Personal Touch Foils Prejudice

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Like many people, I am prone to snap judgments. Upon meeting or even seeing someone for the first time, I immediately make an assessment about their likability and character. That would be all well and good if my judgments proved to be unerringly right; but so often my first impressions have been dead wrong.

I can recall a girl in my high school English class whom I immediately characterized as a spoiled rich girl. She was impeccably coiffed, made up, and dressed, and she was not afraid to speak up in class. All this made me dislike her out of hand. As the school year progressed, though, and we were thrown together on class projects, I discovered the girl’s real self: an eccentric, witty, self-deprecating girl whose passion for literature matched my own. For her part, she had me pegged as a prissy goody two shoes based on the sole fact that I never crossed my legs. Of course, we became fast friends.

We all have our prejudices, and it’s probably a vestige of our survival instinct. Prehistoric humans needed to be able to assess danger within seconds in order to protect themselves. So they developed an ability to categorize an animal or other human instantly as either dangerous or safe. With the development of more sophisticated societies, these snap judgments remained while the need for protecting ourselves from outsiders dwindled.

Over the past 50 years, America has made great strides in civil rights. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. himself would probably find it hard to imagine the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Yet with the candidacy and election of Donald Trump, much of the remaining racism in our country has bubbled to the surface. Now more than ever, our citizens need to find a way to come together and surmount the deep-seated fears and hatreds with which we have grown up.

Here is where the personal touch can help. It’s harder to demonize whole groups of people when we have personal relationships with some of them. A case in point is the story of Chris Buckley, former Klansman and Army sergeant with an unyielding hatred of Muslims. Buckley’s wife reached out to an organization that helps white supremacists leave behind their hate-infused worlds. A member of that organization introduced Buckley to Heval Mohamed Kelli, a Syrian Kurdish refugee who had made a life for himself in America and is now determined to give back to the country that took him in. (Chicago Tribune, June 10, 2018)

Chris Buckley’s encounters with poor African Americans and with men like Kelli have helped dispel the fear and hate he had built up in his heart. Himself a drug addict and the survivor of an abusive household as a child, Buckley has chosen the path of compassion and help for others who are struggling as he has struggled for most of his life.

In my previous post, I wrote about how the personal touch can help us feel more connected and less lonely. But I believe it can do even more. Personal encounters with people of different races, religions, and social classes can bridge the gaps in our understanding and break down the walls of prejudice we have falsely convinced ourselves we need for protection.

Stories like Buckley’s make me hopeful that there is deep goodness inside each of us, and with some effort we can all bring out that goodness for the betterment of society and even for ourselves.

 

 

 

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Animals

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President Trump has once again revealed his true self. Speaking at a White House meeting on his attempts to rid America of undocumented immigrants, he said, “These aren’t people, these are animals.” (New York Times, May 16, 2018)

He was referring to notorious members of a gang called MS-13 who, according to Trump, are crossing the border in droves to rape and murder Americans. The problem with this reasoning is that MS-13 is a home grown gang that started in the largely Hispanic underclass neighborhoods of Los Angeles. According to PolitiFact, it is difficult to determine how many undocumented youth in MS-13 were gang members before they arrived in the U.S. and how many were recruited once here. (“Immigration, MS-13 and crime: the facts behind Donald Trump’s exaggerations,” Miriam Valverde, politifact.com, Feb. 7, 2018)

Highlighting the heinous acts of a Latino street gang is just another of the Trump Administration’s attempts to vilify non-white immigrants and build a case for his precious wall. Trump has consistently called non-whites criminals, rapists, and animals, and he has vilified their countries of origin as “shitholes.” How this transparent racism is allowed to stand is a mystery to me.

Trump’s latest remarks have concerned many people who recall that Hitler used the same term to refer to Jews before his successful campaign to exterminate millions of them. I think the rhetoric of this administration deserves universal condemnation from our leaders.

But let’s think for a moment about animals, forgetting for the sake of argument that all humans are considered animals. Animals are predominantly creatures of instinct. They spend their lives in a difficult environment just trying to survive. Some eat only plants, others just meat, and many are omnivores. Although there is some evidence that our close relatives the chimpanzees perpetrate wanton violence, most animals only kill in order to live or protect themselves and their young.

The scariness of the fictional Cujo notwithstanding, animals do not lurk in the shadows waiting to do harm. They can’t lie, cheat, or steal. They aren’t bullies or con artists. Their intentions are much more pure than that of even our own beloved children. (Just ask any pet owner.)

