Sunday April 4, 2021
What does it feel like, to live in fear? Not the short-term fear, that an oncoming car won’t stop in time. The long-term, constant fear that you, through no fault of your own, are a target for violence. Just because of who you are.
It happened to a 65-year-old woman in New York last week. An unknown man knocked her down, kicked her in the stomach, stomped on her face, then casually strolled away.
The woman was Asian.
She’s expected to recover, physically. She will never recover emotionally.
George Floyd will never recover. A white police officer held him down, face pressed into the pavement, with a knee on his neck, for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.
Floyd was black. So were Sandra Bland, Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Brown, and Breonna Taylor, and dozens – hundreds – of others.
A jury in Minneapolis will have to decide if the police officer, Derek Chauvin, committed murder in George Floyd’s death. Or if, as his defence contends, he was simply doing the job he was trained to do.
Which strikes me as the most sweeping possible condemnation of racism in American law enforcement.
Please don’t tell me that George Floyd was a less-than-admirable character. Chauvin’s police record of suggests that he wasn’t either.
Personality characteristics re irrelevant to the charges.
There is no question in my mind that Chauvin acted deliberately. Try resting all your weight on one knee for over nine minutes. It’s painful. To do it on the neck of a large man, struggling, to keep on doing it while the victim is gasping for breath, calling for help, requires more than just performing one’s duty. It requires malice bordering on sadism.
As does beating up a 65-year-old Asian woman on the sidewalk.
Most of us who are white males, like me, have no idea what it is like to spend your life knowing that you’re at risk. To feel unsafe walking to the bus at night, after work. To feel people staring at you on the street or in the classroom. To hear jokes that imply you’re genetically stupid (or, conversely, genetically smarter), or a sexual object, or inherently untrustworthy.
Or to realize that your conversation partner is reading your cleavage, not your lips. (Aside: I wonder how many men would feel comfortable carrying on a conversation while women stared at their crotch?)
Those are, too often, the reality if you are Black, Asian, Indian, or Indigenous. Or gay. Or female. Or any combination.
I would have thought that women might have a better sense of these hidden prejudices than men.
Maybe not. I asked a mixed group of friends if any of them had ever experienced a situation whether they faced discrimination, just because of who they are.
Not one of them could.
One of them suggested that perhaps I’d had that experience, because I spent my first ten years as a white child in coloured India. But we were not discriminated against. We were a privileged minority.
The closest I came to automatic discrimination was in Johannesburg, during apartheid . I had strolled down Jo’burg’s main street, past plate glass windows where white mannequins posed in beguiling costumes and air-conditioned buses picked up white shoppers in miniskirts and stiletto heels.
Then I wandered into some back streets. Black streets. Where battered buses transported coloured people. Where sooty warehouses with broken windows loomed over potholed pavement. Where gangs of black young men in ragged T-shirts wandered idly -- jobless, aimless, hopeless.
And I knew that if tempers flared, if riots broke out, no one would ask about my political convictions. Or whose side I was on.
I was white. I was enemy.
I didn’t stay long.
Wearing another’s shoes
Unless you have actually been in a situation where you are stereotyped as an object, you cannot imagine what it’s like.
We will not cure the endemic racism of our society until we can overcome that failure of imagination.
Until, for example, we no longer notice that David Suzuki – probably the world’s foremost environmental advocate, maybe surpassing even Greta Thunberg – is Asian. As is UBC President Santa Ono. Until we no longer feel it important to notice Bonnie Henry’s shoes or Kamala Harris’s hair. Until we no longer label Victor Frankl or Albert Einstein as Jews.
Whenever we stick labels on people as labels, we make them vulnerable to attack.
At the very least, this week’s news stories about race-based assaults should make us examine our own unexamined attitudes towards others.
Copyright © 2021 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Tom Watson had the first response to last week’s column about conspiracy theories: “The QAnon tentacles reach far and wide, aided and abetted by social media. A friend has a massage therapist to whom she goes periodically. The friend mentioned that she was in line for her first Covid shot. The masseuse said, ‘Whoa! You're going to let them do that to you? Do you not realize that more people have died from the vaccinations than from the virus?’
“Friend says, ‘If that were the case, wouldn't it be in the news?’
