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My (white) Response to Trayvon & Family’s Experienced Indignities | An Appeal for Primal Empathy

Conflict resolution specialist, Donna Hicks, argues in Dignity: It’s Essential Role in Resolving Conflict, that it’s easier to name experiences and feelings of dignity and indignity, than it is to define the word itself. This, in part, because we are “feeling beings,” who live and experience life through our five senses.

Assuming she’s right . . . What about you?

Can you remember occasions when you felt your dignity was violated?

Can you recall occasions when you violated someone else’s dignity?

In response to the Trayvon Martin jury verdict and the nationwide emotional outcries it has and continues to provoke, President Obama shared two personal examples of his own dignity being violated. He recounted being followed on suspicion of theft (or anticipated theft) while shopping, and hearing car doors being locked in fear as he simply crossed the street in the direction of parked motorists.

If we define dignity, as Hicks does, as a birthright, accompanied by feelings of inherent value and worth. And, if we define indignity as feelings of insignificance and worthlessness, then we might agree that shaming is one of the most common, unthoughtful, and insensitive acts against our fellow humanity, and the taking of an innocent life as the most abhorrent, tragic and emotionally wrenching.

A personal experience of indignity . . .

When I was in the 4th grade I attended a government school in Kisumu, Kenya. I was one of only two white expat kids, in an otherwise all black and brown (Asian Indian) school. Of the two whites, I was the outgoing, athletic type, and my counterpart might today be pegged as a member of the Geek Squad, yet who has the last laugh because he owns a Fortune 5000 company.

Despite my father obtaining a Master’s in math, little of his genes or self-confidence in math were passed down to me. Math has always been associated with shame inducing memories, only one of which I share.

A shame-inducing experience that resulted in me leaving the Kisumu school came about because I was cheating. I don’t remember who I cheated from, but I do recall trading many dime-a-dozen, Paper Mate medium tip blue ballpoint disposable pens for homework help. One day my Kenya teacher found me out, not for cheating, but simply for having no competency in following his instructions for an in-class assignment.

Whether he was exercising his then sanctioned authority as teacher to administer corporal punishment, or more likely in my opinion, using this opportune moment to “get back at” a perceived white colonizer’s son (Kenya obtained its independence only 7 years prior), I’ll never know.

I only remember that he grabbed my left ear, violently wrenching/twisting and lifting me out of my seat by it, then slapped my face with his large, open-palm, turning my cheek a bright ruddy complexion, and then roughly escorted me – dragged is more like it – down to the front of the class, where he scolded me before my classmates, then leaned me over his desk and gave my young white derriere a number of heavy whacks with a ready-at-hand and seasoned non-willow-like stick.

Years later . . .

My freshman year at Baylor University, I participated in violating someone’s dignity simply because I didn’t have the courage to act on what I knew was the right and decent thing to do.

Although all on-campus cafeterias are co-ed, I usually ate at Penland Hall’s cafeteria, a guy’s dorm. Several of the cafeteria staff were mentally challenged, and on this particular occasion a young white woman was pushing a cart loaded down with dirty dishes. Suddenly, there was a deafening din of falling and breaking dishes just 10 feet from where I sat. My head shot up. Actually all heads shot up.

The prior loudness of student voices and laughter contrasted with the punctuated stillness of stares in the direction of this young and challenged woman, who immediately turned beet red and dropped to her knees in an attempt to gather up and salvage the many broken and scattered dishes and food remnants.  The silence lasted only for a moment before students began to snicker and laugh and whisper unkind and insensitive remarks.

I remember feeling emotionally torn. I didn’t have the self-worth and confidence to identify myself with the mess or the mentally challenged girl’s predicament, nor did I disparage her by unkind words or laughter either.

I simply disregarded her humanity through my inaction, saying and doing nothing. I sat there and watched as one Baylor student got down on his hands and knees beside this embarrassed and shamed young woman, and helped her clean the mess up, impervious to what anyone might think or say of his actions.

