Discrimination is alive and well. But it’s not as simple as. . . umm, black and white.
With new social minorities, like gays and lesbians and mixed-race families, on the rise, it’s become obvious that life demands change. And, naturally, there are those who resist change; those traditionalists, ignorami, and scared bigots have played the villain and loser in so many of our country’s biggest discrimination cases and fights for equality.
Because of the ever-changing nature of life, because groups are too advanced for the times, discrimination has had many faces. There are red-faced sign holders and red-faced radio hosts screaming about fags destroying the fabric of the country. White sheet companies from Charleston, SC to Hico, TX have enjoyed loyal patronage since the 1860s. There are religious groups who celebrate when county clerks deny people marriage licenses. And then there are the less-conspicuous things, like Jane’s three quarters to John’s dollar and racist comments about Cheerios commercials. We could say that discrimination, much like many of its targets, now falls in the ‘Other’ category.
I know a little bit about that category, having selected the ‘Other’ option in every Race/Ethnicity box on every standardized test, application, or official form from 1998 to 2008. Otherness is part of my life, and the mere fact that I don’t hesitate to apply that label to myself says more about the issue than anything. I grew up knowing that I don’t fit into any one category. I grew up with the sense that woman-ness and the melanin content of my skin somehow set me apart. But, then, in a fortunate twist, I started to see how little truth there was to the bigotry and stereotypes and justifications for discrimination; and, by seeing through the horse manure, I found happiness in observing the processes and behavior that once hurt me.
America’s history is full of discrimination, rather, of excluding people. All men are created equal, huh? Which ones—the ones with the right amount of money, the ones with the right skin color, or the ones who use the right word for “god”? And what about the ones who aren’t men? All people are born with certain unalienable Rights, including Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. . . some of them just have to struggle more to realize those inviolable, absolute, sacrosanct rights. The ideals our country is founded on—equality and rights—are great on paper, but we’ve come to know that, in practice, things aren’t always so ideal.
Equality and rights have eluded groups in this country since its inception. However, it’s those outside of the process, those cast in the negatively-connoted “minority” groups, the ‘Others’ that have shaped and built the country we know today. It seems more apparent since the Civil War era, this idea that we are constantly evolving to extend equality and rights to minorities; but we miss the fact that this country was started by radical, progressive, rebellious Others.
It’s easy to remember the contemporary Others. Gay and lesbian citizens recently got the right to be free from discrimination when obtaining a marriage license. African-Americans may have been emancipated and enfranchised, but there has been a tinge on the group because of past inequality and subjugation. Women should understand what it feels like to have legally-equal, socially-subordinate status—the suffrage movement coincided with the abolishment of slavery, but the 19th Amendment came around 60 years after the end of the Civil War, and wage disparity is a real issue still nearly a century later.
But, it seems like the majority of people take for granted the evolution of rights and extension of liberty that had to occur to get us even this far. If we were more tuned-in to the true nature of our existence, I think more folks would understand their own respective status as an ‘Other’ and, therefore, be less likely to fearfully dig their heels into the status quo and exclude fellow members.
How “free” and equal Americans are has been restricted and contested and expanded since the very inception of the country. It started with deliberations over who should participate in the fledgling country’s government; the men we fondly refer to as the “Founding Fathers” wanted to exclude, rather, to withhold voting rights from, anyone who wasn’t a property-owning, white male. (And we’re talking the good, Anglo, Protestant guys; Italians, white-looking Hispanics, Catholics, or indentured servants had no place in the new country), If you weren’t a white male rich enough to buy, clothe, feed, and shelter his own work force, you were an Other.
Unfortunately for the colonial 1%, this outright discrimination wasn’t going to be tenable for average Americans who had helped settle the continent. Excluding people would kill any chances the newly-written Constitution had of being adopted in a democratic society which, in their recent history, had been hotly contested.
What we as Americans consider a “revolutionary” war is told from side. We wanted equal opportunity equal treatment, and lives free from oppression. (Any of this sound familiar?) We don’t see the radical nature behind that movement away from Great Britain because we see it from the view of being a member of a formerly-“persecuted” group. But the fact is: If you are an American, you are descended from social activists. Without King Henry VIII in Britain, the U.S.A. we know would not exist. Tudor England gave birth to the English Protestant Reformation, and the Protestants created the North American colonies. The United States of America was started by Others.
And, on the subject of Henry’s effect on our Otherness, if you read the Bible, you have him to thank. King Henry’s break from the Catholic Church meant more than Anne Boleyn; on top of starting the Church of England, he also made the Bible available for the common man to read (something previously prohibited by the diocese).
Actually, to continue down this track, if you’re Christian, you’re an Other. Not sure if the average American can entertain that thought, considering that being Muslim or Buddhist or Atheist is considered a rather Otherly trait. But it’s true: Christians were nowhere to be found in the world until after Jesus of Nazareth. Before that, the Jews worshipped God, an ideology that came from the Greeks, Romans, and other polydeists who were trying to explain everything from why the sun rose to the changing of the seasons to why we fall in love. And, at that, some Other had to be the first to ask the first “Why?”
My first big “Why?” happened after an emotionally-devastating experience at church camp.
I attended this camp with some friends, and was one of a trio of brown kids (there was an older black boy, and a Mexican girl who was a year younger). On one of the first few days, a boy told me that I needed to go take a shower and wipe the dirt off my skin. When I informed him that I had already handled my daily ablutions, he said that my skin was dirty because it was brown. . . and that’s when it dawned on me that he wasn’t talking about showering. Then, he told me that I didn’t belong at the camp and should go home. Again, I got the sense he was talking about something more than my not being a tithing member of their church. . . And, at the very least, I half-belonged there.
If it would have been post-puberty years, I would have granted him plenty of leeway to dislike me. If this had happened during law school, I would have joined him – even I didn’t like me during those years. But this happened when I was still young and hopeful and completely oblivious to racism. It was baffling that, without knowing me, this little boy didn’t like me.
And that hurt.
This boy played Pogs. I loved Pogs! He had on a Rangers t-shirt. I love the Rangers! He was playing catch. I could play catch til the cows come home. But he had nothing but ignorance in his heart, and that included ignorance of the fact that when I was hurt, I got mean. Pretty sure I yelled, “Towanda!” and tried to kick his butt.
The reality check about racism hurt. It was outside of my child mind to know that there were people in the world who were hateful and ignorant about something so arbitrary. I had no sense of racism; my family and friends had shielded me from that negativity with their love. If this kid could have seen past my skin color, we could have probably had a great time playing Pogs and becoming friends. But he had no sense of kinship, and I’d be willing to bet money that he didn’t decide to be a bigot on his own. The problem was, I think, that boy saw me as an Other. I didn’t belong to his clan by skin color or familiarity.
And this may be the biggest problem today: too many people are viewed as Others. So many divisions have been created, too many justifications have been made for hating or excluding certain groups, and we’ve reached a point where it has gotten a bit ridiculous. Instead of finding a common thread to tie us to each other, we see differences and draw lines because of them.
But, what if there hadn’t been someone to see slaves as humans? What if there weren’t any male legislators to promote suffrage? What if the Anti-Federalists hadn’t advocated for the working man? All of us in America belong in the Other category. We all needed someone to stand up for our Otherness at some point in history. It makes me think of Martin Niemoller’s poem:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
I hope more people can realize that we are together. Buddhists might use the word “oneness” and transcendental meditators may reference the interwoven threads of the universe that link us all together, but I can sum it up in simpler terms: We are ALL Others.