Race and Kindness

Two subjects seem to collide regularly in my thinking as of late: race and kindness. While it goes without saying that they aren’t mutually exclusive, they do seem to be, as activities go, a couple of things we struggle doing well in our society. Dissing dying senators and black teens slammed to the floor in Waffle Houses made for a just a minute sample of yesterday’s Twitter feed alone, with much collateral tweeting. It’s enough to clog the soul. I’m not interested in discussing all the nuance of individual situations here because that’s not my point. What I am trying to convey is that we have a problem with kindness in our society, or, I should say, a lack of kindness, and that we have an ongoing issue with race in our society, and that they are interrelated.

One doesn’t have to disagree with President Trump to at least nod to the consideration that much of his rhetoric is derogatory, ad hominem, and generally insulting. And one doesn’t have to spend more than five minutes on social media to see egregious examples of clashing, divergent ideas of power and race in America, regardless of what one thinks the solution should be.

Today, I listened to a podcast from On Being with Krista Tippett. This particular episode was an interview with John A. Powell, entitled, Opening to the Question of Belonging, and it was pervasively good. What I mean is, it seeped into my bones as I listened because Powell did what all really profound public intellectuals do, he synthesized into concise, coherent language the soul-clogging thought and emotional twisting I mentioned above. He talked about our most divisive social issue in the kindest way, breaking down the science of implicit bias, and how we as a society can step on the path to a new understanding of one another. I am now rabidly consuming other talks of his, as well as reading his book, Racing to Justice.

The salient observation here is that kindness –dare I say, love — towards all exuded from Powell man as he leaned firmly on this potentially explosive hot button. It made me long for more public leaders, in thought, politics, or otherwise, who unite with their speech, rather than agitate and divide. And it gave me courage towards examining my own implicit biases.

I want to be someone who fosters belonging.

What are we worth to each other?

The juxtaposition of sublime and ridiculous in our media slathered culture is almost too much to bear, even when contemplated for just a moment. Daily on Facebook, we see videos of dogs sitting on cats sandwiched between the latest Kellyanne Conway memes and TrumpCare discussions. (You can decide which of these is sublime and which is ridiculous, by the way. I’m a big fan of canines dominating felines, so you know where I stand.) In the midst of this humorous and horrific hodgepodge, the following was posted, and it revived a dormant man-crush of mine.

In this young man’s speech, I was reminded of his grandfather:

“When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family, then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies – to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look at our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear – only a common desire to retreat from each other – only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers.

Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is now what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.” – Robert F. Kennedy

Kennedy the elder delivered these words on April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed. I’ve written about RFK before here, and he is worth revisiting. You would think that this man’s heart, so shaped and shattered by grief, would be reduced to spewing scornful wrath from his public pulpit. Instead, in measured tones, he waded deep into honest assessment, humbly dispensed wise counsel, and embraced higher ideals.

What strikes me is the timeless nature of his words. Consider the tone and tenor of our current public discourse, as witnessed in the deluge of social media postings: hate and fear of our fellow humans; diminishment of others for their race, beliefs, or political leanings; worst-case scenarios over job losses and violent immigrants. It all makes it sound as if RFK was looking over my shoulder as I was scrolling Facebook this morning.

With all due respect, some of the smartest, most gifted friends I have are also the most vitriolic. They somehow see those they disagree with as sub-human. They post or share these types of things:

  • A pro athlete doesn’t stand for the national anthem, and he is a “piece of shit.” “
  • “[Congressman] shreds Paul Ryan…”
  • “Chuck Schumer hits back after Donald Trump calls him a ‘clown.'”

Humans we disagree with are pieces of shit or clowns. We love seeing those in the wrong “shredded,” filling our tribal echo chambers with the gurgles of maniacal glee. What will come of this?

RFK ended his speech with these words:

“We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.

Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.”

