30 March 2015

The Approach of Spring

There is no feeling like spring.

It comes every year, without fail, though we begin to wonder whether it will. This year, it is particularly welcome, as we’ve had an unusually snowy and cold winter. This morning – March 30 – there was a light cover of snow on the ground when I woke up. It’s gone now, and the sun is struggling to come out, but the fact remains that spring is a process, not something that happens suddenly and clearly. Two steps forward, one step back.

So much has happened since I last wrote, on the small stage and on the larger one. My second daughter got into her first-choice college via the early decision process in mid-December. Swearing that she does not want to be “that kid” who gets into college and then coasts for the rest of senior year, she has kept up her academic and extracurricular efforts admirably. I don’t know that I’d be working as hard as she is if I were in the same situation. She sees graduation on the horizon – her own personal spring, if I can make that comparison – after the long, cold winter of hard work during junior and senior year. It’s coming, and the blossoms will be beautiful.

I’m horrified, and admittedly terrified, by much of the news I read on a daily basis. Legalized discrimination – the thing our parents’ generation fought so hard to defeat – is creeping back into our national life. If you are a regular reader, you know how I feel about the use of the concept of “religious freedom” to marginalize entire groups of people. As a nation and as a society, we need to treat all people – men, women, old, young, gay, straight, and of all ethnic backgrounds – with the basic dignity that all people deserve. In establishments of public accommodation – stores, restaurants, malls, and schools – all people must be offered equal service, regardless of the proprietor’s personal prejudices. This should not be negotiable in 2015. I am absolutely horrified to see that it apparently is.

And last week’s deliberate plane crash in the Alps. I’m afraid of flying to begin with. My husband has permanent fingernail-marks in his arms to prove it. The idea that one person could use his status as a pilot, a position of public trust, to commit mass murder absolutely terrifies me. I’m not sure what can be done about it. Do we ban everyone who has ever been treated for mental issues from flying planes, or operating other public conveyances? That seems extreme. Someone on the radio said that, given how rare these events are, it seems impractical to change the way cockpit door locks operate. I’m sure that the families who lost someone are not comforted by the idea that it’s statistically unlikely to happen to anyone else anytime soon.

And yet, despite the ice and cold and the hard work and the terrible news, spring approaches. The idea that hope is on the horizon is one we need to cling to. We can’t do anything else. What are you hoping for this spring?

02 December 2014

On Race, Violence, and Social Constructs

C. Loring Brace, an American anthropologist at the University of Michigan, argues that, biologically speaking, there is no such thing as race. What we think of as "race," in humans, is simply the concentration of inherited physical traits in a given population, based on geography and, to a great extent, social isolation.

In other words, people from different parts of the world tend to show different physical traits based on where they live, or, more accurately, where their ancestors lived. For example, people originally from sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia and the Americas tend to have darker-toned skin and eyes; people from northern Europe and other parts of Asia tend to have lighter skin and eyes. For millennia, travel to and from those places was limited, so people selected their mates from the local population - the people they were most likely to meet. This meant that their offspring bore the physical characteristics of their parents, and with the passing generations, each population took on a distinctive look specific to its location.

And that distinctive look is the root of our concept of "race."

The second part of the race puzzle is social isolation. For most of human history, the different "races" did not mix extensively because travel to other parts of the world was difficult, and the odds of meeting people who had very different physical characteristics were low. As travel became easier and more efficient, however, two things happened: the more economically powerful northern Europeans began to subjugate people with darker skin, enslaving them and otherwise treating them as inferior to those with lighter skin. For generations, they struggled to fit into a society that rejected them as full members at the most fundamental level. And, perhaps as a result, a social taboo grew up around marrying and reproducing with people whose appearances were different from one's own. The taboo was so strong that it was encoded into law in many places. For example, the interbreeding of people considered to be of different racial types, known as miscegenation, was illegal in parts of the United States until 1967.

Thus, although barriers to meeting people of different national origins have been largely physically eliminated in the developed world, we still have a strong concept of "race" embedded in our consciences. We know the physical differences between black people and white people quite well; we can identify them on sight. And we still, unfortunately, treat these people differently based on the most superficial of criteria.

Because, you see, all human beings are biologically the same. We are of the same genus and species, and our biological functions do not differ significantly. (Oh, sure, there are some populations that are more prone than others to various maladies, or that have certain strengths or immunities that others do not have, but these are small differences that do not, and should not, affect our ability to treat each other equally in the eyes of the law.)

The more I learn about the theory of race being a false construct, the more I like it. The inequality that we, as a society, experience and enforce on a daily basis, is all in our heads. If you remove skin color and feature shape from the equation, all you have left is bare humanity.

If you recognize the entire concept of "race" as the natural extension of an unjust and outdated social construct, the scales fall from your eyes. The young black man killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in August becomes simply a young man killed by a police officer. The twelve-year-old black boy shot in Cleveland by the white police for playing with a toy gun simply becomes, well, a dead twelve-year-old boy. As the us-and-them dichotomy disappears, the feeling of horror rises. What have we done? And what are we doing?

