The next layer

One of the things I value most in life is onoing growth and learning. I don’t know if its genetic or learned, but there’s nothing that I dislike more than stasis. This leads me to an almost knee-jerk reaction to conventional wisdom. There are certainly times that convention proves to be wise, but I almost always need to ask questions and learn why.

Over the course of my life, that has led to a kind of slow burn rebellion rather than the burst that I’ve seen so often when young people reject the status quo and/or authority. Perhaps I never had the courage to just outright rebel, but I think its also linked to not wanting to let go without really understanding where I’m heading as an alternative.

Questions that are easily solved or answered don’t interest me that much. But when understanding or learning is more like peeling back the layers of an onion a little bit at a time…that’s when I tend to get truly engaged.

A few years ago a friend of mine went to Russia. She brought back a set of nesting dolls as a gift. Little did she know that toys like this were my absolute favorite as a child…opening one to find a smaller one in side over and over again.

For years now, a topic that has provided  fertile ground for this kind of peeling and learning in my life has been racism, or my own white privilege. What I have found is that once a part of it is observed and understood, another layer emerges for exploration.

For example, just last week I was talking with a young Latino man about some of my recent struggles with racism. Comparing his reactions to mine, I could see that I approached it all with an assumption about my role in the world that says I can fix anything that’s wrong…including racism. It was clear that he’s lived this issue so much longer and more deeply than I have that his reactions were completely different than mine. Sure, he validated that when I see things that are racist in nature, it is my obligation to stand up and do what I can to make changes. But he also recognized that if people can’t hear, you move on to a place where that is a possibility. You let go. His was definitely not the voice of resignation to the status quo. It was the voice of experience in the world with what it means to be “other.”

It reminded me of something Nezua wrote at The Unapologetic Mexican in his post titled The Skin of My Soul.

Mi novia says that it really frustrates White people that no matter how much they know or want to know, there may be an area of experience or knowledge that they cannot access. Bingo, Gringo.

This is another way of saying White Privilege….

The voice of privilege thinks no seat is unavailable, no land unconquerable, no food untasteable, no right deniable, no experience out of reach.

And then there’s Jay Elias’ sig line that really knocked me out recently. It’s a quote from H.L. Menken.

The urge to save humanity is almost always a false face for the urge to rule it.

Doesn’t that get to the heart of what US exceptionalism is all about? And isn’t US exceptionalism just white privilege writ large? We know what’s best for the world and we’ll fix it for you.

All that took me to one of my favorite passages in Alice Walker’s book The Color Purple. Its a conversation that takes place between Celie and Mr.___ towards the end of the book when they have reconciled as friends.

Anyhow, he say, you know how it is. You ast yourself one question, it will lead to fifteen. I start to wonder why us need love. Why us suffer. Why us black. Why us men and women. Where do children really come from. It didn’t take long to realize I didn’t hardly know nothing. And that if you ast yourself why you black or a man or a woman or a bush it don’t mean nothing if you don’t ast why you here, period.

So what you think? I ast.

I think us here to wonder, myself. To wonder. To ast. And that in wondering bout the big things and asting bout the big things, you learn about the little ones, almost by accident. But you never know nothing more about the big things than you start out with. The more I wonder, he say, the more I love.

So I’m wresting a bit these days with all of that. I’m still busy asking questions. But I’m also trying to figure out what it means to experience the “wonder” that lives in them and to accept the fact that I’m not likely to always find the answers. But most of all, I’m trying to find that fine line between wanting to contribute to making things better and the seductive slide into savior mode. It’s the next layer of this fascinating journey.


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  1. … the quote from Nezua is a profound one … because in our American culture, the default is “you can do anything, be anything,” etc., etc.

    And that’s just not the case.

    I don’t believe there are any limits to the human spirit, I’m not speaking about that.

    Americans don’t want to see the obstacles we put up that keep others from their dreams.  So we cover that up with the cheery notion that everyone has equal opportunity and even if there’s not equal opportunity, well there’s still so many possibilities one can find a way to overcome, etc., etc.

    I think maybe it’s the “anything” in “you can do anything, be anything” that is the problem.  Those with privilege assume that those without want the same things.

    The hard thing is to move on when you encounter racism, the balance between calling it out and accepting you aren’t going to change certain people’s minds.  I have wasted a lot of time in that and am struggling to learn how to let go.

    Well this is a ramble … excellent essay, as usual.

  2. dinner with some people I work with on Friday. We were celebrating because one of them got the nursing director job she worked so hard for and she is moving to Nashville. Anyway, I was the only white chick. People say some unbelievable things. A colleague advised her that the “inner city schools” in Nashville were no better than the ones in Memphis. As if those were the only schools she could possibly send her kids to. Then somebody else advised her to “be careful because Nashville is more expensive” because of course black people know nothing about managing money. Never  mind that everybody at the table had at least a graduate degree and one had a PHD. All night long we made jokes about “inner city schools” the problem is now I am afraid I am going to see the person at work who made that comment and go into sarcasm mode.

    We had a couple drinks by this time and I made a very politically incorrect remark which I should not repeat here about white folks. They were all ” you know you’re crazy calico .”  

    • Robyn on September 14, 2008 at 17:43

    • kj on September 14, 2008 at 18:35

    got nuthin’   🙂

    but i think the exchange above between you and Kitty pretty  much nailed the crux.  just another paradox.  to accept limits, while not accepting them. “i know i can’t do that, but i might be able to do this”  to keep the door open to surprise (i’ve heard painters call it the “happy accident”) while knowing it’s doubtful i’ll ever stand on the Isle of Skye. i struggle with this. how far can i jump and still land? what if my wings give out before i reach yonder shore? how limited by my privilege am i really? (and that one i just can’t see clearly and probably won’t ever, unless lasthorseman’s warnings become real soon.)

    but mostly i just jump first and think about the consequences later, and in that respect, i just ain’t got the brains you have, NL.  🙂

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