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A Child’s Death | Universal Bereavement & Opportunity to Care

Losing a child, how must it feel?

How it must affect the totality of life and existence!

I wonder, though: What role does the loss of a child play in fomenting global conflicts and instabilities?

Parents are gifted to love their children from conception through dirty diapers and croup, from crawling to pulling up to faltering steps then to running, potty training, the “terrible twos,” the teenage identity-in-formation and hormone raging years, then transitioning into adulthood with all its attending responsibilities and complexities.

South African friends inexplicably and suddenly lost their eldest child one week ago, a beautiful, bright young woman. Twenty-three years young—yet still their baby. My daughter posted pictures on Facebook—four girlfriends lying on a bed together laughing—reflecting a much earlier time when women were girls, and girls were wannabe women.

For sure, parents losing children is not uncommon or infrequent. Such incidents and stories were part of my childhood:

A little girl struck by a bus as she too excitedly stepped out to welcome home for the weekend her elder siblings from boarding school; a child jumping on the bed with no sense of the imminent danger of a nearby pair of scissors; another child oblivious to the fact that her dress caught in the door of a departing bus; and yet another, having fun white water rafting with Dad and his friend on the Zambezi River, when fun turned to tragedy as their boat flipped over, and after both adults reached shore, turning to see the teenager grabbed in knee-deep water and dragged under water by a large Nile crocodile.

As a middle-ager now, incidences of parent loss haven’t lessened, and is unlikely to as long as death continues to be the great social equalizer.

Loss of a child among one’s concentric circles of relationships occurs frequently, although irregularly. And although I can’t peg dates to days for many friends’ and acquaintances’ tragic losses (like we do with a September 11, 2001, aka 9/11 type incident) nevertheless, those many moments of shock upon hearing of the death of someone loved are indelibly seared into my consciousness.

For instance, a first memory of my family’s relocation to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, was attending the funeral of the eldest child, a son, of a prominent Indian family, who died from gunshot wounds after a botched hijacking. Or of a former colleague, whose son died of a seizure as he raced late one night to a not-near-enough hospital for emergency care, or of an extended family member’s son—a friend to my children—who likewise died in transit to critical care treatment—only this time, not in a speeding car late at night, but in a small medevac airplane flying from Kenya to South Africa.

All these shared incidences of loss are tragic, indeed, yet with the exception of the young Indian man shot to death, they were “natural,” in that they were either the result of an unknown at the time, and invisible to the outward eye bodily ailment or condition, or “natural” in their sheer freakish and accidental occurrence.

But what about the millions of parents worldwide, who have suffered the loss of babies, young children, teenagers and aspiring-to-be young adults due to the indiscriminate, flesh and bone-piercing shrapnel of munitions or flesh-eating toxic gas/chemicals often times traced back to our own “developed” nations, or even to hunger and disease resulting from inequitable economic systems and institutions, that privilege those that have with more, and those with little-to-none with even less?

How many hundreds of thousands of those we label in the West “rebel,” “terrorist” or “terrorist sympathizer,” were first parents, and whose political sympathies and activism were ignited the day they held either their own or a neighbor’s limp child’s bloodied body across their outstretched arms?

It is difficult enough to fathom holding the lifeless body of my own children, (such as the following story of a young child’s loss) and unimaginably painful to contemplate holding one of their bloodied, disfigured and lifeless bodies as we daily see via media coverage from war-torn areas such as Syria, southern Sudan, Iraq, and Palestine.

The following is my doctoral mentor’s recollection of day and occasion when he lost his fourth child, a boy:

“On Boxing Day the family decided to go for a picnic along a nearby river. The children were playing together. I was chopping wood and preparing the fire to boil water for tea. We called the children for the meal. David was not with them. The next 7 hours were ‘gethsemane.’ David was nowhere to be found. I must have run miles, hither and thither, up and down stream, tormented, exhausted, panic-stricken. Exhausted and dejected, with encroaching darkness, as the sun was setting, my brother-in-law ran up to me and informed me that David’s body had been located at the bottom of a pool, near the picnic site. As David’s body was being lifted from the water, I recall taking hold of his damp, cold, lifeless body and hugging him to my chest. . . . I felt demented as I carried this treasured child, now cold, limp, and lifeless up to the farmstead. Everything was in a state of disarray . . . what was – no longer mattered. High hopes, expectation and promise had evaporated. The future ceased to be. . . .”

