This man was way up in my grill. Screaming.
“You people make me sick! The only way you can win is cheat!
Early-November 2004. My wife, Melissa, and I had come to Ohio to do Election Protection work in Columbus on the eve of the presidential election. Ohio was widely considered the big swing-state prize in the race between John Kerry and George W. Bush. Much of the political world was abuzz with allegations of impending voter suppression or fraud, depending on whether Democrats or Republicans were making the charge.
On Election Day, Melissa and I, among other Election Protection workers, were in place at a precinct in downtown Columbus. As legally required, we stationed ourselves outside a perimeter 100 feet from the entrance and made our pitch to the people waiting in line to cast their ballot. We explained that we were there to monitor the proceedings and asked them to report to us any concerns related to their attempt to vote once inside. A few people looked at us skeptically; others nodded or smiled. Most ignored us.
A pickup truck — a Ford, I think it was — screeched to a halt on the grass 50 feet away from me. A white man, about 40, erupted from the vehicle and ran up to me, yelling from the moment his feet touched ground. I was vaguely aware of my wife and others turning to watch.
“You people love whales more than babies!” the man continued. “Stay right there!”
He ran back to his truck. He’s got a gun, I thought. He’s going to shoot me.
I looked at the two white male uniformed police officers standing about 50 feet behind me. Seemingly bemused, they made no move. The man reemerged from his truck with a camera. He ran back, snapping photos of me and the other members of the team.
I managed my first words: “Why are you so angry?”
The man looked at me, his jaw working. At first, nothing came out. He actually sputtered.
“We’re not doing anything wrong,” I ventured further. “This is completely nonpartisan.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” the man said. He strode past me and up to the police officers, gesticulating, arguing. They said something, then shrugged. Deflated, the man joined the voting line, glaring my way now and again, talking to other voters. And, thankfully, that was that.
What had triggered this man?
I think of the white man who bumps into the black protagonist in the prologue to Ralph Ellison’s classic, Invisible Man. (“I am invisible,” he explains, “simply because people refuse to see me.”) The white man swears at the black one in the darkness. Enraged by the man’s refusal to apologize, the Invisible Man beats him badly.
Then it occurs to our unnamed protagonist that by refusing to accord him a modicum of respect, the white man had unwittingly evoked a phantom of his own imagining: “Something in this Man’s thick head had sprung out and beaten him within an inch of his life.”
What figment of that Columbus man’s imagination had become manifest when he saw me? Against the backdrop of a bruising and partisan election campaign, had my Election Protection tee-shirt been enough to set him off? Was it the “NAACP” that topped the list of organizational sponsors on the shirt itself, the one name large enough to be seen at a distance? What role had my black-maleness played?
Had this man’s response been spring-loaded by the media-borne warnings about Republican efforts to suppress the black vote in Columbus? Here, after all, was an assuredly Republican partisan who probably saw as much to fear and ridicule on the other side as many Democratic partisans saw on his.
In the usual sense of the word, this man and I were perfect strangers. Yet he was sure that he knew me perfectly well.
How had we come to that place?
WELL, THERE IT IS. THE STUPIDEST F*CKING THING I’LL READ ALL DAY.
Sensible, meet Whack; Whack, Sensible. The two of you have nothing in common. Discuss!
Melissa and I recently launched an online community called EmbraceRace. Our Facebook page is for people who want to become more thoughtful and informed about their practices as parents, teachers, mentors, and caring people in the lives of kids, with special attention to issues of race.
To that end, every day we post several articles we hope our community will find helpful.
On April 21st, a friend alerted me to a Washington Post article, published that day, entitled “My wife and I are white evangelicals. Here’s why we chose to give birth to black triplets.” The article featured a picture of the couple, Aaron and Rachel, smiling widely while holding their three brown-skinned newborns.
The young parents, missionaries in Honduras, already had an adopted 3 year-old black boy and an adopted 2 year-old biracial girl. They then acquired and successfully implanted two black embryos in Rachel, which she carried to term. One embryo split, and three babies entered the world.
I posted the article to the EmbraceRace page, with this introduction:
Oh my. [A friend of EmbraceRace] brings this article in today’s Washington Post to our attention and writes:
“I read this article and all I could think of is their five children, who, it appears from their manner of speaking, will be essentialized as ‘African American children’ and the objects of this couple’s white-savior complex for the rest of their lives.
“Hard to know where to start with this one. The ‘WTH’ [What the Hell] bell rings at every sentence. Just read it.”
Responses came fast. I then shared the piece to my personal Facebook page with this introduction:
Oh my goodness.
Courage of their convictions? Pathological ‘white saviorism’? Or, as someone just posted to the EmbraceRace page, “Whack jobs”?
