But that’s not the main goal of many biographies written today
Biographies should be included in books made available to young people—especially to early adolescents who are in the process of forming their own identities. In seeing the choices notable people made as well as the challenges they faced and the strengths they drew on or developed to meet them, young people can find resources they need to think more powerfully about who they want to be and what ideals they want to serve.
But all biographies are not created equal. Some don’t even aspire to be inspiring. The strengths that seem most worth emulating vary from historical period to period, but ours is an age with a disconcerting lack of interest in moral character along with an unhealthy attraction to the trivial.
We live in a time where we need to be careful, but we also live in a time with lots of information tools available to help us. Read reviews and look for review sites that support the teaching you desire for your children.
The student at Polson High School who precipitated a social media frenzy when photographs of her wearing a white t-shirt with “White Pride” hand lettered on the front and “White Power” on the back said she didn’t associate the slogans with white supremists or with the KKK. Since each class at school was assigned a color to wear as part of a homecoming “spirit week,” and her class was assigned white, she thought it would be funny to add “white pride” to the shirt as a response to the “Native Pride” slogan that is common on the reservation.
The administrators did the right thing by asking her to change the shirt so the slogans weren’t visible, in accordance with the school’s policy. I take innocence on the part of a young person as a believable explanation, and I think some punishment is an appropriate educational method.
But confusion about the issue isn’t limited to one young girl. Several people commented on the apparent “double standard” that allows Indians to proclaim a sort of pride that seems to be prohibited for whites. But of course on the other hand, many people pointed out that the assertion of “white power” has an ugly history that can’t simply be willed away or ignored. For several centuries, and especially during the 19th Century when Social Darwinism was all the rage, the assertion was frequently made that the “white race” had emerged as superior during an evolutionary struggle for dominance that whites had won. Endless atrocities were committed using that racist idea as a rationale. Colonialism and slavery were global in their reach.
Both points of view have some merit, and disagreements over which should be enforced by authority tend to go on as long as someone wants it to go on.
Some of the confusion has to do with ambiguity in what “Native” means in the phrase “Native Pride.” Does it refer to race or to culture? The fact that those two overlap to such an extent makes separating the two tricky, but they do nonetheless refer to different things. I think that when people assert “Native Pride” they usually have in mind the particular history of native people here, including a shared story of endurance and survival that is mingled with an appreciation for many human goods that were and are embedded in traditions and beliefs and practices that it seems important to remember and to continue. “Native” in this sense refers to a culture and a way of life, and if the phrase is understood in this way it has little to do with race, though naturally it can’t readily be disentangled from the biology of families.
But “whiteness” is hardly an ethnicity. That’s why saying “Irish Pride” is less offensive than saying “white pride.” Who’s bothered by Irish people feeling attached to their history and family and culture? But “whiteness” amounts to little more than a racial affiliation–something the white supremacy people don’t disguise.
This can create problems for people thinking in a “rule of law” frame of mind (which modern institutions, including schools, try to do). One basic idea of rule of law is that we craft language that expresses a universal principle by which all people will live. We can be unified, it has been hoped, if we can create a body of law which can be applied to all of us equally. So if we try to craft a rule to ban wearing “white pride” shirts, we don’t want to single out just one group. We try to make a general rule. We might ban shirts which celebrate any particular race as a violation of our equal protection commitments. But phrasing the rule in some such fashion leads us to ban “Native Pride” because “native” is understood racially as well as culturally.
I have no technical solution to any of this. I like rule of law–I think it’s one of the great and unfinished accomplishments of western civilization (which I also like)–but I also think a great deal of daily life goes on quite far below its lofty aspiration. In daily life, we do the best we can amid situations that put various principles into conflict. If people want to be offended, they will be. And it is a real human pleasure to be offended. Being the one who has been wronged makes us feel all righteous. In this culture of late modernity where we all find ourselves, being offended can be a quick route to power.
Thankfully, most adults have learned to prefer peace and understanding to the thinner pleasure of being offended. To live with others, we need to overlook some things and forgive others. This can be hard to teach our young, especially through the often clunky mechanism of a due-process bureaucracy such as a public school. But one needs only look at any one of the many regions on earth where ethnic or religious fighting has been going on for centuries to know that we want to avoid such trouble. In such places, both sides can cite harms committed by the other, often going back centuries. All parties can think of times they’ve been insulted or hurt. And so like the Hatfields and the McCoys, the fighting goes on forever–even after noone remembers the original incitement. Having enemies can become a habit, a source of meaning in our lives.
