Saturday, March 3, 2012

When Difference Is the Norm

I want to begin by apologizing publicly to Billy Greenwald. He was the lone Jewish boy in my elementary school and I believe my classmates and I made fun of him. It would be another four years before my older sister finally broke it to me that I, too, was Jewish. (That’s a story for another blog.) I believe when I found out that I was more grateful that I hadn’t known and been spared ridicule than remorseful toward Billy. But it’s never too late to own up. Billy, I’m really sorry.

I don’t remember us being excessively cruel, just that mixture of childish taunting and teasing and experimenting with the in-group and the out-group, that odious trait of building yourself up by putting someone else down. Kids trying to figure out where they were in the social hierarchies, what was cool, what was shameful, what conferred status and power. And a surrounding adult culture that either actively modeled intolerance or sanctified it with complicit silence. 

Distrust of the "other" is hard-wired in the animal kingdom, helping us figure out if what's different from us is prey or predator or something safe to ignore. But what is instinctive in animals gets complicated by the many layers in the complex human complex brain. The brain-stem shouts, “Warning! Difference here!” while the other layers can add their conditioned responses. In talking about intolerance, it’s a good idea to acknowledge the biological roots that developed for survival. It’s what attracts us to our own, the kids-in-the-cafeteria syndrome that makes us feel safe and comfortable and what makes us cautious and initially distrustful of the “other.”

At our recent Black History celebration, the head of school told the kids that we are a school of great diversity—people with different skin colors, economic classes, sexual orientation, learning styles, ethnic background, religious and political beliefs. He wished two things for each of us—that each of us accept, honor and celebrate who we are and equally accept, honor and celebrate who other people are. To value and respect difference. Noble thoughts here and a practice that requires we use our brain’s capacity to move beyond the hard-wired distrust and move into the frontal lobes of understanding, empathy, compassion.

I couldn’t help but think as he mentioned all the ways to be different that if each of us is different—and in many ways we certainly are—then what is the norm? To really see and acknowledge difference is to reveal that in fact that the norm is a convenient fiction, especially convenient to those who identify with the norm and in fact, often define it. The fact that a population—say Latinos or African-Americans or women— in certain towns, cities or states can feel like a minority when in fact they are a statistical majority reveals that many times the notion of “norm” is an expression of the power balance, of who’s in charge and holds the purse strings and gets to define what the norm is. Or a psychological mindset fueled by the chosen stories—Eve came from Adam’s rib and that’s why she has to stay in the kitchen. And even when nature suggest that one thing dominate—say heterosexual breeding or pine trees at a certain elevation, it doesn’t mean that the other ways of loving or deciduous trees don’t  equally belong in the biome.

My own life has been an investigation into difference. Starting with my Jewish blood raised Unitarian choosing Buddhism and labeled a generic privileged white male, I never felt a strong identity with any one particular cultural practice and ethnic heritage. This left me free to create my own identity, to search out and choose my own blend of values and claim myself as a world citizen. Since it’s the only life I’ve known, I’ve been grateful for the opportunity.

But I remember a deep discussion with my mentor Avon Gillespie, a middle-class African-American growing up in L.A. who stumbled on Bessie Jones and her Georgia Sea Island Singers singing on the streets during the Watts riots and his world stopped. He felt like he had come home to his essential identity that had been masked by his upbringing. And me feeling jealous, telling him that I would never have an experience like that when I would be struck to the core with the profound sense of belonging to a particular group. I’ve been to barmitzvahs, listened to klezmer music, traveled to Russia close to where my Grandparents came from and it just ain’t the same.

So I have a great sense of respect for an inherited quality of ethnic identity. And yet recognize that so much of the world’s sufferings comes from identities constructed in opposition to other identities. How to value the identity we have been given and equally respect the identities others have been given is worthy work.

But there’s more. What we get for free doesn’t carry the same power as that which we create and choose. We may identify with our race, religion, class, sexual orientation and more, but the essence of who we are is none of these. Ultimately, we are what we dream, what we hope for, what we do and how we do it and why we do it. We are who we love and what we love and how we love and how much we love. And since we all do that in our own different way, difference is indeed the new norm.

PS If anyone is friends with Billy Greenwald on Facebook, put me in touch with him.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I was in the crowd yesterday in Edmonton when we were asked to sing the potato song, I remember you said:
    You have your identity and I have mine. You are you and you are you. But we are we. And this is the new identity that never exist before. Let start playing with each other and find out what our common humanity is and all start from one potato! You have put connect all your believes into the classroom activities, I was so impressed! Thank you!
    Dr. Fei Xiaotong, a Chinese sociologist once said:各美其美,美人之美,美美与共,天下大同。(Gè měi qí měi, měirén zhīměi, měiměi yǔgòng, tiānxià dàtóng)
    “Mei"is beauty in Chinese.
    Gè měi qí měi: Every one should enjoy of the beauty of his heritage culture.
    měirén zhīměi: Every one should enjoy the beauty of other cultures.
    měiměi yǔgòng: your beauty and my beauty together,
    tiānxià dàtóng: We gain the most beautiful world.