Don’t say that! Huh?

One of the things I know for sure is that common sense or common knowledge isn’t common. We each see the world through a lens shaped by family and family values, life experiences, and acquired knowledge.

I was reminded of this when a white friend commented that she’d never again say that a person’s hair looked like a rat’s nest, having been chastised, strongly and simultaneously, by several Black friends who heard the comment. She continued, noting that while she wouldn’t say it again, she really didn’t know what was wrong with it. She had been describing a person, not actually saying it to someone.

Without an explanation, this friend may have thought that her comment was perceived simply as rude, but there was so much more.

Nuances, history, and connections would never be understood by her, or by other white people, solely by reading books about the Black experience, racial injustice, or Black culture. That academic knowledge must be woven together. The dots must be connected to reveal why that combination of words – describing a Black person’s hair as a rat’s nest – evoked a visceral, negative response by the Black people in that room. Months later, Black friend-to-white friend, the following information was shared.

Rats as a sign of filth.

Neighborhood filth.

Rats are often associated with filth/dirtiness. Rat infestation is seen as an indicator of accumulated filth and a problem unique to some communities. The cleanliness of Black neighborhoods has often been questioned, giving many white people an “acceptable” reason not to want Black neighbors. But few know what Richard Rothstein revealed in his book, The Color of Law. In some cities, in the early through mid-20th century, trash was not picked up with the same frequency in Black neighborhoods as it was in white neighborhoods. It wasn’t the lack of cleanliness by the residents, but the racist practices of the cities that contributed to the rat problem. Is it possible that those practices continue in some places today?

Personal dirtiness

Also built on the connection between rats and filth, a Black person would immediately think of all the myths regarding personal hygiene. The dirtiness – real in some cases, imagined in others — of Black people relates back to enslavement and their inability to have access to soap and water to bathe and, of course, the time to do so. The sentiment of Black skin as a sign of dirtiness continued in the 1800s and early 1900s with Black children depicted as being  washed with a certain brand of soap to become white. Black skin as a sign of dirtiness was seen as recently as 2017 with a Black model in a brown shirt becoming a white model in a white shirt after using Dove soap.  The subliminal message is there: dirty, ignorant, lowly.

Natural hair

Hair is a person’s crowning glory. The connection between hair and your sense of beauty is inextricable. Sadly, until recently, natural hair has often been described as unkempt.  It wasn’t until the Black Pride/Black is Beautiful movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s that many Black people recognized the internalized racism that made them not see the beauty of their natural hair. Until then, many wanted the texture of white hair, using chemicals and applied heat to get it. But even after Blacks embraced their natural hair and natural styles like dreadlocks or braiding, many whites continued to view those styles as inappropriate for the workplace. As recently as 2019, California and New York saw the need for legislation making it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on their hairstyle or hair texture.

All of this information, and probably much more, went through the minds of the Black people listening to their white friend. All of it. In the blink of an eye.  What they had heard was a statement mired in years of subliminal racist messages. But all they said was “Don’t say that.”

Months later, one of the Black people in that room, no longer able to let the comment stand, reached out to the white friend. After hearing the full explanation of why saying that a Black person’s hair looked like a rat’s nest was an awful comment, the white person shared that she had been describing another white person. She thought she had said that, but in hindsight, she wasn’t sure. Wow, had the Black folks simply assumed that she was speaking about a Black person based on their life’s experience? Maybe an in-the-moment conversation would have been clarifying, but not speaking immediately allowed for the more thoughtful, and possibly less emotional, later exploration of the topic. The white person acknowledged a bit of initial defensiveness about what was interpreted from her comment, but also had three important reflections: she wants to learn more about race and culture; she appreciates those who pull her aside and educate her; and she recognizes her privilege to move in and out of discussions about race because she is not living it (hmmm … a topic ripe for a future conversation?).

Bottom line: Friendships are built on trust. Have those conversations that need to be had if not in the moment, have them when you can. We’ll all be better off. Here’s to a more racially just 2022.

Happy New Year!

 

 

DEI Meant Numbers to Me. I Wanted More.

Recently, while co-facilitating the Onion Dialogues, a white participant asked a pointed question: “What is the goal?” He continued by asking if employers should mirror the percentage of specific groups of people of color in the American population or what. I could hear frustration, or maybe exasperation, in his voice. He worked for a business that had mandated its entire team go through this training. He wanted to finish the training and come away with specific direction. A third of the way through, he didn’t see the session leading to that kind of direction and he was right.

This was a significant aha moment for me.

That Onion Dialogue participant wanted a road map. What was the quickest way for him to get from point A to point B?

Instead, I was giving him a complex route with multiple, interconnected roads. On top of that, the goal was racial justice, something he may have seen as an amorphous reality, not his tangible point B.