Demented . . . state of disarray . . . what was no longer mattered . . . evaporation of hope, expectation and promise . . . the cessation of all future . . .

Such is one person’s feeling about life and living in the days and weeks following the death of a beloved five-year-old.

It’s to be expected and probably healthy to immediately feel outrage against and demand retribution toward any person or persons, who violently takes or contributes in taking the life of another person.

Society, for instance, should naturally feel outrage against the alleged three men who yesterday murdered Officer Charles Joseph Gliniewicz, a 30-year Chicago veteran with four sons, and we should similarly be incensed against Vester Lee Flanagan, who one week ago shot to death on live TV both anchor woman and cameraman, or the individual who stood over and shot 15 bullets into a Houston officer at a gas station.

We cannot allow ourselves, however, to be naïve, simplistic and detached-from-reality in terms of perception and interpretation of causation of violence or calamity. We can’t allow ourselves to feel unmitigated hatred against individuals who act out violence, without feeling equal or greater indignation against systems, institutions or “cultures” (e.g., “gun culture,” “socioeconomic privilege culture”) that in one way or another are complicit in the social ills poignantly evident in moments of national grief and outrage.

At least two of the above incidences were committed by mentally ill persons, who, in turn, had easy and legal ownership to firearms. There’s something insanely idiotic and skewed when records indicate that more people have died by firearms in the U.S. since 1968 than by all our wars combined, yet as a nation we do little-to-nothing about gun and mental health reform.

Black South African university students were asked a Zen Buddhist riddle (a koan) by their white professor. They were shown a picture of an unbroken bottle with a goose inside, and then asked, “How do you get the goose out of the bottle without killing the goose or breaking the bottle?”

The students perceived this mostly white oriented, Western philosophical question to be superfluous, contemptuous, and insensitive to their daily life reality under apartheid. The real question, they said, should be—“Who would put a goose into a bottle and why?” Their solution? Obliterate, smash the bottle (i.e., the structure, system, institution of racial discrimination and oppression)!

Oxfam predicts that unless inequity is drastically reversed, within a year or two one-percent of the world’s people will own more than the combined wealth of the other ninety-nine percent.

Given the predominance of worldwide conflicts and inequity it’s imperative that we begin seeing each other as gift, family, and co-sojourner.

Even the United Nations is currently experimenting with virtual reality with a purpose to enable/facilitate those who live in relative seclusion and isolation from the “real” world the rich and powerful to be able to identify with and experience empathy with the poor and suffering people of the world.

Perhaps Desmond Tutu’s wise and elderly words are a fitting close to this thought piece. In God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, he states,

“You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. . . Can you imagine what would happen in this world if we accepted that fact about ourselves—that whether we like it or not we are members of one family?

Only when we care about each other’s dead can we truly learn to live in the same world together without our irrational prejudices and hatreds. Perhaps this will be possible when we eventually realize that God has no enemies, only family.”

To my South African friends who lost a most precious child this week please know how broken we feel with you; how loved you are as family; how much our lives benefited by knowing your daughter, yet how impoverished by her passing.

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Filed under Africa, Death and Dying, Family, Inequity, Life, Loss, Memories, Perspective, Relationships, Violence

White Supremacy, Black Experience: A Lesson In Listening

“Americans make choices constantly as they try to navigate through the racial landscape. And their first choice is how they listen. Blacks and whites do not listen well to one another. They infer, assume, deduce, imagine, and otherwise miscommunicate. They give each other little grace and allow small room for benefit of the doubt. Dialogue is exceedingly difficult. Nor do blacks and whites listen well to themselves as they stigmatize, derogate, slur, slight, and otherwise offend. . . . It takes practice to learn to listen.”  (A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, by David K. Shipler, ©1997)

With 36 years Africa experience, most of it in a relatively volatile, post-colonial and post-apartheid context, you would think of all white males I would know better.

My wrong?

Among a diverse group of professionals I recently spoke analytically to the contentious topic of white supremacy, or its equally bitter-tasting kin—white privilege.

