Okay. I have a challenge for you. Stop and think about all the different groups or demographics to which you belong: age, gender, marital status, socio-economic status, ethnicity, etc. The list is a long one for all of us, no doubt.
Without really doing any formal research, I would speculate this has a lot to do with the need in society to monetize our actions/ lives in order to have a definitive judgment of the worth (or lack thereof) of an action/ person/ etc. I mean things are a lot less messy when we can objectively look at numbers rather than getting into the nitty gritty of a larger situation (for example: a student who receives and “A” is a successful/ intelligent student, one who receives a “D” is not.) But I think we should consider this habit of our society in our own terms.
Think back to those demographics you considered up earlier. Now pick one of them. Do you feel that this chosen demographic accurately portrays who you are as a person? Does it accurately reflect the situation that led you to this demographic? Would you fell upset if you were lumped into a group based solely on this one characteristic of your life? Especially if this characteristic was considered unflattering (or unsuccessful) by mainstream society? I don’t know about you guys, but I most certainly wouldn’t.
This, however, is how society often chooses to discuss the marginalized in our society. We talk as if one’s current housing situation could tell us all we need to know about a person’s values and ideas.
Here’s a personal example of what I mean. My parents have been divorced for a little over ten years. As a result, my mother is a single mother and I was therefore raised by a single mother (You’re thinking, well duh, Corbin, but stay with me, this is going somewhere, I promise!)
Last fall, my mother went to watch my older brother K.C. play the last football game of his college career. On her way home, my mother was wearing a sweater that boasted his university name and athletic mascot. In the airport she was approached by a police officer, who asked whom she knew that attended the somewhat prestigious university on her sweatshirt. My mother of course responded that it was her son and she was in town for his senior football game. The officer then asked where my mother’s husband was. My mother responded that she was divorced. The officer then looked at surprise to my mom and said, “That boy came from a broken home?!”
My mother was hurt by the encounter, and honestly, so was I. In one simple statement that police officer devalued my family and the identity of my mother, my brothers, and I. First, for my mother who was essentially told that her son was successful in spite of her raising of him; not because of her upbringing of him. All of the values she taught us and the long hours spent at work to support our family meant nothing. To that officer, my mother had nothing of value to offer my brother. I’m not a parent, but I will venture to guess that is right up there on the list of “biggest parent fears.”
Secondly, it kind of felt as if that officer took away the full identity of my brothers and me as humans. At that moment, we were no longer real people but simply the products of our parent’s marital situation. It felt terrible to be written off like that.
I recently looked up these statistics: “75% of children/ adolescents in chemical dependency hospitals are from single-parent families (Center for Disease Control.) More than half of all youths incarcerated for criminal acts lived in one-parent families when they were children (Children’s defense fund.)”[i] Neither of these statistics would be deemed “flattering.”I think these are the numbers that the officer had in mind when he considered the children of single parent households. He honestly couldn’t have been more off the mark when he encountered my family. But what if he hadn’t been? What if my brothers or I were in that 75%? Would the fact that my parents were divorced tell the whole story? Or are there other factors in play? Conversely, could these hypothetical addictions really tell one anything about the reality of my life?
Sadly, I think that this is what many of the marginalized in our society face. Many people assume because they are homeless, or addicts, or experiencing poverty, or a minority, the entire reality of this person’s existence is defined. This de-humanization as such occurs when we look at the people around us as numbers or demographics. In order to get out of this practice we have to divorce ourselves from these numbers and start looking at people as simply that: people. They have stories, families, hopes, dreams, and fears. We have to do the hard work of caring and getting to know the people around us on a personal level. We have to be a friends and true neighbors. Then we can start realizing that they (and we) are so much more than the numbers society defines them (and us) by.