Understanding Different

View from above of this winter's protestors seeking justice at the Mall of America - photo by Avi Nahum.

View from above of this winter's protestors seeking justice at the Mall of America - photo by Avi Nahum.

We saw the film Selma on Sunday, just as the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday filled up all other screens with images from the mid-1960s struggle for basic human rights and dignity. Coming on the heels of the protests in Ferguson and New York City this past year, it was a powerful reminder that the world we inhabit needs more work. 

I was in grade school when the events in Selma took place, and at that time in history, Alabama seemed so much further away than it does today. I don’t remember there being dinner table conversation about the protests, but then my mom believed the dinner table was a place where a discussion of politics, sex or religion was simply impolite. So that wasn’t too surprising.

What is surprising is that I can’t remember any action, any activities, taking place in my hometown that supported the drive to recognize the rights of all citizens to participate in this grand experiment called democracy. The idea that there were people in another state who were denied the right to vote or fully participate in American life because of skin tone should have riled up major demonstrations in my Ohio hometown. But I don’t remember anything like that.

Instead, my grade school memories all took place within the cluster of people who were just like us. Two parented families with 2.5 children living in nice, not extravagant, homes with music education taking up a big part of our time outside of school. Our friends were nearly all white – well, there was one black violin player who everyone agreed was talented, although different. And the one time I came home from a day camp talking about the Marcus kids, I was told that yes, they were nice, but again, different.

And that was the code word. “Those people” were different than we were. And that meant it was OK to be polite, to be kind – but we simply didn’t mix.

I never questioned my parents on that. I never pushed back nor argued about the meaning of “mixing” or why “different” was taken as somehow not as good.

As is true of many who were brought up in the 1960s and 70s, I’ve forged my own path that includes mixing with different my whole life. I may not have verbally pushed back, but I discarded the biases of my past. Now I realize that for all of my desire to embrace “different”, I truly haven’t done enough to understand how different the experience of life can be for most of the world.

We still find ourselves clustering with those who are like us. Most of our friends are college educated with kids and are on a mad dash search for meaning in life.  We may not be in the highest economic class, but if you have the luxury of searching for meaning in life, that means you have the basic wherewithal to pay your heat and electricity bills.

But more than half of this globe’s residents don’t have that luxury of seeking “meaning” when food and shelter are at the top of their to-do list. And an additional thirty to forty percent of the world struggles to figure out how to pay for things like education, health care, and transportation.

I realize that my parents’ quiet assertion that others are different and we don’t mix was a comfortable way of saying that their issues were not our issues and we didn’t have to be engaged in “their” problems. And that’s not right or true.