A Facebook friend attacked me last week for the sin of sending my children to a public school that is apparently not "racially diverse" enough for her tastes. She boasted that she herself had attended an "integrated" school, and that she in turn had sent her children to a school that had a lot of "blacks."

I send my children to the local public schools, which have a sizeable first- and second-generation immigrant population, a high proportion of children for whom English is not a first language, and strong representation of Jewish, Asian, and Muslim cultures. Though I chose the location of my house, I did not choose the ethnicity, religion, or skin color of my neighbors. They are who they are, and I cherish my community for the people in it. When I explained this to my friend, she responded, "Asian people don't count. They tend to excel at integrating into our society. Your school isn't diverse unless it has a lot of black people."

Another of my Facebook friends - someone clearly, by her appearance, of northern European descent - told me that she wished "the black community" worried as much about "black on black violence" as it does about the killing of that young man in Ferguson. In doing so, she revealed to me that she is a true racist, and one of the most insidious kind: the kind that pretends to be concerned about the welfare of "the black community," but still believes, deep inside, that people with darker skin tones are more prone to violence than people with lighter skin tones, and that this tendency toward violence is something they need to solve.

But the people with dark skin are not the ones shooting unarmed teens, under color of law, on the city streets of Ferguson and Cleveland. They are, in overwhelming numbers, the ones being shot, not the ones doing the shooting. The idea that "black" people are inherently more violent than "white" people is not just racism of the most repugnant type: it's scientifically and mathematically unfounded.

I'm not finished thinking about this issue. I may never be. And neither should you be. We, all of us, have a long way to go in changing our mindsets about skin color. But we absolutely must work at it, as hard as we can. If we challenge ourselves to think of race, as Dr. Brace does, as a false construct - to measure ourselves and each other simply as people, without regard to the varied physical traits our ancestors handed down to us, we might make some progress in no longer associating skin color with tendency toward crime. We might begin to eliminate the socioeconomic injustices that have created a permanent underclass in American society - a group of people we urge to play by the rules, but then repeatedly deny full participation in our democracy. We might stop assigning a value to someone's company, in the classroom or at the dinner table, based on their blackness, their whiteness, or their Asian-ness. And we might, God willing, stop the senseless fear-fed violence that tears our society apart on a daily basis.

26 November 2014

Thanksgiving, and Everyday Kindness

I got my hair cut yesterday at a local salon. When I arrived, I had to take off my sweater and put on a little smock; they provide a tiny little one-person dressing room stocked with smocks for this purpose. There was someone in the dressing room when I arrived, but she had the door open and was just standing there, texting someone on her phone. I waited politely just outside the door.

The hair-washing lady saw me standing there. She looked at the lady texting on her phone, and then she looked at me. She watched me with interest.

After a few minutes, when it became apparent that the texting session was not going to be over quickly, I poked my head into the dressing room and asked, "May I just grab a smock please?"

"Of course," the lady said, not looking up.

I took a smock and went to the ladies' room to change into it.

When I emerged and sat down to have my hair washed, the washing lady said, "That was really smart, what you did there."

"Thanks. There's always a better solution than yelling at someone to hurry up, don't you think?"

"You're a better person than I am," she said. "I would have told her to move along."

I'll admit, I thought about asking her to step outside to finish her texting. But I thought, this is just a small moment, a small inconvenience. I had no idea what was going on. Maybe she had a sick kid, or a crisis at home. Elderly parents. A car in the shop. Maybe she was arguing with her husband or her boss. Who knows? Who am I to judge someone I have never seen before? And she probably didn't even know I was standing there. There was nothing to gain by being rude. I saw that the bathroom was unoccupied, and that would work just as well for me.

A few minutes later, a freshly-coiffed woman approached the hair-washing lady with a small wad of cash. "Thanks for washing my hair," she said. "This is for you."

"I didn't wash your hair," she responded. "That was Lisa. She's in the break room. I'll give this to her."

"No, I'm pretty sure it was you - wasn't it?"

"Nope. But no worries. I'll go give this to her." The washing lady took the money and, leaving me for a moment, went to find Lisa.

When she returned, I said, "Don't ever tell me again that I'm a better person than you."

"What do you mean?"

"You could have said 'thank you' and put that money in your pocket, and no one would have been the wiser."

"Yeah, but that wouldn't have accomplished anything." She shrugged. "What goes around comes around."

She was right. I thought about it later, when I was stalled in traffic in the grocery aisles, and then later, when my son texted me that he absolutely needed a black t-shirt for school by tomorrow morning and would I possibly mind running to the store to find one for him? This involved a trip to K-Mart at 6 P.M., with the full load of groceries still in my car.

There are opportunities to be kind and helpful, or at least not rude and judgmental, lurking in every small moment of every day. I'm going to try to start taking those opportunities as often as I can.

(Yes, I am aware of what is going on in Ferguson, MO and in other cities all around the country. I will write about that soon. I'm still thinking. I like to think before I write, if I possibly can.)

Happy Thanksgiving to my readers in the U.S.!