You see, my evolutionary and innate self-protective instincts were in full operation that noon meal. Fearing ridicule by association I fought the impulse to demonstrate kindness, and instead chose to isolate myself versus connect with this young woman.

Hicks observes that “We might have entered the world with strong self-protective instincts, but we did not enter the world with an awareness of how much we hurt one another in the course of our own defense. Awareness requires self-understanding and acceptance. It requires work. . . .

Holding up the mirror and taking an honest look at what we have done requires more than instincts. We have to tap into the part of us that has the capacity to self-reflect. We already have inherent dignity. We just need to learn how to act like it.”

Desmond Tutu wrote something to the effect that “Only when we begin to care about each other’s dead and dying will we begin to act like and experience being a (global) family.”

Hicks similarly observes . . .

If we are to achieve greater worldwide peace and become in some shape or form a conciliatory community, nation, even global family, then it will require a “developmental shift in understanding”; from an egocentric to ‘other’ point of view; from a mere cognitive understanding to a “primal empathy” (aka, emotional identification), “a feeling of what happens to them.”

Charles M. Blow, in Barack and Trayvon, states, “Only when the burden of bias is shared —  only when we can empathize with the feelings of “the other” — can we move beyond injury to healing.”

In Divided By Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Emerson and Smith observe that –

“The social categories we develop are more than convenient groupings of individuals that simplify the actual diversities among the people we observe and encounter.  They are also categories that can bias the way we process information, organize and store it in memory, and make judgments about members of those social categories. . . . The manner of, the language used, and the persistency of our customary portrayal of people results in a corresponding thought, speech and action toward the ‘Different Other.’

As a WASPM (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, male), I do not write to disparage my/our own sense of “white identity,” yet appeal to millions of us – women, included – to risk a momentary vulnerability and feeling of self-loss, in order to connect emotionally with the millions, whose life histories and stories were by no choice or fault of their own unprivileged to be on history’s victor side of socio-economic and political power.

Resist allowing your innate reaction to perceived social threat to be a self-protective one of “fight,” “flee,” or isolate and alienate yourself from the kaleidoscope of racial, economic, religious and linguistic diversity in our country.

Rather, risk a moment to listen to and hear the other’s life stories. Story – such as one person’s introduction to her own story below – has the transformative capacity to disarm anger and resentment, and to engender empathy, understanding, and ultimately resolution of conflicts.

I want to tell you about me in a way that you can hear, so my story will pique your curiosity, if not your compassion, about me and what my life is like. I want you to see me as a human being with the same dignity that’s in you.

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Consigned to Work for a Young American Family, a MuVenda Woman’s Enduring Gift

Allow me to tell you about Selinah Mahamba of Tshitavha/Sambandou; a village 30-minutes drive north of Thohoyandou/Sibasa, Limpopo Province, South Africa.

Vho Selinah with our first born, Daniel.

Vho Selinah with our first-born, Daniel.

Preamble – 

Imagine that you are a black or “non-white” person (South African context), consigned by historical fate to live during either the era of US slavery or South Africa’s apartheid.

Think about what it was like for black people living in those times and contexts. Imagine that every day, and in every conceivable way, you’re forced due to life circumstances to view yourself by and through the mirror of coercive subservience to a white person’s moods, ideas, beliefs, and actions.

If you’re not fond of or good at imagining, then rent The Help. Watch it! – either alone or with friends. But if with friends, choose those who won’t make snide remarks throughout, thereby cheapening the movie’s powerful portrayal of the inherent humanity of individuals who have suffered immense less-than-human injustices, and of the corresponding inhumanity of those who enacted such injustices.

Watch it several more times over the next few months for good measure. Perhaps other movies exist, which equally depict what life is like for individuals forced to work for – and please – people, who hold such prejudicious and contemptive power over them.  If so, I’m unaware of them.

