Monday, February 16, 2009

The Bad Within

There was an article in the paper last week that shamed me. At a local seedy motel, there were some broken pipes—some people of an ethnic group got into it, and water pipes were broken in a fight. The fire department was called to what must have been surreal: a woman of a certain local indigenous ethnic group from a village was bare-bottomed and came out and started asking the firefighters if she could see their penises. (That's the paper's word, perhaps not hers?) Turns out she was wanted on an outstanding warrant and was locked up. The story was funny. It would have been funny with frat guys, too.

What makes this story worthy to tell you all is that I accompanied clergy to the prison later that day. One of inmates started telling me about how she was attracted to the drink that her people can’t metabolize and how it’s taken a toll on her family and her future generations. I studied this in college in my social work degree, and when I worked with “them” I was always nice, but I was working and responding to a population, not to individuals. I didn’t think that I was at the time, but I was and am ethnocentric. I am way less now that I have come to a jarring realization of it, but I know that it probably will seep out. from time to time when I don't realize it.

Listening to that woman tell me about some of the things she did when drunk, imprisoned for a crime that she may or may not remember, I think of the woman at the seedy motel and wonder if she will remember what she said to the firefighters—there had been an arrest warrant out for her when they ID checked her so she is now in jail. I’m not saying that people of local indigenous groups who commit crimes don’t belong behind bars, but they have some brutal circumstances that created the situations they are in. I have no idea, but I am ashamed for how I have been without knowing it, even with doing no known harm to anyone. There were people in my degree who felt as I did and graduated and wanted to work with ethnic groups. They seemed sensitive and we thought that laughing at the situations was a sense of humor to protect us. Isn’t this kind of evil—and yes, it is evil, because it can grow—the kind of evil that allowed people to stand by and kill 6 million Jews? If you can blow something off, "Those crazy _____'s!" you can dehumanize them. Certainly I would never wish harm on them, but they become almost caricatures in one's mind. If I want humor in my life I can read Far Side, not chuckle at the actions of certain ethnic groups. I should have been devastated at the humiliation that that woman would suffer and how it reflected on all females of her ethnic group.

Drunken frat guys can laugh it off in court, the allegations later cracked up at 20 years later, and be sheepish on the stand. A drunk indigenous woman? She’ll look terrible in court, surrounded by educated people talking down to & around her, acting like she is public enemy #1 and the prosecution possibly forgetting about her later that evening or laughing about it, "Just another _____. . ." Her family may be illiterate or not letter writers-- she probably loves her children who are far away, who speak of their mother in jail like it's no big deal because lots of other kids in their village have moms in jail. What pictures will she get of her children? Will she even understand the court process? It's confusing to lawyers!

I am so glad that I did not go into social work. I would have thought that I was helpful while condescending my clients without knowing it. As time goes on, I think I'd be better, but I think that I want to stay away from it. I will probably only stay with my prison work for a year or two before I get out and be strictly on the board of directors and not work directly with people on the front lines. For now I am learning a bit and becoming aware.


Olivia said...

Don't think I could go into social work, despite having a psychology degree. I was a much stronger and more resilient person back then. Now, I am too sensitive, easily touched, and things I see or hear could get to me and stay a while.

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts.

steve said...

You're sensitive and compassionate enough that I'm sure you would have done well as a social worker. But you might have become a burnt-out case after a few years. Fr. Andrew Greeley, who used to write a regular column before he turned to churning out books with red covers, had a unique idea about the Catholic priesthood. he thought it should remain celibate, but that priests should be able to serve for a few years and be released from their vows if they so chose. Priests would not face a lifetime commitment to service and to celibacy. I suspect that it's healthier to be a social worker for only a few years, unless you're saint like Dorothy Day.