In my earlier post on the Beatitudes, I mentioned how offense can be a gateway to self-realization and correction, and I hinted at an experience I had personally had earlier in the week with a friend that had driven that fact home to me. I wanted to share on here, but at the time I was waiting on the friend to read and respond to my post before I published it. He did so over the weekend. So now that I have his blessing, I'd like to say here what I cut out of the earlier post in deference to my friend.
Let me tell you about a recent example [of offense at correction and truth leading to deeper thought and eventual repentence], which, actually happened just last week and involved something I wrote on here.
A friend confronted me about something I wrote that made them uncomfortable. Because we haven't interacted much in the last ten (goodness, has it been ten already?) years, and because our lives have greatly diverged in many ways, my first response was to remove what I said with a sort of flippant “Well, I don't get it, but okay, whatever” reply. I didn't expect a response to that, but I got one. And it was not exactly positive. They didn't cuss me out or anything, but they did correct me, firmly. And I was ANGRY! At least at first. In fact, if I hadn't read that very first devotion on Day 1 about delaying our response to give God time to work in our hearts, I probably would have launched back an angry rant which I would later have regretted. But I pulled it together long enough to reply with a response asking for time to respond and mull over what they said. And that wasn't just lip service; I thought about it. I dwelt on it. I fumed about it. I rehashed my witty, cynical, casual, or “higher ground” responses in my head over and over. And something interesting happened: the longer I waited, the more my anger evaporated and was replaced by concern. I'm a self-improver remember? If I was indeed wrong, I wanted to know why, and I wanted to fix it so it didn't happen again. See, my sudden fear, and the implied accusation I had gleaned from my friend's letter, was that I am racist.
Now everybody's first instinct about themselves is that they're a good person. Typically the thought process goes something like this: “Well, I'm not a murderer, I don't steal, I don't use other people or lie, and I'm not a racist or sexist or sexual predator of any kind. So I'm altogether a pretty decent person.” And whether those things are all implicitly true or not (i.e. “I NEVER lie” vs. “I only rarely lie, and then it's just to avoid hurting peoples' feelings, etc.”), those are kind of the top things of people's lists of “Ways to be a Bad Person”. So when a person is accused of even being slightly guilty of any one of them, the first response you're going to get from them is typically self-righteous anger. And that was ALL me last Friday. A big spiky ball of bristling wounded pride.
Me? A racist? Even though they didn't come right out and say it, it was kind of implied that I had at least been racially insensitive, and I was OFFENDED! “How could I be a racist?!” I ranted internally. “I love black people! I admire them! I joke with my friends that when I 'grow up' I want to be a black lady! They're strong and confident and sassy and all the qualities I wish I had, and I love that about them. I'm nice to black people! I even dated a black person! I took an African American literature course in college and earned an A! I am not a racist at all! How dare that person call me out, especially when they don't even hardly know me anymore! How dare they!”
But the longer I stewed, the more my focus gradually went from dwelling on the offender toward myself and my own actions. I began to worry... “Am I a racist? Am I really a racist privileged white girl and I don't even know it?” My emotions began to switch from anger to fear. I don't want to be a racist! That's one of the worst things a person can be, after all. It's on "The List”! And especially in the area I live racism can make you a very disliked person, even hated, something I, a personality of the the meek-peacemaking-self-deprecating-humble (MPSH?) persuasion and a people-pleaser to a fault, very much fear. So I did what every good college graduate does: I started researching on the internet.
Now let me tell you from my own experience, it is not an easy thing to read the articles that come up from running the search term “how not to be a racist” when you are afraid you might be one. For starters, they're not very kindly written. Even if they don't include language that makes you blush (whether in the article or the comments), they are often written by African American people who are very, VERY sick of dealing with white people who don't realize how racist they are, and somewhere along the way they have lost the patience to explain things in gentle terms. They pretty much call you out. And the first thing I discovered is that racism is not always, or even often, overtly obvious, especially not to the person who is being racist. When you think about it, the mental picture you get when you think of the term “racism”-- a white-shrouded KKK member or a militant tattooed “skinhead”-- aren't really things you see just anywhere. In fact, thankfully, they're rather uncommon, and part of the reason we think of them is that they are the extremes and are brought to the limelight because of their extremism and everyone else's desire to get rid of that sort of pure ignorance and hatred everywhere.
