Tag Archives: social justice

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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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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