Courage may be one of the personality traits that I most respect at this point in my life. It comes in a lot of different sizes, shapes, and colors. Some, I respect a lot more than others. That line where brave just blurs into careless/crazy…I don’t particularly have any admiration for that kind of courage. The courage to speak out though, to tell the truth, and to protect others at personal risk…those attributes are the ones that make heroes.
I did not grow up with courage. Nature or nurture? I just can’t be sure. I can’t be sure about that when it comes to any other sort of personality trait either. I honestly believe that in almost all cases it is a mixture of the two. I remember working up the courage to speak in front of groups as a child, but not to do much else. I never remember standing up for a friend in childhood, and I can’t remember ever speaking out to my peers. I was terrified of my peers as a kid.
Study. Travel. Marriage. Parenting. (Seriously Parenting). Publishing personal work. These life experiences have shoved me into having to muster up courage. They have trained me to develop it, whether I had it inside of me from the point of my original design or not.
The reason that I bring this up, is because I am newly aware of how much courage I have managed to realize. Just a handful of weeks ago, I came to the actual understanding that I am much more willing to lose my life than I am to lose my liberty. I naively, never thought that I would even have a need to entertain that thought. Which brings me directly to privilege. I am a white woman, I am very well educated (though not by traditional means), and the combination of these attributes consequently gives me the appearance of the most innocuous person in the room most every day of my life.
I have the experience and ability to fit in and fade into the wallpaper in a wide spectrum of situations where I might find myself in the society in which I live, and that provides me with an exorbitant amount of privilege.
I have recently begun to look around me and to realize how lacking in courage some people are. So when I try to widen the spectrum of my understanding on this point, I can see collectively that the majority of individuals that I observe who are so deeply lacking in courage are deeply privileged as well, and they are terrified to step out and speak out for other people because they know how easily, or fear how easily, their privilege can be dissolved.
Connecting the dots, it is apparent to me that ignorance of our own privilege = an intense fear of losing it.
Back to when I wrote above that study was one of the things that led me to develop my own quality of courage: study of the holocaust caused me to weep for the people who were stolen from their homes in the middle of the night while their neighbors hid inside of their own homes, ignoring the sounds of horror that were penetrating their thin walls. Later, study of the shame that those same neighbors experienced for the rest of their lives as a result, of the fear of retribution that they expected to fall down upon them around every corner, caused me to weep for them as well.
It wasn’t until I looked back upon all of this much later, that I understood that the stories that these people were brave enough to pass on are the stories that made me understand that I would never allow something like that to happen. The courage has been growing inside me, all of these years. We are all different, and it can’t work the same way for every individual, but we all need to do everything that we can to continue pursuit of learning, understanding, and growth.
When we remain ignorant of the suffering of others, when we remain ignorant of our own privilege, when we decide that there is no value in the constant study of history, or the constant cultivation of personal development, we set ourselves up to be absolute COWARDS.
(NOTE: By personal development, I mean PERSONAL development, not bullshit seminars designed to empty your pockets. Be smart, friends!)
And, I have friends who are absolutely unwilling to explore any of these concepts. They have actually, literally, ignored me when I have brought up discussions on privilege and on the suffering of others, (in an ear covered, na-na-na-na-I-am-not-listening sort of way), and even stopped me from speaking, and told me that they were not interested in discussing any of this. Flat-out blatant willful ignorance. Needless to say, some of my choices in friendships have been changing quite a lot recently. I honestly, do not spend any time anymore with the neighbor who ordered me to stop talking about slavery in our country, because he simply did not want to hear it.
Of course, dismissing people who refuse to make an attempt at improving the climate of our country and our world only further alienates them, and does not help anything in any way. Here, I have to step back and say that it is important for us, now more than ever, to focus on ourselves, and on our inner circle. I did not have a close relationship with that neighbor. I have great hope that a close friend or family member of his will speak to him about his denial of reality, in the meantime, I have close friends and family to work on myself. So do you.
We also have endless resources to help us work on developing, and nurturing ourselves. Recently, I have been taking implicit bias tests and exploring my results. I highly recommends this. I have also been exploring my own privilege vs. my responsibility in light of that privilege.
The privilege that hits me closest to heart is the fact that although I have been bisexual since I was eighteen, I fell in love with, and married my husband at twenty six. I have always been very forthcoming with my identification as a bisexual woman, but outside of some offhand comments and social rejection when I was dating women in public years ago, I have never experienced any of the real prejudice that I would have had to struggle with every day, if my husband had happened to be born a girl.
As a result I feel an ENORMOUS sense of responsibility to my LBGTQ community. They are forced to deal with all of the discrimination, and I feel like I have a lot less to lose than they do by defending the rights that we all deserve. I explore this feeling a lot. Believe me, it stirs a lot of guilt.
I cannot say that I have had much success to date with reaching out to the people who are close to me that I have the ability to influence in a positive way. I have friends who aren’t fond of reading, (I wrote that line with my eyes rolled back into my head). I have friends who completely zone out or talk over me when I bring up a subject of actual relevance. I have friends who's personalities are so sweet and kind and wonderful, and so goddamn oblivious to world events that I just want to take them by the shoulders and shake em’ until they wake up!
At least I am well aware of what I am up against, and that shaking people is no way to deal with this problem. I am going to keep looking inward, and have faith that the outward approach will come to me eventually.
I battle with the reality that these people would probably be the people to hide in their homes cowering if someone came in the middle of the night to drag their neighbors away. I will not be able to live with the fact that I didn’t try to ignite some courage in them when I had the chance. So I will keep at it. I will keep trying. I will keep sharing miscellaneous truths for them to consider and hope that those seeds grow roots.
I have been steeping in the disappointment that I have experienced because of this reality for several months now. I have been working and studying while somewhat closed off from a lot of people that I previously spent much more time with. I have even considered how certain friends are currently experiencing feelings of insult and are “sick and tried of being called racists”. Well, I haven’t seen this happen, but I can understand how someone on tv must have told them that it was happening, and they then chose to believe it, because when you don’t read…well.
I think that it is important that we suggest to friends like these that we know that they do not identify as racist, and that additionally we would love to help them better understand what racism is. It might sound like this would be unimaginable to do without sounding superior and belittling, but amazingly you will see people respond well to this information if you approach it in the right manner. Understanding your own implicit bias is a really good way to break the ice. Many of us, actually a large percentage of us, have some level of bias towards many groups of people, and this is a wonderful way to share with someone who is deeply afraid of being labeled as a racist.
For me, my disappointment was never even in any sort of prejudice that was made clear to me by the recent actions of my friends. It was the cowardice that they displayed that I have been struggling with, actually grieving over, for the past many months. I have been overwhelmed from the loss that I have experienced in knowing that I live my life closely with others who would not put themselves at risk to help their fellow man, who would not contribute to the survival of their neighbor at a personal loss, who would not help to protect the interests of our planet at large if it interfered with their immediate gratification.
“This is why I grieve. I don’t think that you are a racist. I DID think that you were a more whole human being. Our friendship will sustain because I believe in building bridges, but you may never regain the same level of respect from me that I offered to you before you showed me who you really are. So, why did you decide to stop hiding it, anyways?”
This is how I feel today. This is what my sense of responsibility compels me to share. I don’t know at which point we made that wrong turn in this country which allowed for the cultivation of selfish, cowardly, individuals who are seemingly incapable of empathy, but I do vow to commit myself to helping correct that wrong turn.
“Wherever you are waiting, I am coming straight at you with tolerance and patience and love whether or not you have any to offer to me in return.”