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Wiley Wandering

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The Other Can Be Another, Or You!

As Snoop Dogg would say, I walked into a local eatery “just a slinging my hair” recently and had a personal epiphany that I just had to share with those of you who wander with Wiley from time to time. I know before I go on I probably need to clean up the Snoop Dogg reference. No, he most likely wouldn’t refer to any eating-place he would frequent as “a local eatery.” More importantly, as some of you have already laughingly considered, I am a shaved headed man (not bald, so don’t start no mess), so how would I be “just slinging my hair.” Well, I wouldn’t, it is just a saying that I like. Relax!

Anyway, as I enter this local eatery (me and my pretentious language) I am greeted by one of the most personable hosts I have ever met or known at a restaurant. He is quite gracious, witty, charming, obviously intelligent, and straight up funny! He is also not as tall as most. I interacted with this dynamo of personality and then watched him engage the rest of the room, energizing those who were available to receive that energy. If stature is just as significant as height, this cat was the tallest person in the room, and often is whenever I have seen him.

What must it be like to be the only one reflecting your reality in a larger moment of multiple people interactions, like at a mall, ballgame, restaurant, school situation, etc? What type of energy does it take to move throughout the day only letting the positive looks, communication, whispers, rumors, suggestions attach to you, deflecting the negative glances, dysfunctional dialogue, gossip, and ignorance away with little effort? Many of us have truly reflected upon that time when we experienced a moment of being that host, of being the “Other.” Usually it is an experience that is perspective altering, if not life changing. Have you had one of those moments? If so, what happened? If it changed you, how so?

Postscript: Interestingly enough though, we should keep in mind that for many people, an “Other” moment is a lifetime experience.


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As you pose those questions, 2 experiences come to mind. One was a (mercifully) brief experience of being the "other" and the second was an experience of being with an "other" and getting a taste, albeit indirectly, of what thay might be like.

In the first experience, I was on a trip and developed quite suddenly, a skin rash- a rather dramatic one, that covered a good part of my face, arms and legs. It was summer and though I still could cover my arms and legs (and sweat!) it was not possible to cover my face. As I walked through my life those few days and encountered the looks- and then looks away- from people who saw me, I began to think about what it might be like to have a permanent disfugurement such as a severe scar or other facial abnormality-or perhaps, to be in some way, strikingly unattractive. Although my situation was temporary, a fact I tried to hold onto, I couldn't help but experience a particular brand of shame every time I had to look up or interact with someone. I felt somehow less than myself. It made me angy, irritable and exceedingly vulnerable. To make matters worse, I was, at the time, visiting someone to whom I very much wanted to be attractive- and, although he was the consummate gentileman about the whole thing- gracious despite his own discomfort, I felt excruciatingly self-conscious and wanted to keep my distance. I felt at the mercy of his acceptance of me and angry with him for having that power. I wondered what intimate relationships- or the precursors (flirting, dating) would be like for somewhat with that or another disability or who had some trait that made them "rejectable". My rash soon faded- but the experience persists to remind me of my good fortune.

The second experience was a little different. I am White and have rarely had to be aware of my race or anyone's reaction to the color of my skin. I had the opportunity, some time ago, to spend time traveilling with a person of a different race. This was interesting along a couple of dimensions. We were visiting an area in which my partner seemed to be the only non-White in sight. It was hard to tell whether the brief stares were about him, about the fact that we were an interracial couple- or were simply a figment of my own imagination heightened by my self-consciousness about our identiies. Regardless, it was odd and new to even be thinking about how others would regard me as I entered a room or drove down the street. In addition, I noticed myself wondering, as we chose places to visit, whether there would be differences in taste or preferences based on our racial/cultural differences. My own concerns or assumptions about that surprised me. (It was interesting to see that there were more similarities than differences in our take on things.) As I watched my partner subtly check out his environment, as if that were simply "par for the course" - it brought home the fact that our experiences in the world are so very different- at least in that way. I was grateful for the experiential insight- but it was disturbing all the same.

My first two experiences of being the other were flirtations. The latest adventure in otherness is real, and has been much more significant in creating the person I am today.
At 19 in the Army, I married a woman who was half African American, half German, though to me her darkness, hair texture and physical features made her look like most black women I'd encountered, largely through popular media, and I must admit my perception of her was also influenced by my upbringing in a rural, largely white area.
Being married to her, gained a sense of the prejudice bi-racial couples face. Even though I lived in a military community with people from various backgrounds, there were comments and stares. My atheist grandfather said I was going to hell for marrying a black woman.
Still, I didn't feel the full brunt of otherness a minority feels as I enjoyed white privilege.
The second experience was the birth of my daughter Darby. She has Irish, English, French, German and African-American blood, more of the latter. So I've gained another glimpse of otherness by raising a bi-racial daughter, who deals with a mixture of benefits and disadvantages. She somewhat shares white privilege because of her appearance, but she'll be a card-carrying member of that group. She knows what it's like to be in the minority, yet she'll likely have to prove to some minorities she's one of them.
But my broadest experience at otherness stems from mental-health issues, which carry such an intense stigma today are unfortunately worthy of being considered a major player with the others.
More than three years ago I suffered briefly from disabling mental-health issues, was fine for a year with meds, crashed again, and through the wonders of medication and psychoanlaysis have felt fine since. I view my disability as something that makes me different, not better, not worse than anyone else.
But many don't perceive mental-health disabilities the same as missing limbs, the wheelchair bound and conditions such as Down Syndrome, which they can clearly see and explain. No, the intricacies of the mind baffle many, and when the mind malfunctions, however briefly, someone who has not experienced it personally or through a family mebmer will likely harbor biases. They may be frightened and won't understand. Many will not view someone in the throes of mental-health disabilities the same as the paralyzed person momentarily without the wheelchair.
Society has come a long way in accepting and embracing its differences, yet there's a long journey ahead.
And when it comes to the OTHERS with bi-polar and disassociative disorders, anxiety, depression and schizophrenia, I believe many have just started to walk down that long road to acceptance and fear others are lost without a compass.

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