Small Town Life: Growing Up “Other”

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One undeniable thing about small-town life is if you weren’t born there, you’ll never really belong. People will always look at you funny. They’re raised from the cradle to give side eye to anyone who doesn’t quite fit their mold. This experience of rural life increases exponentially when one attends parochial school.

Watching my grandson in his very first year of public grammar school, I look on as he forms new friendships—boys running down the sidewalk, conquering invisible villains with their first-finger laser beam guns.  None of the boys question if he was born here. They don’t care if he is Lutheran or Methodist, or who his daddy or grandpa are. All they care about is if he knows the details of the latest Batman game. I sleep a little easier hoping he’ll never know what it means to be an outsider.

I was in second grade when we moved to my tiny town. Diversity was defined only by the crops grown in any given season. Skin color only differed during the summer when migrant workers moved in. Thinking about it, I don’t think we ever really spoke of them. They were our invisible population—not quite slaves, but not even close to our equals. One might suppose I was lucky. I was a transplant, too, but my skin and language matched. At least I had that going for me.

Although my grandparents were farmers, my first seven years found me living far from them, so I never really knew the ins and outs of agriculture. Sure, I knew what cows were, and I knew about home grown vegetables, or at least I knew about eating them. It took some time before I warmed up to farming.

I was a city girl—a business man’s daughter. I cut my teeth in the press room of a print shop, interacting with customers more than kids, and maintaining the appearance of an entrepreneur’s child. I learned, though.

My first trip to the dairy farm owned by my friends’ and classmates’ family was in 2nd grade. I loved animals, so I loved the vibe of the farm. Being an only child, the interaction with the other kids was challenging.

During an innocent game of hide and seek in their grandparents’ farm house, they hid and I was supposed to seek. When I realized I’d have to explore rooms beyond the kitchen, living room, and bathroom, I panicked. I couldn’t go into the bedrooms. That just wouldn’t be polite. Surely they must know these things, right? My friends had abandoned me. I was just sure of it.

I cried to call my parents. I was terrified. These girls didn’t like me. I knew that as sure as I knew if I went into their grandparents’ bedroom I’d be chided by their elders. Worse, my parents would find out, and I’d be grounded for not having decorum attributable to a young lady.

As it turns, everything would have been fine. They were playing. I overreacted—a trait that would follow me into adulthood. What also followed me, rearing its ugly head about 9th grade was the fact I did not, in fact, belong in that house.

There was no Deutsch blood coursing through my veins. I was not Lutheran by birth. My parents weren’t farmers. What my best friends and I had in common was youth and our school desks. Nothing more. Once we no longer shared the tiny rooms in our protected bubble of a school, and once we blossomed into young women, I was out.

It’s questionable if my 3 best buddies abandoned me by their own choices, or if it was filial piety that forced our break. I became pregnant at 15—something I’m sure struck terror in their parents, especially when one of the other girls-a fellow towny, but still blood related,  followed suit shortly thereafter.

She was accepted, embraced even. I was not.

I became Patient Zero; The bringer of all things evil on their whitewashed, puritanical town. Even the tan-skinned souls working the fields that summer were held in higher regard. They couldn’t “contaminate” their daughters. They’d never be allowed close enough. But me? I’d been in their homes. I’d laughed and played Barbies and Four-Square with those girls. I could ruin them all. I was an alien being in small-town USA, and was thusly cast aside like the rotten melons that would be left lying in the field after the harvest.

All we learned in our morning devotions about loving one another, and letting our Triune God hold all the stones to be cast went flying out the window. I wasn’t fit to be a scarecrow in their fields. Not because I’d committed a sin worse than what their own daughters had committed behind their backs, but because I’d been caught.

My pregnant belly would give me away. Their self-appointed court could condemn me with the only evidence of my “sin” they needed, just as they sat in judgment over the people who were here to make an honest man’s dollar working in their fields.

If I’d have had any sense, I would’ve left back then with the caravan of “others” when fall became winter.

I didn’t. To this day I live in this small town. I’m not sure why other than leaving is easier said than done when you’re responsible for more than yourself.

With the advent of social media and with my children having attended the same high school as my former friends and I, I’ve had occasion to reconnect with the girls who used to jump Double Dutch with me. We only connect in pleasantries, though.

“How are you? The kids? You parents?”

My attempts to reach out to them beyond that have been denied. I’m still not up to par, I suppose. Sometimes that bothers me. Most of the time I don’t think of it.

Until, that is, I see those laughing little faces playing make believe laser tag on the sidewalk as they wait for the bus. Then my mind transports me back to four little girls giggling about everything imaginable whilst camping out in someone’s living room, watching scary movies, and eating rubbish.

