Several weeks ago, RT put up an article with a sensationalist headline: ‘Michelle Obama urges high schoolers to monitor their families’ politically incorrect thoughts’. In a speech commemorating the anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the First Lady turned her audience’s attention to the return of segregation today: ‘See, many districts in this country have actually pulled back on efforts to integrate their schools, and many communities have become less diverse as folks have moved from cities to suburbs. And even in schools that seem integrated according to the numbers, when you look a little closer, you see students from different backgrounds sitting at separate lunch tables, or tracked into different classes, or separated into different clubs or activities.’ I shall pass over her objection to students’ choosing freely to separate themselves into different clubs or activities; amid some broadly sound aspirations, the First Lady made some more controversial suggestions:
There’s no court case against believing in stereotypes or thinking that certain kinds of hateful jokes or comments are funny. So the answers to many of our challenges today can’t necessarily be found in our laws. As you go forth, when you encounter folks who still hold the old prejudices because they’ve only been around folks like themselves, when you meet folks who think they know all the answers because they’ve never heard any other viewpoints, it’s up to you to help them see things differently.
Maybe that starts simply in your own family, when grandpa tells that off-colored joke at Thanksgiving, or you’ve got an aunt talks about ‘those people’. Well, you can politely inform them that they’re talking about your friends. Because this issue is so sensitive, is so complicated, so bound up with a painful history. And we need your generation to help us break through. We need all of you to ask the hard questions and have the honest conversations, because that is the only way we will heal the wounds of the past and move forward to a better future.
In response, I said on Facebook, ‘I get that we can disagree with things our families do, but the First Lady seems to veer close to recommending that we dishonour our parents for saying politically incorrect things.’
To some readers, I may seem to have overreached. Certainly the allegations of some, that the First Lady’s suggestions strongly resemble those of 1984, are excessive. There is, I do think, a potential slippery slope toward something like Maoist rejection of family authority, but such an implication requires more to be read into the First Lady’s words than responsible reading can furnish. Still, some of her words I do find objectionable.
Rightly has she has pointed out that laws alone cannot heal the wounds of the past, that we need to ask hard questions and have honest conversations. But then she has also remarked, ‘Well, you can politely inform them [a grandfather or an aunt] that they’re talking about your friends.’ Colour me triggered, but that is not how one speaks to one’s elders.
To me, the idea of asking one’s parents to reconsider their prejudices about a certain group just because one counts ‘those people’ as one’s friends is ludicrous. For such a thing to be thought in Chinese, let alone said to one’s social superiors, is almost inconceivable. We Chinese have the expression 猪朋狗友: pig and dog friends, or profligate companions. Is my son to rule me by his choice of friends, or am I to rule his choice of friends? If my child pulled on me what the First Lady has suggested, I would probably say, ‘And you keep such friends? Are they the ones teaching you to talk to me that way?’ That my child keeps bad company out of naïveté, a bad life choice, is likely; that my child’s callow life choices, opposite to mine, should compel me to rethink my life is a perverted thought. By the same logic, even though much racial prejudice is irrational and leads people to treat one another in ungodly ways, a child’s choices are no rational basis for a change in opinion.
I am not saying it is impossible to be wrong and learn something from one’s children; but to expect one’s parents to reconsider just because one has oneself made different choices seems arrogant in the extreme. And so, silly as it may seem, I do not think my assessment of the First Lady’s suggestion silly. When I see ‘politely inform’, I ask: To what end? The end is, quite explicitly, for the younger to influence the elder by the pressure of his own choices. So children have also been known through such emotional blackmail to change their parents’ minds by declaring themselves gay. So to speak in earnest, and not in ridicule of liberal White children, is impudent. If one is to resist racism in earnest, such rhetorical topoi, which lay claim to a kind of personal superiority (by being with the times, rather than by having the experience of age), are not the way to go with one’s elders; rather, one must rely on logical demonstration upon sound premises, without such ethical pretences as enlightenment by reason of youth.