I’ve been wanting to write about something that happened to me last Monday, but, up until just now. I haven’t been able to.
I could use the excuse that I’ve been busy (which I have been), but I’ve never before let that prevent me from writing about something so incredibly important.
The real problem hasn’t been lack of time. It’s been a lack of words.
I just don’t know how to write about hate.
You see, last Monday morning, a man came into my office and spewed racist venom at me.
I sat in shock as he got up in my face and yelled at me about using agency money to help Hispanic and black people. He even accused me of not caring about white people. Despite my efforts to be calm with a clearly irrational person, I admit glancing down at my arm and saying, “You do realize that I’m a white person, right?”
He couldn’t hear me. He was too absorbed in his own anger.
And, other than simply waiting out his verbal assault while my colleagues tried to decide what to do, I was powerless.
I can’t imagine how I would have felt if my skin color were darker.
I used to think I understood the problem of racism.
At age five, I cried on the first day of kindergarten when I discovered that I was the only white child in my class on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation.
But my parents and teacher (who was also white) rushed to my rescue. They had the only other white child in kindergarten transferred into my class so I felt more comfortable. I can only imagine how the man in my office would react if a Hispanic of black family had done something similar for their child.
By first grade, my parents moved our family off the reservation, and my class was full of kids who didn’t make me self-conscious about the color of my skin, eyes, hair or culture. As I moved from childhood into adolescence, I claimed to have experienced racism because I had been one of only two white kids in my kindergarten class.
I hadn’t. My limited experience didn’t even come close. Being a different color doesn’t equate to racism if you still have power. And my family had the power to get me out of a situation that made me feel uncomfortable.
But I didn’t feel as though I had any power last Monday.
I was in an office with no escape as the angry man stood between me and the door. I was in a situation in which reasoning and rational discussion couldn’t resolve the problem. And I was face to face with an individual who truly believed in a social hierarchy based solely on physical characteristics.
No matter how calm my voice was as I repeated the mantra “We care about all people here. We don’t care about their skin color or their religion,” I felt powerless.
When the man finally left, I rehashed the incident with my co-workers, expressed relief that he hadn’t been carrying a weapon, implemented a safety plan and complained that the current political environment is empowering bigots.
But I never doubted my convictions or the words I’d said to him.
He may have tried to intimidate me with his hate, but my words of love actually had more power – of that I have no doubt.
Hate might come knocking on my door. Sometimes, it might even walk in. But I will never, ever allow it to stay.
And knowing that makes me feel incredibly powerful. As it should.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend called me a hypocrite because, for a few hours, I didn’t want to focus on someone else’s problems.
I am, after all, a social worker. Not only has my career been dedicated to ” being the change I seek in the world,” but my profession follows me into my personal life like a hungry dog seeking a treat.
Sometimes I believe there is a permanent thought bubble hovering over my head that says “Talk to me – I care.”
Just this week, a man stopped my daughter and me while we were out walking our dog. He wanted to tell me about a dog he used to have. The conversation quickly turned to his life as a young African-American man growing up in the projects of Baltimore in the 1970’s and about the racism he experienced.
Fifteen minutes later, my daughter and I said goodbye to him. As we walked away, Kendall, simply asked, “Complete stranger?”
I nodded in affirmation.
Here’s the thing: I care about people. I care about other people a lot. I hate injustice. I can’t stand putting profit over people. And I abhor when religion or national origin or the ability to speak English are used as excuses to discriminate.
But here’s the other thing: I’m human. I have my own issues, insecurities, and flaws. I can be self-centered and insensitive. I actually get tired of hearing about everything that is wrong with the world when I’m struggling with my own problems. And yes, at times I can be hypocritical.
But there is a big difference between having a bad moment or a bad day and living life as a hypocrite.
At least I think there is. I certainly hope I’m not fooling myself. Because, from what I can tell, the worst offending hypocrites completely fail to see any hypocrisy in their words or behavior.
Which is why I’m more than willing to share a few simple examples I’ve recently observed.
You might be a hypocrite if…
- You use drugs recreationally but publicly shame addicts.
- You claim to follow the teachings of Christ then post negative messages about Muslims on social media.
- You complain about how vulgar our society has become but voted for a presidential candidate who boasted about molesting women.
