Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Southern Girl Confronts Her Racist Past

I grew up in East Texas, in the age of segregation. Less than a hundred years out from the Civil War, it was still being fought by some. My home town was Tyler, and my high school was named Robert E. Lee. Back then we were called the Robert E. Lee Rebels. Our team's mascot was the Rebel Guard in full Confederate Uniform and a cannon, with a giant Confederate flag that covered a large swath of the football field. The band played Dixie as the team ran onto the field. In our segregated oblivion, where African Americans lived in a small part of town called Tiger Square with their own high school, we lived very separate lives from each other. In such an environment it is so easy to tell lies of the other and believe them. When I graduated from high school, I was in the hospital from an accident. The principal and the head of the school board came to my hospital room and presented me a diploma, while a rebel flag was draped across my pillow. I was in traction and could not get up. The press were there to record the moment for posterity.

I was pretty ignorant in those days. I bought the lies that the war between the states was over state's rights, acknowledging only partly that the rights they wanted to protect was the right to hold human beings in servitude. I was taught to be proud of my ancestors who fought in that ugly war. They were I was told standing on principle and it was right for them to be honored thusly. Furthermore there was a complete society surrounding me to support that illusion.

Years and time have changed that vision. I sensed pretty early that the separate but equal meme was not what it said. It was abundantly clear that schools in north Tyler were funded no where like the ones I had attended. In college I met my first African Americans outside of a maid who came in once a week to help out, which all southerners seemed to have done, paying pennies on the dollar for housework. I even participated in a couple of civil rights protests in those days. Some years after I left high school, Tyler desegregated and was sued and the team name changed to the Red Raiders. I sat in that school board meeting where the name was changed, and listened to the folks whining about it. They cried out about tradition like it was the end of the world. But also represented were African American students to tell how the name and the flag affected them every day. Perhaps for the first time, I listened. It was the beginning of a long journey to unlearn the crap we learned growing up in the Jim Crow South. It's been a long journey filled with missteps and wrong turns. I was fortunate to pick a job where the upper level management and many of the workers were African American, and well represented by other racial minorities as well. On the job I was the minority, and if I got it wrong, I got called on it. You know, privilege is blinding, and sometimes you need somebody to call you out on it to realize what's happening. Especially in recent years, I've actively been working to confront that racism that permeates our society north and south, and especially the privilege so many are still blinded by. It's been said and I think I agree that many are blinded by their own whiteness, a luxury most people of color cannot claim.

There's a story I've told before and it's worth telling again. It's how the veil lifted from my eyes most dramatically around matters of privilege.Some years back I began my transition from male to female. It's no easy journey, even in a big city like Houston. On my job, no one had ever transitioned before. My boss was a man who did not hold women in high esteem. Coming from Vietnam, he often lamented coming to this country because he could no longer control his wife. My transition was authorized by the regional head, so he had no say in that. However one staff member had huge issues with what I was doing, and spent her spare time trash talking me at every point. Furthermore, she was responsible for clerical functions related to my job, and she actively set out to sabotage me. Every day I would come to work to her hateful glare, and my boss was content to let her do it. When I complained told me it was my fault for not working it out with her. How do you work it out with somebody who hates your very existence. At one point my boss screamed at me not to bother him again about it. In that environment, a woman in another unit in the building came to talk with me. She was African American, and she told me, "I don't understand why you have to do what you are doing, but I do recognize discrimination when I see it, and I can't sit still and let it happen." She worked with me and we organized a body of co-workers ready to stand behind me, all of them signing a petition. I went back to my boss, and when he started to yell, I interrupted him and explained we had a set of work rules for all employees and this worker was in violation of those work rules, and if he did not take action, I was going to sue her and I was going to sue him as well. Not for EEOC which at that time did not protect me, but for disparate treatment. (one of the people on the team of supporters, made up mostly of African American women, worked for personnel). He talked with her and the problem ended. But also, for the first time, I saw the world through different eyes. It was I without the privilege, and I literally flashed back over the years when I had seen similar events take place and I had no clue what was going on. I wonder to myself, if I can have this sort of an epiphany, can others as well? Racism was constructed in the early 1600's. Can it be deconstructed?

In recent years I've seen an ugliness sweeping the nation. Perhaps it stems from a changing population and the fear that comes from those changes. Politicians have certainly played an active role in perpetuating the politics of fear and division. It culminated with flying a Confederate flag outside this African American president's home. I thought back to that day, and those students, in a room filled mostly with white faces, and an all white school board, and reflected again more strongly on how painful this all must have been for them. Some elements of this society still long for a utopia that never was in the form of the old south. Most southerners did not own slaves, yet the war which destroyed so much was for those who did. There was nothing ideal of holding human beings in servitude, and those ancestors of mine who owned slaves should have been ashamed and those who did not should not have been so stupid. It is time for the great lie around race to be exposed once and for all. It is time for white people to realize our whiteness and what is bestowed by that whiteness, then work to dismantle a system where that can be so. It is time to leave behind the civil war once and for all, and become the people we can become. It's time for other white people like me to confront our racist past, and transform a system dependent upon a permanent underclass based upon color. My high school graduation was in 1965. The way I viewed my world then was a mistake. I've got to own where I got it wrong, then move forward. That flag outside the White House, flown by the way, by a Texan, is not a source of pride, but of shame. It's no longer 1965. No one benefits from repeating the same old justifications from 1865. The construct of racism (in full swing by 1665) must disappear completely, and I think the time for bringing about that change is now!

