Monday, March 2, 2009
On Being the Bigger Person
I know how this Giant died. I do. He just gave up. Got tired of walking around, always being the bigger person and dealing with other people's ish, until he just sat down and refused to get up ever again. Because it's so damn fatiguing having to be that much bigger than everybody all the time. If you ask me, that's why the whole race of Giants died out, when being so big should have given them an advantage.*
Most people in this world choose to be ignorant about some things. Conscious decisions - because they can't handle dealing with the reality of it all. We all do it. And, in and of itself, being ignorant isn't a bad thing at all. Certainly, there are now negative connotations attached to the concept of "ignorance," but if we stick to its true, dictionary definition, there's nothing wrong with it. In fact, by definition, all of us absolutely MUST be ignorant about a lot of things. That's just how it is.
However, when people use their conscious ignorance as a weapon, it ceases to be okay. When people fuel their own ignorance - and that of others - to try to bring others down, it's wrong. Especially when the means to ending their own ignorance is available to them, even offered to them - and they choose not to accept it.
Unfortunately, this is often how conversations about race often end - in ignorance-fueled, heated arguments. Name-calling, accusations, attempts to tell the other person what and how they think and are. Both sides end up walking away, angrier than before, and more convinced of their own righteousness than before they entered into the conversation.
And - oddly enough - I don't think that's the way it should be handled. I happen to believe that - in conversations such as these - it's so important to find each other's point. However, it is important to find their point, so you can find what you accept and agree on, as opposed to finding their point so you can shoot holes in it. It is important to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
Because, in the end - the vast majority of people in the world really do want to be good. They want to do the right thing. They want to treat others well, be treated well, themselves, and have us all get along. I honestly believe that.
And, with that belief in hand, I am able to work with youth. Because, no matter what horrible things they may say or do to me or another (I've been called some amazing things), if I come to them and show them my belief that they can do it right, they are much more likely to go there. That doesn't mean I don't call them on their actions. It doesn't mean they don't have consequences for making poor choices. But it does mean that I hold their goodness and ability to change in mind, so that they know that I'm always going to be willing to help them fix it.
And guess what? It generally works. Abused kids. Homeless kids. Drug-addicted kids. Gang-affected kids. Hell - even white-supremacist kids. They all take out their frustrations in negative ways, expecting me to spit on them for it. But when I don't? When I don't yell at them or hit them or knock them down further? When I just say, "that's not okay, you've got to leave, and we'll talk about it tomorrow"? **
Not only do they end up coming back and talking to me about it - generally apologizing and taking responsibility - but they work to change. Slowly, for sure. But they do change. And improve. And become more like those "good kids" that they have always heard about, but never been compared to in a positive way. At least in my classroom. And in our school (because that's how our system works). But that's something, and I never claimed to be Mohammed, Jesus, or Buddha - so I'm not foolish enough to think I have the power to change their outside lives.
But, holy sh--, does it take patience. There are days when I get run ragged. When kids cross the line so far that it's all I can do to calmly ask them to leave. Days when I just want to flip a table and yell.
But they're just kids. So I can forgive them. Because I know all the terrible things they've survived just to make it to school at all. That what they do and say are founded in insecurity, hurt, and fear. And - often - ignorance. "Teachable moments" arise all the time when ignorance spurs an action.
And it's no different with adults. Yelling at them, insulting them, mocking them - it doesn't help bring change. Getting on a soapbox and berating them when they do wrong doesn't, either. Especially when you're talking about race.
I'm a teacher. And I know that trying to make somebody feel small for their ignorance (remember - just plain ol' lack of knowledge, ignorance is) only shuts their minds further. To open somebody up enough for them to learn, you have to reach them. And to reach them, you have to connect - to find common ground.
And so I do my best not to just go off on people when they say something that is offensive. Call them out, yes - but not attack. I have had folks - on this blog - berate me for putting on the kid gloves instead of tearing some folks a new one when they crossed the line. I get that. But - as my true goal is education - I don't see a knock-out blow as particularly useful for my cause. I'll be the first to admit that it feels better - but it doesn't help, in the long run.
Do I always follow through with this open-handed way of dealing with folks? Hell no. Because it's tiring. Much harder with adults, for me - because it's harder for me to forgive them. But most adults - especially when ignorant - are just big kids, and their ignorance is, surprisingly, not often their direct fault. And I try to remember that. The vast majority of hostile actions are just misdirected frustrations. And those frustrations are often real and deserved. How they are handled are not. So I hold that in mind when somebody pushes me.
But I'm not strong enough to do that all the time. I'm not strong enough to always gently call people out on their ignorance. So I'm not always gentle about it. Or, other times, I just bite my lip and let it go because I don't have the energy to handle it right, and I know the other way is going to be worse than pointless. I fail - often - in making my point clear. I get misunderstood all the time. Even when I do it right, not everyone wants to hear it.
And that's what being a conscious person of color is. A constant, moment-by-moment battle to keep an even keel and try to be the bigger person while surrounded by unknowing offenders, ignorant insults, and sub-conscious dismissal of our importance and humanity. And - mostly - we handle it. Mostly - we forgive and forget. Mostly, we take a step back and see the lack of overt malice in people's ignorant actions. Mostly, we do these things. Day after day after day after day after day . . .
But - once in a while, our fatigue catches up to us. We don't have the energy to be the bigger person. Our frustration rises up. And. We. Let. It. Out. It comes out as fire. As vitriol. As semi-automatic rage. As uprooted trees in a hurricane.
And that's when somebody who doesn't know any better steps in. Somebody who hasn't been worn out with being big all the time. Somebody who thinks race is moments in isolation and not an entire life lived. Somebody who doesn't know that they are in a privileged position to get to treat this one situation as just, one, situation.
And what does that person say? "Relax - it was just a joke." Or "why does everything have to be about race?" Or "I'm sorry that you were offended, but that's not what I meant." Then they mention "reverse racism" and various forms of evidence to support their "color-blind" attitudes towards life and how much better it would be if everybody else lived the same way.
And they walk away, never knowing that their words and actions just added more weight to a Giant's overburdened shoulders. That their lack of perspective and active ignorance contribute so strongly to the dying-out of the Bigger People. That, while all they noticed was the Giant's raw power and size (and thus, deemed it "dangerous"), they forgot to take note of its gigantic heart and how hard said organ must work to keep its owner alive.
All they "know" is that they would never "overreact" like that. And stereotypes and sub-conscious beliefs are reinforced.
So that when they stumble upon the Giant's bones one day, the only explanation they can come up with is that the Giant must have been "inferior" or "too primitive" and thus unable to survive, never realizing their own contributions to its demise.
* Yes, I know that this photo isn't real, by the way. It's pretty cool, though.
** It's a testament to our school that having to leave is a bad thing to our kids (the same kids who never attended and constantly skipped classes at their other schools).
*** I am, indeed, aware of the strange turn towards allegory that this post took at the end. But I kind of like it. So there.