- You constantly complain about paying taxes yet received a college education thanks to the GI bill, are enjoying a substantial pension from a government job, and expect your highways and public roads to be pot-hole free.
- You spent years making negative statements and sharing outright lies about our country’s former president then display self-righteous indignation about any criticism of our current president.
- You are an elected official who says you are voting in the best interest of your constituents when you are actually voting based on party politics and raising millions of dollars for your re-election campaign from special interest groups and corporations.
- You complain about lazy people who depend on tax payer support then, when you lose your job, complain that the SNAP (food stamp) benefits you receive aren’t sufficient.
This is far from a comprehensive list, but to be honest, I doubt the people I am writing about will read these words anyway. And even if they do, they probably won’t recognize themselves.
But I had to write all of them anyway – including the ones about my own imperfections.
As the saying goes, “I would rather be known in life as an honest sinner than as a lying hypocrite.”
Like many Americans, I had a visceral reaction to photos of Sarah Palin’s visit to the White House last week. (See Washington Post article.)
But my reaction wasn’t about how she, Ted Nugent and Kid Rock were disrespectful as they posed in front of the picture of Hillary Clinton as first lady. It wasn’t even about how hateful Ted Nugent is or how incredibly clueless Sarah Palin is (as evidenced by the flippant comment she made that she invited the musicians to dinner because Jesus wasn’t available.)
Instead my reaction was rooted in something I’ve carried with me since childhood. As an eight-year old girl, I wondered why boys who could barely read but acted tough were the ones all the other kids flocked to on the playground. In middle school, I suffered the wrath of mean girls, girls who were considered “popular,” because I was smart and actually cared about my education. And in high school, I rolled my eyes as class elections were always based less on which candidate was more capable and more on which candidate was the most fun.
Then I went to college and entered a reality in which the social pecking order had little place in a world where people wanted to broaden their horizons. Being smart counted. Being educated counted. Discussing ideas instead of other people counted. Understanding abstract concepts, diverse opinions and multiple possibilities counted. Most importantly, living a non-superficial life counted.
Or so I thought.
Between college and graduate school, I witnessed women purposely marry men for money and status. But I still appreciated my own independence and ideals, and I presumed other people respected me for it. After I had children, I endured social circles that centered around who could afford the best pre-schools and expensive houses in elite neighborhoods. But, I surrounded myself with people who realized that happiness doesn’t come from what we have but from what we create. And even as I watched my peers climb a corporate ladder, I knew that the work I did in social service agencies mattered. If nothing else, it had helped me value programs, services and policies that didn’t necessarily benefit me but did help individuals who hadn’t had the same opportunities.
I was well-educated, intelligent, and hard-working, and I assumed those qualities were widely respected.
Then John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election, and I felt as though I was right back on that elementary school playground. When a colleague asked, “Don’t you want our leaders and politicians to be smarter than you?” I realized many Americans didn’t. They just wanted to hear someone spout rhetoric that made them feel good about their own beliefs.
But, when McCain lost and the Obama administration spent eight years implementing policies and programs often intended to help our most vulnerable citizens and resources, I forgot about my disappointment.
Then Trump happened.
Shortly after he was elected, the pundits began to talk about how so many Americans were fed up with the “liberal elite,” and I realized that some people considered me to be one of those individuals.
I may be liberal and many of political beliefs may be rooted in my education, but I’m certainly not elite or an elitist. I’ve spent most of my adult life fighting for people to have the same opportunities I did. And yet, so many people who didn’t have those opportunities, especially those who fought and succeeded in building a good life, are voting to ensure that few others are given the opportunities. They even complain that they “gasp” have to pay taxes that benefit other people. The attitude almost seems to be one of “as long as I get what I want or need, I have no obligation to help others. They need to help themselves.”
Which brings me back to Thursday and Sarah Palin’s now well-publicized visit to the White House. As the photos started making the rounds on social media, so did the nasty comments. I saw several that made reference to “white trash,” a pejorative term usually used to describe white southerners of low social class. And even though I didn’t think these comments were necessarily appropriate, I totally understood where they were coming from.
