Thursday, March 22, 2012

Gone But Not Forgotten

A friend of mine recently posted a photo to Facebook that really caught my attention and inspired this post.

Photo credit:  Jeff Beaurline (here)

And I was floored (in a very good way) by the love expressed for those who sacrifice themselves.  And I have been thinking of that a lot lately.  Thank you to those who sacrifice in our military.  Thank you to your families.

But the timing also had me thinking of something else, the death of another friend in another kind of war.

A dozen years ago this month, my former coworker, Mr. Joe (Joseph Healy), was shot in the head while drinking coffee in a McDonald's in one of the very neighborhoods he tried to help.

Mr. Joe was a former priest turned storyteller.  He was imperfect as we all are, but he was beautiful with his soft white hair, long thin frame, eagle eyes, and perfect voice.  But what was loveliest of all was that he listened.

You see, Mr. Joe was fighting a war for our children.  Sure, much was made of his work in underprivileged areas, but to say that working with the underprivileged killed him is to miss the whole point of his life.  Mr. Joe was about changing the way we see the world, about listening to new things, about speaking in new ways, about using the constraints we are given to free ourselves instead of using them to bind others.

Yes, he was killed because he was a white man who happened to be eating in a McDonald's next to the apartment building of one particular mentally-unstable African-American man who happened to think that all white men were out to harm him that day.  In fact, I do not doubt that this man had apt reason for believing that some white men were out to harm him.  He was being threatened with losing his home, and he thought he was losing it to whites (I'm not sure if he was or not).  That might make me a little leery of white men.  No, it's not a reason for firing at Mr. Joe in particular or even at whites in general.  But it is reason to be resentful.  And we shouldn't need a physical wake up call to make us care about resentment and solving it.  And it goes both ways.  Ten days later, a white man went on a shooting spree in Pittsburgh and shot people of other races.

At some point, we can't ignore the resentment.  At some point these incidents become foreseeable.  And, being foreseeable, they become, in part, possibly preventable.

And that's exactly the type of thing Mr. Joe was working at changing.  He was working at thinking of more, perceiving more.  Helping each child--privileged and underprivileged--to consider the thoughts and feelings of the other and to fathom the possibility of a different world.  

I have recently given this "war" a lot of thought.

You see, I try to watch what's going on with my kids.  There are days when I am not nearly as involved as I ought to be.  But recently, Daddy bought some much-cherished, sharable Skylanders--video game figures.  So I have been paying much more attention to how they are playing.  First, I noticed what I always notice--one child dominates.  But pretty soon, I noticed that even though the kids were changing who played (if not exactly taking turns), two children never got a turn.  And it turned out that both of these boys are African-American. 

Is there a disparity?  Absolutely.

Were they discriminated against?  I'm not certain.

You see, only one child was white.  My children are part Asian, and the other has a hispanic mother and, I believe, an African-American father (I haven't actually met him).  The other children got turns, but mainly because they complained loudly and resorted to taking the controllers away if they weren't handed over quickly enough.

The other two children simply hadn't asked to play.  They hadn't even asked.  My heart broke because the oldest one is eight, and the little one just turned six.  That means that somehow, in less than a decade in a fairly affluent suburb, they had learned that their needs were cared about so little that they were not even worth mentioning or fighting for. 

We have a very strict sharing policy now.  I set the timer the instant the kids come in.  Everybody gets a turn.  If I catch not sharing, we have video-game-free days.  I don't know how to counteract what I see.  I can teach my children to stand up for what I believe is fair.  But is it enough?  Do I really know what fair looks like?

I just don't know.  We have had a series of incidents on the bus over a long period of time.  They have been caused by all kinds of different issues--special needs, learning disabilities, and the normal changes and misperceptions of growing up.  But I've noticed a distinct difference in how they are handled depending on the race of the victims and the race of the aggressors. 

Is it a disparity?  Yes. 

Is it intentional?  I'm not sure.  And there are lots of reasons why, but I'm not going to go into them now.

The question I want to ask is that at the point that you see it happen again and again, even if you don't have malicious intent on your part, isn't it a sin of omission to let it continue, to not try to do anything different?  We might not have the answer, but maybe we need to start asking other questions or trying some answers even if they turn out to be wrong because at least then we might eliminate something?  Although, to be honest, I haven't had a direct direct conversation about this with my other-raced neighbors.  I have only had indirect conversations along the lines of "I noticed my son wasn't giving your son a turn.  I am all over my son about this, but please reassure your son that he can come to me if I miss something and I will take care of it."  What I didn't say was "Why is it that these two beautiful African-American children feel uncomfortable speaking up for themselves and what can I do to help change that?"

And maybe it's time that I did.

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