Empathy

Thoughts on The Normal Heart

MV5BMTcyODYyOTk3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDkwNjc3MTE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_I have the song “The Only Living Boy in New York” stuck in my head.

It has been there for a few days since I watched the 2014 film The Normal Heart. The song was used to great effect in the film’s last scene and I can’t shake it.

The Normal Heart won a host of awards including a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for its lead actor Mark Ruffalo, who played Ned, and a Golden Globe for supporting actor Matt Bomer, who layed his lover Felix. It was based on a 1985 play of the same name by Larry Kramer, which chronicles the early years of the AIDS crisis as it ravaged New York’s gay community.

It will come as no surprise then, given its subject matter, that it is a difficult film to watch. It has the intensity of a symphony made up of all crescendos. About 3/4 of the way in, I was longing for a bit of psychic relief, a scene with flowers, puppies and unicorns. But my immediate reaction is only part of the story. The film has lingered in my consciousness, like “The Only Living Boy in New York.” It is haunting.

I am old enough to remember the 1980s. I was a teenager in 1985 when the original play came out. Society has changed a great deal and it is almost hard to bring back the cultural assumptions of the era. I do, however, remember the fear of AIDS. It had the elements of more recent health scares, like the ebola panic. AIDS was seen in many quarters as an epidemic of the other, a sickness that was moral as well as physical, which might escape from the dark corners and infect innocent, moral, bystanders. It was “their problem.” Indeed, it was only when the media started to find sympathetic victims, people like Ryan White who were clearly “innocent,” that society started to mobilize in a big way. I am old enough to remember the fear, but I need the occasional nudge to bring it back.

What happens with any prejudice is that people define what they are in opposition to the group they call the other. To imagine the gay community as morally suspect and physically diseased was to imagine the straight world as its opposite– morally upstanding and healthy.

People are resistant to changing their prejudices because if one group stops being an “other” then the category of “normal” needs to be reconsidered. If you are not sick, maybe I am not well. Put another way, if we are not different, if your heart is as normal as mine, then we are equally prone to moral slips and to the misfortune of disease and unexpected death. If we are the same, our fates are intertwined. That is a responsibility, and it is scary.

And so we allowed fear to override our compassion. It was easier to look the other way and to pretend the health crisis could not touch your kind than to admit how vulnerable we all are. We feared association. If you were too focused on AIDS maybe it meant you were gay yourself or at least some kind of firebrand.

When I got my first job working at McDonald’s, I used some of my earnings to support some AIDS related charities. I think I might have supported the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and PFLAG and probably one or two other organizations if memory serves. This got me onto a mailing list of people who supported liberal causes. I was bombarded with invitations to save the whales and fight for women’s rights. One letter, I swear this is true, came addressed to “Dear Radical.”

I wasn’t a radical, and I don’t think I was exceptional. Spin Magazine, by the late 80s, when I was in my last high school years, was running a regular series on advances fighting AIDS. But how you felt about these things varied a great deal depending on your social circles.

My first year of college, I went to a university that drew largely from more rural parts of the state. There was, in any case, a Gay Lesbian Student Alliance. (They hadn’t added the BT and Q yet.) They announced a Gay Pride day and encouraged students to show their support, but the method was one designed to have plausible deniability. You were supposed to stand in solidarity by wearing jeans.

I was shocked by the reaction of some of the neighbors on my floor of the dorm. Someone had cut out the photograph of the picture of the young woman who led the Gay Lesbian Student Alliance and tacked it to the wall with a big red “no” sign over her face and in red the words “NO Lezzies.”  On jeans day one of my neighbors went door to door reminding students to remember to wear a skirt or slacks.

I was appalled. I was horrified. I was straight.    I said nothing.

How many people on my hall might have agreed with me if I’d had the courage to say, “Hey, that’s not cool.” How many of us were waiting for someone else to speak up? Could there have been a lesbian on my floor whose life would have been made a little bit easier if I had said something?

One of the most memorable lines in The Normal Heart is uttered by Felix, who tells his lover, “Men do not naturally not love. They learn not to.”

