Not In My Back Yard

December 7, 2014

On the back of the interior door that separates the laundromat from the supply room is a black bumper sticker that reads “Do No Harm” in big white block letters. I sometimes wonder if our employees actually see it and think about its intention, or if it’s one of those signs that they see so often it becomes invisible. I hope not.

 

Some years ago I got stuck in a conversation with a man sitting next to me on a long flight; I was in the middle seat, of course. Not long into the flight I caught his sideways glance as he noticed I was reading a book about Buddhist practice. I couldn’t help but glance back and noticed him reading a book about Christianity.  I didn’t give it much thought until he said “So you’re a Buddhist.” Looking up I said “No, I’m just reading this book.” I tried to leave it at that, but he wanted to talk. “Well, if you’re not a Buddhist, and you’re reading a Buddhist book, what are you?” I wish I’d been quick, clever and polite enough to say something that would have ended the conversation, but instead I took the bait. “I’m Jewish and interested in Buddhist practice.” Oy vey.

 

This began his very long exhortation that as a devout Christian white man he understands the plight of the Jews around the world along with all of the other oppressed people from Africa. I don’t think my jaw was visibly on the floor, but given that I was stuck in the middle seat for two more hours, I decided to listen and see if I could understand his way of thinking.

 

At some point he began talking about God and compassion. That intentionally harming another person under the guise of teaching a lesson, as in “an eye for an eye” even if it wasn’t he who was harmed, is true compassion.  And that is when I suggested that we have very different views, and offered to change the subject. No dice. As he continued, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and I calmly interrupted him and said “Sir, this conversation is over.” Yes, I called him Sir. He looked at me as if I’d hurt his feelings. I thanked him and went back to reading my book.

 

When I was in 8th grade in 1973, I played the part of a nurse in the musical production of South Pacific. I can still remember most of the words to most of the songs. The story explores issues of racial prejudice as romances develop between an American nurse and a middle-aged French expatriate plantation owner and father of mixed-race children, as well as a U.S. lieutenant and a young Asian woman.  The recent murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner reminded me of the song “You’ve Got to be Taught.” I vividly remember learning this song for the show and not knowing how to respond. Here are the lyrics.

 

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

 

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

 

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

 

We are still taught to fear, to demean, to judge and to hate. The deaths of black men (and even a twelve year old boy with a pellet gun in Cleveland last week) at the hands of white policemen who are not held accountable is shocking. Or is it?

 

Can we finally wake up and look into the painful, complex and deeply ingrained culture of racism, fear and intolerance in this country? Can we recognize how it both affects and comes out in each of us? It’s startling and frightening to see and acknowledge the ways we reject one another, the ways we cause harm both intentionally and unintentionally. We know that violence begets violence, that hatred begets hatred, and ignorance certainly begets ignorance.

 

It’s time for each one of us to study the meaning of “Do No Harm,” courageously say “It stops with me,” and give new meaning to NIMBY. Ferguson, Staten Island and Cleveland are indeed in our back yards.