“I’m not dumb but I can’t understand,” is from Lola, the 1970 song by The Kinks. The song is about an ordinary guy attempting to sort out the ambivalent gender of a transvestite named Lola.
I’m not dumb because I’m from rural America. It doesn’t mean I’m dumb if I’m trying to sort out stuff and occasionally get it wrong. There’s so much to process through my little gray cells these days and it’s easy to be confused, fooled, duped, or harassed for what I believe.
Nor does it mean I’m dumb because I’m “older.” My adult daughter had to keep me from assaulting a Sam’s Club cashier for telling her, with me invisibly standing there, fiddling with my membership/payment card that just wouldn’t work, “sometimes these older people get confused with technology.”
I thought I was calm when, accompanied by “the look,” I said, “I’ve successfully run a business for over twenty-five years and I daresay I may be adept at more technology than you are,” when I felt my daughter’s hand gently land on my shoulder, keeping me from leaping into that woman’s face. She rolled her eyes, dismissing me as dumb, in spite of my cogent argument to the contrary.
We’ve all gotten words mixed up, believed an old wives’ tale, forwarded a hoax on social media, or been the victim of a prank. Who hasn’t named the wrong name? Have you ever been fooled once and then turned around and done it again? You’re not dumb for having made mistakes. You’re human.
You’ve got gumption, for trying. Even if you failed, you had the moxie to make the attempt. Sometimes the limb breaks when you step out onto it. That doesn’t mean every limb, or even most of them, will break.
“They” point fingers and say, In the “fooled me once, fooled me twice tradition,” shame on you, shame on me. We all seem to be walking around ashamed of ourselves for saying the wrong things, falling prey to a scam, or lately, we’re shamed for our racial identity. Pay no mind to “this they,” says Hercule Poirot, of Agatha Christie’s imagination.
I’ve long-observed (commencing in the mid-eighties when my husband developed a jazz program at a traditionally black, land-grant university in Kentucky, and I supervised a reading lab in the developmental studies program), that African-Americans freely use the n-word among themselves and it is not considered pejorative. But, if a white person uses the same word (I can’t even imagine doing so), it is highly debasing.
This isn’t a double standard. It isn’t apartheid. It’s two subcultures in contemporary America, living out their cultural mores (pronounced morays, as in the eel) in intersection. I wonder if we could more simply, “live and let live” (1622 from Dutch trade policy).
“Politically correct,” is a concept originating around the time the song Lola was released, and when at around twenty years old, Denise Bouch and I worked in D.C., she at Sharpe Electronics and I at Auto-Train. She was invited to an African-American co-worker’s wedding in the south, and I was her plus one. Long story short, we were the only white faces in the crowd, and were seated, quite literally in the back of the church, sort of segregated.
As I recall, we thought, “okay, in this setting, this is probably where we belong.” Were we comfortable? No. Did we belong? Not really. Did we kind of want to retreat to the familiarity of home? Probably.
If I were to compare how we felt at that southern wedding to some people of color all across this nation, being relegated metaphorically, if not literally, to the back seat in every building they enter and every institution they engage with, I might come close to describing Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 academic bandwagon of “white privilege.” I don’t love the term, because it reads to many a white psyche, that it’s about individual privilege, which many individual whites do not enjoy, nor do all people of color suffer from it.
The term, instead, is about belonging, and who’s in control of the gathering. Just because I’m invited to someone’s party doesn’t mean I’m made to feel welcome once I get there. This may be the reality for some, if not many American people of color.
During the pandemic quarantine, a saying circulated on social media: “I miss people, places, and things. I miss nouns, really.” About nouns, we all sort them into mental boxes. We organize our nouns into categories in order to keep track of the over-abundance of informative stimuli coming at us, to make sense of life.
This innocent sorting of nouns can run dangerously close to a bad sort of classification, called prejudice, bigotry, racism, stereotyping…. or not. It either is or isn’t bad, based on intent.
“There’s only one race, the human race.” From my perspective, this is a kind, inclusive sentiment, acknowledging the value of every human being.
Unfortunately, there are some intentional, and mean-spirited racists and bigots among us. It may not be realistic to think we will change their individual prejudices through education, protest, shame, or rioting.
Nudging a racist out of their comfort zone, literally, might help them see the light, or not. Seeing other parts of the country and how “the other side” lives, might show, not tell a racist what it’s like to wear the shoes of another, or not.
I’m not an activist, called to fight systemic racism or join any other fight. However, following Edward Hale’s example, “I am only one, but still I am one,” I can live the best, open-minded, life possible, expressing kindness to everyone I meet; and not be ashamed for the life I was given. I can encourage others to do the same. That’s what I can do.
Judging other’s categorizing, based on the intention of their heart is tricky business. Juries get it wrong all the time, maybe as often as they get it right. And that’s the best system we’ve got. Perhaps God, alone, knows the intentions of the heart.
Life is complicated and there are so many details and fine distinctions in these politically correct, hyper-sensitive times. For example, those of us who’ve said, “we’re all in the same boat,” to mean, we’re in this viral contagion together, thus the term pandemic, have been corrected to say, “we’re all in the same storm, but in different boats.” I get it; not everybody’s experience is the same with the big issues we have in common.
But one could also see it as, toe-may-toe, toe-mah-toe, or, “same-difference.” It’s so very easy to be misunderstood.
There’s often an optional section at the end of a survey, “for classification purposes,” where you indicate your race, age, gender, ethnicity, education, and income. I wonder, since it’s optional, who opts in and who opts out? What possible statistical purpose can this information serve if the population participating is optional? Do only poor people answer surveys? Do people of color answer surveys but opt out of the classification section?
Most of us acknowledge it’s a privilege to live in this bucolic, rural, geographic setting and we’re grateful. But many of us know, here is not everywhere. Some of us have been, not everywhere, but many a somewhere else, to have seen a thing or two.
I learned back in the 70s when I got my driver’s license, that along with privilege comes responsibility. As to our diverse perspectives, identities, and beliefs, might we responsibly extend mercy as we have received it? Can we please exercise the common courtesy of opening doors for one another, and mind our manners?
From Lola and me, “It’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world,” that some of us are trying to understand.