Friday, August 29, 2014

What Qualifies Me to Speak?

This is a question for today: what qualifies me to speak on an issue?

I once posted a picture and paragraph that were meant to be humorous but unfortunately they sort of got their humor from people who are overweight.

I heard back from a number of people on this, and was educated on what a volatile and painful topic it is.

Thankfully, most people were kind and felt that I had said it ignorantly in unbelief and would do better in the future.  It was a good education for me.

Others weren't so nice and that's all I'll say about them.

Some said, in essence, "You are not qualified to speak on this subject, because you've never been obese."

I countered, privately and somewhat defensively, something like, "Well, true.  But I thought I was fat, and my brother convinced me the F.D. on the little Fisher-Price fire truck stood for Fatty Dorcas, and the neighbor lady told my sister that I was "plump," and Mom used to say I was "bissly meh braet" [a little wider], and I was always filled with self-loathing regarding my weight, counting calories, and using such means to lose weight as made me later realize I had bulimia.

So, does that qualify me to speak on the subject with any authority?  I would tend to say yes, but the truth is that it was a problem of perception more than reality, and the highest weight of my life was a hugely pregnant 150 lbs. so I have never known the humiliation and ridicule of real obesity.

But can I speak out of similar struggles, listening to many stories, and the accumulated observations of 50 years?

May I say, "It would seem to me..."?

I would like to think Yes.

Actually, this post isn't about weight.  It's about race.

Because racial issues are constantly in the news, specifically white vs. black racial issues, and plenty of people feel eminently qualified to speak on the subject, and plenty of others think they should be quiet because they don't have a clue what it's like to be on the other side.

And so I am asking some of the same questions I wonder about weight.

I am not qualified to speak with any authority about something like the racial tensions in Ferguson, Missouri.  I will say that right off.

But I am qualified to think and to collect stories and wonder about things, so that is what this is.

And I have a son who is a young black man, the exact demographic slice that seems to be the lightning rod for racial incidents. But we live far away, both in miles and lifestyle, from any kind of American-Black culture or community.

My daughter was once part of a church youth group in a different part of the country where the kids would sometimes discuss slavery and how it wasn't that bad, seriously, and "My great-grandparents had slaves and were nice to them and the slaves were happy."

"You Northerners just don't understand," she was told when she objected.

Well.  I get that part, sort of.  When you grow up in the North, the narrative you're taught in school is pretty black and white, excuse the pun.  You watch Mississippi Burning in the 9th grade and you study history and you get the sense that every white person in the South was oppressive and cruel, and every black person was oppressed and brave, but if YOU had lived there, oh my, you would have been heroic and noble, and would have DONE something about it.

Then you visit the South as an adult, and realize that things were and are much, much more nuanced and complicated.  Like the one county in Florida where education was segregated in the 1950s, but the forward-thinking superintendent sensed that things were going to change, and the black young people needed to be educated and prepared, so he made sure that the county paid for a big, new, well-equipped high school for the black kids.

And as mentioned, black people don't fit into any oppressed-but-noble box.  My sister told the story of a white friend who grew up in a black neighborhood and was harassed by a group of black girls who eventually knocked her down and ripped her earrings out through her earlobes.

So you can't generalize about either race.

But still.  Much of the system was inherently unjust, however things varied in different parts of the country, and surely you can see that injustice, even if your great-grandparents were nice to their slaves.

My dad's parents met and were married in Mississippi, back in the early 1900s.  The other day my dad said,  "Now this is very gruesome but it’s something I remember. My father used to say that in Mississippi, if a white man killed a black man, he had to pay a fine of maybe ten dollars.  But if a black man killed a white man, a mob would go after him and kill him.  They would burn him at the stake. It was terrible.  But it’s better now, at least some better."

So, a lot has changed.  But a lot hasn't.  A young person I know told me of camping with a bunch of Mennonite young people south of the Mason-Dixon line when one of the kindest, most thoughtful guys--they had thought--started telling racist jokes, and nothing happened.  Then the same guy told one about Jews and the Holocaust that, when it was repeated to me, reluctantly, made me want to throw up.  And again, no one had protested.

"So I couldn't go back to that church," the young person said.
"No," I said. "You couldn't."

