Three Steps to Racial Healing: Reveal | REFLECT | Recalibrate

“Truth is revealed by removing things that stand in its light, an art not unlike sculpture, in which the artist creates not by building, but by hacking away.”

Alan Watts, British philosopher

IMG_3382Step Two:  Reflect

Being by the water is peaceful for me. That is the place where I do my most serious thinking. Over the last few years, I have thought a lot about race and racism in America. Have you?

When you sit back and  reflect, you sometimes realize how much you take at face value. A quick example: One often hears statistics about the disproportionate number of African-Americans in prison in the US. In 2017: 33% of those imprisoned were black, yet blacks represented only 12% of the adult American population. Why the overrepresentation?

  • Do you think black people are more criminal than whites?
  • Do you sympathetically/empathetically/paternalistically believe African-Americans have had a hard life in America and therefore commit more crimes to survive?

OR

  • Do you think there may be something systemic that contributes to this disparity?

If the third option has never occurred to you, add Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” and cartoonist Mark Fiore’s Racist EZ Cash to your viewing list along with adding Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness to your reading list. My point, simply, is that race and racism in America require significant learning (sometimes un-learning) and then reflection if we are trying to get to racial healing.

  • Is it possible that race, and disparate treatment (based on race), may contribute to some disproportionate outcomes we have in America?
  • Is it possible that some of your “truths” were born of prejudice, misinformation or just plain old ignorance? You don’t know what you don’t know, right?

While we can all sit quietly and consider what we’ve read or viewed—and we should do that—I believe there are other ways to jump start the reflection process. Here are two resources that were developed based on deep reflection.

  • Waking Up White by Debby Irving. Irving is a white author who describes her growing understanding of what it means to be white in America, something that she had thought nothing about until well into her adulthood. Her “aha” moments started with understanding who benefited, and who didn’t, from what many feel created America’s middle class, the GI Bill.
  • White Privilege (2018) is a video in the “Putting Racism on the Table” learning series produced by the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers. This segment features noted author, Robin DiAngelo. DiAngelo, who is white, is credited with the term, “white fragility.” In an easy-to-digest way, DiAngelo reveals that white privilege is not about income (the common misconception), but is about power, acceptance, and position in society that is “earned” solely by skin color.

I have been told by many white friends and colleagues that they rarely think about race — theirs or anyone else’s. That revelation had a powerful impact on me, someone who thinks about race every day. So, let’s stop here. The reflection can begin now: When did you know you had a race and what did it mean to you? Your answers might surprise you and be instructive to someone from another race.

Yes, I believe you need a partner for your reflection. No one can walk in another’s shoes. You need a guide, a translator, someone to help you see the world through a lens you don’t have. I urge you to find a thought partner with whom you can be truthful. Have serious conversations about the racial reality of America—the small things and big—and reflect on what you think and why you feel that way; share your thoughts fully and honestly. These conversations, the serious reflection, will bring you to an understanding you cannot reach alone.

margaret mead quoteNow, while I think personal reflection and conversations with a trusted colleague/friend will broaden your understanding and deepen your interpersonal relationships, the critical question remains: How can this country move to societal-level racial healing? Well, first, the obvious: societal change doesn’t happen without the leadership of a person. That person sharing his/her understanding/passion will catalyze a small group whose energy then moves to a larger group, rippling out. The fostering of ideas and understanding among average, everyday people, like you and me, leads to a groundswell of interest and understanding that can lead to change. But we also need the leadership of people at the top, people in power, who want change to occur. In South Africa, for example, F. W. de Klerk, the last president before the end of apartheid, a white man, and Nelson Mandela, the first president after apartheid, a black man, came together to support a process to foster racial healing in their country. This process was intended to recognize the racial wounds that had divided their nation, and then lead to healing and restorative justice. Fully successful? Perhaps not, but a vital collective step for their country was taken. Through a means of revelation and reflection, we can create a growing group of people who understand what has happened in America and why. We don’t have the leadership that South Africa had, at least not yet, but we can, and must, develop a focus on change and be ready when the needed leadership emerges.  Until then, we can still take steps toward racial justice and healing.

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Check back in about a week or so to read Step Three: Recalibrate. In the meantime, please share your thoughts and reflections on race and racism in the comments section.

Three Steps to Racial Healing: REVEAL| Reflect | Recalibrate

“There is no shame in not knowing; the shame lies in not finding out.”

— Russian proverb

 

In last month’s Daughters of the Dream blog, I shared my thoughts on America’s lack of readiness for racial healing. It’s not that I don’t want us to heal. I do. But I believe there are a series of stages for that healing to occur. As I said then, “Racial healing is a process, not an event.” I offer my process suggestions in three—hopefully, easily digestible—steps shared this month. Look for the posts on my blog about every 10 days. Here’s the first:

Step One: Reveal

Most of us have only seen America from the vantage point of white America (either because you are white or because our country’s educational and media experiences are dominated by the white perspective). Our knowledge of race and racial injustice is cursory.