The title “The Normal Heart” points to a subplot involving Ned’s brother, who cannot accept his sexuality. The brother believes he is the one with the normal heart. Ned pleads with him that his heart is also normal. But the normal heart is more than that.

The normal heart is full of compassion. We do not naturally not love. We learn not to. If we can learn, then we can, we must, unlearn.

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What is the Basic Unit of Society?

There is an age old debate over what the basic unit of society should be. Is it more important to protect the interests of the community or of the individual? Should we, for example, require all of our citizens to be of the same religion, to have the same sexual orientation, to participate in the same rituals, to speak the same language? Can we require people to conform in the name of social cohesion or should individual rights take precedence? This is the old liberal/conservative split.

It occurred to me, while watching news about the confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch, that there is a small, but powerful faction (because they are aligned with those who have money) that now views another entity as the basic unit of society which needs protection–the corporation.

Social science author F.S. Michaels has argued that we live in a Monoculture, with an economic framework for understanding what it means to be human in the world. “In our time, in the early decades of the twenty-first century, the monoculture isn’t about science, machines and mathematics, or about religion and superstition. In our time, the monoculture is economic.”

In the economic monoculture we live and participate in markets and see ourselves as consumers rather than citizens. Citizens have duties to one another. Consumers go shopping and have choices. In a society based on religion, gods are the main forces driving everything. In a society based on economics, the corporation is the driver.

Corporations transcend communities and even national borders. This puts them outside the old community/individual split. In the economic monoculture, both individuals and communities, even nations, must put aside their own needs for the greater good of economic growth. The market is expected, as the gods and monarchs were in days of old, to provide well-being for the general population.

In this clip Senator Al Franken questions Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch about the case of Alphonse Maddin a truck driver employed by TransAm Trucking of Olathe, Kansas. On a day when the temperature fell to -27 F, the brakes on Maddin’s trailer failed. He waited for TransAm to send a repair unit. After three hours, they had not arrived. The heater in the cabin was not working. The temperature fell to -7 and Maddin found, in his words, “I could not feel my feet, my skin was burning and cracking, my speech was slurred, and I was having trouble breathing.” Still his employer urged him to wait. Believing he might die, Maddin ventured out into the cold to lock the trailer, then unhook it from his cabin so he could drive to safety. He later returned and finished his job, but he was fired anyway for leaving the trailer.

Maddin sued for wrongful termination. He won his case, but TransAm Trucking appealed, and the case was argued before the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. Among the three judges hearing the case was Neil Gorsuch. Of the seven justices who heard the case over its years winding through the courts, only Gorsuch sided with TransAm. Gorsuch’s dissent did not cost Maddin his case, but it was popular with the business community.

There is one tangential point that I wanted to make, as we have been talking about the meaning of compassion.  In this exchange with Franken, Gorsuch insists he has empathy for Maddin. Empathy means to understand the feelings of another person, to put yourself in his place.  Even as he pleads “empathy,” he continually dodges the question of what he would do in Maddin’s position. (Maddin is African-American and it is possible that Gorsuch subconsciously believes that he was not actually in any real danger, wrongly assuming as even many medical students apparently do, that Black people actually feel less pain.)

Putting that aside, what Gorsuch appears to fundamentally believe is that employees have the duty to be obedient to their employers, even to the point of giving their lives in the service of the “job creator”. This is what a nation asks of citizens who are drafted into wars. In that case, the citizen sacrifices to preserve the nation. In the Gorsuch case the employee sacrifices to preserve the corporation.

This makes a certain sense, perhaps, if the market, not the nation or community, is viewed as the primary organizing principle of society.

“Compassion”

Compassion..gives the person who feels it pleasure even in the very act of ministering to and succouring pain.”-J..B. Mozley, Sermon at Oxford University, 1876

3330819045_6234b27d08_oSince writing yesterday’s post, I have been unable to shake a sort of existential sadness at the condition of, for want of a more secular word, the American soul. There is just something about Mick Mulvaney’s attempt to redefine “compassion” as not supporting Meals on Wheels that has played on my mind.