While there is true physical violence perpetrated each day, there is more insidious violence among us, the hatred of our fellow humans. If called out, or even questioned, it is often denied, excused, of played down. But when we publicly diminish the value of others – those with whom we disagree, and even those whose acts we find unacceptable – we actually diminish ourselves. I’m learning that I do not need one more person in my life who agrees with me, likes me, or follows me. What I do need is to live at the deepest levels of peace with all humans whenever it is possible, and to keep their dignity intact, whenever it is not. Life is too short, and our desire to live happy, satisfied, and fulfilled lives too utterly universal.

 

RFK > DJT

RFKMLKThis morning I read Richard Cohen’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Donald Trump’s Intolerable Cruelty. Putting my confirmation bias on the table, I’ll say up front that a number of Cohen views are also my own. They resonate deep within. You’ll find no interest here on my part to engage others on Trump’s virtues or lack thereof. To be clear, I believe Donald Trump to be a rogue, megalomaniacal narcissist, who possesses the resources (read: butt load of cash) to feed his psychoses in front of the masses. I have (hopefully) a much less developed narcissistic megalomania in me, and, coupled with (definitely) less capital, my damage can be mitigated in this world. Trump is emotionally nuclear, and the implications for a Presidency of similar description are quite clear.

What really struck me in the piece was this paragraph,

Trump has his charms. But he’s a towel-snapper — a rich kid who has always had it easy. He has never had the character-building setbacks that sometimes season the callow — Franklin D. Roosevelt’s polio or Robert F. Kennedy’s loss of his brother John, for instance. These are the sorts of things that reduce the rich to the powerlessness of the poor. Trump has none of that. He lives in a pre-Copernican world of his own. The sun revolves around him.

It made me think that Trump has either chosen to appear unaffected by suffering in his life — we all have it in one form or another — or, he was shaped by it in a way that both handicaps him and gives him personal force. I get that, and see similar leanings on both counts in myself. This surely must explain at least some of DJT’s appeal. He touches on topics and feelings that come from an unproductive or stunted response to suffering. But RFK…

Somewhere in my transformation from a robotic follower of all things conservative to striving to be a critical, independent thinker, I rediscovered the recorded speeches of Robert F. Kennedy. This one in particular:

This is an example of what Cohen wrote about. RFK used wisdom gained from torturous, dripping pain to help give productive focus to the suffering of his listeners. Months later, RFK was killed, it would seem, because his own torrential suffering gave him hope that political and economic systems could be shaped to put shoulder to the anguish of others. That was too threatening to the view of the American Dream, of American Culture, of perhaps American Exceptionalism that was held by some in his day.

Not so with Trump. He foments base-level responses to pain in his audiences. He may occasionally touch on something true or real (“even a broken clock…”), but his manner in doing so, and his end game, is to ride anger, bigotry, fear, and anti-intellectualism straight to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Someone once said that if you have all compassion and no truth, you are half way there. But, if you have all truth and no compassion, you are less than nowhere. So, it follows that care for others sets the table for straight talk. In Kennedy’s speech, he spoke extremely difficult things to a crowd of mostly Black Americans, difficult even more so because he was White. He was able to do so because the insufferable droplets of pain upon his own heart produced not only wisdom, but also deep compassion. All these years later, it is still beautiful to observe.

I want a candidate who has much more RFK in them than DJT. I always will.

I’m Still Not Black – Part 2

racism prejudice 2A a few weeks ago, I published I’m Still Not Black, my (then) latest installment in an ongoing series of race related posts.  The subject was what appeared to be racially motivated police activity in detaining actress Danièle Watts, questioning her as a possible prostitute.  A resident in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles called the police to report lewd activity in a parked car. Watts clearly saw the actions of the police as discriminatory.

Since the break of the story, new information has come out, including audio indicating that the only one being unreasonable in the exchange was Watts.  So much so, that local civil rights leaders, ones who came to her defense early on, are calling on her to apologize.  Here’s the audio of Watts’ interaction with police.  The police officer in this interaction, while becoming mildly frustrated, is the voice of reason here.