My cerebral statements understandably met immediate (black) resistance and reaction. Understandably, because my colleagues had been sharing painful personal and past experiences of racially tinged or infused injustices, and of a local city’s white establishment’s historical misuse of political and economic power in disenfranchising entire African-American communities.

Some of my friends contended that white supremacy, aka, institutionalized and/or racist white power structures will be eradicated globally within a relatively short time period.

Instead of simply listening to my friends’ pained narratives, or vocalizing my solidarity with them against past and present social injustices, I intellectualized what up to that point had been a mostly emotionally laden discussion.

At the time, my “invisible, weightless knapsack of accustomed white privilege,” as Shipler coins it, processed our dialogue with two rational thoughts—

First, “How can we talk of eradicating white supremacy, when it’s both a local and global belief that people hold, specifically, a belief that whites are superior to all others different, and therefore entitled—for the betterment of society—to control the mechanisms of power?”

And, secondly, “I agree. We can and should dislodge unjust white socioeconomic and political power structures, such as occurred with slavery America and apartheid South Africa, but we’ll never eradicate white supremacy, or any other color of supremacist belief, as my colleagues seemed insistent on.

Thinking the best of each other, I’m sure my black colleagues knew I wasn’t advocating for white supremacy or arguing against efforts to unseat bigoted power structures, just as I knew they weren’t naive to think supremacist thought could be annihilated.

Perhaps a greater sensitivity and awareness of our respective cultural differences might have mediated our group’s differences of opinion. At least for me, anyway.

How?

By reminding me that lack of passion on my part, or a mere intellectualizing or pondering of social injustices, will not communicate support or understanding.

Whether any part true or simply another racial generalization, I’ve read somewhere that passion, emotion, the ability “to stir up” are traditionally valued traits for many African-Americans—perhaps a survival tool during the slavery era—explaining in part, perhaps, the appeal of the rapper, the preacher, the impassioned politician.

Regrettably, only in retrospect did I see that my lack of passion, and my mere intellectualizing of an issue so close to many of my black colleagues’ life experiences, simply communicated (white) insensitivity to and self-denial of the persistent, everyday realities of scores of millions of historically disenfranchised and displaced people in the U.S. and around the world.

While I regret my misstep, I don’t lament risking encounter and dialogue. As Shipler rightly notes, “The journey does not have to be a (white) guilt trip; it is just an encounter with the facts of life.” Dialogue—talking and talking and talking—opens new “pathways to closeness” among people and cultures different. Each person must LISTEN to the other, however.

 

 

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Filed under Africa, Dialogue, Diversity, Inequity, Life, Loss, Perspective, Prejudice, Race, Relationships

The Unknown and Unimagined Life of Being a (Black) Problem

IMAGINE for a moment that you were black, brown, yellow, whatever color, really–even white–as long as it’s not the reigning color of hegemony in a given place (hegemony=the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group).

The important point of imagining is that you belong to a segment of society that for what seems forever has been bereft of sociopolitical and economic power, resulting in a troubled state of life, being, even self-identification.

Imagine that you personally, or members of your family or community have recent and past memory of being routinely profiled, unjustly or disproportionately incarcerated, disenfranchised, subjugated, enslaved (forced marital and family separation, rape), derided, stereotypically blamed for high crime rates and indulgent abuse of welfare subsidies, a member of “the native problem,” and most shameful of late, given racially charged incidents such as occurred in Ferguson, MO, publicly ridiculed on prime time by “news” hucksters, the likes of whom resemble a wily red fox.

One North American, who not only successfully imagines, but also in a two-part Op-Ed risks exposing and challenging “smug white delusion,” and who knows first-hand a smidgen, at least, of what it’s like to be non-privileged in a democracy that often evidences a one-step forward, two-steps backward reality in matters of economic inequity and race relationships is The New York Times Op-Ed columnist, twice Nobel Peace winner, and “honorary African” (according to Desmond Tutu), Nicholas Kristof.

Similarly, Nadine Gordimer, former South African writer, anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace laureate, in a chapter story, “Ah, Woe Is Me,” (from Selected Stories), shares a white, apartheid-era, self-awareness moment, through the narrative of a white woman and her former obese and physically debilitated black “servant” Sarah.

