Monday, January 17, 2011

Happy MLK Day?

I remember when I heard my first discriminatory joke. Or rather, I remember the first time I was old enough to hear a racist joke and be able to discern it as such. I can remember whose house I was at, in whose kitchen, who told the joke and the knot in my stomach when I knew it was time to decide, do I laugh or not laugh?

I must have been an early adolescent. I remember it was a boy who told the joke and I desperately wanted him to approve of me. I also remember later being in another group of friends who were telling jokes and wondering whether or not it would be appropriate for me to share the one I'd heard from the boy. Get the laugh instead of being laughed at? The reverse in prospects were inviting.

I don't actually remember how I responded in either situation. I mostly just remember the feeling. Usually with boys, I would laugh and reprimand them, thrilled they even noticed me. At some point in college though, I quit laughing, and would explain to the men around me that racist jokes, sexist jokes, weren't funny. And that laughing only contributed to the problem. "How can things get better if we continue to condone underlying assumptions about race and gender by laughing them off?" I was the femi-nazi of William Jewell College and I moved straight from there to Truett Seminary.

"When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative."

At some point over the last few years I quit trying so hard. My spirit of equality for all got tired I suppose (as spirits tend to do), and battles had to be picked instead of fought. I quit telling people to stop making sexist jokes because they weren't funny. Whereas in college, I demanded utmost respect for women of the men I was with, and in seminary, I would offer the most feminist perspective I could muster just so people would hear me and maybe concede a little towards a happy medium, over the past few years I returned to my more adolescent coping mechanisms. Flirtatious affirmation, I explain it to my therapist. "Cut it out," I now tease back. "You don't believe that." It's the same reason I have trouble turning men down if they ask me out on a date even if I know it won't work. "I don't want them to feel bad about themselves," I tell my therapist.

"Their self-esteem isn't your problem," she responds.



As an adult, I felt again the feeling of anxiety in the pit of my stomach when I heard one of my black neighbors speaking poorly of Hispanics in our city. "Um, can you say that, cause... you know you're black right?" I wanted to remind him. In other words, you of all people should know that discrimination doesn't get us anywhere. I didn't say that. And unlike the racist joke told in childhood, I do remember how I responded: in silence, with a head nod, as his verbal putdown was quickly passed on by the next topic, the next discussion to come rattling out of his mouth. Truthfully, I spend most of my time just nodding my head at him, as the conversations fly by so fast I sometimes wonder if I was even a part of them.

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
My friend Julie, author of One Hand Clapping, wrote a post today wondering if she should bring an awareness to her child's life of the difference between race. Her kindergarten daughter doesn't yet see difference between skin color yet because she has been raised in a very diverse environment. So trying to explain MLK and what he did doesn't make a lot of sense to her because racism isn't yet a part of her worldview.

I responded to her blog with some of my thoughts about sexism. While I did manage to grab that racism existed even in middle America by the time I hit middle school, I didn't understand that sexism was just as prevalent until College. College.

I didn't actually realize that "women jokes" weren't on par with "blond jokes," i.e. that people really believed women were inferior or couldn't do the same things as men or (fill in the blank). College. My mother says she "may have pushed the women thing a little too far" with me, but I say, who cares? For 18 years I thought I had the same rights and opportunities as men. I thought that women jokes were dumb, like joke about the blond who threw all the W's out of the M&M factory. A stupid way to make a silly joke at some other group's expense. I was always being made fun of growing up. If a boy says something mean about you, then he likes you (omg, wait for the post I'm now writing in my head about how that condolence screwed me up). Seriously though, teasing someone during High School, they called that flirting. Blond jokes were told to blonds to get them to laugh and be defensive and maybe slap the boy on the arm who told the joke. Same thing with women jokes. Fill in the blank. Substitute brunette for blond or ginger for brunette. I didn't know those jokes were rooted in a deeper anxiety, a deeper hatred, a deeper ism (I'm now speaking of women jokes, not blond jokes) in people's lives.

More power to your daughter, I wrote Julie. Let her reality be spoiled when she's old enough to afford the therapy it'll take to recover her innocence, but not too old that she won't have a job or health insurance to be able to afford the therapy. It's a fine line.

So happy MLK day, I guess. Happy MLK day to those whose children don't yet understand that black "means" different or brown "means" inferior. Congrats. You've got some bubbles to burst, but your kids are lucky.

Happy MLK day to those who are stuck where I once was: hearing the "harmless" racism that the world shares with one another in polite circles at parties and has to decide: to laugh or not to laugh.

Happy MLK day to those who are black, who have achieved some level of equality and power in America, and now get to choose whether or not to oppress the new minority... Hispanics.

Happy MLK day to all those who are oppressed for whatever reason: the color of their skin, the accent on their tongue, the anatomy of their genitalia, the money in their wallets, the gender of the person with whom they fell in love.

Happy MLK day to all of us who live in a really imperfect would and who would love to live life, even for just a day, seeing the world through Julie's daughter's eyes. Who would love to take a stand all the time against injustice in this world, but my god, who has the time. Happy MLK day to those who have time only to pick their battles (may they pick good ones), and may they continue to believe that "unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality."

MLK writes, "Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true."

And cancer always starts small.

So be aware. Burst your kids bubbles or break your kids of their hate. Be militant. Or just choose your battles. I don't know. But "nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." So let's let love "release... harmonize... and illuminate life."

Happy MLK day.

1 comment:

Naomi said...

I really liked this post, as well as Julie's.

My bubble wasn't race or gender. I don't even remember when I found out people were discriminated against for that. I was probably young and I guess I just knew that was the way things were. I mean I even remember in preschool one of my friends getting picked on for being too dark skinned. (as opposed to light--there's a whole other element to racism in black culture as well) I remember knowing it was wrong, but even at age 4, i saw racism in my life. And even though I had been told I could do anything, I did notice the lack of women ministers at my church. And the lack of black people... I was 6 when we changed churches and as much as I cried about it and losing my friends, I understood why we did it. That church couldn't deal with black people or poor people, and since it was a downtown church, it had plenty in the neighborhoods around. So we left. And I grew up in a black church.

But also I was going to say about my "bubble", one of my best friends from elementary school that I met in kindergarten had two moms. I spent the night at her house all the time and went on more than one vacation with her family since she was an only child and it was not until I was 8 or 9 that someone made fun of her for having two moms that it occurred to me that I actually didn't know anyone else who did.

I don't know how to necessarily address the question of how to parent a child and have to tell them about all the isms of the world, but I guess what my parents did was teach me that everyone is equal and then let me figure out the rest on my own, knowing that simple truth.