TMZ (I know, I know…TMZ!) has posted what they say are photos of Watts straddling her boyfriend in the front passenger seat of a car with door open. They also report that local business employees actually saw the PDA, and went and spoke with Watts and Lucas (her boyfriend) before the police were called.

So, if all this is true, it looks like Watts and Lucas were given the opportunity to stop, but feeling defiantly amorous, they continued, and the police were called – reasonable.  The police then asked for their ID – reasonable.  Lucas priovided his – reasonable.  Watts refused and, instead, became agitated, emotional, and uncooperative – unreasonable.  The police officer, simply attempting to follow up on a call, continued to seek to ID Watts, and ultimately chose to detain her in order to do so. Once he did, he released her – reasonable. Watts took to social media, and stirred up a story, that seemed plausible to many, myself included.  Things aren’t always what they seem.

From The Hollywood Reporter’s post regarding the response of local civil rights acivists:

Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable president Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Project Islamic Hope president Najee Ali and other activists held a press conference Friday, telling reporters that they now have doubts about Watts’ side of the story.

“I was one that was very outspoken about it,” Hutchinson said about having come to Watts’ defense when her story first broke, as quoted by NBC 4. “We take racial profiling very seriously. It’s not a play thing. It’s not trivial.”

The Associated Press quoted Hutchinson as saying that Watts “cried wolf” regarding this incident being racially motivated.

Here’s my takeaway:

Both black and white people can be reasonable when it comes to race.

Both black and white people can be unreasonable when it comes to race.

Reasonable civil rights activists are willing to discern which situations are racially motivated and which are not, and will communicate their findings publicly.  

Danièle Watts “crying wolf” doesn’t therefore automatically make Darren Wilson innocent or Michael Brown’s death justified.

Racial profiling is “not a play thing.”  Nor is it trivial.  Racism exists.  Dialogue is necessary.  All involved must be reasonable.

One more thing.  Now that some time has passed, and ISIL (ISIS / Islamic State / Bill Maher & Ben Affleck, etc) and Ebola are the new 24 hour news cycle darlings, the issue of race and equality in the United States has returned to its designated back burner, on slow simmer.  Until another race oriented issue turns up the heat, and things begin to boil over.  This must become unacceptable to us as human beings.

I am a classic avoider.  If something isn’t immediately calling my attention, I can ignore it.  And I have paid stupid tax on that behavior over and over again.  How long will we wait – how much stupid tax will we pay as a nation of human beings before we say individually and collectively say that it’s just not worth it?  Why wait for one more Ferguson, one more Danièle Watts incident, one more…one more.

Don’t say that you aren’t prejudiced in any way towards others, because prejudice is basic to being a human being. The most important step is to admit it as a way to combat it.

My name is Bill.  I am prejudiced.  Let’s work on our prejudices together.

 

I’m Still Not Black

broken-chainLast week, black actress Danièle Watts was detained as a possible prostitute for making out with her white husband in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles. They were in their Mercedes with the door open.  A resident alerted the police that there was a prostitute having sex with a man in car on the street.

When the police arrived, Watts refused to provide her identification, as she believed she had done nothing illegal. The police then cuffed her and questioned her, before releasing her, stating that there is no record of the incident, as no crime was committed.

Here are three different accountings of the story, one from Business Insider, one from The Root, and one from Global Grind.

Watts talked about the times her father came home “frustrated or humiliated by the cops when he had done nothing wrong.”

In my post from a few weeks ago, I’m Not Black, I suggested that whites had an opportunity to open dialogue by seeking to understand, generally, what it is like to be black in America. With that in mind, I have questions:

Would anyone have called the police if Watts were white?

Would she have been taken for a prostitute if she were white?

Would the police had even asked for ID or questioned the couple’s relationship were she white?

Was there an actual crime committed, meaning, were her civil rights violated?

Please know that I am not seeking to be incendiary, but rather to gain perspective. I can only imagine the outrage and potential shame she experienced. Her response is gracious and strong, regardless.

