Category Archives: Culture and Africa

Leadership | Of Donkeys and People

“One night it’s a donkey, another night it’s a person!”

So matter-of-factly stated an Afrikaner police officer to a colleague of mine, one 1990’s midnight in a North West Province, South African town.

My colleague had been driving a van full of visitors on a return trip to our hotel from a day outing to the luxury resort and casino, Sun City, aka Sin City, when he struck and killed a pedestrian.

Upon arrival at the nearest police station to report the incident, the on-duty officer in all probability simply tried to lessen my colleague’s anguished state of mind by making the “donkey/people comment,” yet in so doing unwittingly voiced his acquired perception of non-white people’s worth and significance:

1 Black Person ≤ 1 Donkey

donkey_blob

Sometimes it’s easiest and more effective to describe the essence of something by depicting its opposite, which is my intention with the donkey story in this thought piece on leadership.

Leadership (at its best) is an inner state of being that feels, perceives, and interacts with all persons as individuals of equal value and dignity to oneself.

Every imaginable leadership book title exists, including 7 Habits, 5 Levels, 6 Steps, 10 Steps, Leadership 101 and 21 Irrefutable Laws, to name but a very few, yet all of them, from my perspective, primarily focus on the external—style or method of leadership, and not leadership’s core essence.

Acquiring leadership expertise by means of habits or steps is enticing because it promises quick results and zero to minimal risk or vulnerability. For instance, seldom will a reader or conference attendee be challenged to say to a child, spouse, subordinate or superior, “I’m sorry,” or “I was wrong,” or to ask, “Will you forgive me?”

Nor will most “instant leadership” books or conferences ask you to contemplate what the other person must be feeling, or what their life circumstances must be like on a day-to-day basis. Rather, focus is on compliance.

Fortunately for those who aspire to a deeper level of leadership significance, whether work, family, or community, this is exactly the type “out of the box” transformational leadership style The Arbinger Institute advocates for in its two bestsellers—Leadership and Self-Deception and The Anatomy of Peace.

We are frequently blind to, self-deceived, when it comes to daily patterns of personal thought, speech or behavior, which hurts people and poisons relationships.

In-the-box leadership operates from an unconscious, yet constant need to feel justified or always right. Feeling justified always requires that someone else be wrong, blameworthy, or a problem.  Only when someone else is at fault or a problem can one’s own life feel good or justified in thought, speech or act.

As Leadership and Self-Deception expresses it, “There’s a peculiar irony to being in the box.  However bitterly I complain about someone’s poor behavior toward me and about the trouble it causes me, I also find it strangely delicious. It’s my proof that others are as blameworthy as I’ve claimed them to be—and that I’m as innocent as I claim myself to be. The behavior I complain about is the very behavior that justifies me.”

How does one get “out of the box” of insecurity and self-justification toward others, and thereby demonstrate Leadership outside-the-box?

By developing a point of feeling for the humanity of all “others” who occupy your concentric circles of shared space, concern or influence. Because at that point of affection or emotion, you’re seeing him or her as a person with needs, struggles, hopes and worries, just like yourself, versus an obstacle, problem or inconvenience.

As nineteenth century Anglican bishop to southeast Africa, John William Colenso, similarly stated, “It is not the outward form alone that makes the immeasurable difference between man and other animals. Wherever we find human affections, there we know we have got a human being.”

Habits, levels, laws, steps, or principles of leadership, therefore, are little help in resolving recurrent or deep-seated interpersonal conflict because they simply “provide people with more sophisticated ways to blame.”

People, whether our children, spouses, enemies or colleagues respond more to how they feel we view and regard them than they do to our particular words or actions toward them.

“Most problems at home, at work, and in the world are not failures of strategy, but failures of ways of being. . . . If we have deep problems, it’s because we are failing at the deepest part of the solution.”

In the spirit of The Arbinger Institute, then—Let’s get busy with the deep things!

 

 

 

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Haggling | Customary Business Transaction or Another Means of Exploiting the Poor?

I grew up as an expat in East Africa. A part of my childhood experience and memory is haggling with hawkers/vendors/traders, whether for farming produce in the open air market or for curios made out of a combination of ebony wood and elephant ivory.

Ebony walking sticks

Ebony walking sticks

Baseball caps, in particular, were a popular trading item. My family kept a ream for just such occasions. Economic transactions of one baseball cap for one or more carvings was always disproportionately financially skewed to favor the buyer, and gifted the buyer with a smugness that s/he got the better of the merchant.

