I’m a pretty normal person.
At least I like to think I am.
But maybe I just think I am, because I don’t know otherwise.
I was sitting with my children and their spouses around our fire pit, talking about our family’s “culture”. My daughter-in-law shared how she had to acclimate and get used to the “Koenig way” of doing things and handling things when she first was getting to know us.
My thoughts started in this way: ,“Yeah, that would be hard to integrate into, if you were used to a different way.”
And then: “What is she talking about? We are just normal. We do things the normal way.”
As the conversation progressed, she brought up another situation where she had felt out of sync with us.
I said somewhat mockingly, “Great. Tell me something else that I am going to feel guilty about.”
My daughter interrupted me, gently but firmly, and said, “Mom. If that’s how you’re hearing it, then you aren’t listening right. Listen to her.”
I was taken aback, and somewhat embarrassed. But I got the message.
I needed to listen.
Listen, and not be defensive.
Listen, and acknowledge the work it took for my daughter-in-law to integrate and feel a part of this large family who did things in a way that was far different from her family growing up.
Listen, and not make it all about me and how I felt about it.
Our family is not big on expressing emotions in a gush-it-all out kind of way. (We are part German. This may have something to do with it.)
Sometimes, there is a holding back, a pondering of what we actually want to say. A silence, in order to keep from saying something that might hurt another’s feelings or make the situation worse. Time to consider our words.
Or, often, less altruistically, a sly or snarky remark, a sarcastic comment. A silence that signals a grudge, rather than a graciousness.
My daughter-in-law’s family is more of the hash-it-all-out kind of family. Right away, right now.
You can see where there might be some clash of culture.
And why she struggled to fit in and feel a part of things at first.
My son-in-law, originally from Georgia, also ran into some cultural differences, with our family. “Bless your heart”, sweet tea, and a full recitation of when you first met Jesus is not a part of our Midwestern sensibilities.
He went away from our first meeting thinking that we hated him (we didn’t, for the record, and were aghast when we found out later that was what he thought).
We thought everything had gone fine and was just “normal.” Because we are normal. (And right. )
Listening is hard.
Sometimes it’s hard to pay attention and not let my mind wander. Sometimes it’s hard to intuit what is behind what someone is saying, when their words may not match up to their body language or facial expressions.
But sometimes (often!) it’s hard, because I am busily composing my rebuttal to tell the other person how they are wrong, or getting ready defend my point of view, instead of really listening to the person across from me.
When I stop my own mind-churning, and my trying to figure out how to present myself and my opinions as superior and right, and just listen to others, it’s amazing what happens. I hear what they really are saying, and it affirms the person’s significance.
We actually communicate.
My reaction at the fire pit reminded me of how many people in the majority culture (whites) react when they hear the stories of minority people who are trying to tell about their experiences, and their difficulties in navigating a culture that is different to their own. Ask a white person to describe his culture, and he may say, “I don’t know. It’s just normal. “ Because it is the majority culture, there is no pressing need for him to examine his culture and compare it to those around him who come from a different one. The majority is considered “normal”; he doesn’t have to figure out how to fit in with any other culture in order to live his life.
The nonwhite people around us, however, have a much different experience. They have to be fluent in both white culture and their own culture, if they hope to succeed and thrive; if they hope to get along.
And many times, if they just hope to survive.
The conversation that night reinforced the idea that if I, as a white person, hope to understand and know my nonwhite brothers and sisters, I will have to be willing to listen to their stories.
I will have to be willing to listen to how they experience life, often far differently than my own experience.
I need to be willing to put down my defenses, lay down my fears and guilt, open my ears, listen, and honor their words.
I need to make it not all about me, and how I feel about things.
Listening well to the minorities in our society will not change situations or solve problems in and of themselves. But it will help. It will acknowledge that there are different experiences that we have not had, different issues and influences, hardships and difficulties that have arisen because of both past and current injustices.
It won’t solve things immediately. But it will be a start.