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Us and Them: Putting Faces on the “Other”

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By any accepted standard, I am ill-qualified to discuss socio-economic issues. I am a married, heterosexual, educated white female born to educated, upper-middle class WASP parents. My doctorate isn’t even in a social science. Yet, I will submit that one factor alone qualifies me to hold forth on the human condition, to discuss issues of race, of discrimination, of equality — I am human.

Discussions of social issues have begun to resemble junior high school dances. Each side lines uncomfortably along the wall, looking anxiously at the other, focusing on the otherness. Occasionally interaction occurs; heckling by the bullies or awkward flirtation. We each bob uncertainly to our own rhythms, unable to hear the common beat through the walls of self-consciousness. Unable to bear our discomfort, we retreat to our separate corners — us vs. them.

Here’s the problem — we are all standing in the same room. There is no us; no two people standing along that wall have the same thoughts, the same experiences. There is no them; we all bleed when pricked, cry when hurt. Generalizations are the refuge of the terrified and ignorant.

Humans are animals, programmed to fear the “other,” the unknown, the unfamiliar. From a food-chain standpoint, this makes sense. An unfamiliar animal may be a danger. Members of the herd that look “different” may act as visual cues for predators. In horse herds, flamboyantly colored horses such as grays, paints, and palominos tend to be ostracized by the more common-coated animals. Light-coated horses tend to roll more than darker ones as well, presumably using dirt as camouflage. If you are likely to be eaten, this behavior makes sense. A distinctively patterned animal is easier to pick from a moving herd — the animal kingdom’s equivalent of a blue plate special. Humans, however, are not horses.

We have a highly developed fore-brain that controls thought and reasoning. We possess the capability to override hind-brain impulses, to make choices based on reasoning, empathy, and compassion. We can do better. Prejudice, fear of that which is different, may be ingrained in each of us, but so is the capability of reaching beyond that fear.

God is in the details. — attributed to Mies van der Rohe

The key to overcoming intolerance hides, with God, in the details. Sweeping generalities accomplish nothing. To paint the portrait of humanity, we need detail brushes, not rollers. Humanity is a collective of individuals. To overcome our tendency toward social cruelty, we need to put faces to the issues, to see the souls behind the labels.

Illegal immigration has once again become the “us vs. them” poster child — this time the specter has been raised in the health care debate. Regardless of political opinions regarding government involvement in health care, the notion of excluding ANY group from medical care presents a grave danger to the collective. Disease does not discriminate — flu, tuberculosis, HIV, staphylococcus — none of these agents give a damn about citizenship. Public health is a collective problem. If one segment of society, ANY segment of society, is denied health care or is discouraged from seeking care, the risk increases to the entire population.

But, back to the faces: I was raised, work, and now raise my children in the Central Valley of California. This is an agriculturally dependent economy, and agriculture lives or dies by immigrant labor. Legal or illegal, it makes no difference. I do veterinary work for a ranch where, rumor had it, the herdsman had documentation problems and was deported back to Mexico. The duration of his fortunately temporary absence adversely affected the running of the ranch and much of the society in the area. He is the unofficial translator for many of the Hispanic workers in the area, well known for miles. The sense of relief, of ease, brought about by his return was palpable. His is a face that I see in this debate.

Last November, California passed Proposition 8, effectively banning gay marriage. One of the arguments used by the “Yes on 8” crowd was that they did not want their children exposed to the notion of homosexual marriage. Strangely, they didn’t seem to have a problem using their children to hold signs on street corners. My children have several friends and classmates with two mothers. These families share many of the same struggles and triumphs as my family. We commiserate on schoolwork, on our relationships, on our inability to stop volunteering for school activities. Whenever I see remnant signs referencing Proposition 8, theirs are the faces I see.

My husband’s Japanese-American grandmother was interned along with the rest of her family in Missouri during World War II. Her husband was in the U.S. Army. When the notion of detention without charges in support of national security is raised, hers is the face that I see.

I have three children. The oldest has brown hair, olive skin, and hazel eyes; the middle child has red hair, impossibly fair skin with freckles, and blue eyes; the youngest has dark blonde hair, light olive skin, and green eyes. All three share the same heritage: Japanese, English, Scottish, Welsh, German, French, Norwegian, and Cherokee. When I hear people make racial generalizations based on appearance, theirs are the faces I see.

We live in a world of individuals, not of issues. None of us can ever completely understand the motivations, needs, desires, or fears of others. To generalize by culture, by skin color, by sexuality, by politics, by gender, by religion, to try to jam people into narrowly labeled boxes dehumanizes us all.