My family learned this “cultural practice” as it were from other expatriates, and probably, truth be told, from Kenyans and Tanzanians themselves, never having personal reason or conscience to rethink a practice or game, depending upon one’s perspective, that everyone seemed to participate in.

It wasn’t until years later as a young adult living in one of South Africa’s self-proclaimed “Bantu homelands,” Venda, that I became conscience-stricken over my acquired attitude toward and manner of engaging people, who just happened to be street vendors.

Venda, a small and veritable garden of Eden exception to the much more arid homelands the apartheid government created in an effort to falsely convey to the world a “separate but equal” racial policy, was renowned for its fresh produce of litchi (lychee), mango, papaya, banana, avocado, and pineapple.

Early during my family’s three-year residence in Venda, I discovered that local roadside traders refused to haggle over price. The price listed–most often times scrawled on a cut-out small piece of cardboard–was the cash expected. Full stop.

I asked our language and culture tutor about this, referencing my experience in East Africa. I remember him looking at me with a puzzled expression before replying, “If anything, you should pay more than the asking price. Never less than.”

Our mentor’s surprised facial expression was similar to a Germiston Afrikaner police officer’s two years later, who, when I asked why South African law did not allow motorists to turn left on a red light (called “robot” in South Africa) after coming to a complete stop and checking to be certain no cars were oncoming (as motorists are allowed to turn right at most stop lights in the United States) looked quizzically at me and stated emphatically, “Because the light is red!

These random memories came tumbling to mind this morning when I was reading the former South African Pulitzer Prize novelist and anti-apartheid activist, Nadine Gordimer’s short story, “The Train From Rhodesia” (now Zimbabwean). In it, she describes a sleepy Rhodesian backwater, where the only social stirring and economic activity occurred when the “creaking, jerking, jostling, gasping, train filled the station.”

An old man attempts to entice a young white woman and her male compatriot passenger to buy a lion, one “carved out of soft dry wood that looked like spongecake; heraldic, black and white, with impressionistic detail burnt in.”

The woman hesitates to buy the lion carving, uncertain of how it will look back at home or where she’ll put it. As the train lurches to movement again, the young man, thinking that he’s doing his lover a favor, quickly tosses the old man “one-and-six” pence for the lion (just a bit more than one penny in old British currency, I believe).

Once the train is moving he arrives in the carriage doorway breathless, “shaking his head with laughter and triumph. Here! he said. And waggled the lion at her. One-and-six!”

What was merely a fun-filled argument (haggle/barter) for him, was perceived and met with angered incredulity on her part.

She almost shouted, “If you wanted the thing, her voice rising and breaking with the shrill impotence of anger, why didn’t you buy it in the first place? Why didn’t you take it decently, when he offered it? Why did you have to wait for him to run after the train with it, and give him one-and-six? One-and-six!”

 

 

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Grasping An Elephant’s Hand | Navigating Life’s Journey

This blog is dedicated to “Bum Bum,” “Teddy Beddy Bear,” “Fooey,” “Tusky or Tutty,” “Puuddy” and “Wuwoof”–my five children’s stuffed animals, whose inanimate lives like Winnie the Pooh and Pals, took on life and needed companionship in the imagination of my children’s lives.

Tusky and Puuddy

Tusky and Puuddy

Tusky & Moose

Tusky & Moose

 

Transitioning through life’s early developmental stages of infancy, childhood and adolescence is difficult enough without having to fearfully obsess or freak out about dying by random acts of violence, infectious diseases, or colossal acts of nature, such as tsunamis. Unfortunately, merely Google “children’s exposure to violence” or “death” and you’ll obtain more than 10M hits.

For two years I taught South African Department of Education life orientation teachers a curriculum developed by Community Information for Empowerment and Transparency (CIET), that corroborated the link between sexual violence and AIDS. As facilitator I often illustrated violence with reference to South Africa’s endemic “culture of violence.”

I illustrated it this way:

Imagine you’re driving to work at 8AM on X-Highway, when you turn on the radio and hear motorists excitedly calling in to John Robbie, local Radio 702’s Talk Show host, informing him and other commuters that an armed hijacking of a cash/coin truck is occurring as you speak. Twelve to 16 men wearing balaclavas and holding AK-47s are hacking into the overturned armored truck with axes to grab the money bags before fleeing in several getaway cars (I recall one November that 31 cash in-transit heists occurred in Gauteng Province alone).

A culture of violence is not the violent act itself, but rather, the day-to-day life reality and expectation that violent acts are commonplace, part of life’s “normal” existence in South Africa.

