Jan is an Environmental Scientist who has traveled throughout the U.S. and around the world conducting facilitated trainings on Resource Conservation and Global Climate Change. She lives in Arlington, VA with her 16-year partner, Nadia.
Two community-threats I most vividly recall growing up were “We’ll tear down the courthouse if any blacks move in this town,” and “We’re going to ban all gays from living in this county." One struck me more personally at the time but both felt equally prejudicial and mean-spirited.
I’ve come to believe that both of these “decrees" originate from the same petty place of politicians (and any human beings in power) who fear loosing their stronghold of control over others.
OK, confession time. I was raised in a small all-white town (Huntington, IN) that threatened to “tear down the courthouse” if a black family moved in. As a young 10-year old girl, the only way I knew of that bigoted threat was through some very wise and treasured words from my father. Normally, I walked to and from school but, one late-fall afternoon, I was delighted to see my father driving up and waving to me. And, from the kind but somber look on his face, I knew he had something important on his mind.
I didn’t understand all the political machinations with which he prefaced his admonitions at the time, but his words were brilliantly clear and significant. He told me, "Blondie, always remember you are no better than anyone else and no one is better than you. I don’t care what color of skin they have or where they come from. People will try to convince you otherwise, but you will know better.” That was my first introduction to the concept of “us versus them” and it truly felt like a treasured "Scout moment" from To Kill a Mockingbird to me.
My father died only a few years later just after I turned 14, but I have cherished that teaching to this very day. The import of his advice hit me viscerally as I struggled with my own sexual orientation.
When I was in college in the mid-1970’s, I took a road trip with two of my black roommates, Carl and Rick, to Carl’s hometown of Chicago. (I recall my Mother being horrified that I spent time with these two black men so I never told her about the long weekend. We’ve all done that, right?)
Anyway, Carl, Rick and I were the best of buddies, and somehow they must have known and respected that I was a lesbian. Maybe it was just the familiar way that Carl and I both looked longingly at Mary Ellen in our group-house. It really didn’t matter. We never felt that sense of “Other.” Somehow we always felt and trusted our “sameness.”
On the second day in the Windy City, after enjoying the Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium, we drove downtown. And, my gosh, I was utterly mesmerized by a sea of black faces –everywhere! Up until that time I had actually only known Carl and Rick. So, instinctually, I announced that I wanted to get out, walk around the city and meet them later for dinner. They would have NONE of that nonsense! But, I threatened to jump out of the van if they didn’t stop at the next corner. So, in fearful frustration they did as I asked. (To this day I’m not sure whether Carl got out and followed me or not.)
Still, I will never, ever forget the feeling I had when I climbed up onto the Chicago Loop and saw no other white faces. NONE. Oddly, I felt no fear only a stark experience of being different. For the first time in my entire life, I was now the Other. My heart simply sank in humiliation with a terrible sadness and shame for how blacks must feel almost every day of their lives. What a horribly awful feeling of Other. Since there was only one seat left on the train car (and I was not about to take it) I stood and hung on to the overhead strap for the 10 or so stops until I arrived at where I was to meet the guys. When I descended and saw Carl, there were no words. I felt depleted, as though suffering from vertigo.
Can you believe, that same awareness of Other graced me throughout my life and even within my own family?
In the 1990’s I was visiting my mother who had moved to a small town in the South. Dayton, Tennessee was the home of the 1925 "Scopes Monkey Trial.” Naturally, I never really felt comfortable down there in spite of all the “Honey" this and "Darlin’" that. Not only was the town "Bible-Belt White" but also there was strict conformity everywhere you turned. What sect of a denomination are you was critical because, Lord knows, it was not enough to just be a God-fearing Baptist but you had to be some sort of Victory High Southern Baptist or some such label or you were totally doomed to hell and damnation.
So, one day my mom and I were walking to the vegetable stands to get fresh corn and beans for canning when I saw the signs about an ordinance to ban Homosexuals from living in the county. Having lived and worked as an openly Gay woman for decades in Washington, DC, I made some comment to my Mom about, “What are they going to do, shoot me?” To which she curtly replied, “It’s too early in the morning for that.” I could feel her disdain (even greater than her fear) both at my question and at ME for shaming her with my very being.
