Compassion for Bigots – Yes, Even Them

“So, what do you think of Colin Kaepernick and his protest?”

Used with permission of Pro Football Schedules under Creative Commons license.

Discussing hot-potato political issues with people we know can be iffy enough, especially with the unprecedented ugliness of the 2016 Presidential election, but with a stranger at the bus stop – well, you never know what might get you gunned down.

But my bus was running late and I was bored. What the hell, I thought. I’ll engage.

“I think he’s exercising his constitutional right to free speech to protest a problem that has needed attention for far too long,” I replied with a smile. I did not add that I am a Kap fan, being one of the #FortyNinerFaithful, which I don’t often mention in casual conversation seeing as how I live deep in Seahawks territory and all. Turned out that didn’t matter.

“But what about the flag?” he asked.

“What about it?” I replied cautiously.

“What about respect for the military, people who have fought and died for that flag?”

“I think the flag represents what we are – or what we aspire to be – as a nation. I don’t believe Kaepernick intended to disrespect the flag specifically, or the military. I think he was protesting a national standard of racism that is not in step with our constitution or the principles upon which this nation was founded.”

(By the way, I really do speak with correct grammar and impeccable eloquence in casual conversation. Okay, not really. I’m paraphrasing because writing should look good, and what I’m writing is the essence of what was said by both parties.)

“But what about veterans?” he pressed.

Ah, yes. “I read a blog post recently by Jim Wright at Stonekettle Station, a man who was career Navy, I believe, where he answered a question about what he thought about the subject as a veteran. [And you can read his entire, most excellent, post here.] He wrote about Kap’s constitutional right to protest what he sees as a societal injustice, and that he himself served for that right, along with anyone’s right to disagree.” Yep, I’m a diplomat.

“Well, I didn’t fight for anybody’s right to piss on the flag. I fought for that flag. “

OK. Fair enough. Your reasons for serving are your own, sir.

“And I bet that guy wasn’t a combat vet. Anybody who fought on the ground fought for the flag.”

I feared that was an overgeneralization, but what do I know? I let that pass.

“I’m from Cincinnati, ” he continued. “And I’m damned if I can find anybody who agrees with me about this. “

“Well, yes, ” I agreed. “Seattle is a pretty live-and-let-live place. “

He snorted.

“But Kaepernick has to feel like an idiot now. All that shit he stirred up for himself. “

I shrugged. “He’s a big boy, he can take it.  He was probably counting on it. He’s a public figure, able to bring a lot of attention to a big problem through a visible and controversial action.”

“And now I hear the whole Seahawks team plans to protest the flag this Sunday. “

I shrugged again. I’m now pretty sure this guy isn’t incredibly perceptive to nuance,  or shades of gray, or semantics.

“These football players don’t have any right to protest anyway. The NFL is very good to its blacks.”

I boggled a little. Its blacks. Like black athletes are the NFL’s pets or something.

“They need to protest Obama. He’s the one’s got all the blacks stirred up, police videos and whatnot.”

Okay, I’ve got a bona fide bigot here, proselytizing at me. I bet he’s voting for Trump, which is absolutely his right, but where the hell is my bus?

“Abuse of police power and unfair targeting of blacks has been going on forever,” I said. “What’s new are the cameras in everyone’s hands and the Internet to get the evidence out there. “

“But when some thug has robbed a store and is running –“

Yes, he said “thug,” which is pretty much the new n-word. And that’s when I started to get pissed. To which discussion of political and touchy social subjects will almost always lead. And I interrupted him. Fair’s fair. He started this whole thing by interrupting my solitary, minding-my-own-business-esque phone scrolling.

“Had he been convicted of that theft? Even if he was, is that an offense punishable by death? Is resisting arrest a capital offense? Did that officer have the authority to try him, convict him, sentence him, and execute him, right then and there? That’s another thing our constitution is supposed to guarantee – due process under the law.”

Aarrgh. No, I do not believe all cops are bigots. I worked hand-in-glove with many cops for many years, as a 911 dispatcher and as a criminal defense paralegal. I’ve seen first-hand how heroic and humanitarian many cops are, and I’ve also seen first-hand just how many are power-drunk national incidents waiting to happen. It’s alarming. And as usual, the bad ones taint the reputations of the good ones, but that doesn’t mean the bad ones shouldn’t be weeded out and disciplined appropriately.

The bus pulled up. Finally.