The Onion Dialogues, like many racial justice trainings, was designed to open the thinking of the participants. They are intended to leave knowing that Black Lives Matter is more than a slogan. It is a reality, with evidence of why we haven’t mattered for centuries. I want participants to understand the microaggressions and oppression Black people and other people of color face every day.  The goal is for them to become an ally or advocate for racial justice, with the skills to use a newly acquired lens to see, interact in, and transform the world.

He wanted to know how many Black people needed to work in his business to be compliant/woke/racially just.

That moment was a juxtaposition of black and white… and gray. To me, he was in a black and white business world of DEI:  hard numbers, measurable goals, and specific, time-driven outcomes. Done! I was in a gray, nuanced world of understanding racial history and racial reality on the way to working for racial justice. Ongoing, forever.

I have been challenged by the concept of DEI for some time. I think of it as minimizing. This participant again elevated my discomfort while also prompting my thinking.

The term DEI – diversity, equity, and inclusion – seems to me, most often, to be translated into numbers. Those numbers are critically important. I know that.  I just want so much more than the right numbers.  A person/business/organization can do all the right things, under the DEI approach, and still not reckon with how race has shaped their own life or experience at work, how they may be complicit in racial injustices, or see how their company or organization perpetuates racial inequities or benefits from historical injustices.

I want participants’ understanding of racial injustice to evolve through the training. I want them to be exposed to a more complete history of our country, one that, for example, discusses the injustice of not getting forty acres and a mule and how redlining and decades of prejudice and discrimination have left Black families with one-tenth the wealth of white families in America. I want participants who go through racial justice training to understand that, perhaps, just maybe, they have, consciously or unconsciously, been blaming the victim. Do most DEI programs do that?

For some reason, I heard that participant with new ears. I reflected on his question and his viewpoint, realizing that I needed to open my thinking. I needed to align my view of an organizational or business focus on DEI with my commitment to what I perceive as a more comprehensive examination of race and racism. One is not right and one wrong. They’re different strategies, complementary, both necessary and both incomplete. We need to see more racially diverse employees in every sector, at every level. And, we must go beyond solely a DEI compliant workplace, to get to a racially just America.

DEI and racial justice seminars/trainings like the Onion Dialogues are all part of a necessary, multifaceted tool kit for social change. Various strategies, many interventions, layers of action from thousands of voices are needed to birth a racially just America. So, to my DEI-focused colleagues, I say you’re doing important work, keep looking at the numbers, but also take that macro view, learn about all that has gotten us to where we are as a racially unjust country and then go well beyond the workplace to make it right.

 

Intentional conversations among friends

It was my first trip following COVID vaccinations.  I went to the Outer Banks in North Carolina with a group of friends I’ve known for almost 20 years. We met through a local leadership program, Leadership Greater Washington. And over several years of restaurant dinners, happy hours, traveling together domestically and internationally, and staying in each other’s homes, we’ve bonded. We are friends.

LGW group –the Outer Banks, 2021

On the Outer Banks trip, only six of the nine of us could travel. For the first time, I focused on our racial composition: Cuban American (1), Black Asian American (1), Caucasian (4), and African American (3). And that led me to think about  how this diverse friendship group discusses—or doesn’t—issues of race.

That we are real friends is essential to this conversation. Two decades ago, my neighbor, Jim Myers, who is white, wrote Afraid of the Dark: What Whites and Blacks Need to Know About Each Other. In his book, Jim commented on the rarity of genuine friendships between people of different races. Postulating that if you don’t spend time in someone’s home, you really aren’t friends. I think he’s right. I have many colleagues and associates with whom I have casual connections, but my true friends are those with whom I spend quality time. We play together, eat together, vacation together, and talk about our personal challenges.

Often friendships go back to our early years or to college. We developed personal connections on the playground, through scouting programs, church, or in the college dorm. Or they develop through friendships with the parents of your children’s classmates or at work.  All of those connections are actually driven by proximity—where you live, work or play. And, where we live seems to be critically important.

That’s part of the challenge for cross-racial friendships; we don’t live in the same community.

According to a report released last year by the Brookings Institution, even though our country is more racially diverse than it has ever been, our neighborhoods are not.  How can we become friends who have deep, meaningful, sometimes uncomfortable discussions about the impact of Confederate statues in the main square of a small town or the importance of having a comprehensive—factual—examination of our country’s history for example? Where will those conversations happen? How will they start?

My Leadership Greater Washington (LGW) group doesn’t live in the same neighborhood. In fact, we live all over the tri-state area of the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia.  None of us worked together when we originally convened. We often comment that we may never have met each other without LGW and its firm commitment to developing deep and lasting connections. And even within this group, the small group of nine, conversations about race rarely happen. Why is that?

Even for friends, there seem to be boundaries we don’t cross. We’ve been told, either directly or indirectly, that discussing issues of race in racially mixed groups is taboo. Everyone is afraid to say the wrong thing. Everyone is uncomfortable. Race and racial discord aren’t a happy, carefree topic that promotes laughter and camaraderie at that neighborhood cookout or office outing.

