Category Archives: Prejudice

White Supremacy, Black Experience: A Lesson In Listening

“Americans make choices constantly as they try to navigate through the racial landscape. And their first choice is how they listen. Blacks and whites do not listen well to one another. They infer, assume, deduce, imagine, and otherwise miscommunicate. They give each other little grace and allow small room for benefit of the doubt. Dialogue is exceedingly difficult. Nor do blacks and whites listen well to themselves as they stigmatize, derogate, slur, slight, and otherwise offend. . . . It takes practice to learn to listen.”  (A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, by David K. Shipler, ©1997)

With 36 years Africa experience, most of it in a relatively volatile, post-colonial and post-apartheid context, you would think of all white males I would know better.

My wrong?

Among a diverse group of professionals I recently spoke analytically to the contentious topic of white supremacy, or its equally bitter-tasting kin—white privilege.

My cerebral statements understandably met immediate (black) resistance and reaction. Understandably, because my colleagues had been sharing painful personal and past experiences of racially tinged or infused injustices, and of a local city’s white establishment’s historical misuse of political and economic power in disenfranchising entire African-American communities.

Some of my friends contended that white supremacy, aka, institutionalized and/or racist white power structures will be eradicated globally within a relatively short time period.

Instead of simply listening to my friends’ pained narratives, or vocalizing my solidarity with them against past and present social injustices, I intellectualized what up to that point had been a mostly emotionally laden discussion.

At the time, my “invisible, weightless knapsack of accustomed white privilege,” as Shipler coins it, processed our dialogue with two rational thoughts—

First, “How can we talk of eradicating white supremacy, when it’s both a local and global belief that people hold, specifically, a belief that whites are superior to all others different, and therefore entitled—for the betterment of society—to control the mechanisms of power?”

And, secondly, “I agree. We can and should dislodge unjust white socioeconomic and political power structures, such as occurred with slavery America and apartheid South Africa, but we’ll never eradicate white supremacy, or any other color of supremacist belief, as my colleagues seemed insistent on.

Thinking the best of each other, I’m sure my black colleagues knew I wasn’t advocating for white supremacy or arguing against efforts to unseat bigoted power structures, just as I knew they weren’t naive to think supremacist thought could be annihilated.

Perhaps a greater sensitivity and awareness of our respective cultural differences might have mediated our group’s differences of opinion. At least for me, anyway.

How?

By reminding me that lack of passion on my part, or a mere intellectualizing or pondering of social injustices, will not communicate support or understanding.

Whether any part true or simply another racial generalization, I’ve read somewhere that passion, emotion, the ability “to stir up” are traditionally valued traits for many African-Americans—perhaps a survival tool during the slavery era—explaining in part, perhaps, the appeal of the rapper, the preacher, the impassioned politician.

Regrettably, only in retrospect did I see that my lack of passion, and my mere intellectualizing of an issue so close to many of my black colleagues’ life experiences, simply communicated (white) insensitivity to and self-denial of the persistent, everyday realities of scores of millions of historically disenfranchised and displaced people in the U.S. and around the world.

While I regret my misstep, I don’t lament risking encounter and dialogue. As Shipler rightly notes, “The journey does not have to be a (white) guilt trip; it is just an encounter with the facts of life.” Dialogue—talking and talking and talking—opens new “pathways to closeness” among people and cultures different. Each person must LISTEN to the other, however.

 

 

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The Poor Don’t Deserve To Own Cell Phones

At a neighborhood block Christmas party two senior citizen gentlemen and I were chatting over hors d’oeuvres when the topic turned to local indigents.

A recent fire destroyed a childcare center less than three blocks from our homes. Between our houses and the former center lies a sliver of an eco green belt, in which several halfway houses lie tucked hidden from view, their occupants mostly people of color. One of the two seniors spoke of seeing a young black teenager walking through the green belt, which abuts his own property, reading a newspaper’s comic section, then crumpling and discarding each finished page onto the ground.

Since our discussion began on the topic of today’s high incidence of young people bereft of responsible adults in their lives, I assumed his comment would be sympathetic and supportive of these many children’s plight. Instead, this on-the-surface very kind, amiable, elderly gentleman’s “compassionate concern” entailed calling out to this young African-American boy, and informing him that if he sees him discard his paper trash one more time he would call the police and have him arrested.