I really don’t think Donald Trump should be calling people animals. It’s an insult to animals.

Things Blacks Can’t Do in America

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tdy_sun_radford_starbucks_180415_1920x1080.today-vid-canonical-featured-desktopThese are the ordinary activities blacks aren’t allowed to do if they wanted to avoid being questioned/arrested/shot by police:

  1. Go to Starbucks.
  2. Shop at Nordstrom Rack.
  3. Fall asleep in the library.
  4. Golf.
  5. Refuse to give up their table in a restaurant.
  6. Be outside in their relative’s backyard at night with a cell phone in hand.
  7. Rent space at an Airbnb.
  8. Walk around in a “white” neighborhood.
  9. Sit on their own front porch.
  10. Try to enter their own home in an upscale neighborhood.
  11. Drive.
  12. Walk.
  13. Breathe.
  14. Exist.

Every day I read about another case of egregious harassment based on race. Increasingly, the stories feature white citizens taking it upon themselves to call police upon black citizens purely based on the color of their skin.

Some of this increase is no doubt due to the tenor of the Trump presidency, a mindset that emphasizes minorities as alien and criminal. After Trump was elected in 2016, hate crimes against minorities went up substantially. White supremacist groups, largely marginalized throughout the past 50 years, became emboldened by Trump’s dog whistle politics. Some Republican politicians have started campaigning on racist and misogynistic platforms with little to no subtlety.

Yet in a larger sense, these stories point to the reality that we are far from the “post racial” society that many Americans imagine our country to be. I would like my white friends to imagine what it’s like to get in one’s car on a daily basis and pray that they don’t get stopped or, worse, killed by a police officer. I’d like them to walk into their favorite store, restaurant, movie theater, or golf club and feel watched and harassed just by virtue of being there. I wonder how whites would feel if they were on the premises of their own property or that of a friend or relative and had neighbors calling the police on them.

Blacks can take nothing for granted in our world. What they wear, how they speak to strangers, even whether or not it’s wise to put their hands in their pockets. They live under a cloud of suspicion for no other reason than the color of their skin.

Certainly police training on bias would be helpful lessen the number of tragic shootings of blacks. But our society needs a sea change in our attitudes. Part of the problem is the segregation under which many Americans still live. We scarcely interact with people of other races or ethnicities, and therefore we are less comfortable around each other.

Far from ushering in a new, more tolerant age, the election of our first black president, Barack Obama, created a backlash on the part of many whites who fear that their own opportunities will be diminished by a more racially tolerant society. Blacks are held to a much higher standard for behavior than are whites. So it is up to us whites to fight for more inclusion, more opportunity, and more acceptance of African Americans – and indeed for all minorities.

Conservatives are fond of the expression “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Let’s apply that concept to race relations and not just trickle down economics for a change.

*Adding to the list:

15. Swimming at a public pool without being questioned about whether you showered first.

 

 

 

 

Hug It Out

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I’m thinking of setting up a “Free Hugs” booth somewhere in downtown Chicago – a busy train station, say, or Daley Plaza (once the weather gets nicer). I recently read the about the physical and emotional benefits of hugging.

Hugging stimulates the production of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes well-being and reduces feelings of anxiety and stress. Oxytocin is the hormone that helps mothers and infants bond, for instance. And studies have shown that hugging can help the heart and the immune system, making it not only a pleasurable activity but a potentially life-saving one.

I’ve noticed that as I get older, my opportunities for hugs have diminished. When you have little ones at home, you are constantly holding and hugging them, and being hugged in return. As they get older, kids often attempt to individuate by keeping their physical distance. And while I hug my husband on a fairly regular basis, I think I’d like to become more demonstrative with friends, even ones I see on a daily basis.

Amid the current divisiveness in America, I think it would behoove us to hug each other more. I’m reminded of a protestor approaching riot police in Charlottesville last year and offering hugs. There was also an instance of a black man hugging a white supremacist outside a Richard Spencer event. The black man kept asking the white man, “Why don’t you like me?” The white man had nothing to say until the black man hugged him and whispered the question again. The white man admitted, “I don’t know.”