Over the next few hours, friends and fans posted responses to the piece on both pages. One posted a photo of a middle-aged white man reading something, accompanied by a message:
WELL, THERE IT IS. THE STUPIDEST F*CKING THING I’LL READ ALL DAY.
Someone else wrote, “I agree, but let’s face it, there are worse whack jobs than these two. At least they don’t hate anyone!” To which a third friend responded, “Pretty sure they probably do hate plenty of people.”
The reactions weren’t monolithic, certainly. But you get the gist.
When I first cast my eye over that Washington Post piece, I was primed only for outrage, not for complexity. I suspect the same is true of many (not all) of my friends and acquaintances who reacted with such disdain. Such reflexive disdain, especially when it’s my own, is pretty squicky.
My self-induced squickening
Squicky — to make one feel sick or disgusted. My new favorite word. When I first saw the headline and picture, and skimmed the story, the article made me squicky. Then some of the comments that rolled in made me realize that the commenter might not have read the story, while others made it obvious that I had barely read it myself. So I reread it, and here’s what I understood.
A white, evangelical couple adopted a black boy and a biracial girl because they believed such kids are less likely to be adopted than white kids. True.
The couple chose to have embryos implanted because they believe life starts at conception and wanted to follow the logic of their beliefs rigorously. Most frozen embryos don’t become children, so they believed they were saving lives. They wanted black embryos because they wanted the youngest children to “racially match” their older siblings. Many adoptive parents make similar decisions.
Given their beliefs, why the condemnation? (I especially appreciate their initial decision to adopt.) Mind you, beliefs have consequences and I’m not indifferent to theirs. For example, I don’t believe life begins at conception, and wish Aaron and Rachel had adopted two or three living, breathing, no-doubt-about-it children instead. The “actual” black kids they didn’t adopt, or others like them, are now destined to bounce around the foster care system.
Then again, the article makes clear that Rachel wanted to experience pregnancy, which requires becoming pregnant. And whereas this couple did adopt two kids earlier, my wife and I chose to have biological children instead. I hope you like my glass house.
What all this has made clear to me, if it wasn’t already, is that, like many of us in these tightly-wound, intensely polarized times in the United States, I bristle with buttons wired to the emotional centers of my brain. Terms like “white evangelicals,” “embryos,” and “black babies” push those buttons. And when those buttons are pushed, fair to say I can become something less than the best version of myself.
My long-ago antagonist in Columbus might know what I’m talking about.
It now seems to me that Aaron and Rachel’s story isn’t black-and-white at all, but rich shades of gray. A good friend put it well in an email, “I don’t know how one even starts to unpack what’s understandable and what’s twisted and what’s well-intentioned and what’s freaky and what’s very generous and what’s whack about this whole story…’cause, it seems to me, there’s all that and more.”
When I first cast my eye over Aaron’s Post article, I was primed for moral and ethical clarity, not ambiguity; for outrage, not understanding. I suspect the same is true of many of my friends and acquaintances who reacted so dismissively.
And I must say that feeling such dismissiveness and reflexive disdain in myself is pretty… squicky.
Being the change I (we?) seek
A good friend of mine was a political theory professor in a former life. Sitting in his class on the first day of the semester, I heard him ask his students to assume that the classical Greek philosopher Plato, generally considered the foundational figure in western philosophy, was not a complete idiot.
Assume for a moment, he said, that this Plato guy had something important to tell us, and good reason to tell it the way he did. After the students had read him generously, and begun to discern the message Plato might have meant to share, only then, my friend recommended, should they begin to formulate a critique of that message.
I love this. Listen first, listen generously, then judge. Consider it a key thread in the ethical fabric we call the Golden Rule.
I continually fail to heed this advice. Whether I’m reading an op-ed by David Brooks in the New York Times, fussing with my wife or one of my girls, or wrangling with faceless strangers on a Los Angeles Rams message board.
The less I know someone personally, the more easily I can reduce them to the labels they embrace or the ones I assign them: Pro-lifer, Tea Party conservative, NRA member, feminist, progressive, social justice worker. From there it’s a quick step to descriptors like ignorant, irrational, hateful, whack job, dangerous, on one hand, or words like enlightened, decent, trustworthy, ally, on the other.
Mind you, struggles and passions associated with these terms are real, with serious consequences for millions, perhaps billions of people. Politically, for example, the struggle over the degree to which “the American people” will be guided by cynical appeals to fear and our most misogynistic, racist, transphobic, xenophobic selves is no joke.
As that wise old muppet, Yoda, once noted, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suf-fer-ing.” It already has.
My charge to myself isn’t to withdraw from struggle or pretend that battle lines don’t exist. Instead, it’s to treat those battle lines as porous, rather than impermeable, and the great majority of those I might righteously disagree with as prisoners of war, rather than soldiers.
Perhaps even as people with an important message to share.
If this piece struck a chord with you, please consider recommending it so others might discover it. Thank you.
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