Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again.
The existential crisis of my youth was my embarrassment and shame for having been raised in ignorance. My redneck past erupted from my mouth in the first weeks of college, and I exposed myself an arrogant fool.
Racist, sexist, brash, and incredibly insensitive to human dignity—I had no sense of community, no humility, little compassion, and no room for anything to replace the incredible callousness that filled my mind, my heart, and my soul.
Many years later in my doctoral program, I discovered Lou LaBrant and was immediately drawn to her warnings about word magic and provincialism, and her faith in progressive education as a path out of ignorance and bigotry:
The English class does not differ from other classes in responsibility for social situations which militate against prejudice and intolerance. Classifications which result in racial or cultural segregation, encouragement of small cliques, avoidance of crucial issues-all of these may be evils in the English classes as in others. Indeed, many of our classifications, built on results of reading tests, tend to promote rather than to destroy the kind of antisocial situation just mentioned….The question is briefly: Do the very words we use and our attitudes toward them affect our tendency to accept or reject other human beings? (p. 323)
In my mid-30s, I had already made significant strides along the journey captured by LaBrant, a journey that was deeply indebted to my reading black and women writers who shook the scales from my eyes and pointed me to the light leading away from the provincialism of my youth.
Concurrent to my passion for fiction and literature was my self-taught commitment to reading existential philosophy, which also resonated with me as I had become aware that every human is a prisoner of her/his own Being.
It was not that I came to know the world through my being white, male, heterosexual, and a non-believer; it was that I made the error of not recognizing those lenses, falling into the trap expressed by Claudia Rankine and James Baldwin.
That trap was to ignore my whiteness and to fail to understand that anything that defines any individual is inseparable from the world around that individual; as Baldwin explains:
White Americans find it as difficult as white people elsewhere do to divest themselves of the notion that they are in possession of some intrinsic value that black people need, or want. And this assumption—which, for example, makes the solution to the Negro problem depend on the speed with which Negroes accept and adopt white standards—is revealed in all kinds of striking ways, from Bobby Kennedy’s assurance that a Negro can become President in forty years to the unfortunate tone of warm congratulation with which so many liberals address their Negro equals. It is the Negro, of course, who is presumed to have become equal—an achievement that not only proves the comforting fact that perseverance has no color but also overwhelmingly corroborates the white man’s sense of his own value.
The existential crisis of my first three years of college did not bring me to some miraculous enlightenment. Neither did my doctoral experience in my mid-30s.
As I stumble toward 60, the crisis remains, and the journey continues.
My most recent leg of that journey has been grounded in social media, where I have gathered (especially on Twitter) connections that allow me to listen beyond myself about race, social class, gender, sexuality, ablism, and a whole host of contexts that, as LaBrant confronted, address “our tendency to accept or reject other human beings.”
Over the past few years when I have increased my public writing as well as my presence on social media, I have learned two important lessons.
First—although it has taken me decades to recognize and come to understand better my own struggles with anxiety and introversion—I am a lifelong outsider, a non-joiner.
However, I have experienced a few vicious (and unfounded) attacks directed at me either through a virtual connection only or about my role as a public intellectual.
In these cases, the conflict was grounded entirely (again as LaBrant noted) in how the other person was naming me, especially in terms of how that naming associated me with allegiances I do not have (to organizations, to known personalities, to acquiring financial benefits).
My non-joiner Self has always been rooted in my fidelity to ideas and ideals, not people or organizations. I am perpetually checking if people and organizations share that fidelity, but I cannot pledge allegiance to anyone or any organization.
These conflicts happened, it is important to stress, with both people I consider allies and those who are clearly in different camps than I am.
Just as a broad example, I have felt tension from union members and advocates because, I think, I hold an odd stance of never having been in a union (living my entire life in a right-to-work state) and of criticizing strongly both of the major teachers’ unions and their leaders—all the while being an unapologetic advocate for unionization.
I have also been discounted and discredited among my narrow field of teaching ELA because many within the field misunderstand blogging and academic publishing (neither of which is about making money, by the way).
This first lesson, then, is about how we label each other through association, and as a result, create fractures, angry divisions—much of which is inaccurate, or at least misleading.
Commitments to people and organizations to the exclusion of the ideals those people and organizations claim to be working toward are ultimately counterproductive.
But my second lesson moves beyond the personal and to the wider chasms of the U.S. as a people.
As a perpetual stranger, I am a critical observer, and I have witnessed a powerful and corrosive dynamic captured by the story of Saul’s conversion: “something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again.”
What I have witnessed is about power and privilege as the scales that blind the powerful and privileged.
From the Bernie Sander’s campaign to Hillary Clinton’s campaign to the accountability education reform resistance—and many other contexts—I have watched as white people with some degree of privilege and power have squandered their good intentions, alienating marginalized people by not listening.
The worst of which has been the tone deaf All Lives Matter (and Blue Lives Matter) response to Black Lives Matter.
In a recent post about rescuing education reform from post-truth, I highlighted that both the reform mindset that public education is a failure and the counter-resistance (that often says public education is not the problem because poverty is) are equally flawed—the latter because it spits in the face of the vulnerable students (black, brown, English language learners, special needs students) who are in fact being cheated by an inadequate K-12 public school system.
I think ultimately the second lesson is about missionary zeal, the bleeding-heart liberal urge to save the world, an urge that ignores (as Baldwin challenges) the arrogance of privilege, the condescension of privilege.
And thus, even as I have framed this with a sight metaphor, when the scales drop from our eyes—when we resist viewing the world through our provincialism, through our necessarily personal biases (and bigotry)—we are freed to listen and to hear with compassion and awareness so that our worlds expand.
Freedom and equity no longer appear to be a zero-sum game.
Ending racism is the responsibility of whites. Ending sexism is the responsibility of men. Ending economic inequity is the responsibility of the wealthy.
Privilege and power control how the U.S. works, for whom it works as well as over whom it plows.
Our country is in desperate need of a conversion such as Saul’s, the scales dropping from our eyes so that we may listen, understand, and act in the service of those we have too long failed to see or hear.