Wednesday, February 26, 2014

I am Privileged, So Some Learning is Hard

That's my picture. Pretty well sums it up. More precisely, it sums up a certain dimension of "me": white, male, physically large and strong, probably affluent and well-educated (sort of looks that way and it's true) - in short, privileged. I have never faced "negative" discrimination, where I was treated badly because of what my outside appearance "said" to people I would meet. Lots of "positive" discrimination - special preferential treatment, most likely because the experience of power, of being powerful, becomes a habit, an assumption, that is somehow carried in the body, and people recognize it. Also, I look like an overweight, but still passable linebacker - someone you don't mess with if you don't have to. And yes, I have resources. I am part of the 1%.

I simply have no idea what it's like to be looked at and immediately disliked, despised or merely diminished because of what my appearance communicated to the onlooker about my status, my relevance, my power. In business deals through the years, I have experienced being looked at as an object, with certain measurable assets those I was negotiating with wanted; but this was a game, a ritual that had a beginning, middle and end - and I was doing some of the same myself. I really have no idea what it is like to be looked at as an object all the time, an object with presumably desired functions (sexual pleasure - a woman; physical or mental output - workers as mere inputs to production; and the like).

It's not that I haven't experienced vulnerability and, from that place, fear: My Mom was ambivalent about herself, and therefore me. My Dad always was, and remains (as an active, still curious 97 year old) like a god. I grew up suspecting Mom was right and I would never measure up. Failing terrified me and was not an option; so I did what I was good at (academics) and avoided what I wasn't so good at (sports, social life/friends). Girls were difficult, but sex was terrifying, and remained so for a long time. So I have experience of vulnerability, but none of discrimination based on "outside stuff".

So learning to enter the mind-space of people who face discrimination as part of their daily life is hard. And that's why this article in yesterday's by Ta-Nehisi Coates is so important. TNC is talking with Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, who was gunned down by Michael Dunn because his music was too loud. TNC, using his own words and those of Jordan's mother, recreates for us the mind-space of the black, male teenager with language and images that first bring me into his head, then Lucia McBath's, then Jordan Davis' , then TNC's own 13 year old son who came with his Dad to the interview, and then into the lovely and mysterious mind recesses of our own children and grandchildren - those spaces we take and have some responsibility in forming, defining, and inspiring. Reading TNC's article I was at once a bit ashamed, in awe, and deeply grateful; because we one per centers have a lot of work to do, and we cannot easily do it by ourselves. We need the firm hand and inspired guidance of Ta-Nehisi Coates and those amazing soul teachers like him. Excerpts:

Last Thursday, I took my son to meet Lucia McBath, because he is 13, about the age when a black boy begins to directly understand what his country thinks of him. His parents cannot save him. His parents cannot save both his person and his humanity. At 13, I learned that whole streets were prohibited to me, that ways of speaking, walking, and laughing made me a target. That is because within the relative peace of America, great violence—institutional, interpersonal, existential—marks the black experience...

She stood. It was time to go. I am not objective. I gave her a hug. I told her I wanted the world to see her, and to see Jordan. She said she thinks I want the world to see "him." She was nodding to my son. She added, "And him representing all of us." He was sitting there just as I have taught him—listening, not talking. 

Now she addressed him, "You exist," she told him. "You matter. You have value. You have every right to wear your hoodie, to play your music as loud as you want. You have every right to be you. And no one should deter you from being you. You have to be you. And you can never be afraid of being you."

She gave my son a hug and then went upstairs to pack.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading the article Mr. Stuart...thank you for everything. I am going back home in three weeks as the kids in 10th grade are about to take their first state exam. I will give you a call upon my return.