Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Stereotypes, Realities, and Comfort Food

A few years ago I went to the funeral of one of my aunts, and I saw people I hadn’t seen in about 40 years. People I grew up with who grew up to be teachers, accountants, financial planners, engineers, architects, doctors, nurses, ministers, statisticians, lawyers, etc. All middle to upper middle class people, and all African-American…and all raised in the “golden age” of the 1960s and 70s when changing attitudes and generous financial aid from schools, the federal government, and state governments, meant that we could follow our dreams to some extent, and go beyond even what our own already middle class parents had done. These people all lived in “nice neighborhoods” drove “nice cars” and wore “nice clothes.” You wouldn't find any of their kids wearing pants that hung down off their asses.

But then again, people often confuse high concentration with high numbers, and the behavior and tastes of people in a particularly visible subset of a group with the behavior and tastes of the group as a whole. Stats say that roughly 30% of blacks live in poverty, but that means that roughly 70% of us don’t. Put simply that means that while 30% of us may live in “the hood”, most of us don’t. So while there may be a higher concentration of us there…more of us together in one place there…there are actually more of us in numbers spread out among the “nice neighborhoods” in the suburbs.

Anyway, my point, and I do have one, is that after the funeral, when we all came back to the church to eat, the food being served was traditional African-American fare like fried chicken, green beans, seasoned rice, biscuits, and a few other things I can’t recall. Later on, my wife commented on how these people who had obviously done well for themselves were eating “poor people’s food.”

I responded that this wasn’t necessarily “poor people's food”, it was the food they grew up on. It was “comfort food.” It was food that the planners were pretty sure that everyone would like. This was not a place for tofu and lentils.

Was serving this stuff playing into a common stereotype about us? Ya, you betcha. Was it stuff that everyone liked? Ya, you betcha again. Sometimes the “stereotype” is spot on.

And what would’ve happened had the planners served what they thought that people of our social status should like? What would’ve happened had they served tofu and lentils and veggie burgers?

It would’ve sat there, uneaten, while we all formed a caravan to the nearest KFC.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Picture's Worth 1000 Memories...Plus Interest

I hear the complaint all the time…”Kids these days…” and you know that when someone starts off a sentence with “kids these days” that they’re an old person. “Kids these days and their cell phones, and their cell phone cameras…they’re so busy taking pictures and documenting things that they don’t ever get to enjoy the moment.”

I’m not so sure about this. And actually, I’m willing to bet that this is a complaint that has been voiced every since George Eastman made photography accessible to the masses. I can see it now, “Young people these days and their Brownie cameras…they’re so busy taking pictures and documenting things…” well, you get the point.

The big difference between then and now is that the price of taking pictures has gone down. I remember having to buy the film, and then pay for the processing of the film. When you only had 36 possible shots you could use, and you had to pay for each shot, you were pretty stingy with what you took pictures of. Sometimes you missed good shots because you were afraid you wouldn’t have any film left for later on. Other times you missed good shots because you’d already used up your film.

With a digital camera and enough memory, the saying is that “pixels are free.” A bad shot doesn’t cost you any money, and the chances of running out of space on your SD card (if you properly manage it) are very small. Plus, you can delete the many bad shots you took, to make room for more later on.

And not only are pixels free, but so is sharing those photos. Unless you have to have prints made to send to your grandmother, it doesn’t cost anything to share your best shots on Facebook, Instagram, or through email.

So with digital photography, be it through your cell phone or a decent digital camera, making photography so much cheaper, people get to document moments that I wish I’d been able to 20, 30, or 40 years ago.

The old saying is that a picture’s worth 1000 words. I look at it differently…I say a picture’s worth 1000 memories. Memories that help us revisit important moments from our past. Memories that help us share these moments with others, especially our children and grandchildren. I look at the few pictures I was able to take on the many choir tours I went on as an undergrad, and I wish I had been able to take more. There were so many great memories…and they become more important, they accrue more interest, as I get farther and farther from the actual events. I think of the few pictures I took of my friends, (because who carried a camera around with them all the time back then?), and wish that I had been able to take more…especially of those who are no longer with us.

And when I think of the many pictures from my teenaged years that I don’t have, I wish that someone had done a little more documenting, so I’d have something to show my kids from when I was their age.

So are “kids these days” no longer capable of “living in the moment” because they’re too busy documenting things with their cameras? I don’t think so. I think that taking the pictures is an important part of that moment. It helps to give them a tangible memory for years later, and a story to tell their children and grandchildren, or nieces and nephews.

Do some people overdo it? Of course. There are always people who overdo everything. But I see nothing wrong with taking pictures of the moment to look back on when you’re old and gray.

Especially since I’m old and gray now. And I’m taking pictures to look back on when I’m older and gray.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Is Race a Thing?

In recent years I’ve heard people say things like “there’s no such thing as race” or “race is merely a social construct”, and I want to tell these well-meaning people that they need to take a laxative, because they’re full of it. Race most definitely is a thing, and it’s more than just a social construct, and that’s because the way that most of us use those terms is different from the ways that those people are using it. It’s sort of like the difference between the scientific meaning of the word “theory” and its common everyday English meaning; a difference which has led to people saying things like “But evolution is just a theory”, when evolution is not just a hypothesis. But that’s another discussion for another time.

