Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Does debate ruin or enable relationship?

The headline of Yvonne D. Hawkins' editorial in Sunday's Sioux Falls Argus Leader was, "Immigration Debate May Reopen Nation's Wounds." She is an African American woman, and asks "whether we've discovered the pre-eminence of relationship over rhetoric." She worries that the debate over Arizona's new immigration-related statute (really a debate over national and international relationships) will deepen distrust and isolation among non-White Americans.

My question is the same as in my blog post on Monday: What's wrong with standing up for one's side in a debate? Isn't honest exchange of ideas and perspectives a means to relationship? It can be painful, exposing errors in thinking and flaws in our attitudes, but how else do we arrive at honest understanding? Isn't any relationship the art of overcoming our ignorance of those we don't know, and isn't that a bumpy process in the best of circumstances?

Relationship building requires all parties to have integrity. The minute the border crossers are all just criminals or the people of Arizona are all just racists, they are excluded from the debate and there can be an "outcome" but little in the way of relationship. I've attended some flawed anti-racism training put on by a national religious body. It didn't matter how many skin colors were represented on the "facilitation" team, they spoke one "language" and perspective only - White liberal. We heard very little about ethnic or cultural experiences and perspectives, but much about our own collective (White - and somehow male and straight got tossed into the "race" mix) flaws as they were prejudged in the program materials.

Not that some of those flaws aren't real. But being lectured on them in a one-directional seminar setting, with predictable, predetermined political conclusions from a curriculum, does not establish trust, deeper knowledge or any real encounter with a different world view.

Ms. Hawkins commendably shares a personal experience in her piece. When she went in to replace her lost South Dakota driver's license, staff asked her for immigration papers. Her Black face, in their frame of reference, equaled an African immigrant.

Her response is telling: "Some conversation with friends and a little therapeutic column writing helped ease the hurt I felt that day... a piece of the hurt remains."

She did not confront the person behind the desk. Retreating into a pre-existing comfort group and striking out "therapeutically" in editorials probably reinforced separation rather than overcame it. As she admits, she still harbors the hurt.

How much more might have been gained by saying something to the employee, even something testy or harsh? "You think all Black people just landed from Africa?" might have been rough, but it might have broadened another person's narrow perspective, probably as an unforgettable lesson. It might even have planted a seed of relationship.

Unless, of course, the person behind the counter said nothing, harbored a hurt, vented about it to a homogenous group of friends and maybe put up a "therapeutic" Facebook assertion about "angry Blacks."

I think we have to hang around one another, risk some ways to confront and debate one another, and let some disagreements just be there when we aren't making progress. Sometimes, we need to shut up and just listen - I know at least one local group that visits Reservations with no agenda other than to meet folks and mostly just listen, even if that means absorbing some angry comments or rejection.

I served in an Army unit that was 80% Black. I learned more from that three year experience - including insights into my own biases, intolerances and virtues - than via decades of harangues from a White liberal religious organization.

Let me end with a positive illustration. Readers of this blog know that I reported a bitter controversy between Episcopalians on the Pine Ridge Reservation and the Sioux Fall based Diocese of South Dakota. As reported in last week's Rapid City Journal, that fracture is well on the way to healing - because our recently consecrated Bishop, John Tarrant, made a series of personal visits to the people on Pine Ridge. One church member there emailed to say, "We love him!"

He's made a few policy tweaks but hasn't backed off entirely from the earlier Diocesan position. The positive progress is all about how he's established a relationship, showing respect for the people there while maintaining confidence in his own integrity.

This kind of relationship, not built on predefined "bad guys," is what allows for common work toward a solution.


Anonymous said...

I think we should adopt the same laws concerning illegal immigration that Mexico has.

Anonymous said...

The writer's experience could simply be an example of the lack of brain cells in some of the DMV employees here. When my daughter applied for a learner's permit a few years ago she supplied her social security card and New York birth certificate as ID. We have a difficult Russian name, so that is the only reason we could think of for the lady behind the counter to inquire as to what country she was from. We laughed as NY often did seem like a foreign country, but she then asked for a passport too. Her supervisor finally assured her that NY was still part of the USA. Thanks, Fr. Tim for ALL you do!