Monday, June 1, 2009

How do we respond to face-to-face racism/sexism/heterosexism/isms?

While at divinity school, I feel like I've been living in a bubble. An amazing, inclusive, loving, accepting of all genders, races, sexual orientations, abilities, etc bubble. A bubble, however, is fragile. I graduated just last weekend and already, I've come face to face with the realities of life outside acceptance.

My uncle got married this weekend, so I spent a fair amount of time in northern Wisconsin where my extended family lives. One of the guests at his wedding had Nazi tattoos and my cousin confirmed that he was known for being anti-Semitic and racist. This man was the son of the bride's friend, did not say anything offensive to me or any of my family members, and I probably wouldn't have paid as much attention to him if his presence hadn't upset my cousin.

The entire encounter made me question my response to such situations, when we're faced with an unspoken intolerance, an intolerance that need not be brought to life but is understood and implied. How do we reject that? He didn't do anything racist while there (apart from his tattoos and presence), but does that mean we should say something? If there's no action of his and thus no action of ours, are we implicitly condoning his worldview? Also, he's connected to me by random and thin threads; does that tenuous link really make me the right person to question his intolerance?

I'm really don't have answers to any of these questions; most often in situations like this, I begin with questions and end up with even more questions. I don't know how to respond and I'm unsure of the actions I should take to dismantle racism, especially and even more so when it's confronting me face to face.

As I think about the weekend and my failure to live up to my anti-racist ideals, I feel guilty for my lack of action, even in response to his inaction. However, I also think about the ways my own family members exhibited racist and sexist behavior - my grandma calling my childhood doll a "n****r doll," my grandpa talking about "the orientals" and his ideas of how they hunt, my cousin using a slur against one of her teachers, and my grandpa not allowing me to help load the car because once he met woman who packed the trunk differently than he liked. In most of these instances, my sister or I spoke up and pushed back against their comments. When people we loved made statements we disagreed with, we wouldn't let it stand.

While some action is no excuse for inaction, I feel like confronting the people we love is a good start. If we can speak truth to the people around us, we can start to move out of our comfort zones and speak truth to strangers.


Anonymous said...

Those realities outside the fragile bubble of campus belong to you. Why not go explore--meet this person--instead of relying on the opinions of others?

Not saying I do this much. I'll rely on others. I'll defer almost any decision which doesn't really matter to me. I hear many facts about other people. I like those. It's the opinions of others which I want so labelled.

I just completed a course which effectively for a motto What's at stake? It's helped me look at our society to figure out what's happening, how, and what it means for myself and others.

The word empowerment just came to mind. Is this an appropriate word for describing self-motivated learning and interacting with others voluntarily?

Anonymous said...

First, what's "divinity school"?

Secondly, I don't think it was really a lack of action on your part, per se.

If you look at it from another angle, what COULD you have done? It's not as though, even in the best of situations, he'd leave the wedding early to get a tattoo removal, or something.

American History X doesn't happen as much in real life. Usually some people are set in stone.

That said, speaking up for the sake of speaking up isn't always effective. Speaking up when you can affect something is probably more important, I think.

I dunno. I'm rambling around, but I'm assuming you get my meaning.

lindsay said...

Another reason I was hesitant to mention anything is because it was a really small wedding - 30 people in number and my immediate family made up a fifth of that. I doubted if anything I said could have made a difference and if that same message would have been better received if from a family member of someone he actually knows.

I think the question "what's at stake" is incredibly important for any type of action hoping to lead to acceptance. People have built worldviews in particular ways and to disrupt that dramatically may not be the best option.

Divinity school is like seminary but associated with a university, so more academic in focus. Although the school confers M.Div (ministerial) degrees, I received an academic Masters degree.

Anonymous said...

It still comes back to "Nothing you could have done would have affected the situation at all" (except most likely adversely).

If someone has gone so far as to permanently etch these things in their body, that message will never be well-received. That's just all their is to it.

As wrong as someone else's beliefs/thoughts might be, they're still entitled to have them. Then you reach the ground of whether or not it's your place to even try to sway someone's views.

You can't force tolerance, and I'm hoping no laws ever fall into place that make it illegal to hate somebody else, or have views other than what someone thinks is "appropriate".

Comes back to that quote about not liking what you have to say, but defending to the death your right to say it.

Anyhow, divinity school, huh? In all honesty, from what I've read, feminism+religion are oil+water.

How/why did you end up going there?

Anonymous said...

A lot would depend on how you did it, and if you knew his story first. I'm reminded of my friend, a Chicana, who was on a walk, and some guy with swistika tattoos etc asked her for money. She bought him a sandwich instead and listen to his story, sharing hers. He had been in prison and gotten his tatts there. Couldn't afford to get them removed and was working through his feelings about races. If she had hit him with a lot of hate, what message would that bring? That hate is okay?