Cameron Olbert graduated this year from the Classen School of Advanced Studies. While there, he served as the speaker of the YMCA Youth House of Representatives. Elshaddai Ali is a first-generation Ethiopian-American who graduated this year from Stillwater High School. While there, she served as the Chief Lobbyist of the YMCA Youth and Government Program.
Hi, it’s us, two recent high school graduates from the Class of COVID-19. We’re here to tell you that we see the world’s bullshit and we’re fed up.
The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police captured the attention of the nation and soon the entire country was staring its own racist history in the face.
But this moment is about more than just the police. This is a moment of national reckoning with the vastly different experiences of white and Black Americans.
Elshaddai can vouch that things such as her gorgeous hair, her clothes, the way she talks, etc., are all things that she changes about herself as a result of institutional racism. These changes aren’t made because she hates her own culture, rather she feels she has to change around white people in order to avoid being judged – consciously or subconsciously – from the first time she is seen.
Elshaddai, as an African-American, can guarantee that many people will inherently judge her based solely off of the color of her skin; therefore the changing of her appearance is an effort to be seen as more “normal.”
Cameron can vouch for the fact that for white Americans the experiences of Black Americans are often impossible to fathom.
We have no clear answers to this broader issue, but we think that part of why this is so difficult is because of the way racism is taught in schools.
When you teach about issues like the Civil Rights Movement exclusively in political terms, such as how movements like the Freedom Rides and the March on Washington led to the Civil Rights Act, it gives the false impression that Black Americans should expect to be treated entirely the same as white Americans, when the past weeks have made abundantly clear that that is not the case.
Instead, we would like to see a curriculum wherein, from an early age, students learn about the whole history of racism in the United States and how that impacted Americans’ worldview. How events such as the Tulsa Race Massacre occurred and were then collectively forgotten. While doing so, it is worth asking our students and ourselves why it was so forgotten. Where writers like James Baldwin and Maya Angelou are taught alongside Edgar Allen Poe and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Where Africana Studies can be taken at the high school level rather than a college elective.
We know that education alone is not the only thing that should change in the coming months and years, but if we aim to make a more functional, stronger, happier America, then we should take a page from Germany’s post-Holocaust reckoning with its own history – our own Vergangenheitsbewältigung.
Only when white people are unafraid to confront their entire history – not just the good, but the bad and the ugly, as well – can we actually realize a country with liberty and justice for all.
Generation Z and millennials have a massive opportunity ahead of them. Educated, engaged, and scrappy (especially in Gen Z’s case), America’s young people have the opportunity to sway elections and enact sweeping reforms. The key is whether young white Americans feel as strongly about making change as we want them to be. It’s early, but we think there’s reason to hope so.
At this year’s Oklahoma YMCA Youth and Government state conference, high schoolers from urban, suburban, and rural areas gathered to debate laws that we think should be enacted. As Speaker of the House, Cameron watched as the Youth House almost unanimously passed bills mandating stronger training in de-escalation for police and requiring police brutality cases be handled by the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office, rather than by local district attorneys. Cameron saw white delegates debate in favor of these changes as Black delegates sponsored the bills.
Our generation is paying attention but we need to engage deeper with politics from the local to presidential level and to continually hold our government to a higher standard than they did the day before, while also keeping the social awareness of our differences that are present in our society.
Systemic racism in the United States is one of the most haunting demons that has tormented the spirit of the United States since its inception. As Jon Stewart said in the aftermath of the 2015 Charleston church shooting, “this country has a gaping racial wound that just will not heal.”
Admitting we have a problem is the first step, and to do that all Americans need to be aware of how our history affects us today. For our generation, self-education will only go so far. If we want to ensure that the status quo is changed, then we must admit that the only real solution to systemic racism is systemic anti-racism, and those lessons must start in our schools.