So, ignorant Northerner or not, I have my lines of what's appropriate and what isn't, based on Scripture and basic decency and common sense. I am sure I don't "get" all the nuances, but I'm still qualified to have a few opinions.

Or so it seems to me.

This is one of many things I don't know: Is my obligation as a white person to simply support and be quiet?  Something in me deeply resents the dismissive "check your privilege" phrase of the moment, as though I am immediately disqualified from speaking into any racial situation because of my race.  I would like to think we are all qualified to teach each other something.

We lived on a Native American reservation in Canada for three years, an interesting experience in being the racial minority.  I remember sensing a deep resentment and almost hatred from a couple of women in particular, just because I was white.  Now if any racial group has cause for bitterness and anger, it's the Native Americans from that generation.  Part of me thought, "You know, when you were at that boarding school getting a needle stabbed in your tongue for speaking your native language, I was a little Amish girl in America. I had nothing to do with it!"

But then, how could I not also think, "Lord, have mercy on our people for the unspeakable things we did to theirs."? And: "What could I possibly say that she could begin to hear from me?"

Even in Scripture, there's such a thing as guilt for your people even if you yourself didn't do anything.

I also wonder: what about behavior, attitudes, dress, and being realistic about stereotypes?

When my sister-in-law Geneva worked at a big mall, I had lunch with her in the courtyard one day.  A young black man walked by.  Geneva said, "Hmmm, security's going to be watching him."

I said, "Because he's black?"

She said, "No, because of how he's dressed."  He was wearing the "skater" uniform, including those pants with the crotch just above the knees.

"So," I said, "Would security watch Steven?"
And she said, "No, because of how he dresses."

Steven dresses in a mix of farmer, Mennonite, and athlete.

Is it wrong to target the skater types because of how they dress?  Probably.  Is it ok to tell young people that sometimes "being yourself" in your clothing is less important than "the message people are going to see."?  I think so.

Do the few exceptions have to live with being judged according to the reputation of the many?  Unfortunately, yes, says the Mennonite lady who tries to be extra cheerful to counter the "dour Menno lady" stereotype.

I went a bit crazy with protectiveness when Steven learned to drive.  True, this is Oregon, not exactly a hotbed for racial tension and police brutality.  But still.  I want him alive and safe.  So, no hoodies when he's driving, hands on the steering wheel if he's ever stopped, Yes Sir out of his mouth.

Granted, I taught the other kids the same things, but with much less urgency and intensity.

This is what has happened.  Steven gets stopped and he gets into interesting scrapes [literally] and he hits the curb and blows a tire.  Over and over, even when he richly deserves a fine, he glides out of the situation with nary a singed hair because he's, "So honest, so polite, so respectful."

He gets praised and affirmed by law enforcement people, over and over, even the time he was obviously the cause of that little incident with the signpost and the lady's car.

His sister shrieks, "AGAIN???  That is NOT FAIR. I didn't do HALF of that and I got this HUGE FINE!"

What is it?  Are polite young people that unusual?  Is it a sort of reverse racism and they're going out of their way to not target him?  Is it that he's so good-looking? [Yes, I'm biased, but Hollister asked him to work/model for them--no lie--and he thankfully had the good sense to say no.]

When Steven was stopped in the middle of Montana in the middle of the night this summer, driving the van and the family back from Minnesota, and was doing something like 70 in a construction zone, he once again got off with only a warning because he was so nice, polite, and honest.  My sister speculated that it may also have been the charming sight of this obviously African kid driving the family van, and the tall blond dad in the passenger seat.

But still.  You and I would have been fined good and proper.  But then, you are I aren't as charming as Steven is, either.

If every young black man dressed and acted like Steven, would they all be so fortunate?

Should they be obligated to conform in this way in order to be treated respectfully? No.

But would it behoove young people of every race to have an honest heart and a gentleness and a humble attitude that shows in their face?  I'd say yes.

So, I may have mentioned that racial issues get more nuanced and complicated the more you examine them.

Steven went on a road trip to the Midwest last year.  It was his first adult venture out of the safe cocoon of home and Oregon.

I said, "Did you encounter racism anywhere?" expecting, "Well, there was this redneck dude in Iowa..."

Instead, he said, "There were a bunch of us together, and this one guy told a black joke in front of me."

I had a cow, people.  I was ready to write letters, get hold of the guy's mother, call fire from Heaven.