“Masseuse replies, ‘No. It's not reported because all the news media companies are owned by big pharma companies, so they keep that truth under wraps.’
“How does one even have a serious debate with people who are willing to buy into such theories?”
Ruthanne Ward noted “two recent articles that speak to the need for human beings to worship something, anything (The Economist, ‘The God-shaped hole’ & The Atlantic, ‘How Politics Replaced Religion’). They remind us that we seek a narrative to make sense of our lives. Whether or not we believe, with Pascal, that it is a ‘God-shaped hole’ or not, it does seem to hold some truth.
“Conspiracy theories seem to help some people make sense of the confusing and scary world we currently live in. Your point about the feedback loop is spot on. To quote McLuhan again, ‘We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.’”
My column reminded Clare Neufeld of “a quote I heard, years ago. The speaker shrugged his shoulders, and said, ‘Just because I’m paranoid that someone or something is out to get me, doesn’t mean it’s not true!’
“Belief systems, seems to me, have their rootedness in a complex interchange between biological wiring, (think DNA, chromosomal, inherited ‘normal, injurious defects, etc.), environmental, (think chemical, social, empirical, observed, imposed, internalized, contemplative, doctrinal, etc.)
“I doubt we will ever be able to ‘fix’ these frailties in our midst, so as to vacate our need for vigilance and attention to details, ever needing to learn about what ‘works’ best -- for some, and for the benefit of all -- until we approach our own time to vacate the premises, permanently.”
Cliff Boldt said I had “asked the question we have been asking almost every time we listen to reports from the USA -- why.
“I have decided that QAnon types have been around for years and Trump has just made it credible for them to go public. They are not well mentally so we are better off not taking them seriously -- to do so is to allow them to influence you.”
Gilda Pinchuk: “I enjoyed your column but felt that I had to share my personal opinion with you.
“Just as alternative medicine is not led by a governing body, so too alternative views are not led by QAnon. Rhetoric, public speaking, and a free society are inextricable. Perhaps there would be feweer protests and more harmony in society if debate and public discourse were encouraged.
“Our own personal experiences can lead to interesting and divergent opinions and they should not be shut down and relegated to QAnon conspiracy.”
Laurna Tallman wrote from personal experience: “Having seen psychopathic paranoia up close for years, yea, decades, I am certain that the majority of people who believe in conspiracies have some level of dissociative disorder. The clinical version of paranoia comes with hallucinations and other symptoms of very slow to non-integration of the two halves of the brain. The rational, left-brain is unable to explain to itself the persistence of dream-like phenomena, such as audio hallucinations, that do not occur in normal people under most waking conditions.
Laurna went into considerable detail, but this one paragraph seemed to me to capture the gist of her research.
Lois Hollstedt echoed some of Laurna’s themes: “Your question about WHY so many people WANT to believe in [conspiracies] likely has many sources. The reasons may include a poor all-round education...including in the first 5 years of life, along with the lack of an integrated mind which uses both the rational and emotional parts of our brain…the wise mind…to make choices and decisions. I see people who are:
Unwilling/unable to learn new things
Unable to admit you are wrong
Unable to trust other people, systems, etc.
Lack self esteem, hence the need for validation and approval
“These are complex issues and sometimes failed lives or lives with ‘holes’ need something or someone to cling to for survival.”
Bruce Gajerski: “Your column on QAnon was splendid. [But] I point out you misspelled Hillary Clinton's name by using only one letter l.”
Isabel Gibson actually wrote about my column two weeks ago, on power and sex, but her comments seemed to fit so well with today’s column that I’m including them here: “Today I was reading an article about Sarah Everard [the British woman killed by a male police officer while she was on her way home] and the female writer was saying that women who walk home without being assaulted in some way feel lucky, and that this indicates the need for dramatic change.
“I agree that it's not OK for men to assault women (or vice versa) or for anyone to assault children or for half the population to live in fear of the other half, but I wonder what sort of dramatic change people are looking for.
“Although I think that we have made big strides in creating societies that are safer for everyone, I don't believe we can eliminate violence - sexual or otherwise.
“Maybe the best we can do is to make it easier for people to come forward in organizations, and realize that doing that will undoubtedly lead to some false accusations. There are many kinds of power: The power to destroy a reputation is one of them.”
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