That hasn’t been the main story on the Flathead Reservation. Mostly we are friends and neighbors. It’s true there are particular issues, maybe water or game laws or taxes, where different parties disagree and need to pursue their rights in various legal forums. We can do that without letting those limited disagreements turn people into enemies and ruin the larger game, which is making a good life together. There will always be some people in any group who are touchy and ready to quarrel, but most of us don’t want to be organized into those contests. We have better things to do.
Two students at Polson High School wore t-shirts to a pep assembly that many deemed inappropriate. Each class was assigned a color, and the Homecoming week contest selected the winning class based on how many students wore the assigned colors. The seniors were assigned black, juniors white, sophomores blue and freshmen green. One junior girl wrote “white pride” on her t-shirt, a decision her mother said was related to the class contest and not to white supremicism or racism. “For god sakes she is part native!” said her mother. Another student wore a white t-shirt with a confederate flag on the front, along with the word “Redneck.”
Inevitably, some other students were offended by the shirt and also inevitably the assistant principal intervened and asked the students to change their shirts. According to school administration, they did so.
The events took on a life of their own on social media–mainly Facebook–where it was claimed that the entire class of students wearing white t-shirts was an intentionally racial activity endorsed or tolerated by staff. A photo of the students was posted in which KKK hoods had been photoshopped on them.
How did local journalists handle the story? The Daily Interlake reported this:
Photos circulating across social media showed that at least two students included racial references on their garb. One student was pictured wearing a white T-shirt boasting the words “white pride” and “Trump 2016.” The student had braided her hair, which some in the native community have interpreted to be insensitive “cultural appropriation” of Native American heritage. Another student was wearing a white shirt with a Confederate flag with the word “redneck.” Another student wore a shirt with the phrase “white power” written on the back.
The reporter counted the front and the back of one girl’s shirt as two students, which led to inaccuracy about how many students were involved. But more important, the reporter did not quote or refer to the many inaccurate stories that were spreading on Facebook. One would think the online frenzy complete with rumors, inaccurate statements, hateful and exaggerated claims and doctored photos would make it into any responsible journalistic coverage.
The reporter then moved on to cite advocacy groups who sided with the outraged people, without tempering the accusations of racism by including that the outrage was a response to exaggerated and inaccurate claims on social media. The report leaves an impression that staff at PHS were causing or endorsing or supporting racism, though the facts known so far do not adequately support that.
The Missoulian did a much better job. Reporter Vince Devlin saw that the main story was the huge discrepancy between what school administration said had happened and what angry people said on Facebook. So he not only quoted the superintendent’s press release, he also quoted from some of the Facebook posts that were driving the frenzy:
Some of the pictures of the junior class in the gym are cropped, but still show more than 50 students dressed in white shirts. Accompanying comments often suggested that several, many or most of the students were wearing “white power” shirts when only one of them was.
One person who posted photographs said it looked like “white supremacy day” at the school. Another claimed the school “allowed these students to wear shirts that read ‘white pride,’ ‘white power’ with Confederate flags and Trump support. No one was sent home. They even took a junior class photo. Not racist? Just school pride?”
He didn’t cite the most inflammatory posts, but he gave enough so that a reader could determine what had actually happened. He also reported that Dustin Monroe, “chief executive officer of Native Generation Change, a Missoula-based group that works on Indian reservations across Montana to tackle issues that challenge the native community” was calling for a protest at the Polson Homecoming football game Friday night. That was part of the story.
By contrast, the Daily Interlake provided extended space for Monroe to give his opinions, though his information is barely sourced, from unnamed disgruntled people who he said contacted him and others that he said he talked to in Missoula. Why is an uninformed partisan from Missoula given so much space? He’s allowed a long question-begging position statement that assumes that the accusations of racism are well-founded and accurate, with no apparent investigation beyond social media and complaints from aggrieved parents. Determining how well-founded the accusations are should have been the focus at this point in the story.
It’s hard to see what journalistic reason led the Interlake to print Monroe’s theories, such as the one that the girl’s braids are “evidence” of “cultural appropriation.” It introduces a new topic that has to do with Monroe’s agenda that isn’t linked in the story to anybody connected to the Polson event. If it comes into the story, readers would be better served if, at minimum, the reporter gathered other points of view on whether it is a sin for people to adapt customs or ideas from other cultures as well as whether the custom of braiding hair is unique to Native Americans.
In emotionally-charged situations, journalists can provide a valuable–an indispensable–service to the community by gathering the relevant facts and reporting them in a somewhat calm and detached manner. Kudos to the Missoulian for doing just that.