I miss those little girls, including myself. We were so innocent and untouched by the cruel judgmental world that would encompass our lives so few years later.

None of my school mates followed me into adulthood fully. A couple high school friends remained friends with me until I married. Then they were gone.

Sometimes I cry for the little girl I was who knew she didn’t fit in, who was alone and afraid. Then I ask myself “Jesus, did anything really change?”

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4th of July: Independence for All, Not Only Some

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As the 4th of July nears, here is a thought to ponder:

If you do not support equal rights and opportunities for everyone—even those who are vastly different from yourself, you’ve completely missed the point about what it really means to be American.

The United States is not homogenous, albeit some hate mongers would have it that way.  The US is made up of many ethnicities and cultures—so many I can’t list them all here. We are one country made up of every nationality, culture, and ethnicity under the sun, yet we are not a “melting pot’. That term was never correct.

Cultures did not necessarily melt together to become one here. Instead, we live side by side, complementing each other. That’s something special. It’s something to be proud of, really, that so many different people can live peacefully together to form a nation, not just a country. Unfortunately, some would like to keep us from having this wonderful community of people.

There are those who would block equal rights and opportunity, promote hate with archaic, unnecessary symbols, and deny religious freedoms. There are those who only protect the rights of those who fit their own molds. That, folks, isn’t “American”.  It can’t be. Because while the colonies were originally formed to break away from England, specifically the Church of England, and to form a Puritan society, that endeavor was short lived. New people came to the colonies. We expanded and moved beyond Puritanical life. We are not those people who came here, appropriated land, and massacred millions of innocent people in order to have a “pure” society. That is not us, or at least I hope not.

I would like to think we have evolved into people who can recognize the value of people different from ourselves. In 2015, we should be able to see that our own beliefs do not trump those convictions of others; they’re certainly different at times, but not “better”. We should recognize by now that there are many paths in life, not just one, and we can celebrate the cultural practices of all who live here. We can also support people who look different, have different lifestyles from ourselves, who carry different religious convictions, or who identify sexually in a way we do not. We should be able to do these things, but we don’t.

We don’t because we’re still too preoccupied with creating enemies—“the others”. We still believe it is our job to “save souls” in some invented theocracy we have never been.  We still haven’t let go of the past enough to move forward.

If we don’t want to keep repeating the past—a past filled with hatred and atrocity, then we have to recognize our need to progress. We must not remain those people set out to make our society “pure”. No society is pure. Ours, made up from so many different people, surely is not. When we admit our faults, confess the atrocities of the past, celebrate our diversity, and give everyone the independence–the autonomy and freedom— we claim to represent,  then and only then will we be what we often mistakenly call ourselves: a Nation.

Welcome to Modernity, Austin, IN.

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How long have we been battling HIV/AIDs? Since the mid-1980s or so, we’ve actually had a name for the disease that still goes without a cure. Many places in the world have been fighting not only the direct effects of the disease, but the indirect effects as well for decades. In places like Africa, misinformation about HIV/AIDs has even led to folklore such as the belief that sex with a virgin would cure or somehow prevent the disease, leading to the rape of many innocent young people. While the United States has not experienced this effect, we have our own brand of bad information.

Recently, the tiny town of Austin, Indiana made national news because of an HIV outbreak. The outbreak, according to officials, is largely caused by IV drug use of the prescription pain killer Opana, and of course, heroin and methamphetamine. While one might wonder how what should be a quiet, tiny town becomes the hotbed of drug addiction, and makes National news as the “epicenter” of an HIV outbreak, it really isn’t that much of a shock to those of us who are native to this area. This little town has been a center of drugs and violence for decades.

With little industry, few resources, and no growth in sight, the town has basically been a dead zone for years. Austin has always been a place plagued with trouble. It’s just now that stronger, more lethal drugs have become prevalent and people are overdosing and becoming ill, heads are turning in that direction. That’s not a shocking trend. Overlooking areas such as Austin is not unique—many small towns never make the radar until something shocking happens. What is troubling is the horrible misinformation about both the cause and the solution to the problem.

Watching my local news reports on the goings on in Austin, one story sticks out in my mind. A woman stood on her porch describing how she and her children had borne witness to drug deals and prostitution on her street. She spoke of caring a gun, now, to protect her home and children. While this probably isn’t a crazy idea, it is a bit misguided to think that she could combat this problem with a firearm. Could she protect her home from intruders? Sure. Protect her children from strangers? Sure. Stop drug deals and prostitution? Probably not—maybe…maybe she could get lucky and stop what is going on directly in front of her home, but there is no way that gun ownership will lessen drug addiction and the prostitution that often accompanies it. What really troubles me, though, is during the conversation about people who have contracted HIV, gun ownership rears its head as part of the solution. I mean, the woman never said she’d kill or harm HIV patients, but the news report seemed ill timed when the focus is on stopping the spread of HIV/AIDs and not on stopping crime.