What do you think?

 

 

 

What Does It Mean To Dialogue?

I Wanna Win with textIn one of my recent posts, I’m Not Black, I posited that the discussion of race relations between black and white in America could be furthered by whites seeking to understand the black experience. At one point, I used the term, “white privilege.” The term, for my purposes, was defined as the experience that most white people have, of neither defining themselves, nor being defined by society, according to their race. My conclusion was that a certain humility was required on the part of white people to begin the dialogue.

Responses to my post covered a broad spectrum, from encouraging agreement, to further dialogue, to skepticism, to angry disagreement. There were, however, no lukewarm responses. After sifting through my interactions with readers, I have drawn some conclusions:

  • Dialogue is hard
  • Nobody wants to go first
  • We want to win
  • There must be a third way

Dialogue Is Hard
My dictionary app defines dialogue as “a discussion between two or more people or groups, esp. one directed toward exploration of a particular subject or resolution of a problem.” Stated differently, dialogue is a two-way, equal conversation, where the parties are mutually focused on discovery and problem solving.

Nobody Wants To Go First
Vulnerability creates the possibility of dialogue. Without it, there will be no honesty, no mutuality, no real discussion. It requires an emotional gamble, a risk, that the one going first may be rebuffed or rejected. Going first “feels” like a position of weakness.

We Want To Win
Somewhere in the course of our lives, we developed the belief that we must be right to be valued. Mastery of knowledge, morality, or whatever the issue, provides us control and keeps us superior. I fully admit to embracing this approach along the course of my. Breaking free of it is like trying to throw out a glue covered piece of paper. Each time you pull it off with one hand, it sticks to the other.

So often, though, when we win, we actually lose, or worse, we measure victory by the wrong standards.  When was the last time that a political debate “winner” was measured by the fact that he or she spoke the most compelling truth to the most people? Never. Instead, they were judged on mastery of their material, how often and easily they rattled their opponents, and how much applause they received from the audience.

There Must Be A Third Way
Olga Khazan has written a concise and helpful piece for The Atlantic entitled, Four Words to Seem More Polite, which is really about empathy.

Empathy is considered by many psychologists to be essential to cooperation, problem solving, and to human functioning in general.  Researchers have described it as “social gluebinding people together and creating harmonious relationships.”

The goal of empathy is to understand the feelings of another. Too often, though, we think that if we are empathetic towards someone else regarding a particular topic or experience, we will be tacitly agreeing with their beliefs regarding it. With the issue of race, there appears to be a hesitance towards being empathetic, for fear of validating a view point with which we may disagree.

What’s left for us to do? If, as a white person, I stand with my arms folded defiantly, and say that I will not offer empathy to black people because they are solely responsible for how they think, their socio-economic plight, etc, I miss the point entirely. Someone who struggles simply wants to be understood. Until they are, they will not dialogue in any productive way.  If white people, in general, sought to understand what it is to live life constantly conscious of their race, it would start conversations that we never thought would happen, ones that seem so fleetingly impossible given Eric Garner and Ferguson, Mo.

Someone who I love and respect challenged me privately when I suggested, as I mentioned above, that white people exercise humility in going first in the race conversation. I used the example of Jesus, who left his place of privilege to walk in our world so that he could understand what it means, first hand, to be us. As I look at his example, I am convinced more than ever that he is the best model.

You don’t have to believe in Jesus to catch the power of he did. According to Christian teaching, Jesus left his place of glory in heaven to take on human form so that he could empathize with us. He knew that reconciliation could not take place until he identified with those for whom he sought it. As a white man, I have an opportunity to see through the eyes of my black brothers and sisters, and, in doing so, feel what they feel, to empathize with them. And when I do, and when I can articulate back to them my experience in such a way that reveals that I “get it,” then real reconciliation in my world can begin. Then, I will be more like Jesus than perhaps I have ever been.

