Today I reached a turning point in my life, and came to a place people think I've always been. To be able to explain where I am, I will have to confess to the reasons for my late arrival. We'll get to that.
I will be 50 next year, and those of you who are my age or older might understand this no-more-bullshit phase of life. So I'm going to tell you a story.
A few weeks ago my husband and I were invited to a neighborhood Mexican-themed party by a lovely couple around the corner who wanted to bring together some people who have lived here for a while and some newcomers, like ourselves. It was one of those parties that sort of sounds fun and sort of makes you cringe, mostly because you don't know who else will be there and what crazy outfits they'll be wearing or if, God forbid, middle-aged people will be donning sombreros. Mostly, we were happy to go and make new acquaintances and start putting down roots in a new town and a new life.
Everything was fine and there were not too many maracas. There was no pig turning on a spit and no one was drunk yet on margaritas and although I was not blinged out like some of the other women there, I seemed to fit in okay in my white sundress. I got a glass of sangria and sat down under a market umbrella at a table with some other women to make small talk. The small talk I joined was about how, very soon, there would be no more blonde-haired, blue-eyed people who looked like the woman verbalizing this concern, and I, with my brown hair and hazel-colored eyes, listened silently. After all, there might have been more alcohol in my drink than I thought, and this might not really be happening.
But it was. And it went on. And it got worse. And the racism got woven into talk of money and fancy sailboats and designer clothes and "the right kind of people" and that's all I can remember. I, new to the neighborhood, a guest at someone's home, did not want to make waves, and so I kept the tsunami of anger inside myself and forced a small smile, nodded politely, and muttered some niceties, you know, to keep the dust down. By all appearances I probably looked like someone who was having a fine time at a suburban house party with nachos and guacamole dip. I was this close to speaking my mind, this close to getting up and leaving. I did neither. And later, while walking home, I told my husband this story and I felt embarrassed by my own behavior, furious that I'd let an incident of racism masquerading as republicanism go by unchallenged. There is way too much of that these days.
My shame gets worse. I told the story to my 20-year-old daughter and she was visibly disappointed in me. I was supposed to be a good role model who never avoided personal responsibility when it came to social justice. She challenged me, pointedly, on why I did not take a stand this time against bigotry when it was right in front of me. I explained to her that it would have been awkward and rude and damaging to cause a disruption at a party where her step-dad and I were special guests, new to the neighborhood and just beginning to get to know people. It is all quite simple when properly understood. Isn't it? My daughter looked at me with her dark, sad eyes. I had let her down when I let myself down.
I believe in the Law of Perverse Outcomes: You may not get what you expect, but you will get what you deserve. I am not by nature a bystander. Bystanders are participants in oppression, and I know that well. I owed my daughter and myself a higher morality than convenient social etiquette.
It is truly sickmaking when people abandon their filters because they assume you are under their tent. It is even more soul-obliterating when you appear to prove them right. Never again, no matter what. Think about how much better the world would be if people spoke up every single time they heard the voice of prejudice.
I have been carrying this guilt for weeks, looking for a way to unpack it or a place to store it and finding none. But today I read an article by Joanna Shroeder, an editor at The Good Men Project, about Minnesota Vikings' punter Chris Kluwe's open letter to the Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. about supporting same-sex marriage. His letter went viral. And it is not polite. Kluwe is apparently tired of being polite when it comes to people trying to strip gay people's rights.
Ms. Shroeder begins her article with:
You're at a party, maybe it's a barbecue. Maybe people from your church or your place of employment are in attendance. Maybe it's your high school reunion, or your yearly fraternity reunion. Whatever it is, you're there and someone says something along the lines of, "I don't hate gays, I just think homosexuality is a sin."
Or maybe they say, "I think gay people should have every right to be gay, but I don't think they should be able to marry. Marriage is for one man and one woman. We can't go changing that now." And you pause. You look at your buddy and you think to yourself, You're totally wrong, dude, and I had no idea you were a closed-minded bigot!
Then you go through the internal debate that we've all experienced dozens of times when we feel our basic moral beliefs are being challenged. Should I, or should I not say something to this person? I don't want to upset them or cause a problem ...
Our hesitance to challenge another often comes from a good place -- a place of consideration for those around us who probably don't want to hear a big political debate. We all probably notice a few beads of sweat on our upper lip when someone in a casual setting challenges another's political or ethical stance. And we don't want to do that to the people around us...We don't want people to feel uncomfortable, right?
I read these paragraphs and saw myself so completely revealed by them. And that was when I committed, out loud to my husband and to myself, that never again will I place my integrity behind my desire to "not cause a problem." If millions of people, from common racists at parties to misogynists with household names like Rush Limbaugh, can spew their garbage all across this country with righteousness and impunity, then I can state clearly and unequivocally that no, I do not tolerate hate, and no, I will not be quiet about it... not even at parties, not even around friends and family, because... because there is no better recipe for collectively undermining human rights, and I won't be part of that. And I will be the change I want to see in the world. Always. Because this world has simply got to move forward.
I suppose I may be in for more difficult social exchanges than I already have in this arena. That's ok. I'm almost 50, and I am so past the bullshit.