“As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.” – Peggy McIntosh
Some years ago, I was waiting in line for the bathroom at the grocery store when someone mentioned it needed attention and she was going to find an employee to take care of it. The man waiting behind me, white as I am, commented to me that the bathroom wasn’t appropriately clean because employers hire Mexicans and they don’t do a good job.
I wanted him to stop saying such horrible things, so initially I wasn’t responsive. The door to the other bathroom opened and I went in, giving me just enough time to prepare for the rest of the conversation I knew I needed to have when I came out.
The man was still there. I politely said something like this: “I need to let you know that just because I am also white, it doesn’t mean that it’s okay with me to categorize an entire group of people based on their ethnicity, and I found what you said offensive.” At first he was stunned, and then he grew angry. I responded: “I realize you are describing your experience. That is not my experience, and however you intended it, what you said landed as offensive for me.” I ended the conversation and left.
Beneath my external calm, I was shaking. But I had taken the critical step across our societal line of complicity. I landed on the side of using my privilege to make a difference instead of taking advantage of it in silence as I had for many years before that. I doubt that I changed that guy’s mind. But there’s a good chance he would hesitate before saying such poison words to someone else.
I cannot return to a place of silence. The nonviolence trainings I participated in decades ago when I was attending protests against nuclear power and logging of ancient redwoods seem even more relevant in these times of increasing hate and violence. I stand upon my Buddhist practice as another layer of the foundation. With so much at stake, I must keep reaching out to make that human connection for a better world.
How do I look bigotry in the face and see the humanity of the person on the other side, to change our society in my daily interactions without falling into a hateful place myself? This is my ongoing practice.
With that in mind this Independence Day weekend, I took myself to the county fair where volunteers had set up booths for this year’s presidential candidates. I have never met anyone who supports the Republican Party’s scary nominee—I can’t bring myself to type his name on this blog—and I wanted to look in their faces, have a conversation with them, try to understand.
I spent the first part of the day soaking up the upbeat energy of the fair—the determination of the kids in 4-H showing off their dogs’ agility training, the jugglers and music, the artwork and photographs in the galleries, the taste of roasted corn on the cob. Then I made my way to the red, white and blue booth.
So much of understanding is just about listening, so I started there. I listened to the man beside me explain to the volunteers that he believes in the Constitution, and that’s why he is going to vote for the nominee. I believe in the Constitution, too, I thought, which is why I came to the exact opposite conclusion. Someone came by and bought a bumper sticker. And then it was just me and the three women, facing me across their table piled with books, stickers, a clipboard to sign up to help the campaign. They appeared to be about my age or a little older. One of them greeted me.
“I’m here because I’d like to find out why you support the nominee,” I began, as politely as I could. Two of them took turns responding with the catch phrases I’ve been reading for months. “A strong military.” “Securing our borders.” “Keeping us safe.” They then asked me about my opinion.
I started with explaining that when the nominee was asked a question by a reporter with a disability at a press conference, he made fun of the reporter’s disability. All three of them nodded and one softly said, “Yes, that was unfortunate.” Another said, “Well, he doesn’t practice, he just says what he thinks.” Indeed, I thought.
“I’m Jewish,” I said. “And a lot of what he says about Muslims and immigration reminds me of what so many people said about Jews during World War II when they refused to let them into their countries when they were targeted by the Nazis. You could swap the word Jews for Muslims and that’s how it seems today. I think that’s racist.” The reply: “Oh no, it’s not the same. Jews weren’t terrorists.”
And so the conversation went, as they ticked off familiar buzzwords about the Koran and allowing Muslims into the U.S. To keep my center, I visualized the darker-skinned faces of Americans I care about who were born in other countries. That helped me stay calm. I said that the Bible promotes some pretty awful things but that doesn’t mean Christians act on them all, and asked if they’d personally met anyone who is Muslim. They stammered.
One woman asked me who I liked in the election. “I don’t like either of them, actually,” I said, “but I am voting for the other candidate because I find the nominee so frightening.”
We talked a little more. Our conversation was uncomfortable. They drew closer together and I think they might have been a little afraid of what I might say or do. It was time to wrap up. “Well, I see we disagree. Thank you for talking with me.”
I walked away, breathed deeply and set out to locate something uplifting. As a counterpoint, I happened upon the booth for the firefighters, people who risk their lives responding to anyone who needs help without discrimination. I smiled watching them help little kids climb into the fire truck and listened to the children laughing as they placed their tiny hands on the steering wheel.
I came away with a few things from the county fair. A book on local trails, information about where to recycle some old electronics, a framed photograph of a beach that I’m attached to. And a reminder that there is no us vs. them—there is only us. To create an equitable world requires dialogue even with those whose world view I find harmful. Staying silent is staying complicit. On this Independence Day, I recommit myself to freedom for all, being an ally and continuing to speak up.