The word “compassion” comes from Latin roots com meaning together and pati to suffer. Compassion is to “suffer with” someone. It has been part of our lexicon since English looked like this: “Huanne on leme is zik oþer y-wonded. hou moche zorȝe heþ þe herte and grat compassion y-uelþ.” It has always conveyed a sense of fellow-feeling for someone who suffered and a desire to do something to alleviate that suffering. As the Oxford English Dictionary puts it: “The feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it; pity that inclines one to spare or to succour.”

Compassion is recognizing that a home-bound senior suffers and finding a way to alleviate some of that suffering, by delivering meals. What does it mean then when the perspective is shifted so that the home-bound senior is essentially accused of not being compassionate to the person who is asked to help?

Mulvaney likes to use the rhetorical device of casting the tax payer as a West Virginia Coal miner or “a single mother from Detroit” when the real beneficiaries of the budget he is promoting would seem to be the wealthy, military contractors and border wall builders. (Salon has a good analysis of who the budget is designed to benefit. It sure ain’t single mothers in Detroit.) And by the way, as someone who grew up and lived most of her life in suburban Detroit, I’m getting tired of my region being caricatured in the popular press as an island of urban poverty surrounded by a sea of “rust belt” working class Trump voters.

One of the most enduring images for me of the financial crisis of 2008 was an attractive, young woman with a satisfied smile on her face, holding a large sign that read “Your mortgage is not my problem.” The sign makes a virtue of non-compassion. It states a flat refusal to suffer with. “Your pain does not touch me,” it says, “I will not be moved by it.”

There is some element of our culture, an element that is now ascendant, that fears that in trying to relieve suffering, someone undeserving might get some of the aid. Some of us would rather let everyone starve than risk feeding someone who could get food for himself.

The question at the heart of all of this is what do we owe one another as fellow citizens, as neighbors, as fellow human beings?

It especially confuses me when the virtue of non-compassion is preached by someone calling himself a “Christian.” (Mulvaney is Roman Catholic.) The earliest Christian writings we have are Paul’s epistles. Scholars generally think that Thessalonians and Galatians were the first two books of the New Testament when arranged in chronological order. In Galatians, Paul recounts the details of a theological dispute he had with James who was the central figure in the early Jesus movement. The Galatians did not know whether they were to listen to James’ representatives or to Paul. They differed on the question of whether a gentile Christ-follower had to be circumcised in order to be a full member. James thought they did, Paul did not. In the end, they came to something of an agreement. Paul could preach to gentiles. “They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I was also eager to do,” Paul wrote. (Galatians 2:10)

So helping the poor was central to Christian practice from the beginning. When they seemed to disagree on everything else, the various factions could agree on this.

"Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:2)

In Biblical times people had a different understanding of poverty than we have today. Survival was hard. It was assumed that everyone understood hardship and deprivation and had an intimate acquaintance with hunger. Before the age of the self-made man in the mid-1800s, social status was viewed as essentially unchangeable. If you were born a peasant it was unfortunate but not a moral failing. In the mid-1800s, however, society was being transformed. In the UK the aristocracy was beginning to lose its power. In the still largely undeveloped United States, conditions were ideal for poor boys to make good. As P.T. Barnum put it, “In a new country, where we have more land than people, it is not at all difficult for persons in good health to make money.”

Irvin G. Wyllie, in The Self Made Man dates the golden era of the self-made man from 1835. If you wanted to go from rags to riches, this was the year to be born. (It was the year of Andrew Carnegie’s birth.) This generation came up with a new narrative. Horatio Alger wrote about boys who were born to poverty and who improved their lots in life through hard work and moral correctness. It seemed that anyone who was willing to work could become rich, men were in charge of their own destinies and the role of fate in our fortunes began to recede.

In what author Michael B. Katz author of The Undeserving Poor calls the “irony of optimism,”it followed that if a man made his own way, the poor must be to blame for their economic failings.

“The age of the self-made man was also the age of the broken man,” wrote Scott A. Sandage in Born Losers, “This ‘American sense’ looked upon failure as a ‘moral sieve’ that trapped the loafer and passed the true man through. Such ideologies fixed blame squarely on individual faults, not extenuating circumstances.”