 

 

I’m Not Black

flesh-colored-crayonsI’m white. I know, shocker, right? The reason I write this is that I have been more aware of it than ever in recent days. Within that awareness is one even keener, and that is that I am not black. Before I explain myself, I want to provide some background.

Although my ethnic heritage is Irish, German, Polish, and Dutch, I most closely identify with my Irish roots. It was the one identity that was clearly celebrated during my childhood. My maternal grandfather, though born in America, spoke with the brogue of his Irish-born parents. We sang. All the time. At parties. Extended family gatherings almost always included drinking, story telling, singing, laughing, crying, along with the occasional verbal or physical fisticuffs. It all plays in my memory like a scene from a novel. There are visceral and idyllic qualities to my Irish-ness that I not only relish, but also share with anyone who will listen. I love being an Irishman, and therefore I don’t usually think of myself as white, but as Irish. The white part just “comes with.”

When I was growing up, there was one black family in my town, and everyone either knew them or knew of them. That’s because the rest of us looked like a casting call for Casper The Friendly Ghost Meets The Pillsbury Dough Boy.  We were white. And racist. N-word jokes were commonplace, one halloween three kids dressed up as KKK members (no joke), and racial epithets flowed freely whenever we watched sports on television.  To be fair, not everyone was racist, either in my town or my family, but it was the overall milieu.  I am not proud of that, but that’s what it was.

Fast forward to my freshman year of college, where a young black man from Linden, NJ named Omar became my roroommate and one of my closest friends.  (Sadly, cancer took Omar’s life earlier this year, to the great loss of all who ever knew him.)  To know O was to love him.  He wore Cliff Huxtable sweaters, had perfect pitch (we were music students), could sweet talk his way out of library fines and video rental surcharges, and he was full of love.  I loved him then, and I love him now.  O and I would talk a lot about it what it meant to be disappointed by our fathers, or about girls, or what is was like being black or being white. Those “black and white” conversations planted seeds in me that, quite honestly, wouldn’t sprout in fullness for a number of years.

I was adamant that while it was true that I didn’t know what it was like to be black, Omar didn’t know what it was like to be white, and therefore they were separate but equal experiences. I was wrong. They weren’t, and they still aren’t. Being black in America is a person-forming experience, one you don’t have if you are white in America.Whites don’t experience life as white people, but as people. By and large, blacks experience life as black people, not simply as people. Omar most definitely opened my eyes to this. Many voices have joined his in the intervening years.

Ali Barthwell has an insightful post at www.empathyeducates.org entitled, I Don’t Know How to Talk to White People About Ferguson.  She communicates so honestly about her experience of racial turbulence as a black woman who travels in a mostly white social circle.

Witnessing racial violence feels more personal when you’re black. I couldn’t watch the video of Eric Garner being strangled by the NYPD because his large frame and dark skin reminded me of my father and my uncle. Trayvon Martin was killed as I was teaching black teens on the west side of Chicago who wore hoodies to class every day. The first time I had seen women with bodies like mine (full soft bellies and pendulous breasts) on screen was in the film “12 Years a Slave” as they bathed to prepare for auction.

The ongoing tragedy of police brutality, media manipulation, and injustice in Ferguson, MO, is unbearable to watch but I can’t tear my eyes away. I’m consuming every piece of news and every editorial that emerges from the tear gas and no-fly zone. Seeing images of black people like me lying dead or injured in the street is creating chaos and turmoil inside me.

But as a black woman in a mostly white social circle, I don’t know who to turn to and how to talk to them.

How do I talk to white people about this!? How can I possibly explain the rage, fear, sadness, and every other emotion I don’t have a name for yet as I watch these events unfold?

My white friends are tagging me in posts and articles about the shootings and subsequent protests forcing me to look at more images of racial violence because I’m their politically conscious black friend.

