Walsh’s Wonderings — Teaching an old dog old tricks

James Baldwin once wrote, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” I didn’t want to write this column. Unlike Mr. Baldwin, I don’t feel I know enough, understand enough, or offer enough to make it worth reading. I’m writing it anyway. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I love this country too much to sit on the sidelines during our current national reckoning on race.

I’ve written about racists and racial inequities in the past, but I’ve avoided an exploration on racism itself because I never felt I was an expert on race. I was mistaken. I was an expert on race: the advantages of the white race, anyway. I’d grown up knowing my white skin was my passport to preferential treatment, even if I didn’t understand how that treatment would change were I a different color. There were no watchful eyes following me around the store, no curious stares as I entered the country club dining room. There was nowhere I couldn’t live, couldn’t work, couldn’t worship simply because of the color of my skin.

It wasn’t that I was completely unaware of my privilege but rather the depth of it. As a middle school English teacher, I took pride in exposing racial inequities and cultural hypocrisies through the lens of literature. Then, the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Mo., forever stitched together the death of Michael Brown with the seemingly (to me) isolated cases of Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Trayvon Martin and Bettie Jones. Coming only a few months after Eric Garner’s infamous “I can’t breathe” plea as he died in a police chokehold, it forced me to acknowledge that I’d allowed myself to remain blissfully ignorant to the pain of my fellow human beings.

I reached into the familiar to assuage my guilt, usually with the works of James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison or Ralph Ellison. In a 2016 column I wrote for these newspapers on the logic of white male discomfort, I addressed my limited understanding thusly: “Rather than viewing the Black Lives Matter protests as exclusionary, for instance, I see them as a targeted response to imbalances our system has fostered for centuries. In the end, fighting for equality is the rising tide that raises all boats. If one doesn’t like the Black Lives Matter movement, render it unnecessary by addressing the legitimate concerns it raises.” Not bad, but short of the mark. The sources to which I resorted were not the best tools to confront my own misperceptions about race in America.

Like most of my fellow citizens, I got sidetracked with the implications of the 2016 election season my attempts at enlightenment fell by the wayside. The killing of George Floyd and the horrific callback to Garner as he pleaded, “I can’t breathe” opened my eyes again to the world that exists beyond my immediate concerns.

This most recent self-examination has been awkward and painful. Surface level revelations (such as my misuse of “African American” when I meant “Black”) paled in comparison to the substantive blind spots I’d curated around race and racism. While I’d taken classes in Black literature in graduate school many years ago, it was like trying to drink water from a fire hose; I was learning so many things at once that few could find purchase.

Blinded by binary definitions of racists as either good or bad, I’d cringe when reflecting on my own role in perpetuating racism. A new curriculum targeted this ignorance and challenged my assumptions. Books like How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, and Let’s Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo were supplemented by many afternoons tumbling down the internet rabbit hole with grainy videos of James Baldwin’s 1965 debate with William F. Buckley at Cambridge University or speeches by author Tim Wise. (It’s heartening to note the books I’ve mentioned were only obtained after an interminable time on the library waitlist.)

This process continues as I research dog training websites for the best ways to integrate our new puppy into a home already ruled by a stubborn terrier. Some user comments are hitting too close to home: “Older dogs want to show you how valuable they are, but many are damaged because of previous treatment ... they need our approval, love & affection, becoming sullen when yelled at or punished … We make the dog we get. We want a dog that will behave because he wants to, not because he is afraid.”

I’m that older dog struggling to be valuable. I want to reach all my students and provide perspectives that allow them to realize their full potential. I want to be a lifelong learner, but I’m not my best trainer (just ask my scale). So I continue to reach out, to seek opportunities to grow and be of better service. Most importantly, I try to remain open to all I don’t yet understand.

Perhaps you can teach an old dog new tricks if you’re holding the right treat, especially when the tricks aren’t “new” at all. They’re just new to me.

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.com, contact him at RobertFWalshMail@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.