Other misguided conversations on social media called those who had contracted the disease “disgusting” and “scary,” making it seem as if one could catch the virus from a neighbor’s sneeze. It actually took the CDC to clear up some antiquated ideas about the spread of HIV/AIDs. Hearing what people still thought might happen reminded me of 1986-1987 when I first learned about the disease. We were frightened then because we didn’t understand how this all worked. We asked questions like “can we get it from sharing a glass of water?” I really thought, though, that the uncertainty and incorrect assumptions we all made nearly 30 years ago were long gone. Granted, we haven’t been fighting this monster on the scale they have in larger municipalities, but we have had residents with HIV/AIDs for years. Why did we all of a sudden think sharing a neighborhood was akin to sharing a needle?

I do understand that addicts dropping needles all over the place is a danger, as is the danger for medical professionals, but rather than talking about taking up arms to protect oneself, why aren’t we having involved conversations about clean needle exchanges and free condoms? Those subjects are nearly taboo in an area where fundamentalist conservatives have a stronghold.

The CDC did make its way into Austin when the number of those testing positive for HIV hit double digits. By the time it had hit triple digits, a temporary clean needle exchange had been established, as well as free testing. The keyword is “temporary”. For only 30 days, addicts can come in free of fear of incarceration to exchange their needles for clean ones, thereby helping to halt the spread of the disease. What happens after 30 days, though? Where do these people turn?

Surely, we understand that very few, if any, of these people will be drug free and clean in 30 days. Since the needle exchange is working—people are absolutely coming in for clean needles just as they do in larger cities with the exchanges—why aren’t we going to continue? Drug addiction isn’t going away. Guns won’t scare it away. Sorry. That demon is not afraid of death. This idea that giving away clean needles and condoms somehow “supports,” “condones,” or even “encourages” drug use and promiscuity is absurd.

I’ve read the remarks of people who have said we need to show people this behavior is not to be “admired”. The idea that people become drug users/addicts because they think its “admirable” is asinine. Truthfully, it’s the socioeconomic climate the residents of Austin must fight that breeds addiction, and prostitution just follows along as a cottage industry built by their broken lives. I would never assume any of these people wanted to be an addict when they grew up. To believe that is to totally misunderstand addiction. Addiction is something people turn to when there’s nowhere else to turn. It covers their pain. It’s the self-medication that is both the cure and the disease. Loose morals and lack of religion didn’t create this situation. Hopelessness, helplessness, and a feeling of living in an inescapable hell built what we’re dealing with for most. For some, this is a multigenerational problem that both parents and grandparents couldn’t escape. But no one cared 40 years ago, 30 years ago, or even 5 years ago. The violence and drug and sex trade are nothing new to Austin, Indiana. HIV is—or at least people knowing they have HIV is.

Putting a gun in someone’s hands will not kill this problem. Killing the bad information, killing the idea that if we close our eyes it will all go away, and killing the conservative stance that clean needle exchanges and free condoms somehow hurt society will fix this problem. Maybe it won’t stop people from using drugs or working in the sex trade to earn a few dollars, but it might very well stop the rampant spread of HIV. Locals who are too invested in personal religious tropes to invest in the public heath might want to rethink their primary investments before they end up bankrupt.

No. HIV is nothing new. Austin, Indiana, unfortunately, is just a small town that was hurled into modernity to meet up with what the rest of the world has known for decades: You cannot stop addiction, but you can prevent HIV!

(Image source: http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/apr/01/indiana-hiv-outbreak-health-workers-funding)

Remembering Shorty: Gay Panic Should Not Be a Defense

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It’s taken me 8 long years to find the words to speak about my friend’s horrific death. Thankfully, the great gals over at The Well Written Woman  gave me the forum from which to voice my feelings, and helped me with editing so it wasn’t a jumbled up mess of emotions.

You can find the story of my friend’s murder by 3 punks who claimed the “gay panic” defense here,

Celebrating Diversity: It’s Just What I Do

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I talk a lot about people, equality, and justice. Oftentimes it probably seems as though I am on the attack of those whose ways of life I abhor. This isn’t really the truth, though.

More often than not I think it’s important to start any conversation by believing that people just do the best they can. People can definitely be a product of their environment. If they are taught to fear and hate those different from them or different ways of life, they often drag that fear and hate along into adulthood like some demented, yet comforting, teddy bear. It’s a sad yet true fact of being human. Thankfully, we can all change.

