Tuesday, 11 January 2011

When The Problem Is Me

I've been thinking about racism again lately. More specifically, I've been thinking about what I wrote six months or so ago. If you haven't read that, I'm going to summarise it for you, to save you some time: basically, other people are idiots and sometimes they say dumb things about my kids.

So far, so good. But I talked to my sister about it afterwards, and in the way that only a sister can, she told me I'd better watch myself and my own attitude. She was right, of course - she usually is. In the months since, I've had a few conversations with people that have really challenged me. I keep finding myself thinking: okay, these conversations are undoubtedly tough, and people certainly say some crazy things. Even the smallest bit of racism is ugly, and I hate that we have to learn to deal with it. But what about my attitude in these conversations and afterwards? My kids are watching me, and soon they will be able to understand more and more. What should my priorities be as I negotiate these issues? What do I want my children to learn from these interactions?

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. James 1 : 19

I want my children to learn that we should be slow to anger. Not to never become angry, but not to become angry too soon. Would they learn this from my interactions with people about race? Sometimes I am angry because someone has said something inexcusable, something they should not have said, something that makes my eyes widen and makes me long to put my hands over my children's ears. But honestly? Sometimes I am too quick to anger because my life is dull, and feeling self-righteously angry at the possibly-racist-stranger I met just makes the day a bit more interesting. Sometimes dissecting a family member's words for the wrong kind of nuances just gives me something to talk about in the car on the way home.

I don't think I'm the only one.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 1 Corinthians 13:6

And sometimes, I wonder if I am overly anxious to dissect and identify racism because it helps me bond to people - either my children, or other adoptive families. It puts those of us who are trying to be actively anti-racist on one side of a line, and everybody else, from the uninterested and the ignorant through to the downright racist, on the other side. Actively trying to combat racism is a good thing, unquestionably. But how would I feel if the fight was over? Would I be happy, or would I miss having something to see as a common enemy?

I guess the question to ask here is: If nobody ever said a racist thing, ever again, would I feel nothing but uncontaminated joy? Or do I secretly value the way it gives me a chance to see the world as us-and-them? I must not be rejoicing in evil. I do want my kids to know that I am always, always on their side. But I should be careful not to create sides where it's not necessary, and I should be glad if the need for 'sides' was gone.

I think that this sounds easier than it is.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Matthew 7: 3-5

And being clued up about race (in my little white-girl way) can give me an excuse to feel superior to my white-girl friends. Suddenly, it seems that their eyes are full of sawdust (racist sawdust! I guess you probably wash that out using racist soap) and I just wish they would get rid of it. And yes, of course they should, but I'm sitting here with my own vision clouded by those feelings of superiority. And I'm also conveniently ignoring that there are probably issues that are important to them that I'm no expert on: disability rights, access to education.... ummmmmm, other stuff, too, that I can't remember because it's not important to me.

Which is the point, I guess.

I know and I care about anti-racism. It's important to me, and this is a good thing. But it doesn't make me a better person than whoever it is I'm talking to. If I slip into thinking that it does, I'm just a hypocrite.

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you Matthew 7:12

And I need to face the fact that I am a white girl. I'm carrying around a great big armload of white privilege, whether I want to or not. I'm part of a transracial family, but I don't actually know what it's like to go to school, apply for a job or date as a non-white person. So no matter how much I try to understand, and say the right thing, I'm going to mess up when I talk about this stuff. I'm going to make mistakes. I'm going to say things that offend my black friends, and I'm probably going to end up saying things that will offend my black children, much as I hope that will never happen. And how do I want others to deal with me, when I mess up?

I hope they will forgive me. So I need to learn to forgive, too.