In the short story, one of Sarah’s three children, a daughter arrives unexpectedly at Ma’am’s doorstep after years absence. Once the apple of her mother Sarah’s eyes, in terms of potential as scholar and aspiring teacher, the girl is now disheveled and anguished in appearance–the result of forced withdrawal from school due to lack of school fees, as well as her unyielding duty to care for her bedridden mother.

Ma’am nervously and immediately bombards the young “location” (black township=where black people were consigned to live under apartheid) girl with questions about her mom’s health, the girl’s schooling, her siblings, her father’s loss of job, the hardships of life in the location, et cetera.

Abruptly, almost, she becomes self-conscious of the incessant and personally detached nature of her questioning, and shares with the Reader this bit of inner self-discourse:

“I always had the curious feeling that they (Sarah’s children) were embarrassed, not by me, but for me, as if their faces knew that I could not help asking these same questions, because the real state of their lives was unknown and unimagined by me, and therefore beyond my questioning.”

This representative apartheid-era white woman, who lived in a white’s-only suburb, and who not only had the economic means to hire household servants, but also belonged to the ruling political power–one capable of dictating and enforcing upon everyone different to themselves not only where they would live, but what and how they should think of themselvesin a narrative flash realized she knew absolutely nothing about, and could imagine even less, what day-to-day life was really like for a non-white in apartheid South Africa.

Uncanny in similarity are W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 words in The Souls of Black Folk–

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy, by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ they say, ‘I know an excellent colored man in my town,’ or, ‘Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil?’

At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ I answer seldom a word.

To not personally know what it’s like to be “a problem,” profiled, incarcerated or a systematically disenfranchised person or people is understandable, particularly if your life has been one of disproportional privilege than struggle and hardship.

An unwillingness, however, to attempt vicariously imagining what another’s life must in reality be like, is inexcusable, and reflective not of power, but of fear–a fear of what your conscience, like Ma’am’s, might instruct and compel you to act upon, given your new awareness.

 

Note: One example of one city’s bipartisan, interracial, and intentional effort to understand “the other’s” life experience and narrative of pain, is Richmond, Virginia’s Initiatives of Change and Hope In The Cities. They promote trust building through honest and courageous communities of dialogue.

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Prejudice & Racism | Sometimes Unconscious, Always Unconscionable

No one likes to admit to or think of oneself as prejudicial or racist.

There is no such thing as prejudice, racism or bigotry. They are mere fabrications of an elite and liberal media!

At least this is what a former student of mine in effect argued to his class of peers several years ago. From his Deep South, predominately white, and socioeconomic sheltered childhood, to his burgeoning young adult affinity with Joel Osteen’s prosperity Christianity and Mike Huckabee politics, this young man became near incensed on several occasions during the semester when he felt our collective, yet honest class discussions on matters of race and stereotypes was unfounded, merely perpetuating long since left behind racial antagonisms.

My student’s opposition to discussion merely supported David Shipler’s statement in A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America–

“Fears and assumptions, often far beneath the surface prevent honest discussion from taking place. When it comes to race, we do not know how to talk to one another.”

Regrettably, this young man’s denialism and lack of awareness of the often subtle and nuanced versus overt prejudice and racial bigotry still pervasive in many parts and communities of the United States isn’t exceptional, but rather, representative.

For instance–and what prompted this blog to begin with–the December 2013 issue of The Costco Connection, contains a section entitled “MemberConnection / Changing the World,” in which several short paragraphs highlight individual Costco members’ social development non-profits.

One piece entitled, “A Dream Made Real,” focuses on “The O’Brien School for the Masai” situated in rural Tanzania, yet begun and operationally managed by a woman and her daughter from Hinsdale, Illinois.

CC

According to Fran Schumer, Costco Connection writer, the O’Brien School “stands as a testament to how one (read: American) woman, with the aid of family, friends and anonymous well-wishers, can transform a village.

Schumer quotes the school’s founder, Kellie O’Brien, as saying, “Living in a dung hut does not determine who you can become in this world.

