My intent today is to create new and realistic hope and purpose.
But I need you to go uphill with me. Please don’t give up. Give me a few paragraphs before you do. Yes?
Why make this unusual plea? Because I know that few leadership topics generate the level of hopelessness that is caused by looking at today’s RFL topic: race in America. I am not talking about the hopelessness of African-Americans.* I want to talk to, with and about people like me – white to white in a public space. 63% of us, according to a 2016 Washington Post poll, feel race relations are generally bad, and over 60% report feeling they are getting worse.
Three thoughts today about what I am struggling to do. I am seeking dialogue. Comments. Open reflections. New thinking.
First, I am making race MY problem, part of my social and moral concern that seeks my action. African-Americans suffer the sickening consequences of racism, but that doesn’t make it their problem. I’m not talking blame (looking back). I am talking about choosing (in the now) to be moral and even heroic (going forward). In other words, I want to be part of the solution. Do you? How could 12.7% of the population possibly shoulder this difficult effort of conscience and repair? And who is in a better position to speak to us . . . than us?
Second, I am trying to accept without condition the dirty truth that my mind is polluted with bias. Maybe yours isn’t. But I suspect we are all – tragically, including African Americans who have been caused to internalize this – steeped in bias and racism. In the first debate, Hilary was asked about whether she thought the brutal, caught-on-tape police officers suffered from “implicit bias,” and she responded, “We all suffer from implicit bias.” (Her emphasis was on all.) I thought that was a brave and wise response. So, I’m letting myself acknowledge all the times my mind offers me stereotypes that it has consumed – as overt racists, newscasts, media of all kinds have created the tale that “blacks” are other, dangerous, etc. If I want to do the first point, above – make race MY social concern – I can’t be afraid to see how it IS my personal problem.
Our brains at their base are fear machines, trained to sense threat, and we have been primed to see black people as a threat. A physical threat. Sometimes as a moral (judging us) threat. I will own that this bias and opposition permeates my mind, and I will not deny this by saying “I am color blind,” “I don’t have a problem with race.” Etc. I DO have a problem – it’s NOT my best self, it’s not my chosen attitude – but I won’t deny it exists in my mind.
Third, I will convert my guilt to purposeful passion. Imagine being German today. You weren’t in the Gestapo, a Nazi, or “just” a fearful collaborator with Hitler; you’re three, four generations removed already. And your family suffered, too; dead uncles, bombed property, seen by the world as evil and dangerous. You haven’t an anti-semitic or Aryan-nation bone in your body. And yet you are German.
And, so we are white. Yes, we, too, bear a burden: a shame at the roots of our nation, and at how our nation hundreds of years on, has still not gotten it right. Maybe it’s personal, too. Maybe there were times we let the N-word rise unchallenged in conversation, wondered if blacks weren’t responsible for their own problems (as if we are opposed as tribes and different in kind), or just doubted someone’s intellect, trustworthiness, or work ethic “because they were black.”
I have done these things (thanks to my fearful mind). How will I respond? I will not punish myself for these unbidden thoughts, for that will only cause them to go underground. I will notice them. Because awareness creates choice! More importantly, I will not let my guilt, block me from hearing the grievances of African Americans. It is hard to watch the police beatings. I want to believe in “my” country, want to believe in justice, and am sick of carrying white guilt! But, this is my burden, because I share in the bias (at least in my thoughts), and because this is MY country, and I am committed to it being OUR country.
So, I must work. I must educate myself about my mind.
I must open my heart to the African American experience and experiences. There’s a huge difference there. I must not let it be the black burden both to experience bias and then to have to change it alone. Many of my African American friends are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” And you may be sick and tired, too. So, perhaps you get tired of Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson railing. I do. My irritation with them is a good indication I am experiencing them as a threat to my mental peacefulness, rather than experiencing the underlying injustices that concern them as the real threat.
Many of my African American friends and the too-few African Americans in my Berkeley classes don’t want to always have to be “the” black spokesperson. They don’t want us asking, as if we are children: “What should we do?” So, it’s time for us to do what you have done in reading this — and I thank you!: take on the issue ourselves, speak openly to each other, listen deeply to each other, and speak our words of impassioned justice from our hearts. Please comment this week. It’s a way to take a step, to act!
Next week, I will share some ways that we can act to make a difference. Much of our frustration lies, I think, from the feeling that we don’t know what to do constructively. But I believe it is constructive, first of all, to look honestly at ourselves. Awareness generates choice, as we
Lead with our best selves.
* I have over-simplified race to speak about African-Americans and white people. I do not do so to ignore that there are very genuine issues faced by many other people of color, or of other “minority” groups. I only do so because of the unique and painful circumstance of African-Americans and because of limitations of my reader’s time and patience with me.