A recent gathering of a small group of a dozen or so friends represented six world religions. Our hostess commented: ” Next time you hear someone say “religion spreads hate” tell them it’s those pursuing power who spread hate and fear, and they’ll use religion, nationalism, patriotism, or just create their own-ism to support their pursuit.” She noted that we were gathered together in unconditional friendship worked towards the common good, not in spite of our faiths but because of them.
But our hostess, like the rest of us, realized that we are outliers, and when our conversation took up the theme of the public social and political climate, we shared some darker stories of actual recent experiences and wondered how we are called to respond. These stories, which are recounted below offer a launching pad to explore my friend’s comment. As you read them, ask yourself the following questions:
- What is really going on here? What is the underlying, deep cause for the behavior?
- Is it in any way right, or even okay, that my friends should experience life this way?
- Is the change in social and political climate that these stories suggest one that you have also experienced?
A Muslim Mother’s Story
The first story is of a Muslim mother of two elementary-school children who lives in a comfortable suburban neighborhood. She and her husband both have professional careers. Her story is in two parts.
The first part of the story happened in the run-up to the presidential election. My friend and her children have taken up playing the piano, and she had hired a piano teacher to come to the house once a week. This arrangement had been working well for some time, but a few months ago the teacher’s attitude changed dramatically. He started saying offensive things about Muslims in general, and one day showed up flamboyantly carrying a handgun for what he advertized would be his last piano lesson.
The second part of the story is more recent. Subsequent to the election my friend has experienced a change in the attitude of her neighbors. They ask insistent and repeated questions asking her about ISIS in a manner suggestive that the questioner thinks she is associated with terrorism; they have pulled back from her and no longer engage socially as they once did; and they no longer send their children over to play, or make my friend’s children welcome at their houses,.
A Hindu Woman’s Story
The second story is of a Hindu woman, very well educated in the American system and very successful professionally. She was recently at a social gathering with a group of her well-educated, professionally successful friends and, to her surprise, found the conversation shifting with negative tones to the subject of diversity. My friend looked around and realized that the group was all white: her companions were talking about people of color as a homogenous mass of “them” and calling them all “immigrants”. A strong consensus emerged that “they” should all be sent “home”. The Hindu woman was completely dumbfounded. After some time one of the group noticed my friend in her silence and acknowledged her presence. “We don’t mean you, of course,” the person said. “You’re not one of them. We’ll let you stay.” These words, intended to include, instead, if anything, made my friend feel even more excluded.
Playing With Black Children
These stories brought to mind another one of a prior generation. Some years ago delightful white woman, now well into her 9th decade, was romantically recounting her childhood. She reminisced about the black lady who used to run the house, and her black children of comparable age to this now elderly lady. She remembered the time, of course, as one of racism and prejudice, but when she talked of racism, she strongly argued that her house was not like this. “We loved Mammy,” she said, “as one of the family, and we played with her children like they were regular children.” She is a good woman – a wonderful woman – who was completely blind to the possibility that this relationship might not have been symmetrical: that Mammy might not have felt one of the family; that the black children might not have felt as safe playing her as she did with them; that the black family did not have the same financial and social benefits as my elderly friend; and that they likely lived in constant fear of the arbitrary and capricious punishment that could be directed at them.
Go A Mile In Someone Else’s Shoes
If you did not already do so, reread each of these stories from the standpoint of the minority. Read them slowly and deliberately and ask yourself what it must feel like to be a member of that minority, with systemic privilege building up against you. Ask yourself how, as that Muslim mother, you would explain to your children why that man brought a gun to the house and behaved so rudely. More difficult yet, ask yourself how that mother can explain to her American children why their neighbors don’t invite them over, and why their friends won’t play with them anymore. And ask what it must feel like, as that Hindu woman, not just to feel the prejudice of your privileged friends emerge, but to feel completely unseen by them.
So what’s behind the stories? Why are neighbors and friends turning on each other and treating each other this way?
The truth is that there is no way for us as readers and conversationalists after the fact to really know what is going on behind each of these stories. But we have some pretty good grounds for speculating, and it probably has a lot to do with the mainstream shift in conversation coming out of the election, and the normalization of intolerance and prejudice based on skin color, race, religion etc that occurred during the process.
