Sunday, December 7, 2014

Attitude of Gratitude #29: Inspirational Person

He reminded me of a young Santa Claus, the bearded Kris Kringle character from the Rankin-Bass Christmas special Santa Claus is Coming to Town. While the stop-motion character had red hair, Glen was tow-headed. But his eyes were just as animated. They twinkled. I thought twinkling eyes was a figure of speech, but his eyes glittered when he smiled.  

Those of who knew Glen competed for those smiles. Sometimes his grins indicated gleeful mischief. Other times, the twinkle would be half hidden in a side-eye, signaling an inside-joke, a private message.
 My favorite memories of Glen's smile happened in his office, him in his worn leather office chair, pipe clenched between his teeth, He'd chuckle at something naive I said or beam at me when I said something sharp or witty. I can't smell cherry tobacco without thinking of him.

Glen was my mentor, role-model. His memory continues to inspire me. I worked for him in one of my former incarnations at a non-profit human relations organization that promoted interracial, interreligious, and multicultural dialogue. Dialogue, as we defined it, is the frank and free discussion of we truly believe in an environment of mutual trust and respect. Our charge was to promote discussion between groups separated by significant social distance, groups like race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, age.

Before meeting Glen, I believed I had a grasp of identity, oppression, and privilege. But it wasn't until I met and worked with Glen that I got a deeper, experiential understanding of those ideas. He got me to recognize the emotional and psychological significance of power and privilege I hadn't been ready to consider. 

Part of this lack of awareness had to do with unconsciously buying into the myth of meritocracy. I inhaled an inflated sense of personal agency that comes with believing the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality. I hadn't realized how much of the "master narratives" about power and privilege shaped my world view or my sense of identity.

Some of the denial had to do with straight up ignorance, a lack of vocabulary and exposure. 

Another factor was my inability to honestly face the pain, shame, and guilt I felt over my own identity. As a closeted gay, mixed-race teen, I bought into the stereotypes that told me I was abnormal, wrong. 

At the same time, I was also largely unaware of the privileges I get as a male, a gay person who could pass (at times!), and a light-skinned, racially ambiguous person. I can fly under the radar; the visual economy of race and sex gives me a free pass often denied others. I hid from myself any feelings associated with being a target of discrimination and from benefiting from systems of advantage.

I am forever grateful for Glen's patience and realness, for the ways he got me to acknowledge deeper truths. Glen was the first openly gay man in my life. He squired me out of the closet. He was also the first white man I met who was conscious of his male and white privilege. And he used that consciousness responsibly. 

When Glen witnessed me practicing racism, sexism, and homophobia (more often than I'm comfortable admitting), he challenged me directly and with love. And that love wasn't always a warm, sappy, kumbaya kind of love - his expressions were emotionally frank - vulnerable and angry. His passionate honesty helped me understand my errors, intellectually and deep in my bones. 

I wasn't the only recipient of Glen's instruction. 

Once we held a large community meeting at a summer human relations camp for over 230 teenage students.  It was the fourth day of a week-long retreat. We had just participated in an activity meant to illustrate the ways racial privilege and oppression operates and divides us.  The activity reminded us all, at a gut level, of just how racially divided we were. And this realization hit the community even harder because we had just spent four days together building our own little community. Emotions ran the gamut - guilt, shame, rage, sadness, hopelessness coursed throughout the room.

During the debrief, the facilitators were at a loss for words, unsure of their next step. They froze. Glen, his voice trembling, stood up from the back of the room and spoke to the whole group as tears streamed down his face. I don't remember his exact words, but whatever he said both honored all the different emotions in the room and charged us to build bridges, even if only in our small community. He worked some major magic. 

Glen got me, the other facilitators, and that roomful of teens to trust the process of a dialogue that value passion and truth. He found a way to connect us without ignoring the deep social distances between us. He got us to see that we have to meet those  divide squarely in the face in order to heal our wounds, wound that unfortunately remain fresh today. 

Glen knew how to break it down. He provoked us - yet we knew behind, beneath, and around that provocation was faith and a great love. Whenever I find myself having to confront someone's behavior, I have to check and see if I have any faith in the process or love for that person. Glen taught me that if there's no real personal investment or love behind my confrontation, I should stay quiet and figure out what's up with me. 

His death, twenty years ago, rocked our community. The loss devastated me. 

I'm thinking about Glen right now, when the national tragedy of racism blatantly faces us. Again. I wonder what wise words he would share, how he would  honor the range of emotions we are feeling, how he would somehow inspire us to be better people and to do the right thing.