On Seeing Clearly. And Shooting Straight. (Or “Why I am a Sexist, Even Though I Don’t Want to Be”)
I didn’t date a lot in high school. I was in a couple of great youth groups that taught the difference between dating and courtship. And, honesty, the trauma of my own parents’ divorce probably made me hesitant, too. So I committed my life to Jesus, and didn’t really…date.
Until the summer after I graduated high school.
My best friend, at the time, was a truly amazing, gifted, humble, kind, positive young man named Peter. He happened to be Hispanic; I hadn’t noticed. We shared together, for years, in a ministry team at a Christian camp, (and during the school year, church) kitchen. We had SO MUCH FUN. I can remember rolling down giant hills of grass, only to rush in just in time from our breaks and greet a suspicious supervisor with innocent smiles. I remember water fights while cleaning the bathrooms. Flipping canoes on purpose, just to give the lifeguards something to do.
Camp is a great place to go. And serve. And meet lifelong friends.
And, that last summer of our high school years, “Pete” asked me to go steady. For the summer.
So we did.
And it was a little awkward. And sweet.
I decided to go to an intensive Bible school, next door to the camp, before college.
And I would come out from all-day ministry curriculum to find a bag of warm cookies from the camp kitchen tied to the antenna of my Volkswagen bug.
I dearly loved this boy, but I wasn’t in love with him.
So, at the end of the summer, we headed off to different universities.
And I “broke up” with him.
And in doing so, I lost a friend. One of the regrets in my life.
But on its heels, I had another shock.
My estranged Dad, picking me up at camp for one of our frequent, though awkward, visits, dropped a bombshell on me.
“I’m so glad you broke up with that Mexican boy.”
What? Did I hear that right?
My open-minded, Spanish-speaking father, who never met a stranger?
The man who took me to Puerto Rico for part of my childhood, and raised me in two cultures?
He must have seen the shock on my face, and shrugged his shoulders sheepishly.
And, while I rarely confronted by Dad, because of the precarious nature of our relationship, I was incensed for my friend. And I said,
“Dad, I didn’t know you were prejudiced.”
And what he said next both disappointed and impressed me.
He said, “I am. I don’t think I can help it. It’s part of how and where I was raised.
But, Karen, I didn’t raise you to be.”
I had to give it to him. At eighteen years old, and close with my father, this was the first inkling I ever had of it.
And, while I could be (and was) disappointed that he didn’t work on himself, I was impressed that he wanted something better for the next generation.
So I have watched myself, over the course of my life. I am now about ten years older than he was the day he dropped that bombshell. And he has gone to his heavenly reward.
And I have to admit that I am a sexist.
Oh, I don’t want to be.
And that I’m probably a racist. (God, I hope not). Thought I actively work not to be.
Because prejudice, in this day and time, isn’t something obvious.
Prejudice, and its brother, discrimination, are very, very subtle.
My father told me a story once.
He and my mother got married while he was working in another state. Michigan. And every time he called for an apartment, it was “already rented.”He was so confused.nd a co-worker told him, “Jim, you have a deep voice. And a very southern accent. The landlords think you’re black. I bet if you go in person, they will rent to you.”
The first apartment he visited in person was available. Because he was white.
And when he would tell the story, I could tell that he was not OK with that. Even in the 60’s.
When I was in school, in the 70’s and 80’s, we were taught that prejudice and sexism had been conquered. That they were gone. The Civil Rights movement had triumphed, and opportunity was now equal for all. And my (few) black friends in our upper-middle-class suburb seemed to prove that this was true. And I didn’t believe in the glass ceiling. (Until I later hit my head on it 3 times, but that’s another story).
So I went off to college. A white one. But I didn’t realize that. The “black school,” PrairieView A&M, was a few miles down the road in another town. Oh, we had diversity. Just not much.
But, as I began to study education, I was challenged by my professors. To explore my own behavior. Did I cringe when a casually dressed black male got on the elevator with me? Hmm.
We videotaped ourselves teaching. And we had to count the number and type of questions we asked different students. And look for patterns of prejudice. Do you ask more math questions to boys? More complex questions to white students? It was eye-opening. Because these behaviors are so deep in the unconscious that we really don’t mean to be prejudiced. We just are. All of us. About somebody.
I have an amazing daughter. She is the athlete I don’t think I ever could be. A genius at math. And science. And a fiercely defensive personality. An ideal sweeper, or defender. And, one day, in an elite teen soccer training, I overheard her coach talking to a team dad. “You know, girls don’t have the spatial reasoning guys do. You have to coach them differently. They just can’t read the field.”
I was too shocked to say a word. I am not a stage mom. Not a helicopter parent. But it troubled me that this young man believed that. Because, if he didn’t believe they could do it, he would never teach them to do it. Self-fulfilling prophecy, because then they…wouldn’t be able to do it.
