The most trouble I ever remember getting into when I was very young was when I kicked my brother with my hard soled corrective shoes. It was the first and the last time I ever expressed my anger with my feet. I understand now how much it must have hurt him, but at the time I thought his fuss about it was entirely overblown.
But I was never a biter. Not as a child, not ever. Until today.
The dental assistant told me to bite down hard to set the crown the dentist had just placed in my mouth. She told me to open. I was obedient. She removed the gauze roll. She said “Ok, that looks good.” I thought she was done. Testing the bite, I closed my teeth together like a skeleton jaw clacking at a haunted house. Horrified and startled, I discovered her finger was still between my jaws. I instantly opened my mouth and apologized profusely. She was kind and understanding, and dismissed my horror saying, “It happens all the time. You’re fine.” I was relieved that I had not done harm. I was mortified at the discovery that I really am a biter after all.
Of course, I hear you trying to console me just as the gracious dental assistant did. You’re telling me that it was no big deal since no one was punctured. Not even her purple glove. She is going to get on with her day and not think another thing of it. I didn’t intend to bite her. It was a reflex that has been in the making after years of sitting in the dentist’s chair. Open. Close. Just like that. It was after all, half her fault for doing the unexpected thing of putting her finger back in my mouth after she told me it was ok. I am, however, moritified. I never imagined that at my age I would be The Biter.
What I have just written is a page straight out of Carys’ early grade school writing assignments. It’s called a “small moment.” I’ve taken two small moments and written about them in greater fullness. Not enough to write a novel, or even a short story. But you were with me in those small moments, weren’t you? The greatest part of life is made up of small moments. Even momentous occasions are made up of many small moments, like tiny beads on a string. When we put the beads on a string, we begin to have a narrative. We have a story that begins to tell our lives with cohesion and meaning. It may not be good meaning, or helpful cohesion, but in some way the small moments become a whole. Racism is a way that many small moments–and sometimes very momentous occasions–become a string of beads in which one story connects to another until they begin to tell Our Story. No matter what color I am, one of the strings of beads around my neck is racism.
Now… let’s talk about racism. I am white. White G.R.I.T.S. (Girl Raised In The South). There are many family stories I could tell about how a white person in the South (or anywhere, to be honest) could also suffer from the consequences of racism. Just because one suffers does not vaccinate a person. I have been through a great deal of sensitivity training and experiences of my own, enough to feel the Existential Guilt of Being White. I think one of the first and most difficult hurdles for white people to understand racism is to understand it isn’t going to be an “Us” and “Them” conversation. It’s all about us. All of us, and how we are a people together. The second and just as difficult hurdle for white people who want to understand racism (because people who don’t want to understand will never get this far) is to understand the saturation of our experiences in racism. We can’t name it any more than a fish can name the element in which it swims. It’s not a Southern Thing, even though my first understandings of it came from my experiences in the South. It’s not a Black Thing or a White Thing. It’s not even about accepting one another’s differences– that’s a Tolerance Thing. It’s about humanity as a race, and how we are people together in it.
Return to the dentist’s chair now. I like to think that I am a congenial kind of person. I encounter another person, perhaps African American, perhaps Asian, makes no difference except that I might conceive of them as different from myself. I don’t believe I am a racist, not in any intentional desire. I say something that doesn’t come out as I wished it would have. Horrified, I apologize profusely. The person I have injured reflexively responds to make me feel better by pronouncing an absolution. “I didn’t take it that way, no harm done.” Or even worse, “It happens all the time, I’m used to it.” Later, I might try to defend myself because I do, after all, feel the Existential Guilt of Being White. If she had not _________________, I would not have __________________. I might be entirely relieved of my existential guilt because she did say, after all, that no harm was done. Or relieve myself of thinking about the consequences of my actions because after all, she said it happens all the time so I should think no more of it. The truth is outted. I have to understand that I am the kind of person who participates in racism even with all my best intentions and enlightenment. There are vivid moments of understanding–like the time I kicked my brother–that lead me to avoid making that kind of mistake ever again. I no longer kick people when I am angry, and I bet you are glad of that.
The difficult understanding comes with the small moments that reveal that the greater truth of our life together still holds. I don’t bite people any more than I kick people. Now I can’t say that. Given the circumstance and opportunity, I bite with no motivation required.. It’s not about intention or will. It’s about the air we breathe, like the water in which the fish swim.
It is far easier to describe the elements in which we breathe or swim in moments of being deprived of them. Suddenly, the line between living and dying becomes very bright. Our bodies tell us in exquisite detail about that element around us. I might not be able or interested in analysis of what that element is or contains at that precise moment. I know with all my being that it exists and it is not optional. It’s not a philosophical opinion. Even if the air or water make me sick from their contamination, I know that I cannot live without it.
I understand at this age of my life how much my swift kick to my brother’s shins must have hurt. I think about it when I knock my own shins on the dishwasher door while I am loading dishes. My four year old person could not yet think about the experiences of another person as if they were my own. It’s easy to be dismissive of racism just the same, whether we are the one saying “We’re over reacting a bit here, aren’t we?” or the one who is hopping over an injured shin while telling the one who injured it “You didn’t mean to, it’s ok, I’ll be fine.” With maturity we can grow to the point of understanding another’s pain through the lens of our own pain. Caution sign: that’s a rest break, not the destination. When we go further down that path, we begin to listen to another’s pain whether we understand or feel it or not. It is enough that it is pain.
It’s very hard for me to think about racism in abstract terms, even though I am very much at ease in the world of abstraction (my degrees are in theology, after all.) What I understand, within the boundaries of what I can understand, are small moments and stories that I tell to make sense of it all. The dental assistant has probably already forgotten that I bit her two hours ago. Her life is probably full of small moments of patients’ biting. That doesn’t make it ok for me to bite her. My remorse doesn’t help her either. I can imagine that a career of being bitten would wear on a person. The small moments become like a string of beads. A person could even start believing they are the kind of person everyone bites, as though some people are not such a kind. Sometimes the thread breaks. You know someone is going to get hurt.
Small moments become stories. Beads scatter all over the floor. Seemingly insignificant and harmless before, they now lie in wait for an unsuspecting soul to walk in and discover that the floor is suddenly a roller derby rink and unprepared, go flying with limbs akimbo. When we tell one another our stories we begin to describe the elements between us. We need to listen to one another’s stories in such a way that Truth can be outted, and our realities get a check.
The string may still break. No, it will break. Those who have learned to listen will have hands outstretched and ready to catch the precious, scattering beads. We shouldn’t get too smug about catching a few of them. We will not get all of them. If we stay in the conversation long enough, we can learn to help one another string the beads with knots between, as are the most expensive, fine pearls. Those knots are how we are bound together, committed to staying with the pain of our stories until they are redeemed by Love. –