This week, the prompt for my weekly contemplative writing classes started "I first knew I was different when..." or "I first knew he was different when..."
The quote at the bottom of the prompt:
“But even though we may not have been fully conscious of the racism of our games, we did understand that racial stereotyping was titillating and a little bit taboo. And as a half, my understanding went deeper.”I had considered making race the prompt - "I first became aware of race when..." and then, decided to broaden it, while still keeping it specific. Race definitely came up - currently, all of my students are caucasian, white people who can, if they choose to, ignore race. As I know working more and more with us white folks on race, though, just because someone is white doesn't mean they ignore race. So for those who wrote about race, it was powerful enough to make me want to do an entire day retreat on race. What a significant and important topic for especially white people to write spontaneously about and share - mainly with each other. If people of color choose to, they can witness it and share, too - but we can be mighty messy as we figure things out out loud.
-Ruth Ozeki, The Face: A Time Code
However, because of the broadened but still specific prompt, two things came up in the majority of writings, things I hadn't expected but am not surprised by.
The majority of students wrote about being sensitive, and, more importantly, about when they realized being labeled "sensitive" was a bad thing. Fact is, it universally was, for the participants of my class, who range in age from 25-70 at the moment, mostly, but not all, women. By now, most of us know (for I would label myself "sensitive" too) it's not necessarily a bad thing, and those who made fun of us for it or denigrated us for it only made it worse. At the time, however, as a child, teen, or college kid, even into twenties, it could be excruciating.
The other thing which arose - related to the sensitivity, but even broader - was the deeply felt understanding that we are different, just like everyone else. We are all different. While some people can't escape their difference because it is visible to the "majority" - e.g. a black person in a small white town - there are variations and subtleties on difference, mostly related to temperaments that don't match the family of origin. Of course so many of my students were sensitive, but raised in ostensibly anti-sensitive households. And, equally of course, they are now in a class with others raised in a similar circumstance. So the understanding that being sensitive in non-sensitive situations is hard met with the solidarity of knowing we are not alone - for some people, for the first time.
Huge bonding resulted from this - not even in a "Wow - I can't believe others get this," sense, but even just in the sense of hearing such pain be held and accepted. One student gave the feedback to a student who had just read that she felt pain listening to her, and, she added, also felt so inspired by her language, etc. The person who had just shared quickly wanted to leap in, and I caught her before she did - she's experienced enough to know I won't allow her to "back porch" - e.g. apologize for her writing after the fact.
"Did you hear what the feedback was? She felt your pain. SHE FELT YOUR PAIN. That's a good thing - she is mirroring back sensitivity and acknowledging your hurt. Look at her. She is ok. She can hold it. We all can."
The person who had shared scanned the room, and you could see a break in their clouds: My story is not impossible. It was awful, devastating, but others can and want to hold it. I am ok.
This was by far one of the most gratifying weeks I've had teaching writing in a long time, and most weeks are pretty gratifying! Hearing people's evolution within themselves of being with difference, managing it, finding ways to embrace it, finding people to support it - super inspiring.
Next step: encouraging the sensitive nature of so many of my white students to explore what we know and feel about race, while still respecting white fragility - challenging ourselves to expand just enough so we can grow, without forcing ourselves to shut down. Not a small nor instant step, but a good area to expand into, just like sex (already in progress, with Write From the Hip workshops - more soon).
Hot topics are hard, especially for folks who feel their sensitivities acutely. But for sensitive types, hot topics are also tremendously rewarding when they feel safe enough. And, after all, that's my work: creating safe spaces for exploring our minds and lives through art.