The belief that people are entirely in control of their own destinies became so strong that Americans are now blind to the fact that there is a famine in the tale of the Prodigal Son and we tend to interpret it as a cautionary tale about being irresponsible and foolish with money.

In spite of our American industriousness, poverty has persisted. As we increasingly viewed it as a problem of persons (as Katz puts it), we looked for ways to separate the deserving from the undeserving poor in our policies. The identity of the undeserving has shifted over time. In the early days of our nation it was usually an able-bodied man, viewed as drunk and lazy, who was targeted out as undeserving. Increasingly, in our day, it is the unmarried mother.  Katz observes:

Empirical evidence almost always challenges the assumptions underlying the classifications of poor people. Even in the late nineteenth century, countervailing data, not to mention decades of administrative frustration, showed their inadequacy… Still, as even a casual reading of the popular press, occasional attention to political rhetoric, or informal conversations about poverty reveal, empirical evidence has remarkably little effect on what people think. Part of the reason is that conventional classifications of poor people serve such useful purposes. They offer a familiar and easy target for displacing rage, frustration, and fear. They demonstrate the link between virtue and success that legitimates capitalist political economy. And by dividing poor people, they prevent their coalescing into a unified political force. Stigmatized conditions and punitive treatment, moreover, provide powerful incentives to work, whatever the wages and conditions.

This has led to an ironic situation in which we now define those who are more well-off as the deserving poor and those who are the poorest, by virtue of being poor, as the least deserving. The results of a recent study on government spending on social programs to alleviate poverty found that there has been a marked shift away from supporting those earning the least money, as little as 50 percent of the federal poverty line, to those with incomes as much as 200 percent above the poverty line.

We do not suffer with the extremely poor, we blame them. In Mulvaney’s view of compassion, it is we who suffer because the poor need our help.

With finite resources, compassionate people can disagree on how best to help the poor, who needs a helping hand and who does not. The question will always exist. In the past, however, there were certain things we could pretty much all agree upon. We have not had, as Katz wrote, “much sympathy for poor persons throughout American history other than children, widows, and a few others whose lack of responsibility for their condition could not be denied. These were the deserving poor.”

Today it seems even those boundaries have been transcended. People in political power are now arguing that poor children should not be given free lunch because they need to learn responsibility, and that giving meals to elderly widows does nothing to improve the GDP.

So you will forgive me if I look beyond politics and wonder if America is losing its soul.

Yucky Framing: If It Doesn’t Lead to Good Jobs, Feeding Children is a Waste of Money

In this clip Mick Mulvaney defends cutting programs that provide meals to low income children because he says they have not led to good jobs. He also defends cutting funding for Meals on Wheels because it has not demonstrated “results.”

I’m not clear on what “results” he is talking about with with Meals on Wheels. Do housebound older people get meals or not?  And why is it that Ebenezer Scrooge’s dialogue from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is sounding less and less a comic exaggeration by the day?

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned—they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides—excuse me—I don’t know that.”

“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

Seeing clearly that it would be useless to pursue their point, the gentlemen withdrew. Scrooge resumed his labours with an improved opinion of himself, and in a more facetious temper than was usual with him.

If You Wrote the Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments Board Game

The Ten Commandments Board Game

A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook to an article on a site called Addicting Info.  The headline was “Atheists Rewrite the Ten Commandments and They Are Much Better than the Originals.” The FB post went on to ask “What commandment would you create?”

I share the link to the Atheist commandments and leave it to you to decide if they are, in fact, “better than the originals.” But I did take up the challenge of what commandments I would write. Bearing in mind that this is something I came up with at 2 AM when I couldn’t sleep, here it is. My Decalogue:

1. Even if someone is really obnoxious and horrible and stands in opposition to everything you hold most dear, you’re not allowed to shoot him or blow him up and you definitely do not get to kill groups of random people because they’re in some way associated with a nation, organization, social class or ideology you dislike.
2. Always act with empathy and compassion.
3. When you fail to do this (and you will) try again.
4. If your religion or moral framework fails to produce results consistent with commandments 1 and 2 something is wrong. Start over.
5. To avoid unnecessary ennui and distress, don’t ask “what is the meaning of life?” ask “what can I do with this life?”
6. While you are filling your life, remember to pause to appreciate the beautiful, the artistic, the mysterious and the transcendent. They matter.
7. Do not forget that you have blind spots that interfere with your ability to successfully complete commandment #2. Correct for them. (This is a long term project.)
8. Value your community but be careful not to create outcasts.
9. You have a responsibility not to perpetuate injustice in the name of just getting along.
10. Do not presume you are omniscient and know what God wants. Do not speak for God.

