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Clint Smith is a teacher, poet, and doctoral candidate in Education at Harvard University with a concentration in Culture, Institutions, and Society (CIS). He serves as a resident teaching artist[…]

What will it take for the United States to overcome entrenched issues pertaining to race and socioeconomic status? According to Clint Smith, a National Poetry Slam champion and doctoral candidate at Harvard, the U.S. needs to be honest with itself about cultural myths (meritocracy, equal treatment by authorities, etc.) that don’t actually exist. The killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice had a profound impact on Smith and further opened his eyes to the different social experiences and challenges faced by African-Americans. If the goal is to achieve a truer form of equality and egalitarianism, half the country needs to stop blindly pretending those differences aren’t there.

Clint Smith: I think in this country we have an issue with being honest with ourselves. We have an issue with being honest about who we are, what has transpired in the course of our history to marginalize groups of people. And I think what often happens is that we get a diluted or myopic or a very one-dimensional perspective on what is taking place over the course of our nation’s history. I remember receiving the news when Tamir Rice was killed, the 12-year-old boy in Cleveland who was shot for, in part, playing with a toy gun. The police killed him within two seconds of pulling up in the car. And it immediately brought me back to a moment in my own childhood when I was playing with the water guns and my father came and told me that I couldn’t do that. That that was unacceptable. And I didn’t really understand. I was frustrated. I was embarrassed that my father would do that in front of my friends. I knew that he was the strict dad. I called him after Tamir Rice had been killed and I had a conversation and I told him I understand now. I understand now in a way that I didn’t understand before. And thank you even when I was kicking and screaming and saying that you were mean and strict and wouldn’t let me, you know, have fun or be a kid. I recognized that these were hard decisions for you to make.

So many people in black community, you know, black men in particular grew up having the talk and getting the talk, so to speak, from their parents. But I remember having conversations with some of my white friends and realizing that there was no notion of ever having to have a conversation about how to interact with police about who you are in the context of the larger criminal justice system. We can’t move forward, I think, and have an honest conversation about race in this country unless we’re grounding these conversations in an understanding of how each of, us among our differences, navigate the world and understand, you know, potentially see the same thing, but understand it differently. We have this sort of rugged individualism, this meritocracy, you know, that we are told we exist in when that’s not really the case. And that, you know, we have a lot of different people who are starting from very different places in life as a result of their class, as a result of their gender, as a result of their race. And we have a difficult time as Americans, I think, contextualizing that and understanding the sort of socio-historical realities that have shaped our contemporary existence. And so I think it’s hard for us to be honest about where we are if we’re not honest about where we’ve come from.