But if that's the only face racism wears, we shouldn't still be so conscious of racism as a society, and yet it's something Americans hear about on a weekly and sometimes daily basis, depending where you live. I've always thought of myself as lucky to have grown up somewhere where race didn't seem to be much of an issue, but the fact was-- I realize now-- it was an issue. I just didn't experience it as such, because I wasn't part of the group for whom it was an issue. And while, when we were young, my friend might have told me they didn't really experience it as a negative difference per se, I didn't stop to realize that as time passed, not only have they had the chance to gain more experience, most of which I don't know anything about, but they may have-- like I have-- gained a more mature adult perspective of how their childhood, and life, was influenced by various factors, one of which, for them, was the color of their skin. That's not a factor I took into account when I wrote what I did, and it's something I should have. But, again... it's not something I've ever had to deal with, so it just didn't even occur to me. And that, for better or for worse, was a very racist way to behave.
Now I'm not going to go into my entire journey of self-awakening to the fact that I am a product of institutional racism and have conditioned responses to people of other ethnic groups that are at the very least unwarranted by personal experience and are often just outright wrong. I'm not going to tell you all about how crushed I was to realize that, yes, I am a racist, at least on some level. My skin color gives me the privilege of being able to ignore the unique and often disturbing experiences other people have because they are not part of the entitled group. I also have felt comfortable in the fact that, since I am not one of the militant organized hate-monger groups, I am not a part of the problem and I don't need to do anything to solve it, neglecting to remember, of course, that ignorant people are ignorant because they don't educate themselves. Someone who already knows better has to tell them there is another way. And if we all just sit back and fold our arms and say “Oh, well, I took care of myself,” problems will still persist because we are only looking out for ourselves and not the good of our communities, both white and black, and every other group. And when I don't do anything to solve a problem, I become part of the problem.
Point is, that was a hard lesson for me to learn. It took a lot of my self-image and flushed it down the toilet. In the end, while I'm not exactly glad, I am thankful that that friend took a moment to tell me a hard truth. Because unless someone pointed out my own error to me, I never would have realized my own failing, and wouldn't have the opportunity to correct it in myself now, and hopefully pass that attitude of empathy, compassion, and activism on to my own child and others who look to my example. But the point is, that friend took a risk. They called me on something knowing I would probably become offended, and that they might possibly lose me as a friend. Did that matter to them personally? I don't know. It probably would have to me. But again, I haven't been close to them in a long time, so maybe it was a loss they were willing to take for the sake of bringing my own error to my attention, whether or not I was willing to face it. Maybe they didn't even think THAT hard about it and were purely responding from their own anger. I don't know. Luckily for me, and maybe for them, I didn't just stop at getting angry. Would someone else have? Sure, maybe, depending on the person. Heck, a week ago, I may have!That was it for the content from my earlier post, but I had a few more thoughts to add to it.
Since being called out on my own racial blind-spot I suppose I have been extra sensitive to awareness of prejudice and entitlement in all sorts of situations. This past week and a half, I've witnessed four separate instances of sexism, racism, and even religious discrimination from people I have a strong respect and admiration for as well as their kids. These are wonderful, intelligent people that apparently, for whatever reason, seem to simply be preconditioned not to notice their own prejudices, much as I have been.
I've even noticed some leanings in myself that I've become anxious to get rid of. Things like only noticing a person's race or what they're wearing, without recognizing anything else about them. Things like feeling nervous around a large group of African American youth who were at the same retreat center I was at, or like assuming a person speaking another language to their children wouldn't understand English if I conversed with them. Far be it from me to call out others, when I'm so obviously still flawed.
The point is that this kind of ignorance and bias-- be it homophobia, racism, sexism, or classism, or any other “-ism”-- exists everywhere, in all sorts of forms, and even if a lot of people would be really offended to have it pointed out to them, whether by the person they're insulting with their behavior, or another witness-- offense is not the worst thing they could experience. Continuing on through their life deprived of deeper friendships and relationships with those that differ from themselves by a trait or habit or mindset that they may be completely unaware of would certainly be a higher price to pay than a little temporary offense. And if I have a chance to give them that opportunity to address the habit and let their lives and relationships become richer for it, then it behooves me to step a little out of my own comfort zone and do something about it. Scary though it might be.
Have you noticed evidence of prejudice in your own or others' actions? What is something you could do to counteract it?