What is it about difference that can turn otherwise sane, even kindly, individuals into mean-spirited, foul-mouthed hysterics? As a white person growing up in the South of the 1940s and 50s, I certainly had many occasions to ponder this question. Neighbor ladies who gave me cookies and milk after school could suddenly change their easy smiles into thin-lipped sneers when speaking about some “negro” who’d not stepped aside to let them pass without coming into contact with the fearful Other. Schoolmates mimicked what they’d heard at home, assuring me that “they” smelled bad and probably didn’t even use knives and forks.
When I was a junior in college, three intelligent classmates in my Romantic Poetry course stopped having coffee with me the day I told the class that a contemporary person who seemed to me to fit the definition of a romantic hero was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I deduced this must be their reason for shunning me though they never spoke to me again to inform me of why they wouldn’t sit with me in the cafeteria. When I accepted my first teaching job at an Episcopal girls’ school in Vicksburg, MS, I had to puzzle out the answer to another mystery that turned out to be racial in nature. The school was located in the Civil War Memorial Park, a lovely area with low, rolling hills, and very few houses. The road through the park, however, was a patchwork of well-kept, evenly-paved sections and rutted dirt road sections. Over time, a pattern emerged: Paving and upkeep went along with one’s car being in a section honoring a Confederate state, while the bumpy, dust-ridden portions were in tiny parts forced to recognize a Union state since the park received federal dollars. A colleague confirmed my hunch by saying, “Yep, you’ve figured it out, the state won’t get money if we didn’t put up a little sign saying a Yankee state is marked.”
Recently I was asked by a high school English teacher with whom I had worked for almost ten years to drive out to his school. It was located in an overwhelmingly white, middle-class, largely Christian suburb. The teacher assigned his high ability seniors James Baldwin’s novel, Giovanni’s Room and then watch the HBO presentation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. A couple of sets of parents had confronted the principal, charging that the teacher was “teaching pornography.” After unsuccessful attempts to resolve the problem informal, a panel of three parents and three teachers reviewed the two texts before hearing from the teacher and his principal. Before the teacher spoke, my boss and I were given half an hour to speak about the purposes of the course and the process by which curriculum is determined. The panel responded positively to what I said and sent a recommendation in favor of including the works to the school board which ended up supporting the teacher. But in the audience were the complaining parents. When the teacher spoke to the school board, this group yelled from the back of the room “You’re a WACKO!” and “You’re going to Hell!” The three women in this group belonged to an organization called “Mothers in Touch,” a branch of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. It seems these mothers meet regularly to pray for the school as part of their Christian mission, yet they easily harassed a splendid English teacher, using language quite inconsistent with the fundamental teachings of Jesus as I read them in the Gospels.
All these anecdotal moments confirm the premise that for some people differences of any kind are simply too scary to be tolerated. Given the fact that cultures are almost never stagnant these days, feeling this way must be genuinely frightening. I know that I can respond badly when I’m frightened, saying and at least thinking of doing things that do not reflect that “me” that I like or admire. So I step back from my automatic fear response and do something that lets me come to understand that the problem resides in my consciousness and not in whoever or whatever has pushed me out of some comfort zone. Eventually I can grasp that the difference that is causing me anxiety actually can enliven and broaden my own understanding. I may even come to embrace and celebrate it.