Pretty People and Verbal Violence

My partner is Russian, not Russian-American. His primary residence is Moscow. Because I spend half of my life in the company of a Russian who loves his country and is proud of its culture, I have an interest in news stories about Russia and perhaps a slightly different perspective on them than Americans who do not spend most of their time with Russians.

Global Voices today ran a story about Lena Klimova, the founder of an online support network for LGBT teens in Russia. Running such an organization puts her on the wrong side of Russian propaganda laws and as you would imagine she receives a lot of ugly messages online.

Klimova responded by taking photos the trolls had publicly posted on their social networks and coupling them with their violent rants. Here is an example.

t_YS3rk8Nzk-599x600Translation: “Aisha: I, for one, think you’re a stupid bitch. You think you’re helping anything with this holy crusade?? Go and fucking kill yourself before they come for you!!! People like you should be locked up!”

There is something quite powerful and arresting about the juxtaposition of these everyday images of perfectly nice-looking people and the vitriol they spew.

You have to wonder if they would be so bold speaking to someone they knew in life, or if the seeming anonymity of the internet allows them to strike out at a character on the screen as if she were not human.

The “othering” that allows the bully to see her target as less-than-human works in two directions. When we fail to recognize the human faces of our critics they become monsters, which gives them extra power. The angry voices seem to come from everywhere and nowhere. They speak as though they represent multitudes.

Most of the comments on the Global Voices piece talked about how terrible it is in Russia, about how angry Russians are and how “totalitarian” they are in their thinking, with at least one commenter wishing out loud that he could rescue Klimova and take her to California.

I do not know anything about Klimova, but I suspect that she does not want to be rescued from her country. She loves it enough to want to make it a better place.

There is an aspect of Russia’s “gay propaganda” laws that is not widely discussed. They are, in part, a reaction to U.S. cultural dominance. When the Soviet Union collapsed and Western cultural products became available in the new spirit of openness, Russians initially embraced the once-forbidden English and American pop music, Hollywood films, McDonalds and Budweiser beer. It happened quickly. And after a decade or so, a lot of Russians became concerned that their own distinct culture might be threatened by all of these imports. LGBT rights, pride parades, same sex marriage became symbols of the intrusion of foreign culture. In the U.S. those who are against gay rights tend to view it as a symptom of the erosion of religion in public life. In Russia, the gay rights movement is viewed as an outside force trying to mold Russia and change its culture. Those are the kinds of fears that give the backlash its power and ferocity. It is not just that you want to live differently from me– you want to change my world.

The context is important, of course. But making this photographic statement all about Russians, and then saying “isn’t it terrible over there” misses a larger point. Nice respectable people have the capacity for this kind of verbal violence. The bully is not a monster, she is a girl holding flowers. Recognizing this poses a lot of questions. To the bully it asks “Are you proud of what you said? Do you stand by it when it is associated with your face and your identity? Is this how you want to present yourself?” To the rest of us it asks “Could the bully be your sister? If it was, would you laugh it off and look the other way? Could the bully be you? Are there times when you are so certain of your correctness that you forget to notice someone else’s humanity?”

This kind of behavior exists all over the world. In fact, after I finished reading the Global Voices article another article passed through my newsfeed.  Just last week a group of Pennsylvania students, the Stranger reports, decided to hold their own “Anti-Gay” day in response to the national “Day of Silence” organized by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

This prompted the group of students to ask classmates to wear flannel shirts and write “anti-gay” on their hands on Thursday, April 16, in protest, according to WPXI-TV. In addition, participants posted Bible verses on the lockers of students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), the news station noted. Meanwhile, some encounters between students who participated and those who didn’t even got physical, The Advocate pointed out, and snapshots of the flannel-clad group appeared on social media.

