Greetings! We are re-printing this essay from July 2022 while we continue our hiatus. We return on February 1, 2023. We look forward to seeing you then. In the meantime, enjoy! 

In an exercise with friends, where we explored the things we didn’t learn in school, I considered the topic from my own social location. There are many wonderful things I learned in school. Yet, some of my most valuable lessons were in seeking to unlearn substantial inferences within my formal education.

What I learned as an adult that they didn’t teach me in school is that there is bias built into everything we believe to be academically sound or correct. We believed that sciences like medicine were neutral and didn’t know there were built-in biases about which people don’t feel pain, for example. We were taught that history happened from Europeans and Euro-centered people, and that this history spread to others who wanted and needed their civilizing power. We were taught that a person’s command of the English language was a sign of their intelligence – and we believed people who failed to master it were less intelligent, less worthy and somehow inherently ignorant.

These are a few of the lessons I learned in school that I have unlearned as an adult. There are many more. But one of the most important lessons I’ve unlearned is that, when I am right, I should fight hard to ensure others succumb to the logic of “rightness.” This was particularly challenging to unlearn. The inference didn’t only come from school, but also from the Church. It seemed that the loudest and most charismatic person was the one who received the greatest respect.

I recently received an email from a friend about a relative of hers. He advocated that abortion was evil because it is a form of Eugenics that is disproportionately used on Black women. He supported this belief by saying that Margaret Sanger was a racist and her intent was not to seek the health or well being of Black women. She was a Eugenicist.

After a bit of back and forth, my friend wrote to her cousin and said, “You are a racist and I will not tolerate racism.”

But I could see how he thought his argument made sense. It had a rationale, even if I didn’t entirely agree with his subsequent conclusions. He wasn’t at all wrong about Sanger. Was it possible that he came to his conclusions by way of faulty logic, not simply that of racial bias?

I tested this out in my response. I told her that her cousin appeared unaware of reproductive health for Black women during the Antebellum Period, the time period in the US prior to the Civil War. Slave holders frequently sought to severely chastise enslaved women, even when they were pregnant. Yet, they didn’t want to injure the unborn baby. Sound familiar?

To “save the baby” enslavers would dig a hole in the ground for the belly of a woman. They would then proceed to severely lash her with dozens or hundreds of strikes using heavy implements which would cut into the skin until the skin and blood was mingled in substantial pools filling the earth around her. These women were severely disfigured or killed in such beatings. Yet, while it might have seemed this was in some measure “humane,” the practice was far from it. Digging the hole in the ground, or the “flogging holes” were to protect her unborn child but it wasn’t a “pro-life” stance. The goal was to increase the ”stock” or free labor of the slave holder. One could argue that we are still trying to increase ”cheap, underpaid” labor by forcing poor women to give birth. This might, for example, save social programs such as Social Security

I told my friend that I would explain that I am truly “pro-life” as I value the children’s lives AND the women’s lives. When I value children, I believe they should have access to safe homes, food, healthcare and education. I asked her if her cousin is pro-birth but not pro-life? I would implore him to consider becoming a truly pro-life person.

I then explained that, being “pro-life” for women would mean I do not advocate any policy or law that would further traumatize rape or incest victims. Truly “Pro-life” people do not force women to carry a non-viable fetus until she’s in excruciating pain, or until the infection kills her. Pro-life people would not possibly advocate chasing women down to find out why their child was stillborn or to challenge their reproductive decisions – actions which could cause women irreparable harm. I am pro-life and do not advocate harming clinics and doctors. I thought my friend would engage with some of the arguments I advanced, but she did something much more profound.

My friend wrote back, two days later, to show me a different message she sent to her cousin. In this message, she had more compassion. She told him she knew the racist messages they heard as children were ingrained. She encouraged him to reject them and shared that she struggled to do the same. She then shared that her “patient” friends gave her grace. That grace allowed her to better understand that unfair privilege, based on skin color, is a disease which negatively infects us all. I am honored that she added, “I consider you among those patient friends.”

By having compassion for her cousin and identifying with where he is, she was more empathetic. (To be certain, I agreed with the angry tone in her earlier messages. Yet, I feared that tone wouldn’t change his mind.) But this time, she reframed her message and spoke to him differently. This is one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned: when I have compassion for those who cause me pain I can seek ways to make life better for us all. To paraphrase Rev. Dr. Samuel D. Proctor, “Most ‘enemies’ are people who just don’t realize, yet, that they are a friend.”

Sadly, not every person who carries these messages will become a friend, no matter what we do. But, if we have compassion, we can hold one another accountable by first extending grace. Whether or not her cousin hears her, he is more likely to listen, due to the courage she exhibited by extending grace to him. 

What I didn’t learn in school but I now know is this: We can change the world with a little bit of compassion and a lot more grace.

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CL Nash © July 2022

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