Some of us expand our horizons through exploring other cultures, and we appreciate the diversity of the world’s population. For some, we have learned that for as much as we know about our own cultures, there is still much more to know. We can be as ignorant of our own cultures, especially of our own faults, as we are of those we’ve never experienced. There is something magical that happens when we open ourselves to learn about other peoples and cultures. Most generally, we learn something about ourselves and our cultures, too. It’s this learning process that helps as grow as human beings, and therefore helps our society blossom into a welcoming place for everyone, no matter our differences.

There are those who will, unfortunately, never appreciate the process by which we learn. It is to these folks I most often reach out. Perhaps it’s not my place, and maybe I speak out of turn, but I want them to find the joy in diversity many of the rest of us share. It’s a thankless activity, usually. More often than not I’m met with people telling me they feel sorry for me and “my kind”, or what’s worse, their anger.

No matter if they’re angry or pity my supposed ignorance, the constant that I find is their fear showing through. More times than not, they express fear of violence, becoming the minority, or of an unwanted change in their way of life, even when they articulate those fears via angry words. This speaks to me that change is still possible, and it’s why I work to unravel the lies these folks have been taught to believe so they won’t have to be afraid any longer. It’s not some anger coming from nowhere. It’s fear, and fear can be erased through education.

A great many of us know that enemies are often created. Sometimes powerful people, for fear of losing the control they enjoy, participate in something called “othering”—the creation of a group of people who are so different from us that we must beware of them. In some instances they go on to demonize those people making them “demonic others”. No matter the case, the ‘others’ are created by muddying the water surrounding their lives and cultures. They are formed by false stereotypes and blatant lies. Bad science has even reared its ugly head in the world of demon creation. It’s hard to break these beliefs, which have come from the mouths of “authorities,” but we have no choice—they simply must be broken if we are to live harmoniously sans societal collapse.

Frequently, those with whom I am engaged in this conversation are white males. They are those people who, even though they are projected to be the minority ethnic group, will still retain their power. Their money, as well as their social and political control, will not fade away because a few more people immigrated to the US.

However, this is seemingly their fear. Of course, they may have to share some of the clout they’ve long held, but no one—I repeat—NO ONE is trying to make them into slaves. I suppose if I was a filthy rich white man I might fear this just a little. After all, it would only serve them right, but it’s just not the agenda.

All anyone wants is a good life. People of color simply want equality and justice. They want to enjoy the same level of political representation, job equality, educational opportunities, and quality of life as every white man and woman in the US. I don’t believe that is too much to ask.

It’s difficult to reverse the lessons a grandfather passed on to his descendants, though. They take that family legacy of fear and hate to heart, and they attack people like me to defend it. It doesn’t help that men like Rush Limbaugh perpetuate hate and fear every day, but hey, that’s life.

Sometimes the response I receive leaves me in tears. Other times I break through, if even slightly, to help foster the understanding that white people need not fear different ethnicities and cultures. I’m white, and I live without fear…of that anyway. Spiders and mice still freak me out. Sorry.

No matter the hate I receive, I still want to do this. It’s my duty as a human being, I think, to help bring peace to the world. So, it’s what I’ll keep doing. I’m just thankful for the great friends I’ve had who have shown me my own shortcomings so I could correct those. Also, I’m grateful that I’ve been able to learn about and appreciate the many cultures of which I’ve learned. Life is so diverse. It’s never boring, but for all our differences, we’re all more alike than we might have ever believed.

Conversations With Racists

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Having conversations with racist folks is usually awkward and frustrating. It can also be eye opening. Unfortunately, it’s usually only eye opening for the non-racist party.

Last night I spoke with a childhood friend. He no longer lives in my state, and now resides in a large metropolitan area. My assumption that once one moves away from a tiny town like the one in which we grew up into the higher populated city they grow from some of the small town mentality, was horribly wrong, at least in this case.

As we discussed the goings on in the world, we hit on the Ferguson, Michael Brown,racism, and white privilege. His initial comment was “I don’t believe in white privilege. It just doesn’t exist. I’ve never been given anything extra in life, and in fact, I can tell you a story showing how stupid this all is.”

Not only was moving away from his rhetoric about having to “work for a living like everyone else” a nice vacation, but I couldn’t wait to hear how he was going to outline for me the supposed non-existence of racism and white privilege. My ears were at full attention.
His story follows:

My son and I were at the movie theatre the other night. As we left, the light turned red,
but no traffic was coming, so I just made a rolling stop. Apparently, there was a taillight
on my truck, too, and the policeman pulled us over. He approached our vehicle, and tried
to be really tough with us. I basically argued with him a little bit, and we both handed
him our credentials so he could check for warrants. I’d forgotten my NRA card was
behind my driver’s license, and I inadvertently handed it to the officer along with my
ID. When the officer returned to the car, he let me off with a warning, thanking me
for supporting the 2nd Amendment Rights of American citizens.

