Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Justin Bieber is a Criminal... and other things that happened this week.

My 1st grader went on a field trip yesterday and I wasn't able to drive. We don't have buses at our school so she drove with another mom. And it's always funny to hear how it goes when your kids have spent some time in a different environment. 

This morning in the car:
Allyn: Mom, my favorite singer is Selena Gomez.
Me: It is? Great! What does she sing?
Allyn: (some answer - I have no idea) and she used to love Justin Bieber.
Me: She did? Well that's nice. She doesn't love him anymore?
Allyn: No. He went out with some other girl and made her cry on stage!
Me: Wow. That doesn't sound very nice. 
Riley: It's okay. He's a criminal anyway. She's better off without him.

This whole exchange was hilarious because I'm generally clueless about pop culture (I'm honestly not sure who Selena Gomez is) But here was that word again: Criminal.

I'm not really in the business of defending Justin Bieber, but I explained to the kids that sometimes we don't make good choices. And if we break the law, we will get in trouble for it. And yes, maybe if Justin Bieber broke the law, in some ways that makes him a criminal... but I bet that isn't all of who he is. Maybe he's a nice friend or good at math (although clearly not a great boyfriend... ha!). I told them that I've gotten speeding tickets, which is breaking the law. So if that's all you knew about me, you could call me a criminal too. And I'm sure glad that people know more about me than just the mistakes I've made.

It's so easy to use negative labels for other people based on one aspect of their lives.  Or worse, using negative labels for entire groups of people based on one person in that group. Just this morning, I overheard an exchange in the locker room at the gym. A woman had made an offensive (racist, I think) comment and the housekeeper had heard it. She was crying. To her credit, the woman who made the remark was apologizing, but her apology rang hollow for me. "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings," she said. "But....." and went on to explain that "those people" take advantage of the system and how "if you give homeless people money, you just don't know where it's going to go."

Whenever we label someone based on only one aspect of their lives or when we label an entire group based on one member of that group's negative behavior, we cause damage. That was a real person crying in the locker room this morning. A real person hurting because of a generalized statement made about "others."

Here's the thing: there will always be people who take advantage of the system. Some of our wealthiest citizens take advantage of tax loopholes and use their wealth to lobby for more opportunities to increase their bank accounts.  Some of our citizens who need public assistance might spend the money in ways that you or I wouldn't consider wise. People in both groups likely have had brushes with the law and criminal records.  However, in our culture, we are very quick to assign negative labels to people who are struggling. We are quick to talk about "those people" and assume that because one person makes a poor choice, they all do.

And just as there will always be those who take advantage of the system, there will also always be those who don't.  Wealthy individuals who use their wealth for good instead of using it to arrange ways to get more.  People in poverty who are working hard to make life different for themselves. I've met homeless folks who have worked hard to help one another. Just this morning I did an intake at our day resource center with an individual and when I told her I was a volunteer she said, "I'd love to come help out here!"

So we have a choice. We can stick with the negative labels. We can see people in the light of their mistakes, their poor choices. Or worse, see them in the light of someone else's mistake who just happens to be of the same race or socioeconomic status. But that sure sounds like picking hatefulness to me.  Or we can choose to see people for who they are. And I don't know who you are until I get to know you.  Instead of making sweeping statements about people groups or deciding someone is a "criminal," maybe we could withhold our judgment until we get to know them a little better.

So, Justin Bieber, we owe you an apology. Until we get to know you better, we won't be calling you a criminal in our house.

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