© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, All Rights Reserved
Let us take a few minutes and consider several true scenarios about everyday life in our community and nation. Listen with your hearts and minds to the overt or subtle forms of prejudice and discrimination that might be found in each story.
What do you think of a story about two white parents who adopt a bi-racial girl who is close to the same age as their two biological twin sons? As the three children reach school age, the children are placed in the same second grade classroom. They are assigned a caring, thoughtful and progressive teacher. He is genuinely concerned about each of his students but seems to offer special concern for the bi-racial girl. During the school year, he consults with the parents about the twin boys and works with them about academic challenges the boys are having. He arranges for extra tutoring and discusses strategies to assist them. When report cards are sent home, the parents are surprised to learn their daughter has relatively low marks. When they ask the teacher why they had not been previously informed – as they had for their boys – the teacher reports love and admiration for the girl and says she is achieving to the limit of her capability.
Or, consider an African-American computer company executive who, after three years working at the company, discovers that every Friday evening many white male co-workers assemble at a local bar for happy hour drinks. No women or minorities are included in this gathering. Even though it appeared at first to merely be an offensive social group, he learns that several business decisions had been made during these functions and realizes he and others had been shut out.
Or, think about the film “Philadelphia”, a sympathetic and ground breaking movie about AIDS and gay men. On a courtroom witness stand, the character played by Tom Hanks discusses how he succumbed to the “repulsive gay lifestyle” – his words, not mine – when he went to watch gay pornography and engaged in a gay sexual encounter afterwards. He faints on the witness stand after telling his story. This scene is contrasted with a later cocktail party discussion by straight lawyers talking about their group visit to a female strip bar and the sexually provocative women they see and meet. They seem to characterize their actions as normal heterosexual, male behavior. None of them faint at the retelling of that story.
What are your thoughts of a sorority at a well-known Indiana university that summarily purges from their membership 23 girls. No reasons are given other then the need to reduce costs to the sorority. None of the girls complain, but friends of the girls report to campus authorities rumors and suspicions they have. Many of the 23 girls are overweight. A few have significant problems with facial acne. It is assumed the 23 were purged because they would be considered by the wider campus culture as overweight and unattractive.
Or, think about a police captain in a large city who speaks at a forum on rape prevention after a well-publicized case involving a local woman. During his presentation, he remarks that the raped woman had been dressed like a “slut”. He concluded by asserting that if the women in the audience wanted to prevent their own rape, they should dress in conservative and demure attire – not like a “slut.”
Another true story scenario involves a woman who departed Music Hall here in Cincinnati after a concert. After reaching her car, she found that it would not start. She tried repeatedly to start it, but only a slow, grinding noise was the result. Her efforts attracted the attention of a group of local men. They were all African-American and they approached her car and began to tap on her side window, apparently asking her to roll it down. The woman became alarmed and called 911 on her cell phone. When the police arrived and questioned the men, they sincerely indicated their reason for approaching the woman’s car and tapping on her window was to try and get her to open her front hood so they could inspect the engine and see if they could help.
Finally, what are your thoughts of a caring and loving father who chose to attend PFLAG meetings – not the Cincinnati chapter – after his son came out. At one meeting, he claimed that his son is “straight acting” in appearance. He even talked about how his son was an athlete and played on the school football team of which he was an assistant coach. His son may be gay, the dad proudly asserted, but he acts just like “normal” guys.
I assume that for each of us, we are able to discern the subtle but underlying prejudice in each story. The well-intentioned teacher who nevertheless assumes girls or other those of other races can achieve only to certain academic levels. Or the white group of business friends who may not think they discriminate but do so subtly in their social interactions and thus in their business dealings. Or the prejudice that is latent in our culture about gay sexual expression contrasted against what is considered normal or straight sexual expression. Or the level of “looksism” in our society – the subtle but pervasive ways we judge people based on weight and physical appearance. Or the attitudes some men and women still have about how females dress themselves. Men can often appear in parks or public places dressed in shorts – with no shirt – but women who dress in tight or revealing clothing are supposedly asking to be raped. What about the subtle racism many of us have towards persons of color here in Over-the-Rhine. In an area with many men who know how to repair cars – most locals need that knowledge since many lower income families drive older cars. Why would a woman or any of us react with concern when a group of African-American men come to our rescue – versus a group of white men in coats and ties – who probably know nothing about car repair? Or, finally, what about the degree of “fem-phobia” or “mascu-phobia” that is imposed on the different genders. Even if one is a gay male, many of us believe he should not look or act feminine. And the same holds true for lesbians – she should not look or act in any way that is too masculine.
