Saturday, June 13, 2015

My People

McKinney, Texas, a pool party with police involvement...anyone else feel like saying, "Here we go again!"?  It seems to be another incident that divides us down the marrow, pointing out some big gaps in the unity of a nation.  As someone who straddles the colorline because of her children, news stories like the McKinney story leave me unsettled.  Not because I fear for my childrens' lives were they to encounter the police but because I find myself struggling to navigate the conversations that occur regarding such events.  I consider myself to be an independent thinker and as with most divisive issues, there is little room for independent thought.  Instead, you must pick a side, something I try to avoid.

This week, I appreciated these words by Deidra Riggs.  (Full post found here.)

"Many of us find it easy to identify with the young girl on the ground if we’ve found ourselves (literally or figuratively) pushed to the ground with our face shoved into the earth. Many of us who are parents talk about weeping when that young girl cried out for her momma.

Or on the flip side, those of us who know or are people who serve in law enforcement, or have felt threatened or disrespected have found ourselves advocating Eric Casebolt,​ the officer who ​recently resigned from his position.
We empathize with the people who seem to represent us, and whose stories we feel we know and have lived. "

When it comes to empathy, perspective is everything and when it comes to issues connected to race, privilege, and our ideas of fairness and justice, our personal perspective matters a lot.  I really believe that racial divides in our country will not be healed until people on all side of the issue are willing to listen to the other perspective, to listen for understanding rather than just listening to agree or disagree.  Choosing to hear why someone feels the way they do does not indicate agreement; it only indicates that you are flexible enough to look at life through the eyes of someone else.  Unfortunately, too many people are quick to dismiss the viewpoint of someone else because that person's experience and feelings have not been the same as their own; in other words, we divide ourselves based on what we deem to be an accurate representation of the events (and of the past) and it quickly devolves into a subconsious dichotomy of us vs. them.

Us vs. them.  No the way I want to live my life and certainly not a recipe for resolving conflict. What if we all made an effort to let go of the idea of us vs. them and instead brought them into us.  From Riggs' post,

 "But, what if both the young girl and the officer in the McKinney video were considered to be “my people”? What would that change for us, as people of faith? How would our conversations change?  What would change if, in our conversations about McKinney, we refused to buy into the “Us” vs. “Them” narrative, and instead acted as though we all belong to one another? "

How then do we get past the us vs. them thinking?  How do we engage each other in meaningful conversations rather than the ones I currently seem to see.  You know those conversations, the ones were two groups quickly form and each group talks beside each other, often in a circular fashion, repeating and rehashing their view rather than actually conversing with each other.  Here's my take on how to shift from that type of dialogue to real words and real actions that really matter.

1.  Acknowledge what colors our own perspectives.  I am a descendant of pioneer families.  No one gave anything to anyone in my family.  Hard work, self reliance, and personal responsibility are pretty much the 11th, 12th, and 13th Commandments.  I come from a rural area of Nebraska where people did not have electricity or indoor plumbing on the farms until very late comparatively.  My parents got caught up in the farm crisis of the 1980's and faced bankruptcy and a farm sale.  I lived in a mobile home and then a double wide on a farm.   Nothing about my background seems privileged.

 I did not grow up in the South.  I did not grow up in a large city or even near an ubran area.  I grew up in a small town that was essentially all white.  I really don't have much memory of anything connected to racial issues save a few overheard conversations when we had some Mexican families move to town and there was some discussion about if people would want to live next to them.  I also remembering learning in high school that Sp*c was a racial slur; I learned that because the use of that word was an issue at least once during my high school years.  I read Roots two times in between eighth grade and high school because I was fascinated by it.  (In a similar vein, one of my most favorite books from elementary was Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry which chronicles the black Talor family in the South circa 1930.)  I thought that I was going to become an inner city English teacher.  Since then, I have not ever lived in a large urban area.  I did spend a summer teaching at a group home for 7-12 grade boys but it was not in an inner city.

I got married, had several elementary teaching jobs, and ended up in a smallish town in Nebraska where there is a packing plant and a highly diverse and mobile population.  My husband became the high school varsity soccer coach which is a bit like saying he coaches the United Nations.    At one time our high school had ten languages spoken in it.  I've traveled internationally multiple times, to Romania, Peru, China, and Haiti.  I have a bachelor's degree and a master's degree.  I married young, before I finished college, but had my kids later in life  than many.

I adopted first, on purpose and have two brown kids, an Asian kid who is missing most of his fingers, and a white kid.  The worst things I have ever heard said about our family have not come from plain old white people.  The most hurtful thing said about our family came from someone I did not know, a black woman on an online group who asserted that all white people see when they see me is a mom with 2 n-word children.  Likewise, another hurtful comment came from another mom who is parenting transracially, a white mom who did not direct her comments specifically at me but basically said that anyone who does not just fall in line on what to believe about race relations is "whitesplaining" and that their privilege (as in white privilege) is showing.   I find it completely ironic that these two women are the ones whose words have hurt me the most.  I have heard no other comments nor have I experienced any actions that would indicate others have a problem with the way our family looks.

I generally am a rule follower and tend towards deferring to people in authority.  I try to avoid conflict but am not afraid to share my opinion.  I am a Christ follower who believes that we are called to love, to be peacemakers, to act in a way that sets us apart from others.

 All of those things (and so much more) builds the foundation of who I am and how I perceive incidents like the one in Texas.  If all of us took the time to really examine who we are and how our histories and personalities shape our perspectives, I'm guessing conversations would be a lot more fruitful.  I fully recognize what I have experienced and what I have not.

2.  Quit focusing on what the other side is doing, especially as it pertains to what the other side is not doing right.  We tell our kids that the only person you can control is you.  You cannot control the attitudes and actions of others and pointing out the mistakes others are making only widens the gap between us and them.  Instead, do some introspection and consider how you can make things better.