So, with respect to the cash heist, commuters who are not bottlenecked on the highway because of the armed robbery in progress, express little thought or mention for the safety of the security guards or other commuters, and instead, think, “So glad I’m not caught up in that traffic jam?” or “Whew! I should still make my 8:30AM meeting if I hurry.”

Adults everywhere struggle with this daily physiologically and emotionally tense white elephant–this walking on death’s black ice and knowing you’re going to fall yourself one day, but hoping against all hopes it’s not “your time” to break your neck, but merely get “a good” bruising.

Seldom do adults still possess or have reason to rely on stuffed childhood animals to mediate fearful and anxious tension. Many people have no-one to accompany them through difficult life passages. It’s notable that Seton Brackenridge Hospital in Austin, began an initiative in 2009 to help indigents.  It’s called No One Dies Alone or NODA.

Doctor Bongani Thembela didn’t know it at the time, but his recall of the last hours spent with an HIV/AIDS patient, effectively qualified him to be a NODA volunteer–“I could see he might die any minute. So I sat with him, held his hand. We sat there an hour, two hours, three hours, four hours, five hours. Eventually he died at 4:30 in the morning.”

Children being the little human sponges they are, absorb overt and latent fear from whomever and wherever it might originate, and yet, unlike adults, they are less capable of managing early-life stress and violence, which adversely affects their developing brains.

For an oddly engaging and informative glimpse into childhood trauma and development, read The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: And Other Stories From a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook–What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love and Healing.

The political cartoon satirist, David Zapiro made light of South African children’s daily fearful experiences in a drawing of a teacher asking her class what they wanted to be when they grew up, while immediately outside the classroom window stood two muggers, one armed with a large knife and the other with a pistol. One young girl raises her hand and shouts her response, “ALIVE!”

My children aren’t perfect but they’re as near perfect as I or my wife could have ever hoped for. We’re grateful for their polyester stuffed companions, who not only accompanied our children on their perilous developmental journeys, but who likely were all made or assembled in China, and who were loved literally to death and shreds by one American family.

 

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Hurtful Charity | A New Year’s Appeal To The Kind-Hearted and Well-To-Do

You’ve likely heard the adage, Give till it hurts, yet it’s unlikely you’re aware just how hurtful those acts of giving can be.

I’m not referring to charity of international aid type, which at times hurts more than it helps people and countries. This, because money is frequently wasted on minimal impact, culturally insensitive, and non-humanitarian programs, or alternatively, pilfered by greedy and corrupt individuals.

Rather, I’m speaking to some portion of the billions of dollars given each year by individuals, especially North Americans, to charitable causes, whether in cash, clothing, household items, or vehicles, and whether given to needy individuals who knock on one’s front door, stand in line at soup kitchens, or donated to residential or virtual non-profits such as Goodwill or Invisible Children.

Too frequently, it seems, the needy occupy a dumping ground for the well-to-do’s excess or discarded items, with little thought given to what it must feel like as human becomings, persons, to be so struggling that you’re reliant on the sometimes whimsical and charitable gifts of individuals or government–especially in the U.S., where 24-7 exposure to affluence is so pervasive.

“Excess benevolence” is predictable, particularly in capitalistic societies such as the United States, where home garages are more often used as storage containers than for their intended vehicular use, where garage sales serve to free up household space so that new items can be purchased, and where multi-storied, climate-controlled Public Storage is booming business and architectural landscape features.

Given realities that, one, “the poor will always be with us,” and, two, excess benevolence will persist irrespective of what I say or anyone campaigns against, what I’m trying to speak for is a more compassionate thoughtfulness toward the economically struggling, plus speaking to a prevalent attitude people have toward those who of necessity live at or below the poverty line–an unconscious versus pejorative attitude, perhaps, yet definitely condescending.

By compassionate thoughtfulness I speak for the dignity of those who by society’s definition are “poor” or “needy.”

Donna Hicks defines dignity as “a feeling of inherent value and worth,” and argues that a desire for dignity is humanity’s highest common denominator, as well as the missing link in understanding conflict.

She, more than anyone else, articulates what I am appealing for in this thought piece—

developmental shift in understanding, from our typically egocentric worldview and cognitive understanding, to a primal empathy.

Primal empathy calls for each one of us to develop a heightened emotional sensitivity and identification with those who suffer indignities.

That is—each one of us is capable of, and should more intentionally versus merely accidentally develop the capacity to “feel what the other’s life is like,” even to the point of “feeling the indignities they experience.”

Duplicity of intention, whether in the form of benevolence, generosity or “love,” is acutely felt and experienced at the nub of self-worth and self-identity by charity recipients.

Examples . . .

Pointing the finger at myself.

