Monday, January 20, 2014

An Absence of Asterisks.

I just walked in and sat down.

I had been speaking with homeless men and women in downtown Raleigh, serving them coffee and letting them know in a simple way, they aren’t forgotten. They’re loved. All that.

Afterward, cold as I was and hoping to check a few things off my work list, I grabbed my laptop out of my car and walked into one of the restaurants flanking Moore Square. They opened at 11. It was 10:38. They’d unlocked their door but no employees were stationed inside. I walked in, greeting no one in particular with a lilt in my voice.

“Hello? Helloooo?”

I walked over to a booth, watching the kitchen door. I knew any moment waitstaff would emerge and I would explain my intentions. When she came out she was already smiling.

“Hey,” I said in a way I hoped was disarming. “I know you’re not open yet. I've been in the Square out front for a couple hours and now, if it’s ok, I was just going to crank out some email. When you’re officially open, I'll grab some food.”

“Oh honey that’s fine. Sit wherever you want. Coffee?”

“No thanks. Maybe some hot tea when you get a chance.”

“No problem.”

I sat down and began replying and forwarding. Earl Grey, ever my helpmate, was soon steeping at my side. 

I looked up at the door and then it hit me.

I couldn’t know it absolutely, but I was confident: There was no way any of the black men I’d just spent the morning with could pull off what I had just pulled off. 

I hadn’t made good on some exclusive invitation. There was no secret handshake. I simply walked in because I know in ways I don’t even know I know that I’m a white man, and hey, everything’s gonna be okay.

It’s often the case that when white men discuss race, they are either talking out of school about how everyone should feel, or expressing what is in some measure white guilt. I am hoping to avoid writing in either of those columns. In the last few years I have really begun to understand a principle at work in this world, of which I am part, that I had been blind to before. And it’s that privilege creates ignorance.

The ignorance I am referring to is similar* to adults forgetting the perspective of a child. Not just forgetting it, but also not realizing they have forgotten it, and therefore fundamentally failing the young human beings they are interacting with. Or the ignorance of someone who grew up in a positive, encouraging, stable home environment saying, “Just suck it up and try harder” to someone wracked with depression and anxiety. They not only don’t know, but they don’t know they don’t know - the surest way to invalidate the humans you think you’re helping. 

I think of it in terms of asterisks in this culture. As a white male in western society, according to how I think of it, I don’t generally have many, if any societal asterisks beside my name. I don’t carry around considerations or mitigators or annotations like others have been forced to. This allows me to walk into a closed establishment and be served, and to assume it would go that way. Perhaps that it even should. When I’ve told black men this story of the unopened restaurant that served me they’ve laughed and shook their incredulous heads. Must be nice. The absence of asterisks gives me an undeniable edge getting a job, even while I assume and claim I was hired for my resumé. It affects what happens, or doesn’t, when I’m pulled over by police. It affects how I’m received by strangers. This doesn’t begin to appreciate the very real economic, familial and educational pitfalls experienced disproportionately by men and women of color in this society seemingly underconcerned about continued gaps between us. The effects of these and other issues I only read about make much of their lives as alien to me as alien life would be. As I’ve listened to people over the years, and paid more attention to my own existence, I see clearly I am not having the same sort of experience as anyone else in the Land of the Free. 

Generalities ahoy. Indulge me a second:

I had a mind-blowing conversation with a woman a while back, and was left feeling like a different species. I could see clearly that if I were a white female, I would have at least one asterisk. Probably more. A clearing of the throat that comes with my entering the room, an alert to others in near undetectable ways that something else besides “human” is being measured, considered, etc. What about attractiveness? I’m a person, but am I an sexually attractive person? If I’m not sexually attractive, in what ways will that cost me? What about intelligence? What about toughness at work? Do I have kids? WHY NOT? As a female, when I walk to my car at night, I wouldn't intimidate. Intimidating others doesn’t even register. If anything, I'd feel intimidated; on guard in ways those with no asterisks couldn’t conceive of. “Woman” means other metrics and considerations are in play that steepen hills men rarely climb and too often claim aren’t there. Statistically, women more fear being taken advantage of or even raped when meeting someone on a blind date. Men fear the girl might be fat.

At risk of sounding like I am setting up some sort of joke, I can’t even imagine being a black lesbian. What is that, three asterisks? Five? After a day in those shoes, would I think America or the church or my job was a good, safe place? Home of the free? Where is “home” when your identity comes, as it does in so many places in our culture, with that many little stars barnacled to it? What would others’ (others with less or even no asterisks annotating them) rules and moralities and claims about freedom and hope and responsibility sound like through those ears? Like giving a well-meaning pat on the back to one with a third degree sunburn, there are pains and insults occurring in ways I couldn’t possibly understand and may unthinkingly find unintuitive and perhaps even wrongly felt. 

