Class, race, ethnicity: How dental floss taught me a lesson about respect

Interracial women holding handsBY RUTH L. SCHWARTZ, PH.D.

It was my favorite carry-on suitcase. A decade ago, it served me well all the way to India and back. So when the fabric ripped, I didn’t want to throw it out — but the luggage repair shop’s quote was outrageous. I felt very pleased with my ingenious solution: one large needle, some dental floss, and ten minutes later, my suitcase was travel-worthy again.

In contrast, Michelle’s carry-on looked sleek, sporty and new. “Will you be embarrassed to be seen with me?” I joked.

She considered. “To tell you the truth, it would bother me if it were mine. But it’s okay if it’s yours.

Ever diplomatic and respectful, Michelle would never tell me what to do. But I also didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. So I decided to look further into this difference of ours. Was it simply a personality quirk, or was there something more?

Michelle and I are soul mates from different backgrounds. She’s African American and Christian, while I’m white and Jewish. On the surface, we’re from similar social classes — her father a lawyer, mine a doctor — but our families’ approaches to money were dramatically different. During my growing-up years, my father threw his money around flamboyantly, while Michelle’s father closely guarded his. Yet my family never took vacations, whereas Michelle’s family traveled frequently, always staying in 5-star hotels.

How do our race, class, ethnic group and religion affect the ways we think, feel and perceive? Obviously, there is no simple answer to this question; all of us are formed by many factors, both external and internal. There is tremendous diversity within every race, class and ethnic background — and even within a single family, siblings often emerge with very different attitudes. It’s always problematic to assume that anyone will have certain preferences or points of view “because” of their background — yet it’s also unrealistic to imagine that our backgrounds play no part in shaping our experience.

Decades ago, the African-American lesbian feminist poet Pat Parker wrote a classic poem titled, “For the White Person Who Wants to Know How To Be My Friend.” Part of the poem read, “First, you must forget that I’m Black. Second, you must never forget that I’m Black.” This poem comes to my mind often when I run into differences between Michelle and me.

“My parents cared a great deal about how luggage looked,” Michelle reflects now.

“Do you think that was partly because of race?”

“Oh, absolutely.”

I know enough to understand that this wasn’t just a personality quirk on Michelle’s parents’ part; it was likely a way of staying safe. In a racist world, it’s dangerous to be a scruffy-looking African American. (Would Trayvon Martin have been less likely to get shot if he’d been wearing a business suit, or maybe creased chinos and an alligator-embossed shirt, instead of a hoodie?)

Could my thriftiness also be related to my culture? Jews have been oppressed in many societies, too, and centuries ago became money-lenders at a time when Christians were forbidden to do so because it was considered sinful. Perhaps that’s why Jews are stereotypically careful with money — what some non-Jews call “cheap.” My father certainly didn’t uphold that cultural stereotype, but both of my grandmothers were frugal, so maybe I’m a throwback.

Why is it important for us as lesbians to be aware of our partner’s background, and of how that may — or may not — influence her? Well, for one thing, it’s simply part of the intimacy-building practice of seeing, knowing and understanding one another. But we also teach people to do this kind of exploration in our coaching and at our retreats, because it can be a big part of avoiding unnecessary conflict.

Now, ultimately, it could be that Michelle just likes nice-looking luggage, and I just prefer using things for as long as I can, regardless of our backgrounds. After all, plenty of white Jewish women might have been bothered by my ratty carry-on, too! But without curiosity, compassion and respect — and the ability to acknowledge what comes up for us — we might quickly get lost down the rabbit hole of conflict. For instance:

“Why are you bringing that crappy old suitcase?” Michelle might have asked me (sounding critical because she was feeling, but not acknowledging, discomfort at the thought of being seen with my suitcase.)

“Because I fix things rather than get rid of them. That’s why I’ve got more money in the bank than you do,” I might have responded self-righteously (returning Michelle’s perceived attack with one of my own.)

Uh-oh! That conversation is likely to turn into a fight or a strained misunderstanding, rather than an opportunity for us to come to know ourselves and our partners more intimately. Far better to be able to directly name what we’re feeling, look with interest at the factors that may have influenced us, and discuss them openly!

Of course, even though we’re of different races, both Michelle and I grew up with financial privilege — so in many ways, our differences are less pronounced than those we’ve each experienced with other partners who grew up poor. (That’s the subject for another article.) But the bottom line is, when we can talk openly and respectfully about our differences, whatever they may be — and also inquire with compassionate curiosity into where they may have come from — those differences don’t have to divide us.

By the way, I did end up taking the dental-floss-repaired carry-on on our trip, after Michelle declared it was really fine with her. And my repairs held up, but now the bag has developed yet another rip. Should I finally throw it out this time, or should I sew it up yet again? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think!

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