You see whether it’s being black, being gay, being Jewish, being a Yankee, whatever, it’s just being different –being Other. I saw and felt the parallels of being judged and discriminated against. I’m imagining that you have, as well, eh? So, I began exploring this "us versus them" attitude about life, which is found within all humans and in all cultures.
PLEA TO AWAKEN
As a newly OUT and PROUD Gay woman in the nation’s Capitol in the 1990’s, I learned to value speaking up for the Other. I even joined a progressive church on Capitol Hill, in part to explore the spiritual dimension of this "us versus them" phenomenon.
Reverend James Adams from St. Marks Capitol Hill Episcopal Church was an inspiration, especially as he was invited to testify before Congress on homosexuality and specifically as he answered rude questions by Senators like Jesse Helms. He spoke out passionately on behalf of Others who were in his parish. This was a pivotal moment for me. Not only should I not feel ashamed of who I was, but I had the right and the responsibility to speak out on behalf of all who felt Other in our society.
After that I participated in a 2-year Racial Reconciliation Committee where we facilitated town meetings focused on our reactions to the film “The Color of Fear” and, humbly, I became aware of my own inner prejudices and bigotry. It was hard to accept that I was a racist and that I still even carried my own internalized homophobia against myself.
BUT, wait. Please don’t hear this as a SHAMING session.
On the contrary, if we all have evolved to innately scan, assess, and, yes, “judge” others and if the amygdala in our brains gets triggered when we perceive something different or unknown to be a potential threat to us, then there is also hope that we can alter our unconscious reactions and judgments through self-awareness and the humility to acknowledge when we do over react or misjudge.
Yes, it’s true. We all (no matter how progressive or enlightened) make projections about people from the subliminal mind of which we’re not even aware. And, we recognize -unless our heads and hearts have been under a rock the past year- that we all must awaken and speak out against this numbing cruelty.
As many of you reading this probably feel saddened, sickened and outraged when we turn on the news to yet another tragic and senseless slaughter of black lives, we can only hope not to become numbed and completely apathetic. While it is absolutely maddening from Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Samuel Dubois, and the daily litany of abuses, I try to keep reminding myself to "stay awake” and to stay engaged in whatever ways I can.
As an introvert, I sometimes catch myself detaching with phrases like, “I’ve done enough in my life,” or “What can one person do anyway?” I am also deeply inspired by those Others in my own life and ones who I’m grateful to see today standing up and speaking out against the “us versus them” vitriol we hear in the news almost nightly. And, of course, anyone reading Reverend Gil Caldwell’s writings on the Truth in Progress blog is moved by the constant courage and commitment to Other that one person can exude.
So somehow, even if it’s only writing a short article, it helps me feel just a bit more hopeful and alive to take a stand for fellow sojourners who are routinely denied their humanity. Whether it be the state-sanctioned violence against black bodies to the over-incarceration of African-American men and the unfairness in the criminal justice system to the assault on a basic democratic principle of voting rights or to the decades of environmental racism such as Cancer Alley in Louisiana or the majority of black lives lost in Hurricane Katrina, just feeling sad or apathetic is NOT enough.
For me, I've come to realize it’s just not enough to buy "Black Lives Matter” t-shirts or hit the TV screen with a Nerf ball. My new goal is to exchange guilt with responsibility. Even if I don’t think I’m capable of being a vibrant organizer or activist, at the very least, I can join the grassroots movements, write letters, and vote for politicians who can change our biased racial policies.
I am ever grateful that Reverend Caldwell and so many others who have been such a role model in bridging the imaginary divide of the "us versus them” paradigm. Their voices and actions help remind me to remain open hearted to the pain of others and to experience the inner peace I feel when I allow myself to join in the march towards civil rights and a more just society.
Please join the struggle through whatever ways you can. One simple way is by supporting the documentary “From Selma to Stonewall: Are we there yet?” and its compelling story of what happens when we take a stand for justice. Check out the film trailer at TruthInProgress.com. Rev. Caldwell and Marilyn Bennett are the co-principals in the film.
Let us all together create a powerful flowing current of love, compassion and wholeness for ourselves, our families, our communities, and for our world.
THANK you so much for listening and caring. We want to hear from you, too.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Gays and I did not speak out—
Because I was not Gay. *
Then they came for the Blacks and I did not speak out—
Because I was not Black. *
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
* Author’s insertion to original quote by Martin Niemöller.