When the question was raised, “How should I respond?”, a couple of voices said they would wait till things have happened before they respond. But I think we’re already there. I think that rubicon has been crossed. The stories I’ve related are not isolated, and indicate a shift in the public discourse.
Another example of the crossing of this rubicon is the selection by Donald Trump of cabinet of predominantly white, heterosexual Christian businessmen and generals. It is a cabinet representative primarily of a particular elite, and as such it is not a cabinet in which non-white, non-Christian, women and GLBTQ voices are not likely to be well heard.
It’s really hard to see, if you’re not a person of color, what it meant to have a black president, but if those of us with white skin can try to look at the current cabinet choices from the shoes of someone with black skin, perhaps we can get a glimpse. (And for a woman, the gap is also there!) While a white, working class man might feel the cabinet represents him (and arguably it is a white elite that does not even do that), the president’s responsibility is to the nation as a whole, and it is hard for me to see how he can exercise this with any breadth of vision if his cabinet does not represent the nation. A limited elite will have a vision from the place of that elite, and will take us to a place of the tyranny of the majority.
How Should I Respond?
I’ll finish with one more story, and this one is my own.
A few months ago Beth and I went to the circus in the parking lot of Turner Stadium. Universoul Circus is a single ring big tent circus popular. The audience was dominantly black and I saw only couple of other white faces. At one point during the show the ringmaster pulled up two couples to engage in a little slapstick and four songs were played for them to act out courtships. The audience and each of the four participants in the slapstick routine immediately recognized and sang along to each of the four songs, but I was not aware of ever having heard them before.
I relate this last story to point at how difficult it is to see privilege from the inside. I am constantly and consciously striving to not live my life in a bubble, and yet I am regularly confronted, as in this circus experience, with evidence that I do so. Evidence, in this case, of a musical culture in which I have no experience, one very different from the culture of ’80’s white high school rock that is presumptively the universal experience of my generation.
The “tyranny of the majority” discussed above has led this great nation in the past to mass expatriation of Mexicans, to internment of people of Japanese descent, and to other racially-directed responses – including, of course, its history of slavery, apartheid. It has also led to our historic disenfranchisement of large groups including women and felons. That this has happened in our past does not make it right, but rather should be a constant call to us that our great democracy requires of us constant and fearless vigilance.
My friend argues that religion does not breed hate, and I believe she’s correct. There are, of course, great wrongs and horrors in the world, and it’s easy to blame religion and to extrapolate that all religion is bad, but I hope, if you look in your heart and reflect on the stories of this post, as well as stories from your own experience over the last few months, you will agree with my friend. I hope you’ll see that our ignorance, our own not knowing others – whether they be people of another of religion, culture, race, or some other aspect of “difference” – can lead to us being fearful of them; that this fear, if left unaddressed, can grow; that external conditions like wars, terrorism, political grandstanding, and group dynamics can directly exacerbate and generalize this fear and turn it into animosity; and that this animosity can, in turn, become hate. I hope you’ll see that a broad response, based on external signs of difference and on our own ignorance, ill equips us to act as a country, and ill equips us to respond to the challenges we face in the world – including those coming out of the Middle East.
This argument is not just altruistic: it is also practical and self-serving. If we want a safe and happy world, if we want a safe and happy America, a home not just for ourselves but for our children, each of us needs to go to the heart of our fear and take on the responsibility of knowing our neighbors in order that we can properly identify who we should be afraid of and why – as well as to find who we can rely on and why. Skin color, religion, and ethnicity are poor predictors of this, and building boundaries along those lines will harm each of us in the long run.
If you are a white liberal with black friends, you might be feeling complacent as you read this, but you probably also have work to do. Many of us have friends of other races and faiths but if they all think the same way as us, we are still divided and we don’t know the other who votes differently than us, who has different views of gun control than us, who has a different cultural experience. Allowing our nation to become polarized along political and social divides, and especially along the political divide of who each of us voted for as president, will do as much harm to us as any other polarization. We each need to take responsibility for getting to know people who cast their ballots differently than us and realizing that this does not make them the enemy either.