If we've learned anything from the ugly incident at Minneapolis Washburn High School, it's that we'd be wise to resist rushing away from feeling uneasy.
Talking about race is tough. Talking about race in Minnesota is really tough. But let's keep at it.
I know and respect Washburn's dedicated and compassionate principal, Carol Markham-Cousins, who rarely shies away from a challenge. She had a big one earlier this month, when four of her students dangled a dark-skinned doll by a piece of string in a school stairwell.
"I was incensed, outraged, embarrassed and humiliated that this would happen," Markham-Cousins said in response.
The kids claimed they didn't understand the hateful racial implications of what they did. I'm pretty sure they do now. Regardless, as anti-racism trainer Steve Pederson eloquently stated, no matter the intent, "we all saw the impact."
Pederson, of Alexandria, Minn., works with Inclusion Network (inclusionnetwork.org), a group of community volunteers bringing understanding of differences into corporations and communities. His groundbreaking inclusion work was honored in 2012 by Facing Race, an initiative of the St. Paul Foundation, along with Macalester College Prof. Emeritus Mahmoud El-Kati.
Pederson, who is white, grew up on a farm near Alexandria and had no idea what racism was. Everybody looked like him. Through his work, and as the adoptive father of two African-American children, he's learning all the time.
"The students of color I know kind of live with one foot in each reality," he said. "They go home to their neighborhood, which is very different than the white kid who goes home to his neighborhood."
Rather than striving to be color-blind, it's better to see and appreciate those differences. To do that, we need to educate our kids in ways that don't gloss over painful realities. It was hard to miss the timing of the Washburn incident, just days before Myrlie Evers-Williams delivered an invocation for President Obama's second inauguration on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The school incident occurred on Jan. 11. Students, naturally, posted photos of the baby doll on social media sites, forcing officials to react instead of act. Many parents came to the school to express their outrage. Some shared concern, or alarm, that their kids were not outraged.
"The schools, in general, do not teach the full history that should be taught," Pederson said. "With Dr. King, they forget about the hoses and the dogs and the jail. It's very important for them to know that. To figure out where we go, we need to know where we came from."
Which brings us back to feeling uneasy.
"It's pretty natural to have negative emotions when dealing with race," said Rowzat Shipchandler, racial equity manager for Facing Race. "Sometimes, we want it to be more comfortable. But, sometimes we have to live in conflict, be in that place of discomfort. It's incumbent on these teens to try to understand how painful this was."
She and Pederson agree, though, that young people often are more open to this emotional accounting than we grown-ups are. Pederson has heard through colleagues that a restorative justice program, already in place at Washburn, is having a positive impact on students.
The hope is that the impact will be genuine and long-term, creating a generation of sensitive leaders for our increasingly diverse state and country.
"The challenges they're working through at Washburn will put those kids ahead of the kids in the more rural districts," Pederson said, "because they will learn to navigate differences. Kids in an all-white society won't experience that until the workplace."