I wager that most of us will not perceive ourselves to be well-to-do. Comfortable, perhaps, but not wealthy. After all, one has to earn upwards of $400,000 annually in order to attain status as the “one-percent” richest in America.

Prosperity is fickle / relative, however.

For instance, although my non-profit take-home salary in South Africa was in the $30k’s, low by U.S. standards, benefits such as tuition remission for my children, rental housing allowance, healthcare, company use of vehicle, et cetera, took the figure upwards to a U.S. respectable $70k’s figure. At the current exchange rate, my salary equated to almost 750k rand, high above the average South African minimum income of 24k.

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

My family frequently had clothing, accessories, luggage, linens, even aging electronics like laptops and cameras, which despite still being wearable or operational, were, nevertheless, well-used. How convenient that we had one, sometimes two “needy South Africans” who worked as domestics for us ! It was easy to think: “Surely they will want and be able to use these items.”

Our "family" minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Our “family” minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Shamefacedly I admit that I have offered our well-used, soon to be discarded or replaced items by expressing the following type statement–“I’m going to throw these items away. Do you want them?”

Such “gifting” communicates the following attitude: “We recently bought new, and these used items are no longer desired or good enough for me or my family. But I thought to myself, ‘Given you and your family’s evident economic need, I’m sure you could use them.'”

The truth is: My own unconscious, yet condescending attitude toward the poor, didn’t slap my conscience until which time that my family and I were experiencing economic struggle ourselves.

The past three years have been a grateful awakening–despite them being painfully emotional ones–to what many people experience on a daily basis, including the many jobless and economically struggling in Austin, Texas, as well as many of our South African friends, colleagues and acquaintances. They likely felt the pain of “having less,” and perhaps, even, (wrongfully) perceiving themselves as “being less than” when in the presence of our material trappings of success.

Several personal comparisons:

Whereas our African friends heard us excitedly talking about going on this or that family vacation to the beach, mountains, or some international destination, I now experience my own Texas friends talk excitedly about their impending trips to Vegas, Hawaii, Vail, or similarly, reminisce about recent past trips to New England, Lake Tahoe, Paris or Cuba, while my own kids pine for glimpses of the life and experiences they once knew, while finding substitute in a 12-hour road trip to visit Abuelita in El Paso.

Whereas African acquaintances, even friends, perhaps, saw excess money in my family–that is, a means to enabling a better life for themselves, such as assistance with education expenses–I now experience that same temptation to hint at financial need to help offset my wife’s graduate study debt or enable vocational re-education/training for myself.

Whereas South Africans saw my family drive new or new-like vehicles, I now experience Texans test driving $100k electric cars, while my family makes do with a ’98 Honda and ’02 Toyota, which despite their age and my longing to drive a more updated and spacious vehicle, are still far more “life enabling” than required reliance upon foot or taxi power.

Whereas African friends and guests walked into our relatively large rental home and were no-doubt dumbstruck by its size, spaciousness, furnishings, amenities, security apparatus, et cetera, my children now experience leaving Texas homes, conscious of how constricting their shared and small bedroom is. While I’m truly grateful to have a roof over my head, I’m in awe of the extra spaciousness of some homes, which so effortlessly accommodates an office/study space, which as an academic I pine for.

What, then, should the (relatively) well-to-do do in light of such pervasive social need?

It’s tempting to advocate what is recorded in the Bible about the early community of Jesus followers, that “they were together, having all things in common, selling their property and possessions and sharing them with all as each had need.”

I do believe that a greater sharing of wealth and its privileges is essential not only for a more just and equitable society and world but also for a more peaceful one. I’m grateful for the rich and celebrity trend setters, in such persons as Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono, Warren Buffet, and Salman Khan, all of whom we should be grateful to for helping co-create a more equitable world.

Within a Christian or faith context, sharing beyond tokenism or for tax deduction benefit, as well as sharing in and alongside life with those whose life narrative is one of struggled existence would definitely restore a measure of credibility to “American religion,” perceived by many as elitist, segregated, socially reactive and disconnected–at least my own Baptist context of meaning.

Being realistic, however, I’ll settle for more compassionate and conscientious thoughts and acts of charity toward the poor and economically struggling.

I seldom reference the Bible in thought pieces, but it speaks to “offending the consciences” of those who are weak. Seems to me that those gifted with the “benefits of capitalism,” as well as a non-volatile/violent life setting in which to live, raise a family and children, should strive to live and engage the world with greater sensitivity and understanding, always mindful and sensitive to our shared and collective humanity.

 

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Prejudice & Racism | Sometimes Unconscious, Always Unconscionable

No one likes to admit to or think of oneself as prejudicial or racist.

