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07 May 2014

Know Your Neighbors: Why Do We See Others of Our Own Species as Inferior?

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Just before my brother’s wedding in the early 1980s, I got a death threat from my father. He said if I showed up at the wedding with my live-in significant other—in front of my grandparents—he would kill me. He may have thought he meant it.

Did I mention my guy was black?

My brother called and pleaded with me to come without Milt, to keep peace in the family—in spite of the fact that he and Milt were quite friendly, and we had often socialized as couples. “After all,” he said, “this is the only time I’m going to get married.”

I finally agreed, with Milt’s support, to attend the ceremony, but to make a statement by skipping the reception. My brother is now very happily married to his fourth wife, and I have forever been ashamed that I caved.

Another wedding just took place. My oldest granddaughter married a lovely man who is crazy in love with her. With due deference to my late mother’s admonition that “family is about happy times, not funerals,” we all flew into Portland, Ore., from around the world to gather and celebrate.

I normally cry profusely at such events, but my tears this time were reserved for that moment when I saw my son walk his daughter down the aisle: I realized he was literally handing off his first-born child. It’s a life-changing event, and I could feel both his pride and his ambivalence.

Then the preacher asked, “Who gives this woman to be married?” My son dutifully said, “Her mother and I do,” although his wife had not accompanied them down the aisle.

The fact that we are still acting as if a father “owns” his daughter and passes that “ownership” along to another man, only abandoned in public policy in recent history (for example, women can now have credit and make medical decisions on their own), made me catch my breath. This is 2014. Why aren’t both sets of parents asked to deliver their children to each other? 

Also on my mind: The highly publicized rantings of Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. We’re all aware of the sensationalized, “You can do anything but … don’t bring him to my games,” statements regarding her public appearance with Magic Johnson, among others.

Sterling was apparently upset that his girlfriend/mistress/assistant (take your pick), who describes herself as Mexican and black (“You're supposed to be a delicate White or a delicate Latina girl," he told her), was somehow disrespecting him by appearing publicly with a black man. His racism and ignorance were appropriately publicly censured. But what hasn’t really been discussed is that he apparently holds the belief that his image is based on her behavior, like an employer who tells you how to act with customers, because you are representing him or her and are expected to do nothing that would put that employer in a bad light.

Sterling’s racism is proven by his concern about appearances, just as my father was. (To be charitable, perhaps it was only my father’s perception about the racism of his parents.)

Then there’s the appropriate outrage, finally, about the girls abducted in Nigeria by some fringe group of idiots who believe that publicly educating females means the end of their world, a notion only abolished from our own public policy in the 20th century. Girls need to be married off, not educated, say the extremists in Nigeria, and somehow, they make the illogical leap that they should therefore fund their activities by selling the girls to men who will own them. Even in America, some can’t abide the notion of true gender equality.

So within the space of one week, I experienced my reaction to two weddings and racism, with the ownership of women as the unifying theme among seemingly disparate events. I suppose I could be accused of letting my feminist politics overwhelm and define things that are merely social conventions, or public displays of ignorance, or ego-involvement events, or self-defined religious extremists going against their own religious teachings.

But I’m trying to figure out how to make sense of and promote understanding of the pernicious effect of seeing others of our own species as inferior. This instinct is in all of us, perhaps inherited from a tribal “us vs. them” mentality, but leading inevitably to borders between lands, to slavery, to “the final solution,” to women as property. It pervades everything. It is held on a level often so unconscious that we can’t believe it is motivating us in any way. It permeates our religious teachings and our cultural norms.

Unless and until we can “own” this part of our nature, and do whatever is necessary to obliterate it, ownership of women—and others—will continue to be part of the reality of being human.

We could start with absolute public censure of people like Donald Sterling, regardless of position or fortune, and making it impossible for anyone with those views to do business or participate in our institutions.

We could make it the social norm that brides walk down the aisle on their own, proudly going toward their own future without anyone passing them on.

We could adjudicate that people cannot be defined or punished based on whom they love or with whom they associate.

We could recognize that each of us carries this addiction to superiority around inside of us, and the manifestations, while appearing very different, all spring from the same source.

The first step toward sobriety is acknowledging there is a problem.

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