They were coming from all of us who were picked last for teams during elementary school gym class because the boys who didn’t care about books were the captains. They were coming from those of us who actually studied for the test and then allowed the popular kid who sat behind us to cheat from our paper because we knew the consequences if we didn’t. They were coming from those of us who knew we would never get a job because of how we looked. They were coming from those of us who don’t hate people because of their religion, the color of their skin or their gender, who don’t believe more guns make us stronger and who don’t think that belittling others should make us popular.
They were coming from those of us who are disgusted that our country is now being controlled by the school yard bullies, the mean girls, and the people who think material possessions are a measure of personal value. They were coming from those of us who believe accomplishments and respect, not self-indulgent behavior and mean-spirited rhetoric, should be the ticket to a White House dinner.
So even though using the words “white trash” is not necessarily kind or even appropriate, it is accurate in describing the rude, white people who had dinner with President Trump on Thursday.
In fact, those two words are certainly more fair than almost everything else happening in the White House these days.
Dear Senator Capito,
I’ve called your office more times during the past couple of weeks than I have called any politician’s office in my entire life. You see, I’m worried about your intentions.
Your job as a senator requires you to make decisions in the best interest of me and the other 1.8 million people who live in West Virginia.
You aren’t doing that.
I saw the recent photo of you and President Trump with a caption that said together you will bring back jobs for coal miners. That’s a lie, and you know it. There are a variety of reasons coal can no longer be the backbone of West Virginia’s economy, and your support of environmental deregulation at the risk of harming state residents won’t fix it. (http://fortune.com/2016/07/20/why-donald-trump-wont-bring-coal-jobs-back-to-west-virginia/). But you realize many or your constituents don’t want to read or hear the facts. They just want their politicians to fix something that is permanently broken. So unless you have a plan to find new jobs for former coal miners, and I’ve seen nothing of the sort, you are lying. And you are voting against the best interest of unemployed coal miners because they don’t want to hear that life as they know it has changed. Apparently, their vote is more important to you than their health is.
This same political pandering must be why you aren’t questioning Trump’s executive order on immigrants and refugees. After all, I’ve seen your written response to those who questioned your support. You defended yourself by saying that Trump is acting in the interest of national security. It’s not about national security. It’s about rhetoric and feeding into the hate that spurred Trump’s campaign. And you know it. His actions certainly aren’t based in fact. Experts in homeland security have expressed concern about his order: http://www.npr.org/2017/01/31/512592776/will-trumps-refugee-order-reduce-terror-threats-in-the-u-s. But many West Virginians don’t understand immigration or the extreme vetting that refugees must already endure. They seem to think that being Muslim is practically a crime and use this to justify their distrust and even hate while calling themselves good Christians. But you don’t care if their opinions aren’t based in reality, and you choose to feed their fears anyway. I thought your job is to protect West Virginians regardless of their misguided beliefs. If so, you’re failing.
Which brings me to the issue that is probably bothering me the most: your plan to vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Ms. DeVos doesn’t have a degree in education, has no experience working in a school environment, never attended a public school or state university, sent all four of her children to private schools, and supports for-profit education. No matter how I look at this situation, I cannot understand how you could believe that putting her at the helm of our nation’s public education system is good for the Mountain State. Let’s face it, West Virginia is already struggling with educating our young people. During the 2015-2016 school year, 51% of our state’s high school juniors scored below the reading proficiency level, and 79% of them scored below the math proficiency level. Twelve percent of our adult population hasn’t even graduated from high school. Let me repeat that, more than 10% of our adult population hasn’t even graduated from high school!
Please explain how Betsy DeVos, a woman with no education experience, will be able to help West Virginia. Since we live in such a poor and rural state, I certainly can’t imagine how her passion for private schools will help.
I hate to be cynical, but do you actually like having an under-educated constituency? Do you believe that the less educated we are, the more gullible we will be? I certainly hope this isn’t true, but since you have a pattern of voting in ways that support your constituents often misguided beliefs and against their best interests, I find myself wondering.
Even more importantly, I’d also like to prove myself wrong. I ‘d like you to show me that you aren’t making decisions because they are popular instead of being right.
That is, after all, what we mothers have often told our children to do.
Maybe it’s time to start behaving in the same manner.
I am a worrier.
I worry about my kids, the decisions they make and if they are happy.