There is no such thing as prejudice, racism or bigotry. They are mere fabrications of an elite and liberal media!

At least this is what a former student of mine in effect argued to his class of peers several years ago. From his Deep South, predominately white, and socioeconomic sheltered childhood, to his burgeoning young adult affinity with Joel Osteen’s prosperity Christianity and Mike Huckabee politics, this young man became near incensed on several occasions during the semester when he felt our collective, yet honest class discussions on matters of race and stereotypes was unfounded, merely perpetuating long since left behind racial antagonisms.

My student’s opposition to discussion merely supported David Shipler’s statement in A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America–

“Fears and assumptions, often far beneath the surface prevent honest discussion from taking place. When it comes to race, we do not know how to talk to one another.”

Regrettably, this young man’s denialism and lack of awareness of the often subtle and nuanced versus overt prejudice and racial bigotry still pervasive in many parts and communities of the United States isn’t exceptional, but rather, representative.

For instance–and what prompted this blog to begin with–the December 2013 issue of The Costco Connection, contains a section entitled “MemberConnection / Changing the World,” in which several short paragraphs highlight individual Costco members’ social development non-profits.

One piece entitled, “A Dream Made Real,” focuses on “The O’Brien School for the Masai” situated in rural Tanzania, yet begun and operationally managed by a woman and her daughter from Hinsdale, Illinois.

CC

According to Fran Schumer, Costco Connection writer, the O’Brien School “stands as a testament to how one (read: American) woman, with the aid of family, friends and anonymous well-wishers, can transform a village.

Schumer quotes the school’s founder, Kellie O’Brien, as saying, “Living in a dung hut does not determine who you can become in this world.

Translated: “Rural Tanzanian Masai live in genuinely shitty houses, but this unfortunate reality need not restrict their evolutionary and prosperous development! With our help an entire (read: uncivilized or backwater) village can be transformed–i.e., ‘developed’–and from this benevolent act of ours future Tanzanian leaders will be educated and shaped by our (read: white, American) core values and worldview.”

The issue I’m focusing on is not whether international aid or kind and well-intentioned donor benevolence, in this case a gift of education, is wrong or misplaced. After all, and understandably so, few, if any resource struggling people would look a gift horse in the mouth, including the Masai community where the O’Brien School is located.

Rather, my focus revolves around attitude or perception toward people different–especially, so-called “needy” people.

Should it be of any importance, I self identify as bicultural. That is: I am a white, Texan, North American, Protestant, middle-age male, who spent many years of childhood and adulthood in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.

It’s because of my shared white identity that this blog is intentionally and disproportionately pointed at my own “white America,” maybe, even, especially, “Christian America,” the likes of Franklin Graham, who frequently spews vitriol against anyone “non-Christian,” especially Muslims and Islam.  This blog speaks particularly to the white elephant of “white attitude” toward difference.

I hope it goes without saying, that despite my stated focus above, I believe prejudice and racism to be a universal reality (common to all of the world’s people) and circular (e.g., blacks discriminate and are prejudicial against whites, too).

The relevance and particularity of speaking to white America lies in our to date disproportionate global power/influence in all matters social, economic, media, political, military power, etc.

In The Costco Connection, both the writer and the non-profit founder express disrespectful attitudes toward the “different other”–a community of Masai in Tanzania–attitudes that are paternalistic and prejudicial, yet also most likely unbeknown to them, i.e., they’re unaware, unconscious of their prejudice.

Their personal attitudes toward and perceptions of the “needy Masai,” is in full public display because of their choice of words and manner of expression in a printed magazine.  It could be argued that it also reflects negatively on a corporate institution because Costco’s editorial team failed in its censorship responsibilities prior to the publication of its December issue.

Perhaps most revealing in terms of attitude, however, is O’Brien’s reason for why she and her daughter founded the school in Tanzania–

There comes a point where you go from success to significance.” Translated: After you’ve made your millions–enough to live comfortably for the remainder of one’s lifetime without formal employment–it’s time to focus on your legacy.  If you can help needy people living in needy countries, so much the better!

As I read this short piece I wondered whether O’Brien ever paused to consider whether or not a traditional Masai or African house, aka, manyatta or rondavel hut made with mud, dung, sticks and thatch is considered a negative and inferior existence to so-called European architectural development by those who live in them, as she intimates?