Maybe you are someone who has innocently referred to people who are different to you as if they are a common unit, who has said the phrase "those people" or "they always."  It sounds like a small little thing but the choice to not lump everyone into one collective group and instead see people as individuals matters.  Make a commitment to change that phraseology.

Maybe you're someone who has often said the first thing that came to mind and then regretted it later as you realized it came out sounded a lot more harsh than you intended.  In doing so, maybe those words really hurt another.  Make a commitment to think about the feelings of others before you speak, remembering the adage about having one mouth and two ears for a reason.  And for heaven's sake, if you know you hurt someone, apologize.

Maybe you have been in a setting where you have heard racist things said but you stayed silent. It's hard to know why we do things like that. Maybe because we are shocked that anyone would really say what was just said.  Maybe because we were afraid to speak up.  Maybe because we really haven't thought about how such a comment really would make someone else feel.  Maybe because it's a culturally accepted sentiment, one we've never really questioned.   Make a commitment to come up with a standard response to use when that happens so you will be prepared lest it happens again.  (For the record, "why would you say that?" or "whatever do you mean?" are such responses to just tuck away for those types of situations.)

The reality is that whomever is on the other side of the issue is going to do things wrong.  They are people, fallible, fallen people.  But instead of telling them what they need to change, instead of making your empathy contingent upon their performance, we can instead offer up some olive branches by our own behavior.

3.  Think long and hard about the ideas of being colorblind and white privilege, from both sides of the discussion. Most white people who grew up post 1960 were bombarded with this idea of needing to be colorblind.  Many of those people heard Martin Luther King Jr's words urging people to judge not on the color of one's skin but by the content of one's character and they took those words to heart.  That is why so many white people look at Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, and the McKinney, Texas situation and put forth that those who ended up being harmed by the police were in some ways at fault.  Many of those saying this are appalled at the lack of respect shown to police officers and the conduct of the offenders; they are unconcerned about the skin color of the offender because they have been told time and time again that being colorblind is the way to think and because they have not personally experienced the police acting unjustly.  In other words, there are many white people who honestly believe what King said.  It is why white people say things like "It doesn't matter to me if he was white, brown, or purple..."  When people say that, it is an attempt to show how one is unmotivated by skin color.

On the flip side, for many people of color, the idea of being colorblind is laughable.  They have too much history that points to the idea of being colorblind as an impossibility.  For so many people of color, when they think about colorblindness, they see that as a privilege afforded only to white people.  Our nation's history of slavery and the Jim Crow South aside, many brown people feel like if colorblindness really exists, then why do the ratios on imprisonment, quality educational opportunities, job availability, and wages earned over time, seem skewed in one direction?  It is much harder to believe in the idea of colorblindness when you are on the front lines of those socioeconomic issues.

Those socioeconomic advantages that white people seem to share are often what people think of when they think of white privilege.  For many, white privilege gets simplified into this idea that white people are benefiting from a system that is rigged to help them be successful.  And at such a definition, many white people stop listening.  Most white people do not feel privileged.  They do not believe that there is any system in place that rewards them while penalizing others.  I honestly think if this idea of white privilege were renamed something else, that it might get more traction.  I think there are lot of people who might be willing to concede that it is harder for certain people to succeed in life, especially if the racial descriptor of white were removed.  It is pretty hard to deny that it is more difficult for the son of an immigrant farm worker, who has attended 12 different schools in 12 years, whose parents do not speak English and have fourth grade educations, to get to college and get a degree.  His path to success is not going to be the same as that of a middle class child whose parents are college educated, who help him with homework every night, who have chosen their home based on what school district their child would attend.  In situations that center on socioeconomic privilege, it seems like the word "white" is what prevents many people from agreeing that it exists.
It is also not just about socioeconomics.  Going back to the idea of being colorblind, for many people of color, the color of their skin is more a part of their identity than it is for white people.  For example if you asked a group of white people what it means to be white, most of them would be hard pressed to articulate any answer.  Pose that same question to a group of black people or even a group of Asian or Hispanic folks and the conversation would flow freely.

In terms of specific examples, consider this.  A group of white teenage boys descends upon a McDonalds, being a bit too rowdy and loud.  Nearby customers move several tables away to avoid the noise.  The situation is taken at face value, that the boys were loud and people wanted to get away from the chaos.  If that same group of boys happened to be black, the narrative for some would change.  Questions like "Did they move because they don't want to sit next to black people?" and "Did they move because they fear young black men and think all black men are troublemakers?" become part of the thought process.

It is a fair thing to say that white people do not think about their identity and how they are perceived by others in the same way that people of color do. For many people of color (and even just people who are coming from a lower socioeconomic background), denying that there is privilege is just not a reality simply because they look at their own personal experiences and can't seem to shake the questions inside their own heads.

4.    Look at the people who we do life with on a daily basis.  Find ways to live life with people who do not look just like us, act just like us, or think just like us.  As Riggs points us, even if we do not live in a racially diverse area, there are lots of opportunities to do life with those who differ than us.  Think about socio economics, think about political viewpoints, think about age.

Don't make someone your own personal project but make an effort to not settle for comfortable.  Step out and deliberately insert yourself into a situation where you are the only one...the only young person, the only old person, the only white person, the only black person, the only Christian, the only stay at home mom, the only working mom, the only non mom, the only...

Stretching yourself like that is what grows our sense of compassion.  It's what enables us to see those who are different as real people and gives us the chance to hear their stories, warts and all.  It gives those who are different than us the ability to likewise do the same.  Authentic living in a way that celebrates human diversity is one of the foundational pieces to loving others.

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