Commentary: Shirley Sherrod’s Teachable Moment

By Derrell Connor Special to Channel 3000

What is the teachable moment?

After watching the Shirley Sherrod fiasco last week, pundits and analysts have been talking about teachable moments. After almost everyone involved in this mess actually got around to watching the tape and listening to the full context of Sherrod?s story about race, it seems that people are still missing the point.

For me, the most overlooked part about Sherrod?s speech was the story she told about her father. In 1965, when she was 17, he was shot and killed by a white farmer in a dispute. An all-white grand jury chose not to charge the man with his murder. Her father?s death inspired her to stay in the south and help fight discrimination and injustice for African Americans.

The purpose of re-telling that story?and writing this column?is not to criticize white people. It?s an attempt to bring attention to a bigger issue: that our personal experiences help shape who we are and how we view others. For Sherrod, her feelings about white people were shaped by a childhood where overt racism was an unfortunate reality. It wasn?t until she helped George and Eloise Spooner save their farm years later that she realized many white people were in the same boat as African Americans she knew and grew up with. That blacks and whites weren?t so different after all.

My first encounter with racism occurred when I was five years old. We were living in New Jersey at the time. I was only one of two black kids at my school, and I was tormented all year with racial slurs and taunts from the kids in my class. One classmate?and his parents?who happened to live next door called me the ?n? word almost every day. It was one of the worst times of my life. I must admit that my views and opinions about white people were significantly influenced by those bad experiences. It wasn?t until I moved to California years later that I had the opportunity to interact with and befriend many white people through school, sports, work, etc? Naturally, my views changed.

Like my own experience, I know many white people whose opinions of black people were influenced by a single negative encounter in the past, or from what they?ve seen on television or heard on the playground. The point is that while we all know plenty of good people and knuckleheads of all races, the fact of the matter is that we all carry at least some form of bias or bigotry based on our personal experiences, or possess some level of negative stereotypes toward people different from ourselves, despite the fact that we may have never met anyone from that particular group. Because of this, the questions that we need to ask ourselves are, ?How do we deal with it?? ?Are we honest enough with ourselves to admit that we harbor those feelings?? And if so, ?What do we do about them??

Regarding the Shirley Sherrod episode last week, what was lost in all the noise and accusations of racism back and forth is the fact that Sherrod was honest enough to admit that she had a certain amount of bigotry toward white people. Her experience with the Spooners? helped her realize that she was wrong. Maybe when we can all be honest with ourselves and admit our own biases we can then have that open, honest discussion about race that everyone talks about.

Now that?s a real teachable moment.