Will my white friends understand that those images remind me of my younger brother? Will my white friends understand that I’ve been lying awake at night wondering if my younger brother, who is the same build as Mike Brown, will be stopped by the police? Have they ever sat in front of their younger brother at lunch and said “I’m worried that the police might hurt you”? Because I did that this week.

I’ve never thought things like this. I’ve never had to. It’s not part of my experience. To be painfully honest, the only time I am ever really aware of the color of my skin, forget my experience as a white person, is when there is a social situation in which I am in the racial minority. I feel it and see it, and yet I have the privilege of stepping back into a setting where I am surrounded by people who look like me. Black people in America do not have that privilege, because they carry inside themselves the individual and collective experience of being the oppressed, unwanted minority.

So, I said privilege. That word, when it follows the word, white, stirs up defensiveness in many white people. It sounds derogatory, and while it can be used that way, it is a reasonably undeniable fact. When the president of a company has the corner office, with a private bathroom, and a secretary to manage his schedule and guard his time, he has privilege. He is not better than others — he does not possess greater intrinsic worth. He is simply afforded things that others in the company are not. White privilege is similar, and it plays out in not having to think about your world the way that Ali Barthwell does. I’m grateful I don’t have to think that way, because wrestling through that type of fear seems so incredibly difficult. Benefitting from the privilege of my race, though, has implications for me if I want to live well in a racially charged culture.

The biggest implication is coming to grips with the truth that being a black person in America must be seen through the eyes of black people. To understand, to truly understand someone whose personal history is different than mine, requires stepping into their world. And, the only way to do that with any integrity is to listen and trust. There’s the real rub. It is not so much that black people don’t trust white people, though of course that mistrust exists, but rather that white people, in general, are afraid to trust black people enough to learn from them in life-changing ways.

If you are white, what do you feel when you read the following words from Jonathan Capehart’s piece in the Washington Post, The Michael Brown shooting, the ‘war on whites’ and me?

I…wrote about the lessons my mother taught me growing up. How I shouldn’t run in public, lest I arouse undue suspicion. How I most definitely should not run with anything in my hands, lest anyone think I stole something. The lesson included not talking back to the police, lest you give them a reason to take you to jail — or worse. And I was taught to never, ever leave home without identification. The reason was not only a precaution in case something happened, such as an accident, but also in case I’m stopped by police for whatever reason. To this day, whether I’m going on a run or just running to get something out of my car nearby, I never step out of my home without my driver’s license, insurance card and my Washington Post business card with my partner’s cellphone number written on it.

When you’re black and especially male — in the United States — you have to go to these seemingly overboard, extra lengths in the off-chance they might save your life.

Seriously, what do you feel?  I read them over and over and over again, and all I could say was, “My God, how can anyone live like that?  What does that do to you, to walk around each and every day with that weight on your shoulders?”  I don’t know, and so I have to enter into the lives of those who do. I must listen, and learn, and do what I can to help them lift that burden off of their backs, to afford them the privilege to simply be a person in my presence.

Please, don’t accuse me of white guilt, because that’s not what I am talking about. I am not responsible for being born into the family and community I was born into.  I am not pandering to people of color as some sort of penance, either.  And please understand that I know that I am not talking about every white person or every black person.  I am speaking in generalities because I believe they apply, in general.  There must be a new level of understanding on the part of the privileged, in order to show empathy to those outside of that privilege.  In that way, the privileged invite the non-privileged to become instructors and leaders in the dialogue between black and white.

I am a person of Christian faith.  One of the most comforting central doctrines within that faith is what is called the Incarnation. It is the belief that God came down as a man in order to experience what we experience, to know first hand what it feels like in all ways to be human. Whether you believe the Christian story or not, the concept is profoundly beautiful.  Jesus left his place of glorious privilege to fully participate in humanity, from birth to death, with everything from joyous laughter and terrible betrayal in between.  If we are ever — ever — going to surmount the disjointing of race in America, then those in the position of privilege are going to need to leave that privilege behind, literally or figuratively, and delve fully into the experience of those outside of that privilege.  God help me to do just that.