Monday, March 24, 2008

Uncomfortable ruminations: A friend responds

A good friend read my recent ruminations and emailed me a thoughtful and perceptive reply, one that I felt was very much worth sharing with others. With his permission, and with small identifying details redacted, I post it here:


Don’t be so hard on yourself. Biases exist. How we handle them is what counts.

It’s one thing to accept a biased view of humankind, without question, and to act in accordance with those biases. It is quite another thing to be aware of unsubstantiated views or predispositions or beliefs – biases – that we actively and conscientiously seek to account for in our judgments so that reason and an absence of bias inform our actions and choices. The idea that one can be unbiased is as illusory as the notion that a journalist can be objective. Biases need to be acknowledged, either overtly when writing opinion columns, or internally, when acting as a citizen in society.

I think of myself as unprejudiced, that is, I would not let ethnic or racial or gender biases color my opinions or judgments about others. But that does not mean I have no stereotypes that inhabit my subconscious. It would be absurd to think that. I am a product of my times, my upbringing, my life experiences. Consider: If I were to delude myself into thinking I had purged biases from my psyche, does that mean I would be comfortable living in an inner city ghetto? (Indeed, isn’t my characterization of it as inner city and ghetto just biases?) I would no more be comfortable, at home, in the society of the inner city than I would be living amongst the Southies of Boston.

People are not all the same; they differ vastly in sophistication, social mores, education, interest in the arts, intelligence, sensitivity – the list can go on and on. I believe what we as enlightened citizens of the world owe to our fellow humans is an unconditional respect: I respect other people, I recognize their values (even when they are different than mine), and I grant them the absolute right to be different than I am and to believe differently than I do. But I have no obligation to adjust my convictions to meet theirs, nor do I have to accord their beliefs equal weight in my own thinking. I simply need to respect them, and tolerate the differences between us.

It is fashionable today to equate different cultures, i.e., cultural relativity. That’s nonsense. I respect the fact that the culture of others may be different, vastly so, from my own; and I strive to be tolerant of differences I can’t understand or that seem nonsensical. Again, I see it as a question of respect: every person, and his/her culture, if it’s different than mine, must have my respect for me to say with truth that I am not prejudiced. But all cultures are not equal. The culture of the Maori tribes is in no way of equal value to the great, long-developing cultures of Western society, of which I am a member.

Allah and Muslims may be a great god and a great culture, respectively. But can you imagine trying to live in a Muslim culture? I couldn’t! I’m different than they are, and I have absolutely no desire to submit myself to their cultural strictures. But – I have no desire to suppress, or outlaw, or restrict their cultures.

I think that, again, makes me unprejudiced. Unbiased? No. My biases here are plain: I think my culture is better than theirs. And, concomitantly, I’m sure Muslims think their culture is better than mine. That’s fine with me. That’s the way it should be.

The fact that certain biases stubbornly persist in your psyche, despite your discomfort that they are there, is not a surprise. Your biases, beliefs, values, were inculcated in you from a very early age, and produced the person you are, with the character and integrity that you possess. Your intelligence, and growth as an individual, allow you to identify what are unsubstantiated beliefs – but that doesn’t mean they fade away. It means you have the tools available to you to make sure you act rationally and in a modern, enlightened way, because you know how to reckon with your biases.

Curiously, in my Catholic school upbringing, I learned the phrase “the occasion of sin.” The definition of that term included “thinking” a thought that, if acted out, would be a sin. In other words, either committing a sin or thinking about a sinful act were the same: a sin. Bullshit! (Though it took me years of guilt to realize that was a cockeyed notion.) I love my wife, and am devoted to her. And if I pass a gorgeous woman on the street and the thought flickers through my mind what spending the night with her might be like, that is in no way unfaithful to my wife, nor does it mean my affection for my wife is a sham. It means I have chosen to be loyal to one woman, my wife, but the god-given nature of men to be attracted to females hasn’t ended just because I made the choice to restrict myself to my wife.

Biases are bad only when one either doesn’t recognize the bias and acts therefore in a biased way; or, recognizing the bias, fails to adjust his actions to effectively neutralize the effect of the bias.

We are imperfect beings. No manner of perfection is vouchsafed to us. How earnestly we seek to know our imperfections and then effectively deal with them is, I believe, the measure of our success as tolerant individuals.

I’m sure you don’t think [our mutual friend] was biased towards white people because she chose to move back to Hawaii, where she could be more comfortable. We humans are communal people; we need to belong to a community. You can’t “belong” to a community in which you are uncomfortable. Seeking “your own kind” is not a form of bias, but a recognition of the human condition.

In today’s America, it is a strong indicator of biases successfully overcome if you can happily vote for a black Presidential candidate or, if you are a man, a woman candidate. A truly biased person could not do that.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Curiously mutable numbers

One would think, by using Quicken for keeping a checking account, that errors would, if not vanish, be far likelier to recede to insignificance -- a transposed or typoed number here, a failure to record a transaction there; small disruptions to the smooth procession of orderly numbers. Despite such glitches, the self-kept record should accord well with the bank's figures as shown in monthly statements and realtime inquiries via either phone or Internet.

Ha, I say.