This comment prompted the other senior to likewise comment on what he found socially disturbing: “Have you seen the panhandlers with their hand scrawled cardboard placards asking for handouts at the intersection of X-Road and Highway-Z?” “Yes,” I replied. He proceeded, “The other day I saw one of them asking for money while talking on a cell phone! Well! He lost whatever sympathy he might have received from me!”

poor

Let me try by rephrasing to understand the message unspoken yet central to these two gentlemen’s perspectives, because it is so prevalent and similar-to-identical with so many privileged people’s perspective. . . .

If you’re needy, destitute, hard up, in a word penniless, and, you’re relying on or asking for financial assistance from others, including government, then you should not, nor do you deserve to own or make use of any item or service that might be perceived by those socially, politically and economically privileged to be “luxury” or “non-essential?”

On the surface this type of reasoning seems, well, reasonable.

For instance, during my “poorer by degree” (PhD) study days, my family survived on a small graduate studies’ stipend, plus, a $1,000/month gift from a radiologist friend and his wife. During this four-year, self-inflicted academic sojourn, while my kids’ friends all had cable TV, we opted not to, primarily because of how such a “luxury item” might be perceived by our benefactors.

A disturbing hypocritical incongruity lies behind or at the root of these two elderly, white mens’ mindsets, as well as many socially and economically privileged people.

That is: Privileged individuals, particularly segments of my own North America, have few qualms in denigrating and chastising the poor for their misuse of resources or welfare assistance, yet give no self-thought to the privileged freedom of choice they have in determining what to spend their excess monies and privileges on.

Although it would be prudent of the needy not to use a cell phone while simultaneously holding out a hand or holding up a sign asking for money, it would be equally smart for the well-to-do not to disparage or judge the poor, while simultaneously and hypocritically demonstrating environmental and social justice insensitivities by their misuse or paltry sharing of excess prosperity and privilege.

Which is a greater travesty of socioeconomic place, privilege and resources?

A panhandler with a mobile phone, with which s/he might call 911 to save someone’s life, or perhaps, simply keep in touch with a family member concerned for their well-being, or a moderate to wealthy individual’s pursuit and purchase of items unquestionably “excess” or “privileged” in a world of escalating socioeconomic inequities?

Given such unconscious two-facedness, even duplicity, no wonder two-time Pulitzer Prize winning op-ed columnist for The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof, in his fourth of five thought pieces on “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” stated the following–“One element of white privilege today is obliviousness to privilege, including a blithe disregard of the way past subjugation shapes present disadvantage.”

Obliviousness to privilege, and an ignorance or disregard for the past, aka social history’s persistent stifling and subjugating effect on marginalized peoples, are predominately a white (WASP) malaise, the result of isolationism.

Isolationism typically refers to political and international matters, as in: “a nation’s policy of remaining apart from the affairs or interests of other groups, especially the political affairs of other countries.”

I use the term to refer to individuals, even entire groups or classes of people, who live such isolated, even segregated apart-heid type daily lives, that they seldom, if ever, have interest, reason or requirement to experience, let alone understand life from the perspective of the struggling, stereotyped or simply “different Other.”

This de facto isolation of each nation’s privileged from the majority of its citizens’ daily and real life (lived) experience, results in an unconscionable obliviousness to privilege, which, in turn, more often than not results in insensitive and paternalistic attitudes, statements, even political and market policy decisions that exacerbate those, whose lives are already defined by a mere struggle to survive.

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A First Act of Life Was Learning To Walk | Why Have We Forgotten How?

I was Born To Run. At five years of age I was The Flash. Like the gingerbread man who ran away from the farmer’s wife, I recall breaking free from the confinement of a nurse’s home office in Nyeri, Kenya, this, despite people’s restricting grip, and bolting panic-stricken across the lawn, like a young Thompson gazelle pursued turn-for-turn by a cheetah, toward what I perceived to be a sanctuary–a distant dairy shed. Despite playing dead (hiding), as a gazelle might do, eventually I was caught and carried kicking and squirming back to the nurse’s inoculation needle.

Come third grade I ran to impress, showing off my calloused feet and speed by sprinting barefoot round-and-round our family’s crushed quarry stoned driveway in Kisumu (“kiss-a-moo” as my grandmother called it).

From then until high school graduation I ran like the wind of Forrest Gump, obeying his Jenny’s instructions, “If you’re ever in trouble, don’t be brave. You just run, OK? Just run away.” Run I could. Run I did. Despite my young age it seemed I always was the Lone Survivor in the tag/tackle game of American Eagles, and my running athleticism earned me the rugby nickname “shadow dancer.”

