On one of my first few days in High School, three slightly older teenagers approached and asked if wanted to “buy some grass.” I declined. “Then you must already have some,” they reasoned, “so give it to us.” I didn’t have any, but I caught on to their assumption. This wasn’t just a stairwell, but a marketplace of sorts. So I turned to leave. They objected. I probably had some cash on me, they decided, and it shouldn’t go with me. When two of them tried to take hold of me, I remembered a tutorial on bullying I had received in Junior High School.
The primary lesson had been, “You don’t have to win a fight with a bully. Just hurt them; they’ll bully someone else next time.” Among the corollaries, however, was this axiom: “If there’s more than one, hit the biggest one first. Hurt that one, and the others lose interest.” That was the corollary I applied.
Surprisingly, at the time, having applied those “rules of engagement,” taught to me earlier in Southwest Ohio, I now faced unintended negative consequences at my school in San Francisco. I was now a member of one of many minorities, rather than the white majority. And nearby were many more “persons of color” (a term I’d recently learned) than any of my fellow “Dumb White Boys,” as I was being called. (As in, “Hey! Come get hold of this Dumb White Boy!”)
To be clear, though, I was not attacked because I was White. Nor was it because I was a Boy (although females of the “wrong” ethnicity were subjected to other, more severe behavior). The direct cause of my altercation was being Dumb. And I still am. I’m capable of learning from experience, and blessed with an excellent and continuing education. But there were basic rights and wrongs of which I was entirely ignorant.
I was in the wrong place, and slow to notice. My former rules of engagement were obsolete in this new environment. The tribal contracts that apparently require defense of any fellow member of your minority were not as binding among Dumb White Boys. And, despite having effectively discouraged the primary threat (the big guy in the middle), I could not have imagined how many reinforcements would gladly “Come get hold of this Dumb White Boy.”
This episode came to remembrance this morning amidst a bout of xenophobia (fear, and even hatred, of anything strange or foreign). I’ll say more about that later, but for now here’s what I’m recognizing. I have learned to be in strange places. I have also learned that in many of those places I am “The Strange.” I believe much is to be gained by more quickly recognizing how very unfamiliar we all are to one another. But sometime in the past several decades, I’ve grown accustomed to overcoming those anxieties by asking questions.
Who knows how disarming it would have been for a Dumb White Boy to ask, “Isn’t this the way to the second floor? Or is it just for drug dealing?” The outcome (a loose tooth and a couple of bruises) may have been the same. Perhaps even worse. But more often than not, I’ve found that asking questions about the circumstances others are facing allows them to bridge the gap between the familiar and strange (both theirs and mine) by becoming my guide, my tutor—the one who informs me of their perspective, and maybe even their fears (if not their hatred).
Like I said, there’s more to say. But for now, I plan to honor my xenophobia as a reminder to ask questions, and to thus overcome my anxieties about all these people I don’t know by letting them become my guide into their lives. Maybe in doing so, they’ll give me a chance to explain my strangeness to them as well.