Who is deviant?

Stanley Fish wrote a column in the NYT on Monday’s website:

In it he says that norms are set by society and those who fall outside it adapt to that marginalization in a variety of ways. He includes many categories of people outside the norm, all the way from Blacks through the deaf on even to pedophiles and serial killers.

My guess is that most people will find his argument silly because they “know” what is deviant and what is not. But as they read it, they may be forced to rethink their facile categories of deviancy. How about the deaf? Surely they would want cochlear implants and be able to hear, right? No, most donít.

In speaking of killers, Fish does not mention those who kill under the auspices of military action. I remember the time my dad broke down in a restaurant and cried, “What we did was murder, just murder,” in speaking of his actions in the South Pacific during WW II. With the magnifying glass of e-communications and ubiquitous cameras, we are seeing that some military actors seem to qualify as killers. But we still appreciate their service even as we try to hide them away.

Autism played a large role in Fish’s argument and many comments on his column revolved around that. Apparently, a number of autistic people say, “Don’t change us! We’re fine the way we are.” For me, as a teacher, this is a major switch, considering the new diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome, which explains the behavior of students who will remain in our classrooms but whose behavior and abilities are markedly different from the norm.

Of special interest to me, of course, was his example of how interracial marriages, esp those between Blacks and Whites, were once considered not just abnormal but illegal. The date he gives for the switch on that one jarred me, 1967. I married my wife in 1964. We were illegal in many states for 3 years. I am White and my wife is Black. When I looked at Gordon’s famous book titled “Intermarriage” in 1963, I found that its concept of intermarriage was between Presbyterians and Catholics; barely a couple of pages were given over to Black/White unions.

Arizona, our state, had taken the anti-miscegenation law off the books in 1962. Suffice it to say, we encountered discrimination in housing, in employment, socially, and even lost friends. By no means were all the miscreants White. Our children also suffered discrimination.

What I have encountered on the part of people who have not entered this world of discrimination, i.e. people who have lived in a community where they are the majority, is an inability to grasp what it means to rest perpetually in the margins. What is funny is the way many people, again, by no means only Whites, seem to think all this has gone away. There also needs to be something dramatic, like a lynching, to get their attention; the minor annoyances like standing in line touching each other only to have a clerk act surprised to find out the groceries or movie tickets are for both of us together.

One way this failure to understand life in the margins manifests itself is when the conversation turns to marriage between two people of the same sex. We are assured that that is an entirely different matter, even as people use the same arguments that were used against us.

What underlay the opposition to our marriage? Not some dramatic race hatred; usually it was fear, fear of being part of something outside the norm. In particular, it was fear of violence. My mother did not attend our wedding, she was so distraught, fearing for my life (indeed, my brother-in-law carried a gun to the ceremony but that was for someone in his family who had threatened to disrupt it. There were no Whites at our large wedding). My own grandmother had belonged to the Ku Klux Klan in her youth, but both my mother and grandmother loved my wife once the drama was over and my mom and wife grew extremely close over the years).

So fear is a prominent and controlling factor in marginalization, keeping people marginalized out of their own fear of rejection and keeping others away from them out of fear that it might be contagious. There is a lot of humor in these situations. But what I want to make clear is how those people who are not marginalized are unknowing about what it’s like.

One reaction you get when you try to tell what happens to you is that you are being a cry-baby. “Everyone has problems, get over it.” If you associate with these people, all you have to do is wait for something to happen to them to hear them screaming bloody murder. Shoe’s on the other foot now, isn’t it, Brother?

However, the principle reaction is a great unease, a vague discomfort, based on fear. You have revealed yourself to be a marginalized person and the fear is that there must be a good reason for your marginalization but even then, they could be tainted with it just by talking about and acknowledging it.

Let me give an example that just came up this morning. You will have to take my word for it that my wife is an amazingly perceptive person. I used to challenge her perceptions and she always has turned out to be right, eg. who doesn’t belong in a particular social setting or job setting, who has committed a certain act, what must have happened prior to our arrival on the scene. She is uncanny.

So over the years, she has noticed that White people treat her differently depending on what’s in the news. When something tragic has happened to a Black person, Whites smile at her, engage her, almost defer to her. When some Black person has done something unpleasant, like win a presidential nomination, she gets ignored by people who ordinarily are pleasant to her. So today at the spa, she was puzzled by cold, distancing behavior on the part of older White women who are usually friendly. As she was driving home, it hit her: Barack and Hillary, the Rules & Bylaws Committee’s decision on Saturday. Aha!

