April 13, 2010

Excerpt from a letter about racism

Over the past few months, some of my first cousins and I have reconnected over Facebook. We weren't close growing up, maybe because the few times a year when we saw each other, our parents fought bitterly with each other. As a family, connection happened through arguments, raised voices, and mutually inflicted hurt feelings. As a child, to resist the impulse to take on the same behavior was a challenge, and having no other alternative modeled for me, I stayed fairly disconnected from that side of the family.

My maternal grandmother is still alive, at 104. I think it's her anger, bitterness, and resentment that keeps her blood pumping, but she's incredibly lonely...

Last week I returned from the White Privilege Conference, a four-day event where white people and people of color learn about the dynamics of internalized and institutionalized white privilege. And two days after returning, I saw something one of my cousins posted on Facebook, a joke about "rednecks."

If anything was reinforced for me during the Conference, it was that I have been protected too long by my white owning-class privilege.

And because one of the new behaviors I am consciously working on since the Conference is to see all women and men as my sisters and brothers in a world that needs healing, I took a stand.

I sent my cousin a message, letting him know my response to his words.

My very socially liberal, politically progressive cousin wrote back a longer response, which included a few sentiments all too familiar in our supposedly well-intentioned predominantly white middle-class society:

  • You're too sensitive.
  • I was just being funny.
  • These sorts of comments are out in the world, on TV, on the radio all the time. No one complains about those programs and no one has yanked them off the air.
  • All of us are poked fun at...
I took a lot of deep breaths and ended up writing an even longer reply.

But the part of my own reply that I hope he'll respond to with an open heart is this:
As a Quaker, I understand the value of "laboring" with each other. It's different from the sort of arguing that I grew up with in the Oppenheimer/Goldberg households, though.

Laboring involves listening for the truth and authenticity that each person is wanting to express, and being less willing to take an aggressive or defensive position. Through laboring together, each person usually comes away changed a little bit, while also willing to stay engaged in the relationship--in the moment as well as over time.

Arguing was, for me, more about working hard to get my own point across and not caring for whatever point it is that the other person wants to make. Arguing was more saying whatever came to mind, with a willingness to hurt the other person and with less regard for the nurture or even survival of the relationship.

Our grandmother, I think, has argued far more than she has labored.

You and I, I think, are a bit closer to laboring with each other but we're not quite there. Or at least, that's how I see it.
As I reflect on my exchange with my cousin, and while I await his next response, I'm remembering that laboring with one another starts with and is grounded in the motion of love.

Thanks for reading me.


UPDATE, 26 Fourth Month 2010: My grandmother passed away less than a week after I posted this piece.


RichardM said...

Very good, Liz. It's not just your family that argues and doesn't "labor". Your family is probably a lot more normal than you suspect. Keep being faithful to the Light you hold.

Gail said...

Thank you so much for sharing this, Liz...
raising up the Good is such a light- and life-affirming thing to do...

blessings and gratitude

Liz Opp said...

Richard and Gail, thanks for the comments.