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In My Words: The skin is not the sin - the dangers of miseducation

In a guest column published by several regional newspapers, Associate Professor Prudence Layne reflects on the summer tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina, and society's culpability for what transpired at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  

The following column appeared recently in the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News, the Greenville (S.C.) News, the Winston-Salem Journal and the Fayetteville Observer via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not Elon University.


Associate Professor Prudence Layne

The skin is not the sin: The dangers of miseducation
By Prudence Layne - playne@elon.edu

In an act of terror, hate and racism, a child of the 1990s decided that the racial segregationist policies of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia must again reign supreme in the physical world, not just in the virtual world where such ideologies promulgate unfettered.

He decided that the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church’s importance in the United States for its role in helping slaves on their emancipatory journey on the Underground Railroad made it a prime target to initiate a race war. Most importantly, he decided that in the face of kindness and the God of his nine victims, he would have no mercy. He had a call to duty.

But we made choices, too. We decided that voting to discuss the public place of the Confederate flag, a symbol of heritage and hate, is more productive than acting on the issues that perpetuate the chasms between blacks and whites, rich and poor, male and female, young and old.

We decided that when Barack Obama uses the N-word in a context that makes a point about the realities of race in America, that single utterance is more captivating as a headline than the numerous times that word has been used to insult him and to denigrate his wife.

We decided that drawing distinctions about the age, color, rank and file of killers of unarmed citizens make a difference in the undeniable fact that while all lives matter, some lives matter less than others. We have also decided that we would rather rush to the khumbaya, the illusion of reconciliation, than grapple with the painful process of facing our ugly truths.

When seeds of hate are allowed to sprout, all of us fail. Someone should have told the misguided adolescent that his proverbial sword of choice, a Glock nine, has no lasting power when a society commits itself to lasting change. If we act decisively and swiftly, apartheid ideologies that misrepresent and demean groups of people will remain in the past.

Are we ready to seize this moment? Are we ready to expand our focus from lowering flags to raising our expectations of what it means to treat each other with dignity and respect? When will we decide that the skin is not the sin and start our own love war to conquer ignorance and hate? When will we decide that now is urgent?

When tragedy strikes, the expectation for forgiveness should not be immediate. Forgiveness is a process and certainly should not absolve the guilty of responsibility. In fact, once a public declaration of forgiveness has been made, the real work towards reconciliation, for the victim and the perpetrator, must begin. Some have begun the difficult work of forgiveness, publicly declaring amidst their pain that Emanuel is the rock upon which they stand, but on this road to reconciliation, one that so many have attached themselves, we must stop by the way station of truth.

Our past is always present. We are holding debates about whether to debate the legacies of that past. We are hoping that the ingredients of white guilt and black angst do not combust and explode into irreparable harm beyond the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore. We are pretending, ignoring and avoiding, but now we must choose.

The “Charleston Nine” is an unfortunate moniker given to nine individuals whose work and lives stretched far beyond the boundaries of an incident that links them in death. They represent the hope we have not just for our churches, but for our society at large. They chose to welcome and treat their killer with kindness, understanding and an alternative, saying, “You don’t have to do this!” He chose something else.

Educators stand on the frontlines of this battle to conquer hate. Our students will take their cues from us and go into the world to sow what we show them. They will choose to quell their discomfort when talking about race until it becomes more natural. They will choose to appreciate the biological markers of skin while dismantling notions that difference equals inferiority. They will choose to sound the alarm rather than cower in silence when oppression and hate appear.

Most importantly, they will choose to love all people as themselves just like Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Depayne Middleton Doctor, Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons and Myra Thompson.  

Prudence Layne is an associate professor of English at Elon University.


Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.


Eric Townsend,
7/15/2015 2:55 PM