An atypical African rondavel

An atypical African rondavel

For example, Frances Colenso, wife of John W. Colenso, nineteenth century bishop of the Church of England in what is now KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, remarked in an 1880’s letter to a friend–

“The (Zulu) Chiefs, who have some of them never been in a square house before, did not appreciate the comfort of it at first—they thought their round huts with a fire in the middle much more snug, and described a square house as a ‘collection of precipices’ with a hole in one of them where the fire was laid.

Similarly, yet thirty years prior, an American missionary by the name of Hyman A. Wilder, wrote to his U.S. constituents–

“When we tell them (Zulus) of the advantage of civilization; & of the happiness & comfort & skill & wonderful works of christianized (read: civilized) nations it seems to excite only a brief stupid amazement & reverence, but awakens no emulation, no desire to be different from what they are.”

It’s a fact that early colonial and missionary effort included teaching Africans “practical information on sitting in chairs, eating off plates, and building square houses.”

Regrettably, what used to be widespread and overt racial antagonism, such as depicted in the movie Mississippi Burning, has subsequently become more insidious, cloaked in jokes, quips, even political satire.

sticker

Two “small” and personally experienced incidents, which reflect how prejudice slides below the overt racism radar, occurred in South Africa and sadly involved a person who should live above the line of decency: an American pastor, as well as executive director of a Christian non-profit focused on vulnerable children.

During a visit to South Africa he was introduced to our domestic (house helper) worker. Since his last visit we had hired a new lady, because the former domestic wanted to relocate 550km back home to her husband and child, whom she had left years previously in search of work in Johannesburg. After being introduced by my wife, this man’s scoffing comment to my wife (in front of our African friend) was, “How many of ’em have you gone through?”

"One of 'em" - our friend Precious

“One of ’em” – our friend Precious

On a separate occasion, this pastor/ED met with my multiracial colleagues at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg.  The director of the children’s research and development non-profit was soon-to-be visiting the United States and planned to include a trip to Houston where this man lived.

My Belgium director friend enquired of the pastor/ED whether he would have any trouble proceeding through Houston’s airport immigration check-point with his dual Belgium and South Africa passport. The response was, “You won’t have any problems. But it would be easier if you were black!

My hoped for purpose in writing this blog is similar to the author of American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict.  That is, it is not to condemn white America, white Europe, or white any country, but to facilitate understanding between people, which in turn, hopefully, will lead to greater awareness of our respective life realities, and lead to a new spirit of mutual responsiveness and empathy.
World Solidarity / Unity

World Solidarity / Unity

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Word Choice | The Power to Shape Attitudes and Entrench Stereotypes

Coffee shops are somewhat like water troughs.  People come in parched and desperate for the black, sometimes sweet, yet always caffeinated rush, but also to shoulder up alongside the regulars, say “howdy,” and postulate on the problems of the local community and the world.

My remaining-at-home kids and I are habitual, four to six visits per week Starbuckers. It helps, of course, that my middle daughter is a recently hired Starbucks barista, but even before she took on her newfound responsibilities and identity (yes, she wears the logo with pride and a smile), we were regulars.

starbucks

If you frequent a place long enough, its staff and customers become a surrogate-like family. Driving up, we can determine before stepping foot in the store whether certain “family members” are there, in particular, a local construction contractor, whose presence is noted in the parking lot by his company’s logo, painted large and long on his dual rear wheel truck.

In Texas, clergy, aka religious professionals, seem to be regular Starbucks fixtures. Several weeks back I was sitting in one of four leather chairs located in our store’s entrance cove, a much vied for place from which to sit, sip, survey incomings and outgoings, and surmise about life. Three gentlemen who obviously knew each other, at least at a “Starbucks level,” were talking about a microbotic wonder. One of the men got up and left for a scheduled business meeting, accompanied by an attractive looking woman, whom I had not seen before. After they left, one of the remaining two men–a minister at a nearby church–remarked to the other, “That’s a pretty girl! That’s about the best work he ever did.”

Was he merely talking “Texan” or did his reference to the woman as “work” reflect and reveal something deeper, less respectful? For example, almost every driver has “worked” to own a vehicle, particularly a first car. The purchased item then becomes one’s “property,” to drive or (mis)treat as one determines or feels like. True of any material object, the allure and luster–e.g., new car smell–diminishes over time, and with it, too, one’s affection for, commitment to care, to maintain, and to fidelity.

If my academic studies benefited my life in no other way, than this one, I would still be exceedingly grateful.  In my face-to-face, experiential studies of other cultures and religions, I learned that our choice of words and our repetitive use of them shape and maintain images, stereotypes, attitudes and perceptions of others–especially those who have not been on the victor’s side of history’s narratives, which, to date, probably includes most anyone who is not male and WASP!