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About Christy Corp-Minamiji

  • Heather

    I live in a very conservative focused environment and come from fairly liberal upbringing. I have family members and friends who are extreme on both sides of the coin. And I often sit back and ponder where the humanity has gone? From my vantage point liberals like to blame conservatives for being mean because of their convictions. And conservatives blame liberals for wanting to be everything to all people in principle but not in practice. One is afraid of having their liberties and freedoms taken away while the other is concerned more with equality. I tend to shake my head at these polar opposites who both have interest groups that cater to them, millions upon millions of dollars at stake depending on who wins. And I realize something. American politics is less about people and ideas and more about power and money. And I’m frankly sick of it. There are issues that I “side” with. For example I don’t believe two women should have a right to get married just because they want to. And I don’t believe that belief is discriminatory in any way shape or form. Especially since gay couples already have legal rights as registered domestic partners. So this debate is not about rights. It’s about the concept of marriage which is considered holy and is not a social issue as much as it is a religious one. But having said that. I hate guns with a passion. And while I would side with conservatives on some issues I would vehemently oppose them on others. And I kind of like that about myself. I’m not in a “camp”. I’m not hunkering down for a fight. I believe you should look at every issue’s merits. Weigh them based on your belief and value system and stand right there. I love all people, I love to listen to why they believe what they believe. I consider what they say. I hate arguing, I hate name calling and I hate the labeling that naturally occurs when we all try to sort out our differences. But that is the American way. That is how our founding fathers planned our society. Extreme factions butting heads until a compromise and middle ground was found. I think there has to be extreme opinions in order for that to occur as it should. And I am still in awe and wonder that we are able to live in a country where they can co-exist, vote, and accept the majority opinion. It is when laws are passed by popular vote and people start hate campaigns against those who voted a certain way, as what happened to people who were identified as campaign contributors to yes on 8. That I get a little concerned. Should not people no matter what their opinions be free to exercise their right to vote for and support what they think is right? My biggest fear with liberals and conservatives alike is that they will forget that all of us have a right to our opinion and to pursue creating policies that reflect that opinion. And they will forget to listen and reflect on each other’s positions instead of already assuming the other is an idiot, bigot, socialist, or pig.

  • Baronius

    Dread, I was just tweaking you, not disagreeing. But in your comment #11 you forgot about the primary way that Americans cast a protest vote, not voting at all. Personally, I think the greatest underused political resource is the primary system.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Baronius –

    I once wrote a haiku after the 2000 election:

    “War of dynasties;
    Next – Senator Hillary
    ‘Gainst Governor Jeb”

    I like your post, btw.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    STM – Your son sounds at least as responsible as I was, and perhaps more. Give him time, because if I’ve read your posts correctly over the months, he’s got a pretty good example to follow. He’ll do just fine.

  • Bar,

    The major factor in the polarisation of US politics, I think, is that you don’t have a viable third party.

    Where I come from, Conservative and Labour voters who want to register their displeasure at the party they usually support can vote for the centrist party, the Liberal Democrats. (By some measures the Lib Dems are actually further left than Labour these days, but that’s another story.) It enables them to make their voices heard, and have a vote that counts – the Lib Dems have a significant presence in Westminster and in local government – without completely compromising their principles.

    You don’t have that luxury here. Sure, there are other parties like the Libertarians and the Greens, but they’re tiny – their candidates seldom pick up more than a per cent or two of the vote. So to register any sort of meaningful protest, you have to vote for the Other Side. And most people just can’t stomach that. So they swallow their anger and become entrenched, clinging to their guns and… oh wait, somebody already gave that speech. Sorry about that. But my point remains. 🙂

  • Baronius

    Oh yeah, Dread, American politics is uniquely polarized. This one time, the red-rosed Clinton House went to war with the white-rosed House of Bush. 🙂

    I didn’t find this article partisan, and I usually agree with Doug.

  • STM

    My son is part aboriginal. He’s also part English, part Irish, part scandinavian.

    And given our English background, it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a bit of French in there too. His mother’s surname would indicate that is the case, although his grandfather on his mum’s side was a genuine WWII Aussie war hero.

    He is, according to most female opinion, dashingly handsome, is loved by his mates, makes friends easily, works with children, went to a wonderful Catholic boarding school (where it was a miracle he graduated), is as tough as nails, and played rugby at a high level.