How could a white heterosexual male pastor have such confidence so as to tell this dear woman how to live her life, what causes her to be, what she must think and do, so removed as he is from anything like her existence? How would one attach Christ's - Emmanuel's - name to this?

I often hear white men say things like, “Look, I’m not racist. That’s the past and I wasn’t there” or “I treat everyone the same, male, female, black, white, so let’s cut the hypersensitivity crap…” There’s perhaps some substance to some of that. Often political correctness hijacks legitimate attempts at sensitivity and makes everything so taboo, people eventually get frustrated navigating the latest minefield and walk off. But, as a white male that can get hot tea in a closed restaurant, among other plushness I don’t know I’m experiencing on the hour, I’m finding my awareness of ignorance silencing me about how others should be acting or feeling in this world. I have lost the sense that I have the right to say when the conversation should end, or to what degree it has merit. How can those soaring the skies, unaware they are experiencing a rare privilege, have any real understanding, let alone any real empathic guidance, for those who for generations have had clipped wings? Clipped, historically as a matter of interest, by birds who've looked uncomfortably like me. 

And so I have become quiet in my opinions, and more vocal in my advocacy.

Dismissal of all this isn’t an option. Neither is the paralysis of shame and guilt. Both of those widen the divide, so far as I can tell. And most significantly, neither is it an option for me to think the logical outcome of all this is those who are not me are pitiful and weak. 

Much the opposite: there’s nothing as weak as ignorance. 

This flat path I’ve walked has been comparatively steep for others in ways I’m still only beginning to discover at nearly 40 years of age. That path has taken strength I don’t have, and hasn't been required of me. So I'm persuaded the weakness is mine. It’s easy to think my job is to save a world full of victims. My race has perpetuated evil against others and so now my race must be the messiah. 

No one is waiting for me to save them. See them, hear them, yes. But it would only be further ignorance, and arrogance, and weakness, to believe grown men and women are waiting for me to validate their existence and rescue them from my privilege.

So I’m trying to listen. To shut up and really listen. 

I am trying to be more aware of my own assumptions and ignorances, like a blind man who only recently discovered I don't see it never meant it's not there. Voter rights, school funding, enforcement of law, incarceration stats, employment, profiling, targeting, etc, etc. It’s easy to dismiss when you’re not, and never have been, under the heel of much of it. It’s easy to get tired of hearing it like some fad has overstayed its welcome. Instead, I try now to really hear. I don't get political, nor do I wait for the government to do what Christ's body (i.e. an awakened people who can see things as they really are, who speak for those with less voice, not just those who don't sleep in on Sundays) is called to do. I listen, I consider my role, I wake to my ignorance and unintentional complicity.**

I try and really hear and see the frustrating and often times horrific experiences of women in a work place full of men unaware of their own level of unawareness.

I try and remember my answers and ideas come from a place not sharable for millions and millions of my human family. 

I try and remember I don't know what it's like to not have it easier than most all human beings ever. Because I don't. 

Most humbling, I try and remember Jesus gravitated to those who were rejected and marginalized. Rejected by those who could deftly apply Bible verses which made the rejection God’s. I try and remember Jesus called guys like me, who experienced privilege unawarely and insensitive to those in the margins, blind guides. 

I think it would go along way for guys like me to really entertain a hard truth: Privilege makes for blindness, and the trick is this privilege insists we've been seeing all along. But there's a fundamental inability for those in the easy seats to appreciate what it’s actually like to live with all those little stars in tow. There's a spectrum to the human experience, and those blind to their advantage cannot be said to be sharing their lives with the disadvantaged.***

My friend said to me today true compassion is the creativity to imagine the experience of others. He's a black man. One asterisk in this culture? More? That's what I am hoping, to become creative enough to understand life outside my own, and in so doing actually broaden my take on what it means to live a human life, rather than just my comparatively easy sliver of it. To listen closely enough that ignorance and blindness drop like scales from my eyes. With this I will start to understand deeply that my brothers and sisters have had the deck stacked against them. So deeply will I understand this that, as it is with true compassion, I will feel the deck stacked against me. Because until the many become one, it's broken for all of us.

* I want to be careful with my illustration, as it might have the unintended effect of making statements about merit or worth or development. I don’t believe, for instance, that blacks are unmatured people, while whites are mature. The illustration pertains to the ignorance of those "with power".

** Maybe it's me with the asterisks. Maybe I have this backwards. How would I know......

*** I hope you understand this has barely anything to do with money.


Davone Allen said...

Great piece man. Some of us truly never get to hear other races, genders and cultures true stories on life and their personal experiences. Let alone racial concern. Its the elephant in the room that modern America has thrown a decorative sheet over. Ignorance....root word...ignored. Dialects and relationships have to be formed in order for an individual to have your type of revelation.

Steve said...

Thanks Davone. Hopefully it helps all for the ignorant to become less so. There's this olive-skinned Guy that said something about knowing the truth and being set free by it. Here's hoping.