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author, David K. Shipler, observes in his book A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, that with contentious topics like race, words have the power to label and circumscribe people, particularly those, historically, who have been bereft of privilege and power.

strangers

Despite the widespread popularity of “tolerance” messages, which on the surface positively advocate for recognizing and respecting people different from oneself in matters racial, religious, cultural, socioeconomic or sexual, such words have become tainted over time by their secondary definitions of “variation from a standard,” or “capacity to endure hardship.” As Shipler sensitively notes of African-Americans, “Black Americans do not want to be ‘tolerated’ as one tolerates deviance or pain. Anyone who advocates tolerance today risks being misunderstood as grudgingly accepting the unpleasant qualities of another group.”

When I was in my early 20’s, I remember driving in a pickup truck through a section of rural, East Texas with a much older and prominent community resident. It was spring time and orange wildflowers–Mexican Hats (Ratibida Columnaris)–were in everywhere display. Obviously trying to conversationally connect with me and provoke a laugh, he remarked with a mischievous smile on the abundance of “n&#g*r tits” in the fields.

Mexican Hat

Mexican Hat

My discomfort might not have been as acute if I had not just a few weeks prior, had another, even more senior, yet this time female resident shout out twice to her near-deaf husband upon the ringing of their doorbell and during my visit to their home, “THE N&#G@R’S HERE!” (they were expecting an African-American to come by and clean their rain gutters) Come to find out years later that racial prejudice in this part of the United States, was endemic, such that one nearby civil rights advocate claimed “East Texas is Mississippi 50 years ago.”

Benedictine nun and popular speaker/writer, Joan Chittester, observes in Called To Question that “once an image is cast in stone” it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to go back or reclaim its essence again. Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow, co-authors of The Myth of Africa, similarly echo about Africa and Africans, “The errors and biases so perpetuated have by now acquired an inviolable tenure.” The truth of this statement is no where more evident than Africa, a place synonymous in the Western mind with “the dark continent.”

Chittester speaks from a woman’s and oft-times socially invisible and undervalued perspective to the inviolable “heresy of God the Father,” in which, religious professionals legitimate their male positions of ecclesial power by stifling, even excommunicating anyone who dares question the status quo’s interpretation of Scripture–one, in which, God, despite disclosing identity to Abraham in neutral gender terms, “I am who am,” is from their accustomed privileged position Solus “Father.”

Call it over-sensitized, call it picky, call it anal, call it what you will, the truth is words possess a passive and active heritability, reflecting attitudes and perceptions toward others different to oneself, as well as maintaining entrenched stereotypes and emotions.

Choice and use of words is often subtle yet significant. It is common among the Christian community to hear or read reference to people different as “non-Christian.” Obviously the implication is that “Christian” or “Christianity” is the exemplar, the standard by which all others are to be assessed. Another popular term of reference is “uneducated,” implying that if you don’t have at least a high school education you’re “less than” — uncivilized, uncultured, uninformed, unworthy, unimportant, and un-opinionated. As my mentor respectfully distinguished, why can’t we be more sensitive by referencing those who possess “informal” versus “formal” education?

Given the world population’s unabated increase, coupled with simmering tensions and all out conflict in countless hot spots, the least we–aka, those privileged to be living in a part of the country/world not yet noticeably affected by overt conflicts of relationship–can do in reshaping a more peaceful, equitable, and just world order, is begin intentionally utilizing vocabulary and language that is respectful, inclusive, and sensitive.

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6 Habits of Effective & Influential People | Lessons from a South African “Domestic”

A few months after we relocated to Johannesburg in January 2003, the buzzer at our front security gate sounded. I looked out to see an elderly South African man wearing blue coveralls (typical uniform of manual laborers). I walked out and we greeted. He worked as a gardener for neighbors a few houses down, and wondered if we, too, could use outside help. I quickly discovered he was speaking on behalf of a son, Eddie.

This gate-side conversation initiated a relationship with a Northern Sotho young man and his family, which spanned eight years, and would have continued until “death do us part,” if not for my family’s emergency need to relocate back to the United States. As it is, we speak by phone twice a year.

mokoborofamily

This blog is too insufficient a tribute for this young man who gifted mine and my family’s life. A meaningful friendship was improbable, really, because Eddie spoke and understood little English and I/we knew no Pedi (Northern Sotho), his mother tongue. We communicated in either hand gestures, several word sentences, or when something was really important and required detailed instruction I would solicit translation help from a friend.

