madness and Reality
 
How many times have you heard someone say something really hurtful and hateful and thought to yourself “What an ignorant ass!”?? I know that for many years, when I would hear someone spew racist or homophobic vitriol, I would call them an “ignorant ass MF” It was not until recently that I realized the inaccuracy of my condemnation. See, by calling a bigoted person “ignorant” I was assigning moral value to a word that is really, in its truest essence, neutral.

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Ignorance: :  the state or fact of being ignorant : lack of knowledge, education, or awareness 

Many of us associate the word “ignorance” with bigotry. But ignorance is REALLY only a state of NOT KNOWING. It is when a person declines to explore the truth, and refuses to change their attitudes and opinions because they want to stick to some preconceived notion of what the truth is that their “ignorance” is transformed into hatred.

I remember when I went away to college. I saw a poster on a woman’s door that stated “Free the Palestinians!” I remember thinking to myself “Well, I thought the Palestinians were the ‘bad guys’. Why would she be on THEIR side?” I decided to find out more about the situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians so that I could understand her stance. I made a conscious effort to dispel my ignorance by doing the research it took to discover the truth. I did not tell this woman that she was wrong for displaying this poster. I did not use the paltry information I had heard in the past about the situation in Israel in order to justify hatred towards anyone. I had been told by teachers and people in the media that the Palestinians were the “bad guys”, so I believed it. But when confronted with an opposing view, I DID THE RESEARCH. I decided to no longer remain blissfully unaware. I decided that I would not adopt an attitude of blind hatred in a situation that I knew ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ABOUT. 
I remember sitting at the cafeteria table in college and speaking to one the men I used to eat dinner with some nights. His name was Lamont, and although we were only casual acquaintances, he changed my life. For a long time, I told myself that I was going to name my first son Lamont in his honor, although he would be totally unaware, since I have not spoken to him since 1992. I had just been appointed “Director of Educational Programs” for my dormitory. I decided that I wanted to hold a series of panel discussions about various important issues, such as racism, sexism and homophobia. I was conversing with Lamont about the first scheduled event, which was about racism. I made a comment about the need to address “reverse racism” as well.

Lamont took the time and effort to explain to me the true nature of racism, and why “reverse racism” cannot possibly exist. After having that first conversation, I was always eager to discuss issues of race with Lamont, and absorbed his words like a sponge. During one conversation,he asked me if I was familiar with Malcolm X. I am embarrassed to admit, that until that day I had never heard that name. He recommended that I read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”. When I spoke to an older white woman about his suggestion and asked her if she knew about Malcolm X, she told me that he was a hate filled man who was a racist against white people. But, I decided to find out the truth for myself.

I was ignorant in the purest sense. I had no knowledge of this man or his work. We had never discussed Black history beyond Martin Luther King Jr., and Harriet Tubman when I was in elementary and high school. But, I did not take this white woman at her word and decide to write off Malcolm X as a racist. I went to the library, I got the book, and I read it. In the beginning it was hard to swallow. I did not want to think of white people as racists. I wanted to believe that racism was something only a very small portion of white people practiced. But, the more I read the book, the more I began to understand. And, that book changed my life.

I know always keep a copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” wherever I am living. Sometimes, I will pass my copy on to someone who is ignorant about racism, as I was. And, as soon as I pass on my copy, I purchase a new one. That book made me the person who I am today. After reading about the philosophy and work of Malcolm X, I decided that I was going to make it one of my goals in life to combat racism in all of its forms. Every day I learn more about the global system of white supremacy. I keep my ears open, I keep my eyes open, I read, and I speak to others.

It would have been so easy for Lamont to write me off as an “ignorant ass MF”. It was obviously not his responsibility to school me. But, I am forever grateful to him for giving me a push in the right direction, and for recognizing that I was simply ignorant, but not hateful. And, that I was willing to learn the things that I did not know.

We are all born ignorant. The educational system is designed to teach us only specific things that the white supremacist system wants us to know. Those who hold the power want to transform our ignorance into hatred. But, it does not have to be that way. We all have to choice to be our own teachers. Once we reach a certain point in life, it is our responsibility to no longer remain blissfully ignorant about they way the world around us works. If we do not take responsibility for our own education, and explore the world beyond the classroom (and the media, and our immediate environment), our ignorance can very easily turn into bigotry. But it does not have to be that way.

By calling a hate filled person ignorant, we are failing to distinguish between those who are TRULY ignorant, but who are willing to learn and accept the truth, and those who CHOOSE to remain uneducated, and transform their lack of knowledge into hatred.

So, although it still slips out sometimes, I try not to describe a bigot as “ignorant”. I do not want to lump together those who lack knowledge  but are willing to learn with those who have made a conscious effort to ignore or pervert the truth to fit their own hateful agenda.