According to the man, his story was supposed to prove that A) white folks get pulled over and questioned just like everyone else. B) The police officer wasn’t friendly with him, a white male, until he knew they weren’t criminals, and finally, C) That officer was just doing his job, not harassing anyone.

My answer is the story he told makes the exact argument for white privilege. There are so many things about this scenario that might have, and probably would have, played out differently had he and his son been of color.
1) Arguing or disrespecting law enforcement would have probably led to an immediate call for backup.
2) They probably would have both been breathalyzed due to running the light, as that would have been documented as erratic driving.
3) Reaching for their wallets could have been misconstrued as reaching for a weapon.
4) Showing an officer, inadvertently or not, a card denoting gun ownership would have led to removing both parties from the vehicle, handcuffing, and searching the car.

In other words, the incidents that night would have made them suspects, not respected members of a community, and this is where so many white folks go blind. Yes, you may get pulled over and questioned, but you aren’t a suspect unless you give good reason. People of color are suspects from the moment some officers approach the vehicle.

Growing up and living in a tiny, racist town, this isn’t the first illogical argument like this I’ve heard. It’s not the first discussion I’ve had with someone who tried with all their might to prove to me (the liberal whackjob of my town) that racism went away in the 60s, and definitely with the inauguration of President Obama. They all try to prove there is no white privilege because white folks have to work, too. For whatever reason, they all seem to believe people of color just don’t want to work for anything, and they call it “white privilege” because they think white folks just hang out in the shade somewhere. They don’t even try to understand that all people of color have ever done is work. Be it in chains or to overcome and survive—they have worked. That’s not the privilege of which they speak. What they speak of is the privilege to be able to work, go to school, and achieve without discrimination. They want to be able to walk down the street without fear of false arrest or being beaten and/or murdered. And that’s exactly the privilege we white folks enjoy every single day.

I’ve lived here all my life, with brief exceptions. I’ve heard the slurs thrown about like they’re meaningless. I’ve witnessed the stern objections to anyone of color being part of our town. Aside from complete lack of diversity and culture, my town is okay. It’s quiet. The school system is advanced enough, yet small. If the citizens could move beyond their own biases, I’d say it’s a pretty great place to live.

I don’t know shit about what it means to be a person of color in the US, let alone in my hometown. Sure, I’ve gone to college. I’ve taken a cosmic ton of sociology courses. I’ve studied multicultural literature.I know what the books say. However, I do not personally know the feeling of fear and anger a non-white must feel in a community like mine. Some of the horrible comments I’ve heard white folks say around here are enough to invoke fear and anger in anyone.

What I have been is lucky enough to have lived outside this town as a very small child, so my initial years were complete with experiencing diversity. My parents were not racist. That made all the difference, too. I was taught to never mistreat anyone. I’m also lucky to have friends beyond the white friends I have here. I listen to them as they tell me how they feel and the struggles they face. They teach me to be a better human being, and I can never fully repay that.

As I remain in my tiny town, I see the ignorance and fear from which racism is born. Some of these folks have their white privilege turned up so high it screams from far away as they commit crimes, yet the police let them walk away. They’re no better than anyone because of the level of melanin in their skin. Somehow, though, they fear what they have never taken the time to understand—the people who look different from them, different cultures, different languages. What’s more, they fear the loss of control they have over our tiny town. Someone might come in and make changes. They might lose complete charge. I, for one, would embrace some change. Some culture around here would be nice. These old timers though, they just keep passing on their racism to their descendants like a sick inheritance. It’s not going away anytime soon.

Look, I’m just some white chic from a small town with only some thoughts I record for others to read. I’m often accused from the aforementioned fellow citizens of my town of having “white guilt,” and to answer that, no, I do not have white guilt. I’m not ashamed because I was randomly born white instead of some other color. What I do have is what I call Human Responsibility. It’s my job to speak out to these white racist fools who can’t see beyond their own stories to understand the experiences of someone else. It’s my duty to try to teach folks that racism is founded in fear and ignorance, and the white privilege does exist. If I’m ever going to even try to repay the debt I owe my friends who helped me understand what life is like for them in the country which is supposedly “the land of the free,” I must speak out—not for them, but with them. Finally, it’s my job, not as some great white hope, but as a human being to try to make the world a better place. That, my friends, is everyone’s job.