I have been thinking a lot lately about what’s called “second generation gender bias.” This term refers to all the unconscious ways in which people think themselves superior to the opposite gender and act in accordance with those beliefs. Much of this thinking is enculturated, and I believe it stems from the same roots as racism, religious bigotry, national and regional prejudices, dislike/fear of the disabled, the obese or the elderly, and so on.
At its heart is the belief that the other person is not “one of us” — they are “other.” I want to turn today’s blog over to a friend and colleague who has a perspective to offer on this toxic belief and how it prevents us from being fully human.
Excerpted from “A Short Course in Kindness” by Margot Silk Forrest
WHEN I FIRST STARTED gathering ideas to write a book about kindness, I realized I should look up the root of the word. Often the origins of a word can illuminate a deeper meaning that has been outpaced by time.“We are all tied together in
a single garment of destiny,
an inescapable network of mutuality.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King
It turns out that “kindness” has the same root as the word kind, of course, and “kind” comes from the Middle English word kynd, which comes from the Old English word cynd. The latter, says Webster’s in a rare moment of wordplay, is “akin to” the German word Kind, meaning child.
This puzzles me. Does kindness mean treating everyone as if they were a child? Seems odd. Then the light dawns. Not “a child,” but “our child.” Our Kind, our kin. Treat everyone as kin. As family. As blood relatives. Which, in fact, we are.
When I was five, a slim book of photographs appeared on the coffee table in our living room. I might not have noticed it except for the fact that this particular coffee table was a favorite hangout of mine. It consisted of a giant circular tray of bronze resting on carved legs inlaid with ivory. The generous one-inch lip around the tray’s rim made it the perfect track for racing my marbles. Zing, zing, zing, around they went, faster and faster and faster! ZING, ZING, ZING! I marvel now that my mother didn’t trade it in for a more restful piece of furniture.
Between marble races one day, I reach over and flip open the book of photographs. They are like the snapshots my father takes, all black and white. The first picture is of a naked lady lying on her tummy on a carpet of soft leafy plants covering a forest floor. Her bottom looks very white against the dark leaves of the plants all around her. She has her hair pinned up, like my mother does sometimes, and her eyes are closed.
I turn the page and see a picture of a big room that has photographs hung all over its walls. There’s also a little picture of a man wearing glasses with round frames. Much later, when I am old enough to care, I will learn he is the renowned photographer Edward Steichen, and the pictures are ones he selected for an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955. It was called “The Family of Man.”
But at five, I don’t know any of that. All I know is the photographs I see and the words my mother will read me from the front of the book: “The first cry of a newborn baby in Chicago or Zamboango, in Amsterdam or Rangoon, has the same pitch and key, each saying, ‘I am! I have come through! I belong! I am a member of the Family.’ ”* I like hearing those words a lot. They make me feel good. Like I belong, too.
When my sticky little-girl fingers turn the pages of this book, I see people kissing: black people and white people, old people and young people, rich people and poor people. I see people getting married in kimonos, in long white dresses, in what my mother tells me are saris. There are girls playing dress-up in England and a boy learning a special dance in Java. There are kids fighting, crying, laughing, and being held. There are whole families posing proudly for the camera outside their straw hut on the dusty plains of Africa and by the black pot-bellied stove in their living room. There are people working, praying, making music, learning to write the alphabet, gambling, voting, dying, begging for food.
The lesson those photographs taught — a gutsy lesson, indeed, in those xenophobic, Russki-fearing days of the Cold War — became so much a part of me, I never knew it was a lesson I had learned. It was simply how I saw the world. Everyone is just like me; I am just like everyone else. We all have families and lovers and babies and fights. We all cry and make up. All colors, all shapes of eyes and bodies, all faiths, all temperaments, all, all, all.
Where did we ever get the idea that we are different from each other? Because “they” have a different color skin? Because “they” have a different name for god — or no name for god? Because “they” wear cloth wrapped around their heads? Because “their” noses are bigger or smaller or shaped differently? We should try explaining that to a visitor from outer space — and admit while we’re at it that these huge differences are reasons we shun or hate or kill each other. So much for intergalactic friendship.
The truth is, nobody is “them.” “They” are just like “us.” They want to be happy. They want their children to be happy. They want to be safe and healthy and appreciated. What’s more, there are no strangers either; there are no outsiders. We are all insiders. Every person we see, from the CEO of a corrupt corporation to the teacher who told our ten-year-old son he was stupid to the bag lady slumped on the sidewalk in the Bowery, is someone’s son or daughter, just as we are. I do not have to like any of these people, but I cannot deny our ultimate kinship.
Can I look at other people — no matter their values or appearance — and think, Son, daughter, brother. Sister, mother, father. Grandmother, cousin, nephew. Niece. Kin. You and I are kin. We belong to the same family, we breathe the same air. Our hearts beat in the same dance of contraction and release. We stare at the same stars in the black dome of the night sky.
If I could think this way, would I ever walk past a homeless person with a moue of embarrassment or annoyance at being confronted with their needs, at having to smell their unwashed bodies? How could I? I know I cannot change the life of every homeless person I encounter — or any homeless person I encounter — but I can give them the gift of contact. I can recognize our shared humanity by looking into their eyes without judgment or disgust. I can notice all we have in common: mouth, fingers, hair, breath, the capacity for pain. I can say “Good luck” or “Bless you” if I am moved to. I can give money if I am able or willing to.
But most of all, I can be the face, out of all the many faces that pass, that doesn’t look away.
I try to do that, because that’s what kin do for each other. They are kind: They offer help, be it assistance, compassion, generosity, tolerance, understanding, or simply acceptance. I admit that I don’t always succeed— some days I am too tired or bitter or busy — but when I do, I feel more like myself. As if my acknowledging an outcast’s membership in the family of man somehow cements mine.
By the way, that book I discovered when I was five, The Family of Man? It’s still in print, nearly 60 years later. Some things never go out of style.
* From Carl Sandburg’s prologue to The Family of Man
Copyright 2003 by Margot Silk Forrest
If you would like to read the rest of Margot’s book, write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is offering copies “A Short Course in Kindness” to friends of IWL at 50% off the $11.95 cover price.