FROM CHEESESTOCK TO CULTURAL CUES
By Terri White
“Mimi,” asked Tristan, “did you go to Woodstock?”
“No, but I attended a similar rock fest in Wisconsin.”
Without skipping a beat, Tristan responded, “Did they call it Cheesestock?”
It was 1970 during my dad’s gubernatorial race. After a campaign event, I escaped with my friends to the Wisconsin boonies. They held it in a rural pasture with all the trappings of Woodstock – except no rain. Unseasonably warm that weekend, the temperature rose to 70 degrees. An April heatwave for us Wisconsinites.
Ahhh, the carefree years of young adults. Still in college and supported by parents, we worked part-time jobs for spending money. The late ‘60s and ‘70s music told the tale of the times. “The Times Are a Changing” rasped Bob Dylan. Indeed.
It was the best of times and the worst of times. The Vietnam Conflict raged while college students demonstrated against it. The Civil Rights Movement exploded. Black Panthers. Weatherman. SDS. Molotov cocktails flew. Heads bashed. Students and police clashed - tear gas hanging in the air the next morning. Jail sentences. Violence met with violence.
Many, though, worked peacefully to bring about change. Quiet, candlelit marches expressed our opposition to our involvement in Vietnam. My dad and others promoted “dove” political candidates running for various offices. Busses of northern college students drove south to participate in sit-ins for black civil rights.
To further racial understanding, the University of Wisconsin joined an exchange student program with Louisiana’s Grambling College, the famed all-black college in which Eddie Brown churned out NFL pros. Universities from Ohio and North Dakota joined the program as well.
After a thorough vetting, I hopped aboard a Greyhound bus bound for Louisiana. The closest I had ever come to the South was driving through it on the way to Florida for spring break. I was in for a surprise.
What did I, a while middle class girl from the North Central Midwest, know of racial relationships? Only what my parents taught me: to respect all people no matter their race, religion, or financial status. But understanding the nuances of cultural differences? Nothing. Zero. No one talked about that.
So, totally unprepared, I dove in. Three other students from my campus and eight others from the other two campuses attempted to navigate the cultural cues. Meanwhile, the twelve Grambling students sent to the three northern campuses struggled likewise.
The Grambling students and staff were the black folks who stayed behind under Jim Crow laws instead of joining the 1910-1970 Great Migration to the North and West. These were the folks who endured. The ones whose relationships with whites were always more conspicuously on thin ice. Not the subtlety of northern bigotry. It never occurred to me.
Black migration? Jim Crow? To me, people were just people. But they’re not. Sure, we are all human with the same needs and similar desires. However, a culture’s history seeps into the DNA. The suffering. The triumphs. The abuse. The joys. The deprivation. The teachings. The struggles. The parenting, or lack of it. They are passed down subtly and explicitly.
Regardless of one’s ancestors, those experiences, handed down over the centuries, determine the culture of a people.
Enter this naïve 21-year-old, who takes people at face value – not picking up the nuances, expecting others to think like me. Why wouldn’t I? I had only experienced white, middleclass Midwesterners with rare exceptions.
There were kindnesses. Once at the student union, a fellow asked if anyone would play chess with him. I volunteered. Soon other students surrounded us. Within three moves, I realized I was in way over my head. Clueless about strategy, I only knew how to move the players. The game dragged on. Finally, defeated, I bowed out gracefully – totally embarrassed.
I’ve often thought about that day. Not long ago, I realized that my opponent knew immediately that I was out of my depth. So to not embarrass me, he took his time beating me when he could likely have won in three or four moves. A kindness.
When my girlfriend from UW visited me on spring break, we piled into a car with my Grambling friends to party elsewhere. As we chatted, Jo turned to me, “I can’t understand what they’re saying.” I had to “translate” the southern, black dialect for her. Interestingly, I don’t remember struggling with that.
My roommate, gone most of the time student teaching, was cordial, but we never developed a relationship. However, one of the other UW exchange students visits her Grambling roommate to this day. That remarkable friendship remains the touchstone of the program.
Our dorm provided the usual common area with comfy chairs and a TV. In those days, Saturday night featured iconic family programs, one of which was “All in the Family” with the infamous Archie Bunker.
On my own one evening, I strolled into the room. Since it was packed, I sat in the only empty chair at the back. Oh, how I wanted to laugh! Because that program, if you understood the sarcasm, was hilarious. However, not wanting to offend the others, I remained quiet. Eventually, I eased out of the room, too uncomfortable to stay.
Cultural nuances. What were they? How to respond?
At the end of the semester, someone pushed me, shattering my right elbow. It never occurred to me to inform the college officials about it. Years later, I realized that even in 1971, Grambling could have experienced a backlash from the southern white community had I reported it. Fortunately, the incident was not racially motivated. Just a hothead who lost control of his emotions. The school provided transportation to the doctor. In a temporary cast, I flew home for surgery, ending my exchange experience.
I encountered the discomfort of being conspicuously the only white person in the room. Of not knowing the acceptable responses. Of not feeling safe in certain situations. All crucial to understanding the culture.
