Friday, November 18, 2005

An Open Letter to the White Men in the BC Community

This summer I spent some time at home, among other things, teaching my younger sister how to drive. I couldn’t help but recollect the driving lessons my now-deceased grandpa had given me when I was her age. I think the most valuable lesson he taught me was to “always watch your blind spots.” As all of us who drive (hopefully!) know, our rear-view mirrors can’t be relied upon to give us an accurate picture of all the space around our vehicle and sometimes we might not notice another vehicle, object, or person situated in our “blind spot.” Funny things, those blind spots; they’re built into the structure of a vehicle, quite unintentionally I’m sure, but if we don’t correct for them we could wind up causing a traffic fatality.

As individuals brought up in a culture that values some types of people over others, and as human beings generally incapable of seeing the world objectively, we all grow up with certain blind spots preventing us from fully understanding the experiences of others. These blind spots often keep us from an awareness of our own prejudices and a sense of how our actions or inactions affect others. In answer to the question “why can’t we all just get along?” a big part of the problem must be an unwillingness to try and work through our blind spots, or at least acknowledge they exist.

I’ve become aware of my intimate though often unnoticed connections to others primarily through my experience as a working class person. As most Berea College (BC) students know, this world can be a hateful place to people who aren’t wealthy. Hence I’ve experienced firsthand what it means to grow up in a household where one’s parents aren’t being paid a living wage or don’t have access to health care. I reflected a lot on this reality as I watched recent events unfold in Louisiana and Mississippi. The fallout from Hurricane Katrina has made apparent the ways in which multiple forms of prejudice, such as classism and racism, can come together to make certain people’s experiences even more brutal. But living in Appalachia, most of us already knew that; back in 2000 when Massey Energy dumped 250 million tons of coal slurry on the poor and “backwards” folks who inhabit the hollers of eastern Kentucky the rest of the nation hardly batted an eye.

As I’ve walked beyond the walls of the safe space BC can sometimes be for working class students like us I’ve encountered many people who embrace the ideology of meritocracy, that is, poor people deserve to be poor. I don’t hate those people, at least I try not to; after all, they have their own blind spots. In fact, some of the most powerful relationships I’ve made in life have been with people who come from wealthier backgrounds than I but who get it when it comes to issues of class. I wonder if it must be a similar situation for people of color, for women, and for queer folks when they form relationships where they can truly be real with people who haven’t experienced what they have.

This semester will be my last at BC, and though I’m excited to be moving on, I can’t help but reflect upon my time here and what I might have done differently. In light of that reflection, I’ve been trying not to let my classes get in the way of my education. Hence I’ve been spending a little less time this semester on Organic Chemistry and Spanish and making some time to attend the type of events I wouldn’t normally have bothered with—like ACE League (the gay-straight alliance on campus) meetings, a Monday-nights discussion on feminism with bell hooks, the intercultural dialogues sponsored by the Black Cultural Center, and the Islamic and Buddhist Student Associations. At first I attended these events out of a sense of determination, in the same way one attends required classes they need in order to graduate. But I have to admit I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them thus far and learned a lot about myself and the world around me.

It’s a joy to glimpse even some small piece of how people who are different than me view the world; to sit in a circle with folks I wouldn’t normally get to talk with, to tell and to hear stories, and to realize just how closely connected our experiences are. At times it is also painful because in hearing their voices I am made more aware of the ugly side this world has to offer and I’m reminded of the painful experiences which have been a part of my life. The common denominator, of course, is how those of us with less power in society are silenced. No one hears our stories and hence we are marginalized, left behind.

In the midst of these conversations I’m also made aware of opportunities I’ve missed to make the world a more humane place and to build relationships across lines of race, gender, and sexual orientation. What’s most important and real about these conversations is that I am having them in someone else’s safe space. While most of us are of course interested in having a diversity of relationships, we generally only feel comfortable forming those relationships in spaces which are secure for us. How often do we make ourselves available, even within the context of our relationships with people who are different from us, to really hear the ways in which racism, sexism, and homophobia have caused our friends pain? And equally important, what are we doing about it?

I don’t expect people who grew up in the suburbs to have any sense of what it was like for me growing up in the trailer park. Similarly, I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to be assaulted or denigrated simply because of one’s sexual or racial identity. We all have these blind spots and when we don’t make time to get together with people who are different from ourselves and hear their stories we contribute to the sense of divisiveness that permeates our culture. It’s only through coming together, through letting down our defenses and working to overcome our blind spots that we have any hope of ever creating a world where no one gets treated like a second-class citizen. Through my relationships with wealthy people and with northerners I now feel like there are people in those places who have my back. They’re more conscious of how their or other people’s actions affect me and they speak up about it. We’ve found each other, as individuals, and hence we’ve been able to overcome the stereotypes and prejudices we would otherwise have had to rely upon.

That’s the reason I’m writing this letter to you—my white, male co-inhabitants of this community—because I’m trying to find you. I see you all around me on campus every day, but I don’t see you at these events I’ve been attending. Invariably these gatherings are full of all manners of people except white men. Where are you? What are you doing instead? Please understand me—I don’t want my words to come across in an accusatory way and I certainly don’t want to portray myself as some sort of saint. I think we’re all good people ultimately, most of the time we just have no idea what other people are going through and no sense that we can do anything about it. But the first step is simply listening.

Please help me find you. I’m longing for the company of other people who have shared something similar to my life experiences as I sort through these issues. If you’re in need, as I have been, of hearing the voices of people with different lived experiences than you, if you’re wanting to work through your blind spots, attending these events I’ve mentioned would be a good starting point. They’re not hidden away, there are posters advertising them all over campus and emails with more details in your inbox. If I am completely wrong, which I’m open to the possibility of, and I am inhabiting a campus full of enlightened white men who have already worked through these issues, then of you I still have a request: there are many more young men out there who are in need of mentoring, who have been hurt by classism and need to talk about that pain; young men who are aware they’ve hurt other people and want to work through their guilt but who perhaps don’t feel comfortable doing so in some of the spaces I’ve suggested; and young men who are ready to take the next step, to fight back against oppression, but who aren’t sure where that step begins.

I began this letter with a simple proposition and I’ll end it with what seems like a simple question: Why aren’t we contributing to creating spaces in our community where white men can come together to reflect upon our experiences and reflect upon what it means to be an ally to other oppressed people, in short, to learn what it means to be better men?