Is there such a thing as race? Yes, just as clearly as I can see it on your face, and yours, and yours. And just as clearly as you can see it on my face, and hers, and his, and the faces of  those people over there. Race is a thing. There are certain gene pools of people with similar appearances. On a minor scale, we probably call those ethnicities. Many people can tell a Brit from a Pole from an Italian, from a Dane. Many people can tell a Korean from a Vietnamese from a Japanese from a Chinese. On a major scale we have what we common people call race…the obvious difference between any Scandinavian and any Asian. The obvious difference between any Native American and any African. And so on. This is what most of us think of when we think of race.

So what isn’t there that isn’t race? Or to try to put it more simply, what is it that those who say that there is no such thing as race say doesn’t exist? The idea of each race as a separate species, or subspecies, or to use a term from the canine world…breed. We’re not as different as a Labrador is from a beagle is from a poodle is from a Chihuahua. Or…maybe I don’t know enough about dogs, and they’re more similar to each other than we are.

And what about the idea that race is merely a social construct? I’ll grant you that it is, but what the people who say this seem to be implying is that race is merely a western social construct, and by definition, that makes it suspect at the least, and most likely dead wrong. But you know something…I’m willing to bet you that when the Native Americans saw the first Vikings get off that boat in Newfoundland, they said something that translated to “Who are those white people?” And I’m betting that people in Japan said the same thing when they first encountered Europeans.

Is race a social construct? Of course it is! It describes people from here who really obviously don’t look like people from there.

Now, it’s been argued that race doesn’t exist because if you walk north to south from the very tip of Scandinavia to the bottom of Africa, or west to east from Ireland to Japan, the differences you see every day will be so slight that you don’t really notice them until about midway in your journey. I could use the same argument to say that color doesn’t exist and is merely a social construct, because if you start at one position on the spectrum and slowly move to the end, the differences will be so small that you don’t really notice them until about midway through. In fact, color is a social construct, because there are some languages that have no word for purple…it’s just another shade of blue.

But continuing on with the color theme, we can all pretty much agree on the difference between red and yellow, or yellow and blue; but what about orange? At what point does red become orange? At what point does orange become yellow? And how about green? At what point does yellow become green and green become blue?

The simple fact of the matter is that for practical purposes race exists just as surely as colors exist. Just as there are different large color groups in that box of Crayolas, there are different large racial groups in this world of people.

It just is, and denying that it is isn’t going to make it go away. We will always need some way to describe the people whose ancestors came from here (wherever “here” is) as opposed to those whose ancestors came from there, there, or there. Now…what you do with that information is another issue entirely.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

They Also Serve...

Before I say what I want to say, I want to let you know that I wouldn’t be saying this were it not for the kind words of a good friend of over 25 years...that I’ve never met. She said things about me that I couldn’t say about myself, and inspired me to write this piece for others like me.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how my wife went on a one-week mission trip to Haiti. During the week she was gone, there was a bit of a public blow up about how I hadn’t been given an itinerary for the trip. I was sending my wife off for a week to a third world country, and I didn’t get the same information I would’ve given her if I was going off on a week-long business trip in the next state.

It got ugly very fast, and it created a situation that was impossible for me to explain my way out of or make better, as people accused me of selfishly not wanting to share my wife with the rest of the world.

And into this shitstorm came my friend Kathy with words that soothed me. I don’t know if they had any effect on the people who were attacking me, but they definitely did me a world of good. She talked about how Cheryl had gone to serve while I was left to suffer in a silence that wasn’t necessarily of Cheryl’s creation. She also spoke of how I tried to serve in my own way, but was denied that opportunity because of everything that had happened.

As I said, I found those words soothing, and I quickly sent her a private message explaining that this trip wasn’t something that Cheryl had just decided to go on of her own. When the people who organized it gave a presentation at our church, Cheryl turned to me and said, “That sounds interesting”, and without missing a beat, I said, “See ya!” She had no expectation of being able to go on that trip, she didn’t ask about going on it; she just mentioned in passing that it sounded interesting, and I told her to start packing her bags. I encouraged her to go, it was my gift to her; and now all these people were piling on me for selfishly not wanting to share her with the rest of the world.

It was then that my friend said words that I found even more soothing. Words that made perfect sense when I thought about them, but that I couldn’t have said about myself. Someone else had to say them about me. I’m going to paraphrase them here for the sake of others who find themselves in the same position.

She said that so often we look at service only in the direct way. We only look at the person who actually got on the plane and went to Haiti as doing service. But, she said, Cheryl’s service to Haiti wouldn’t have been possible without my service to her. We each did service in our own way, and no one was acknowledging my service because it wasn’t the obvious, front line, on the ground type. And yet, as she said, Cheryl wouldn’t have been in the front line, on the ground without my service to her. We both did service for the people of Haiti, just in different ways.

But I don’t want this to be just about me. I don’t want this to appear to be Keith whining and saying “Look at me! I contributed too!” OK…well maybe I do want just a little acknowledgment of my contribution, and for people to back off already. But what I really want is for you to think of all the people back home who made it possible for someone else to go do something like this. I want you to not forget that they did indirect service by making it possible for their loved ones to do direct service. And their contributions should neither be demeaned nor ignored.

As for me…I’m looking forward to doing indirect service again in two years, should Cheryl decide that she wants to go back.

Because I hear they thought she did a really great job.