With Martin Luther King Jr. day falling on Jan. 15, it is a good time to reflect on how the nation is doing in terms of race relations. Though this topic is an extraordinarily sensitive and serious issue, here I am going to examine the everyday racism that pervades our minds so that we can challenge ourselves to be more enlightened, conscientious and kind human beings.

A good example of unintended — yet nevertheless damaging — racism can be witnessed by a recent H&M ad that has since gone viral. The clothing ad features a black boy wearing a hoodie with the writing “coolest monkey in the jungle.” If this wasn’t offensive enough, a white boy is placed in a shirt bearing the words “survival expert.” This insensitive clothing choice caused intense media scrutiny, with many people including celebrities — such as singer the Weeknd, who announced he would no longer be collaborating with H&M — sharing their blatant distaste and anger over the ad.

Let’s look at this from another perspective. First, this shows us that while these kinds of insensitive and ignorant things are still occurring, their are many people out there raising their voices and slamming down their fists. But at the same time, perhaps anger is not the best solution in this case. The mother, Terry Mango, of the child model posted a statement to her Facebook, writing “I am the mum and this is one of hundreds of outfits my son has modeled…stop crying wolf all the time, unnecessary issue here…get over it.”

With racism persisting in the lives of many on a daily basis, lots of people have learned that they must choose their battles and cannot react to every ounce of discrimination. We also live in a culture where people are hyper-ready to be offended, when sometimes they need to let things go. To help navigate this tricky wire between not taking things too seriously and understanding when we are being wrong as human beings, I believe we first must examine some critical aspects of ourselves.

Many of us do not intend to be racist. We do not label ourselves racists, nor think of ourselves as racists, but just how tolerant are we? It is normal, perhaps unavoidable, to hold subconscious biases. We make racially charged jokes from within the comfort and security of our select same-race circles, then laugh it off as a jest. I’m not racist, it was a joke! we will say, allowing stereotypes to permeate our minds and at times our lips, likely without thinking about it. No this kind of casual, everyday racial prejudice is not as serious as the violence, hatred and blatant discrimination that we must reconcile as a nation. But this kind of seemingly minor behavior is part of the larger problem.

By feeding into these everyday jokes, comments, thoughts, etc., we are normalizing racism. We are teaching our friends and our children that it is okay to judge, group or label people based on their skin color. Maybe some day we will have evolved enough as a collective whole that these comments can be considered lighthearted. But when there is still so much real hatred in people’s hearts and people in our own country are still dying due to their skin color, I do not believe these are things we should normalize as humor. Furthermore, there is an inherent danger to stereotyping — which at the very least is deeply reductive. When we divide people into groups or concepts based on certain traits that they have no control over and then associate them with certain ideas because of that, we are effectively eliminating that person’s individual identity. Why can’t every human be allowed to exist as they are and be judged on their kindness, personality, contribution to the world — at the very least, things they have control over.

We simply have to consider the implications of what we say and do. It is easy to say that our comments are not intended to be offensive, but what are the consequences of our words? What are the repercussions of our behaviors? What prejudices are we feeding into, what stereotypes are we reinforcing, what divisions are we strengthening?

Rather than allow our differences to further divide us, situations like the H&M debacle can be used as an opportunity to grow as human beings and help break down the persistent and immense barrier of racism that is an omnipresent weight on the lives of many. Yes, we have come a tremendous way in working towards tolerance of all kinds since the days of the great Martin Luther King Jr. But we still have a long way to come. The first step we can take is to have an honest discussion with ourselves about how we might be subconsciously retaining prejudices, and then we can work towards — or in the cases of many, continue — our paths towards being more accepting, loving, brilliant people.

Emma Polini is the managing editor of the Van Alstyne Leader, Anna-Melissa Tribune and Prosper Press. What do you want in your paper? Email her at epolini@heralddemocrat.com to let her know.