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Thursday, May 24, 2018

Thoughts on Research, Racism and Role Models

Recently the New York Times began a series of obituaries written for noteworthy citizens who  had been  overlooked at the time of their actual death. As the Times states, Since 1851, obits in the New York Times have been dominated by white men. Now we are adding stories of other remarkable people. 

Always alert for tales of the forgotten, especially those that reflect a  refusal to be defined by any force that seeks to denigrate or stifle, I was delighted to read these miniature biographies. These were truly exceptional women, women who had contributed to both science and the arts, true role models, inspiration for a new generation. I decided to dig deeper and immediately set to work— new notebook, sharpened pencil, and special library requests for books that were long out of print or otherwise inaccessible. Boundless enthusiasm is always the hallmark of early research when voices from the past first invite me into their lives. Unthinkable! eagerly scribbled in the margins of my new notebook, a perfect title and first line for a possible picture book. 

Halfway down page 108 of a book borrowed from a nearby college, I put down my pencil. In a litany of accomplishments I stumbled on a line that derailed me. My subject was a racist. How could such an gifted and enlightened individual harbor such ugly, racist thoughts? 

Because my blog is a place for personal reflection and not to provide an exposé of historical figures, I won't be naming my subject. Let readers celebrate her accomplishments and let her ugly private thoughts remain buried in an out-of-print, not easily accessible narrative. For myself, however, I cannot unknow what I know. 

Some may argue that my subject was a product of her time; that we cannot judge people from the past by contemporary standards; that it is not our place to scratch too deeply into another’s person's private beliefs or politics. But if we are all and always the product of a given time, how does anything ever change? Civilization only moves forward when individuals are sensitive to eternal truths despite their society's restrictions. Isn't that what the Times was celebrating? Isn't that what they were rectifying by these long overdue obituaries? 

If my subject could see that a woman was equal to a man despite the limits of her generation, why could she not also see that the color of one’s skin does not determine a person’s worth or intellect? Why did she not also realize that poverty often stems from limitations imposed by the ones with the most power—  the same limitations that decreed a woman less capable than a man?

We rightfully admire forward-thinking people who step outside society’s unjust boundaries. Remarkable people should be remembered and celebrated. But if, in looking back we stumble upon something wrong or offensive, it seems that we should pause and note that too— not to chastise or vilify, or muddy the waters, but to hold racism’s ugliness to the light, to prevent it’s continued proliferation, and remind ourselves that we can be greater than our role models.

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