My own identity was conflicted: I was more or less a white girl with a father from Spain who immigrated to the U.S. via France (as a Jesuit charity boarding school student) and then Cuba, a place he lived for many years and left in order to avoid being executed. I often checked the box marked "Hispanic" because that was what I'd been advised to do, because my cultural experience at home wasn't like other white families I knew, and because there wasn't really any box I felt could describe me. I won a fellowship for underrepresented students, and felt guilty because I came from a middle-class family, even if my parents had worked hard to achieve that status.
I can't count the number of graduate school classes in which we engaged in impassioned debate about race, about whether people who could not self-identify as [African American, Black, Latina, Chicano, Korean-American, Asian, etc.] could write with any authority about the literature written by people who could. We talked about whether people who were white literary critics were co-opting and colonializing literary studies. And I wondered a lot about where I fit in, and whether I was deluding myself, thinking I could speak not necessarily for these writers and these literatures, but about them. I wondered, too, whether there were any core elements common in human experience. If we could ever sit down together and feel like the most important thing was our shared humanity. I hated those discussions; they always made me feel bad about being, for all intents and purposes, white.
Though I ended up leaving that graduate program, the difficulty of advocacy stuck with me. That difficulty had dimensions, too: it wasn't just about race, but about sexuality, about anything we couldn't change about ourselves. How could we ever create a world in which people worked together for peace and justice if we could never fundamentally understand each other?
About ten years ago, I took a trip to South Africa with a group of educators and future teachers. We were there to visit South African schools, to see the effects of apartheid on the educational system, and to make a contribution to South African education. And to be honest, the more our hosts talked about difference, described the ways in which apartheid had fundamentally shaped an unjust and well-entrenched system, and complimented our ability to overcome racism in the U.S., the more I felt like we were the ones who needed to learn something from them. Because, of course, our racism is a lot more insidious. A lot less obvious, perhaps, but in that way even more dangerous.
My friend KeAnne wrote a powerful post on Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Day, about how we continue to struggle to deal with difference in this country, in ways that are both transparent and invisible. (Go read it; I'll wait.) It got me thinking about my very racist father (his ideas always shocked me, given that he was also, technically, the minority), and about my own actions and beliefs. About what I would have done in her shoes. I think I probably would have done the same thing, and maybe I'm naive, but I don't think that it was racist. Because I'm not sure whether she could have helped bring about change in that neighborhood from within it. It's a tricky, and delicate, question.
My son and I did our annual viewing of the "I Have a Dream" speech on Monday. He doesn't understand it all yet, because he's six, and the language is pretty complex, but I try to paraphrase for him as best I can. I love this part best:
"I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.Sitting down together at the table of brotherhood. That's really what it's about, isn't it? Not necessarily being able to live another person's experience, but to know that our destinies are bound up together. The "salad bowl" metaphor for diversity in the U.S. has given way to other metaphors, and then lack of common metaphors at all. We are a complicated place, and we don't all mix together easily. I try to teach my son, and hopefully, one day, my daughter, that there's a lot that is the same about all of us and that the sameness doesn't make the differences any less important.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. [...]
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
But here's what I think now, more than a decade after my graduate program days: you don't need to understand someone, exactly, or to have lived their experience, to be willing to listen, to be willing to work for justice, and to talk openly about what justice really means. You need open eyes and an open heart, and you need to be willing to cultivate trust. Maybe that's naive, too, but I need to start somewhere.
adapted from Cooking Close to Home
I love this salad because it's both mixed and separate, because the flavors both blend and are unique. It's a good salad to serve beside a warm winter soup.
2 T. olive oil
2 T. honey
2 T. cider vinegar
1 t. garlic, minced
1/4 t. cinnamon
1/2 c. fennel, julienne
1/2 c. apple, julienne
1/2 c. carrots, julienne
1/4 c. red onion, julienne
1 1/2 c. kale, very finely chopped
a handful of toasted pumpkin seeds
Blend dressing ingredients together using an immersion blender (great for emulsifying) or a whisk. Set aside.
Combined julienned ingredients in a large bowl and toss with dressing.
Evenly divide the kale among the serving plates, and top with mixed vegetables and fruit (this is also a fun job for the almost two-year-old). Sprinkle with toasted pumpkin seeds.