The lessons I have learned about ethics and race

The following blog post is a taken from the ethics speech that mathematics teacher, Grade 6 dean, and cross country/track and field Coach Addison Hunt (above right) delivered to Middle School students and faculty in January 2016. In the speech, Hunt shared how his experiences growing up as an African-American in the South during the late 1960s and early 1970s shaped his views on race relations and taught him that beliefs are learned and not innate — and, thus, can always be changed.

I'd like to share my thoughts and experiences on ethics and race, a topic that has been present with me my entire life. Race relations in the United States are often difficult to talk about. It is a topic that is steeped in history, it is emotional, and it often takes us to places we don't want to be. If you ever want to get someone to stop talking to you, ask them if they would like to engage in a discussion about race in the United States. I have found that first it gets quiet, then for some reason the person has to leave.

My family's history is rooted in this country's struggle for racial equality. My grandfather James Eugene Hunt was a follower of Marcus Garvey who believed that blacks in America should abandon the American dream and move to Africa. My father often told me that as a teen he had listened to Malcom X speak on his many visits to Detroit. A week before his assassination, Malcom X took refuge with my Aunt Gloria after his house had been firebombed. My late Uncle Ted is credited with being one of men charged with integrating the United States Army Band, which was a precursor to integrating the Army during World War II. My father took a job as minister in the Presbyterian Church. His job was to help churches transition into integrated congregations in Chicago, Illinois, Cincinnati, Ohio, and St. Petersburg, Florida. He was considered an agitator in many of the cities where we lived. It was not uncommon in my early life that my family would move out of our bedrooms at night and sleep in the center of the house because there had been a threat that our home might be firebombed.

As you might imagine, growing up in that environment skewed my vision of the world. I was taught to work hard but not to expect to be rewarded. I was taught not to trust white people that were not on a short list that my parents had preapproved. In short, I was taught that world is place to be feared and that my life was going to be a constant struggle.

This was particularly emphasized the summer between kindergarten and first grade, as my parents prepared me to be amongst the first black children to attend Bay Vista Elementary School in St. Petersburg, Florida. In the weeks before my first day of first grade, I remember my dad giving me advice as if I were going to prison: suggestions like "Don't go anywhere alone" and "Don't accept food from the other kids"... and he provided instructions for how to incapacitate a fifth grader. I remember my first day of first grade vividly, mostly because I did not want to go. I was one of the first students to arrive that September morning in 1968. My mother had accompanied me to the classroom and introduced me and herself to my new teacher. I remember that my teacher seemed nice, but also remember my dad telling me to watch out for the nice ones — they can sometimes be the most treacherous. I had found a desk away from other students. My plan was simple: Don't talk to anyone, stay out of trouble, try not to get killed.

I remember sitting by myself watching my soon-to-be classmates file in. I tried not to make eye contact. I prayed no one would sit near me. I was both scared that I was going to do something that would disappoint my family and angry that they put me in this school. Then it happened: A white kid that had been looking my way got up came over to my desk and introduced himself as Bo and asked if I'd like to sit next to him. I distinctly remember that the day started with me wondering why this random kid was talking to me and ended with me having my first best friend. I remember going home thinking my dad had clearly lied to me and that there are white people that can be trusted. It wasn't until I was much older that something my mother would often say began to make sense. She would tell me that people aren't born prejudiced, they learn it. People aren't born racist, they learn it.

As time went on and the country began to change, so did my father's views on many things. As I learned about the world in which he grew up in, mostly at dinnertime arguments, I began to understand how he formed his worldview. Engaging in difficult conversations with my family, friends, colleagues and students has helped my views and perspectives and made the discussion of race in society something that no longer makes me uncomfortable.

Under the leadership of [Headmaster] Jim Neill, [Assistant Head of School for Enrollment, Admissions & Community] Len Armstrong and others, our school will continue to examine its community, diversity and openness to our evolving culture. I am honored to be a representative of the Middle School in this process and will be looking forward to your thoughts and input moving forward.

As we approach the holiday that honors Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I am drawn to one of his quotes that states, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." I also am fond of a quote by Malcom X that reminds us, "Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today."

What I hope you remember from this presentation is that beliefs are learned and not innate. Second, fear should not be the force that drives one's life. And, finally, dealing with other people is hard work. There will be days you may not have energy for it. However, if you feel your community is worth the investment, you will have to give to get.

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