I've heard the comments many times in the past year that so-called liberals are doing themselves a disservice by labeling people with terms like racist or bigot, that all they are doing is creating a toxic atmosphere where they won't be listened to. On one hand it's good to know that words like racist and bigot are still powerful enough to create unease or even revulsion. They are nasty words and should carry some bite.
When members of various white supremacy groups marched in Charlottesville in August 2017 the news and social media were blanketed with photos of angry white mostly young men carrying torches and chanting slogans borrowed from the Nazis of a previous generation. Thanks to the improved technology of cell phones the photos were quite clear even in torchlight and the participants easily identified. Following those marches there was no shortage of outrage and horror on the part of many who were there at being seen, being identified and now being called racist.
It is hard to generate much sympathy for the marchers who couldn't connect the dots to understand that their actions were indeed racist, but at the same time understood that the term once applied to them might cost them social standing or a job, but there you have it - a sad, strange world of ignorance to and yet also extreme sensitivity to consequences.
If there is some sympathy to offer it might come from a recognition that the world has changed, just as it always has. As a teacher I know that for years now we've taught history lessons on the civil rights era where racists were those people beating in the heads of marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They were portrayed as somehow alien and inhuman beings who were defeated when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have A Dream" speech which ushered in an era of equality for all. That is essentially the narrative I have seen presented over the last 30 years that I've worked in education whether at the elementary or secondary level. It is not hard, given that background, to see where a young person today would hear about taking pride in your race, or how all lives matter and think that's only striving for equality or fairness, just like Dr. King. In my experience we, as educators and curriculum developers, have done a poor job of tracing the lines of prejudice and racism from George Wallace and Bull Connor to the current President calling mostly black football players protesting racism "Sons of bitches". We have also done a poor job of acknowledging that the world has changed. In 1965 you'd be hard pressed to find someone who would place marriage equality or gender identity in the civil rights struggle, but the world has changed.
Perhaps some of those marchers who were deeply offended by being labeled racist or bigot were truly ignorant of the changes that have occurred in the world around them and maybe it's just too bad that they didn't have someone around to stop them before taking to the streets with torches in hand. Nobody likes to be taught a lesson so publicly, but the world changes and learning is essential to progress.
I've said that education has done a poor job of connecting the dots and pointing out the modern day versions of the racists we see in those old newsreels and maybe the answer is that we all need to be teachers. How do we do that? We could start by giving no safe haven to racist or bigoted words. We could confront every Confederate flag or complaint about gays ruining the institution of marriage. We could remind, gently even, anyone who shouts "Religious Freedom" in their defense of discrimination that freedom doesn't mean you never will encounter someone who is different from you. To create a society where no one is confused about whether or not they're a bigot or racists, that would be a good start.