Charlottesville: Stand with Your Family

Posted on 15 August 2017

vigil candle

When I was a child my family moved every two to three years. With these moves my parents tried to keep their children away from cities, because those were places where we might be exposed to drugs (as if alcohol isn’t a drug) and gangs (as if a group of privileged football players can’t form their own school yard junta). Small towns were supposedly where all the wholesome people lived.

As the new kid in town I was always low child of the classroom hierarchy. The bullying in small towns can have very little parental oversight and is sometimes even encouraged. Most kids have already formed impenetrable cliques by first grade.

To make friends I had to circulate among the outcast and leftover children. Among these children were those from migrant worker families, the ethnically diverse, and those with disabilities. These were the kids with whom I played. My best friend Michelle had two deaf parents and grew up with vocal difficulties. My friend Gail’s parents were potters living below the poverty line. Another friend was mocked for living in a trailer. I remember seeing the inside of her house and thinking it was awesome! I still think trailer homes are our future.

I learned to be open to finding beautiful people in all sorts of socially unexpected places. I quickly knew that you can only ever judge a person by their actions. Everything else is peripheral and usually unimportant.

Michelle taught me to love comics. I would go to her place and we would read her Vampirella comic books. The sexual element of the stories meant nothing to me. We were just happy to read about such a powerful female character. When I hit university exciting things began happening in the comic book industry. The stories became more real and political: this is the era when The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen came out. In one of my first writing classes I spoke about this. I was roundly mocked by the other students.

The lecturer on the other hand, Dr Charles R. Johnson, leapt forward in my defence. He had once been a cartoonist. His students mostly knew him as the author of the beautiful and intricate novel Faith and the Good Thing. His kindness and insights soon made him one of my favourite lecturers. Later he was part of the graduate committee for my masters degree. After graduation I have seen him as a spiritual father.

My biological family are white, privileged, and conservative. I couldn’t wait to leave home in order to re-raise myself. I didn’t want to be the person they wanted me to be. However, reinventing myself is proving to be a lifelong endeavour. And no matter how hard I have tried to root out pernicious attitudes and mistaken understandings, upon occasion I will hear something come out of my mouth for which I am immediately ashamed. I feel like those people who talk about themselves as recovering alcoholics. I am a recovering racist. And yet…I am one hundred percent okay with identifying myself in that manner.

To me the point is to care so much about people that I am willing to embrace humility. If I get something wrong then I apologise, learn from the experience, and do my best not to repeat the error. If I need to make some form of personal restitution, then I do it. In this way I know that my soul is as clean as I can possibly make it.

I know people on the left who call themselves allies to the oppressed and vulnerable, not so much because they care, but because they don’t want to be seen as the bad guys. They feel white guilt. That’s not terribly strong motivation. I want life to be better for people like Michelle, Gail, and Charles because I love them. What stronger motivation can a person have?

I continue to spend time with all sorts of people. I flatter myself that it makes me a better writer. More importantly it makes me a better person. I had a bestselling Australian book about the Internet in the 1990s, and let me tell you, being a caring thoughtful person, even if that means you live in obscurity, is so much better for your heart than being famous. It’s also better for the whole world.

The events of Charlottesville are shocking. I understand being scared that the bullies might hurt you if you are seen standing by our African, Muslim, Jewish, and Gay family. But family they are. Take the time to make friends with a diversity of people. You may well find suddenly you want to rush out and stand by your beloved community, facing what needs to be faced, because your heart tells you to and you have taught it to be mighty.

Sometimes it’s easy to be a hero: it starts with love.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine

Katherine Phelps at Charlottesville Vigil

Charlottesville Vigil at Victorian State Library Australia, 14 August 2017


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