A few days ago I dribbled away almost an hour trying to reconcile the disparity between what my generated-by-Quicken records show, and what Citizens Bank insists is my current balance in my business account.

I failed miserably. No matter how I tweaked and checked, the disparity remained, and what's worse, the actual quantity of the error kept morphing depending on what adjustments I tried making to account for it.

Gah. Once upon a time, my personal checking account so utterly refused to be disentangled that I opened a new one and let the old one lie fallow (other than a monthly automatic withdrawal for health insurance) for a few months till I could make the adjusting entry to resolve the whole mess: "Bank says."

I sure hope that remedy won't be necessary this time.

Some uncomfortable ruminations

I watched Obama's televised speech on race and racism in America, and afterwards did some soul-searching: an uncomfortable and at times discomforting process, which is, no doubt, why I tend to avoid it. Socrates may have asserted that the unexamined life is not worth living, but did he ever spend the wee hours pondering the uglier aspects of his life and preferring to pull the covers over his head?

Obviously, I'm not the only person moved to such reflections by the speech. On a message board I frequent, a member invited others to post their experiences: "
I'd really like to see a thread where people just try to understand the racial dynamics and baggage that each person in America carries. Disparities in opportunity. Disparities in treatment. Unequal histories. Fears, hopes, hurts, and aspirations. I'd like to see us lay out our own racial baggage."

I struggled with whether to respond. However much I may babble on publicly about superficial things, I rarely let out my inner demons for a run where others can see them. But I found myself compelled to air out what's been running through my mind ever since the speech, what's in fact been bubbling away inside for quite a while. So, as disquieting as it is for me to reveal so much of myself, here is what I wrote:
I was born in 1949 and grew up in a mostly middle class white suburb north of Boston. There may have been a black family or two in the town, but black people were pretty much an abstraction until I went to college. My family and their friends never made racist statements, that I can remember; they didn't demonstrate anger and alarm at the civil rights movement of King's time; heck, I have a vague memory of participating in some racial justice and harmony march in Boston, as a teenager.

And I was in the company of Negroes (the polite term then) for the first time in my life, and I didn't know how to talk to them, how to even look at them (being naturally shy didn't help). I departed from that experience no closer to any understanding of those people than I'd had before.

Those people. That's what black folks were to me. Beings so different from me that I couldn't see past the abstraction to the real people. Oh, I had imbibed the tenets of civil rights, even though my parents were lower middle class Republicans -- Republicans of that ancient strain that flourished when fiscal conservatism and belief in a strong defense hadn't been hijacked into a patriotic cover for extreme social-issues fanaticism and empire-building. The Congregational church I grew up attending was socially conscious and taught it from the pulpit. I believed in equality and justice and the American Dream for all -- but I never had to confront the reality of their application to those people.

In college I met blacks and got to know them as individuals, as real people, for the first time. I tried hard to comprehend what small glimpses they granted me of the black experience. Can't pretend that I did very well at it, but still, it built bridges for me, for my appreciation of folks whose differences, sometimes vast differences from me did not belie the underlying fact of our mutual humanity.

And yet, deeply rooted in my mind, ineradicable to this day, from childhood on were and are a whole host of ugly racist stereotypes. Where the hell did they come from? How did they get in there and why can't I cleanse my mind of them?

Where did they come from? From the society I grew up in, of course, a childhood time and place where blacks on professional sports teams were still a novelty; where the faces on television were all white, all the time; where assumptions of white superiority were so deep-rooted that they didn't have to be declared or debated -- that's just the way it was.

Now, I don't concede any validity to these stereotypes -- in my conscious word, deed, or thought. Over the decades since college I've tried my damnedest to live up to the liberty and justice for all ideal. I've rejoiced at the rolling back of prejudice and constricted opportunity in so many ways.

But the ugly thoughts are still there. Beaten back, beaten down, beaten into a low dull intermittent muttering -- they refuse to die. I've become resigned, at age 59, to the fact that, shameful as it is, difficult as it is to admit, I've got some racism in me that I can't scour out; the best I can do is shut the closet door, ignore the tiny hammering on it, and live my life according to the ideals I want to believe are the real me.

And that, my friends, is the racism of one Northeastern white liberal. Whether I like it or not.
As the conversation continued, this memory worked its way to the surface:
[A previous post] reminds me of a woman I knew some 15 years ago, a decade or so younger than me. She was of white and Japanese parentage, with a Japanese surname, and simply gorgeous, as a person as well as in her looks. She had two young sons by a black father. They were also lovely, lovely little young men -- physically, yes, but also in demeanor because my friend worked her butt off to raise them well despite being a single mother holding down a full-time, demanding job.

She was living in a close-in suburb of Boston when I knew her, but within a couple of years of our meeting she told me she was moving to Hawaii. "It's because," she said, "well, because....."

"Because you want to live where you and your kids look like everyone else," I interjected.

"Yes! Yes, that's exactly it!"

And we had a discussion of how hard it was for her to live among people who couldn't matter-of-factly accept her and her children because they didn't fit into the mold of their milieu.

I've been thinking about her a lot lately.
So there it is -- the confused muddle of a "typical white person" who really, really does want to be true to her ideals but must confront the fact that their foundations rest upon muck as well as granite.