Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Thrown Clear

The topic of November’s chaplaincy class was ethics (sila). I felt profoundly sleepy during the class, starting during a particular presentation. It brought back vivid memories of seven hundred occasions of being in a boring class in 7th grade, even though what was being said in chaplaincy class wasn’t boring at all.

One of the teachers did a presentation on how to lead a guided meditation, and then we got to practice on each other. When I was playing the patient, I appreciated my classmate’s calm and soothing voice, and found the experience genuinely helpful. When I was playing the chaplain, I was surprised by how responsible I felt for the person sitting opposite me, how concerned that what I offered would be helpful and not in any way harmful.

During the day, another student shared an anecdote that was blatantly racist. I was shocked, and assumed one of our three teachers would respond, but none of them did, and nor did either of the people of color in the room, and nor did I nor anyone else. This came after a fair amount of lip service about honoring diversity and cultural differences, so it was all the more astounding.

The next day, Tom and I went to Berkeley to see Party People, preceded by lunch at Thai Street Food. The food was a bit sweet but not overly so (not like at Gecko Gecko) and was generally quite tasty. The place is open and airy and the presentation of the food, including the bowls and plates, is pleasing. The only big demerit is in the area of the seating, which is downright uncomfortable: a hard little stool, a hard little metal chair, or a long wooden bench being jiggled by some other luncher.

Party People is about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords. I didn’t actually love it—it was loud and bombastic throughout, and none of the music really grabbed me. It was somewhat educational, but I suspect I could have gleaned the same facts in five minutes with Wikipedia. However, that I saw it the day after the racist anecdote in class was a bit striking.

On Sunday, as I did my cooking and pondered my classmate’s thoughtless statement, I felt more and more disturbed that I hadn’t been braver. I sent the three teachers an email saying this:

I have been brooding about [my classmate’s] anecdote, wherein he used “black” with the apparent certainty that we would all, with him, understand that as “frightening and menacing.”

In the moment, I was quite shocked—while there is plenty of overt racism, sexism, homophobia, size-ism, etc., online, I rarely hear bigoted remarks with my own ears. (When I do, they are generally directed against women.) I assumed one of you would speak up, or perhaps one of the people of color in the room would, but no one did, including me.

I now feel ashamed and heartsick at my own cowardice.

I am wondering why none of you three said anything, and wondering the same about myself.

I think it was simple fear: of standing out, of being disliked, of turning out to be the only one to feel shocked and thus to feel isolated. And therefore I rationalized, “Well, it must not have been THAT bad, or someone else would have said something.”

Again, I feel ashamed.

I would like this to be addressed in some way on a group level next time we meet. I feel intensely uncomfortable about being in a room where it is not perfectly clear that using “black” or “African American” to refer to a hateful, harmful stereotype is not fine.

At the minimum, I would have liked for [my classmate] to be explicit about his assumptions; e.g., “I am terrified of black people and assume my life is in danger when I am near people who are African American.”

(end of my note)

I received notes back from two of the three teachers, one heartfelt and honest, making it clear that this teacher was also anguished about what had happened and about his failure to respond in the moment, and the other a brief note saying the matter will absolutely be dealt with at length in class. I appreciated both, but was put more at ease by the second, because I’d decided that if the matter wasn’t explicitly addressed on a group level, I would probably have to read my own note above aloud.

That evening was the monthly potluck at Thomas House, which was excellent. The executive director gave a few of us rides home. I asked the guy to my left in the back seat if he wanted a seat belt and he said, “I’m not interested in a seat belt—I want to be thrown clear.”

Then the guy on my right in the back seat said he also didn’t want a seat belt, causing the first guy to say, “Oh, he doesn’t want a seat belt? Then I do want one.”

We had two papers due before our November class (described above), and chapters to read in four books, plus several articles online to read. I felt a little stressed out trying to get this all done. In addition, my boss at work has taken a job elsewhere in the company, and I’ve inherited a couple of his duties, so work is busier, too. And now Laguna Honda is entering the picture. I started to wonder if this is going to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and if I should not do it. I was thinking maybe I should just stick with the soup kitchen, which I don’t plan to leave, and continue to be a stealth chaplain there, but I have been wanting to volunteer at Laguna Honda for months now, and I’d like to practice being a real chaplain. I can always do fewer hours at the soup kitchen, plus my class won’t go on forever. It will end next July. Also, I can quit my job and be a full-time volunteer! I mentioned this to my mother and she said, “Don’t tell your father that.”
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