And I once made a perfect score on a national achievement test–in spatial reasoning. As a 16-year-old girl. And her father is an engineer. And Barbara was, actually, excellent at reading the field. So I screwed up my courage and walked over to this precious young coach.
“Coach, did you say that girls can’t read the field?”
“That’s right,” he said. “They just don’t have the spatial reasoning.” This was in the 21st century.
I looked him, gently but firmly, in the eyes.
The words hung in the air.
To his credit, he thought about it.
And then he said, “You know, she can. I hadn’t thought about it before. But she’s the exception.”
And maybe she was.
But I don’t know if she was the exception because her parents are both excellent spatial reasoners, or because she was raised to believe she could be. The lines get blurry.
But it was my oldest daughter who busted through my own prejudices.
You see, there are things you don’t know about yourself.
I didn’t know I had a temper…until I got married.
I didn’t know I could be prone to anxiety…until I became a mother.
And I didn’t know I was sexist. Until I had a little girl.
Joanna, or “Joey,” wasn’t an extrovert. She was happier in her bassinet than she was snuggling with me. And that rocked my world. Not in a good way.
She is beautiful, articulate and kind. But she wasn’t the type to dress in pink and make polite conversation over tea.
And I had to confront my own ideas of what a girl should be.
Funny how I never had to do that with my sons. I didn’t have as many preconceived ideas where they were concerned. It didn’t occur to me that that was sexism. But it was.
My amazing, beautiful, communicative Joanna now works for Google. As an engineer.
Because we learned how to let her…be her.
The way God made her.
And I had to learn, before I unintentionally harmed her, to confront and release my prejudiced expectations.
And so it was, that when I came to medical school, I came to Parkland Hospital.
And learned that, while black lives definitely matter, they were very different from the life I had lived. I saw people treated with unbelievable rudeness, discourtesy, and even disregard.
By white male doctors. Who were “too tired to be nice” that day.
I once saw a surgery resident cancel a clinic. Because he felt like it.
And I had to look in the eyes of a Hispanic grandmother that had been waiting for him, in a hard plastic chair, for six hours. Really.
Carrying it forward, when I entered residency, I asked to be placed in the clinic no one wanted.
In the “black” neighborhood.
And I learned more than I ever imagined I would. Policy matters.
Welfare is a trap.
And people can’t help being black. Duh. And they’re aren’t always at fault for being poor.
Or even pregnant. (I could tell you stories…)
Poverty is a killer. And it affects people of color disproportionately.
I don’t know why.
But I’m not sure it’s all their fault.
But the biggest lesson I learned in trying to learn how to communicate to urban black people in a lower income neighborhood…was that they weren’t as different from me as I thought. All they asked for was honesty, and a little respect. What works in the suburbs…works in the ‘hood. We are all people.
I could tell you so many stories, over the course of my medical career.
About speaking truth to power.
About losing jobs and committee assignments for pointing out that our policies were uneven toward men and women, whites and minorities.
But the story I want to tell gives me hope.
My oldest son is a West Point grad. (I like to mention that).
And, when he got there, one of the first things they learned was to respect diversity.
And manage their own prejudices.
Once, while he was home on leave, I took him to see the race-themed movie, The Help.
And I warned him it would make him angry.
But in the first fifteen minutes, when a white suburban housewife begins to go on about “darkies” needing separate toilets because they have “different diseases,” he came out of his chair.
His fist were doubled.
His jaw was clenched.
His body was taut.
And I had to remind him to sit down.
And finish the movie, because, really, it gets better.
And he did. And it did.
And I realized something.
He was way ahead in his understanding of racial injustice than I had been, at his age.
And, I think, that unintentionally I have done what my father did.
Raised my children to be better people, and less prejudiced, than I was. Am.
Jesus, help us.
In The Help a dark-skinned nanny helps a little white girl overcome low self-esteem.
Because she isn’t as pretty and social as her mother wanted; not what she thought a little girl should be.
“You is smart. You is kind. You is important,” she repeats with her, over and over.
And it’s true.
But I want to leave you with a powerful thought from a much more traditional female heroine.
Incredibly, my favorite advice for dealing with racism, sexism, and other discrimination, comes from…Cinderella. Sigh.
(The live-action version).
Where her dying mother’s advice is, “Have courage. And be kind.”
Have courage. Sometimes you have to point out discriminatory patterns.
And be kind. Because the people you’re confronting…Probably. Don’t. Know. They’re . Prejudiced. And they will be defensive. And hurt.
It is a great formula for promoting social justice. Confronting, gently, while loving.
Speaking the truth in love. Educating. Raising awareness.
Another famous mother once gave great advice, to a son.
Proverbs 31:1 The sayings of King Lemuel contain this message, which his mother taught him……
Proverbs 31:8-9 Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice.
The Bible isn’t liberal. Or conservative.
It’s just true.
And we are charged to bring justice for those who have no voice.
If we have any voice at all.
And the first place to confront prejudice, of any sort, is with ourselves.