On Hey! That's My Hummus! this past week, we discussed Dharun Ravi's sentencing. Ravi is the the college freshman that set up a webcam to capture his roommate's tryst with another man. A few days later, his roommate Tyler Clementi, killed himself. In the year after Clementi's untimely death, a court case surrounding Ravi's invasion of Clementi's privacy and bias intimidation has been underway. The trial concluded in March and sentencing last week was meted out to Ravi, who will be serving 30 days in jail and performing several hundred hours of community service. Interestingly, Ravi has not issued an apology. Even more interesting, he and his parents maintain that he has "no problem" with homosexuals and that he was not raised to be homophobic.
All this is fine, but I'm wondering if Ravi's parents have considered what it means exactly to raise someone who is "homophobic." Is there a standard curriculum? Specific words that need to be spoken to ensure your child has a deep distrust of anyone who operates outside of their own heternormative experience?
I think the real problem between Dharun Ravi and Tyler Clementi started way before Tyler ever entered into Dharun's life, and I think that problem is that little consideration was given in Ravi's world to the idea that while some bigotry is cultivated intentionally, most bigotry arises from omission.
Exit Stage Anywhere
I was having dinner at a relative's home when an aunty-ji's started lamenting that one of the girls in her daughter's high school graduating class was six months pregnant and how mortifying it was to watch her walk across the stage. Years ago, I would've kept my mouth shut because, you know, who cares if someone else is being judgmental. I would've ignored the statement thinking that I was, sadly, only the boss of me. Having tasted the power of motherhood and being the boss of other, albeit tiny, humans, the part of my brain in charge of self righteousness has expanded thereby affecting the other parts of my brain charged with speech.
"I'm sorry, Aunty-ji, but this was a problem beCAUSE…?" I pulled up the pitch of the last syllable just enough to convey the right amount of condescension but not enough to offer reasonable proof of intended condescension. Don't be jealous, this isn't a talent I developed. Rather it's a genetic gift that I inherited from my mother who I would like to formally nominate here and now as the inspiration should there ever be an "X-Men" character named "Condescendo". Anyway, back to the Aunty-ji who had a problem with the pregnant girl walking across the stage.
The upturned note on my last syllable escaped her hearing and she responded quickly, "No, that's fine that she graduated, it's very good, but what is the reason for her walking on the stage in front of everyone like that?"
"Yes, she doesn't need to show off like that."
"Show off… being pregNANT?" From now on, I will use the previous notation of caps and italics to denote the use of my X-Men like mutation. I continued. "I'm sure she wasn't trying to show OFF, Auntie…maybe she just wanted to graduate? If she passed all her classes, she has the right to do that, doesn't she? Was the boy who got her pregnant walking across the stage also objectionABLE?"
"No, no," Aunty-ji was visibly shaken, "I just don't think people should make a big deal of it, no?"
She then turned pleadingly to the rest of the Aunty-jis present who, by the way, didn't thankfully include my mother. Had she been present she would have been glaring at me with incredible disdain at that moment. The glare, of course, because I had dared to use a kryptonite-like antidote to question the discriminatory and judgmental statements made by someone significantly older than me.
That antidote? Logic.
Excuse me, I mean, loGIC
The words formed in my mind quickly… Aunty-ji, the only one who seems to making a big deal of this is… YOU…. But I didn't say that. Because, though she was not present, I knew that my mother in addition to her Condescendo mutation also possessed the "I Will Kick Your Ass Even in Absentia" gene, which wages a power that I, despite my life being statistically fifty percent complete, have no idea how to combat.
One of the other Auntie-ji's quickly diffused the situation, "Well, my mother was younger than that girl when she had her first baby, so it's really not that big of a deal, na?"
That Aunty-ji, by the way, has always been damned awesome, but would definitely have killed her own daughter before she let her walk across a stage for a high school diploma six months pregnant. When I mentioned in the latest podcast to Mike that I, being intimately familiar with the Indian-American community, highly doubted that Dharun Ravi's parents had ever even discussed homosexuality with him, Mike very correctly pointed out that this was a big generalization. Sure, it was. Just because something is a generalization, though, doesn't mean it's a lie.
