“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
That line from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, one of the most famous American speeches of all time, has been used by a lot of people to mean a lot of different things.
It should be simple enough. At a glance it says “don’t base your beliefs about someone based on how they look, but by how they are”.
Issues arise over the meaning, however, where people interpret particular words King chose to use or get into the complications of defining “judgment” or “character”.
A good place to start looking for different interpretations of the quote is King’s own children who he mentions in that very sentence.
Martin Luther King III and Bernice King spoke about this particular quote in 2013, 50 years after the famous “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered in Washington D.C.
Bernice said that her father would want people to celebrate the color of their skin and the culture that comes with it. Martin III said that his father’s hopes were to one day to live in a “colorblind” society, but that such a place cannot exist until issues such as widespread poverty are solved.
For those already trying to live in a colorblind society, the quote is a call to move away from programs/practices that give privilege to minorities over non-minorities based on race.
From their point of view, things like affirmative action that were created to lift the disproportionate minorities in poverty out of that situation are now toxic by holding minorities to lower standards in skill or education.
The way King’s words can have multiple definitions lead to questions like how to respect another’s culture while also judging them based on their individual self, or whether that judgment only applies to casual interactions or in a professional relationship. The answer lies in how a person’s ancestral background intertwines with their unique experiences.
A person’s character is unique. It is made up of personal experiences and choices, but this is not to say that it is removed from one’s culture.
Factors like religion, upbringing, economic status, and culture have a strong impact on the way one chooses to live their life, and therefore the way one builds their character.
Those factors are also likely to be brought on by race. In this way, race contributes to one’s character, though it is far from the only part of it.
The past year has seen plenty of blockbuster films starring people of color, but most important is that some of those films have dealt with the question of where race lies in the relationship between individuals and those around them.
John David Washington, star of 2018’s Best Picture-nominee BlacKkKlansman, called King’s message of judging people based on the content of their character, not color, his most important idea. His film highlights how following King’s message can destroy prejudice. (I didn’t get around to reviewing the film last year, so here’s a short one: it’s good.)
Washington plays Ron Stallworth, a real-life African-American detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970’s. Over the course of the film, Stallworth interacts with KKK Grand Wizard David Duke over the phone. Duke takes a liking to Stallworth, believing him to be white by his KKK membership and manner of speech.
The manner of speech is important. Washington goes to great lengths in the film to preserve Stallworth’s distinct accent and inflections, aspects of the man’s character. Duke was only exposed to Stallworth’s character and he liked it, highlighting that if he would look past skin color he would actually like many minorities.
BlacKkKlansman also does a good job at portraying how race influences character without deciding it. Stallworth and another African-American character, Patrice Dumas, both have similar tastes in music and films, likely influenced by their black culture. Yet they have strong differing views about things like the police.
The characters’ shared culture is a gateway for each to be able to judge each other’s character. So then what of judging the character of someone who comes from a different culture than your own? Luckily another 2018 film takes on this challenge.
Best Animated Feature Film-nominee Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse may not put race at the forefront of its story, but its diverse cast of Spider-Men emphasize with each other exactly as King wanted all men to do. (Again, I didn’t review this one; again, it’s good.)
The story revolves around Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino teenager who feels alone in the world. His Brooklyn culture influences the way he presents himself, including his clothing and language (he switches between English and Spanish), as well as the music he listens to and his activities like spray-painting.
Miles is purposely a very different Spider-Man from the Queens-raised Peter Parker who most famously wears the webbed costume. Even further removed are the other Spider-Men featured in the film like Gwen Stacey and the Japanese-American Peni Parker.
Yet despite the fact that each Spider-Man comes from a unique culture and not all share the same skin color, they find community within each other through their shared struggles. All have experienced loss in their lives and all feel the burden of the great responsibility their great power brings.
Even if you cannot relate to somebody based on their culture, there is certain to be some part of their unique character that is similar to you. Nobody has identical experiences or struggles, but all humans have faced things that are similar enough to emphasize with one another.
Furthermore, while looking past somebody’s race is key to getting to really know them, understand that their race can be an important part of how they choose to define their self. And because each person’s character is unique, their race may influence their character to a varying degree.
While there will surely be debates over the meaning and applications of King’s quote for years to come, the right way to follow his wishes in day-to-day actions may be the simplest: set aside any judgments about a person until they show you their own unique character.