Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Wrong Words, Right Heart



A top news report today concerned an American diplomat who made an offensive remark about India. In referring to a train ride she took, she said her "skin became dirty, and dark like the Tamilians.”

The offense is instantly understood. And yet, if you listen to the rest of her speech, and its context, a person who is not caught in the emotion of being affronted might see that she wasn’t at all trying to insult Indians. Any person who spent two years in India twenty-three years ago and rode on a local train across the country was obviously not looking down on the culture from an ivory tower- or private air conditioned SUV -but out to embrace and experience it at a grass roots level. “I traveled across villages to understand the culture better. I was amazed at the graciousness and friendliness of the people," she said.

I’ll bet she was dirty when she got done with that trip. And so was everyone else on the train. Every Indian and every American and every European who has ever traveled on a steam engine in any country during any period of history to date knows that. It was an unfortunate pairing of words and ethnicity which got her into trouble. And when it comes to this kind of insult, our modern world and media is unforgiving.

No one is stopping to consider that this is a former Fulbright scholar with a PhD in education who has worked with foster children, refugees and low-income and homeless populations around the world for much of her life. None of that counts.

Although I comprehend the offense, today I felt much more sympathy for this woman than I am usually wont to do when these kind of diplomatic faux pas hit the media.

In a recent setting in America where I was describing midwifery practices I had observed in another country, someone took great offense to a couple of words I used too. In less than 60 seconds, in a group of people who had known me less than 24 hours, I was iron cast into a role of white imperialist who comes to judge and impose her culture on others and look down on people of color.

Sigh. Like the diplomat and her listeners, my audience hadn’t been with me for the last 30 years of my life. They didn’t see me stand up for the first African American piano student in my studio when I was just 11, and refuse to ever play again at a woman’s club where she wasn’t allowed to play because of her color in 1980. They didn’t see me cross racial lines to make friends at my grade school, much to the amazement of the other kids of all colors. They didn’t see me, married to an Indian man and embracing his culture in every possible way, living in Asia, having bi-racial children, and carefully raising them to treat all people equally. They didn’t see me standing up for woman’s rights in Nepal. They didn’t see me as a midwife, attending women of all races without discrimination.

And yet, I have made mistakes. It is impossible not to. I am still a white girl, born in Texas at a time and place that was less than politically correct by modern standards. I’ve done my best to rise above the fact that my grandfather was a member of the KKK, and my grandmother was one of the founding mothers of the aforementioned woman’s club. It’s a good thing I watched Sesame Street, 'cause it was the only place I got positive images of a multi-cultural neighborhood.

One of the many things I learned while married to someone from another culture is that no matter how much you are educated, traveled, and exposed, there are times you unconsciously revert to your culture/mentality of origin. You catch yourself, but it happens. My man occasionally reverted to his village of India mentality, and I occasionally reverted to southern white girl. Much as I am embarrassed to admit it, I still do.

Like the other day when without thinking I told my kids not to run down the hall of the church like “a bunch of wild Indians.” It’s something my mother, born in 1942 who grew up listening to The Lone Ranger on the radio on top of the ice box would have said. (I read it as a child in Little House on the Prairie too, a classic early American series also recently labeled as racist.) My outspoken and politically correct daughter (‘cause I raised her that way) instantly said, somewhat tongue in check: “Excuse me, we are Indians, are you implying something?”

It was the joke of the day and not a mortal insult, because my kids know I love them and love India. Good thing I wasn’t on a platform holding a microphone in front of a camera with a less understanding audience, or I would also have been accused of insulting all Indians, both American and Asian.

So I had to laugh when I read one of the errant diplomat’s peer's observations: "I've seen this type before--idealistic middle-aged person with an NGO or Peace Corps background who joins the Foreign Service without an awareness that everything s/he says is subject to be pounced on, scrutinized or twisted."

Yep, that’s me. The idealistic middle aged person with a missionary background. Doing the best she can, but not expecting to be pounced on when she slips up and says something that can be twisted into a racist remark. I expect people to take me at face value. Really, do you think I would go to Liberia to start a clinic if I didn’t deeply care about and respect people of color, specifically Liberian women who are dying in childbirth?

I will put out this challenge to my readers, one that was put out to me when I began traveling and living internationally. See beyond people’s words to their hearts and what their lives stand for. I learned not to take it as an insult when my Nepali friends came running out to see me and said, “Oh sister, you must be doing well, you look so nice and fat,” because although that is the worst possible insult in America, in Nepal it is a complement. In Liberia too. On my last trip one of the young men commented, “Since last summer you look fatter. And younger.” (I decided one out of two ain’t bad.)

These folks weren’t trained as diplomats either, and I knew that. I gave them the space to be who they were and see that they didn’t mean to insult me. They did the same for me. When I made cultural mistakes, I was laughingly and lovingly corrected, because they knew I loved them and their country or I wouldn’t be there. This has happened over the years literally hundreds of times in various cultures I’ve lived and traveled through, with verbal and cultural missteps on both sides.

In most cases we were all simple people, just tryin’ as they say in Liberia. Not politically correct diplomats. Good thing that most of the time we chose to operate under the Christian principle that “love covers a multitude of sins.”

So let me just set the record straight. When I said Liberia was “my” country, I did not mean to imply I was taking the country away from the Liberians, or overriding their ownership or responsibility of their own country, or thinking of myself as superior to them in any way.

I was actually thinking of a young man named Obadiah, who told me on my last visit to his country, “This is your country now. Do not think of other countries. Think only of Liberia.”

He obviously isn’t a diplomat either.

And when I used the word “lackadaisical” to describe attitudes in medicine, I was thinking beyond midwives who don't listen to heart tones (the subject we were on) to that same Obadiah after a severe motorcycle accident with a skull injury, laying unconscious in a hospital bed waiting days for a simple x-ray because the tech had gotten paid the day before and couldn’t be bothered to come in to work until after the holiday.

It isn’t against the Liberians, but for them that I want to affect change. And for that, I do not apologize.

This quote from the best-selling book on human rights violations, “Half the Sky” sums it up for me. “So was it cultural imperialism for Westerners to criticize foot binding and female infanticide? Perhaps. But it was also the right thing to do. If we believe firmly in certain values, such as the equality of all human beings regardless of color or gender, then we should not be afraid to stand up for them; it would be feckless to defer to slavery, torture, foot-binding, honor killings, or genital cutting just because we believe in respecting other faiths and cultures.”

So, I’ll promise not to use the word “lackadaisical” to describe anyone of color anywhere in the world again, and not to use the personal pronoun to refer to Liberia (at least until I get back there where they might be offended if I don’t).

How about in return you stop and look at a person’s heart before you get tripped up on his words?

You might actually like what you see.