The Circle of Hospitality

Hospitality and Race, part 1

Circles. Symbols of protection, inclusion, wholeness. The legendary King Arthur made his table round to indicate the equality of all the knights at the table. His round table was, of course, too small -- only the nobility had a seat. We've expanded table since medieval times -- and still have more expanding to do.

The writer and teacher Starhawk speaks of community – that deep “longing to go home to some place we have never been.” It exists somewhere, and it comes to us in circular images: “a circle of hands” that “open to receive us. . . . A circle of healing. A circle of friends. . . . where we can be free.”

Truly welcoming of others into our circle is difficult. The protective appeal of the circle is that we get to be inside, protected from what is outside. I understand that. Moving into our greater wholeness and healing requires that our circle be ever-expanding, ever-more inclusive. That’s kinda hard – hard the way that joy is hard.

Hospitality takes time, and hospitality is risky. You might get taken advantage of. Or you might be unwittingly facilitating someone’s self-destruction. There’s a time, say, for offering someone a beer, and a time for resisting that impulse, and we don’t always know which is which. We risk getting it wrong.

Imagine that at the center of your life were the question, “What does this guest need?” Everyone in your – circle – of direct awareness is a guest. And suppose your central question as you encountered each one was: What does this guest need? Yes, that would be risky: meeting people’s needs takes up your time, and you could get taken advantage of – not to mention the risk that you might get wrong what they really need. Even so: to live in the space of that question – always having our radar up for where the need is, and going toward the need we discern – is a life of healing.

The payback is the growing, softening heart. Deep down, we humans don’t crave safety. What we ache for is acceptance, and acknowledgment of our worth. Therefore, embrace others as worthy guests, even if they don’t meet our needs. Even if they scare us.

To embrace the worth in the other, even when their actions don’t meet our needs, is a radical notion. It might change your world into one in which you don't have to be smart or witty, deep or cultured, beautiful, young, healthy, enlightened, or handy. All you have to do is open the window of your heart and let the outer light in -- and let the inner light out.

Radical hospitality isn't safe or cozy. Commitment to radical hospitality is challenging. Having a good intention does not complete the work. Meaning well is only the necessary prerequisite for beginning the work. The work itself involves developing skills, constantly building the emotional and social intelligence to attune to needs, continuously learning about cultures different from your own so that you can adapt, meet them where they are. The work is learning about the impact of our words and actions will have regardless of our intention.

I do not come from landed gentry, but the concept of a gentleman was not entirely absent from my upbringing. I remember at one point when I was a teenager and had committed some social blunder from which I was on the outs with my classmates, my father said to me: “Son, a gentleman is a man who never gives offense unintentionally.”

Ah. So a gentleman might mean to give offense – might choose to insult someone – preferably with great cleverness. A gentleman can be witheringly insulting, as the one who said, "Meeting you has made me jealous of all the people who haven't." Or the one who said, "There may be no end to your good taste. There also may be no beginning." The gentleman has the skill to give offense with wit, and to never give offense when he doesn’t mean to.

Those put-downs might elicit a chuckle -- as long as they aren't directed at us -- but they're mean. They are decidedly inhospitable. If that's the gentlemanly ideal, I think we can do better. Indeed, it is an ideal that grew out of privilege, and patriarchy, and is problematic in a number of ways -- and my parents lives modeled a greater concern for equality and fairness than for aristocratic manners. I mention the aphorism about gentlemanliness only because of the larger point my father was making to me when he quoted it: I have an obligation to know what will give offense. And if I don’t know, I need to find out.

Here are some examples of microaggressions that Fordham students identified as being a part of their lives.
  • Asking a multiracial or apparently brown person, “So, like, what are you?”
  • Saying “So what do you guys speak in Japan? Asian?”
  • Saying, “You don’t act like a normal black person, y’know?”
  • Saying, “I never see you as a black girl.”
  • Making the Mexican student the automatic first choice for the role of Dora the Explorer in the high school skit.
  • Assuming Mexican heritage necessarily means one speaks Spanish.
  • Telling a person who might look white, but who identifies as a person of color, “No, you’re white.”
  • Finding it weird that a person of color likes the music of a white country-western singer.
  • Saying to a person wearing a head covering, “So what does hair look like today?”
  • Referring to person of Chinese ancestry as a China doll.
  • Assuming that the one black person in the room can be relied upon as the voice of all black people.
  • When a student is seen next to her parent, asking why to skin tone difference between them is so great.
  • Saying, “You’re really pretty for a dark-skinned girl.”
  • Asking, “Why do you sound white?” Or saying, "You are so articulate."
That you intended no harm is insufficient. It's true that you can’t always know what other people will be sensitive about. But you can find out most of what may hurt others' feelings, if you try. The work of radical hospitality is to do all we can to learn, “What does this guest need?”

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This is part 1 of 2 of "Hospitality and Race"
See also
Part 2: Challenges of Hospitality


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