We are our stories
We think we know people, but we don’t know anyone until we know their stories.
We all have our unconscious biases—maybe not against Muslims, Jews or Blacks, but maybe against Southerners, Republicans or white people.
My family is Irish. Generations of oppression shaped a certain reactivity, clannishness and defensiveness regarding the wealthy. We were certainly never privileged—we are hardworking, studious people. My parents were each the first in their families to go to college, something we never took for granted. As Catholic transplants to the South, we didn’t have an easy time of it. Walking to our integrated Catholic school (Catholic mission schools integrated long before public schools), we had to run the gauntlet of the neighborhood boy throwing stones at us, yelling “dance, nigger-lovers, dance.”
So imagine my surprise when, at a West Coast Writers’ Conference, the black woman assigned to room with me mounted a vocal protest over having to room with a white Southerner. When I tried to tell her my story, she glared at me, stony-faced, and then left the room in a huff. In her eyes I was the Enemy. Period. It was disorienting and shocking, and later, funny.
I’m as guilty as anyone, much as I hate to admit it. My family prized looks and fitness, and, although I rebelled against that, I can be almost unconsciously dismissive of slovenliness. I value clear thinking and am impatient with stupidity. And so it goes, a little ticker-tape of approval, disapproval, just barely registering.
But all that changes when we listen to each others’ stories. In a hospital waiting room, I overhear a woman I might have dismissed talk with a friend about her grown son’s addiction, about whether she will have to throw him out of the house, and where he might end up. I recognize the anguish in her quavering voice, a recognition that closes the distance between us. In line at the crowded grocery store before a snowstorm, a grizzly man in cap and overalls, talks with his clearly aging mother. He reassures her he is bringing wood over before the storm, tells her she is welcome to stay with him. He must repeat himself 4 times at least, each time with patience and tenderness. These instances repeat as I go through my day, leaving me humbled. With each encounter, my stereotypes shatter a little, my wonder increases. I begin to see people with stereoscopic vision—as three dimensional, not just one thing.
We are all full of contradictions. And in these dire times, in our political climate, it is so easy to reduce people to one or two obvious characteristics. We do it out of fear, mostly. Instead of doing that, as a dear friend of mine teaches, we can approach each other with curiosity, compassion and courage.
I’m working on it.
Sara, this has been so very close to my own experience when I moved to the South in 1976. I was shocked and had to keep re-visiting and re-centering myself on my true values and beliefs so I would not have emotional knee-jerk reactions. We have made progress, I hope I have made progress but we have “miles to go before we sleep.”
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