An example of a typical communication between us is detailed in my blog “Post Office Memories and Cultural Apropos Uses of the ‘F-word,'” part of which I repost below:

One morning I went outside to water the garden and could not find the water hose attachments. I asked Eddie if he knew where they were. His face told me “yes,” but the difficulty was telling me where and what happened to them.  Eddie spoke hesitantly, communicating a short, crystal clear message: “dogs . . . fucked up.”

You see, in South Africa “f#@ked up” is an expression that unambiguously communicates that something or someone is beyond repair. Eddie was telling me that our dogs, who were capable of destroying even a purported to be indestructible dog bed made out of sisal, were the culprits responsible for destroying my hose attachments.

We laugh when we recall how Eddie informed us that his day’s work was done, and that he was leaving for home. Typically my wife might be busy in the kitchen cooking dinner, unaware Eddie was either in the doorway or right outside the kitchen window. He would startle her by loudly, almost shouting, “I GO!”

Unlike many, whose talk exceeds their walk, Eddie, in the absence of a command of English communicated by life example / demonstration. What follows are six habits, or disciplines of Eddie’s that daily communicated a highly effective, highly principled life, which I imagine Stephen Covey would agree with.

First, slightly different from Mayor Bloomberg’s Secrets of Success of “arrive early, stay late, eat lunch at your desk,” Eddie demonstrated a work ethic of “arrive on time, eat lightly – healthily – drinking only water (during work hours), work steadily and persistently, and leave on time so as to prioritize self-care and family care.”

I’ve known no harder work in my life than Eddie. Instead of motivating him to work, I had the opposite problem – getting him to take a break, or take an afternoon or day off.

Eddie2

Second, break down or divide the oft-times near-overwhelming mass or totality of a large job or assignment into smaller, more manageable pieces.

Of the three locations we lived during these eight years, Eddie always established a routine for each task at each place for each week, resulting in a showcase yard and a pristine house.

Third, one’s perspective / attitude is everything!

Depending upon which study or news source you read, upwards of 71-percent of working Americans are dissatisfied with their jobs, and some of us are without jobs.

Despite officially being defined as a “domestic” – defined in South Africa as anyone working 24-hours or more per month for a household – Eddie demonstrated pleasure and pride in each day’s work, irrespective of how menial the task might be. He’s especially been my inspiration these days, since assuming my family’s many daily and so-called menial tasks of home management.

Fourth, be willing to assist the organization and/or your colleagues when necessary (without complaining or drawing attention to self) by doing or getting involved in tasks that technically either lie outside your own job description or that seem beneath your status or dignity to perform.

Initially I hired Eddie to work outside in the garden. Upon relocating to Pietermaritzburg from Johannesburg, our inside house-helper was unable to relocate with us. I felt it would be disrespectful to Eddie to ask him to assume inside duties, in case he viewed this as “woman’s work.” After moving, my family initially went about doing all household chores. No more than a few days passed before Eddie insisted on assuming both inside and outside responsibilities – insisted by simply doing, before we were able to; never a word being spoken.

He did what needed to be done. He did it without complaint. He worked as if striving for perfection.

Fifth, choose teachable moments to demonstrate or communicate desired change in leadership or organizational process, rather than reacting by engaging in embittered backbiting or lobbying.

I’m quite sure Eddie thought my family and I were wasteful, as in spending needless money on “extras” that we had no real need of. After all, you don’t develop a habit of counting pennies unless you need those pennies.

We had several hunter green, plastic patio chairs. Being plastic and relatively cheap it wasn’t uncommon for them to break. One day I tossed one chair in the trash because the arm of the chair broke in two, length-wise. I took little cognizance one day of what Eddie was painstakingly doing. Later that evening when my wife and I sat outside on our patio (verandah) for a cup of coffee together, as we routinely did, I noticed that Eddie had taken an ice pick, plus copper wire, and had effectively sewn the chair’s rip up. He first poked a series of stitch holes along each seam of the crack, then he took the wire and sewed the two pieces together. The finished result was not only a stronger-than-new chair, but also a lesson to me to be less wasteful and more resourceful.

chair4

Sixth, never be too busy or self-absorbed that you are insensitive to the needs and struggles of others within your circle of concern.

Develop the discipline of sharing time and showing kindness (respect) to the least visible, lowest profile (status) people within an organization – even to their children, or especially to children.

Eddie and his family, will always be to my children and our family the 9th to 12th members of our now blended family, yet who just happen to live in South Africa. All the more so, since Eddie named his second child after me!

We feel such affection toward Eddie and his family because he/they invested time, effort, hospitality, laughter and meals with us, and especially with our children – this, despite having negligible disposable income, plus their total home space being no larger than most moderately affluent Americans’ master bedroom.

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