I worry about having enough money to meet my family budget and having enough money to meet my office budget.
I worry about whom our country will select for our next president.
I worry about drugs and crime in our community, individuals who are homeless and people are being abused by a family member or by the system.
And I worry about people who are too self-centered or narrow-minded to care about anything or anyone but themselves and their own self-righteous and generally misguided opinions.
But I have never once worried about the person in the bathroom stall next to me.
Until this year, I never even considered that a birth certificate could prove or disprove whether that person in the next stall posed a risk to me or my children.
Birth certificates are just pieces of paper that capture information provided during one single moment in time and reflect societal norms of the past.
Heck, my own birth certificate isn’t even accurate. My mother’s name is misspelled. Apparently, in the excitement of my arrival, she didn’t put her professional proof reading skills to use.
Even worse, my birth certificate lists my mother’s profession as a housewife. My mother was never married to a house. Neither did she spend the majority of her adult life staying at home cleaning, cooking and caring for kids. She was an extension agent, a Peace Corps volunteer, a substitute teacher, a journalist, an editor and even a librarian.
But, at that time I was born, she was not an earning an income outside the home. At that ONE point in time.So, even though my birth certificate states my mother was married to a house, which I find a frightening thought, I can’t find any information on my birth certificate that indicates whether or not I pose a danger to others. The information on my birth certificate is so irrelevant that I’ve never even considered carrying it with me.
In the past 30 years, the only time I’ve even taken it out of a safe deposit box was when I needed it for proof of identification. If I ever need it to get into a public restroom, I’m out of luck because it stays locked away in a box that won’t burn.
This whole debate over which sex can use which public bathroom seems as ridiculous as the dress code a former employer tried to implement years ago. The man was getting ready to retire and was trying, for one last time, to impose his prehistoric beliefs on those who would be left behind.
(This is the same man who insisted I should never be put in a position of authority because I breastfed during a work-related meeting. He never considered that I attended the meeting while on maternity leave because I was just that committed to my job.)
To provide some perspective about just how prehistoric his dress code was, it required women wear hose with skirts or dresses. It also required women wear appropriate underwear and noted that thongs were not appropriate undergarments for the workplace.
When I read the dress code (which, by the way, I fought against and eventually had overturned) , my first question was how it would be monitored and enforced.
I feel exactly the same about a law that require people to use the public restroom that corresponds with the sex on their birth certificate.
It is, in two words, absolutely ridiculous.
The first time I truly understood why I had married my husband, we had already celebrated more than 15 wedding anniversaries.
The moment of my realization wasn’t romantic nor was it private.
In fact, we were surrounded by others at a neighborhood Halloween party.
The dads were standing in a small circle talking, and I just happened to be nearby when one of them pulled out his phone and read a joke to the other dads. I can’t recall the punchline, but it had something to do with President Obama being black. As the other dads laughed, my husband turned his back on them and started to walk away.
“What’s wrong?” one of the other dads asked. “Do you support Obama?”
“This has nothing to do with politics,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if I support him or not. That was a racist joke and laughing at it was racist behavior.”
After their initial silence, they mumbled excuses mixed with denials.
My husband walked away anyway.
That is the exact moment when I realized why I decided he was “the one” all those years ago.
Despite our extreme personality differences, he speaks my language.
It is a language that embraces differences and dismisses labels. It’s a language that appreciates the incredible beauty of being unique and despises the use of violence.
Most of all, it is a language that conveys the perils of remaining silent at even the smallest acts of bigotry.
I was thinking of this language when I woke up Thursday morning to the news that nine people had been slaughtered at a historical African-American church in Charleston South Carolina because of the color of their skin.
I couldn’t help but wonder if their killer had told racist jokes and if people who claim they are not racist had laughed at them.
My gut told me they had.
Apathy can be as dangerous as a gun, and yet it is something many of us use on a regular basis to help us “get along” and “not make waves.
It is also something that can be broken with only a few words, like those my husband spoke at a Halloween party years ago
On Father’s Day, as most of us take time to thank our dads for all they’ve done, I want to thank my husband for teaching my children his language.
It is a beautiful language because it is also full of hope. When all the voices who speak it join together, maybe, just maybe, they can begin to change the world.
