Thursday, January 19, 2017

Who We Want to Be

When I was in high school I remember walking out of a local grocery store past a man collecting donations.  He may have been a Shriner, and he asked me as I stepped through the door if I would, "Help the retarded* children?" and having no change on me I simply said, "No" and walked on.  But then I felt terrible.  What kind of person was I that I didn't want to help the retarded children?  Wouldn't a decent human being go find some change to give that man?  I nearly cried I felt so guilty.  I felt guilty enough I obviously still remember it to this day.
[*please see the comments]

Of course, this is kind of silly because we are bombarded with requests from all levels of charity all the time.  Most of us don't want to live the kind of life where we give everything away, but each of us needs to find a balance where we maintain the life we want while still sacrificing for others.

The part of this that interests me is the narrative we tell ourselves about how good we are or want to be.  Feeling sad about "the retarded children" is not the same as actually helping them, although it can feel that way.  Being sad about it makes me a good person, right?  Not really.  It's only the potential for good.  Without action it's not tested or true.  It's fine in your head to decide you approve of helping others, but if you don't do something with that feeling it makes the same impact on the world as if in your head you loathed the idea.  It's great to make up your mind to be against racism or bigotry or sexism or cruelty, and another for that to become real.

The problem for me is day to day life is busy with mundane activities and I'm exposed to the same situations and people over and over.  Most of our time is consumed by little bits of necessary routine, such as getting dressed and brushing our teeth and moving around dishes and laundry.  Being a parent means managing other people's daily routines as well, which often feels like falling behind while simply trying to stay one step ahead so appointments aren't missed and things are signed and everyone is fed.  There is a lot to do just to feel like we're even treading water rather than going under, let alone moving forward.

So focusing on developing deeper parts of our identity, on larger questions that we claim to care about, is harder to do for many of us than it should be.  Opportunities for trying to shape the world don't often present themselves in the midst of running errands and moving through our normal lives.

When those opportunities do arise, however, we have to have the presence of mind to step up.  It's not enough to believe we are a certain kind of person in our minds if we don't act on it when called to.  Being a good person isn't a story you get to tell yourself, it has to be a behavior with ramifications outside of your own head, otherwise it's simply an untested theory.

This past weekend when I was coming out of the shower at the pool where I do my laps I heard a woman in the changing room loudly saying some odd things to two little girls.  The girls were maybe around five years old, Hispanic or Latino, and their mother was pointedly keeping her mouth shut while folding clothes and keeping her back to the woman.  I went to my own locker and listened to what the woman was saying, trying to figure out what she was talking about.  It was a weird pronouncement about people with dark skin and Satan and asking if they really thought Satan would do that to pit people against one another.  Her tone wasn't good, but I wasn't positive she wasn't just preaching about God approving of differences since He made them.  Then there was the line about "Even Eskimos look white to you people" and it was clear that, no, this crazy old white lady was way out of line.

And I told her so.  I said it was completely unacceptable to talk to children in that manner.  She looked shocked and then said what was unacceptable was for me to butt in.  I told her I didn't think so, that it was everyone's duty to protect children and she should leave them alone.

She said it was their fault for pretending to not speak English when she confronted them about having a little boy in the women's locker room, and when I informed her little boys up to age seven or so are allowed in with their mothers, she started shouting that I was making up rules.  I invited her to ask at the desk.  She then focused in on my dark hair and decided there was something ethnically suspicious about that (which I found hilarious because I'm about as white as white gets) and called me an abomination.  I told her I was proud to be one if that meant standing between her and innocent children.

The woman was obviously not well.  I was firm with her, tried not to veer into sarcasm or attacks of my own (I did not contain myself entirely because when she said she's been coming to that pool for three years and no one has ever been nice to her I said, "I wonder why!"), but I made it clear she was to deal with me and not those kids anymore.  I told her I hoped she could calm down and find a way to make a better day.  She finally stormed out.

I went over to the girls, bent down and smiled at them and told them to have a fun time in the pool, and to know everyone else in there was nice.  They looked happy.  The mom looked relieved and I asked if she was okay and she gave me a hug.  After they went off to swim a teenaged girl (who also looked Hispanic or Latino) made a point to come up to me and thank me for what I did.  I told her someone had to and that such things shouldn't happen, but I appreciated that it mattered to her.

