Friday, October 10, 2014


"You dis-in' me?"

Suppose your family is poor, you live in a small substandard inner city apartment with several brothers and sisters, you belong to an ethnic or racial group that is not highly valued in America, school doesn't provide much hope because you feel that you don't understand the relevance of what you are expected to learn.  

When nothing makes sense you question what you are told by the authorities
Home sweet home ... to many
Your major support group is a group of your friends ‘on the street’.  This is a fair description of many young people in America today. 
If you are one of these kids the thing that you long for most is some real human affirmation – some message from somewhere that you have worth – that you are a worthy human being.  In the language of the street this person wants “respect”. 

Suppose your kids found folks like this just ourside your front door

But how do you get respect?  Given your history and your present expectations – respect for many is gained by being stronger, bigger, meaner, ‘badder’, more aggressive, ‘street smarter’, willing to take the biggest risks, richer by whatever means (legality doesn't matter).

Inner-city environment
And the worst thing for this kid is to be “dised” (disrespected) … anything that diminishes his or her sense of value or worth…   He or she is disrespected by an insult (“Your mama is …”), making you look like trash in front of ‘your group’, the teacher humiliating you in the classroom, a shopkeeper who treats you with contempt, and a policeman who challenges you for no good reason…
Be watchful for disrespect - then respond promptly
After years of living with ‘this stuff’ many people become bitter and hyper-sensitive to being disrespected – it becomes like a hair trigger… If someone in the next car looks at you with ‘the look” of “I’m better than you” this is seen as a serious “dis”.  Add weapons to this mix and it sets up a deadly formula for disaster. Strong police response does not promote respect - it causes the rage to grow more intense.

Graffiti depicting a dead person
One of the curious things is that kids within a group, who all feel this way toward the world often playfully, challenge each other with the kind of insults that they all find so painful.  It's a kind of response that relieves their tension and also in a way inoculates them to keep going.  When a trusted friend tells the kid that “ Your mama is so fat that…” kind of joke – the response is a bigger worse insult … What they are really doing is to recognize that this is part of the world that they both share, and they are there to support each other. It’s cynical but healing. (usually) It can also go beyond playful to hurtful, anger, and violent confrontation… In the language of the street this is called “playing the dozens”.

Adapting to inner city life; " Concrete Roses"
But what about white middle class Americans – how do we deal with respect and disrespect?  We have out antennas up and out for responses from others, we know what it feels like when we hear from others that what we have done is acceptable to our peers.  Facebook is full of people seeking a positive affirmation from others in our “hive of humanity”.  I seek respect in different ways than the kid in the street – I seek to be smarter, more creative, and effective at contributing to my society, funny, supportive, more adventurious … I have found that these things are valued among people that make up my world.  If I lived in Romania or Swaziland what is valued would be different. 
Common attitude of many who life close to the street
What kinds of things cause me to feel disrespected?  When I attempt something and I fail, it makes me feel like I have “egg on my face”… I want to ‘kick myself” when I get unjustly angry with someone and say things I regret.  When I try to communicate with someone with whom I cannot connect – when we have irreconcilable differences – I know that I have no respect in that persons eyes. 

It  feels good to know that you share respect with a person
My response to the feeling of disrespect is different than the response of the kid on the street.  I have more resources and I have more sense that it is a possibility that I can get things back on an ‘even keel’...I know that my culture generally finds people like me worthy.  I have experienced that I can learn from my errors and try again to create a situation that leads to a better solution.

Where respect begins
I can realize when I was wrong and try to reconnect with the person I wronged.  I can do this because I have learned that it works.  I can accept that I can’t solve all differences and that life still goes on.  I may even contact the person with whom I disagree and ‘agree that we can disagree and still be friends'.  I realize that I can take responsibility in a bad situation and think outside of the box, insisting on "my way" or seeking revenge to satisfy my ego.

Wisdom of Cesar Chavez
These are learned skills  - I don't know where I learned them, but when I am in an painful situation, I know that the only way out is to approach it in a different way –  setting aside my selfish desires.
Do I actually do this? – sometimes – Do I sometimes wallow in my own sense of hurt and wish for revenge?… there are times…
But perhaps this is part of the universal human condition… we do the best we can with the skills and expectations we have.