The power of two

October 25,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

In my special topics class on Monday we talked about nationalism. The students were assigned this essay to read, and they weren't happy. It was "long" and "difficult" and, also, "boring" to read. This was not a new reaction, by any means. Students often react that way with this particular essay but I like to teach it anyway. Once I explain it, and once we get a good discussion of nationalism underway, they come around; walls are knocked down, barriers breached, and they leave with a little spring in their steps.

Well, maybe I'm making up that part.

We talked about "good" forms of nationalism and "bad" forms. We talked about how nationalism is the ultimate Janus-faced monster: one side can present as good and positive and truly beautiful to see, while the other side can just as quickly turn malevolent and ugly beyond belief. Nationalism can make people do wonderful and altruistic things, but it can also make people do unspeakable things, too. Racists and bigots and intolerant people can hide behind nationalism. Ignorance thrives in it, and feeds off of it, too. 

My students listened, and nodded. 

"Like when you're at the state fair one night and some guy calls you 'Mexican' in that voice--you know that voice--and you just know what he means? Is that nationalism gone wrong?"

The student who asked isn't Mexican, actually, but a very light-skinned African American young lady. To some people, though, it doesn't really matter. They see difference as threatening; they react viscerally and robotically; often spouting off rhetoric  and uninformed (and ill-informed) ideas about the state of the economy and the job market, and who is responsible for the unemployment rate because, of course, someone else is always responsible and they are usually called them and those people but never their true names.

We all knew what she meant--some of my students more than others, and more than I did, too. At the state fair over the weekend, she and her friends "got into it" a little with a group of white guys--young guys--a fact I always find depressing. More ugly words were exchanged, racial and ethnic epithets were let loose into the night air, where they settled elsewhere, biding their time.

If we can't count on the younger generations to finally get it right, then who can we count on?


I left campus thinking about our discussions in class. At the pool I ended up in the lap lane right next to a large open part of the pool, where mostly elderly people go to do some gentle water-based exercises, back and forth. It was quiet that afternoon, and that part of the pool was empty for the first twenty minutes I was there. Towards the end, an elderly black man lowered himself into the water and stood, looking about him. He seemed to be waiting for someone, and splashed water across his arms and chest while he waited. I swam some laps, and when I resurfaced he had been joined by a very white woman about his age. By very white I mean her skin was a startling marble-like white-white, and her wispy hair (also white) was combed into an up-do to keep it out of the water. She wore a stylish red one piece, tied behind her neck in a bow, and oversized dark glasses.

She was the person he had been waiting for. They were friends. They spent the next fifteen minutes walking back and forth across the pool slowly, side-by-side, talking about this and that. He had one of those low, rolling baritone voices and she had a higher, lilting and very southern one. They laughed at each other's jokes and their conversation was easy and relaxed, the way it can only be between good friends who have known each other a long, long time.

The nosy, writer part of me wanted to know the story of their friendship. It seemed so solid and beautiful and symbolic of so much. I can't explain how exactly I connected them to my students, and our discussion earlier that day but I did. Their slow, gliding movements across the pool supplanted the disappointment I felt in a group of young men I didn't know, who were out there somewhere, ugly words falling from their tongues with too much ease.

Maybe, I thought, we don't need to always be looking to the younger generation to put things right.