“We came into school on Thursday and found a lot of people wearing flannel and we couldn’t figure out why,” Zoe Johnson, a 16-year-old McGuffey High School who identifies as bisexual, told BuzzFeed’s David Mack. “People started getting pushed and notes were left on people’s lockers. …I got called a dyke, a faggot. They were calling us every horrible name you can think of.”

 More troubling still was an alleged “lynch list,” which the group was reported to have circulated around the school.

I came across an older post today on how Ijeoma Oluo responded to a racist troll on twitter.  She never allowed herself to lash out at him or to lose sight of his humanity and in the end he gets tired of trolling and it turns out the troll is allegedly a 14 year old who has recently lost his mother. Who knows if this is true, but as Daily Kos said, “It is hard to say whether or not this Dildo Baggins person really is a 14-year-old kid working through the pain of losing his mother. It is hard to say whether the person behind this moniker really did learn something here. I would like to believe that this was the case, but it really isn’t the point. Ijeoma Oluo’s boundless capacity for love and wisdom is the point.”

The bullies look like perfectly nice people. Most of the time they probably are. That is the point.

Invisible Famine and the Whiteness Project

About a year ago I published a post here called The Invisible Famine in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  It has become one of my most popular posts. The article discusses my thoughts on discovering that most Americans are unaware that there is a famine in the parable of the prodigal son.  When you ask Russians what happens in the tale of the Prodigal Son you get a different result. Russians have strong recent memories of the horrors of the second world war in which thousands died of starvation and exposure. Famine is part of their cultural experience and understanding. This illustration from a blog called The Gospel Project makes it clear:

The American hears the parable like this:
Not many days later, the younger son gathered together all he had and traveled to a distant country, where he squandered his estate in foolish living. After he had spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he had nothing.
The Russian hears the parable like this:
Not many days later, the younger son gathered together all he had and traveled to a distant country, where he squandered his estate in foolish living. After he had spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he had nothing.

My reason for pointing this out, however, is not theological. The point is that human beings find it hard to understand problems with which we are not personally acquainted.  As I wrote in my original article:

I did not remember the famine. Like an optical illusion that reveals the existence of a vision void on the retina, this study made me aware that I have blind spots.  I like to think of myself as an empathetic person, but it is clear that suffering that I have not experienced personally is not fully real to me.   I can read a story and not even notice that it is there.   I can relate to the pain of your divorce, because I’ve had a break up.  I can grieve with you because I have suffered loss, but when you are experiencing a kind of pain that I have not, I might not just be unsympathetic, I might not even notice.  This does not make me exceptionally blase, it makes me human.

I was made aware of the invisible famine again today as I was reading an article about something called The Whiteness Project on a site called About Education. The project consists of white people discussing what it means to be white in the U.S.  The author of the About Education article, Nikki Lisa Cole summed up what she saw in the videos: “Racism does not exist. ‘White privilege’ is a myth. In fact, racial minorities have more privileges than whites. Black people have no one to blame but themselves for their problems.”

White privilege is an invisible famine. Being white means you do not have to deal with racial discrimination.  As the parable demonstrates, people only really see problems that they have personally experienced. White privilege means not having to be aware of white privilege. That makes it a tricky thing.

Let me give you an example from my own life. I was having a conversation once with an African-American friend. She was talking about a place I had lived (I will not say where). She said she had heard people were very racist there.  I started to say, “That was not my experience,” but then it occurred to me that my experience was not a particularly valuable measure of whether people were racist or not.  I would notice, of course, if there were signs for “colored” washrooms. But anything short of that could go on in my community and I would never know because I am white– it would never come up.

The fact that I tuned out the detail of the famine in the Prodigal Son does not mean it did not exist. Likewise, the fact that I can go through life mostly unaware of racism does not mean it does not exist. So what is a conscientious white person to do?

I will conclude with something I wrote in my original post on this topic: “The best I can do, now that I am aware of this fact, is to do my best not to forget it.  I may think I have a seamless image, but I don’t see everything.”