Alright, this one is kind of scary to post. I was watching TikTok of all things when I began to think about my education as I grew up in my small town. I thought about how it changed and evolved, especially once I left the town, and I wanted to write about my thoughts and feelings toward that experience. I know that some of this may be controversial, and some of it is definitely personal. Some of the things I talk about are things that not everyone knows about me, but they are not the focus of the essay. I wanted to also have a throughline of my evolution as an advocate and ally. I feel like I'll definitely go back to polish this one because this is a first draft that kind of becomes a mess by the end. I hope that you will give it a chance and read it because I think that many people can relate to it and understand the feelings I was trying to convey. I didn't even cover everything I wanted to, but I also wanted to post something before the weekend since I said I would do so.
This piece is also kind of long and mostly unorganized. I wanted to write it as a stream of consciousness without really thinking about it. I hope you find value in it.
I Was (Almost?) a Small Town Bigot
It’s interesting what you learn as you become an adult.
In our school careers, we learn “history” as we know it about three or four times, right? First, as a kid, you learn things like “the First Thanksgiving” and how nice and peaceful it supposedly was. You watch movies like Pocahontas and think that’s a good representation of Native Americans while you make paper headbands with feathers and felt tipis. You learn about the American Revolution (kind of) and the basics of American government. If you’re lucky, you might learn about World War II in a very vague way. There’s no genocide, no talk of the torture or the specifics of the concentration camps—yet. It’s all very clean, very kid-friendly, very…white. But as a kid, you have no idea. You think this is what the world is and how things happened. You look at America as the “greatest nation in the world” that saved practically every other country over the years.
You have learned nothing but a fairytale.
In middle school, things begin to change, but not much. You learn a bit more about Native American history, glossing over things like mission schools, rape and, again, genocide. You learn more about the founding fathers and the documents that make up the United States. You learn more about the history of the world around you, but somehow the United States is always involved and almost always seen as good and just. You don’t question it, because why would you? You learn more about slavery, but you aren’t challenged to connect the dots to the present day. Again, why would you be? Your class is 99% white with one or two black people throughout the years. They’re your friends or your brother’s friends, but none of you ever think about the little comments that are made— “You are so white!” “You don’t talk like a black person, though!”—about the black kids that you share classes with. This is your bubble, and if everyone else is saying it, it must be okay, right?
Social issues aren’t a huge topic of conversation for 11- to 13-year-olds, but when you do talk about them, you say all the right things. You’re all friends, so none of you are racist, right? You’re all friends, so none of you are bigots, right? You notice the changes that come with puberty. There have always been rumors about your friend being gay, and you accept them though you don’t really understand what acceptance means for them. You don’t think about your own sexuality because you think you’re “normal” (whatever that means). You have crushes on guys, but you also notice that you look at some of the girls differently too. You brush it off because “It’s normal to think my friends are pretty. They’re my friends. It doesn’t mean anything.” It doesn’t mean anything, right?
You really don’t understand much about the wider world.
High school comes, and things get tense. The social politics as well as the general politics of the outside start to invade as you learn about the world and America’s history—again. You learn about World War II and the Holocaust, again. Though, this time, it’s a little more adult and you learn about some of the individual people involved through the books they’ve written and the stories they’ve told. You have to get permission from your parents to watch The Patriot even though you’ve seen plenty of violent movies at this point. This is where you learn the least about Native Americans, not even enough to remember less than 10 years after you graduate. Your government class opens up discussions about your and your classmates’ political views, and lines are starting to be drawn in the sand as people learn who supports what—or who. Your friend has only just come out and they already know who they can and can’t trust. You learn about the wars the United States fought in and have to remember the years and what they were about. You don’t learn much more about slavery either apart from the regurgitated crap they taught you in elementary and middle school. You get to learn more about the veterans in your family, though. You respect their decisions to go to war and you learn more from them than your own teachers.
Race becomes a hot topic sophomore year. Trayvon Martin is gunned down by George Zimmerman and you talk about it in your social studies class. This is the first time in your life you’ve had to make a decision about where you stand when it comes to systemic racism, but you don’t know that yet. You argue that Trayvon didn’t deserve to get shot and that Zimmerman shouldn’t have gone after him after the police told him not to. You hear classmates posit the stance that Trayvon was doing something wrong: running. You think about the fact that Trayvon was your classmates’ age when he died, and you are scared about what a murder like this means. Zimmerman was acquitted, but he would go to prison eventually—just not for this. You become confused and try to advocate for racial justice while keeping what you think are the only friendships you’ll have in your life.
You graduate and go to college, where you are given a crash course in the severity of inequality and bigotry in the world. You leave the state, so you have to make a whole new set of friends. These friends—at least, many of them—grew up in cities where their lives could be much scarier than you could ever imagine at that time in your life. You learn more about yourself and where you stand in the political world. You slowly separate yourself from the views of your town and many of your childhood friends. You learn about who you love and how you love, reconciling your feelings for other genders with your childhood—so much more makes sense about your early crushes! You learn how to be a better advocate by listening to your friends and taking classes that teach you more about United States history than you ever thought about in your small town. You learn more about Native Americans—or Indigenous people—and you find yourself moved to help as many people as you can.
Your advocacy is clumsy at first (still is much of the time). You talk over the people you’re fighting for without even realizing it. You don’t listen to others who have different opinions about the issues that are important to you. You are humbled by conversations with friends and learn about how to use your white privilege—which you fight with others about the existence of—to advocate instead of silence. Even after graduation, you are unsure about your place in these conversations. You have to unlearn your tendency to talk over people, even in this essay. You never want to come off as smug or holier than thou, and you never want to invalidate anyone’s experience with bigotry. You come today with a passion for advocacy and sympathy and/or empathy for all people. You don’t understand why some people don’t want to learn all sides of history, especially in the United States, but you work to keep yourself educated and open to others’ stories.
You don’t know everything, but you’re trying. You learn that trying is all that some people want, and you strive to help make a measurable difference in the world. Things are far from perfect, but you’ve come a long way from the small town and the closed minds. You understand you are not a saint, and even now there are times where you have to stop yourself from making comments that are completely inappropriate but were normal in your childhood. You’re pushing yourself forward and putting yourself between the boot and your friends, your fellow humans.
Most importantly, you listen.
So, there it is. As I said, I hope you find something of value in it, and this probably won't be the last you'll see of this piece. Have a good weekend!