He was telling my parents about places where he hadn’t been allowed to go.
I couldn’t understand why, so I asked.
“It’s because I’m black,” he said.
I didn’t understand and I told him so.
“Some people don’t like black men and some people are just afraid of us,” he said.
I still didn’t understand, and neither he nor my parents could give me a good answer. Treating him based on the color of his skin made absolutely no sense to me.
I’m not telling this story to illustrate how children aren’t born prejudice. I’m telling this story because it’s not the story at all. Instead, it is the introduction to a more complex story about how children, just like adults, can fool themselves about their capacity for prejudice. It is a story that illustrates how blind some of us can be to the complexity of human beliefs and behaviors, particularly our own, I’m telling this story even though I hate what it says about me. I’m telling this story because it demonstrates how someone can claim not to understand discrimination and racism while they are in the process of developing their own prejudices.
In the early 1970’s, I was one of only a few white families living on an Indian reservation, and I knew I didn’t belong. My knowledge wasn’t a result of the fact that I looked different from most of my peers. They told me I didn’t belong, probably repeating the words they had heard their parents and other adults say.
That might explain why I cried on the first day of kindergarten when I was the only white child in my kindergarten class, even though my teacher was a white woman named Mrs. Short. My tears must have had an impact because schedules were manipulated so the only other white child my age was put in my class.
That was the year of increased concern that my peers were losing their cultural identity. To address this, members of the tribe came to class to teach us native language and traditions. That was the year we had to learn native dance and participate in a root feast. That was a year when I was taught that the white men were the bad guys. That was the year I was taunted, teased, bullied and chased home from school.
According to my parents, that was also the year I began to hate people of a certain skin and hair color. My mother says once we moved off the reservation, I insisted I never wanted to go back. We did, and I don’t remember being particularly upset. Of course, I also don’t remember ever having the disdain for an entire group of people based on the actions of a few.
I’ve spent most of my life trying to overcome this embarrassing piece of personal history. I like to think I don’t make rash judgments about people and that I treat everyone with the same fairness. But when I’m completely honest with myself, I have to admit that I can be as judgmental as anyone else.
But here’s the thing – I admit that to myself. Maybe that’s because I was raised by parents who expected me to be accountable for both my beliefs and my actions. Maybe it’s because I have personal experience being different, and therefore threatening, to others. And maybe, just maybe, it’s because the young child still in me would be disappointed with anything less.
Whatever the reason, I wish other people would take the time to look inward and realize that any words or posts on social media about an entire race or social class are always going to be wrong because they are based on limited experience.
Groups of people are not an experience or an incident. They are composed of individuals, and each individual is a complicated mix of good, bad, funny, sad, right, wrong and most of all humanity.
This holiday season, I encourage everyone to embrace that humanity and push aside the limited experience.
When we do, the child still in all of us will celebrate.
Of that, I have absolutely no doubt.
My stand-off with a red fox across a small meadow should have been the highlight of my evening bike ride, but it wasn’t.
My highlight was holding a walnut that had fallen from a tree onto a road. I picked it up after my encounter with the fox.
The fox stood very still in his tracks as I walked my bike a few feet closer to get a better look at the beautiful animal. I got my opportunity as he inspected me just as I inspected him. He then decided he didn’t like what it saw and turned to trot into the woods.
I got back on my bike and pedaled a few more miles when my tire hit something and skidded a bit. I stopped to determine what had almost caused my accident.
It was a round walnut still in its green husk.
A walnut tree provided shade over the house where I lived as a child so young that my memories are scattered and limited. I remember spending a great deal of time in the yard with the tree, a wood fence that was built by horizontal, rather than vertical, pieces of wood and a picnic table.
I would sit under that tree pulling apart walnut husks to reveal the nuts buried beneath while I waited for my father to make his short walk home from his office building.
Years later, I learned that my mother had completely different memories of that time. She dreaded the walnuts falling as they were not gems to be uncovered, as my brother and I thought, but were instead dirty objects that left stains upon whomever and whatever touched them. I don’t remember the stains at all.
What I do remember is the beautiful antique furniture in our home that my parents said was made of walnut.
I also remember that my parents had an annual holiday tradition of offering an unending supply of nuts, still in their shells, with a nutcracker. That bowl always contained walnuts.
