A Nation of Neither Angels nor Demons

Photo: My very good friend is a local glass artisan. Tracy makes a lot of beautiful work, but I think I love her acorns most of all. After Grandy passed away, she presented me with this one. Teal was always Grandy’s color and whenever I see it, I think of her. I have this one placed in an Eastern-facing window so as to catch the first rays of light in the mornings. When the sunlight hits it just right, I just feel her presence. If you love this acorn, you might be interested in some of the other glasswork of The Happy Owl Glassworks. Check it out!

 

Ursa Minor is enjoying another 10 weeks of gymnastics thanks to the fairly accessible price and the fact that there is nothing else going on during the day on Wednesdays (he doesn’t have school). Bonus, of course, is that he absolutely loves it and he is really, really good at it. He’s athletic and flexible, he’s strong and he’s delighted by all the jumping, flying, and flipping.

The best part about gymnastics is that it is a straight hour-long class, which is amazing and rare for this age group. All I have to do is sit in the drafty waiting area with folding chairs… and the other moms.

Now, it’s been a small group. There are only 4 kids in the class. Three other moms. How bad could it be? You’d think we’d all be on the same page–this is our one hour of the day when we can be cool and maybe not say anything to other humans.

You know better, right? 2 out of the 3 other women are chatty as hell. That’s fine, but disappointing. Wednesdays are busy and just a little bit of time to sit and be quiet would be very nice. I get it, though: adult conversation is a rarity in the middle of the day. So, context: there is me, one mom who is an immigrant from Germany (not present for the events described below), another woman of color who I haven’t asked about her background and a white mom who considers herself a local (“we’ve lived in town since the 1800s”).

Ok? Ok.

Not knowing each other terribly well, we have been keeping the conversation to small talk. “How old is your kid?” or “where are you having your next birthday party?” and that sort of nonsense. Trivial shit that nobody cares about (augh… why can’t this just be quiet time?). This being our second week together, the awkwardness is starting to fall away and a comfort is starting to settle in. As the children warmed up with the teacher, the white mom asked about our town’s school choice process. She wanted to know how it goes.

I told her a bit about our crazy journey, how we had a first choice that we really loved, but that school had very few seats because of a few reasons.

She interrupted me: “Well, I heard that the thing about that school is that the Asians and the Indian kids have really infiltrated that place, so now nobody can get in.”

I wanted to tell you I was shocked, but I wasn’t. I was patient. I exchanged a look with the other mom and then sorta steadied myself and kept going. “Actually, there were a lot of siblings coming in and they get preference, and…”

The white mom didn’t challenge or reassert her idea until later as we continued talking about schools. As we went down the list of programs and specialties, the woman stated, “you know, I hear that it’s more important to get your regular kid in sports, you know? Because the Asians and the Indians, they are so smart and they take all those tutoring programs after school, so there is no way for our kids to compete, you know? So we have to stick with the sports because that’s the only place our kids can do well.” She went on to say how she has signed up her two young daughters (4 and 2) for all the sports she can come up with to try to get them competitive early “to boost their confidence, you know?”

I wanted to break it all down. I wanted to examine it all bit by bit . Who is a “regular” kid? Have you decided that your kid isn’t as capable as their potential classmates already? Have you given up already, before she has even entered kindergarten? Why would you believe those stereotypes so much as to then actively apply them to your daughters? Why use the word “infiltrate” as if they are foreign invaders?

And when you speak of “regular” kids, are you including our children, who are obviously of color, in with that group? Or are you speaking to Others about Others? Do you feel safe to say what you’ve said because we’re Other but not Asian or Indian? (Again, I am not quite sure the racial background of the other mother, but she is clearly of color.)

Here is my thing about angels and demons: this woman is a nice lady. She’s been very kind, going out of her way to compliment both my son and the other woman’s son, getting to know us, figuring out the norms (she is new to the group). She has asked questions, shared a little about herself, she has been warm and gracious. She’s loving and wonderful with her daughter. This woman isn’t a demon. I don’t know who this woman is. I know she doesn’t mean me or my children any harm. I know that her world view is “us versus them” to the point of actionable decision-making that may have serious consequences down the road.

Neither of we woman of color challenged her. We were politely silent, choosing to ignore and deflect rather than engage. I’m not proud of it. I saw the look on the other woman’s face and I knew my own thoughts and we both had made our own internal decisions to let it ride. I can’t decide if we were both chicken in that moment or if the long, steady drumbeat of a lifetime of aggressions like this one have come to lay a foundation of a permanent silence. Surely we both know that the fight against bias and ignorance (even arrogance)–that the resistance against newly reinvigorated white supremacy–must be done in the small, almost intimate, moments such as this. Maybe if one of us had been brave enough to say something, the other would have said something as well. Maybe we could have made a difference, shutting it down there and then. I should have been me. I have been begging others not to recoil and retreat in the face of the darkness, yet there I was with my polite silence. I should have been the one to tell her she was wrong. I should have been the one to tell her that in suburban schools like ours, studies show that diversity only serves to boost the academic performance of every child in the classroom. Her worldview and strong bias have negative consequences.

But what about next week? And then next 9 weeks to come? Why invite that discomfort into this weekly gathering? Why make this yet another space without safety and comfort, solace, even simple friendly fellowship?

… won’t it be uncomfortable anyway now? For the two of us? Knowing what we know?

…didn’t she, indeed, destroy the safety of the space? Did she not strain the possibility of friendly fellowship?

Like I said, I’m not proud of it. The polite silence in these moments between strangers, deciding we are bystanders when we are actually active players, is part of the reason we are where we are. Teachers must teach. Speakers must speak. There is no wisdom in the silence. Only cowardice.

And, I write all this because I admit to my cowardice. I am not perfect. I have the capacity to be brave and I did not exercise it today.

Then again, this is the gap that I think many of us are trying to bridge: we are neither angels nor are we demons and, now that it’s all out in there, we all still have to occupy the same spaces, sit across the same tables, breathe the same air. How to do so in a way that makes sense, that recognizes the fullness and gifts that we all bring, to teach lessons without preaching?

It’s a conundrum that is older than all of us. Older than this divided country, even. Fraught with lessons, victories and failures along the way. I’m sure most of that will be lost as we Americans gather at our tables. Maybe not. Maybe the delicate peace that comes with family gatherings of “mixed company” will turn into deeper accords, even some sort of understanding. Polite silence turns into civil conversation, civil conversation turns into open dialogue, open dialogue turns into changed minds.

But then again, I’m an optimist. And dammit, I still love this Republic.

Happy Thanksgiving to you American readers. May your table be bountiful, your heart full of joy. For my Dear Readers of the Commonwealth nations (of which there are quite a few), I simply wish you a Happy Thursday. 🙂 Thank you to the many of you who took the time to answer my quick 5-question survey. I am delighted and inspired, and I hope that you will be delighted by the changes that I’ll make over the winter. If you haven’t done it already, would you please consider answering a few quick questions to help me improve this blog? No typing unless you want to!

See you Friday for Quiet Thoughts.