November 19, 2013

Here in Mississippi...

The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind by El ...
The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind by El Greco, c. 1570 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here in Mississippi, nobody asks whether I believe in gods. They assume I believe in one - the same one in which they believe. No one asks whether I am a Christian either. They assume I am and behave accordingly. And while I am frequently asked where I attend church, I have yet to be asked if I attend church. They all assume that I do. When it comes to matters of religion, much of this state seems to be afflicted with a form of "cultural blindness," an affliction in which everyone takes it for granted that everyone else believes as they do. I have little doubt that this is merely another manifestation of Christian privilege.

I cannot think of many examples outside of religion where this happens. The overwhelming majority of Mississippians are politically conservative, and I have certainly encountered some who assume that I share their political ideology; however, most seem to realize that not everybody shares their political views. I have had people ask me about my political views instead of merely assuming that I share theirs. It is also true that many Mississippians continue to struggle with sexual orientation. I have had some assume that I am heterosexual (which I am), but I have had others ask first. And I have encountered even more people who know enough to use the sort of language that does not force them to make assumptions of any sort (e.g., asking about a relationship instead of a marriage or about a partner instead of a spouse). This still lags behind what I have experienced in other parts of the U.S., but it is a step in the right direction. No, the cultural blindness around here seems to be primarily about religion.

I sometimes imagine a scenario where I meet a man for the first time and insensitively end up asking him about his wife, assuming both that he is married and that he is heterosexual (same-sex marriage is not coming to Mississippi anytime soon). I imagine how awkward that would be, how embarrassed I would be, what a poor impression of myself doing this would convey to him. While I would not do such a thing, I think that many Mississippians would feel similarly awkward and embarrassed if they were to make such a mistake. For me, making assumptions about someone's religious beliefs would be no different; for them, it would seem to be quite different. I even wonder if some would be embarrassed by such a mistake at all or whether they would be too preoccupied with condemning the nonbeliever or person with a different faith.

I am really not sure what to call this. It is insensitive, but I'm not sure insensitivity quite captures it. It seems more pervasive than that for some reason. I called it "cultural blindness" above instead of myopia. I'm not sure why. I suppose it seems more like a real blindness, a blindness to the possibility that one's evangelical fundamentalist Christianity is not the only option. I suppose one could label it ignorance, and that may be fair too. I guess what we call it does not matter that much, at least not for those who continue to endure it.

As I think about how many experiences I have had like this here in Mississippi, I think I have finally reached a point of decision. I'm through feeling awkward when I'm on the receiving end of these interactions. When I am assumed to be Christian and end up explaining otherwise, I'm going to let the other party be the one to feel awkward or embarrassed (or decide it is time to condemn me). I am not going to carry that responsibility around any longer. I'm not going to say, "Oh, that's okay. Don't worry about it." It isn't okay, and they should worry about the impression their behavior makes on others. I am no longer going to play the role that has been prescribed for me in these interactions by Christian privilege. It is time for someone else to feel uncomfortable.

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