“Well, of course it’s a tragedy, but –“

Oh, shut up with the but. That sentence should not have a but. It’s a tragedy, and that’s only the start of what it is.

I greeted the driver, tapped my pass against the fare meter, and looked around. The bus was nearly empty. But my new friend was right behind me, still yakking. Instead of taking an empty seat I sat right next to someone else, so the guy couldn’t sit next to me. Enough is enough.

Sure enough, instead of sitting in an empty row, Mr. Flag sat next to someone else as well.

” So, what do you think of Colin Kaepernick and his protest?” I heard him ask the woman next to him. Oh God, poor lady.

But poor him, too. As he tried yet again to find someone who agrees that Kap is a subversive antipatriot who should be drummed out of the NFL, if not the country, I could hear desperation in his tone.

And I remembered when I first arrived in Seattle, what a fish out of water I was. Not for its liberalness, no – that was heaven for me, being a hippie peace freak at heart and coming here from a virtually 100% conservative, Christian, Caucasian community where President Obama didn’t even bother to campaign and I was regularly offended by openly voiced bigotry. This guy was a product of Cincinnati. I Googled “Cincinnati racism,” and the top three results were articles touting Cincinnati as the most racist city in America. Shudder.

No wonder he sounded so lost. It wasn’t just a change of scenery, of learning new streets and local ordinances. His entire worldview was being challenged on a daily basis. Seattle does not have ghettos as ghettos are generally defined, but even the poorest neighborhoods are pretty racially integrated, which is atypical. Everywhere you go around here, you see black skin and Asian skin and Indian skin, hijabs and yarmulkes and saris and skinny jeans and yoga pants and Northface gear, often in surprising combinations. Seattle rings with the music of a dozen languages. I love it.

I remember when I’d just arrived in Seattle, like the Country Mouse come to the Big City, just set my suitcase on the sidewalk and looking around in dazed confusion. It wasn’t the politics or social attitudes  (“As long as you’re a Democrat we’ll like you just fine” one of my new co-workers had told me). It was learning city ways in general, on top of figuring out what street I lived on, public transportation, recycling (Seattleites will give you the hairy eyeball if you drop a recyclable or a compostable into the landfill bin), and umbrella etiquette – what are you supposed to do with the sopping wet thing anyway, just let it drip all over people’s carpets?  (I found a lovely lambskin handbag, with a separate lined umbrella pocket, in a second-hand shop for eight bucks – score! )

This man had it so much worse. What was probably a lifetime of brainwashing – because hatred and exclusion are not inherent – was being challenged on a daily basis. Racial tolerance, support for the homeless population, marriage equality before SCOTUS said so, legal marijuana – Washington is the new California when it comes to making legal moves to accept and grant equality to all people, with all their wild and crazy shit, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else. For someone with rather, can I say backward, views on this stuff, it has to be pretty damned lonely. I believe in challenging archaic attitudes, which is why I continued the conversation with Mr Flag as long as I did, but even as I cut him off, I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him. It can’t be easy to suddenly find yourself surrounded by people who think your life-long worldview is ugly.

To look at it from his point of view – which is what compassion requires – is to see that people he has been taught are inferior and frightening and sub-human are straining to take away something he believes he’s had his whole life – his superiority. People of color have had enough, and rightfully so, but even worse,  some white people are not only accepting and even encouraging that frightening rise of the unimaginable, they are condemning this man with looks and words when he tries to keep things as he is used to them, as he has been taught to believe they are supposed to be. And the learning is real.

I’ve never been an outright bigot, but I’ve been as guilty of unintentional racism as anyone else. I’ve subconsciously bought into the propaganda, before I learned critical thinking, to question authority and the status quo. I like to think the majority of white people are good people, who believe in equality as a desirable principle and who, when they think about it consciously, believe people are people, no matter their skin color. But that is what is so insidious about racism in this country – it is underneath, built into all the policies we deal with and the ways people of color are portrayed by the media, the way they are treated by law enforcement, by financial institutions, by education, by health care, by employment practices, by the “it’s-just-a-joke” jokes. Sometimes it’s not so subtle, as with the Red Cross poster that showed all the rule-breaking children as non-white, or the police department that uses targets with black people as the bad guys for their officers to target shoot. We absorb that stuff subliminally, and it doesn’t matter whether we have “good friends” who are black or Hispanic or Indian or Asian. When that has to compete against what the news and entertainment media and political rhetoric saturate us with, it’s not enough. The racism is still there, and it runs deep in the body of this nation, on a molecular level. Literally. Our brains have become hard-wired to it.