Teenage sprints morphed into young adulthood jogs, where I ran non-competitively in mid-to-long distance races.

In young middle age I now occasionally run, but more often walk. If pressed for why I blame my wife (her ailing knees prevent us from jogging together), but truth be told I prefer walking.

Why, you ask?

Partly blame it on life having more problems than I can reasonably manage, accommodate and resolve.

FIRST, walking, unlike running, helps you think on your feet.

As Willard Spiegelman notes in Seven Pleasures: Essays on Happiness, for those of us whose profession has more to do with words and ideas, than motorized giant Caterpillars, sledge hammers, or physical exertion, walking involves and unites “mind, body, and breath (spirit) in a harmonious process that at once releases and excites different kinds of energy.”

Walking, therefore, is an effective prod or facilitator of self-knowledge, meditation and contemplation. In a real sense, walking enables, even encourages self-change, self-revision, self-remake, self-reinvention, and self-modification. In this, Spiegelman is spot on.

Søren Kierkegaard reputedly wrote his niece, “When I have a problem I walk, and walking makes it better. Do not lose your desire to walk; every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness; I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

If Kierkegaard felt compelled to instruct his niece on the importance of walking in the early 1800’s, how much more we, who live in so-called developed twenty-first century countries need to be reminded!

During a 2001 academic conference in Geneva, a Scottish colleague’s first, and apparently lasting impression of a recent visit to the West Coast of the United States was how shoppers park in front of one shopping mall entrance, enter, purchase, exit, then drive to others points of the mall versus walk its relatively short length.

Accustomed to motorized transport, we forget that walking used to be our primary means of transportation.

A SECOND reason I now prefer walking over running is that walking offers a combination experience of ordinary plus the unexpected.

Each time I walk in the neighborhood across from my home, which unlike my own adjoins a nearby eco greenbelt, there’s a constancy that combines allure, monotony, and the unexpected.

To date, I’ve discovered about $20, found myself suddenly parallel and within five feet of a skunk on the prowl, come upon a house that was lit up like a bonfire replete with emergency personnel and an entire neighborhood present for what seemed a giant s’mores or weenie cookout, informed a home owner of a large yet harmless snake that crossed the road in front of me and slithered up alongside their house, pitied a young screech-owl that evidently was hit by a passing motorist, seen near collisions of car and deer and witnessed newborn fawns with their mothers, documented neighborhood political rivalry, and seen first-hand the aging and changing demographics of a neighborhood, which mirrors that of our nation.

If I’m able to document these few or more type experiences–from mere one-hour walks, several times per week–how much more of the ebb and flow of life am I, or you, or we, missing out on because we’re speeding past in a motorized “two-ton piece of metal” or entombed within the protective yet insular walls of our own home castles?

The FINAL, perhaps most important reason to become a more frequent, intentional walker, is that “like dancing, walking becomes an exercise in civility.” It results in an increased “inner awareness and an imaginative sympathy with, and for, other people.”

I’m a new participant in Richmond’s Community Trustbuilding Fellowship, a training initiative begun by Initiatives of Change. It’s a five weekend program that develops “community trustbuilders.” A trustbuilder is an individual, like myself, who has a passion for, and receives methodology training in facilitating community dialogue. The objective, as I understand it, is the transformation of communities polarized by race, culture, politics, economics, education and social inequities, into communities of trust, which, then, of course, it is hoped will become more effective in addressing and acting upon symptom and systemic inequities and injustices.

Week Two is entitled “Healing History,” where we’ll take a walk around Richmond. We will retrace the many “slave steps,” in an effort to better understand and develop a sensitive understanding of what life was like for so many enslaved people. But–in the spirit of understanding opposing positions, and facilitating dialogue between polarized communities, we’ll also gain a more appreciative understanding of the “white experience,” often synonymous with “white privilege.”

US Panel 3 HIC (KEG)_0

My doctoral method of study and training in history of religions is phenomenology. Basically, it’s a method of learning that prioritizes awareness, understanding and knowledge acquisition from the underside of history, the ordinary, or “common” person’s perspective versus history’s “victors’ perspective,” which is the narrative of most history textbooks.

In other words, phenomenology requires experiential, personal engagement with the object of one’s study (people of different culture, socioeconomic, political or religious faith) versus mere textbook knowledge, or that acquired from media sources or so-called “experts.”

