Monday, October 24, 2011

A Rude Awakening- Racism; The Danger of A Single Story

Sometimes I prefer the world I have created for myself. I like to think that people in general have become better, more intelligent and more open minded. While I have experienced some ignorance on line in dealing with some political issues, I have not had to deal with personally horrible attacks. While I know that there is a plethora of hate sites on the internet, it doesn't enter my world. So please don't think that I am totally out of touch.

You see I grew up in the deep south during the civil rights movement. My family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, one month after Dr. King was murdered. I can tell stories that my children just don't believe. History books they read and believe, but my stories...well I'm only mom. Honestly,  I truly thought that the majority of people, at least according to the polling data, for want of a better explanation, were becoming less stupid.

Now I know that lessening of ignorance is not always the case when it comes to persons with disabilities. We talk all the time about how society does not understand our children and how there needs to be a greater effort to educate about invisible disabilities in this world. You see this I get. This I understand. Sixteen years ago when CM1 was diagnosed the world did not even talk about aspergers, but today it is on everyone's mind. Laws protecting the rights of those with disabilities and an openness of discussion has helped. But I know there is also a long way to go.

It's the other affronts I just don't get. OK, I am talking about the United States, not about any other nation in the world. There are some places that racism, antisemitism and simple hatred of the "other" is a mainstay of life.  But I really thought that those of us who live in the US were beyond that or we were working hard to get there.

Yes, I have written about the antisemitism that CM2 faced his last year of highschool. Yes there have been unrelated incidents of intermittent racism as well in the high school. There have been really stupid stuff too, like when students thought it was funny to spray paint an Indian-American student's (not Native-American) car with the word "Moslem." Stupid kids doing stupid things. They were his "friends" and they thought it was a big silly hoot, not something mean or racist. I suppose the hoot was on them when they tried to explain their suspensions to the colleges of their choice.

As I have mentioned too, my boys seem to be very attuned to incidents of any kind of bigotry and any kind of hate. CM2 chose to take classes on prejudice and genocide and CM1 is specializing in the Holocaust. When confronted by judgmental ignorance of any kind, CM1 has always been befuddled. He always asks, "What is wrong with everyone?" Honestly I have no answer for him. But in truth most of these incidents have been few and far between. I truly thought that in many ways they were characteristic of their generation when it came to acceptance. Today I think my children may be the exception, not the rule.

I started rethinking my world view when I was confronted with some real hate just the other day...

I was talking to one of the women who work in my local little convenience gourmet market. She is an immigrant from Ireland. I personally love to talk to her because she is so down to earth and of course that brogue is just wonderful. She has several grown sons, all married. I remembered that she lives in a two-family house that she shares with one of her married sons and his family. She revels in her grandchildren and loves talking about them.

Last week, I was talking to her about the holidays coming up and if she has all her grandchildren with her at Christmas. She told me that one of her DIL's won't come visit, or allow her child to come either, because some of her other grandchildren are African-american. I think I stood with my mouth agape until she said something else. She told me that in fact hateful DIL is very well educated. This DIL actually said that she doesn't want her child in the company of "people like that." I asked her about her son and why he doesn't intervene...she truly had no answer. She just kept reassuring me that her African-american grandchildren are wonderful boys. I told her I have no doubt, since they apparently have wonderful grandparents and parents. (People always assume that having an education automatically means someone is intelligent. Well I beg to differ, greatly.)

Then I asked one of the women she works with who is Hispanic if she encountered alot of racism too. She is an immigrant and told me that race was not an issue where she was brought up. There was a nonchalance about race in her society. But that the moment she got to the US everyone started to categorize her by her skin-tone. Whereever she goes its about the color of her skin, including in her own "community." There are things you need to assimilate to live in the American culture, but I had hoped that it wouldn't be racism.

This reminded me of a story from years ago, when the boys were taking gymnastic lessons. There was another student there who is Puerto Rican. Now his skin color is also dark and he has kinky-curly hair. His mother told me how she got into an argument with some woman about their ethnicity. The other woman kept insisting on defining them by the color of their skin while they defined themselves as Puerto Rican. The gymnasts-mother told me the same thing as the woman who worked in the gourmet market. In their world race doesn't matter. The ignorant woman on the other hand kept insisting that they were African-american. She would not listen to how the gymnasts-mother saw herself and her family. I think the hubris was that someone else was trying to define who this family happens to be.

I have railed against the lack of respect for self-definition when it comes to autism and when it comes to Judaism as well. There are many in the autism community who make a big deal about language...If you don't use person first language you are considered a bigot. If you want to be a part of the autism community the only that that can define you is your autism. You have to walk lock-step in line with whomever has decided to make themselves head "Autism-Grand-poobah." It irks me because defining yourself is a humanright.

When it comes to Judaism it seems the anti-Semites try to define who the Jewish people are, and what Judaism happens to be. They tell Jews what their religion means, what is their heritage and how it is to be presented. They refuse to listen to how the Jewish people define themselves. The anti-Semite doesn't just ignore the reality of the holocaust, they ignore that the Jewish people are a people complete with history, ethnic reality (language, land and subsequent culture) just like other nations on the planet. Equal in stature to others and equal in rights to others as well.

Since when do you not get to define yourself. Since when do others get the right to tell you who you are, how you should view the world and what heritage you are allowed to share? Are you as a humanbeing allowed to be a multidimensional individual, replete with wonderful gifts to give the world? Why are you as that individual not allowed to be seen simply as a humanbeing first and foremost?

I was having lunch with brilliant-computer-sis the other day and telling her about my conversations with the two women who work in my neighborhood. I was totally shocked that this was still the reality for some. I think the reason I thought racism was tempered was simply because the charge of racism is so easily bandied about in today's world. It's almost like the boy who cried wolf. If everytime you disagree with someone they accuse you of being racist then the accuser doesn't have to listen to your policy objections. It may make the accuser's world more secure, because they can just dismiss your objections easily, but it doesn't solve the real problems. If it is believed that everything someone does positive or negative is dependent solely upon race, then when there is a real issue of racism noone will listen.

By the way my sis thought I was terribly naive. She told me a story about how she was trying to catch a cab the other day and also on the same corner was an extremely well-dressed African-American gentleman. The cabs would stop for her but when she would turn to give him the cab since he was there first, the cab would speed away. After about five times, she hoped in a cab and then offered to share it with him. By that time the cabbie could do nothing but fume. (Honestly I remember these stories from when we lived in the city 16 years ago, but had really thought there had been a stop to this ignorance.)

He told her that he was in town on business and was meeting friends for dinner. His friends just happen to be Caucasian. They went home to change and he said he was going to go up to the restaurant early. He also bet them that they would still get there before him. This man is a well-respected professional sports-coach. My sister asked him if it helps any that those morons who wouldn't stop for him, could not afford a ticket to one of his teams games....he just smiled.

Sometimes things or situations are so untenable all you can do is smile....otherwise you might spend your life so angry you couldn't enjoy your life. Then the haters would really win, wouldn't they?

Until next time,


This is a fascinating talk given by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie. Listen, it is a treat. This is not about cultural relativism, it is about understanding who someone is and where they come from, seeing beyond a single dimension. Enjoy.