Those walnuts bore little resemblance to the black ones that had left my hands caked in a dirt and grime, but they did serve as a reminder.
Sometimes we have to look beyond what we initially observe – the inconvenience and messiness that most people carry with them – to discover all they have to offer. Sometimes, the greatest rewards come when we permit ourselves to take on situations that require us to get our hands dirty. And almost all of the time, people and situations aren’t all good or all bad but simply an untidy mix of both.
Our responsibility as people is to train ourselves to always look for the good.
The boxes were big – really really big/ And there was one for my brother and one for me. They were among the first gifts to appear under our Christmas tree, and my brother and I couldn’t have been more excited.
We were ten and twelve years old that year – old enough to know that our parents were practical and extremely unlikely to splurge on anything expensive AND impractical. But we were ten and twelve years old that year – young enough to be hopeful and confident that the boxes were too big to actually hold anything practical.
We were wrong.
On Christmas morning, we both tore into the large boxes, which simply revealed what we had known in our hearts all along: our parents were extremely practical.
Inside each large box was a puffy winter coat. To us, the boxes might as well have held nothing at all. My brother and I were both devastated. Our mom had actually wrapped winter coats in beautiful packages with elaborate bows as though the gifts were incredibly special.
As an adult, I can appreciate the presents and that my parents wanted to ensure our warmth. But as a child, I felt like I had been fooled. Sometimes I feel like I’m still being fooled or, just as often, I’m fooling myself.
I still jump to conclusions based on the appearance of a box without knowing what’s inside. For example, I was recently discussing the backpack program, in which food is sent home with students who may not have enough to eat over a weekend. For some reason, the discussion turned to a specific neighborhood, and I said, “Why waste time in that neighborhood, shouldn’t they should focus on neighborhoods where children are really hungry?”
The neighborhood in question has large homes with spacious, well-manicured lawns.
“Because there are hungry children in some of those homes,” I was told. When I started to argue, I was put in my place. “Some families bought those houses in hopes that the value would grow. At the time, they didn’t have enough money to furnish them. Now, their houses are worth considerably less than they owe, and they are struggling just to make the bare minimum payment. They have no furniture and often can’t afford food. There are hungry children in side those big, empty houses.”
And I realized those houses are like pretty boxes. We think we know what is inside, but we are often wrong.
This week is Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, and I hope everyone will take some time to think about boxes: empty ones and ones we can fill up with food for hungry families. This year, our help is needed more than ever. SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits have been cut, and nonprofit organizations are receiving less support from the government than in previous years. That means our hungry and homeless are depending on community members.
Let’s fill up those empty boxes.
My junior high social studies teacher, Mr. Bice, once stated, “The two most important jobs in the world don’t require a license: being a parent and being a citizen.”
No truer words were ever said.
Being a parent and being a citizen both require a great deal of responsibility: the responsibility to be knowledgeable and educated; the responsibility to hold others accountable and the responsibility to behave in a way that we want our children to behave.
Even though most American say they are fed up with our elected officials in Washington, I can’t say we are being particularly responsible citizens. And if members of the House of Representatives were in school rather than in Congress, the principal would already have made phone calls to their parents.
Unfortunately, the American public hasn’t been acting like good parents either.
Good parents don’t tolerate bullying and name calling.
Good parents don’t tolerate individuals putting their own wants and desires above those of others.
And most of all, good parents don’t teach their children that money and power are more important than being caring, compassionate and trustworthy.
But that is exactly what is happening. We are letting Corporate America buy politicians and public opinion. Take, for example, Citizens United, which legalized the concept that corporations have the same rights as people. That’s like the school’s giving their business partners the same status as parents.
Unfortunately, too many people equate money with power and power with being important. If we want to change politics, we have to change that perception. I don’t know why that is so difficult as I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that most important people in my life never bought my respect. They earned it by giving their time to help others. They earned it by giving up something they wanted so someone else who needed it more. And they earned it by making choices that weren’t self serving.
None of that requires money, but it does require a sense of being powerful.
There are those who would argue that we lose power when we give something away. But I, for one, am not buying that. I’m not buying it at all. I’m more than willing to give my vote to someone who stands up for what I believe and not for what they think will meet their own desires.