So, here’s my question: How do we elevate racial issues, learn different perspectives, challenge thinking, and arrive at heightened understanding if we don’t even talk about race with our friends?

I can think of several times on the Outer Banks when my LGW group might have had a rich conversation about an issue with a racial element. We all would have learned something from the conversation, and I know we could/would have done it respectfully and earnestly.  Here’s my lesson:  We have to seize the moment when it occurs. The teachable moment.

I’m committing to making these conversations happen (or at least trying to make them happen). Not every time, but occasionally, truthfully, and fully. If we all did that, we might make more substantial progress  toward a racially just America. So, let’s talk… really talk. And listen.

 

See Me, Hear Me: The Power of Voice

Recently, a segment on 60 Minutes reminded me of the power of seeing someone tell their story. It profiled a new technology that captured, on camera, Holocaust survivors describing their experiences. With this technology, years from now, decades from now, people can ask questions of these individuals, and they will appear to be answering in real time. Zoom-like with a Star Trek/Jetsons overlay.

Many comparisons are made between the atrocities of the Holocaust and those of slavery. Regardless of where you fall on the continuum of the right and the wrong of those comparisons, there is one undeniable factor: There is power in these firsthand stories shared visually by Holocaust survivors, not their descendants, or researchers, or ancillary observers, but by them. We feel their pain and understand the inhumanity of their captors. Their eyes and their body language reveal so much. We get it, quickly and viscerally, quite different from reading the written word on a sterile page.

For African Americans, we have no living survivors of slavery. The written word is all we have. The closest we come to that first-person level of expression about slavery is in a book and the companion audiotapes called Remembering Slavery: African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation. I have encouraged many, especially my white colleagues working for racial equity, to read this book. One, Margaret O’Bryon, former CEO of the Consumer Health Foundation (recently renamed If, a Foundation for Radical Possibility), did and took an extra step to bring herself closer to their actual voices. Below, she shares her thoughts on the importance of Remembering Slavery.

 

Remembering Slavery

African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences of Slavery and Emancipation

Edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller

1996, The New Press

Discussed by Margaret O’Bryon

When Tamara asked me to reflect on Remembering Slavery, I didn’t realize how hard it would be to put my experience with the book into words. For those unfamiliar with the book, it grew out of the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), a program of the New Deal. At the heart of the project were 2,300 interviews undertaken between 1936 and 1938 aimed at capturing the lived experience of slavery, remembered and recounted by women and men born into slavery. The people interviewed were in their 80s, 90s, and some over 100 years old. Tens of thousands of pages of interviews and hundreds of photographs were produced through the slave narrative project. The full collection, as well as narrative about the interview process, is housed at the Library of Congress.

I began by reading the first-person accounts of former slaves and studying the photographs that accompanied them. I ended my experience spending hours listening to the voices of former slaves interviewed for this project. It was their voices recounting their personal experiences that I have carried with me — Fountain Hughes (who was 101 years old when he was interviewed), Laura Smalley, and Harriett Smith, just to name a few. Through the troves of interviews and photographs, living descendants — many of whom believed they had lost their relatives to history — discovered grandparents, great grandparents, and great great grandparents.

The experiences shared through the stories were gruesome, brutal, coercive, and dehumanizing in unimaginable ways. The physical, mental, and emotional scars were indelible. And yet, in the midst of many recollections came descriptive moments of kinship and community.

Remembering Slavery is a testament to the undeniable power of voice, visual images, and storytelling. What I heard was the raw, harsh reality of the personal experience of slavery. What I experienced at a deep emotional level became the reality that my humanity was all tied up in these stories.

It is a grave injustice to all that the stories gathered during the slave narrative project and the information they impart about the reality of slavery at a deeply personal and human level are not taught and shared as large and critical pieces of American history. Had that been the case in my own life, I wonder how the insights gained from this knowledge would have affected my studies, my work and my relationships.

Slavery profoundly shaped our country, the American experience, and continues to do so. I know this to be true through the stories of those who survived it and of those for whom the brutal legacy of slavery continues to shape their lives, their American experience.

 

“History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

James Baldwin, ‘Black English: A Dishonest Argument’

 

Margaret has fully committed to understanding the many dimensions of race and racism in America, recognizing that a complete understanding must start with slavery. She doesn’t cringe from ‘the bad and the ugly’ (there’s no ‘good’).

Protests have emerged across the country about teaching history comprehensively, starting with the full story of slavery. Many are voicing their desire to keep history the way it has always been taught and others remain disturbingly silent. To address the racial disparities in our country, we must start with slavery and its continuing ramifications on America. We must use our voices whenever these topics emerge — speak up at public hearings, march for historical accuracy — and  use our positions/our platforms to elevate the need for and value of understanding the unvarnished truth.

It seems fitting to close with this quote from the Talmud:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.

Do justly, now.

Love mercy, now.

Walk humbly, now.

You are not obligated to complete the work,

But neither are you free to abandon it.