In this week where we are about to celebrate the Fourth of July, we the people of the United States have finally started having a conversation. Granted, we are still firing up our grills and bantering about whether air shows should be funded in spite of sequestration. But, there is a different conversation emerging that cannot be drowned out. We are finally starting to talk about the hidden, insidious lines of demarcation that persist in our beloved country. Racism. Heterosexism. Gender bias. We are not quite ready to apply those words yet, but we’re getting closer. Let me help this conversation along in my own way, considering three stories on the national front page that offer the opportunity for us to engage in open, learning-centered dialogue.
First, let me start with a relevant disquieting point of light from my own past about having the uncomfortable, but necessary, conversation.
I was 19 years old and naive when I moved from my protected, country upbringing into the city. I grew up talking about civil rights as if they were a historical event, something only relevant in the south. Our silence about race was solidarity and protection. Racial slurs were commonplace, and generally accepted. No one talked about being gay and if they did, it was in hushed tones demeaning “those people” or louder joking, effectively separating “us” and “them.” Even people I loved constantly belittled the role and status of women in the work-force with statements like, “just let me talk to a man so we can fix this.” I rode that silence through an all-white high school, a mostly all white but certainly all Christian first two years at college, and yet sang “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world…” on Sunday as though the world was colorblind and blissfully accepting of all groups. As I emerged into adulthood, including becoming a social worker, I became radically aware of my privilege and my ignorance. This was due in no small way to one professor willing to put the uncomfortable conversation on race, ethnicity, gender and privilege out there, as we do in our social work curriculum. Suddenly, the silence was deafening and the privileges I experienced felt oppressive. Thank you, Larry.
My life lesson in initiating the conversation came during my 19 year old naïveté when I moved to the city to finish my social work training, took a job as an Activities Assistant at an urban nursing home, and worked side by side with people who looked entirely different from me as my co-workers, and my supervisors. It was a union shop, and I joined. I was on the lowest rung of wage earners. I worked hard for every dime, which went to pay my portion of rent in the two bedroom apartment shared with three, sometimes four, others. I am a kind soul by nature, so I detest the thought of inflicting pain on another human being. But, I am also a self-protective human and I know when I am faced with a heap of trouble.
That was the situation the day I backed the facility’s brand new wheelchair van into a gate, pulling off the back bumper, with a van full of seniors. I avoided swearing, and I remained calm until I got to the office and all passengers were unloaded. I surveyed the damage and thought, “Oh Shit. I am in so much trouble.”
It was a Saturday and I was the only one working in my department. I wrote a note to my supervisor explaining the bumper-bending incident, avoiding filling out an incident report since no people came to harm, and asked her to “calm the savages” in the transportation department so that I wouldn’t get into trouble or have to pay damages with money I didn’t have.
I meant nothing by that statement other than self-protectiveness of my low wage status with those who had the power to dock my meager pay. I was ignorant…and ridiculously naive…of how it would be received by the African-American head of the transportation department. What happened Monday morning will linger with me for the rest of my life, though. I wasn’t allowed to clock in until I reported to transportation, where I was greeted by the director (and the Assistant Administrator) who held the letter I had written in his hands. They asked me to describe the vehicle accident, and I did. Then the transportation director took off his glasses, held my letter between us, and said to me: “Tell me to my face that I am a savage.” My heart was in my throat. I realized in that instant the awful power of careless words. I realized my own self-protection. I realized my privilege and yes, my racism. I said, “You are not. But my words were. I am so sorry.”
In that moment, I didn’t care if my pay was docked for a year or if I got a formal write up. I received neither, incidentally. I cared about the human being I had offended, and all that could be inferred upon my careless, thoughtless words. We went on to have a conversation about historical racism that radically altered my world-view. We put our individual and collective histories on the table that morning. We had the conversation and engaged in reconciliation. Thank you, Gene.
Why does this small point of light shine in my mind this week? Because we need to have the uncomfortable conversation.
The Paula Deen story begs us to converse about what motivates our racial slurs, stereotypes, and acceptance of derogatory humor. It begs us to have the kind of high integrity, reconciling conversations that were had with me in a basement office in the ignorance of my youth, privilege, and self-protectiveness. It is not about whether we blame her or stand by her, but how this story changes our dialogue on race, and forces us to confront our own racism and privilege.
The Supreme Court over-rule of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act begs us to converse about why one group privileges their religious or moral convictions over the experiences of another group. It is so much easier to take away rights than to step in and know people, to experience the real and poignant relationships between people of the same and the opposite sex. This story is not about waving flags of morality, it is about having the conversation around privilege and justice.
And let’s converse about Texas. The controversy over Wendy Davis’ filibuster isn’t simply around a political issue, but around our comfort with women taking a stand, and people standing with her. This story begs a conversation not just about policy governing the provision of abortion services, but around why women must use clinics in general to access reproductive care, or why women are forced into unwanted pregnancies through coerced sex, or why we legislate away difficult decisions between individuals and health care providers. It begs us to converse about why it is “OK” for a white man to filibuster the House of Representatives, but not OK for a woman. We need to have the conversation.
Let’s have the conversation this week. With those who think like we do, and those who do not. Have the difficult conversation. Listen. Reconcile.
But whatever we do, let’s start by having the conversation.