Americans are much less physically demonstrative than many other cultures. Decades ago, psychologist Sidney Jourard studied how often friends from different countries touched each other. He found that Americans touched each other about twice an hour whereas the French touched each other an average of 110 times an hour. Puerto Ricans touched more than 180 times an hour. (“How Hugs Heal – Have You Had a Hug Today?,” articles.mercola.com, May 20, 2017)

In doing some web research, I found out that I’ve just missed #NationalHuggingDay, which was January 21. It’s interesting that this year the date happened to correspond to the Women’s March and followed on the heels of the March for Life, both events where like-minded people gathered in large groups for a common cause. No doubt there was plenty of hugging to go around.

What I’d like to see, however, are more healing hugs, where people take the risk to reach out and connect heart to heart with someone different from themselves, whether racially, politically, religiously, or ideologically. So maybe my Free Hugs booth is not such a bad idea. Or how about a social media phenomenon akin to the Ice Bucket Challenge from a few years ago. People could gather donations for every random hug they gave and posted.

Hugs are warm and life-giving acts, and I plan to start giving out more of them. How about you?

 

 

The Upside Down

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The_Upside_Down_-_Public_Library_(exterior)I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say that the plot of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things revolves around the Upside Down, a shadowy world that lurks beneath the ordinary world in which the characters live. The Upside Down resembles the real world, but something very out of the ordinary resides there.

The Upside Down is a good metaphor for the American scene today. While the surface looks the same and the sun rises and sets in the way it always has, the fabric of American society is dark, frayed, and oozing corruption.

Take our climate. Despite huge ice melts in Antarctica, rising sea levels, and an upsurge in cataclysmic storms across the globe, the Trump Administration persists in its denials that climate change is real and continues to push the consumption of fossil fuels, a practice that scientists the world over agree has contributed to the warming of the Earth. We can’t see all the storm clouds gathering in the Upside Down, but they are indeed there.

On the economic front, Paul Ryan is leading the charge on so-called tax reform, which is really just a giant handout to the rich masquerading as tax relief for the middle class. The “zombie-eyed granny starver” is stomping around in the Upside Down and preparing to chew on the meager earnings of senior citizens and the poor. And if he’s really lucky, he will eliminate health care for millions of lower income Americans at the same time. A twofer!

Along with widening the divide between the haves and have nots, our government is insidiously eroding our freedoms. Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the press have been designed to discredit negative media reports about him and his administration. Meanwhile, in the Justice Department, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has clamped down on news leaks and is reviewing department policy on subpoenaing reporters, both of which may have a chilling effect on investigating corruption. Sessions has also backed away from the Obama era mandates on police reform, promoted tougher sentencing on non-violent drug offenses, and renewed the war on marijuana at a time when states have begun recognizing its medical usefulness and relative benignity as compared to opioids and other drugs.

It seems that big business is the shadow monster that lurks in the American Upside Down these days. The proposed tax bill, the push to help the coal and oil industries, the deregulation of financial institutions, and, most recently, FCC indications that net neutrality may become a thing of the past – all favor the moneyed interests in America and, indeed, the president’s own businesses themselves. Yet for all the howling about Hillary Clinton’s supposed conflicts of interest as Secretary of State, I don’t hear many complaints about policies that will make Trump and his family even richer.

But for me, the most disturbing aspect of this upside down world is the abdication of character and moral responsibility. And our president, Donald Trump, lurks at the center  of the morass. His complete disregard for women, minorities, and even the disabled; his petty squabbles with anyone who dares criticize him; his constant self-aggrandizing boasts and outright lies – they all create a primordial slime that makes the Upside Down seem dainty and quaint. Since Donald Trump became president, incidences of racially motivated hate crimes have skyrocketed. White supremacists have become emboldened to march with torches and riot gear and hurl hateful racial epithets with impunity. And for all Trump’s howling over sexual abuse allegations against prominent Democrats such as Harvey Weinstein and Sen. Al “Frankenstien” [sic], he has shown no interest in condemning a serial child molester, instead tacitly encouraging voters to make Moore the new senator from Alabama.

I find it especially ironic that Trump would liken Sen. Franken to a well-known literary and movie monster. With Trump’s own questionable business dealings and sexual history, I guess I’d have to say, it takes one to know one.

 

 

 

 

Houston, We Have a Problem

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I was happy for the Houston Astros this week when they won their first ever World Series. As A Cubs fan, I can relate to years of disappointing seasons and the elation of finally having your team come through. But my happiness is tempered by the behavior of Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel in Game Three of the series.