As John W. Blassingame noted in The Slave Community; Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, whereas whites were historically privileged (had de facto and de jure power) to shape their identity upon the social mirror of the savage and heathen black or red “Other,” in America’s slavery and South Africa’s apartheid context, black people were by fateful default consigned to view themselves by the mirror of coercive subservience to the white person’s moods, ideas, beliefs, and actions.

Complimenting this is Edward Said (1935-2003), author of the pioneering and foundational text, Orientalism. He convincingly argued that identity is not natural and static (i.e., fixed, pre-determined). It is constructed and inseparable from the disposition of power and powerlessness within societies.

Story –

My family of (then) three lived in Thohoyandou, Venda, South Africa from 1989 to 1992; a brief, yet important span of time in South Africa’s history, in that, Nelson Mandela went from being decades’ long political prisoner to freed man and future head of state.

We were naive young North Americans, who arrived in town with an over-inflated optimism of the good and change we might bring to the Venda people (A characteristic naiveté of most North Americans, I believe. A result, perhaps, of our heritage, in which we’ve erroneously come to believe we are the par excellent God-nation, a “city upon a hill,” as Puritan, John Winthrop unknowingly popularized in an early 1600 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity.”). Fortunately for us, the VhaVenda are (and were) extremely patient, kind and forgiving!

After three years we relocated to South Africa’s southeast coastal region, yet in leaving Venda, we were only too aware that instead of us changing a place and a people, it was they who had changed our lives.

Although I could list several prominent individuals during this 3-year period (for example Men Holding Hands | A Tribute to an African Friend) – in terms of their effect upon and mentorship of our lives – this blog is singularly about one individual, Selinah Mahamba.

Vho Selinah, somewhat like Mother Teresa but without the global recognition, is an a-typical VIP and mentor, in that, her life is void of any distinguishable secular “success indicators.”  She was a de facto single mother of four, who recounted being shocked when her husband arrived home unannounced with a second wife and then she throwing this woman’s belongings out of the house, and who struggled daily to keep her children fed. She spoke no English, and we were only just learning TshiVenda – one of South Africa’s eleven official languages.

At the recommendation of a Venda caravan camp manager (now a Protea Resort) we hired her as a “domestic worker.” Each weekday exacted a minimum 2-hour roundtrip on public transport for her, plus 7 hours work at our home – where she cooked, cleaned, washed clothes and cared for our two children – then returned home to do the same for her family.

Ironing with our South African born second child, Elizabeth.

Ironing with our South African born second child, Elizabeth.

We employed several inside/outside “domestic helpers” during our time in South Africa, most of whom became second family to us. My wife remarked one day how amazed she was (and respect felt) at the strength, resilience, and kindness-of-character of domestic workers, in that, they tolerated the daily whimsical and sudden and unaccountable changes of demands, moods and behaviors of their many and varied (all races), mostly under-paying employers.

Vho Selinah demonstrated few, if any of the “public persona refinements” typically evidenced by formal education (my written loquaciousness, for example!:), yet lack of formal education and opportunity is not synonymous with lack of potential, or lack of ability, or lack of intelligence. She possessed all of that and much more.

One (of many) enduring gift of Vho Selinah to my family was in her mentoring my wife in Venda/African methods of “being” and mothering; specifically how to “sling” and tie one’s child to one’s back, so as to be able to lull a child to sleep, to feel and gauge the well-being of a child’s heartbeat against one’s back, and be able, then, to go places, meet people, and re-engage daily responsibilities, whatever they might be.

My family and I are forever grateful that a portion of our identities have been crafted and shaped by Venda mirrors!

Post-Venda days, Ana with 5th born, Louisa - Johannesburg

Post-Venda days, Ana with 5th born, Louisa – Johannesburg

Ana wearing a Venda traditional outfit and greeting respectfully

Ana wearing a Venda traditional outfit and greeting respectfully

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