As we sit here, each of us might think that such thoughts and attitudes are not ours. We do not hold such prejudice nor would we ever act like those in the stories I just told. And yet, I know I do. I know that very feminine or flamboyant appearing or acting men make me uncomfortable. I will treat them with respect but I silently note to myself how different they are. I know when I walk outside these doors and down Main Street alone and am approached by a few African-American young men on the sidewalk, my pulse quickens. I am tense and afraid. And I know I have asked my daughters to be careful about how they dress and to consider that many men have only one thing on their minds. I implicitly tell them their apparel might lead to rape. I also know how I feel about being thin and supposedly healthy. In the back of my mind, I am silently assuming that persons who are significantly overweight are unhealthy – even though that is often a fallacy. Deep in the darkest recesses of my own heart and mind linger attitudes that are racist, sexist, looksist and fem or mascu phobic. I am, truth be told, a closet bigot.
What are the silent and unacknowledged prejudices you hold in your hearts and minds? If the truth sets us free, as Jesus said, can we experience our own personal “Revelation” in order to correct our attitudes and resulting actions?
The short story for this week, by Flannery O’Connor, deals with the idea of overt and subtle racism. At its core, any form of discrimination comes from a human need to feel superior to another. Whatever it may be, the dark side of human nature seeks to reduce others so that one might be feel more normal, smarter, prettier, thinner, wealthier, or just simply better. This is played out in the waiting room scene in the story. Mrs. Turpin, the main character, bases her judgement of others in the room on their appearance, social status and race. She clearly believes she is superior to African-Americans, to so-called white trash and to those who are ugly. She does not perceive her thoughts to be in any way discriminatory. By her stereotypes, African-Americans are lazy and inappropriately arrogant, lower class whites are uneducated and lack any socially redeeming qualities and those who are perceived by her to be ugly are almost as bad. God blessed her by not creating her to be black, white trash or ugly. By implication, in her warped understanding of Jesus’ teachings, anyone born black, white trash or ugly has been cursed by God – people who are as unworthy of the blessings in life as they are of God’s love. Indeed, as her thinking implicitly goes, if God loved such people, he would not have made them so lowly. Mrs. Turpin finds she shares such beliefs with the stylish woman in the waiting room. The two women barely hide their contempt for the other white woman in the room – a woman who is not as wealthy, educated or refined as the other two. She and her family are deemed white trash. But even as that woman must suffer the scorn of discrimination and prejudice by more affluent whites, she too expressed vile contempt for African-Americans. Out of a need to feel superior to someone else, she reflects a mindset that somebody has to be of even lower status than oneself.
In the Biblical book of Acts, which describes events that take place after the resurrection of Jesus, there is evident tension between the more Jewish followers of Jesus who seek to keep the new faith a part of Judaism and its many dietary rules and regulations, and those who profess an openness to non-Jews, gentiles and their customs. Paul best represents the latter. Peter and James, two disciples of Jesus, represent the former – those who saw Jesus as a strictly Jewish prophet – one not open to non-Jews.
One day, Peter has an epiphany when he sees a vision of a sheet lowered from heaven, full of all sorts of animals and fish – most of which were unsuitable for consumption based on Jewish Kosher law. As he saw this vision, Peter hears the voice of God telling him to eat all of the animals in the vision even though many were pigs or types of shellfish – ritually unclean and unavailable to Jews. Even further, God tells Peter not to call ANYTHING impure that God has made. Implicit in this revelation to Peter is the idea that NO food and NO person should be considered unclean or impure. All persons – whether Jew or gentile – are open to receive the love of God.