I remembered the day I figured out that “I don’t see color” is actually pretty dismissive and unintentionally bigoted (and don’t get me started on “White Pride” or #AllLivesMatter), and cringed at how many times I’d spouted that to my non-white friends and acquaintances – and how they generously tolerated my ignorance. Or maybe they tried to gently educate me, and I was too oblivious to get it. It’s entirely possible. And I’m sure I still do it without even knowing it. Every time I catch myself, I cringe all over again.

Metamorphosis sucks.

I think any action, short of violence, that draws attention is a valid one. Sometimes it comes down to ramming it down people’s throats. Perhaps Krystal Lake made an error in judgment by wearing her “America Was Never Great” hat to work, but when it comes to institutionalized racism and misogyny, that statement is absolutely true. This is how things change, by stirring them up. It’s not easy to train people to think differently from how they’ve been taught to think their whole lives. Along with stirring the pot, we have to educate, to foster awareness, to promote compassion from a place others can understand. We do this one person at a time, with the millions in mind. We openly challenge a status quo that still, decades after it was outlawed, holds racist beliefs nestled close within its very infrastructure, and by creating such a furor that maybe, just maybe, one or two or even a few hundred might start to get it. It’s not easy. It takes guts.

Meanwhile, Mr. Flag was now loudly castigating the entire Seahawks football team. The woman next to him heaved an exasperated sigh, put in earbuds, and stuck her face in a book. After another few minutes of futilely seeking agreement (kinda fruitless in a city that bleeds blue and green, no matter the political issue involved) and countless dirty looks, Mr. Flag finally subsided into sullen silence.

Compassion. We teach best not with fists or angry harangues, but by making calm, reasoned statements and setting a visible example.  We work to change our laws and enforce the ones we already have. We change our use of language, our media depictions and our popular representations. We hold on to our patience. We remember that change is damned hard and we keep working at it. We stand up and march, or we lie down and close a highway. We shut out a loudmouth on the bus.

Or we take a knee.

Pabak Sarkar, used under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution license.

Pardon Me, Your Ugly is Showing – Updated

Welcome. These gorgeous daffodils are obviously not the ugly.

I’m venting again. It’s my blog, and I’ll vent if I want to.

It disturbed me a little while back to see these memes circulating on social media. What made me saddest was that they were being perpetuated in part by people I had thought were of a more tolerant, humankind-embracing bent:

Where do I start with the bigotry rampant in that little block of print?

“Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn’t an American at all.” Lovely. First, the descendants of anyone who migrated here and took it away from the natives isn’t a true American, but let’s just skip that. Because, you know, that’s not convenient. We white Americans were the first ones here who counted. But again, why? Show me how it hurts anybody else for an American of Chinese ancestry to consider himself a Chinese American and to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Explain to me how it hurts anyone else for an Indian woman to wear a sari, or how you’re injured by that man’s turban. Oh, and by the way, all of you who love to embrace your Irish ancestry, you were not among the “real” American settlers either. Many Irish came here as slaves in the seventeenth century, and the great mass came later, fleeing the starvation of the Great Potato Famine. You were not loved. You were looked down on and considered not fully human and discriminated against just like the Chinese and the Blacks and the Japanese and the Jews and the Italians and oh, yes, the Native Americans and the Mexicans, who were here first, in case you forgot. The Irish (and I am one) only managed to assimilate better than other immigrants because of Caucasian skin. So explain to me why we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. It can’t just be the novelty of green beer. No, wait — this is America.

Moving on. I once had an interesting conversation with a woman who was born in America and  raised tri-lingual. She got the insulting gamut from complete strangers, from dirty looks to sneered “Speak English!” if she spoke with her sister in another family language in public. Strangers told her she was rude to speak in a language other people can’t understand. Really? So, the beef is that the complete strangers around her can’t understand the conversation, that is none of their business to begin with? She also told me that she learned, in her travels around the globe, that no one anywhere else feels that way. Go anywhere else in the world, sit at a cafe, and let the music of six or eight different languages flow around you. Nobody cares if they can’t understand what the strangers around them are saying in their own conversations, and they’re not paranoid that you might be talking about them. That odd marriage of arrogance and insecurity is, it would appear, distinctly American.

Yes, it is a supreme irritation, having to select a language from a menu. Having other languages available can literally be the difference between life and death for people who are still learning English and are not yet fluent. We put up with a lot, with these menus taking up five whole seconds of our valuable time, and the effort of pressing 1 for English. No, we’ll never be able to get back those five seconds or the energy we used pressing 1. Our sacrifice is above and beyond. We should be so proud of ourselves.