Gurriel, who had just hit a home run off of Japanese national Yu Darvish, laughed and made a slanted eyes gesture at the pitcher while savoring his feat. Witnesses also reported that he used the slur “Chinito,” which is Spanish for “little Chinese person.” While Gurriel apologized and claimed he meant no disrespect for Darvish, the incident hit a bit too close to home for me. You see, I have a Chinese daughter.

When I told my daughter about the incident, she revealed that she too has been on the receiving end of that mean-spirited slanted-eyes gesture. It happened to her at her elementary school when she was just a little kid, and it happened this past summer in Sweden when she and her soccer teammates were enjoying a local amusement park. I was appalled and saddened, yet I knew when we adopted her that she would probably face racism.

I was also disappointed that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred gave Gurriel a five game suspension but allowed him to finish the Series. As Gary Mayeda, National President of the Japanese American Citizens League, said, “It’s like getting punished as a kid, but having your parents say, ‘Well, we’ll punish you next year.'” (abc7.com, Nov. 1, 2017) Ironically, my daughter found the five game suspension a bit harsh.

It’s hard enough being of a different race in a white-dominated society. My daughter has had issues with looking different and trying to meet the Western standard of beauty. She doesn’t need to be reminded of those differences by small-minded people. And Gurriel, who is Cuban himself, should know better than to disparage someone of a minority culture.

I hope the loss of pay does hurt Gurriel enough to remind him of what he’s done. I hope it encourages him to think twice about the way he interacts with other players and with people in his day to day life. He did get a little taste of condemnation when Darvish’s teammate Rich Hill was on the mound in Game 6. He took his time when Gurriel was at bat so that fans had plenty of time to boo the Astros player. (Yahoo!Sports, Nov. 1, 2017)

Darvish himself, though, seemed to be more forgiving. He put out a statement acknowledging that everyone makes mistakes and that he hopes Gurriel learns from his. In Darvish’s own words, ” If we can take something from this, that is a giant step for mankind. Since we are living in such a wonderful world, let’s stay positive and move forward instead of focusing on anger.” (Yahoo!Sports)

So I’m happy for Houston fans. But Gurriel’s thoughtless gestures reminds us we still have a long way to go in race relations in this world.

Costumes and Controversy

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71BQabb5+rL._SL1500_It’s Halloween, so that means time for more skirmishes in the culture wars of the new millennium. Readers of my blog are familiar with my opposition to Indian sports mascots and dressing up in ways that demean racial and ethnic minorities. But even I am shaking my head at some of the clothing choices deemed cultural appropriation these days.

The latest controversy surrounds dressing up like the Disney animated character Moana, from the movie of the same name. Moana is a spunky Pacific Islander whose quest to save her people forms the plot of the 2016 feature. The controversy arose when a blogger wrote about why she wouldn’t allow her white daughter to dress up as Moana for Halloween. It wasn’t right, she reasoned, to appropriate the dress of a non-white culture. But Moana is a fictional character, and wearing an outfit that looks like the one in the movie is hardly demeaning to anyone.

Disney has made a real effort in the past few decades to present heroes and heroines from cultures other than the dominant white Anglo one. Shouldn’t we be encouraging our little girls to admire and emulate characters from other cultures? The blogger even questioned whether allowing her brown-eyed, brunette daughter to go as the ice queen Elsa might be sending her the message that only blonde, blue-eyed women are desirable. That is way over-thinking the process of selecting a Halloween costume, if you ask me.

Even in the realm of ordinary fashion, culture warriors are taking the issue of cultural appropriation to ridiculous extremes. Can we agree that there is a huge difference between dressing in blackface or Indian war paint and wearing hoop earrings? Apparently not, to some. Not long ago, a group of Latina students at Claremont McKenna College protested that white women should not be wearing hoop earrings, which are part of Latina culture. Similar arguments have occurred over white women styling their hair in cornrows.

The term cultural appropriation has taken on a very negative connotation, and I myself have used it to describe demeaning depictions of minorities by whites. But in a way, cultural appropriation is an integral part of the American experience. As we have welcomed immigrants of various races and ethnicities, we have also come to appreciate and incorporate styles, cuisine, music, and art from these various cultures.

On Halloween and every day, we should be respectful of others from varied backgrounds and identities. There are some very clear cut instances of white people trashing the cultures of ethnic and racial minorities. It’s kind of like what has famously been said about pornography: You’ll know it when you see it. A little common sense and sensitivity are called for so that we don’t start to compartmentalize and segregate ourselves into a narrow definition of what constitutes our culture.