I’ve been thinking about normal lately. What does it mean? Maybe it’s because I’ve grown up in a family that had to be more than a little tuned in to our mental health, but I have always been sensitive to ideas of normal. As I grew, I realized normal was subjective, it depended entirely on circumstances. For me, normal meant coming home and having a warm meal. It meant having my parents ask me what I learned at school. It meant being out in the neighborhood until it was time for homework. It also meant thrift store shopping (before Macklemore made it acceptable for all these yuppies). It meant Payless Shoes once a year. It meant trying to ignore my parents arguing over bills. It meant greeting my uncles with shadow boxing matches. For me these things were normal. I thought these things were normal for everybody. They are not. I know that now, but what does that mean on a larger scale?
While normal can certainly apply to things that occur more frequently in our world than others, it is not simply that harmless. The idea of normal does more than indicate prevalence, it assigns value and worth. The easiest way to dismiss a person’s worldview, opinion, and in many cases humanity is to call them crazy. It seems that simply questioning ones normalness is all it takes to render someone dismissible in our society. This begs the question: Whose normal is normal?
Consider this: You are walking down the street and a police officer pulls up alongside you. What do you feel? Is this normal? What does the officer want? For many, feelings of fear, trepidation, and anxiety in this situation are normal. It is normal for the police to elicit feelings of distrust and anger. For others, it is normal for the police to inspire feelings of security and order, a certain calmness. Too many of us get caught up in debating which of these is the appropriate “normal.” We lose track of the larger issue: why are these norms so divergent? What does this say about our society?
The effect of normal becomes even more apparent when we look at the education system. Every day I interact with young people who believe it is entirely normal to underachieve in school. For myriad of reasons they believe they are incapable and worse, that this inability is somehow normal. These young people can only develop this idea if they are surrounded by these circumstances, if they consistently see their peers’ underperformance being accepted. This can only be understood as an indictment of our system. After all, it is systems that create normalcy. As such, normal can only be understood by considering the interests vested in maintaining normalcy.
I can hear my mother right now, “well, that’s just how it is.” Something inside me boils every time I hear this rationalization. It is an acceptance of a norm that I believe, to my very core, must be resisted. We must ask ourselves: Is this really what we want to be normal? Things like racism, classism, and sexism have become so ingrained in our sense of normal that Philadelphia can close twenty-three public schools and build a 400 million dollar prison while the mainstream media remains silent; it is normal for inner-city kids to go to prison, not succeed in school. This is not normal to me. The idea of black criminality has become so normal a 911 call that identified Terrence Franklin as someone resembling a burglary suspect can result in the police killing him and giving one of the most far-fetched explanations ever heard, backed by no physical evidence, and the majority of people simply accept it. Literally, this is becoming normal: Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, and Kimani Gray illustrate just how normal it is to shoot and kill black men. As the Malcolm X Grassroots Organization points out, it is once every 28 hours. Whose normal is this? I recently wrote about Lou Dobbs and his friends freaking out over women earning more than men; this was a direct result of their norm being challenged. They couldn’t handle this redefinition of normal. As a whole we need to be better prepared. These are just a small sampling. Our culture is full of norms that require contextualization: video games normalizing killing, entertainment normalizing sexual assault and objectification, American mythmaking normalizing exceptionalism and providing the rationalization for illegal and immoral drone strikes.
The power of normalcy cannot be understated. One of our most base desires is acceptance; it is hard to be accepted if you are not “normal.” So, naturally, we imitate what we see. This is where it becomes crucial to consider the forces shaping normalcy. Consider two examples: this essay by Benjamin Smith which discusses the normalizing of sexual violence among young people, and then the “news” that poverty is skyrocketing in the Twin Cities suburbs. For many of the young people in Smith’s essay, they are doing what they have seen, either at home, in their neighborhood, or through media. They are acting normal. The fact that poverty is soaring in the suburbs is newsworthy because that is not normal. Poverty belongs in the city. We have a whole set of rationales and personal responsibility platitudes to justify and explain away poverty in the inner-city, but what about in the suburbs? Now it is a problem! Both of these stories highlight the need to think critically about normal and ask: Whose normal is this?
By asking whose normal is being accepted, we can prepare ourselves for, and even begin to welcome, a shift that will lead us closer to a world free from violence and inequality. Accepting that normal is subjective, and understanding that everybody’s norms hold value because they are shaped by their lived experience allows for meaningful and rich relationships to be built across racial, economic, gender, and cultural lines. The NSA scandal offers a perfect opportunity to do just this. For many communities, especially communities of color, the idea of the United States government spying on them is normal. They have intimate experience with their right to privacy (and to live) being violated via COINTELPRO. Those Americans so up in arms at the revelations (rightfully so) would do well to consider the norms of these communities and use this as an opportunity to build strong alliances. However, to do so we will need to be “weird,” and “crazy,” and even “strange.”
Recently, a colleague reminded me of how often, and tragically, Darwin is misunderstood. Rather than survival of the fittest, as so many would have us believe, Darwin actually suggested survival would belong to those that could adapt. The quote should be: survival of the adaptable.
Let us adapt. Let us evolve.