It’s a transformative method of learning or unlearning, depending upon one’s perspective, because the resulting “relationships of trust” you experience with “different others” not only are informative in terms of knowledge, but also destructive of pre-existing stereotypes, plus, they are self- and other-transformative, in that your/their own life will likely be positively changed simply by experiencing and participating in the life of “the different other.”

SO . . . whatever your profession or life situation, do yourself a favor and become more frequent and intentional in taking walks. Start small. Walk the block. But while you’re walking keep your eyes, ears, mind and heart open. Who knows what or who you might unexpectedly encounter, which might not only change your own life, but contribute collectively to the transformation of your community, and ultimately, one person by one person, the entire world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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The Unknown and Unimagined Life of Being a (Black) Problem

IMAGINE for a moment that you were black, brown, yellow, whatever color, really–even white–as long as it’s not the reigning color of hegemony in a given place (hegemony=the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group).

The important point of imagining is that you belong to a segment of society that for what seems forever has been bereft of sociopolitical and economic power, resulting in a troubled state of life, being, even self-identification.

Imagine that you personally, or members of your family or community have recent and past memory of being routinely profiled, unjustly or disproportionately incarcerated, disenfranchised, subjugated, enslaved (forced marital and family separation, rape), derided, stereotypically blamed for high crime rates and indulgent abuse of welfare subsidies, a member of “the native problem,” and most shameful of late, given racially charged incidents such as occurred in Ferguson, MO, publicly ridiculed on prime time by “news” hucksters, the likes of whom resemble a wily red fox.

One North American, who not only successfully imagines, but also in a two-part Op-Ed risks exposing and challenging “smug white delusion,” and who knows first-hand a smidgen, at least, of what it’s like to be non-privileged in a democracy that often evidences a one-step forward, two-steps backward reality in matters of economic inequity and race relationships is The New York Times Op-Ed columnist, twice Nobel Peace winner, and “honorary African” (according to Desmond Tutu), Nicholas Kristof.

Similarly, Nadine Gordimer, former South African writer, anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace laureate, in a chapter story, “Ah, Woe Is Me,” (from Selected Stories), shares a white, apartheid-era, self-awareness moment, through the narrative of a white woman and her former obese and physically debilitated black “servant” Sarah.

In the short story, one of Sarah’s three children, a daughter arrives unexpectedly at Ma’am’s doorstep after years absence. Once the apple of her mother Sarah’s eyes, in terms of potential as scholar and aspiring teacher, the girl is now disheveled and anguished in appearance–the result of forced withdrawal from school due to lack of school fees, as well as her unyielding duty to care for her bedridden mother.

Ma’am nervously and immediately bombards the young “location” (black township=where black people were consigned to live under apartheid) girl with questions about her mom’s health, the girl’s schooling, her siblings, her father’s loss of job, the hardships of life in the location, et cetera.

Abruptly, almost, she becomes self-conscious of the incessant and personally detached nature of her questioning, and shares with the Reader this bit of inner self-discourse:

“I always had the curious feeling that they (Sarah’s children) were embarrassed, not by me, but for me, as if their faces knew that I could not help asking these same questions, because the real state of their lives was unknown and unimagined by me, and therefore beyond my questioning.”

This representative apartheid-era white woman, who lived in a white’s-only suburb, and who not only had the economic means to hire household servants, but also belonged to the ruling political power–one capable of dictating and enforcing upon everyone different to themselves not only where they would live, but what and how they should think of themselvesin a narrative flash realized she knew absolutely nothing about, and could imagine even less, what day-to-day life was really like for a non-white in apartheid South Africa.

Uncanny in similarity are W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 words in The Souls of Black Folk–

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy, by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ they say, ‘I know an excellent colored man in my town,’ or, ‘Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil?’

At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, ‘How does it feel to be a problem?’ I answer seldom a word.

To not personally know what it’s like to be “a problem,” profiled, incarcerated or a systematically disenfranchised person or people is understandable, particularly if your life has been one of disproportional privilege than struggle and hardship.

An unwillingness, however, to attempt vicariously imagining what another’s life must in reality be like, is inexcusable, and reflective not of power, but of fear–a fear of what your conscience, like Ma’am’s, might instruct and compel you to act upon, given your new awareness.

 

Note: One example of one city’s bipartisan, interracial, and intentional effort to understand “the other’s” life experience and narrative of pain, is Richmond, Virginia’s Initiatives of Change and Hope In The Cities. They promote trust building through honest and courageous communities of dialogue.

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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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