Translated: “Rural Tanzanian Masai live in genuinely shitty houses, but this unfortunate reality need not restrict their evolutionary and prosperous development! With our help an entire (read: uncivilized or backwater) village can be transformed–i.e., ‘developed’–and from this benevolent act of ours future Tanzanian leaders will be educated and shaped by our (read: white, American) core values and worldview.”

The issue I’m focusing on is not whether international aid or kind and well-intentioned donor benevolence, in this case a gift of education, is wrong or misplaced. After all, and understandably so, few, if any resource struggling people would look a gift horse in the mouth, including the Masai community where the O’Brien School is located.

Rather, my focus revolves around attitude or perception toward people different–especially, so-called “needy” people.

Should it be of any importance, I self identify as bicultural. That is: I am a white, Texan, North American, Protestant, middle-age male, who spent many years of childhood and adulthood in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.

It’s because of my shared white identity that this blog is intentionally and disproportionately pointed at my own “white America,” maybe, even, especially, “Christian America,” the likes of Franklin Graham, who frequently spews vitriol against anyone “non-Christian,” especially Muslims and Islam.  This blog speaks particularly to the white elephant of “white attitude” toward difference.

I hope it goes without saying, that despite my stated focus above, I believe prejudice and racism to be a universal reality (common to all of the world’s people) and circular (e.g., blacks discriminate and are prejudicial against whites, too).

The relevance and particularity of speaking to white America lies in our to date disproportionate global power/influence in all matters social, economic, media, political, military power, etc.

In The Costco Connection, both the writer and the non-profit founder express disrespectful attitudes toward the “different other”–a community of Masai in Tanzania–attitudes that are paternalistic and prejudicial, yet also most likely unbeknown to them, i.e., they’re unaware, unconscious of their prejudice.

Their personal attitudes toward and perceptions of the “needy Masai,” is in full public display because of their choice of words and manner of expression in a printed magazine.  It could be argued that it also reflects negatively on a corporate institution because Costco’s editorial team failed in its censorship responsibilities prior to the publication of its December issue.

Perhaps most revealing in terms of attitude, however, is O’Brien’s reason for why she and her daughter founded the school in Tanzania–

There comes a point where you go from success to significance.” Translated: After you’ve made your millions–enough to live comfortably for the remainder of one’s lifetime without formal employment–it’s time to focus on your legacy.  If you can help needy people living in needy countries, so much the better!

As I read this short piece I wondered whether O’Brien ever paused to consider whether or not a traditional Masai or African house, aka, manyatta or rondavel hut made with mud, dung, sticks and thatch is considered a negative and inferior existence to so-called European architectural development by those who live in them, as she intimates?

An atypical African rondavel

An atypical African rondavel

For example, Frances Colenso, wife of John W. Colenso, nineteenth century bishop of the Church of England in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, remarked in an 1880’s letter to a friend–

“The (Zulu) Chiefs, who have some of them never been in a square house before, did not appreciate the comfort of it at first—they thought their round huts with a fire in the middle much more snug, and described a square house as a ‘collection of precipices’ with a hole in one of them where the fire was laid.

Similarly, yet thirty years prior, an American missionary by the name of Hyman A. Wilder, wrote to his U.S. constituents–

“When we tell them (Zulus) of the advantage of civilization; & of the happiness & comfort & skill & wonderful works of christianized (read: civilized) nations it seems to excite only a brief stupid amazement & reverence, but awakens no emulation, no desire to be different from what they are.”

It’s a fact that early colonial and missionary effort included teaching Africans “practical information on sitting in chairs, eating off plates, and building square houses.”

Regrettably, what used to be widespread and overt racial antagonism, such as depicted in the movie Mississippi Burning, has subsequently become more insidious, cloaked in jokes, quips, even political satire.

sticker

Two “small” and personally experienced incidents, which reflect how prejudice slides below the overt racism radar, occurred in South Africa and sadly involved a person who should live above the line of decency: an American pastor, as well as executive director of a Christian non-profit focused on vulnerable children.

During a visit to South Africa he was introduced to our domestic (house helper) worker. Since his last visit we had hired a new lady, because the former domestic wanted to relocate 550km back home to her husband and child, whom she had left years previously in search of work in Johannesburg. After being introduced by my wife, this man’s scoffing comment to my wife (in front of our African friend) was, “How many of ’em have you gone through?”

