Lately, I’ve been considering the term “white fragility.” I looked it up. My understanding is that many white people are hypersensitive about being accused of being racist, even though we are by default. We unconsciously use our outrage over being named racist as a method of bullying so that people of other-than-white races can’t express their real concerns around us. I feel that.
I think about my next-door neighbors. I live in a community that is 85% Hispanic. I think my neighbors are from Mexico, but I’m afraid to ask. I’m afraid of the look on Alejandro’s face, when he perceives that I may name him unwelcome or judge him because of his heritage. This is my fragility. Friendliness and curiosity stall because of an assumed, quite possibly unfounded prediction.
When I first discovered this tendency, I thought maybe I should just grow some fallopian tubes and ask him anyway. “Just be curious, Bon,” I said. “Be willing to bear the sting of his possible doubt regarding your intentions.” But I continued to hesitate; until I came up with a better way….
My church teases me because just about every sermon ends with “do small acts of kindness.” (Inspired by ServiceSpace). To me, it’s an antidote for everything. The complexities of my relationship with Alejandro and his family are dissolving through applied mutual goodwill.
I believe our differences are more about lifestyle than race. Alejandro has a wife, a mother, and five children all living in the house. Two of the children have trumpets. The youngest kids are two-year-old twin boys and they bang on everything like it’s a drum. I don’t think it’s racist to say that they enjoy a high level of what I might call “noise.”
Then there are the Mariachi parties. The family has an extensive network of friends and relatives. They come over frequently and enjoy loud music well into the night, often when I’m working at home.
Yet, I kind of love these folks. Getting there was a process.
It began with wondering, “Is my discomfort just about the noise, or does it have to do with race? Or is it culture? Do certain cultures enjoy louder volumes than others? Whose job is it to be the volume-police? Who decides what is too much? And by the way, where do my dogs barking at an owl at 2:00 am fit into the too-much-noise-scenario?”
So I sat with those questions; and gradually turned the Mariachi parties into Mariachi meditations.
This led to a sincere desire to connect through kindness. I gave the family a gift, something that we no longer needed. Alejandro gave me some dog products that were mistakenly delivered to his house. When graduation time came, and his middle school daughter couldn’t have a “real” ceremony I left a stealth gift for her. I also made them the whitest-Mexican-food-ever for her graduation-Mariachi-party. It was embarrassingly awful, but they graciously accepted it and invited us to their party. When we declined because of social distancing issues, they brought us tacos.
A couple of days later, the daughter came over again with a bag of avocados. “My father works in the avocado orchards,” she said. “We wanted you to have these.”
So that’s how it works. I didn’t set out to cure racism. I just found a way to be kind. My neighbors leapt at the opportunity to reciprocate.
Kindness is powerful. We learn about the perceived other in subtle, indirect ways. This connects us. As we learn, we start to appreciate. I know this because now, every time I eat an avocado, I think of my friend Alejandro, who sacrifices so that we may enjoy the blessings of his labors. This is priceless. If it’s not a cure, at the very least it’s pure.