Generalizations mean that things happen more often than they don't. They get bad press because there are exceptions. Still, while exceptions to the rule may exist, they are usually few. Pregnant girls walking across stages are offensive to Aunty-jis because Aunty-jis cannot fathom that a seventeen year old pregnant girls could graduate from high school, have a baby, raise the baby while in college, then marry someone who's probably not the baby's father because, let's face it, we all watch 16 and Pregnant and some of those dudes are bottom of the barrel. The presence of a pregnant teenager on a high school graduation stage forces Aunty-jis and Uncle-jis to recreate their reality.
When life outside of our conception of reality confronts us, we have a choice. Challenges to what we believe, who we choose to accept and what we consider normal place a burden of proof upon some people that they find untenable. I can only make sweeping generalizations about South Asian parents because I have some. Having to prove why their reality is the only one worth considering has been a tall order for my Asian parents when both of them did with their lives exactly as their parents instructed and expected. Essentially, my grandparents having raised my parents in an essentially hetergenous culture never really experienced a reason to offer proofs for why their reality should dominate others.
Butter or Margarine? It's Still A Cookie.
This leads to me to a final and maybe controversial point: refusing to accept another's existence, or refusing to acknowledge diversity by ignoring its existence is not much different than bigotry based on superiority. It's like how my sister in law uses margarine to make chocolate chip cookies and I use butter. In then end, they might be made differently, but the end result is essentially the same. (Except that BUTTER RULES, AM I RIIIGHT?!)
Am I insisting that we should raise our sons and daughters to have children before their 18th birthday? No, I'm using this example to illustrate that the culture within a family like this affords little dialogue beyond the "our kid is a college graduated engineer-lawyer-doctor" perspective. Sorry, gay liberal arts majors, but thems the breaks.
"So whaAAT," I hear my mother, an Aunty-ji herself, say in a tone that is horribly reminiscent of la-la-la-la-I-can't-hear-you, "So what if we do not want to talk about the gays and pregnant teens and the boy who is now a girl? Why do we need to talk of such things at all? My children are not gay and pregnant."
Well, Mom, let's say one's children aren't gay or pregnant or history majors. There's still a distinct possibility that your children will encounter a gay or a history major or a pregnant teen or, my God, a gay, pregnant, teenaged history major!
What will they do when that happens and you have not talked to them about it?
Will they fill in the blanks with what they've observed about how human beings as a collective treat the unknown?
Will they tweet invitations to view a webcam so everyone can watch their roommate "make out with a dude"?
Let's Get Okay with Awkward
Dharun Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail essentially for invasion of privacy, and that seems fair to me. The real problem with what happened at Rutgers, though, is something that cannot be prosecuted or hashed out in a legal system. It rests solely upon every individual's commitment to educate young children regarding the value and importance of compassionate behavior when they are confronted with the awkward, different and unknown.
A reality that rests upon avoidance of the the awkward conversations is antithetical to evolution and growth. The sequestration of teenaged mothers off stage and gays in the closet seems harmless, but is not. Avoidance is a silent killer, creating the greatest of dangers because intellect, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The mind will eventually be made up. I think it's best if we do our best to leave just enough space for someone to make a good decision, but that not so empty that they make the wrong one.
Ultimately, Ravi did offer an apology.
"I accept responsibility for and regret my thoughtless, insensitive, immature, stupid and childish choices that I made on September 19, 2010 and September 21, 2010," he wrote. "My behavior and action, which at no time were motivated by hate, bigotry, prejudice or desire to hurt, humiliate or embarrass anyone, were nonetheless the wrong choices and decisions."
Clementi's parents slammed Ravi's apology for spying on Clementi's gay date as "no apology at all, but a public relations piece."
- New York Times,"Jail Term Ends After 20 Days for Ex-Rutgers Student", 6/19/2012