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Teaching Peace in a Time of Hate

I teach at Kennesaw State University outside of Atlanta Georgia. In recent years we’ve made lots of news (in 2015 police were called on a black student waiting for an academic advisor(it’s not just Starbucks), our cheerleaders joined the kneeling-during-the-anthem-protest, students protested the investiture of the new (now ex) university President, there have been protests both for and against campus carry (H.B. 280 allows “campus carry” and my syllabus now includes a link to: http://police.kennesaw.edu/campuscarry.php), and recently Fox News circulated “Pronouns Matter” echoing sentiments of frustration and anger over using the pronouns “ne,” “ve,” “ey,” “ze,” and “xe” in addition to “he” and “she” and followed with Georgia House Republicans going after the KSU LGBTQ center).

April 18th KSU made the news because a student in campus housing had a flag and a rope draped over their balcony. Some thought the rope looked like a noose. The student said it was for groceries, but it has been removed.

Such controversy is not isolated. Nooses have been spotted on different campuses: OHSU,American University, Kansas State University, and the University of Maryland. Subsequently American University also had Confederate flags with cotton on them, the right calls it a false flag, the left calls it a hate crime. So, when I describe my campus (where I teach roughly 250 students a year) it really describes campuses all across the country.

I teach people to think, I teach what others have thought, and I teach what research does (and does not) show; I do not teach students what to think. I’ve done it for more than a decade. I’ve had white supremacists, liberals, conservatives, and everything else under the sun.

People who’ve never met me have challenged my ability to teach because of my advocacy for peace. Many of my students appreciate actual debate and discussion in the classroom. I use student-centered teaching as much as possible.

I know a student who was told “you’re in Trump’s world now baby!” after sharing about family members stranded after a travel ban. Or on election day when a student shared, “I think many people are going to be surprised with the number of people who are tired of apologizing because they think some races and cultures are better than others.” Or another case, which made the news, of a student saying, “I am going to marinate on the thought of killing you all.” The university classroom is not always an easy terrain.

I experience fake news and revisionist history. Early in my days at Kennesaw I asked, “why did I count 43 Confederate flags on my five-mile run? I don’t want a debate, just an explanation.” The last response was, “my Uncle flies his because there wasn’t a lawful surrender—we’re still at war.” I still hear about Obama’s birth certificate… I digress.

The teachable moment on my campus is a complex one. Conservatives have told me accusations against them are often the result of a reactionary and hyper-vigilant liberalism—your hate of Trump is so great that the sign in window causes you to see the rope as a noose! Liberals say the refusal to acknowledge the history of racism—especially in the South—and the history of lynching as extrajudicial punishment and terrorism against the African-American population is another example of the work that needs to be done.

The conservative view is legitimate in the sense that bias is real—on all sides. It is why a 14-year-old black child is shot at by a white man for asking for directions, and cops have confused pipes and iPhones with guns. Profiling—bias—is a problem. But, bias is not always bad. I am prejudiced towards equality, peace, and justice. Being discerning can create efficiency and opportunity, whereas invidious discrimination is the agenda of denying rights for superficial reasons, which I hope we agree that we should seek to avoid.

The liberal view is legitimate. Fear is a powerful emotion. Even the Supreme Court has held that “officers can shoot first and think later.” In my old hometown in the (so-called) heat of the moment officers shot “a 73-year-old man with dementia who they thought was carrying a gun. It was a crucifix,”and, accidently unleashed a dog when they mistook a “petite black teen for a machete-wielding, 5-foot 8-inch tall, 170-lb. bald black man.”

All of my students understand and have experienced bias; they know that emotions can be powerful drivers superseding reason. In the classroom activities are designed to stimulate outside the box thinking and self-discovery.

Reminded of the times when one’s eyes have played tricks on them, conservative students are more sympathetic to a rope that looks like a noose. Likewise, liberals can benefit from a reminder of the attribution error, how many people saw the Trump sign and jumped to a conclusion? Yes, Trump has had a career of racist business dealings and now runs a Presidential administration of racist policies, but the student agreeing with some policies (which one would assume from the sign) is not proof that he agrees with all of them, and even being racist does not guarantee that the rope would be a noose anyway.

Teaching peace ultimately has less to do with the rope/noose discussion and more to do with our shared humanity. Sharing humanity is a bridge to overcoming hatred. I don’t want to alienate the students who don’t see anything wrong with the rope, nor do I want to miss the opportunity to advocate on behalf of the students who’ve experienced and inherited trauma from the U.S.’s racist history and use of terrorism on minority populations. I want students to see (not the same as agree) multiple perspectives of today’s complex problems. A little more shared humanity and some day we just might stop thinking we can change people’s minds by dropping bombs on them.

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