Thursday, January 26, 2017

Putting Faces to Names

When I was about 13, I visited Canada for the first time. We drove a Ford F-250 from Montana into Alberta during a formative trip across the Midwestern US states with my sister and grandparents. I was excited. I was visiting A DIFFERENT COUNTRY. I would CROSS THE BORDER. I was aware of Canada, but it was most important in my mind as an OTHER. I was excited to experience this otherness. How would it feel? What would it be like? Would the border checkpoint be like the ones I had seen in movies?

It was the 1980s, so I don't think we even stopped. And there wasn't a great line of demarcation beyond the "Welcome to Alberta, Home of the Calgary Olympics" sign. In fact, it felt a little disappointing because it felt, well, the same.

I knew on some level that it wouldn't really be different. Still, countries were Capital-letter Big Deals, and I was leaving my own for the first time. Seeing Glacier National Park in Alberta and visiting the few places we visited only reinforced this idea of familiarity and sameness. It made the distinction I had formed in my mind feel arbitrary. We ate hamburgers. We spoke English. We even rafted back across the border into the US--on the same river, even! Canada wasn't disappointing; that's not what I'm saying. I was just ignorant enough to have made the Canada in my mind something different from what it really was.

I've felt similarly when navigating the other others of my life. Until high school, I never really thought about being white. My neighbors were all white. My classmates were mostly white. Family: all white. Friends: almost all white. My interactions with people of color were limited by the demographics and geography of my schools and community. I had much more exposure to people of color through mass media than I had in my own neighborhood.

Then I went to high school. Louisville is one of the most segregated cities in the country. My first day at Louisville Central High School was the first day in my life that I remember being aware of my whiteness. I never stood out anywhere before. Maybe I stood out as a nice kid, or a good student, but I never really stood out in a way that made me feel conspicuous. And I felt conspicuous. As embarrassing as it sounds, I remember having the thought "I've never been in a place with so many black people." Somehow, in my own city, I was having a more profound experience with otherness than I had when I had left the country. And over time, through lifelong friends I made, music we listened to, games we played, terrible (even offensive--sorry Mom) jokes we made, and other experiences we shared, I didn't feel so conspicuous at school. I found myself among friends. I would never presume to speak for someone else's experience, but for me, it was one of the most valuable lessons of my life. I had what I have realized is a sadly rare experience: As the majority-majority white Christian American man that I am, I was given the slightest, fleeting glimpse of not being the dominant demographic. In the inverse, I became aware as I navigated high school how incredibly simple my life and worldview had previously been.

I have tried never to channel that experience into "I know what it's like" kinds of comments or self-congratulation. Rather, like any true knowledge I've gained, learning just a little has served to show me how much I don't know. Fumbling toward my own Socratic epiphany, I finally knew that I knew nothing. I've tried to remind myself of that as I've continued to encounter other "others" in the 20 years since I left high school. I have tried to humbly look for and recognize the "sameness" I share with others. I have been blessed to share meals at the kitchen tables of friends who live in government housing. I am grateful to celebrate graduations, talk about literature, and laugh at memories with Muslim friends. I am thankful to know and love gay and lesbian friends. I have taught the children of farmers, construction workers, and college professors. I know immigrants and the children of immigrants who are here exactly for promises and opportunities I have taken for granted most of my life.

And strangely, I come back to Canada. I was disappointed in the sameness of Canada when I was 13. Now I find that sameness a reassurance of nature and Creation beyond human labels and borders. Alberta looks the same as Montana at the border. The difference I was looking for was just one agreed upon by people. In my experience, this kind of agreement is too often applied to people themselves. I am thankful to have navigated many borders that others had cordoned off for me. And the reward of my experience is this: When you say Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Baptist, Buddhist, Sikh, Mormon, Baha'i, Catholic, atheist, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Socialist, undocumented immigrant, professor, janitor, gang member, police officer, farmer, veteran--and many more--I see faces of people I have loved, worked with, laughed with, cried with, argued with, and shared with. I'm thankful to live in a community where these labels aren't abstractions, they're people like me. I sincerely hope I have transcended labels for others as they have for me.

I consistently fall short of being the person I want to be, and I'm confused about more things than I am sure of, but I hope to live in a way that honors the spirit both of Matthew 7: 1-5 & 12
Do not judge, and you will not be judged. For as you judge others, so you will yourselves be judged, and whatever measure you deal out to others will be dealt to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye, with never a thought for the plank in your own? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own? You hypocrite! First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's. Always treat others as you would like them to treat you: that is the law and the prophets.
 and Marcus Aurelius:
If you can, teach others to become better; if you cannot, then remember the power to be kind has been given to you for this purpose. Even the gods care for such people and help them gain health, wealth, and reputation, so helpful are they. Such kindness is also in your power, or tell me, who is there to prevent you?

3 comments:

Char Irvin said...

You may have felt the conspicuousness of being white in a majority black school, but (and I can only speak for myself) I never classified you as such or saw you as different..... I'll let you in on a little known secret: Sharonda and I used to compete for your attention and we never factored race into that equation (but perhaps we were too busy doing handstands in AP Pre-Calculus!) Lol

matt said...

This comment made my morning. And it's a great reminder I should have been paying even more attention. :)

yrbktchr said...

What a wonderful post! Working with you at RHS, I knew you were a good and decent and caring and open spirit! Estelle