When I was in my twenties, I was an enlisted woman in the Army, assigned to a barracks in Washington D.C., my parents’ old stomping ground in the 1930s and 40s. My father had worked for the ABC affiliate WMAL at the time. He’d hired the team of Harden and Weaver who later became a very famous and popular broadcasting team which, at that time, 1973, was still on the air. He was the first announcer for the Redskins, long before there were unions in the television business. He used to help the cameraman set up at the ancient stadium in all manner of weather prior to the game.
Dad was in radio when the venerable David Brinkley was a copy boy.
Deaf in one year, he figured television didn’t have a place for him, so he quit. He and my mother moved to Florida, where I grew up, on all things, a chicken farm.
However, it was fascinating to meet and interview those people who knew my parents in their prime. When they made a lot of money. Moved in power circles. Had a cabin and a sailboat on Chesapeake Bay. I befriended a number of these remarkable, talented and immensely smart people, some of whom became my mentors for life.
Researching Our Parents
One of the gifts gleaned from researching your parents through their friends is getting the outside skinny on how others viewed your folks. My parents were young, talented, highly educated, and gorgeous. They were also intellectually arrogant. To a person, although my folks were universally well liked, people were a bit wary of them. Respected their brains and their competence. However, these fellow high achievers felt that Mom and Dad were condescending on their best days and outright hostile of those who weren’t their intellectual equals on their worst.
My folks ultimately produced two kids on a farm down in Florida, smack in the middle of redneck country, which was a bit of a comedown from the heights that they were accustomed to inside the Beltway. My mother played bridge, my father started a chicken farm. I got the benefit of immensely well-educated parents, sensitive to civil rights, even as I grew up amidst colored and white bathrooms and fountains. My parents ensured that I had a very diverse upbringing which cemented the One World embrace I have today. That’s priceless.
A Sense of Superiority
My DC research helped me understand that my parent’s isolation- what I observed growing up- was an extension of that sense of superiority. That their educational level somehow placed them in another caste. It helped me understand my mother’s loneliness and her pathos. My folks had very few friends. The farm was a very lonely place.
Recently I was speaking with my social media coach, JC Spears. He made a comment that was so insightful that I nearly sent myself tumbling down the stairwell in my eagerness to secure pen and paper.
Since I am still recovering from a broken back, this not a good thing. However I did make it to my kitchen island in time, back intact.
Spears is himself a child of humble beginnings. “Born in a trailer” as he put it. His education and brilliance are in stark contrast to where he began. I’ve only worked with him since June- he’s in his early thirties- and every so often he’ll come up with something that is so genuinely profound and so well put that I find myself scrambling to record it. And this is my entire point.
Spears said, “Our fears don’t lie to us the way our pride does.”
My folks’ arrogance and presumed intellectual superiority put a moat between them and a great many potentially wonderful people. We can’t connect with those who we know damned good and well look down on us. My parents took pride in their educations (Cornell and U of Wisconsin), but they used that as a bludgeon to keep “lesser beings” away. It cost them dearly. Only a few special mortals were allowed to enter the sacred space of their friendship. They honestly believed no one in redneck country could teach them anything.
Nothing could be further from the truth. My parents presumed “knowledge” in only one form. Formal education. What a bigoted way of seeing the world.
What a barren existence.
Bigotry Wears A Lot of Faces
What’s worse, if you had accused them of being bigots, they’d have been shocked. They’d point to their civil rights record. Their voting record. But that misses the point. Bigotry has a lot of faces. Elitism is one facet. Holier than thou, superiority, just as bad as racism. Bigotry wearing a different sent of clothes. Just as ugly. Ignorant. Hateful.
Wisdom Comes From All Sources
Wisdom and insight have smacked me in the face from a million million different sources. This is the definition of diversity. Others see, feel, hear, perceive, understand differently from me. I know nothing of their worlds. Therefore they can teach me. Unless, like my parents, I assume complete ignorance on their part, which judges intelligence by IQ, a singular, limited and very narrow-minded viewpoint which has largely been (happily) smashed to smithereens. Lots of ways to be smart.
Over the years my folks would “befriend” a few people in that way people take in a two-legged puppy. Not as equals. As lesser beings. In this way they were able to maintain their exalted superior status and never be questioned. Yet we were dirt poor. And still elitists. What an interesting dichotomy. How sad that we are so desperate to hold on to the vestiges of our pride that even when we are so reduced we cannot allow ourselves to reach out for human company.
What, You Know Classical Music?????
My mother was always very surprised when she found out that someone knew something that she knew. A snippet from Othello. A Bach melody. A challenging word or proper French pronunciation. As though that knowledge had been conveyed uniquely to her for safekeeping. She was even surprised when I knew composers, words, literary works. As though those opportunities weren’t available to anyone and everyone at large. This is what pride and isolation do to us. They separate, and make it extremely hard to connect. This is the very definition of elitism.
Had she known of JC’s upbringing, she likely wouldn’t have given him the time of day, nor would have paid him any due, given that he has battled (and won that battle) obesity and comes from Texas, two mortal sins in my mother’s mind. A Fat Southerner? Horrors. She even informed me point-blank that had I ever become obese (and I was, once) that she couldn’t love me. I’d have become a Fat Southerner. Her own daughter. A sin of the first degree to my mother’s mind.
Pride Lies to Us
JC’s point, which has stuck with me enough to want to write this article around it, is a stark reminder that brilliance is found in all forms. “Pride lies to us.” Indeed. And it costs, in such ways that we live, as my parents did, lives of supreme loneliness and isolation.
This is both the message and the damnation of diversity. There is pride on both sides, such as there is terrible fear of not being acceptable, which is what I believe drove my parents’ behavior. Nobody wants to have to pass some set of SATs to be your friend, get a job, live in the neighborhood.
We need each other. While it’s true that we all have dislikes and likes, I can speak from harsh experience: when survival comes into play, nothing else matters. We need each other. Everything else is bullshit. If your gut is torn open on a battlefield, the color or creed of the man or woman who is loading you up into a chopper and taking you to the medical facility DOES NOT MATTER. If you, like me, have sustained profound, life-threatening injuries in the middle of non-English speaking countries, the color or creed of the man or woman who is tending to your pain DOES NOT MATTER.
What Matters is Our Humanity
What matters is our humanity. The grasp of care in another man’s hand, and the trust you see in another woman’s eyes. Someone is here for you. YOU. That is all that matters.
Your elistism, your pride, your ego, your fears be damned.
I loved my parents, but I am not my parents. I count myself immeasurably fortunate to have friends and advisors and indeed, family, from all countries, colors, backgrounds, creeds, people who regularly, lovingly, remind me of how little I know. And I love them for it.
To me, this is the heartbeat and the promise of diversity.
Elitism has no place in a world where, increasingly, we really need each other.