Because the truth is I can't fix crazy.  I don't think anything I said to that woman will change anything about her at all.  But I do think it made a difference to the other people in the room to not feel alone.  Due to my age, height, and skin color I had more power than the others present, so I had a duty to speak up.  If I hadn't said anything, it would be the same as condoning all that racist blather.  I would have been part of the disgraceful thing taking place.  It's not enough to disapprove in my head and then be all proud of myself for not agreeing with her.  It only matters if I do something.  It only matters if I try to correct that kind of nonsense when I see it in the world.

My life is such that I don't run into these situations often.  I prefer to spend my time with thoughtful people who think generally the same way I do, and I must project a disposition that is inimical to casual racist crap because it doesn't happen in front of me almost ever.  On the rare occasion someone has mistakenly thought I was a hospitable audience for such comments I have found a way to make it clear I disagree and they have been immediately embarrassed into shutting that down.  I even do that with people in my store, because though it may be a risk in business to confront someone directly that way, I believe in dealing with people fairly which is not the same as the customer "always being right."  I feel like my store is an extension of my home, and I don't want that in my home.

I'm a long way from perfect, and there was a time a parent went on a heated rant in front of me about her daughter's violin teacher that included her being "a stupid dyke" that I didn't comment on because she was in no state while she was feeling protective of her child to listen to any dissent, but it still haunts me I didn't find some way to speak up for a lesbian friend.  I was so shocked at the time I couldn't process it fast enough to figure out how to react, but I will be ready should something like it ever happen again.  That's where playing out stories in our heads can help, when they prepare us for possible action later.

I think many in the liberal white community were awoken after the recent election to a reality of sexist and bigoted attitudes that we didn't realize the breadth and depth of.  I think we mistakenly believed more of us were better than we knew.  Too many of us were living out our best selves only in our heads.  We can't afford to do that anymore.  We need to look up.  We need to speak out.  We need to create the world we want to see because it doesn't happen otherwise.

The challenge will be to not become the thing we despise.  It's tempting to fight fire with fire, but there are only limited cases where that's the best course.  We need to picture clearly who we want to be and try to live up to it.  If you hate ad hominem attacks, don't make them.  If you don't like it when people make statements without being fully informed, don't be guilty of that yourself.  It's possible to stand up to bullies without being a bully.  If you think someone needs support, support them, even when it's hard, even when it makes your heart pound fast and gets you called an abomination.  Be thoughtful.  Be kind.  Breathe.

Find a way to actively be who you want to be.  Then maybe we can one day be the nation we want to be as well.


  1. Amazing job speaking up for those kids. It is never ok to speak to anyone like that but especially not children. That woman really did sound deranged so it's true you're unlikely to change her but you let that family know you felt she was wrong.

    I wanted to comment briefly on something earlier in your post, which was your use of the r-word. I've read your blog for a long time and after some thought I decided to say something because I think you would want to know. Please don't take this as judgment from me - I adore you and your family and your blog and you strike me as some of the most decent people that I "know." But I work in the special education community and seeing the r-word written out was as jarring as if you had written the n-word. I realize in another era this was not the case, and that was the time period you were referring to, but I still want to "spread the word to end the word" as it is offensive now. I say this with much internet love for you and hope you understand my intent is just to educate not to criticize.

    All the best,

    A loyal reader

    1. Thank you for speaking up! I agree with you, and it's not a word I use either, and I hesitated before writing that story, but it was the mid-80s and that's the way it happened, and even though it's jarring now I think the equivalent at the time would not have been the n-word (which was always intended to be dehumanizing) but maybe "coloreds" or something out of date and now crude to our ears. Back at the time I remember it was just the "technical" term, and only became bad as people misused it. I think about how Obama was criticized for making a joke involving the idea of the "Special Olympics" and how easily we can corrupt any term. In 30 more years "special education" as a phrase may have to be phased out if people co-opt it as an insult and a punchline.

      Did you know in music a "ritard" means to slow down? Even that feels awkward to use anymore so we tend to use the fuller phrase "ritardando."

      So, yes, I was aware, it's not a word I use now, but I still wanted to share the story, and substituting "r-word" seemed too weird in that context since no one was trying to be mean.

      Thank you for speaking up and sharing your thoughts and standing up for what you think will make the world better! Kind of the point of the whole post, so you made my day.