Fighting Disease

27 Aug

On August 18, in light of Ferguson, Kaya Oakes, a Catholic writing faculty member at UCBerkeley, tweeted:

The sickening thing about racism is how repetitive it is. From generation to generation. That’s also the definition of a disease.

It got me thinking hard about generational disease. My friend talked about being worried when his wife got pregnant. He didn’t want to pass on his Type 1 Diabetes to his child. My brother has talked about maybe never having children. He doesn’t want to be responsible for passing on his struggle with depression to his kids. I have a child growing in me right now. What I hope to not pass down is an eating disorders. Eating disorders and disordered eating runs in my family. I got it. I believe it is a disease. I also believe I am healthy today and have done the work to give my child a chance at a different kind of relationship with food and body. But, like Type 1 diabetes and depression, it is the kind of disease you are never totally free from. I fought to love food and my body through therapy and becoming an active advocate by creating workshops, writing about it and teaching young people. My spouse is a partner in my struggle. As a recovered person, it comes up less and less, and I have tools for when it does, but never goes away completely. Being pregnant has brought on an onslaught of attention to my growing body– eyes and comments– and I have had to recommit to the work. Food is good. My body is beautiful. I am supposed to be gaining weight. It’s good work, and I am happy to do it in hopes of breaking a generational cycle of disease. Kaya’s tweet, however, challenged me. Why is it that I am willing to work and fight so hard to break this cycle and not others? What diseases do we choose to work toward dismantling? What would happen if I were to work that hard in my daily life to break the cycle of racism for my child?

In “Heart of Whiteness,” Tobias Wolff writes:

But look: most of us still live in enclaves. As much as the country has changed since I was young, this has not. Though more and more we work together, learn together, bear arms together, we mostly go home to separate worlds and bring up our children in separate worlds, either by intention or cultural habit or simply as a consequence of economic and class divisions. And if we ourselves never say a slighting word about those others or smile in a certain way at the dramatic fulfillment of a stereotype, our children, living in our world, will still see and hear such things and be touched by them….Here are some race cards: our country has the highest incarceration rate in the world—and young black men have an incarceration rate six times that of young white men.

And so we pass on racism to the next generation like a disease. We live in separate worlds. Refusing to be actively racist is not enough. Like Wolff goes on to write, I have read books and taught units and shown up at rallies that do work toward breaking down race hatred. But do I fight daily? Do I fight as hard as I have over the years to break the eating disorder cycle? No. Omission will not fight off the generational residue. If I am not actively pursing anti-racism, the default will prevail. Separate worlds speaks volumes in the silence.

On his blog, Clint Schnekloth openly struggles with what he should do as a white man in like of Ferguson. He says, “Allies walk a fine line with paternalism.” True. But he ends by presenting a few action steps that he believes will work toward breaking the cycle of the disease:

1) Realize that anything you believe you know about race, immigrants, or mental health is colored by your subjective experience. You don’t know what you don’t know.

2) To gain understanding, engage in love of neighbor, the next step is to “subject” yourself to the truth of the other, especially the truth of oppressed or marginalized communities, to listen to them and trust that their experience is also true and valid even if it isn’t your experience. In fact you may need to accept the possibility that their truth is MORE true than your truth.

3) Do the hard work of discovering the intersubjective truth that lies between you and the other whose truth is different than yours.

The Catholic Catechism states that racism is a sin against justice and a violation of human dignity (1935). As people of faith, it is our collective work to tend to the injustice so what we pass on to the next generation brings hope for God’s renewal and grace and creates space for human dignity to rule. I do want my child to love its body and food more than I have over the years, to know physical happiness and health in a whole new, unrestricted way. I also want my child to love all people and know a world without enclaves and human made boundaries and race violence. And if this is truly my wish, then it must also become my work.

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