The First Ripple

As I mentioned in my first post, I grew up in a homogeneous suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. Most people looked like me, worshipped like me, and lived like me. I was surrounded by mirrors.

My slow journey towards cultural competence started when I was an undergraduate student. Although I am ashamed to share my experiences, I feel the need to put a stake in the ground so you can understand how far I have traveled. The event I want to share with you took place in 1989 at Gettysburg College, a small liberal arts school in Pennsylvania. I refer to this experience as “the first ripple.” I apologize in advance for being offensive and insensitive. (Trigger warning: homophobic slur)

Like all the freshman students, I was taking a mandatory writing seminar and we were reading books from different cultural perspectives. One of the books was On Being Gay: Thoughts on Family, Faith, and Love by Brian McNaught. The author was visiting campus and we were required to attend his presentation. I can vividly remember complaining and saying, “I can’t believe we have to go listen to this fag.” I said the f-word without any thought or embarrassment, although there was certainly malice. It was a word I knew not to use at home, but had heard a million times in high school and had said more times than I care to remember. It was a put down and unquestionably derogatory.

But something incredibly important happened. For the first time in my life, my good friend boldly responded, “I can’t believe you just said that. What is wrong with you?” I was shocked to say the least. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. She totally called me out for being homophobic and to this day I applaud her for doing the right thing. She courageously stood up to me and told me I was wrong.

I listened that evening and was captivated. Brian was a very interesting and engaging speaker. He shared that he had attempted suicide and been fired from a job because he was gay. I left thinking that he had been through a lot and had been treated unjustly. Somewhere deep inside, I felt like I was a better person just for listening to his story.

I wish I could tell you I became a straight ally overnight, but I didn’t. I still had a lot of work to do. But three important things happened that night. First, someone corrected my disrespectful language. Second, I learned about a person’s life experience that was different than my own (I peered through a window). Third, the f-word was no longer just a generic derogatory word. There was now a personal connection that hadn’t been there before.

Donna Brazile said, “It takes but one person, one moment, one conviction, to start a ripple of change.” This was my first ripple. Can you remember yours? Can you remember a moment in time when you realized you were wrong and that you needed to change?

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By |2017-06-10T22:01:49-05:00June 10th, 2017|Tags: , , , , , |6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Lois Gish June 12, 2017 at 12:17 pm - Reply

    Thanks for sharing this part of your journey. I think many of us need practice using words to confront disrespectful language and micro-agressions. I know I do. Using “I” language and “I can’t believe you just said that” is one sentence useful in many situations. I am trying to keep that phrase handy.

    The window analogy is also good here. I can be critical of some of my biased relatives but I also need to be aware that they have not had the same chances to peer through windows because they live in a more homogeneous environment.

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  2. Laura Stanton June 13, 2017 at 2:35 am - Reply

    Great comments Lois. I appreciate your thoughtfulness. I agree that it can be challenging to confront others and I think “I” statements are the way to go. It can still be uncomfortable, but it is important to stand up to prejudice and bias at every opportunity. If my friend hadn’t spoken up all those years ago, I may have become a very different person. I am also glad you find the windows and mirrors framework helpful. It is powerful in many different contexts and it certainly helps us understand how we can all see life so differently, depending on whether we have or have not been exposed to certain dimensions of culture.

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  3. Brandon June 14, 2017 at 11:23 am - Reply

    Hi Laura, Nice work on the blog. This is my favorite post so far. Here’s one moment I remember where I realized I am a jerk. It makes my stomach hurt to think about it. There was a boy in my grade in in high school name Travis. I don’t know if the reason he struggled with classwork was cognitive or the fact that a genetic defect gave him very poor eyesight. It was probably the eyesight. He had to carry around gigantic books and position his face two inches from the page to read the enlarged text. I had not thought, until this moment, how hard it must have been to learn with that handicap. I didn’t normally taunt him like a lot of kids did, but I didn’t befriend him either. I was annoyed by the way he recklessly careened around the playground field or court, going enthusiastically after a ball he could barely see.

    Our freshman biology teacher was not particularly driven and often left us alone in the classroom for unstated reasons. During one of those times, I made pencil and paper sketches of classmates engaged in what I imagined would be their future occupations. Paul Cumberledge was easy, he had told his career aspirations to anybody who would listen, so made I him a Truck Driver. If Travis had future plans, I don’t know what they were. I imagined, based on his lackluster academic performance, he had a good chance of becoming a gas station attendant and I depicted him in that job. I thought it was just a joke.

    But I learned later that, though he held tight his emotion in front of the other kids, Travis cried long and hard about that picture.

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    • Laura Stanton June 15, 2017 at 11:43 am - Reply

      Hi Brandon. Thank you for your kind words about the blog. I appreciate your support! I also appreciate you sharing your story. That one is tough to read, although I suspect all of us carry around stories like this. We have a tremendous capacity to hurt others, especially when we are young and don’t realize the power of our actions and words. Sharing the story shows that you are aware of the hurt you inflicted. I think we can become paralyzed by our mistakes or we can reflect on them, learn something from them, and continue to grow. I have many more stories to share about mistakes I have made on my journey. Thank you for sharing one of yours!

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  4. David Duff June 14, 2017 at 5:31 pm - Reply

    One of the first: my best friend in middle school was black (and it turned out later, gay). I learned that the seemingly harmless racist jokes I passed on from my friends were actually making fun of a real person/group of people.

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    • Laura Stanton June 15, 2017 at 11:50 am - Reply

      Thanks for sharing Dave. I am sure many of us can relate to your situation. Jokes are a common way to disparage a whole group of people. We often listen and repeat them without much thought, until we make those personal connections and realize the hurt and harm jokes can cause.

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