Steven said, "Mom, let it go.  Really.  It's ok."

I was not about to let it go.

Steven acted very ill at ease. I finally caught on that there was more to the story, and I insisted on hearing it.

"Well, actually, a bunch of us were just joking around, and I had told this racist joke first, about another kind of people, and then he told that one about blacks, and he didn't really think about me being there, but then later he apologized."

Oh Readers.  We had some words then, Steven and I, and I did some soul-searching before the Lord, and I took back what I had wished on the other guy's mother, and Steven was wiser than he had been before, and so was I, and I was humbler, too.

I wish everyone who is talking so loudly on every angle and side of racial problems would be quiet and listen for a bit.  Maybe your worst enemy has something to say to you.

We all need to learn from each other, no matter what color we are and what our stories have been.  We can't just dismiss others' views. We are all a bunch of sinners with selfish and inconsistent motives at heart, and we need to learn to listen, and understand, and be kind.

There is always more to the story.

At least that's how it seems to me.


  1. As someone who has moved about the country, and the world, in my adult travels I have to be thankful for the northwest. We have issues of race here, to be certain, but our geographical distance and the fact that we developed much later in American history have combined to make these issues closer to what I saw in Europe than in other parts of our country. As a man of 23 who had grown up in Oregon, and lived in England, I still recall the first really racist treatment of a person I had ever witnessed. I was living in west Texas at the time. I was certain it was real, but the foreignness of the whole experience had a part of me wondering, perhaps hoping, that what I was witnessing was some sort of elaborate performing art. Sadly it was not, and I was ashamed to think that sort of activity happened anywhere.

    It's also sad that people in the south continue to defend slavery as "not that bad." Keeping people as property is always "that bad." Moreover, while I always hear people say "well it was different with my family, etc." they never seem to have any historical account to back that up. I've yet to meet a single holder of that viewpoint who's studied US history beyond highschool in any meaningful sense. The whole thing strikes me as an exercise in rationalizing away guilt. I can see where it comes from. Nobody likes to think of something as nasty as slavery when they think of home. What I think they fail to see is that they don't have to own the actions of their ancestors, they can call slavery what it was/is and still love their state's beauty. Even if it still needs work, just like every other state in this country.

    Beyond all that, if I ever have to account for my treatment of others at the end of this life, I truly hope I can come up with something better than "it wasn't THAT bad."

    Finally, if being the mother of a young African-American doesn't qualify you to speak on this issue, then I do not know what could. From what I can make of it, the only reason to exclude you would be because you were born white... and is it just me or is that not EXACTLY the type of thinking we're trying to get away from (making normative statements about qualifications based on race, gender, etc.)? You don't have to know what's ultimately right to speak out on these issues. You just have to know an injustice when you see one. And while we as humans seem to stumble about when asked "what is right?" most of us know a wrong when we see one.

    (world traveling military veteran, former resident of the south, BS in Political Science, Juris Doctor)

  2. Yes, Dorcas, you most certainly CAN state your views. Especially when they are spoken as you have done - in humility, and without rancor. You have wisdom to share. Thank you.

  3. I loved this. Living in England now, it's been very interesting to see their race problems -- the exact same, but yet oh so different. Here, it's the Poles and Czechs and other Eastern Europeans who are hated and discriminated against by WASPs and vice versa.

  4. I don't know if I'm qualified to speak either but after living for 8 years in a country where I was the minority and blacks were the majority, conflict and issues surrounding race have become very interesting to me. I was delighted to read your approach. In spite of other people's prejudices there is still option of rising to the challenge and living above others expectations. At the same time, I know that sometimes when a minority is singled out, there is no opportunity to show character before the majority has already acted. Blessing on your family as you learn how to live above!

  5. A finely nuanced reflection on the realities. You voice your varied experience well and with wisdom. Thanks.

  6. What a beautiful post (as usual!)

    Of course you can share your view, Dorcas! It's balanced and unprejudiced. In France we have "race" and religious problems. My North African and black friends are checked and search by the police. count much more often than white people. The way you dress, you talk is also taken into account. I'm sure that if I had and used a "suburban accent" I would be treated by law enforcement very differently.

