I belonged to the first generation of kids who were taught racism was bad. By that I mean taught formally, officially, in school. By the time I began kindergarten, the civil rights battles of 1960s had entered the realm of Settled History, with clear victors and losers, heroes and villains. There was once a time, we were told, where discrimination based on the color of one’s skin ran rampant, but now racism had been vanquished thanks to Martin Luther King Jr. and Bill Cosby.
Around the time when the first MLK Day was celebrated, my elementary school hosted a presentation wherein someone who bore a remarkable likeness to the man himself reenacted the I Have A Dream speech, and led an entire cafetorium in the singing of “We Shall Overcome.” As a budding history nerd and self-righteous soul, this presentation genuinely moved me. In a fit of Lisa Simpson-esque civic earnestness, I felt compelled to write a letter to the White House, asking the president what I could or should do for the cause of civil rights. Because the president at the time was Ronald Reagan, I received a photo of The Gipper and a form letter that made no mention whatsoever of Civil Rights.
This setback notwithstanding, the message that Racism = Bad was constantly reinforced throughout my childhood, both in school and in kid-aimed PSAs like One To Grow On, wherein the ethical quandaries of the age were resolved by Nancy McKeon and Soleil Moon-Frye. The belief of the inherent equality of all humans seemed less a belief that needed to be held, but a fact that I acknowledged. I never encountered anyone who felt otherwise.
And then I met my bully.