    He’s also a dyed-in-the-wool, true-blue Aussie.

    Downside: His main problem is that because he’s only 22, he’s still a complete fu.kwit and totally irreponsible.

    Last year I was in Thailand, bouncing along a dirt road in a truck in the middle of nowhere in a cloud of dust, diesel fumes and humidity, when he rang from Sydney to tell me that he was flying off to see his grandfather but had no money to get to the airport, and “What do I do, Dad?”

    Me: “What, apart from being more responsible, you mean? … how about borrowing some dough off a mate and catching the train to the airport instead.”

    I do love him though.

    We picked our side: Australia, the land of all comers, and the place where petty and not so petty differences over race, religion, nationality, politics, are best left on the door step upon arrival if one is to experience full enjoyment of what’s on offer.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Christy –

    I can truly sympathize with you. I am white, male, just on the cusp of fifty, retired military, strong Christian, raised in the very deepest of the Deep South…so by rights I should certainly be a strong conservative and probably racist, too…

    …and yet I am quite liberal (to the shame of my birth family), and my household presently consists of three full-blood Filipinos, one mixed-blood Filipino/white, one full-blood Thai (who’s a low-functioning autistic), one mixed-blood black/white (who has fetal drug syndrome), one Hispanic (who is epileptic, physically disabled, and has minor memory issues), and for seven years we also had one full-blood Quinalt native American (who had fetal alcohol syndrome). I’m the only full white guy in the house and I bring the English, Irish, and possibly French and Spanish with me.

    My mother once told me she wished I’d “married a n****r than a Filipina”. That’s one reason we live near Seattle instead of the MS Delta.

    Yeah, I know what you mean about seeing others as individuals. This world is indeed making progress away from the suspicion and mutual ignorance and hatred that has plagued interracial relations since time immemorial. I see it almost every day. It’s just sad that there are so many still who can’t see the writing on the wall, who want things to remain the way things were for millenia…but the world is changing – and so far, definitely for the better.

    There is truly reason to hope!

  • zingzing

    “You (supposedly) don’t believe in dividing things by race and sex but you’re the first to support women’s studies and African american studies…”

    are you saying that those things aren’t worth studying?

    “If there’s an article on race or sex or discrimination is brought up most of the time it’s going to be initiated by a liberal.”

    i’d bet that just as often, it’s a conservative making the same claim you are now.

    “The difference is I back up my words with support for policies to achieve that and try and limit my part in the debate to highlighting those seeking to exploit differences for political gain…. namely, you.”

    but you’re doing it now…

  • Doug Hunter

    Just more libtard babble. On the surface it’s a not so subtle play at moral superiority, underneath it’s a subtle reminder to these victim groups to indeed fear the other (and vote democrat).

    If you only truly believed in the words you speak. Liberals relish in these divisions because they know they can use fear to get these groups to vote for them. If there’s an article on race or sex or discrimination is brought up most of the time it’s going to be initiated by a liberal. You don’t like division but you constantly try to remind people of them. You (supposedly) don’t believe in dividing things by race and sex but you’re the first to support women’s studies and African american studies, and NOW and the NAACP. You lay moral claim to equality but support affirmative action, separate educational achievement and college entrance standards, and diversity programs that end up as thinly disguised quotas.

    I, as you claim, also believe in a colorblind society. The difference is I back up my words with support for policies to achieve that and try and limit my part in the debate to highlighting those seeking to exploit differences for political gain…. namely, you.

  • Thanks,Dr.D. If you read the Fresno Bee, I’m a ways north, though I was raised in Merced. I agree that politics has always inspired rancor, but I would contend that disagreement is no excuse for sloppy thinking. In my view, a failure to look beyond labels is a form of intellectual sloth.

  • Nice piece, Christy. I suspect the polarization of American politics was ever thus – it’s led to at least one war. Just lately, though, people seem to have stopped bothering to apply even a veneer of civility.

    Sounds like you live pretty close to me. Apt choice of Masumoto to put up as your Amazon link. I enjoy reading his columns in the Fresno Bee.

  • Ah, Arch, good to see you. Read carefully and you will note that I have picked a side. I stand on the side of humanity against those who would reduce us to generalization and sound-bites. If you have a specific point, hit me with it. I’m a big girl, and I left Candyland behind long ago.
    By the way, didn’t someone once note that politics is the “art of compromise?”

  • Arch Conservative

    This isn’t Candyland.

    This is hardcore American politics.

    Pick a fucking side already!