In a time of relentless presidential campaigning, the word “integrity” often enters the discussion. It’s not really a word that I grew up with. When I first heard it, it was in reference to men. Men of integrity. And I still didn’t understand exactly what that meant.
My first given definition was “someone who says what he means and means what he says.” For some reason, in my mind, this sentence was always spat out of the mouth of a grizzled, old cowboy. I also came to know it as a synonym for “honest”. Someone who tells the truth. Not that my family of origin lacks integrity, but I married into a family of impeccable integrity. My wife, in particular. But it’s as natural as breathing for her. Not for me. It is a hard-learned behavior.
WARNING: YOU WILL SEE A WHITE MAN SQUIRM THROUGHOUT THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE
My definition for integrity didn’t truly crystallize until well into adulthood. Before I tell the story, I must confess something. I’ve never revealed my race to you because it hasn’t been relevant, but I am in fact very white. Like, I bought the soundtrack to Juno. I practically had Reality Bites on a loop during college. I eat cream-on-top, organic, grass-fed, yoghurt as a treat WITH the “h”. I researched Oklahoma’s laws on the selling and purchasing of raw milk because I really thought it might help me. I’m gluten-free as a life-style choice. Ok, continuing. So, I was working in a predominantly white organization (wow, that sounds bad). By “white organization”, I do not mean I was the IT guy for the KKK headquarters. I mean I was working in a field dominated by white folks (still sounds bad). There were only a few black co-
Stop. Let me first pause to go through the litany that runs through my head EVERY TIME I have to describe someone when their race is an essential component of the story. As a white person, I don’t know how to respectfully identify the race of someone with African descent. I say “as a white person” because, in a way, it’s easier for black people to speak about their race in terms of labels without upsetting anybody (not easy, but easier). If I say “African American”, then it doesn’t apply to African Canadians. If I say “black”, although people know what I mean, it doesn’t seem to fit very well given that no one really has black skin. If I choose not to identify the person’s race, then this story will not make as much sense. #WhitePeopleProblems. Am I right?
(litany continues, because now we have to talk about labels)
All of this struggle with labels in our world! Our brains need labels. They are shorthand for creating meaning and understanding of a complex environment. We’d be in a constant state of confusion (or wonderment) without them. The problem is that our understanding of our environment is finite. If we depend solely on labels for people, places, and things then we might miss the finer, more essential elements of the object them.
It’s tough to speak in a way that offends nobody and respects everybody. And as someone who possesses every kind of privilege the world affords, it seems incumbent on me to get it right. My policy, when I can make it work, is to call you what ever you feel most respected by, and for some people that’s simply “Bob” or “Mary” or whatever your name is. Simplifies things. So, litany over. Whew! (every time folks. e-v-e-r-y time with this litany)
So, this black woman. She was enjoyable to be around, professional, smart, funny, and kind. I liked her. Then, one day I overheard her talking to another black coworker. It was like seeing her for the first time. She was expressive and hilarious and free in her speech. She seemed more at ease in her body. And in that moment, I felt short changed. I wanted THAT version of her.
But, for people of color, it’s not that simple, is it. Over centuries, minorities have been conditioned to speak and act within the confines of a very white environment. So, I certainly wouldn’t have expected her to do me any favors.
But that is when an idea struck me. Have I been short changing anyone? If white people can feel shortchanged, then do black people feel that way as well? If I’m around a black person, and I change me behavior and speech based on what I think it should be around a black person, would they feel shortchanged? If I started adding “girrrl!” to then end of my sentences instead of “I know, right?”, perhaps it would even be insulting. Based on the black comedy trends of the last 30 years, black folks think white folks are hilarious when they’re not being terrible to black folks. Why would I want to stand in the way of someone’s comedic enjoyment? When you see those posts that say Stuff White People Like, I ace it EVERY TIME. I’m a living stereotype. And I’m cool with that.
I live in a very rural state. There are many folks around me that you would call “rednecks”. We all have an idea of what a redneck is. Blue collar worker. High school education. White. Guns. Trucks. Rebel Flag, Heavy accents. Republican/Libertarian. For many years, I changed my speech around “rednecks”. I literally dumbed down my speech. I used poor grammar. Heavier accent. Simpler words. Politicians do it ALL THE TIME. But how insulting is that?
I’ve been attending AA for awhile now. Many of the meetings I attend are full of rednecks. But I am astonished to learn that many of these folks are highly intelligent and very wise. That’s when I realized how atrocious my behavior had been. By doing what I did, I was calling them all stupid!
But it’s not just that. I also want people to like me. There was a time when I would do just about anything to be liked. And so, given the anti-intellectual climate of my home state, I kept my intellectual range tucked away. I didn’t want to be pegged as a rich, intellectual prick…especially around a redneck.
But I’ve come ’round. I can’t really help who I am. I can’t help that I’m a white, upper middle-class, college-educated, straight, liberal, Christian, intellectual who loves the music of the incomparable Barry Manilow. Now, understand. NONE of these things are a point of pride with me. And if you think that you know me based on these labels, then you’re getting shortchanged by your own limited view of me. But I am trying to develop integrity now. Not the kind where if I say I’ll do the dishes, and do them 100% of the time. That is worth something, but not as much as this. I’m talking about giving of my honest self, regardless of who you are and what the circumstance. This is what I’m striving for. But please continue to like me.