A columnist for a Jewish parenting website penned a scathing article taking first lady Michelle Obama to task for calling on high school graduates to correct their elders if they express a prejudiced comment, saying her appeal could lead to “condescending” and “presumptuous” behavior and that “we have no right to judge our parents” who were raised in vastly different circumstances than American youths today.
“My husband and I have a rule for ourselves: We don’t argue with old people. This rule applies primarily to our parents and their friends, but also old people in general. We also have a rule for our three kids, ages 14, 10, and 7: You will respect your elders. Whether you agree with them or not. Especially when you are a guest in someone else’s home. That’s just Etiquette 101 in our book,” author Alina Adams wrote this week on the blog Kveller.com.
Michelle Obama last month challenged the graduates in Topeka to help “folks who still hold the old prejudices because they’ve only been around folks like themselves” to “see things differently.”
“Maybe that starts simply in your own family, when grandpa tells that off-colored joke at Thanksgiving, or you’ve got an aunt talks about ‘those people,’ well, you can politely inform them that they’re talking about your friends,” Obama said.
Adams wrote that her family will not be embracing Michelle Obama’s challenge, even though her husband and children are both African-American and Jewish and thus positioned to face two prejudices.
“When my oldest son heard about it [Michelle Obama’s appeal], he cheered, ‘Hey, being rude to adults is now state-sanctioned!’ (Yes, I noticed that he skipped right over the qualifier ‘politely,’)” Adams wrote.
We informed him that may be true in someone else’s house, and even at the White House. It would never be true in ours.
Here’s why. We believe we have no right to judge our parents, or anyone of their generation and comparable life experiences. Who are we–who didn’t live through Jim Crowe laws or Hitler, the Great Society or Stalin, who were still kids during the Entebbe raid or the Crown Heights riots–to tell people that (barely) lived thought it all how they should feel about it?
Our parents don’t hold their prejudices (and rest assured, being a minority doesn’t make anyone immune; we all have them, there’s no escaping it) because “they’ve only been around folks like themselves.” The exact opposite, actually. They hold their prejudices because they’ve lived around folks different from themselves the majority of their lives. And those folks made them suffer for it. So they’ve chosen to carry a grudge.
Who are we to “help” them see things differently?
How condescending would that be?
And if my husband and I, both in our 40s, don’t feel qualified–much less entitled–to set others straight, as it were, then from what vast wealth of life experience could some random teenagers possibly be?
In contrast with American children today fortunate enough to live during a time of affluence and peace, Adams explained that grandparents who lived through the seismic political upheavals of the 20th century “have damned good reasons for feeling that way. Just like we have our reasons for feeling the way that we do. Our experiences are not their experiences. So how could our conclusions be?” In other columns, Adams has noted that she immigrated to the U.S. from the former Soviet Union.
“Our parents’ generation may not ‘know all the answers,’ but how presumptuous to think that we do. (Doesn’t every generation believe they’ve finally gotten it right, while those backwards Neanderthals who raised them have no clue about how the real world works?),” she wrote.
Adams explained that the way she and her husband handle tricky situations where prejudiced opinions are voiced is by speaking to their children later.
“We attempt to pass our values down to our children–not up to our parents,” she wrote.
Read Adams’ entire column at Kveller.com.