By Mark Franek
Some people may recall the final game of the 2006 World Cup soccer tournament, when the superstar Zinedine Zidane, a Frenchman, head-butted an Italian defender in the chest in response to an alleged discriminatory remark. I was apoplectic with shock.
I couldn't understand it. In extra time, with the score tied, arguably the best player in the world at that time had been ejected from the final game because of his violent reaction to mere words. The Italians went on to win the game.
My friend Eddie Mensah, however, empathized: "I don't condone it, but I understand it."
Mensah, program director of Steppingstone Scholars Inc., a nonprofit that provides educational opportunities for urban youth, is black. Here's what I think he meant: There are some things that white people will never understand. I will never truly understand the symbolic weight certain words and symbols carry for people of color - which includes the recent proliferation of nooses, including one last month at Friends' Central School - since the Jena Six case in Louisiana.
Fifty-seven incidents of nooses have been reported to authorities this year, according to the Web site DiversityInc.com. The proliferation of nooses - hate or hoax - is not confined to one region. There are just as many reports above the Mason-Dixon Line as below it.
Since graduating from college, Mensah and I have taught and coached young people every day of our professional lives. Here's what we've learned about race relations, born from the bonds of friendship and shared by many of our fellow educators around the city:
When a noose is hung up, many black people feel a sense of anger, disappointment and mistrust in a place deep in the soul that they believe no white person could ever understand. This does not mean that black people don't want white people to try to understand.
Children watch and analyze how the adults in their lives treat people who are different than them - waiters, valets, cleaners, the disabled, people of different races, people who don't speak "proper" English, gays and lesbians. The list is long, but our children's memories are longer.
Parents who conduct or condone Imus-esque comments (mild and seemingly harmless) or Michael Richards-esque outbursts (vitriolic and hateful) are likely to raise insensitive children.
The opposite is equally true, perhaps even more so. Parents who repeatedly and openly confront racism and discrimination are likely to raise sensitive, resilient and open-minded children.
Honest conversations with children often reveal them to be a lot more mature than we expect. Sometimes parents are the real problem. Thankfully, children aren't obligated or required to become like their parents.
Kids care about history. Teachers and parents have to help children see the connections between past experiences and their immediate lives, and it usually starts with conversations about historical facts. The noose is just the most recent example. The noose has a very nasty history. How many children of all colors learn about it?
Kids respect parents and school administrators who are unequivocal about what is acceptable and unacceptable. The challenge for adults is in figuring out when the message needs to be openly debated, and when the message needs to be non-negotiable and authoritatively delivered. What would happen if a noose appeared at your child's school? What kind of conversation would you have with your child?
Black children who face racism and discrimination appreciate support and outrage from white teachers and students as well as from black teachers and students. Finally, whites learn more about race relations from befriending blacks than they do from reading books about race relations. But reading good books helps.
Education really is a group project. Nooses, left unchecked, may not result in lynchings along Main Street, but it's the hangman's mentality that must be fought through proper parenting, good education and genuine dialogue. Even one of these dimensions, experienced in the absence of the others, may be enough to untie the knot that exists in the mind of the racist or the heart of the ignorant prankster.