This great big country, encompassing approximately 3.8 million square miles, isn’t big enough for more than one language? Really? Since America is made up of millions of residents who do, in fact, speak myriad languages, I think we can safely say that yes, it is big enough. Russia is twice as big and has more than 30 languages, and that’s with Putin at the helm.

I guess it doesn’t matter how much space there is when the minds are too small.

Just post this one. I already know you’re a bigot.

“There can be no divided allegiance here.” Where’s the proof that there is any divided allegiance? This is dangerously close to the mentality that brutalized tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, putting them in concentration camps even though they were born here and worked to buy the property that was illegally seized. The amazing “Uncle George” George Takei can tell you the story of his own imprisonment in his TED talk, Why I Love a Country that Once Betrayed Me.

And the biggest question is: Why should anyone have to deny their very DNA just to please bigots, for the right to call themselves citizens of the country where they live, work, raise their families, vote, pay taxes, and bury their loved ones?
What I really don’t understand is that this has to be explained to anyone.

And then, there was this one:

This one is a slap in the face to an increasingly large number of Americans who, through no fault of their own, are finding it more and more difficult to adequately provide for their families.
Like everyone else, I’ve heard the urban legend about the “Welfare Queen” who keeps having babies to get more welfare — like that’s going to make anyone rich. And of course she’s black, right? She’s a myth, though, I hate to tell you. Just like the Magic Unicorn Princess. Where I live, in the state of Washington, the average welfare recipient is a 31-year-old white woman, with one child, who stays on assistance for less than a year. Nationally, according to a mythbuster using material from the House Ways and Means Committee, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the World Rank Research Team, “…whites form the largest racial group on welfare; half of all welfare recipients leave in the first two years; and teenagers form less than 8 percent of all welfare mothers.” And with the purchasing power of present TANF payments equaling what they were in 1996, almost 20 years ago, even that help isn’t much. But apparently it’s enough that people needing this temporary help should feel even more humiliated than they already do at having nowhere to turn but these “taxpayer-funded handouts.”

At least be honest enough to post this one.

Thousands of years ago, governments were formed to oversee the day-to-day functioning of towns that later became cities, full of people who needed to eat in order to live in increasingly industrialized, post-hunter-gatherer societies. One function of those ancient governments was to ensure a food supply, stockpiling preserved meat and grain against droughts and ruined harvests, to make sure the citizens didn’t go hungry. We don’t do that anymore. But ask yourself, why on earth would modern people appoint a government, if not for the same overarching reason — to see to the well-being of the people? The powers aren’t there just because we want someone to send our citizens off to fight wars over causes we know nothing about and to not fix potholes in the roads and to implement Common Core asshattery and to plaster ugly signs everywhere at election time and to generally tell us what to do. They are put in place by us (bought and paid for elections notwithstanding, but that’s another rant), for our benefit. That means a government is supposed to take care of the people of the nation. All of them. Not just the ones whose lives meet with our personal approval.
 “They were earned and paid for” is of course the shaming statement trying to make the point that people needing food stamps or WIC didn’t earn it and haven’t paid for it – regardless of work they’ve done and taxes they’ve paid in the past, or will in the future.

“Welfare, Food Stamps, WIC…ad nauseum…” Ad nauseum. Why not just come right out and say, “I’m sick of programs that help people”? Like there won’t always be people who need help. Like you’ve never needed help, or can guarantee you’ll never need help, ever.

I saw this accompanied by “Of course people deserve to eat, but…” But what? But not if they don’t have a job right now because they got sick, or got hurt, or got laid off? But not if Mom trusted the baby’s father not to leave her in the lurch, needing help until she could get on her feet and make it alone? But not if they are too sick or injured to work and their disability isn’t enough for food and housing both, not to mention – gasp! – a movie once in a while? But only if they’re appropriately humbled and shamed because they need this help?

But… not if they’re not like you?
Seeing a “but” clause at the end of that sentence made me so very sad.
How about, “Of course people deserve to eat.” Period.
There’s a picture of some lovely spring flowers at the top of this post because I like blog posts with pictures but I didn’t want any of those ugly memes to be what people saw as the thumbnail. I want a world that is all flowers. I know it’s not realistic. But I can dream of a sunshine-y bigot-free world, just as I dream of daffodils in winter.