    As you know we are a very secular country; so accepting any religion, but there has been more prejudice against Islam recently. In public school, girls are not allowed to wear a veil on their head. Because it showed religious signs. I wonder what would happen to Mennonite Ladies here (if we had a consequent Mennonite community). As you may know I became agnostic (but not against people of faith in any way, this is a personal and philosophical view), and I do agree against proselytism in public schools, but I thought this decision to forbid religious signs,as long the student accepted to participate in any school activity (biology, sports, etc) was a mistake. It is prejudice. We still have a long way to go, in France, in the US, and everywhere in the world...

  7. What a lovely post Dorcas. Thank you for your thoughtfulness.

  8. Dorcas, you talk about racist about jokes about the Amish? Is that any less offensive? Living in the south I generally cringe at that, and why is this so? I do not live among Amish - have not for 53 years. But I do know racism is not solely a white problem, it cuts both ways. Blacks also discriminate against whites. People do stereotype others because of their behaviors and the uniform inherent to that style of living.

    The bottom line is that racism is not peculiar to one race (meaning: whites being the greatest offenders); that one needs to be kind to all regardless of skin color; there are jerks in every race and one can often pick them out by their dress and behaviors.

  9. Excellent thoughts! As a person who grew up in the segregated south (our public schools weren't desegregated until the year I went to the 8th grade) and now has two biracial grandchildren, this is a subject I feel passionately about.(See my August 2012 post entitled "Our Christian Nation") I don't think we can ever fully understand another race or culture without having been born into it.But for cryin' out loud, we should sure try! And for what it's worth, I think it is ok to tell some good humored jokes about your own culture. Sometimes they help us see our own sometimes peculiar and inconsistent ways.

  10. Thanks, everyone, for weighing in with a variety of perspectives. So interesting.
    Sandra, I agree with Merle that you can joke about your own culture. Not sure if I can describe why it has a whole different feel than when someone outside the culture says the same thing, but it does.

  11. I want to say that I feel like classism is the 'new racism.' I don't like to hear people talking about hicks and rednecks--unless they are one! Or talk about people having 'bad taste' as if it was a moral issue, or assume that people with blue collar jobs lack brains etc etc..

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  13. Very good post!! I really enjoyed it.....racism is something I absolutely hate. I have been known to tear a strip off people who say blatantly racist things in front of me. I think a lot of the time people just don't think, and if I can help them think of how God views that, then good. I was once in a group where a couple people were discussing a certain people group, and one guy made the comment that those aren't really people, they're animals. Oh my goodness!! I informed him that I have several siblings from that people group. Shocked silence.....he apologized profusely, but I had to wonder....was he sorry because he had committed the sin of racism, or was he sorry because he had offended me, a white person??

  14. No one needs qualifications to SPEAK on any topic. The catch is if I were to hold forth on the latest advances in neuroscience, no one would listen.

    I've enjoyed your blog for a while now, all that you write, but I will freely admit I read your thoughts on race relations with much more interest knowing you have a black son. If you didn't have any personal experience, I would probably have passed over your thoughts on race relations much more lightly.

    And the "skater" fashions are probably more rightly termed prison fashions. The whole pants falling down look originated in prisons where prisoners are not allowed belts. For obvious reasons. When a memeber of the general public attempts to look like a newly released prisoner, well, it does say something.

  15. Enjoyed the post. I know well what it's like to be on both sides of the issue you have written about. I was the minority many years of my life, growing a white girl on a mission field of black people. Never could understand why they could make jokes about me and my skin that was 'white like milk' or how my eyes and nose would get red when I cried but I couldn't DARE make any remarks that smacked of racism. Just goes to show life ain't fair.
    I also now have a black adopted son and it seems so unfair he has to prove himself differently than his brothers. The clerks at the store don't give my white sons a second glance but for some reason he gets 'watched'. Just like my mama said, life ain't fair.

  16. Enjoyed the post. I know well what it's like to be on both sides of the issue you have written about. I was the minority many years of my life, growing a white girl on a mission field of black people. Never could understand why they could make jokes about me and my skin that was 'white like milk' or how my eyes and nose would get red when I cried but I couldn't DARE make any remarks that smacked of racism. Just goes to show life ain't fair.
    I also now have a black adopted son and it seems so unfair he has to prove himself differently than his brothers. The clerks at the store don't give my white sons a second glance but for some reason he gets 'watched'. Just like my mama said, life ain't fair.