Post originally created Feb 2012 for a class assignment at the UofM
Posting this piece here as I process my white family and friend’s response to the BlackLivesMatter Movement. I haven’t written for a while. Perhaps it is time to begin again. ~Sarah
I am exploring this idea of text, culture, ideologies, and how to question them. Not a simple of straightforward kinda subject matter. In fact, for me anyway, these thoughts are like the dry, warm sands of a beach…inviting but difficult to grasp in my hand. I can hold a few precious grains, the rest slip from my grasp. Let me try to explain what I am banging around in my mind. I will start with some anecdotal story examples.
About fifteen or so years back, after J-Term, a professor of mine told the returning students a story about her Christmas visit home. This holiday was different and special because four generations of women would be in the same place…imagine! In attendance were her grandmother, mother, sisters, and niece. According to her story, the women were busy making the famous Christmas ham recipe that had been handed down through the generations. Well, grandma was exempt from the duties and was resting in the living room.
As the ham was prepared, the professor’s sister spent a great deal of time explaining to her young daughter the importance of family tradition, why she was to learn the Christmas ham recipe and teach it to her future children. The daughter eagerly listened as she took part in the dinner preparation. Part way through the dinner prep, she asked her mom a question, “Why do we cut both ends of the ham off?” Her Mom didn’t know and said something like, “Well, that’s just how we have always done it.” Then the Mom repeated her daughter’s question to the other women in the kitchen…no one knew the answer to the young girls question. Ideas were thrown about the room; did this help the ham taste better, cook faster, or something else?
Finally, after much discussion the collective of woman decided to ask grandma, who was snoozing in the living room, why the ends of the holiday ham were cut off. Upon asking their question, the grandmother scoffed & laughed. Apparently, the reason she had cut off both ends of the ham was not due to any taste enhancing measure rather, this cutting happened because when she taught her daughter how to prepare the holiday meal her pan was too small to accommodate such a large Holiday ham (insert canned classroom laughter).
My professor told this story not to make us think about any sort of concept or idea; rather we were just getting back into the swing of things. But this story stuck me as profound back then. It still affects me now. How many things to we do, say, or subscribe to just because they are the way we have “always done them”? How many of these things should we question?
Speaking of questioning the world, I am reminded of my status as a mother. It is a role where I am learning to balance the teaching, leading, and socializing of my children. Some days I struggle with this balance. I want my children to become “productive citizens” (I can deconstruct that some other time). But I want them to have some sort of self…a free spirit that can exist within the constructs of our social world. How does one instruct a child to question everything while at the same time expect them to follow the rules?
As a society, we have taught that our children “should” sit quietly and be obedient. The message, sometimes implicit & sometimes explicit, DO AS I SAY! When a child asks why, and in my own experience, society has tended to answer ‘because.’ Is this flat answer a case of societies unwillingness to respect the questioning of a child? Maybe not wanting the boat to rock, pure laziness, or the inability to question itself—to question societies “ends of the ham?”
Thinking of these questions, I am reminded of an experience I had when I was sixteen. Back then I was considered ‘wild teen.’ Perhaps this was due to my dyed jet-black hair, non-conformist clothing choices, & my out spoken mouth. For example, in my family my car was commonly referred to as “the billboard” due the amount of politically liberal bumper stickers the covered it’s hind end.
Despite this rebel teen appearance, I still would regularly visit my grandmother. During one of these visits I was chatting with a few aunts and my grandma. We were in grandma’s kitchen and all of us were eating some nuts from this gigantic bowl on the oversized table. I enjoed the ritual of selecting the nut, cracking it open, and trying to get everything to exit the shell in its entirety. It was a fun little game. Can I crack this nutshell without destroying the yummy goodness inside? I was accustomed to only having nuts at Christmas and this was a summer day. What a special treat! There were some nuts in the bowl that I didn’t know the names of and wanted to find out so I could go buy my own (I was 16, had a job and car…the world was my oyster!)
When I asked my grandmother what the name of this yummy nut was, she responded with a horribly derogatory term. Whoa! WTH grandma. I got angry & flustered. I didn’t understand why would she use such a racist term to describe a nut? So I questioned her and pushed back on her logic (my MO). After a round about of quick snips and remarks, I demanded to know when she went shopping at the local grocery store if the price card had her racist term written on it or perhaps there was another name? One of my aunts came to her rescue and said I should be more understanding, that I should just accept this word for the nut because that is what our family has always called this nut. Wait a minute…when did I become the bad guy here? Questioning is bad?
Well, I lost that battle. The aunts circled their wagons and protected the racist vocabulary of the elder generation. What was their reasoning? We must show respect to our elders. What?!?!?! We (the younger generation) show respect to our elders by allowing them to continue their blatant racism? That day I left my grandma’s house feeling confused and angry.
This brings me back to my original “banging around [of ideas] in my mind.” There is stuff, things, concepts, ideas, dogma, etc., that I feel MUST be questioned and explored. No one should ever settle for an explanation of, “Well, that’s just how we have always done things.” I am not satisfied with just ‘having faith’ or ‘trusting tradition.’
That being said, it is my hope that I can somehow find balance as both mother and grad student, teaching my children to be “productive and effective” members of our society while at the same time teaching them to question everything. The challenge will be when they challenge my values and beliefs, which I truly hope they will. That would be respectful.