At a recent family dinner, my son announced “I identify as a woman.” As both the only straight white man in the household and the victim of two bossy older sisters, Oliver often feels oppressed.
Predictably, at the same meal the children all voted for “Oliver” as “Papa's Favorite.” The dogs and I all voted for “Bear.”
Spring means we’re going on longer and longer walks, even Buster. Improved weather also picked up the pace at the nearby construction sites where Western Washington University is adding a new interdisciplinary science building and more dorms. One of the campus parking lots is temporarily assigned to construction workers – a cohort of drivers that typically differs from college students and professors.
Recently I noticed a pickup truck labeled “I identify as a Prius.” Another car had a sticker proclaiming “Black Labs Matter.” Bear asked why I don’t have a bumper sticker celebrating Aussiedoodles.
The next time we walked through the parking lot neither car was there. But I felt a ping – seeking for something, realizing it was missing, then remembering the “Black Labs Matter” car seemed weird.
In any humor or hashtag situation, “Black Labs Matters” is a potentially provocative flag. A high degree of difficulty maneuver. An opportunity to exhibit grace and empathy.
Bear and I took these photos the next time we encountered the Black Labs sticker. Up close you can see why my brain was getting a weird vibe from Mr. Black Labs Matter. There’s a mixed message in the preamble “Coexist” – a lofty goal, but usually not spelled out with armaments arranged as letters of the alphabet.
If my subconscious still had a question about the message intended by the slogan “Black Labs Matter,” it was answered by the sticker underneath: “I LUBRICATE MY AR-15 WITH LIBERAL TEARS.” In black G.I. Font. With a picture of a red assault rifle.
The stickers on the other side of the car probably won’t change your unconscious’s opinion about the car owner:
All of us who are accustomed to speaking from a place of privilege must learn to talk about less privileged folks in a way that contributes to civil dialogue.
It’s not enough to stop stigmatizing, baiting, or “owning” the unprivileged Other. It’s also about monitoring access to The Room Where It Happens. We must look around the room, then ask who is present and who is absent. And why.
Unfortunately, it’s been months since I found myself looking around a real life room containing anyone who wasn’t named Leishman, Bear, or Buster.
Nevertheless, we can always question the patterns we observe around us in our culture and institutions. A few weeks ago in “Deadlines,” I wrote about how during the 1800s, the word “deadline” originally applied to “a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot.” By the end of the century, the word’s usage had expanded to include any line drawn to exclude a group.
Each day the dogs and I pass this ten-year-old historic marker on our walk along the waterfront:
NO CHINESE ALLOWED BEYOND THIS POINT
MAYOR APOLOGIZES TO
It Gets Better. Eventually.
Most of the photos in “Deadlines” show a different kind of historic marker. Lighter in tone. Collectively they represent a time capsule from the 1980s that preserves a time capsule from the 1890s:
Fairhaven Village is Bellingham’s quaint Olde Tyme neighborhood. The dogs enjoy walking to the waterfront through Fairhaven. Along the way we encounter historic markers that reveal tidbits from the community’s frontier past. According to Atlas Obscura, a local historian obtained community grants to fund the project four decades ago.
Some of these markers reflect Fairhaven’s Wild West beginnings: “Location of Town Pillory.” “Spanish Chalice dated 1640 found here.” “Counterfeiters’ Hide Out, 1905 - $5 and $10 pieces passed in saloons on weekends.” “Office of F.A. Higg, Alaskan Photographer, 1890.” “Huge freight wagon disappeared beneath quicksand, 1889.” “Benton’s Bath Parlor & Tonsorial Palace, 1903.” And my favorite: “Here is where Mathew was cut in two by a streetcar, 1891.”
After leaving downtown Fairhaven, tourists finally see a few Asian-themed markers: “Site of Chinese Bunkhouse, 1900 – Chinatown population 600.” “Site of Japanese Bunkhouse No. 5, circa 1903.” Meanwhile, comic cultural artifacts line Harris Street all the way to the train station. Historic markers commemorate the unfortunate Mathew, quicksand victims, and President McKinley driving by in a buggy. Pluse “Chinese foreman traded daughter for a boy, 1908.”
A community’s story is incomplete if its account of any marginalized group is limited to statistics and stereotypes. Four decades ago, whoever chose Fairhaven’s marker topics wasn’t paying close attention to the overall message sent by a few dozen historic vignettes.
Convinced I’m seeing things? That I’m a hypersensitive snowflake? A few weeks later, Bear and I finally found another Asian-themed marker on Harris Street: “Site of Sam Low’s Opium Den, 1904.”
The ACLU often uses the 19th century slogan “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” “Vigilance” means paying attention. Mindfulness. As individuals and as a society, we must eternally strive to see each other and ourselves more clearly.