Then that summer, a friend from Grambling surprised me with a visit. Between letters and visits, he asked me to marry him two years later. By that time, I had graduated from college and was working as a school librarian in Virginia. He had secured a teaching job in Seattle. With all the best intentions, that ship had sailed. It was not to be. I returned to Wisconsin to reboot my life.
Confessions of a Rabble Rouser
by Terri White
Recently, a friend affectionately called me a “rabble rouser”, stating that the truth is rarely popular. Indeed. Unfortunately, folks stuck in a mental rut never consider the validity of another point of view.
When I teach persuasive writing, I include propaganda techniques introduced in the 20th century Nazi regime. One tactic uses fear, a fundamentally irrational emotion. When a propagandist warns the audience that disaster will result if you do not follow a particular course of action, he plays on the audience's deep-seated fears. Practitioners of this technique hope to redirect attention away from the merits of another course of action that would reduce the fear.
Then propaganda became popularized when media sources, funded by advertisements, expanded. As a result, the general populace grew accustomed to the barrage of ads on radio, TV, and now social media. Without thinking. Without filtering. Without questioning.
Selling a boat? Place a sexy woman next to it. Selling corn flakes? Surround the table with a smiling family. Selling a diamond ring? State that it symbolizes forever love. Want people to vote for Mr. X? Give us lofty promises. And so forth. Get it? They sell love, sex, happiness, and promises. Quite frankly, I enjoy all three and hope for the best with candidates. So do you. But that’s not the point, is it?
Well, what is the point? Let’s return to my persuasive writing class. One of my assignments requires students to create an auto accident and write witness reports from the north, south, east, and west. Each report views the accident from a different angle. If we assume that we see the full accident from the north, we neglect to understand that the other reports see something not viewed from the north. Do you get my drift?
We are all limited by our perspectives. Consider a cartoon that I show my students. In the first frame, a scrawny guy on a dinky island, spotting a tiny boat approaching his island, shouts, “Boat!” The next frame reveals an equally scrawny guy in the tiny rowboat yelling, “Land!” That’s you and me. Boat! Land! Boat! Land!
Our 2020 crises provide an opportunity to develop our critical thinking skills. Because without critical thinking, we swallow the news hook, line, and sinker. Not everything is as it seems. We must dig deeper. We must open our minds to other perspectives to arrive at a broader understanding. Remember the north, south, east, and west assignment?
Truth is rarely accepted easily. Since we often stubbornly resist another point of view, we ridicule it. Following that, we sometimes violently oppose the truth. Sound familiar? Then finally – finally – it becomes accepted as a self-evident truth.
Throughout history, mankind has resisted truth. Looking back, we see more clearly. However, when in the midst of the controversy, we are often blind to it. Flat earth. No brainer now. But a few hundred years ago, it was the truth. Just because it’s truth to you, does not make it true.
What is happening today is no different. How will we proceed down the road of truth? Will we exercise critical thinking to find answers? Will we respectfully listen to others who share a different viewpoint (boat! land!)? If we don’t, our nation is in deep trouble.
By Terri White
I love people. All kinds of people. Young, old, and middle-aged. Freckled, tan, brown, white, not-so-white, black, not-so-black, pierced, tattooed. Poor, rich, middle class. Tall, short, skinny, fat. Those on the spectrum, those not on the spectrum, down syndrome folks, those with learning challenges. Strangers, new friends, old friends. Musicians, poets, accountants, clerks, doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, the homeless, veterans, bikers, carpenters, factory workers. The more the better. People make me feel alive.
I am one lucky girl because I have friends. A wide variety that infuses my life with pizzazz, comfort, stimulating conversation, and get-aways. What’s not to like?
As a girl, my dad changed jobs frequently, so I was often the new kid at school. I hated it. All eyes on me, stumbling around to find my place in the mix. Consequently, I was ever so grateful for that one person who befriended me. And as I grew more comfortable in my new community, I surrounded myself with girlfriends from all walks of life. Never cliquish. Always welcoming. The good life.
However, with so many childhood moves, it was challenging to keep up with old friends in the pre-digital era. Long-distance phone calls were expensive, so we wrote letters. But life gets busy; I attended college, started my career, married, and lost touch. Fast forward to the Internet era with smartphones and social media. Voila! Looking up old friends right at my fingertips. But still. It’s not the same as those face-to-face relationships.
What a pleasure to sit across the table with friends while enjoying a good meal or leisurely chatting over a cup of coffee. Sharing life’s tidbits, deep discussions, and laughing – a lot. Working together on a project or sneaking away for a girls’ weekend. Or to just quietly be. Then, too, friends provide comfort during troubled times. Friendship: it’s the splash of color in one’s life.
Life, though, is not always pretty. Friends come and go for various reasons, like the ebb and flow of life. Sometimes I’ve even experienced the unkindness of an “unfriending” (long before FaceBook) because I changed my views on life issues. Sigh. Sad, but true. After one such experience, a lost friend summoned me to her death bed to apologize for throwing away our 20-year friendship over such foolishness. Two days later she died. Really. I miss her.
But all-in-all, life is filled with treasured friendships – old and new. Like a gardener, I work hard to maintain them. Friendships nourish me, enrich me. I love them. I love them all.
Colorado River Retreat, by Terri White