I wrote my first draft of this post today:
Hi all on this Diversity site, it is good to have places where people are gathering voices and comments. While I do not think that “talk” alone solves longstanding issues – talk that informs each other across our various perceptions and life experiences, can only add information after we have grow up for so long, sheltered from one another in different enclaves. The “solution” of “privacy” has fostered an overly rigid use of barriers and walls to stay with like-minded people – we now emerge thank goodness, into better views of each other, and all of us have much more to learn than we realized.
I’m white, Canadian immigrant,now in early 70s, I drove a bus in Boston Desegregation from 1976 to 1985. My new exposure as I was immersed in African American culture, was enacted very well by the children I drove. The customs impressed me so much, I’ve spent the rest of my life following, studying, learning, being immersed.
One contrast I will make, that is culturally relevant to the dissension today: the contrast between Irish expectations of what “order” looks like, compared to African.
Confusion over same words but different concepts even at this day and age, is not surprising – for if people never speak up and talk, they are not corrected, nobody learns. The same words imply different loyalties and concepts to different people based on experiences.
Growing a small Irish girl, I was terrified to ever speak up. I learned the code, sit in silence and let the charming men or the nuns or a very few bolder girls, do the leading. If I did speak up, I was often mocked, by others, led by guys, who were not all malicious – but they thought that cracking jokes about inexperienced self expression, was fair game in groups.
On the outside, I looked competent, optional ties to higher class, I cracked jokes myself. I was good in business. But on the inside I had grown up with two disabled siblings, in a struggling home where charming older brothers were favored and given the role of helping an overwhelmed, often crying mother.
Irish culture does not have a history of having men and women collaborate and work together. Raising children was not seen as parents’ shared job, but the role of decision making about moral behavior was left to the distant Catholic Church – a player among other players to southern hemisphere neighbors, but across years and miles of distance and climate and culture, the church was disempowering (at best) to Irish women – left alone taking care of many children alone in homes insulated from others and community, as well as from the cold weather.
The Irish who made money in construction in Montreal, found themselves able to “pass” as British, since they were the same color, shared some history and all spoke English.
But the Irish customs of charm and energy, “winging it” were also legendary, and in my family at least, no parents had gone to university. So my upbringing of silence and lack of university preparation, and habits of “winging it”, left me often bypassed, and I eventually dropped out.
I have learned in my adult travels, cultures may call ourselves American, but we organize our home and address conflicts, often teach our young – in ways that retain old values – we retain them out of a loyalty, among other reasons, especially if isolated from other groups.
When I met a Black Gospel Choir on one of my bus routes, I attended practice sessions at their invitation. One day found myself crying uncontrollably, as I listened to the new tryouts for solo roles in upcoming hymns.
With my limited but positive exposure to African based music, enjoyed even in Canada as I grew up, I expected the Black college girls who wanted to try – I expected them to sing like potential Aretha Franklins.
But instead, I heard the shaky voice of a new tryout, her tone cracking as she tried to raise her voice, shakily hampered by her nervousness, But then the response which brought my tears: the response of Black young women around her: “S’all right. Take your time… ‘s all right.”
This was the opposite from the reactions I had heard in my own life and that I heard with sadness at times on other uses when I drove Irish kids. In that setting, if a female tried to sing but was not quite experienced, her voice cracking was met with: “Shaddup!! You can’t sing! Sit down! Go back to the drawing board.”
I watched this happen from my drivers seat, and watched the end of music confidence, resulting on only songs of 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall – being sanctioned to share. And that’s a hard one to take, on a bus ride, as we get down past 77 bottles of beer on the wall…. etc.
This time, in the Gospel Choir practice, I heard something different. It wasn’t silence, I’ve heard that too. These young women singers spoke right up: “S’all right. Take your time.. S’all right….” Hearing the welcoming, soothing Black voices, encouraging a nervous singer, I cried deeply in sadness at how many times I was afraid to try to lead, and when I was met with mockery, jokes and shut downs at home and in my life, I took them to heart and grew into adulthood repeatedly terrified to ever try to lead out loud.
With the alternative response in the Black Choir who learned to sing by listening , taught to listen to the whole and how their voices sounded and meshed together, taught by repetitions without written music notes.
Here, it took only a few moments before the new singer tryout girl, hit a sound note, clearly. “The young Black supporting women were back immediately, jumping in to celebrate the improved accuracy. “THERE you go! Now you’re gettin it. You go, girl, you’re doing fine.”
It took less than 5 minutes, in this informal but regularly practiced set of rituals, to transform a frightened, self conscious young woman, into a hopeful, confidence gaining person, eager to practice and learn, a growing star, who would in fact, bring something related to what Aretha Franklin did bring.
We in the Western world have assumed that our books and our machines have made us the most important and fair minded people in the world.
But when we start with a focus on books and laws, we miss the experience of looking more closely at struggling individuals right beside us. So we stay silent, do not speak up, promptly, or make nervous jokes, or give specific instructions when we notice someone afraid. We have delegated the field of “help” to church or therapists.
“Tribal” needs to be re-visited, and tied a bit more often to “villages” – stable places where adults and older siblings of different genders and ages encourage those caring for the fragile, the young and the old, instead of sending them off to institutions to be visited when we have time.
I’ve never shared the above example in public, but the comments in Milwaukee show me there is space for new conversations, about the kind of informal structures that single mothers yes – African women in their leadership roles, created together to encourage frightened children, encourage them to speak up, practice, take turns leading, so they can get experience as alert helpers.
Instead of the police assuming that multiple responses from Black youth are totally oppositional, it could help them to learn that being encouraged to speak up, follow rituals that allow shared leadership in turn, like jazz – is part of this culture, a warm part that many in White groups flock to benefit from. Allowing a bit more time to pause, consider words said, and then say, I can’t follow this right now, or I have to take you in, move over there, please, a little more curiosity, not the assumption that all opposition is personal, and not the quick reaction to shoot first, question later.
On my buses of Black teens, I found help, not opposition, among the children. I found help as I showed them I was curious, friendly willing to learn and share my impressions, be real, and spend less energy trying to prove my goodwill, more energy looking to try to understand their speech.
Some other white drivers arrived with attitudes freely expressed to other whites, attitudes that “they are all thugs, animals….”
While they learned impressions from some experiences, they were more limited in view than they realized. And those drivers had very different experiences on their school busses, from the ones I had. My kids cooperated, brought me their peer struggles, and called me “the Judge” because they saw that I listened and tried to be fair.
Some of our understanding needs to grow, to recognize that our efforts to make people just like us, ignore the beauty and potential they developed before they met us. Centuries of poor understanding of different areas of strength and different needs, can now come together with a bit more flexibility, humor, willingness to treat children, Black teens included, as children.
We all have much to learn, bring many efforts and struggles, and sometimes poor choices, but those need help not vengeance, and a one size fits all institutional system of rigid laws and long punishments helps no one.