I feel cautious, as a white adoptive mother, saying that forgiveness is the right attitude to have when people say what they shouldn't about race. Firstly, because this is an issue that affects my children. Insult me and I'll do my best to have a sense of humour about it. But like all parents - insult my kids, and you wake the beast. And secondly, I'm cautious about claiming that right. I reject the idea that race is just 'something else that kids have to deal with' - that our kids need to accept racial teasing in the way that other kids get teased about their weight, or freckles, or having a funny voice. I don't think this is right at all - I think racism is much more serious than any of these other things, and we should treat it as such. But there is a danger, I think, for those of us who are white parents to black children. There is a danger that we won't expect them to live graciously, because we haven't had to do it ourselves. There is a danger that we will let our own white guilt convince us that we even have some kind of responsibility to encourage and nurture bitterness in our children here, where we wouldn't consider doing this in any other area of life. There is a danger that we will abdicate our responsibility to teach them how to deal graciously with insults and spite.

But despite the colour of my skin, they are my kids, and so I cannot abdicate this responsibility.

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven" Matthew 18:21-22

And so I want them to learn to forgive. There's a very big difference between forgiving wrong and denying wrong. Denying wrong says 'oh honey, that's not important!' or 'let's not think about that' or 'I'm sure that's not what she meant' when actually, that's exactly what she did mean and you both know it. Denying that a wrong was done tells our kids that their feelings aren't important, that this issue isn't important, that we care more about smooth surfaces than what's going on underneath. Denying wrong says 'I wish you wouldn't get hung up on race'.

That's not what I'm talking about.

On the other hand, forgiving a wrong doesn't say racism is excusable. It starts with acknowledging that wrong was done. But it doesn't finish there. It says you did wrong... but I forgive you.

Ideally, forgiveness isn't something that you do in a vacuum. In the best cases, it involves talking to the person who has wronged you, explaining why you were hurt, and then listening to them give you a heartfelt apology. Um, yeah, that doesn't always happen. But it's never ever going to happen unless I take the initiative and start the conversation. "Uncle Nigel," I might say, "It bothered me how you said ____________. I hate to think of my children hearing comments like that. Can we talk about this?" I've been trying to do more of this - rather than holding an angry grudge, going in private to the person who has made the insane comment and asking to start a conversation.

It's definitely not foolproof. I've shed a lot of tears, and I'm just a beginner. Sometimes people surprise me with their humility; others shake their heads and write me off as the person who is always on about race. And then I have a choice: I can hold a grudge, or I can forgive them anyway*. I can fester and rage and enjoy sitting on my high horse, or I can forgive them anyway. I can pretend that I never do or say anything wrong, or I can forgive them anyway.

My working definition of forgiveness is that it is the opposite of holding a grudge. Forgiving them doesn't say they aren't wrong, it just says I'm not going to let resentment own me.

Racism is important. It's serious. But dealing with racism is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for turning into a bonehead, and I shouldn't teach my children by example that it is. When Jesus said we need to learn to forgive again and again and again and again, he didn't say 'unless you're part of a transracial adoptive family or an ethnic minority, because I hear that's a really tough gig'. The seventy times seven applies to us too, even when things would be easier if it didn't.

And so I do want my children to learn that I am always on their side. I also want them to learn that their parents take racial prejudice seriously. But I've been realising that race is one issue where I've been letting myself have a bit of a blind spot about the other lessons that my actions and reactions might be teaching. If I get angry, hold grudges, act like a hypocrite - what they will learn from me is that this is okay, and it's not.
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I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their characters

Dr King

My children weren't born to me, and I can take no credit for their beautiful brown skin. I pray that as they grow up, the content of their characters will be just as beautiful.

And so I suppose I have to start with my own.


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*I'm not talking about a person who is full of hate. There are definitely people whose company we have to protect our kids from. I'm talking about the more ordinary, ignorant, wrong-but-not-deliberately-malicious end of things - that's the end we see by far the most. And this whole thing is a spectrum, of course - sometimes it takes more wisdom than I've got to know where we are on the spectrum at a given point.

15 comments:

  1. So much to say - so much to do irl.
    I also LOVE having an enemy... it is a weird adolescent trait that I know I must control. The strange thing for me, this does not seem to affect me when it comes to race. And it is all so odd because I am not one to back down from confrontation. But when it comes to this issue, usually, I think people look at us because we are beautiful. And I honestly have not had anyone say anything stupid to my face, yet. And the weird things we have heard from family, etc... They usually make me feel sad for the person who said them, and then my husband and I tend to laugh at them because we believe their ideas are outdated and not that prevalent.
    Writing to you from my bubble....

