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Posts Tagged ‘race’

A Starting Point on Race for White People, Maybe

Maybe it’s that I’m reading Alice Walker’s incredible The Color Purple just as the commentary around Trayvon Martin has taken center stage again. Whatever the reason, the loud, angry cacophony about race in America has cut me to the heart—and rattled my cage.

Like many white people, I first grew aware of this cacophony because of the O. J. Simpson verdict, with the stark difference in interpretation of the evidence along racial lines. Since then I’ve read some, listened to wisdom from some great thinkers (like Judith Katz, a pioneer of the idea of white awareness), and have some grasp of what I should do and how I should think around this issue.

The shoulds can be useful guides. Ultimately, though, whatever I do and think has to come from me—from my deepest self. I am just starting to glimpse what that is. And one part of it may be helpful to white Americans like me who are struggling to understand, on a heart and gut level, the dimensions of the conversation on race.

So, white Americans, here’s an idea to chew on:

Each of us grows up with a story. It tells us who we are, who our family is, and particularly what our society is and how it works. For those of us with things in common, our stories hold some things in common—especially about society.

This is true of us as white people. We’ve learned that the policeman is our friend. We know that there are no limits to how far you can go or what you can do. We’ve heard that we live in a post-racial society.

That is our story.

Over the years, we have heard it a lot. So often, in fact, that for us it becomes a given. It is no longer a story about reality; we think it is reality—“the way things are.”

Then we get the O. J. trial. And Trayvon Martin. And suddenly we see that at least one other group of people—African Americans—has a different story. On many points, their story contradicts our story.

All this is indisputable.

The question is what we do with it. And for people of dialogue, the answer is surprisingly clear.

As people of dialogue, we know that each of us is exactly one person among billions, with one person’s perspective among billions. Our knowledge is fantastically limited, our ability to be certain even more so. Those simple facts drive me into dialogue with you—because if I know so little, I want to hear what you know, so together we may get closer: to the truth of the situation, to a way forward, to mutual understanding.

In this case, as white people of dialogue, what we do next is listen. Long, intently, without interrupting.

This is particularly important in the U.S., where the dominant story—the white story—so often drowns out the other stories. Where for large swaths of our history as a nation, those other stories were seen as nearly sacrilegious, and their storytellers threats.

How do we start to listen? As my friend Paige Baker has pointed out to me, volumes have been written about these other stories. It behooves me to read them. I need giant portions of Alice Walker and Maya Angelou and others like them.

I think dialogue as a habit of the heart can play an important role here. As white Americans, we have heard our story for many years. It will take years for us to absorb the other stories. That calls for an inner orientation toward listening that enables a continual readiness. Whenever the conversation comes up—with a friend, in the media, wherever—we are ready to listen because our whole selves are tuned that way.

So. Can we listen for a while? A long while? Do you see the value?

Trayvon Martin: Being Present to Paradox

This is my third attempt at a post about the Trayvon Martin tragedy.

Everything I write seems presumptuous. There are already too many voices raised, too many fleeting shards of news and rumor and innuendo flying around the Internet. At the center of all this is something horrible beyond words: the death of a young man—quite possibly for walking while black. No wonder the proper words won’t come.

My instinct, right now, is simply to write down a few thoughts and get out. So let’s keep it simple:

Being black in America is still fraught with risk. People make assumptions about you that have no basis in fact. We can do better. We have to do better.

One can realize this state of affairs, express outrage at it, and still want to wait for more evidence before deciding that the Martin case is an example of this.

It is possible to express outrage about the police response and want to demand justice.

It may be possible to express outrage about the police response, want to demand justice, and still not be sure whether George Zimmerman should be convicted, or of what.

Bottom line: it is possible to hold different, even paradoxical, beliefs in one’s head and heart at the same time. It is even OK to do so. 

This, by the way, is a useful skill for dialogue. When we hold paradoxical beliefs, we can see the value of each. That makes it easier to see the value of others’ perspectives as well—and want to engage them in dialogue.

Your comments, as always, are welcome here. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one of the more thoughtful articles I’ve read on this topic: a New York Times opinion piece by journalist and op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow. I hope you get as much from it as I did.


Dialogue From Where You Are…When Where You Are Isn’t Good Enough

I did not see this coming, and frankly, I’m pretty embarrassed about it.

A while back, I wrote a column on the still-hypothetical “national conversation on race.” A dear colleague emailed me this week to point out, graciously and civilly, that the ideas in the column had “white as normal” written all over them.

She’s right.

Like many other white people, I tend to see myself as more or less normal. I don’t see how my ideas arise in part from my position in society: membership in the privileged race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. I think I think like an everyday person. I actually think—at least to some extent—like a white, middle-class, male, straight person.  (If you think this is a tempest in a teapot, check out the Witnessing Whiteness book and blog, or the ten misunderstandings white liberals have about race. Or enjoy Colbert’s take on the issue.)

My colleague’s comment horrified me. The last thing I ever want to do is exclude people, however unconsciously. Yet if it’s unconscious, how do I know I’m doing it?

Shelly Tochluk, the author of Witnessing Whiteness, provides an interesting way to think about this. In writing about her attempts to foster discussions around race at her college, she notes:

I’m not perfect, and neither has been the enactment of my anti-racist practice on campus. I know that. But, I also know that taking one step at a time, continuing to reflect, and continuing to try and rectify and challenge areas where I’m not as good I want to be is a powerful thing…and essential for those of us who need to stay motivated to keep stretching ourselves.

After ruminating on this awhile, I’ve come out with four lessons for myself. I would love to hear what you think of them. 

  1. Everyone has to start somewhere. That somewhere is usually with one’s own story, background, experience, etc. The ideas I have are inextricably bound up with who I am. You might say that the best I can offer to the world is who I am.
  2. Who I am is severely limited. Same with who you are, or the neighbor down the street, or Barack Obama. Each of us is exactly one person, with exactly one person’s perspective.
  3. To expand my perspective, I need you. Specifically, I need to listen to you. Verbal dialogue lies at the heart of that listening. But it could also mean reading the books you love, absorbing the music you enjoy, hanging out with the people you hang out with.
  4. This type of dialogue is hard work, and it leaves us extraordinarily vulnerable. It calls for an inner strength that few can muster alone. That’s one reason I believe people of faith are so well qualified for dialogue. They don’t need to muster the inner strength alone because they’re not alone. With the presence of the Divine to encourage them, they are emboldened to take the risks needed to reach out and be reached out to.

When I think about this last point, it brings to mind a prayer at the end of the Episcopal Mass: “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.” Serving, loving, and listening take strength and courage. So when we screw up and get slapped down—as we inevitably will when pursuing dialogue—we acknowledge our blind spots and go to the Source of that courage. Then, refreshed, we return to the fray.