"One of 'em" - our friend Precious

“One of ’em” – our friend Precious

On a separate occasion, this pastor/ED met with my multiracial colleagues at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg.  The director of the children’s research and development non-profit was soon-to-be visiting the United States and planned to include a trip to Houston where this man lived.

My Belgium director friend enquired of the pastor/ED whether he would have any trouble proceeding through Houston’s airport immigration check-point with his dual Belgium and South Africa passport. The response was, “You won’t have any problems. But it would be easier if you were black!

My hoped for purpose in writing this blog is similar to the author of American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict.  That is, it is not to condemn white America, white Europe, or white any country, but to facilitate understanding between people, which in turn, hopefully, will lead to greater awareness of our respective life realities, and lead to a new spirit of mutual responsiveness and empathy.
World Solidarity / Unity

World Solidarity / Unity

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Filed under Africa, Culture and Africa, Diversity, Life, Memories, Pedagogy, Perspective, Prejudice, Relationships, Religion and Faith, Success

Word Choice | The Power to Shape Attitudes and Entrench Stereotypes

Coffee shops are somewhat like water troughs.  People come in parched and desperate for the black, sometimes sweet, yet always caffeinated rush, but also to shoulder up alongside the regulars, say “howdy,” and postulate on the problems of the local community and the world.

My remaining-at-home kids and I are habitual, four to six visits per week Starbuckers. It helps, of course, that my middle daughter is a recently hired Starbucks barista, but even before she took on her newfound responsibilities and identity (yes, she wears the logo with pride and a smile), we were regulars.

starbucks

If you frequent a place long enough, its staff and customers become a surrogate-like family. Driving up, we can determine before stepping foot in the store whether certain “family members” are there, in particular, a local construction contractor, whose presence is noted in the parking lot by his company’s logo, painted large and long on his dual rear wheel truck.

In Texas, clergy, aka religious professionals, seem to be regular Starbucks fixtures. Several weeks back I was sitting in one of four leather chairs located in our store’s entrance cove, a much vied for place from which to sit, sip, survey incomings and outgoings, and surmise about life. Three gentlemen who obviously knew each other, at least at a “Starbucks level,” were talking about a microbotic wonder. One of the men got up and left for a scheduled business meeting, accompanied by an attractive looking woman, whom I had not seen before. After they left, one of the remaining two men–a minister at a nearby church–remarked to the other, “That’s a pretty girl! That’s about the best work he ever did.”

Was he merely talking “Texan” or did his reference to the woman as “work” reflect and reveal something deeper, less respectful? For example, almost every driver has “worked” to own a vehicle, particularly a first car. The purchased item then becomes one’s “property,” to drive or (mis)treat as one determines or feels like. True of any material object, the allure and luster–e.g., new car smell–diminishes over time, and with it, too, one’s affection for, commitment to care, to maintain, and to fidelity.

If my academic studies benefited my life in no other way, than this one, I would still be exceedingly grateful.  In my face-to-face, experiential studies of other cultures and religions, I learned that our choice of words and our repetitive use of them shape and maintain images, stereotypes, attitudes and perceptions of others–especially those who have not been on the victor’s side of history’s narratives, which, to date, probably includes most anyone who is not male and WASP!

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author, David K. Shipler, observes in his book A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, that with contentious topics like race, words have the power to label and circumscribe people, particularly those, historically, who have been bereft of privilege and power.

strangers

Despite the widespread popularity of “tolerance” messages, which on the surface positively advocate for recognizing and respecting people different from oneself in matters racial, religious, cultural, socioeconomic or sexual, such words have become tainted over time by their secondary definitions of “variation from a standard,” or “capacity to endure hardship.” As Shipler sensitively notes of African-Americans, “Black Americans do not want to be ‘tolerated’ as one tolerates deviance or pain. Anyone who advocates tolerance today risks being misunderstood as grudgingly accepting the unpleasant qualities of another group.”

