Wednesday Oct 28 2009
O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
—W.B. Yeats, "Among School Children" (1928)
I had lunch with an old friend, a Tlingit elder, Harold, today. I’ve known Harold for nearly a dozen years. And I know him to be a serious, thoughtful man; he’s someone who has taught me many things, not the least of which was the powerful consequence of even the smallest positive intervention in someone’s life. I have seen it in action: Harold is the embodiment of Emerson’s dictum that it is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself…. “Serve and thou shall be served.” Harold helped me, a lawyer once upon a time, see love in a loveless system.
During the hour, he related to me a personal story. He and his brother had spent a week working with the RCMP on race relations and cross-cultural understanding—by all accounts a successful few days. The following week, strolling through a department store, he noticed a security officer scolding some aboriginal kids, but passed by. Shortly thereafter, he saw them all outside, the security man still berating the kids, but in language Harold felt was racist. He stopped and spoke to the youngsters, telling them that inside the store was a private matter, but they were entitled to their use of the sidewalk. He returned to his car. Then he saw two police cars pull up quickly, and he thought he had better return. “I know how these things escalate in the minds of young people,” he said. “Then they’re angry, it escalates, and they end up going down a road no one ever imagined. I’ve seen it all before; I’ve been there.” As he approached, he heard the security guard make some startling accusations, as well as barking at Harold that this matter was none of his concern. Harold replied that as long as he felt there was unfair, racist “bullshit” going on, he would always be concerned.
He was suddenly seized by the elbow by one of the officers who had just arrived. Harold jerked his arm away. This time two officers grabbed him: “You’re under arrest for causing a disturbance.” In spite of his protest, he was taken forcefully to the cruiser and locked inside. The young people went on their way. Around the block, the cruiser stopped. Harold asked why they were stopping. “To check something,” was the reply. Harold became concerned and angry; he demanded to be taken to the police station and charged. The officer said that he’d decided to give Harold “a break and let him go.” Furious, Harold went straight to the police station on foot and asked to see the officer in charge: he wanted to make a formal complaint. After waiting for a time, an officer appeared at the wicket to ask Harold what he wanted. It was the same officer who several minutes earlier had locked Harold in a cruiser car. Harold was sad as he related this, saying only: “We had just finished a week of talking about these issues, and without losing a beat, here was this guy making assumptions about me as just another goddammed Indian. I’m starting to feel that we’ve gained no ground at all.”
His story (which I’ve considerably shortened here) reminded me that we constantly relate to one another on the basis of our assumptions about who the other is. Jim Selman, another thoughtful friend who devotes much of his time contemplating these things, goes further, calling them ‘assessments’, often made in advance. Our assessments are neither true nor false, he says, they are merely judgements arrived at on the basis of what we think we’ve heard or seen—we fail to make a distinction between truth and those assessments. He considers that frequently our relationships are not truly authentic, but merely an exchange of assessments (often I would say a half-cooked porridge of gossip, half-truths, impressions, preferences or biases, and one’s own needs) in which the inner person is seldom discernible. A racist, for example, will never see the real person in front of him: he will only see a caricature of a human being for whom he has certain specific and predictable expectations. He will only “see” what tends to confirm his assumptions. If we stereotype in our relations, others will always present to us already distorted by our bigotry. We deny that the other person has wisdom. Somewhere in my life as a lawyer, I learned that counsel’s special gift is to see the insides of things: we see the world as a series of transparencies which, when laid one over the other, form an image of the truth. We see inner structures, processes, histories, aspirations and values; instruments not always visible to the quotidian eye. But that is as nothing, if we are incapable of turning that eye inward.
© 2009 Stuart J. Whitley. All rights reserved.