There’s a lot of discussion these days about race. Some say things are getting better, some say worse. I honestly don’t know which, because I’m white in America. But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel racism very personally, as it affects my family…our daughters aren’t white.
Born in China, my girls are what one GOP politician recently called “yellows”. They’ve been teased and called names and had kids pull on the corners of their eyes. It’s hard as a parent to see your child bullied. It somehow seems worse when the taunts are racist. My girls are innocent; they didn’t choose to be brought to the other side of the world and expected to make their way in a community that sometimes treats them differently. I’ve occasionally wondered if our choice was fair to them, but it no longer matters. It’s done, and they’re here, and I’m beyond grateful that they are. But they have to live with that choice, along with our nation’s long struggle with racism.
I don’t know what the answer is or how we heal our country. I don’t know how to fulfill the dream of judging others based on the content of their character, and not on the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes. I only know that when we don’t, it makes me angry. I get angry that my daughters and millions like them are judged on the most superficial of traits. I get afraid that we allow our politicians to stoke our fears of “the other”. And I mourn for the hurt that it causes us all. But I also believe that most people are good. I believe that our nation was founded on the idea that we can become better, as we have on many fronts over our history. I believe fear of those different from us breaks down when we get to know those others. I haven’t given up. All we need is to build bridges on a personal basis. Please pledge with me to build those bridges. Get to know people like my daughters. We’re all children of God.
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality…I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.
This week I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for awhile. She’s originally from Romania, but has been living in Brazil the last couple of years. We met at orientation on day one of our new jobs; Romania is my favorite travel spot of all time, giving us an early connection that stuck. Her globetrotting life stories are so much more interesting than my Kansas girl background.
I’m beyond grateful to have had the privilege of getting to know many amazing people from all over the world. I can’t fully articulate how, but I know that they’ve changed my perspective, and positively so. I’ve had so many learnings, large and small, that stand out over the years. There’s the young Filipino woman who emigrated to New York at age 13. She told me that she still dreams in Tagalog, though she’d been in America longer than her country of birth. There’s the tall, blonde German friend who married a woman from Singapore and had two beautiful boys who looked stuck between two continents. I remember my shock at a woman from Malaysia sharing that she was reluctant to speak up in English, afraid of saying something wrong. It hadn’t occurred to her until I told her that us single-language, ethnocentric Americans were instead in awe of her ability to speak English, given how radically different it is from her native Chinese. I heard the story of how many cattle and goats were required for the dowry of a Kenyan friend’s wife, as we sat around their family dinner table outside of London. I learned how a dear friend from Brazil became the man of the house at age six, when his father was killed in a freak accident after a tree fell on his car on his way to the bank to purchase their first family home. My friend is the most courageous, fearless person I’ve ever met.
Then there’s the friend who had the privilege of traveling the world for 30 years. Though he retired to Florida from very unexotic Minnesota, his gift for story-telling about his quixotic global adventures had me in tears more than once. I still think he needs to write a book about them.
I’m scheduling coffee to catch up with my Romanian friend, now that she’s back in the States; I’m eager to hear the stories of her adventures in Brazil. And this Kansas girl’s life will be just a little richer for hearing them.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” –Mark Twain
I once participated in a team building exercise where we drew pictures of our lives and then explained briefly how each picture described who we were and what mattered to us. New to the team, I knew one of my co-workers was talkative, but was unprepared to be taken blow by blow through his life for over an hour. I remember none of the details except hearing about every decision and unfortunate twist which landed him with us, instead of a bigger, more important job like his classmates from whatever Ivy League MBA school he’d attended. I otherwise enjoyed the exercise; it was a great way to get to know my new team mates, including learning to avoid the Ivy Leaguer.
Someone wise recently oberved to me that all people are selfish to some extent. It’s true, we can’t help it…it’s Darwinian to focus on our needs. Besides, who feels what happens to us more than we do? If it’s good, we want more; if it’s bad, we want it to stop. And yet…I ran to the neighborhood store this weekend to pick up a single ingredient for dinner. I was in such a hurry, that only halfway to the car did I remember that I’d asked for $20 cash back with my $2 purchase. Just as I turned around, the kid who was in line behind me was there in the parking lot, handing me my money. He was maybe 20 and looked to be someone all this talk about building a wall might have kept out. I hadn’t even looked his way when he came up behind me in line…it would have been easy for him to take that bill and disappear. Instead, he left his place in line and followed me outside the store to return it. He was back in the store before I could do anything more than say ‘thank you’.
So, yes, we’re all selfish. But we’re also all human…kind and honest and caring. Genetics has scientifically disproved race as a legitimate difference between us. We must call out the examples which prove this, to balance against the stories we see in the evening news. Just as important as fighting our individual selfish nature, it is crucial to fight against the selfishness of the mob mentality. We are all in this world and this thing called life together.
“Moral evil is the immorality and pain and suffering and tragedy that come because we choose to be selfish, arrogant, uncaring, hateful and abusive.” –Lee Strobel
I once spent a lovely weekend in York, England with a colleague. We were working on a two week project and had the middle weekend free. A consultant working with us chose to go to Scotland. I preferred to go there, but my colleague was a young woman barely out of college from a small town in Minnesota. As the leader of the project, I didn’t feel comfortable letting her travel alone. The seasoned consultant would be fine on her own.
York was lovely: picturesque and quaint, like a postcard picture brought to life. We walked the length of the city wall, window shopped frilly ladies hats, and ate sweets at Betty’s, the famous tea shoppe. The finicky British weather behaved perfectly for us on that spring Saturday in March. We chose a local pub for dinner, only a block from our hotel, and looked forward to sampling the local food and culture.
