Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Terrorisms We All Face and the the Privilege we Take for Granted

My great-grandfather & three daughters, after the death in childbirth of his wife & son

I have tried to imagine the pain and daily stress of living as a person of color in this country. I do so not to suggest that I, a white, educated, middle to upper middle class heterosexual woman, really can identify with that pain, but because I want to understand as deeply as I can, if even infinitesimally, what it is like to be marginalized, and then to say to myself: Multiply this by the thousands. Now you have the experience of a person of color. Multiply this by a lifetime.

I don’t know whether it is helpful/right/or wrong for me to think about this. I only know that it has given me a window into my own experiences and how they affected me, how I did/did not handle them, how they have continued to play a part in my worldview.

My mother, Marjorie P. Cain 1916-1960

I would say that my first experience of being marginalized was having a mother who died suddenly when I was five. In our small, rural school, this was something that did not happen. Rather than being embraced in some way by the community, our family (which by virtue of my father’s isolation and refusal to discuss her death) was undoubtedly the subject of gossip and whispers. I can recall a schoolmate saying, “My mom said your mother died because she was crazy.” Because we were forbidden to talk about her, I had no place to take this. My response to the unnamed grief and felt judgment and fear of my peers (I see now) was to “feel sick” and go, almost daily, to the school nurse with vague symptoms until my father hauled me off to the doctor so that he could pronounce that there was Nothing Wrong with me so I would stop faking it.
As a young girl, with step brothers.

Later, I was teased for things like having a slight  lisp, walking with my feet turned out, but these seem minor. I suspect nearly everyone is ostracized in this way. The pointing out of these “flaws” actually motivated me to work on them until they were (almost) unnoticeable. If anything, I became more of an insider, part of the group that marginalized the “other” during most of the rest of my school years. I wouldn’t say I was a “Mean Girl,” but I sure didn’t step up and speak out when others were being shunned or treated hurtfully.

Teenage me, insecure.

In my first marriage, I accepted the role of a stay-at-home wife and mom. Although I had a degree, and a strong will, I sat through jokes, comments, and slights made by men who, gathered together and consuming alcohol, were supposed to be “funny” but were demeaning to women in general, and to those present in particular. I stayed quiet while my husband openly “checked out” and flirted with other women. I worked in restaurants where women were treated like objects to be groped in the kitchen by cooks and even managers. It barely crossed my mind that any of these things were other than typical male behavior that had to be endured.
The church, an attraction for terrorists.

Now, having been a minister for twenty years, I have witnessed and listened to tales of members of congregations treating ministers horribly. These people have been willing to use tactics that are so similar to those of terrorists that it is alarming. Indeed, I am not the first person to use the phrase “terrorists in the church.” Vague and indirect threats, surveillance, manipulation, secret meetings, misinformation, and much more have led to ministers’ resignations, terminations, upheaval in congregations, lack of trust in our community, dire financial and professional consequences, and yes.. I would argue, suicide and early death. Because ministers care about the other people in the congregation, as well as their own future, they often leave without pointing fingers, and the terrorism continues. This occurs across denominations. So, yes, there have been times when, as a clergy person, I have felt like a marginalized person, a person with no power, no agency, unable to express the truth or to be believed.

Nonetheless, I grew up and understood the issues surrounding my mother's untimely death and gleaned ways to cope. I was able to leave the marriage in which I felt demeaned and diminished, although I know that many women still bear this fate. And, although I faced the terrorism of antagonists in the church on numerous occasions, I gleaned tools to endure them, and I knew that ultimately I could leave ministry if I must.

It was not until, after adopting our son Seth, an autistic child who is now ten, that I experienced a fraction of what a person of color might. Because his disability is visible to others, because it is something he will always live with, and because there are so many stereotypes and misconceptions about Autism and ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders) I have experienced, and witnessed him experience, judgment, cruelty, shunning, inequity, dismissal, and assumptions of every stripe from strangers and church members and even "family." It was in this arena that I finally glimpsed, perhaps, an iota of what a person of color must feel. Anger, rage, indignation, and even fury at the insensitivity and downright cruelty of human beings. And yet, I have also realized that I have been less compassionate than I ought to have been before Seth became a part of my life. Besides being a treasure, he has taught me innumerable lessons.
Seth & his teacher 2015

Now. All of this aside, I walk into the world each day with a freedom, a passport, a red carpet, and open doors.. all because of one thing. The color of my skin. But from this time on, I do not take that for granted.

For every privilege I accept, for everything that I have been given for free, including the benefit of the doubt, I will stand up for, fight for, argue for, the rights and freedoms of a person of color. It’s the least I can do.