Well, I Sure Got Told, Didn’t I … ?!?

Black - White Photo

Yep. That was the outraged response I received to a comment I made on Facebook after the following post appeared on my news feed.

Race Card

I commented on my Facebook news feed and then followed this post back to the original source and pasted my response there too. Here is what I posted:

“Oh my. I swallow hard when I read this. I thought about simply not responding but my heart won’t let me stay silent. In theory, of course “all lives matter” … but when we snarl, scoff and generalize in this way, we allow ourselves (i.e. the mainstream dominant majority) to step over all the ways, places and spaces that this theory does NOT match the reality. When we do that, we give ourselves permission to dismiss, diminish, and deny the horrific injustices that people of color have experienced historically … and … we can then fail to acknowledge how these inequalities are currently being perpetuated. I truly believe we need to give extra careful attention to learning about the experience of the marginalized … to highlight the extent of the oppression that continues covertly … to help us collectively see how we are NOT actualizing that altruistic theory. With heartfelt respect, I humbly suggest we have much to learn from the ‘race card’ … and … I really hope that it keeps getting played until we actually sit up and listen, until we actually do something in order to see justice for all … beyond simply theoretical rhetoric.”

Well … this fellow was sure determined to set me clear and straight. I can’t quite comprehend how he’s qualified to accurately assess my level of intelligence because I don’t even know the guy. Maybe he’s just very comfortable with name calling? I’m not sure, but I’m guessing his scathing criticism says more about him than me.  I have no problem holding space for a respectful debate or difference of opinion. In fact, I welcome those discussions because that is how we stretch and grow and learn from each other. In this case though, his attack on my character does little to validate his position. By the same token, I would also suggest that the implicit snarl and condescending nature of the Facebook post (“get over yourself”,”put your race card away” and “grow up”) smacks of unnecessary vitriol as well.  Maybe it is just me, but as a counselor, my ears have also been trained to listen for what is not being said.  With that particular choice of wording,  I am sensing a somewhat covert but patronizing lack of respect for diverse racial experiences.

I understand, though, that what we see depends upon the eyes we are looking through.  Our opinions are fortified and framed by what we learn from our own lived experiences … and … by what we are taught (both formally and informally) in our families, cultures and schools.  I’ve come to believe that, without specific schooling, much of what we as White people really need to know, understand and recognize about race issues is simply not taught to us.  And so, although this guy’s approach was questionable, I can’t fault him for defending his perceptions. He just doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. I’m not being critical here. None of us do. How could we? The problem is not that we don’t know … the problem is that we think we do.

It wasn’t until I spent five years specifically immersed in social work and anti-oppressive practice (during both my undergraduate and graduate studies) that I began to understand how much I did not know.  I was dumbfounded to learn how much we have not been taught. It was deeply humbling and forever changed how I view things.  As White people we don’t recognize the unearned power and privilege that we are so generously afforded in our society.  It’s not possible for us to truly understand the complexities of these issues  … 1)because they are beyond the realm of our own experience and 2) because we are only exposed to some particulars about it. We are taught just enough to make us feel informed, but not enough to give us a truly comprehensive understanding of the complexities.  Unfortunately, the gaps in our awareness can skew our perceptions and derail our very best intentions.

I will give this guy two things though:

1.) There probably aren’t any black people alive who were “involved in the slave times.”  However, I would argue that the prejudice and bigotry that condoned and sustained the slave trade did not cease just because slavery was finally abolished. You can mandate changes in legislation but you can’t mandate changes in attitude. The legacy of such racism continues whether we like to admit to it or not.  One doesn’t have to look further than the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign to see that bigotry and discrimination is not only alive and well in America … but is now being proudly perpetuated and cavalierly brandished by Donald Trump. And most disturbingly, it’s being loudly applauded by a staggering number of American people … who, by the way, would vehemently contend they are not racist in any way.

2.) It’s true that life can be a bitch.  I would contend, however, that life is more of a bitch for some of us than for others. I doubt if my critic would honestly be happy to surrender the unearned power and privilege that he lives with in exchange for being treated the same as Black men often are in our society.  He can call me dumb again, but I’m not sure very many of us who live in the mainstream dominant culture would make that trade willingly.  In a mere 45 seconds, Jane Elliott clearly illuminates this point:

 

Although my Facebook critic contends that if people like me would just quit bringing up the past, there would be no problem.  He believes the mistreatment of Black people was only in “the slave times.” This video shows, however, that at some level we DO collectively recognize that what is currently happening to black people (however covertly) is not desirable!  We wouldn’t want that kind of treatment for ourselves, but we are comfortable allowing it to continue to happen to them.

