This article was brought to you by Snarklets, Bracelets & Gifts Hand Stamped with Mantras for Real Life.

I was 10 years old the first time my Boy Scout troop visited the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. For a preadolescent male, there are few places as cool. Sure, world altering history took place there, but have you seen the replica civil war rifles they sell? 36 inches of wood outfitted with metal pieces that click when you pull the trigger. Now take that awesome souvenir, add a number of centuries old boulders, and you’ve got pure preteen heaven.

We divided into teams, and I ended up as a confederate. I weaved between the stones, taking aim at my Yankee scum troop mates. We had the time of our lives. There is no way that a mere toy gun could be the only thing that I could take home with me to commemorate the experience.

I settled on a t-shirt, emblazoned with the confederate flag. Underneath it were the words “Heritage Not Hate.”

I didn’t have any particular affinity for the Southern cause. To me, the Confederate army was just a group of cowboys in grey uniforms fighting guys in blue uniforms. Yeah, slavery was a part of the war, but in my prepubescent eyes, the Confederate flag was just associated with the history of the American Civil War. I never really saw it as any sort of racist symbol. Anyone who disagreed clearly didn’t have the knowledge of the Civil War that I did… at 10.

I was told not to wear the shirt to school. I didn’t really understand why I couldn’t, but I obliged. I owned the shirt literally for months before I wore it to the wrong place, my karate school.

I had started training in the martial arts a few years earlier. It quickly became my entire world. There were two instructors at that school who had been and still to this day still are like surrogate fathers to me. Both of these men are African American. The shirt didn’t go unnoticed. One of them pulled me aside to talk to me about it.

There’s something about being called out by one of your heroes that can shatter your world. He didn’t do that to me. That’s not the kind of man that he is. He sat me down and talked to me about what that symbol meant to him. The pain it caused him to see someone he cared about wearing a symbol that had been used to oppress people like him. At first, I tried to defend the shirt. I hadn’t meant to offend him by any means. To me, it wasn’t a symbol of hatred. That’s the thing about hurt, though. It doesn’t take malice to cause someone we love pain. Indifference to one’s feelings can do just as much damage. When it came down to it, I didn’t have any defense. That was the last day that I wore that shirt.

It’s been nearly 25 years since that conversation, yet I think about it often. I think about how I could have stubbornly defended something as insignificantly important as a novelty t-shirt at the cost of one or more of the most important mentors in my life outside of my family.

25 years later, I’m a father. I’ve realized something else about that conversation. I realized that it came because I had a strong role model who happened to be a different ethnicity than myself. It was an opportunity to see the world from a perspective much different from mine. That one conversation that day led me to see the importance of attempting to see the world through someone else’s eyes.

I wonder how the thoughts, opinions and actions of my youth would have been shaped had I had even more exposure to those different than myself. My empathy toward the struggles of people of color, the LGBT+ community and others might have developed much earlier than it did. I might be better prepared to face the current world with a sense of openness that supersedes my own insecurities.

I hope my children get the chance to surround themselves with a diverse set of role models. I hope that they have teachers, coaches, mentors and trusted advisors from various backgrounds that not only help us guide them into adulthood but also help provide them with a set of perspectives that we never would be able to do ourselves. I hope that we are able to provide them avenues to engage with a variety of people from different backgrounds so that they may gain appreciation for who people are and where they come from.

Many complain about today’s demand for “Political Correctness,” without actually acknowledging what is actually being sought: respect, understanding, empathy and consideration for others. In the end, it really doesn’t seem like that much to ask. Hopefully by appreciating and celebrating the differences in each of us, we can find a way to embrace our similarities, in particular, our capacity to be kind.

This article was brought to you by Snarklets, Bracelets & Gifts Hand Stamped with Mantras for Real Life.

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