When I was in my early 20’s, I remember driving in a pickup truck through a section of rural, East Texas with a much older and prominent community resident. It was spring time and orange wildflowers–Mexican Hats (Ratibida Columnaris)–were in everywhere display. Obviously trying to conversationally connect with me and provoke a laugh, he remarked with a mischievous smile on the abundance of “n&#g*r tits” in the fields.

Mexican Hat

Mexican Hat

My discomfort might not have been as acute if I had not just a few weeks prior, had another, even more senior, yet this time female resident shout out twice to her near-deaf husband upon the ringing of their doorbell and during my visit to their home, “THE N&#G@R’S HERE!” (they were expecting an African-American to come by and clean their rain gutters) Come to find out years later that racial prejudice in this part of the United States, was endemic, such that one nearby civil rights advocate claimed “East Texas is Mississippi 50 years ago.”

Benedictine nun and popular speaker/writer, Joan Chittester, observes in Called To Question that “once an image is cast in stone” it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to go back or reclaim its essence again. Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow, co-authors of The Myth of Africa, similarly echo about Africa and Africans, “The errors and biases so perpetuated have by now acquired an inviolable tenure.” The truth of this statement is no where more evident than Africa, a place synonymous in the Western mind with “the dark continent.”

Chittester speaks from a woman’s and oft-times socially invisible and undervalued perspective to the inviolable “heresy of God the Father,” in which, religious professionals legitimate their male positions of ecclesial power by stifling, even excommunicating anyone who dares question the status quo’s interpretation of Scripture–one, in which, God, despite disclosing identity to Abraham in neutral gender terms, “I am who am,” is from their accustomed privileged position Solus “Father.”

Call it over-sensitized, call it picky, call it anal, call it what you will, the truth is words possess a passive and active heritability, reflecting attitudes and perceptions toward others different to oneself, as well as maintaining entrenched stereotypes and emotions.

Choice and use of words is often subtle yet significant. It is common among the Christian community to hear or read reference to people different as “non-Christian.” Obviously the implication is that “Christian” or “Christianity” is the exemplar, the standard by which all others are to be assessed. Another popular term of reference is “uneducated,” implying that if you don’t have at least a high school education you’re “less than” — uncivilized, uncultured, uninformed, unworthy, unimportant, and un-opinionated. As my mentor respectfully distinguished, why can’t we be more sensitive by referencing those who possess “informal” versus “formal” education?

Given the world population’s unabated increase, coupled with simmering tensions and all out conflict in countless hot spots, the least we–aka, those privileged to be living in a part of the country/world not yet noticeably affected by overt conflicts of relationship–can do in reshaping a more peaceful, equitable, and just world order, is begin intentionally utilizing vocabulary and language that is respectful, inclusive, and sensitive.

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“I’m White and He’s Black!”

Growing up in then recent post-colonial Kenya, I don’t recall when, if ever, race consciousness hit me. My earliest recollections are a blended hue of white, black and brown.

Kikuyu herdsmen, young boys actually, are among my earliest memories. They regularly traveled by our front gate as they tended cattle, sheep and goats. I loved their weathered 1.5 meter long herding sticks, and the ease with which they shrilly whistled at their livestock; similar to what I remember trail hand and cook Frank McGrath shouting and whistling out to his team of horses on the 1960’s TV show, Wagon Train.

I remember our maid occasionally taking me on a long, winding footpath to a local, all-Kikuyu village market where she bought a loaf of white bread. When we arrived home she would cut thick slices, slather on a thick coating of delicious Blue Band margarine, then make hot, sweet, white tea for dipping.

blue_band

If any negative remembrance of racial encounter during Kindergarten to 2nd grade, it would be a 1st grade bully, who not only convinced and panicked me that our family’s post office box had been left wide open (my khaki school short’s fly/zipper), but regularly threatened me into sharing my food. It would be untrue to call this incident racial just because I was bullied by a black boy. After all, only a few years later in the seventh grade, I was bullied by a white classmate when he sprayed cologne in my eyes following football practice.

For my eldest child and only son (who, incidentally, was born at Parkland Hospital, the same hospital where JFK was taken after being shot, and from where his death was announced), racial consciousness arose out of an apartheid versus colonial context.