We began our human journey as one. Every single human being derives genetically from one specific man and one specific woman found in Africa. That means nothing less than we are every one of us related to each other. I like to think of us as brothers and sisters under the skin. We are family. May the healing begin. It will not be perfectly done, but with open hearts and ears with which to listen, I think it can be done.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Tolerance, Inclusion, and Unitarian Universalist Evangelism

There are those days. I'm fairly confident we all have them. Nothing seems to be working right and what should be easy is complicated. Perhaps lack of sleep or stress or a host of other things ensures a less than stellar day. Over a lifetime, I've noticed that when the body/mind are run down and vulnerable, it's as if there was a silent signal going to the world saying simply "Kick me while I'm down!" Okay, yesterday was such a day for me. I'd not slept the night before so thank heavens the service was amazing as was the workshop afterwards. Towards the end however, two separate incidents occurred. Not huge earth-shattering events, nor intentional in retrospect. But from my perspective with a mind screaming for sleep, it seemed huge at the time. Let me explain what happened and why after a good night's sleep, I think two tiny events could point to something larger worth mentioning.

First circumstance, I see a friend who I know has worked really hard losing a lot of weight. I'm happy for him. So I tell him he's looking really good. Someone present immediately chimes in and reminds him he's always looked good, and follows with something about size normative assumptions. Okay, look. I'm a big woman. No wait. I'm a BIG woman. I'm married to a woman who is even larger and size doesn't even enter into how we evaluate the other. I know what she is talking about because I've been judged based on my size a thousand times or more. In this case however my friend was looking good because he had worked hard and was happy with himself. I'd have loved to discuss context in all this, but she asks him to come with her, they walked off and nothing gets said. I'm just shaking my head.

So I'm heading for the elevator and a couple are there as well. One looks at my church and mentions my shirt which says "Practice Tolerance. The word tolerance is written with symbols of various religions, spiritual paths etc. The other of the two then announces loudly that he can't stand the word "tolerance." I mention clumsily that having experienced intolerance often (goes with the turf as a transgender gay woman) I'd welcome some of it. He insists no, we need inclusion! as the door opens and he walks off. Okay, there is a conversation to be had about this. I think in matters such as religion, tolerance IS the appropriate word. I can be tolerant of another's spiritual path without any need to include that in my own. I'd venture to say that if one of my evangelist aunts or uncles were to come to preach at First Universalist, there would NOT be a resounding applause at the end of the sermon. There is a place for toleration and a place for inclusion. If we confuse those two, would we not be setting ourselves up for unwanted conflict? Time to go to the dictionary. Mine says this:

tolerance noun The ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with, i.e. an advocate for religious tolerance

inclusion noun The action or state of being included within a group or structure.

Now granted, if the group being considered is the family of humanity, then inclusion might be appropriate. But with the implied group being various religious journeys, the word would in fact be tolerance.

Yes, these were silly little incidents that in my place of vulnerability got blown out of proportion. The messages I perceived were to be very careful what you say lest you cross some line of unacceptability, and please, can you please wear something else that doesn't offend so. Practice Tolerance? Seriously? Feelings are funny things and with the clarity of a good night's sleep I could see how the message had gotten twisted in my mind. The backdrop of all this was a workshop on race and privilege, as we prepare to carry the message to other white people about the nature of race and privilege.

Which brings me to what this post is all about. Not only is what we say important, but how we say it is also crucial. When we carry the message to others, whether about impressions of others according to size, a conversation on toleration vs inclusion, the existence and nature of race and privilege, the environment or any of a litany of liberal causes for which we realize as the underpinnings of our faith, if the message is that of a critical parent, the evangelist who is intolerant of any other way, then the likely result is not to change that person but to make them build a wall around their position. A message given in love rather than judgement is usually received in the spirit of love. Yesterday there were two real possibilities for viable conversation. Instead, I felt judged and convicted. If I felt that way as a long term member of the church, how much more might that person who is visiting or the person to whom we are carrying our message. We often view the "Pharisees" of the Bible as those who intolerant souls in religion speaking a Gospel devoid of love and caring but rather absorbed by intransigent dogma and intolerance. I would venture to say that among us liberals, myself included, there's always the danger of doing the same. Recently in the campaign to bring about marriage equality, our message was well received. In great part this was not because of telling the other side they were wrong, but of showing the human side of why we were right on this issue. We told our own stories rather than trying to change the stories of others. Our good news led others to follow that message. To me, it's the difference between a witness and a rant.

Oddly, I'm glad of what happened yesterday. It brought home to me the importance of looking closely at my own message to others, as well as confronting this nagging concern I've felt for a long time regarding the dogma too often seen from those of us we call liberal as well. May I go forth and carry the good news, but as one sharing my story in a way that illustrates why a better way is possible. "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."