Posted by: MC | October 29, 2010

We are Different & We are the Same: Voting from Here

The United States is voting.  Or at least that’s an option for the next four days.

Because of the way my mind works…I’ve been thinking about that.  Voting.

In the past 48 hours or so I’ve been in more-than-passing conversations with people – all American citizens – who, in the history of our country would not have been eligible to vote.  That means they were variously (or in some combination) immigrants, women, Native American or African American.

I talked about education with man, now a citizen, who immigrated from Nigeria.  I had tea with a woman, also a citizen, who immigrated from Iran.  A full-blood Native American man spent time with me and my students talking about cultural differences in spirituality.  This morning I talked with a homeless man (he’s still ineligible, because he doesn’t have a mailing address) about rain coats and health.

This afternoon, I’ll have tea with another friend and her new baby – the child, a direct descendent of Sitting Bull.  Then I’ll drive to a meeting with a colleague who, when not filling his obligations as a U.S. professor between 2002 and 2006, served as a senior advisor to the Minister of Higher Education in Afghanistan – he too an immigrant and a U.S. citizen of at least 40 years.

None of these interactions focused on voting.  They were and will be about work and family and other things in life that those people and I have in common.  They were about the circumstances and passions that we all bring to the act of voting.

Then there’s this question.  Is my life just a weird outlier in the range of people raised White in this country?  Could be.  Each of these people is a friend of mine.  Maybe most White citizens of our country don’t have friends like this.  And how is this seeming sidebar of a thought relevant to voting?

I really don’t often stop to list the people I’m meeting up with in the dailyness of my life.  But something about today – about voting – about the extremism screaming from our media to document the intense differences in the way citizens of our country make sense of our country’s diversity – has made it so I’ve been thinking of my recent conversations.

The experience of EX:Change – of listening to people all over the country talking about their hopes and dreams and concerns all in relation to the word change – it keeps teaching and changing me.  And these days I’m especially aware of how easy it is not to listen.  How easy it is to magnify difference into alienation and aggression.

There are two things I want to say here.

First, there’s way more diversity around each of us than we think.  Check it out for yourself.

Several times a year I teach a graduate course that has the word diversity in the title.  Each class has a vast predominance of what seem White faces.  To start out, I ask everyone to introduce themselves according to their ancestry.  People speak of amazingly varied socio-economic, geographic, spiritual and ethnic backgrounds.  They speak of strikingly different family compositions and immigration histories.  Yet, there we are in a graduate classroom in one of the Whitest states in the country.  For sure everyone in the room shares the privilege of education and lots of other commonalities.  The point – there’s more diversity around and among us than we may realize, no matter how homogeneous the groups we hang out with.

Second, I am no doubt, exceedingly fortunate in the composition of my friendship network.  That does not make me some kind of White-liberal-progressive cool kid.  Your impression of me is not my interest in writing here – writing this – keeping EX:Change going and growing it into something increasingly useful to anyone who wants to engage it.  I like my life.  I recommend and support that for everyone.

And I am writing to point out the twin options … make that invitations … to check out the diversity among the people you hang out with AND to watch for how you have things in common with people who seem, at first glance, to be totally different from you.

There’s a saying from the academic discipline of anthropology – the study of  human culture.  “Make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”  It’s another way of phrasing the invitation of EX:Change.  Are we ready to – are we capable of – seeing that we are different and the same all at once?  It looks to me like we do it every day in our closest relationships.  Can we stand on that and do it bigger?

And how do our answers affect our actions here at voting time?

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