Thanks for all the great comments last week in response to my blog about whether you would have the courage to read a (rather long) Reading for Leading about race in America. If you missed last week’s missive it was about how as white folk, we have a tremendous opportunity to educate ourselves and become allies to our African American neighbors. They continue to bear the brunt of the biased thoughts that infect our culture and thus our own minds. As we watch the police incidents — and I don’t mean this to blame all police or police alone — note that “bearing the brunt” is not just a metaphor. So, we can do more than “feel bad” or even “feel outraged” about Travon Martin or Michael Brown or so many others. We need to help remove the brunt.
I promised thoughts about action this week. I offer these 4:
- Show the courage and curiosity to understand how your whiteness generates privilege. This is NOT about feeling guilty. This is about awareness (of what you have — no blame about it — and then about what others don’t). Awareness generates choice. And I think the awareness also generates a little humility and great compassion. These make it worthwhile, alone. But more importantly, they prompt us to see a place to act. The person who best explains “white privilege” is Peggy McIntosh. There are two ways to get her work:
- Here is a beautiful Ted Talk by her. I have a confession here that I will share in case it helps you if you choose to watch this video: McIntosh is, by her own clever acknowledgement a “little old white lady with white hair.” I have within my oft-humbling mind, biased opinions about age, about elderly women, about feminist women, about women who teach at places like Wellesley. So, I had to get aware of that crap) so I had the choice instead to hear her brilliance. You may not need that “heads up.” Good for you.
- If you’re a reader rather than a video-watcher, then read her essay. Many young people in college and high school are being introduced to McIntosh’s essay on what she calls the “invisible backpack of white privilege.” It is quoted thousands of times in the field of sociology. If you watch the movie first, you’ll definitely want to read the essay. Or, you can skip the movie and read the essay here.
- Intentionally choose to have the experience of being “other,” of being a minority, of placing yourself in a culture such that you are in the minority. My nephew, for example, joined his school’s Black Students Association. Good for him. I highly recommend visiting one or more African American churches. My parents brought us when we were in elementary school, and I remember feeling so “other,” like we stuck out like sore thumbs. Yet I was touched, surprised (and more than a little guilty) at how incredibly welcomed we were. Often good people in white congregations ask, “how can we be more hospitable to African Americans,” and my first answer is: Go see what it’s like to be treated hospitably! Experience the power of African American faith, praise and experience. Then you might ask: Why do they need to come to our church?!
- Listen to African American voices. Plural. They are not all the same! And their expressions are very seldom about making “us” feel bad. They are about being heard — by us, by each other, inviting us to open our hearts and to act. There are so many great voices now. One of the most powerful belongs to Ta Nehesi Coates. His book Between the World and Me was written to his 17-year old son. It is sad, sometimes angry (which we need to be able to hear without defensiveness), searching, and extraordinarily beautiful. I recommend the audio book, because he reads it himself. You get his inflections; he makes every word reflect his purpose. Maya Angelou is a can’t miss (she also reads many of her audio books, and her voice is carmel at times, and a shot of scotch at others). I invite others to recommend their favorites. Two movies just released are powerful as well, The Birth of a Nation and, on Netflix 13th, referring to the 13th amendment. The latter is current and raises a huge political issue that sits on our moral doorstep.
- Lastly, personally reach out and listen. I remember when I was in college thinking, “Why do the Black students and the Puerto Ricans sit at their own tables?” I now wonder, “Why did we, who were in the majority, sit by ourselves?” Did we reach out to others, who felt “othered?” Did I ever ask anyone, “hey why do you — not just you-black-person, but you-Tony, or you-Desiray — sit by yourself?” Or better say, “I realize that my friends and I seem distant, but I’d love to get to know you.”
I think this is especially true where we let our unconscious minds categorize people — at work, on our street, on public transit, or at the coffee shop. Consider who you see principally or predominantly as “black” or “old” or “gay” or “the woman with the dreadlocks,” or “the guy in the wheelchair” or some other category. It’s natural to categorize. It’s the mind. But when we don’t become aware the mind is doing it, we are unconsciously stripping people of their personal-ness. Imagine if all your life, people always saw you as some category, attached to all kinds of beliefs about that category. Ugggghhhh!
See if you can talk but especially see if you can listen. Fix your mind and give them space to be in human relationship with you. Doing so allows you to
Lead with your best self!