And this is much like the revelation experienced by Mrs. Turpin. As she pours forth her contempt of blacks, poor white folk and the ugly, Mrs. Turpin is herself viewed with contempt by the stylish woman’s daughter, ironically named Mary Grace. This girl openly sneers at the racist views of Mrs. Turpin. Finally, no longer able to control her anger, Mary Grace hurls a book at Mrs. Turpin, hitting her just above the eye, and in words filled with fiery indignation, tells her she is an old wart hog from hell and to return from whence she came.
Evident throughout the description of this climactic scene is the symbol of eyesight – that of Mrs. Turpin whose sight is made blurry by being hit on the head, and that of Mary Grace whose eyes are piercing and ablaze with righteous fury at the smug, arrogant and racist words of Mrs. Turpin. Mary is clearly cast in the role of an angry Biblical prophet much like Isaiah, Elijah or John the Baptist. To Mrs. Turpin, Mary and her outburst seem to be a message from God. “But just what is that message?” cries Mrs. Turpin to God. Has she not been a pious, Bible reading, faithful follower of Jesus? How dare some strange girl, or God Himself for that matter, tell her to go back to hell? As she goes to feed and clean the pigs she and her husband raise, animals even the poor white woman said she would refuse to raise because they are so dirty, Mrs. Turpin realizes the same epiphany the Biblical Peter had. If she is to judge others, then she too is a dirty pig. What right does she have, as just another of God’s creatures, to judge another person or their actions? The Biblical admonition, “judge not, lest ye be judged”, likely rings in her head. Mrs. Turpin is literally struck dumb as she comes to realize that she is, indeed, no better and no worse than an old wart hog, an African-American, a poor white woman or anyone else. God will judge her as surely as she has judged others. And, indeed, he has. God has condemned her previous thinking to hell.
But lest we find any of ourselves in the smug position of reacting with approval at Mrs. Turpin’s comeuppance – bigots deserve such judgement – we must examine our own hearts and minds. Forms of subtle racism and discrimination perhaps cloud even our supposedly pure, innocent and progressive minds. Whatever form it takes, how many of us must admit to ourselves we too judge others? And that judgement comes mostly from our eyes and the appearance of the other. Is someone too feminine, too rich, too poor, too black, too overweight, too unkempt, too unclean, too ugly, too Asian, too Muslim, too unlike a “normal” person? Do we treat such people the same as we too wish to be treated – according to the one Spiritual ethic on which all religions agree – the Golden Rule? As some homeless folk from the streets outside often come in and ask to use our restroom, I find myself cringing and silently thinking to myself, “We are a church. We cannot say ‘no’ to this person wanting to use our restroom. But, oh, he or she is so dirty or so smelly or so drunk that our nice and clean restroom will be soiled.”
My friends, I daresay that open and overt attitudes of prejudice are better than the insidious but hidden and subtle forms. At least, in the case of open racism, we know what we confront. The power of Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation” story – if we allow it to have that power – is not in the moment of truth Mrs. Turpin has; the calling out of nasty racism. It is in the lesson we might learn. Just as she too thought herself better than others, the same may well hold true for many of us. We might think ourselves superior to her. We are not.
If nothing in the universe created by the Divine hand is unclean, than all are deserving of our total love and respect. The unattractive, the Muslim, the immigrant, the feminine acting gay guy, the overweight, the conservative, the liberal, the female, the transsexual, the old, etc. etc. Everyone. All people. All creatures.
I pray that we might each have our own epiphany moments – times when we clearly see ourselves as human and as imperfect as the next. We all require growth and regular heart check-ups to measure our own hidden prejudices. As we see them, we must confess them and bring our prejudices into the light of day. Others should know of our struggles to eliminate such thoughts from our minds. In the clean and open air, we can be washed of the dirt in our own attitudes. Let us, in the silent hours of self-examination, see that we too are bigots in our own way, no better than any white sheeted Ku Klux Klan member. May we have our own moment of profound revelation…