Sunday, August 13, 2017

What Scout said

"Well, Dill, after all he's just a negro." –Scout Finch

During the trial of Tom Robinson, a Black man falsely accused of raping the White woman who tried to take advantage of him in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout's best friend Dill begins to cry uncontrollably. As he struggles to collect himself outside, he tries to explain to Scout that what upset him was the treatment of Tom Robinson by the prosecuting attorney who was "talking so hateful to him" during his cross examination.

"The way that man called him 'boy' all the time and sneered at him," Dill tells her, prompting Scout's short retort above.

"He's just a negro."

I read this novel with my students in twenty-five of the twenty-seven years I taught high school. When we reached this point, which is roughly three-quarters of the way through the book, I'd have them write to this prompt: Is Scout a racist?

Year after year, from 1990 to 2017, I asked the same question. Of course, they were required to explain to me why they believed what they concluded about her. Among individual students, the answers would vary.

"IDK." (Translation: I Don't Know.)
"She can't be racist because she's black." (Some students assumed that because Jem, Scout and Dill spoke with Southern accents, they were Black.)
"She's racist because she lives in the South and all White people in the South were racists back then."
"She's not racist because racists hate Black people and she doesn't hate Black people."

True, Scout does not hate Black people.

But yes, she is a racist.

This scene, this conversation between Scout and Dill, this is the crux of the matter. Tom Robinson is fighting for his very life before their eyes, and Scout attempts to comfort her friend by suggesting he not get too upset since this man is "just a negro."

To Scout, his life matters less than hers because he is Black.

Yes, she is a child, and yes, this is a novel and she's the protagonist, so by the time Scout has had time to process the trial and listen to further discussion by her father and brother, she is already drawing new conclusions about her racist third grade teacher, and by the end of the novel she has come to fully understand why it is "a sin to kill a mockingbird."

But before that... Scout is a product of her family, her history and her community and yes, she is a racist.

If folks grow up seeing and hearing a distinction made between races--between who gets the highest regard, the best jobs, the most convenient seat on the bus--and they emulate that behavior, they are tacitly complicit in the preservation of this learned behavior we call racism.

Time and again in my life, I have had racists tell me, "I don't hate Black people...." And it's very possible that they don't associate what they feel with hatred. But if they hold themselves in higher regard because they are not Black, they are racists.

Because Black lives matter as much as any lives.

This idea that others are less valuable because of their race or ethnicity or geographic origin or socio-economic level is, well, in Dill's words, "It ain't right.... Hasn't anybody got any business talkin' like that--it just makes me sick."

The events in Virgina over the past two days have made me sick indeed, and I know that many of my friends feel the same way. We are sickened by the rage and hate and violence, but we are also sickened by the disparity we continue to experience, even among those who say, "I don't hate anyone." Racism isn't always this blatant. Most often, it is subtle and insidious, which is why it is still so pervasive.


  1. I have this vivid recollection as a child, being told by my mom, "There is nothing wrong with black people. They live over there and we live over here and that's the way it is meant to be." We lived in an almost completely white neighborhood, (a very few Hispanics, the rest white) Since then I have slowly changed the racist attitude I was brain washed with as a youth. That I really didn't know was racist. I am glad my children have grown up with all races and formed their own non racist attitudes. There really is hope for the future, but we still have a long way to go.

    1. Exactly. My parents moved to California from Illinois. They bought a house in a brand new housing tract that required all the nice white people moving in to sign a document stating they were white and would not move non-white persons into the community. Mom and Dad weren't consciously racist, but they didn't mind signing the paper because they wanted the pretty new house. I didn't live around people of color until we moved ten years later.

      I, too, am glad my children have grown up seeing the diversity of the world as a treasure, not a detriment. Thank you for sharing your experience, and especially your feeling of hope for the future. On days like yesterday, it's hard to see it through the cloud of rage. On days like today, I can see the flame of that hope still burning brightly.

  2. The events in Charlottesville yesterday made me sick, too. I was so deeply angry and I felt such hatred toward Kessler and his ilk. It was made worse by trump's failure to call the alt-Right out, even as David Duke claims they are fulfilling Trump's vision for America......I grew up in the South and institutional racism was all around me. Segregated schools, swimming pools, busses, and yes, even the "whites only" signs at drinking fountains. I think mainly because my parents were not overt in their racism and because as soon as I went away to college, I was in school with blacks and people of color from all around the world, that I mostly escaped that warped way of thinking. I used to try to figure out what made these people this way - this Kessler person, who thinks his "white rights" have been taken away and given to blacks, Hispanics, Asians, etc. And now all I think is that there is something very seriously wrong with them. They are damaged goods, missing some essential parts and will never be whole again.

    1. Deborah, I didn't know what the KKK was until I was in high school, and by then I was attending a school that was racially diverse. I had friends of all colors, and learning about hate groups like the KKK made my blood run cold. I just couldn't comprehend such a violent level of unfounded hatred. In college, though, I realized that their level of hate had come from a very deep level of fear, instilled in them at a young age through a constant barrage of repeated rhetoric. It's deeply saddening, but I always try to hold out hope that people (one individual at a time) can be brought out of the darkness of fear into the light of love. It's an arduous task trying to turn things around. But we stand on the shoulders of giants like Dr. King and so many others like him--those who had the kind of courage I can only characterize as miraculous. Still... we can't give up. Every little bit of open, heart-felt, non-inflammatory dialog helps.