The pub was busy by the time we arrived as the sun was setting, full of locals. We found our table and ordered our meals from the harried waitress. As we chatted and observed, it quickly became apparent that the gentlemen at the table next to us had had too much to drink. They were loud and paid us a little attention…any from them was too much. But after awhile, they turned their attention elsewhere, to two men sitting next to us at the bar. Unlike the drunks, these men were well-mannered and bothering no one. It took me a few minutes to realize what was going on…the comment made by the loudest drunk referring to the two men as “ladies” finally tipped me off. After a few minutes of harassment, the polite gentlemen quietly left. The loud table next to us stayed loud. Luckily, we’d finished our meal by then. We quickly paid and left, walking briskly in the dark back to the hotel. It was an unsettling ending to an otherwise perfect day.
I’ve not forgotten that meal, now over five years ago. Hate and discrimination are frightening and memorable. Members of other races and LGBT face the potential every time they leave home. Laws like those passed this week in North Carolina and proposed in Georgia are about discrimination, period. Though there is no epidemic of trans persons molesting women and children in bathrooms, 70% of trans people say they have faced harassment in restrooms themselves. These laws are as spiteful as they are unnecessary. Our Constitution was constructed specifically to protect minorities from the will of the majority…it’s the reason that America has been the symbol of freedom in the world for over 200 years. We are not this.
“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” –Martin Luther King Jr.
Jamil Mahuad, the ex-president of Ecuador who brought peace with Peru, said we are each obligated to be our unique selves. He believes that everyone has a couple of things in life that only we can do, and if we do not play our part, then who will?
What a wonderful thought! It’s reassuring that it’s ok to be myself. At work, at school, at home, we all face constant pressure to fit others’ ideas of who we should be. This pressure is manageable for most of us most of the time, but it drains our energy, whether or not we give in…and we all do at times. At one point earlier in my career, I actually changed the way I dressed to the “team uniform” of khaki pants and denim shirt, in a futile attempt to fit into a cliquish group. I know how ridiculous that sounds now, and it didn’t work. Some of you may remember me then…did I seem happy? I wasn’t again until I moved to a team which allowed me to be myself, though the new group had spectacular problems of its own.
But Mr. Mahaud’s primary point is truly awesome: it had never occurred to me that there’s a short list of things which I, and only I, am supposed to accomplish. What a wonderful discovery process I have ahead of me to find them! At mid-life, I have my suspicions by now as to what a couple of them may be, but I’m also guessing that some of them are too far down the horizon yet to see. We all want to make a difference, and we all need hope: hope that tomorrow will be better, hope that our failings can be turned around. My hope is that I have a unique purpose…things that I’m supposed to do that matter somehow. I simply need to focus on being the me that I am supposed to be.
“To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” –William Shakespeare
I spent three days this week in Montgomery, Alabama. Few cities in America are as associated with as specific a moment in history as Montgomery. Other cities are known for their landmarks or their cultures or even their food. Montgomery is known for its pivotal role in America’s civil rights movement.
We’re taught, of course, about the civil rights movement in school. We learn the names of those who played prominent roles: Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers. We think we know the story, but we have been taught only a pale, sound bite version. The whole truth always has many more layers than can be fit into a history textbook or regurgitated on a test. For example, I learned this week that George Wallace’s portrait still hangs in the state Capitol, just blocks away from a very different, and more famous, picture of him displayed at the Rosa Parks Museum. I learned that the Civil Rights Memorial, run by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has stricter security than the airport I took to get there. I learned the names of 40 victims, some of them innocent children, who were murdered in the ten years between Brown vs. Board of Education and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. I learned that the Confederate flag hangs still today in the House chamber used for the state of the state address. Think of the message that sends to all of the schoolchildren–and all of us–who watch this annual event.
Much progress has been made, but much remains to be done. Today the battle against racism has shifted to more of an economic one. Today there are new front lines in the civil rights battle around LGBT and disabled communities. The history in Montgomery is important to remember because we must not forget the fight is not over. Until all people are judged by the content of their character, and not by their differences, none of us should feel safe, lest tomorrow we find ourselves the ones who are different.
“It is often easier to become outraged by injustice half a world away than by oppression and discrimination half a block from home.” –Carl T. Rowan
A friend recently ranted on Facebook about someone who had no use for her until he found out she could help him. I understand her anger–I remember well my own first such experience.
I was a fresh college grad, and the head of our small internal audit department cubicled right next to me. Day after day, he ignored me without so much as a hello, until my first promotion. Suddenly, he was super chatty…the difference was stark. I was appalled. I was ok with him when I thought he was just socially awkward. I suddenly was not when I realized he was only a status-conscious jerk. Ever since, I have had the least use of all for those who believe in two classes of citizens: those who they believe can help them, and those who can’t.
I can tolerate obnoxious jerks, as long as they’re equally obnoxious to all of us. I’ve even become near-friends with some of them, as I got to know them and discovered they have value to add. I can also handle neurotic, flawed people who struggle to maintain healthy relationships with others due to their issues–I don’t mind going more than halfway. But I can’t stand someone if they’re only being nice to me because they think I can do something for them. I can’t trust them…they’ve made it clear the only person who will ever matter to them is themselves.
I believe in the value of every human being, even the jerks. But I’ll also admit to the irony in struggling to find value in those who don’t feel the same way. Heaven knows, this world doesn’t need more second class citizens.
“Play fair. Don’t hit people. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.” –Robert Fulghum, Everything I Needed To Know I Learned In Kindergarten