Do Americans Celebrate Differences…Or Fear Them?

Anything that was different to my family was, well…different. Not always wrong but worthy, at the very least, of rapid identification.

Mom and Dad were mini-Aristotles, capable of categorizing anything and anyone that looked different within moments. Occasionally, something new or different was cute. The newly-opened Swenson’s, despite the long lines, offered an admirable experiment in ice cream. My brother’s rebellions generally earned a curious-but-fun designation.

More often, however, any difference was seen as a little sad and often deviant. My sister’s non-conformity commonly earned such censure.

Biological Classification image provided by Peter Halasz via Wikimedia Commons

Groups of people were extremely different. Black Americans were obviously different. Jewish Americans were different, too. Methodists were certainly different, though it was really hard to tell how. And the Lancasters, they were different, as well, because their grandfather had purchased those plots of land in the fifties that now made them truly wealthy.

Everything and everyone was placed on the spectrum of difference from dangerous difference to merely curious.

It was hard for us to find a special restaurant we liked beyond standbys like Pizza Inn, the poor cousin of Pizza Hut. Every few weeks we’d get to go out to eat, a real treat. On the occasion when more than one person liked a new venue, we would go back within a few months. It was a guarantee that the place would soon lose its magic, “Don’t you think the catfish tasted a little less fresh this time? And the hushpuppies were a little cold.”

Goodbye, Catfish Pier. So long, TGI Friday’s!

Much of the issue lay, I think, in a perennial homage to the past. As amazing as things are today or might be in the future, they just aren’t the same as they used to be. The old kitchen might not have had any amenities — a five-eye stove, a side-by-side refrigerator, or counterspace — but you could never do better than the place that produced so many amazing meals over the years.

“No one will ever cook biscuits as good as Grandma’s!”

“Grandmommy’s butterscotch brownies were the best ever. That is a recipe to treasure.”

This old-fashioned, easy-to-make butterscotch brownie is still asked for by many. Lightly beat two eggs, mix in a one pound box of light brown sugar, add 2 and 1/4 cups of Bisquick, and stir in one 12 oz. package of chocolate chips. Spread the sticky goo into a big 9" x 14" pan, keeping it surprisingly thin, about 3/8" thick. Bake in a pre-heated 325 degree oven for 35 minutes. The light-brown blondies should not look “done” when you take them out to cool. They shine brightest on day two.

Some of it, though, was really just about simple difference. Different food, different dress, different colors, different sleep habits, or different sexual orientation. From an early age, we kids became savants at identifying any difference you could imagine.

I’ve heard it said that such radar is an evolutionary skill. In a world that is safe in some places and extremely dangerous in others, differences can be risky. Best to identify risky things quickly.

My Uncle Stan was different. He was reportedly brilliant, a stunning artist, a race-car driver, and a builder of intricate model trains. I recall his drawing fantastic illustrations in minutes and taking me to see the movie Midway in Sound Sensurround.

It was great fun to feel the seats vibrating as the airplanes roared on the aircraft carriers. Even though he loved all things WWII, it was particularly kind of him to take me to a film. Stan had been born deaf.

Deafness was a difference that my mom’s family learned to work with and were determined to “fix.” Lausanne and Paul founded the Mid-South Oral School for the Deaf. The school taught the deaf and hard of hearing to learn to lip-read, speak, and function equally in the hearing world. Over the years, technology had made the teaching easier.

Many in the Deaf community argued that they should maintain a self-contained society that need not focus on the hearing world. They should employ American Sign Language and social and cultural rules that worked best for them. A conscious, self-chosen segregation.

Learning Sign Language provided by daveynin via Wikimedia Commons

They observed that people in the hearing world inevitably concluded that a deaf person who spoke was mentally deficient.

It was disturbing to “normal” people when lip-readers tried to grab your attention when talking to you, occasionally touching your shoulder or elbow. Lip-readers stared obsessively at your mouth. They often used their hands dramatically to express themselves. Worst of all, their intonation was odd and volume strangely loud or soft.

Two to three out of 1,000 Americans are born with detectable hearing loss. Cochlear implants make it possible for many deaf people to hear. Nonetheless, many in the deaf community find such implants offensive, an insult to the close society that they have built around the connection to one another and American Sign Language.

The Trenton’s felt it best that the deaf should strive to overcome these barriers. To integrate into what they felt was the “normal,” hearing community. Maybe the thinking was that a lip-reading deaf person would earn a more favorable placement on the spectrum of difference.

My father’s parents had a similar desire for non-difference, but it largely centered upon faith in Jesus.

Ezekiel sought to convert non-believers. After he came to accept Jesus as his savior, he would preach regularly on the street corner or at public events. He played his accordion and sang songs of God’s forgiveness. When a person stopped by, he would engage in a desperate dialog to bring that person to the Church, in order to save their very soul.

Grandma sought to win over those around her differently. For her it was about kind acts and gentle words. She listened closely and showed patience. She was certain that redemption would be won for most. I really don’t think she walked around with a spectrum of difference ruler.

Nursing homes can be places to waste away. For Mary Lou, the nursing home was a chance to connect. There she played the piano, attracted friends, and saved souls. Each time I visited her she shared how many more people she had brought to Jesus since last we spoke.

Approximately 1.5 million Americans live in nursing homes and another 1 million reside in assisted living facilities.

Ezekiel, my Dad’s father, had seen the world divided into two camps: the Saved and everyone else.

He asked Mom once, “What sin did your parents commit to have a child born deaf?” His spectrum of difference ruler was quite easy to use.

My grandfather really had no problem with deafness, per se. We were all God’s imperfect children, and he had no delusion about universal perfection. He was always curious, though, like a dedicated scientist, about how sin flowed through the world.

Better connections are one of the secret recipes for a better tomorrow. Please follow J. Andrew Shelley.

The above is a modified excerpt from the novel, American Butterfly. The story is told through the eyes of a man raised in the South, living in the North, and struggling to understand love in the modern world.

It directly engages recent decades. It embraces the events that have shaped today’s world. And it draws upon the past to help us understand the many sides fighting America’s Culture War.

All through a family story, different and similar to yours and to mine.



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J. Andrew Shelley

J. Andrew Shelley

People working with people. Sure, it’s business but it’s also personal. About you and me. Book: American Butterfly on Amazon.