We had an event at our church in which a series of jokes were presented. The format in which they were presented was in the “Yo Mama” structure. When I first heard the phrase “Yo Mama,” I started. But then as the jokes were presented I relaxed as they were gentle, actually funny, and aimed totally at my community, who generally are considered a privileged lot. I settled into it.
And then I posted them publicly.
I noticed the comments seemed all to be from white folk, who pretty much all liked them. The larger majority of my Facebook friends are white, but I have a significant number of friends who are not. So, a second hesitation arose in my heart.
But, those who know my life at this moment are aware I am past busy right now. Way past busy. And I didn’t pursue it.
Then I received a note from a colleague, who perhaps a bit more accusingly than not, wanted to probe the whys and hows of how this all came about.
My first reaction in the moment was defensive. Don’t you know who I am and what I’ve stood for, etc? Fortunately, I’ve been committed to watching my own heart for a very long time, so that sense didn’t last through to the writing of my response.
So, rule one. In situations like this those in the majority need to start by checking any sense of privilege at the door. Privilege is a stance held, usually unconsciously by a person in a majority place when dealing with someone in a minority place. This can apply to race, to gender, to class. The list is in fact fairly long.
One can only do this by being aware of one’s own place in society. So, there’s a project for people to notice. My personal way in is through the practices of presence, of regularly sitting down, shutting up, and paying attention. There are other ways to do this, but this is mine.
Now, with this example. I was confronted, not with a lot of aggression, but just enough that if I wanted I could have gone self-righteous. And the flash was there. This was an email exchange, so there was just enough space for me to see my own reaction, a little spark of fire. It is one of our preferred ways of encountering any sort of criticism, at least in my experience of my own life, and in my observation of most others, too. As an aside, if you are in the habit of quick responses you might find it wise to write that response on a regular page format, so that you have to cut and paste into your email or whatever social media form you’re using. If you’re talking, that’s harder, but taking a breath or two rather than jumping right in with your response is almost always worth the extra seconds involved. Whatever, the rule is to give yourself a little space.
And in that space to give half a thought to relationships, particularly if cultural differences are involved. I was an older white male in a conversation with a young black male. Cultivating some sense of what currents are involved in such a conversation is important. And pretending they aren’t there is a formula for failure. But exactly what they are is going to be elusive. And with any luck there are connections as well as separations. Awareness of the range of things happening is important. You don’t have to be super clear on it, but you have to, we have to be sensitive enough to the fact we’re caught up in many things, some in the moment, some ancient. And so, the project isn’t something you work out and its done. ’tis a life long project this growing into maturity, of decency, and care, this hope for a more just and generous world.
So, for me, where was the critical mistake? (If you’ll allow a general sense of good will on my part, and I would extend that to all the players in this event.) Me, I thought of that catch in my throat when I first heard the jokes. Before we got to the content.
If I’d been on my game that should have been a trigger to reflect on why I felt a sense of hesitation. Now, every pause isn’t a signal one should change course. But, again if the matter has something to do with built in inequities like race or gender or class, and if you, like I was, belong to the group with more power, and that is categorical power, don’t wander into the weeds of how you are an exception to the rule, see this and it may be good to pursue further.
My reasoning was simple enough. Yes, Yo Mama jokes are problematic. They are a form of insult humor, always dangerous, and to my sense pretty much always distasteful. And, second, I thought, they can be racially charged. The jokes themselves, however, were turned on to a majority group, at least in the sense of a group that generally has power within the culture. And they were gentle. And they were funny. And I leapt to the content. (In some Zen halls a person is given a leadership role without instructions. At this moment someone would yell out “Mistake!” Leaving the poor monk to figure out what that mistake was…)
The devil in it was my thought that these jokes “can be” racially charged.
The catch I felt hinted to me they “are” racially charged.
And for those of us committed to the healing of our communal hearts as well as our own, that miss was as good as a mile.
And the responsible parties are the grown ups in the group. There were a couple of spots where this should have been caught earlier, used as a non guilt driven opportunity to explore some aspects of racial injustice and how people in different power dynamics encounter the same information, and the responsibility of those with more power, even when it is sometimes hard to see that more power, to make the first steps to reconciliation.
The immediate fix is that I took down the post. And I’ve committed to speaking with folk to make sure it is unlikely to happen again. If I had more time (I am retiring in less than a month, so time is not in fact on the table), and if handled right, this could be an opportunity. Others will have to decide whether or not to do that.
But, I feel terrible about this. And that’s the next pointer for this little meditation. Notice the feelings. The first one I should have caught was the feeling of hesitation. It would have been pretty easy to reframe the jokes into another format like “You might be a UU if…”
And, my take away feeling of guilt at how I did and did not do things is another moment where the heart is leading the way. We are a little too quick, in my opinion, in our culture to let go of our guilt. Shame is the problem. That’s a generalized sense of guilt just for existing. Actual situational guilt, that’s like the pain you experience when you cut your finger. It is a warning from the body that something is not right.
So, my commitment is not to wallow in guilt, but to notice when your, my actions, small or great, have caused others hurt. People I am committed to being in conversation with, and in working together with to help in the great healing.
Apologize, try to fix, go forward.
Now, I will conclude this with a small Zen reference. (Some might opine, of course, James. You would…)
We have a saying.
Fall down nine times. Get up ten.
I hope this is helpful…