And, that is why the slogan “BLACK LIVES MATTER” emerged.  If we are ever going to make a significant shift, it is essential for us to narrow our focus and point our gaze directly towards this longstanding and deeply systemic issue. When we generalize that “All Lives Matter” we take our eyes off the problem and focus instead upon a theoretical concept that may very well  be true … but that fact does nothing to solve the problem.  The following metaphor speaks to this issue very well:

Bob

Of course, all lives matter.  But, philosophical truths and altruistic rhetoric don’t feed Bob.  When we neglect to honor the specific needs/deficits experienced by specific individuals (or groups of individuals), we are failing to ensure compassionate and humane treatment for ALL.  And that is just not okay with me.

I am posting this blog in hopes that we will continue this conversation … over and over again.  We really need to talk about this.  It really matters to our shared humanity.  But, for the most part, as White people, we have the luxury of being bored, disinterested or maybe even annoyed by ‘the race card’ … and so … we don’t talk about it. And like my critic … we might do our best to simply shush anyone who brings it up.

During my social work studies, however, we did talk about it.  In depth.  I remember wondering why these lessons were not mandatory in our grade schools.  I was introduced to the pain that marginalized groups of people were feeling …  and … how as a White person, I benefit from racism by default. And once it was pointed out to me, I could see it very, very clearly. And now, I can’t not see it.

I came to understand that I don’t even have to do anything obviously “racist” to benefit from the way the system is set up in our society.  I enjoy ‘favor’  because of the way racism makes one part of our humanity count for less than another.  As my eyes were opened to more and more and more, I could no longer deny or dismiss the advantages of having white skin. I never had to worry about whether people would rent accommodations to me. I don’t have to worry about whether someone is willing to sit beside me at a public function. I never had to worry about my children experiencing racial slurs at school. I don’t have people making fun of the way I talk.  I don’t have to worry about being snubbed if I ask for help in a department store. I don’t have to worry that the job will have “just been filled” as I arrive for the interview. I am more likely to be considered for ‘prestigious’ jobs because I have the right ‘qualifications’ (white skin). I could go on and on and on …

But here is the real kicker!!  As White people, we don’t typically ‘see’ the extra power and extra privilege we are gifted because our society is set up to benefit us and not them. AND … it is exactly because of that unearned advantage that we have the luxury of dismissing and/or ignoring conversations about racism.  And, it is also due to our privileged place in society that we can also afford to remain ‘silent’ on the topic. I have done it myself. I would suggest that we are often more committed to protecting our own feelings and/or not making other White people uncomfortable than we are to gaining a deeper understanding of the challenges beyond the margins of our own experience.  We are far more likely to ignore, dismiss or deny those struggles than to honor and investigate them.

It would be such a different world if we find it in our hearts to heed the wisdom of Glennon Doyle Melton

“Today: let’s be curious instead of defensive.

When someone says: I’m hurting.

Let’s say: “Tell me more” instead of: “No, you’re not.”

I think the difference between curiosity and defensiveness might be the difference between war and peace.”

We have so very much to learn. I just wish we were more interested.  But because we think we already know … we aren’t always open to looking or learning more. I was both stretched and humbled, though, by the many potent teachings and pivotal moments  over the course of my studies.  And perhaps one of the most critical is this: I now know there is so much I don’t know.  I am still learning.  Two sources of the most poignant and powerful lessons I received included these:

Now, I don’t expect that my critic would bother to take the time to look at any of these, but if you’ve stuck with me this far, I sure hope you will!  Especially the “Blue Eye/Brown Eye Experiment” .  Gather the whole family, make some popcorn and pull this 45 minutes video up onto your smart TV or your computer and watch it together.  And then, I hope you’ll have a conversation with your family about it. And I really hope you’ll pop back and add your thoughts in the comments section  … so we can continue to deepen this very important discussion.

There are also lots of more recent publications, videos and resources on the subject that highlight considerations that often escape our mainstream dominant attention. Here is a smattering of some thoughtful and thought-provoking ones I have come across thus far.  I hope at you will check them out. AND, if you can suggest any other resources, please post them in the comments section of this blog.  I am always eager to learn more … and will add them to the list:

From where I am looking, the altruistic truth that ‘all lives matter’ won’t really be actualized UNTIL we ensure that ‘black lives matter’.  And Aboriginal lives … and Latino lives … and Middle East Lives … and … and … and …

But then again, as “the dumbest person … ever seen” – it may not be wise to give much merit to my perspective … Karen

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“KNOWING is the booby prize …”

embrace your inner idiot

With deepest gratitude to “frogandthewell.com” for this graphic.

Ever notice that when you think you already know something, you have no room to hear anything different?  Our tolerance for being wrong is hotly contested and fiercely limited by our fragile human egos.  As a result, in the space of evidence contrary to what we think we know, we quickly and effectively (often without conscious awareness) disqualify any differing proof  in order to stay ‘right’.  For example, if we have decided someone is a “liar”, we tend to scrutinize their every thought, word and deed seeking to confirm our unfavorable perceptions.  Likewise, if we have determined someone is a “loser” … then when they do the ‘right’ thing, we chalk it up to an unlikely exception.   As well, the beliefs we hold about ourselves are equally insidious.  If we believe we are “stupid” or “not good enough” , then any smart or worthy moments are often minimized, dismissed or overlooked.  This kind of discounting has the capacity to derail any dreams/visions that are not consistent with our self-limiting perceptions.  Sadly, when you think you already know …  you are no longer open to learning or seeing anything new or different.