At one year of age, my son, plus my wife and I boarded a KLM, Johannesburg bound flight in Amsterdam for what was then apartheid South Africa. It was 1989. We were headed for Thohoyandou (literally “head of elephant”), Venda, one of several so-called independent Bantu homelands within South Africa. In reality they were mere international, geopolitical window dressings, attempts by a white government to legitimate a “separate but equal” racial segregation policy.

What at first was a significant discomfiture – a white and young American family living in and amongst an all-black Venda neighborhood in apartheid South Africa – became a transformative experience for us. For many Venda people who frequented our home, it was their first experience of being in a white person’s home, much less being welcomed as guests.

Our willingness to disengage from our traditional and accustomed racial and economic community of belonging, and live within the constrictions of a people, who knew and experienced first-hand and often on a daily basis the effects of racial bigotry and discrimination spoke louder than any words possibly could.

When we relocated from Venda to another South African province three years later, our residential Block G neighbors hosted a farewell for us. A principal of a local high school was the master of ceremony. He surely said more than this, but all I remember these many years later is his expression of gratitude on behalf of those present, for our having come and lived with and among them – sharing life and a partial history of discrimination alongside them.

It wasn’t long after settling into our new, small, yet quaint home in Block G that our son found a friend to play with. Gabriel (*not his real name) lived two houses down (a mere 30 to 40 meters away), and a neat feature of his house was the courtyard and driveway “tarred” with wet cow manure, that when dry can be drawn on, sat on, played on, driven on, eaten on and which leaves little to no odor, nor attracts flies. Unlike carpet that frequently induces apoplexy in adults each time children eat or drink on it, a floor protected and sealed with cow manure is extremely absorbent, and stress free!

Anyway, back to our son and his Venda friend. They were best friends, riding their three-wheeled plastic motorcycles up and down the driveway together, watching TV together on our bed as they reclined against our pillows, and enjoying raiding the dry Epol dog food together – stuffing their pockets and mouths with it, as they hid their dastardly deed behind our corner wall.

D&Naki

During three years in Venda, and up until the age of four, Daniel never once seemed conscious of or mentioned racial, ethnic or cultural differences. When we returned to Texas for a few months at the end of 1992, however, and just prior to our relocating to Zululand, my wife remembers him noticing and commenting on a few African-Americans he saw on our way to or from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, “There’s some Zulus!”

Sometime after our return to South Africa in 1993, and during a brief visit back to Thohoyandou after a year-plus absence, I remember driving toward town with Daniel and his friend Gabriel, both of whom were now somewhat shy around each other. Out of nowhere my five-year-old son suddenly made the following observation, “Hey, I’m white and he’s black!” And fortunately that was that. No malice intended. Just a childish observation derived no doubt from some developmental context.

I’m not sure if this blog has any intended message or purpose, other than what you take from it.

It does have a context, I suppose. The 50th anniversary of MLK’s famous speech. As I listened to the 50th anniversary events and speeches this past Wednesday, a radio commentator, in referring to one African-American participant, who marched with MLK and who was still alive, described this gentleman with the words, “He experienced violence.”

EXPERIENCE . . . Seems this is the essential one-word white elephant among so many fellow and white Americans, who glibly and from a protective and sheltered confine of some type argue that we live in a post-racial society, and who become angry and condescending to the many who need and desire to confront and talk through persistent, de facto racism and racial bigotry that persists and continues to be experienced by so many today.

I am forever grateful that my family and I had the forced (we didn’t have a choice where we would live) opportunity to experience life with and from the perspective of a disenfranchised and discriminated against South African people.

It was the first of what would be many future steps out of the safe, yet sheltered identity cocoon of my American, Christian and Anglo-Saxon heritage, and into the storied lives of people who knew and had experienced little in the way of political or socioeconomic privilege and power.

For this inestimable gift of exposure and life experience we are forever grateful.

Maybe it’s time the socio-economically privileged – irrespective of race, culture or ethnicity – reconsider what has traditionally been referred to as “white flight,” or its more racially neutral and nuanced term “suburban sprawl,” and give some thought to participating in the potentially transformative experiences of living with and among transitional communities and neighborhoods, as detailed in the article, “Here Comes The Neighborhood.” At the least, let’s work on attitudes so that we’re communicating respect and dignity and not their opposites.

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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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