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  2. Good stuff, my dear.

    It's interesting--having that common 'enemy' is something of comfort in so many areas (infertility has been mine for so long, me against the clueless insensitive fertiles) and it's hard to let go because it's been so familiar. So I identify on that part right now, and I know I will identify on every bit of this in the future, when my babies are HERE and not far away...and as always thanks for posting such thought provoking stuff (stuff being a literary word of course).

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  3. Claudia thanks for the great post.
    Hope I get the chance to meet you once we get on your side of the ocean!

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  4. Such a thoughtful post on such an important issue. I relate to the anger, the desire to want to protect and to change others. And then ultimately knowing I can only control myself, the words and thoughts I express and how I do it when confronted with a situation. Requires so much courage, thought and growth as people. And always a process. This post certainly shows how evolved you are in this process! kudos!

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  5. This is so great. And exactly what I needed right now. I'm quick to get angry too, and my kid isn't even physically in my life yet. Thanks for your thoughts.

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  6. This is a wonderful post. Thank you so much for writing it. It is just right for me to hear in light of some recent comments and my processing how to respond in a way that will reflect Christ to both the person making the comment and to my son. I appreciate you so much!

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  7. This is wonderful. I feel I should print it off and read it every once in awhile. Righteous anger is a hard habit to break.

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  8. Love this. Thank you Claudia.

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  9. Such an excellent post. I admire your honesty, and you made me think about myself and my own behaviour- I think sometimes I create drama because my life is dull. I hadn't really thought about it, or admitted it, before.

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  10. My problem is not that I need an enemy, I really don't feel that way. But I do get self-righteous and blinded by anger for what I perceive to be injustice, all the while believing myself to be on the right side of the issue. I have alienated friends this way, admittedly.

    When I start to feel and act like I am better than other people because of what I believe, I've begun more and more (perhaps as maturing) to have the insight to break into introspectivity enough to realize that I am not acting as a gentle persuader and that my self-righteousness is at the least unflattering and at the most makes me a huge ahole. And that what I could be doing by being insufferably self-righteous is actually sowing the seeds of discord and hindering resonance or preventing understanding.

    I am all kinds of messed up. At least willing, however, to recognize it.

    I do, however, think anger and intolerance about injustices has its place. It has been the catalyst for bringing about many successful just movements. And/or it's at least drawn attention to those issues.

    But learning to forgive, yes, you stated it all very eloquently. I hope to give my kid the same, that I could be so lucky when I struggle so much with it myself. I think Nelson Mandela is one of the best examples of the power of forgiveness in the face of abhorrent injustice.

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  11. Great thoughts and self-reflection! It IS hard to remember sometimes that we've had TIME dedicated to focusing on racial issues, if we're a trans-racial family. Not everyone thinks "race" on any kind of regular basis because they're not forced to like we are.

    My mental image for myself is how Christ gained his followers: he called, healed, loved and won them over. His tables-over-turning and name calling ("brood of vipers," anyone?) were reserved for those he was NOT calling to himself.

    I'd like to "win over" as many people as I can, rather than make enemies, so I need to stick to the kind, winsome approach. Unless someone's actually aggressive (which I haven't experienced yet) ...in which case, yes, they "wake the beast" in me, too. :)

    Really appreciated reading from you today!

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  12. Another very well thought through post. Sleep deprived, sick, and busy chasing 2 babies and your thoughts are so coherent and put together. I don't know how you do it.

    This will be one of those posts that I mark and come back to when I need a reminder that my fertile friends are not the enemy which I know is not the point of your post, but where I am at and what I am getting from it now.

    You are one amazing mother, Claudia.

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  13. The Bible truly is a gift from God. Its so nice to see someone who really listens and applies what they read instead of just using it as one of the many ways to feel superior to others. That is a rare, and in my opinion, precious quality. Never lose it.

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  14. Reading this was even better than reading my Christmas present (which was AWESOME by the way!!). xxx

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  15. What an insightful post. Thanks!

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Over to you!