Friday, June 28, 2019

Your Feelings, Whitesplained

Tom and Sally had only been dating a few weeks when he offered her part of his Mounds bar. She looked at him and then it, wrinkling her nose. "No thanks, I don't like coconut."

"You don't like coconut?!" Tom exclaimed, looking more shocked than would have seemed likely for so trivial a topic. "How can you not like coconut? It's so good!"

"I don't know, I just don't like the flavor of coconut, or the texture of it in food," she replied, attempting to brush it off.

"No, but that doesn't make any sense. Everyone in my family loves coconut. Did you eat something made with coconut that made you sick? Maybe you have a negative association with it that has nothing to do with the coconut itself."

"Nothing like that," Sally was becoming visibly annoyed, "I just don't like the flavor or texture. Sometimes people just don't like things."

"That can't happen with coconut," Tom insisted, "everyone has to like coconut. Maybe it's been so long since you tried it that you can't remember. Here, have a piece."

Sally pushed his hand with a bit of the candy bar away, looked Tom in the eyes, and said, "Tom, drop it. I know very well what coconut tastes like. I don't like it, and I don't want it. I won't want it at any point in the future."

Tom chuckled, seeming genuinely amused. "Oh Sally, now you sound like that guy in 'Green Eggs and Ham,' and you know that in the end he liked green eggs and ham. Why not go ahead and try a piece of this candy bar, and admit you like it?"

Sally walked away, telling Tom not to follow. When she didn't come back he got on his phone to message her, and discovered he was blocked on all her social media accounts, and his phone calls all went to voicemail. So ended a weeks-long love affair, over coconut.

But really, it wasn't over coconut. It was over a young man's inability to understand that other people perceive and experience the world differently from himself. Through experience and biology people are shaped to prefer some things and avoid others. Attempting to convince someone that they should feel a certain way about something with which they are already familiar is an exercise in futility.

Perhaps it seems a bit like comparing coconuts to car doors, but something similar happens when straight, white people tell lgbtq+, indigenous, immigrant, and people of color how they should feel about being told their experience of living in a culture of white supremacy isn't real, or that it is but they should have thicker skin. As a friend and coworker who is black and a lesbian recently said to me, "if we didn't have thick skins, we wouldn't survive."

Time and again at UUA General Assembly in Spokane I heard people talking about being harmed by the publication and distribution of a book that accused them of being 'coddled' and too 'politically correct,' only to have a white man tell them that they only felt harmed because they'd decided to feel harmed. If they chose not to feel harmed by it, and only thought rationally, no harm would be done. He seemed entirely oblivious to their stunned expressions at being told to be more rational, and gave no indication that he was capable of understanding what they were saying.

It's possible I know where this is coming from. Stoicism as a philosophy has been popular in recent years, and this includes among Humanists. I'll gladly admit that I myself have relied on Stoic principles to get me through some difficult times, and refer to Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations' fairly often. Seneca's work is also profoundly insightful and entertaining, in my opinion. It's among these writings that we find such wisdom evidently being weaponized against anyone who expresses pain at being treated as less-than.

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

In the Stoic way of thinking, a person doesn't need to suppress all emotion. Rather, we need to sort out what we have control over (very little) and focus on that. I can't control what anyone thinks or says about me, but I can control to some extent how I behave and react. I can't keep it from raining, but I can bring an umbrella. If someone fails to invite me to their party, I can be content knowing that I won't wake up with a hangover, and will have some extra time to do other things. There is a great more depth to it than this, but for this essay that will have to do. My point is that it's a philosophy that many find useful, including myself. However, it is not the be-all-end-all of human thought, is not necessarily for everyone, and doesn't cover all circumstances.

The autonomic stress response cannot be controlled through philosophy. In a situation the brain reads as fight-or-flight, the body prepares for either option. Adrenaline and blood pressure spike in response to stressful circumstances. For all my Stoic practice, this response happened naturally to me at General Assembly this year as I attempted to rein in the glowing comments from others about a book to people who were clearly targeted by it and hurting. Through the practice I have chosen I was able to maintain some perspective and not either flee the exhibition hall or beat anyone over the head with a chair (I'm such a hero...where's my parade?). If that is how I felt, I can only begin to imagine how people felt who have been struggling so hard to obtain a place at the table within Unitarian Universalism without denying who they are.

As a relative newcomer to Unitarian Universalism, some who know me were surprised when I got a chalice tattoo on my left wrist during a trip to Amsterdam. One person in particular commented that I was making quite a commitment. Before I got the tattoo I thought long and hard about what I wanted for the future and how I felt about where I am right now. I decided that I'm sticking with this religious tradition, come thick or thin, and would have to be knocked down and dragged from it to get me away. That 'commitment' is thin and shallow in comparison to the grit that lgbtq+, indigenous, immigrant, and people of color within Unitarian Universalism have had to demonstrate over the past few decades, in the face of patriarchy, white supremacy, homophobia, and transphobia.

Black and brown folx are passed up for job openings and promotions, and their complaints of discrimination at the local and denominational level too often go unheeded. Women now outnumber men in ordained UU ministry, though they still have to deal with implicit sexism that comes with longstanding patriarchal modes of thought and practice. Many UU congregations have done the hard work to become open and affirming, and yet others still remain unwilling to do this work, because 'of course' they welcome everyone. What they don't understand is that it's more than letting people in the door and behind the pulpit. It's about fully including them, and not engaging in microaggressions that push them away. This takes careful thought and definitive action.

To the forgoing paragraph some white progressives will say that it's all an exaggeration. Such a problem doesn't exist, at least not at any scale worth noting. We're told that this is the case by the people who have to live with it daily, but those people are not believed by their fellow UUs who are white. According to the latter, the former are being too emotional, irrational, and at times even hysterical. Therein lies the problem. Whitesplaining doesn't improve how people feel, and it doesn't make the realities that create such harm any less harmful. Rather, it makes matters worse. In the face of this, it's incredible that anyone who isn't straight and white hangs on in Unitarian Universalism. It must mean that there truly is something of value in this group's history and theology that people want for themselves, even though the culture of the association is hostile toward them.

For there to be room for everyone at the table, no one needs to leave. We just need to build a bigger table, with more respect for others and no more telling others how to feel about being told their non-Western table manners aren't appropriate. Also, I'll be glad to pass along the coconut cream pie, as it really isn't my thing, and I'll certainly be happy to see someone else enjoying it.



Resources:

Meditations
Aurelius et al. - Penguin Classics - 2014

Understanding the Stress Response
Harvard Health Publishing - https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response