One of the greatest blessings of my post secondary studies in anti-oppressive practice was that we were invited to critically assess how we were thinking about things rather than being taught what to think.  We were invited to unpack the things we thought we already knew.  We got to  embrace our inner idiots and UN-learn so much of what we had involuntarily come to accept as ‘the’ truth rather than simply ‘a’ truth..  This powerful exercise in critical thinking rendered visible the beliefs that were simply socialized into me  … by those who raised me, schooled me and befriended me.  Their opinions became my truths because I never thought to question them … or  … learned it was not OK for me to question them.

Learning to embrace my inner idiot took me to places I had no idea I needed to go.  I will spare you all the details but what I learned is this:

  • unlearning can be painful.  (What does it mean about me and my perceptions if I am wrong about this, that or next thing?)
  • unlearning can be deeply humbling(It hits you right between the eyes when you recognize that the culprits you have been judging harshly  might also need to include YOU.)

Let me offer one example of my unlearning.  As a well-intended, socially conscious, educated white woman, I have always contended that I do NOT condone racism’. I blushed with a deep sense of shame when I learned, instead, that I don’t even have to do anything obviously “racist” to condone racism … I benefit from it by sheer defaultSadly,  we live in a socially constructed system where one part of our humanity counts for more than the ‘others‘ … and … having white skin puts me on the ‘favorite’ team in a world that plays favorites.  As a result, I get all kinds of unseen, unearned perks:

  • I don’t have to worry about whether people will rent accommodations to me
  • I don’t have to worry that the job will have “just been filled” as I arrive for the interview.
  • I don’t have to worry about whether someone will sit beside me on public transportation
  • I don’t have to worry about my children being stereotyped at school
  • I don’t have to worry about being followed in a department store
  • I don’t have to worry that my speech patterns, body type or food and dress will be mocked and/or ridiculed

Guess what my skin color gives me the unmitigated privilege of worrying about?  Sunburn.  Yep … that’s it.  If only a slather of SPF30  could so easily protect people from prejudice, marginalization and oppression.  As White people, we typically author the educational curricula and, therefore, we have not been taught how we are complicit in perpetuating racism given the advantages we reap from it.  You might be tempted to leave this blog right now … but I hope you won’t.  I hope you will be willing to consider that if we are not actively and persistently resisting racism, we are silently condoning it.  I am not suggesting I have figured out how to best use the power and privilege attached to my White skin to counter racism … but increasing mainstream awareness is certainly the first step.

If what I am saying is making you squirm, you are ripe for a moment of unlearning and embracing your inner idiot.  I hope you will be brave enough stay with me here because the struggle to comprehend a ‘truth’ outside our comfort zone is a point of real awakening.  We can’t be expected to know what we don’t know …  until we do.  And, once you do know … you can’t pretend you don’t.   And when we are  open to the profound power of unlearning  … we begin to realize that the more we know … the more we know we don’t know! 

From that humble space,  I become aware that  my mainstream sexual orientation does not preclude people’s comfort with me being around their children.  The folks in the GLBT community are not so fortunate.  I also notice that I managed well in a traditional school setting because it favored my left-brained, sequential kind of thinking.  The right-brained, kinesthetic learners have not been so lucky.  My  married, double income status earns public respect and has afforded my children many advantages.  Single parents endure public censure and many luxuries are beyond their reach. My able body means I get to go places without worrying about access. My office is located in a ‘public health unit’ that has a ramp but no button to pull open the door! Argh!  Some how this all continues to be tolerated in our society.

When I embrace my inner idiot, I have to seriously question everything I think I already know.  I must also consciously consider whether my personal and professional  ‘successes’ have truly been  earned by me … or  … if I simply got a head start and an extra advantage over ‘others’ because they are outside the margins of the ‘favorite’ global team.  I now know that the essential unlearning of what we think we already know is the critical portal from which true compassion and empathy can emerge … not just for ‘others’ but also for myself!  It takes a whole lot of courage to unpack our own misunderstandings and misconceptions.

I have learned that by allowing myself to see what I was unable, unwilling or unprepared to see … I have opened  the door to a world of  miraculous shifts in perspective. Much to my pleasant surprise, it is from a place of not knowing that I have been humbly granted the capacity to see what might have been there all along … even when I thought I already knew.

Let’s continue to embrace our inner idiots, because as my amazing mentor Debbie Ford always told us “Knowing is the booby prize

Still unlearning, Karen

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