Was that “racial”? Maybe not. My wife has worn her Obama shirt to the spa, so perhaps they were reacting to just that part of her, not to her being Black. But why not before, if they were strong Hillary supporters? Barack has his supporters and Clinton has hers and they seemed OK with that…. until he won. BTW, the younger White women maintained their same friendly attitude.

My point in this, which has been made by many Blacks in the past, is that one thing that makes today’s environment so difficult is that it’s not clear-cut. The White guy who treats you badly may be himself married to a Black woman; he disliked you because you appeared to have more money than he did, or be more educated, or have a better seat at the game than he did. When is it your color and when not?

Certain patterns do emerge: our children were treated differently depending on whether they were with me or with their mother. Our grandchildren and my wife are a hoot; all 3 of our grandchildren look White, very White. I finally had to get a shirt made for my wife that said, “I AM the grandmother,” so many people asked her if she was the nanny or where the family was, etc. Some even got suspicious of her, sort in that “Whatchyou talkin’ ’bout, Willis” tone: “Whatchyou doin’ with those White babies?”

It is funny and irritating at the same time.

It is also potentially dangerous in a situation where my wife might not be able to speak for herself or when someone has attacked her (this did happen at the mall once). Scoffing at such possibilities does not make them go away for Black people who have had to educate their sons for years about running into the wrong cop or their daughters about finding themselves isolated with a White man (my wife went through that starting at age nine, working in White homes as a housekeeper).

This latter point is an outstanding example of the gap between those in the center and those in the margins of society; those on the margins live with this sort of thing while those in the center question its very existence. Defending the police, it is very easy to think only of how they treat YOU. We have had mostly good experiences with the police but had two nephews shot to death by them.

In truth, I have gone from a idealistic integrationist in the 60s to a separatist in my later years. I see little likelihood that this will happen, but I have watched large segments of the Black population sink lower and lower even as a minority of this population reaches heights of achievement, with Obama representing the pinnacle (if George hasn’t messed the pinnacle up). A writer named Brooks, published by Harvard U.P., has gone into detail regarding the advisability of Blacks to build their own education system, banking and financial systems, police force, and so on. This could only be achieved through some sort of territorial control, but certain parts of the South may be seeing the formation of a nucleus of such.

The recent furor over the Rev. Wright, Barack Obama’s fomer pastor agitated me greatly. So much of the commentary swirled around his style, and he himself frequently referred to that in his Press Club speech in the word “bombastic”. Don’t the reporters know that the typical lecture which passes for a sermon in many churches would put a Black congregation to sleep? Of course, there are Black congregations that do not practice the style of preaching associated with Black worship style, but the vast majority of Black people expect a show, not a lecture. They are there to be moved, not to have their prejudices reaffirmed. Many of them look to the church for reaffirmation of themselves after being looked through and stepped over by the society outside the church doors. I still see those maids and janitors on Sunday morning playing vital roles in the only public place that allowed them dignity. Fortunately, many of the young people no longer face the same disdain and slights, yet they need to be affirmed after finding themselves marginalized in less dramatic ways, by what some of us like to call structural racism. While I agreed with most of what Rev. Wright said in the sermons and speeches I saw, it seemed to me that the pundits could not wrap their heads around what it was like to be marginalized. This guy had all kinds of degrees, a good income, why didn’t he see the world the way they did? Why didn’t he express himself the way they did? Why did he have to say, “the chickens have come home to roost”? Why couldn’t he have intoned words more in keeping with his education and status, like, “In light of the heinous events of Sept. 11, we must carefully reevaluate our relations with specific segments on the non-Western world with a view to reformulating the contingencies under which actions of a more assertive order might be taken in the event of………..” Sno-o-o-o-o-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-e. Exactly the sort of language that allows people to keep on doing just what they were doing. That language doesn’t move anybody.

So this blog entry represents the start of some comments I have wanted to make (and I have made some earlier) about how it is to be on the margins. When we get together with our Black neighbors down the street, there is a sense of relief that we can talk about things and be understood. Our White neighbors are fun and we go to each other’s houses to party and BBQ, but with our Black neighbors, there is an unwinding, where we can talk about the crazy stuff that happens on the job, in the bank, at the store, at the game, in school, and not have to explain anything and not have to deal with the….. fear.

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