This was revealed powerfully in an episode of the TV game show, Jeopardy when all of the categories, but one, in the double jeopardy second round had been entirely answered. Remaining on the board—untouched—was African-American History. This was a special episode of the show; the contestants were all college students. Even America’s best and brightest were not ready for this category because little in their education had adequately prepared them. And—this is important—the episode wasn’t from the 1960’s, the early days of the show. This happened in 2014.

Revealing our lack of knowledge and correcting that deficiency is the first step toward healing.

There must be a comprehensive and deep understanding of where we are and how we got here if we are to heal. IMG_4828If you are ready for a deeper understanding, I commend to you the following three books and a recent mini-series to start your learning journey:

  • Stamped from the Beginning by Dr. Ibram Kendi. Kendi is a Professor of History and International Relations at American University and the Founding Director of the University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center. The subtitle of his book is “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” Dr. Kendi comprehensively reveals the historical origins of racist beliefs in a way that most of us have never heard. Be prepared, he is thorough!
  • The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute. The subtitle of his book is “A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” When one thinks about how much is attached to where we live (see my April 2019 blog, Home) along with Rothstein’s revelations on the intentionality of the federal government in ensuring disparate living areas, we can better understand different life outcomes, by race.
  • Remembering Slavery edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven Miller. This book, subtitled “African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences with Slavery and Emancipation” presents stories told by formerly enslaved people during the 1920s and 1930s to HBCU students from Fisk University, Southern University and Kentucky State University and to researchers from the Federal Writers’ Project during the New Deal. Like Jewish people who proclaim “Never forget/never again” to implore society to never forget the atrocities that happened to their people, this book reveals slavery, through first-person remembrances, a perspective that few know today, a truth that we should never forget.
  • When They See Us is a 2019 Netflix mini-series co-written and directed by Ava DuVernay. It captures the experience of five young African-American men falsely accused of rape, their treatment when the crime occurred in 1989, how the media portrayed them, how the public reacted, their imprisonment, and their exoneration years later when the real rapist confessed. This is an age-old story grounded in the perceived purity of white women, the bestiality of black men, and their lust for white women, that unfolds within a biased and structurally racist criminal justice system.

When you read or view these resources, you may notice that they are hard to watch or to comprehend fully at first. Take time. Read and re-read. Make yourself watch the difficult parts of the mini-series. Is it hard for you to believe that someone would confess to a crime they didn’t commit? Is it hard for you to believe that a private citizen responded by spending $85,000 for an ad in a major New York City newspaper calling for the death penalty? What leads both to take the actions they did? Can you see the layering of prejudicial messages that Kendi traces over centuries that can culminate in the Central Park Five or in the segregationist policies that Rothstein unveils? Do you believe the stories that the formerly enslaved people tell or do you think they are misrepresenting or exaggerating that experience? I hope you will take the time to get in touch with your thoughts and your feelings and think about what contributes to them.

The learning, however, must go beyond a personal level if there is to be real healing for our country. A short reading and viewing list is entirely inadequate to address 400 years of the African-American experience. We must include the study of our racial history in the core curriculum of every elementary, middle, and high school in America. Research has shown that preconceptions and biases based on race emerge at very early ages. We must address those consciously, with structured, well-developed curricula, in school. Then, we must embed a more in-depth study of structural racism and implicit bias into the curriculum of colleges and universities at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. We must graduate leaders who can see where we are as a country and who know how we got here so they can lead us to a place of racial equity.

The depth, breadth and impact of racial inequity must be revealed if we are to heal as a society.

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Check back on August 14th (or subscribe so the blogs come directly to your inbox) to learn about what I see as step two: Reflect. But, in the meantime, please add your reading and viewing recommendations in the comments section of this post. What has opened your eyes to a racial reality that was unseen?

 

Racial Healing

racial healing image
This illustration by Jennifer Luxton was created for and originally posted by Yes! Magazine and is shared with permission.

America isn’t ready for it.

Yet!

Over the last couple of years, I have heard a lot of talk about racial healing. I have the same reaction every time: How can we heal without treating the wound, and how can that be done effectively without understanding it?

I want America to recognize the depth of the racial wound and to acknowledge how that wound, that injury, that disease… spread and infected society.

Recently when talking with a black friend, she reminded me that my perspective is that of a black person. In her view, white people want this conversation to go away. When she hears ‘racial healing,’ she thinks it is code for ‘Black people need to get over it.’ Hmmm. Get over it.

I am just beginning to understand IT; the extent and impact of racial inequity and injustice were hard for even me to see. I too was duped. I understood prejudice and discrimination, but I thought those who were prejudiced were ignorant people or those whose views were ill-informed because they hadn’t gotten to know black people. And then, ignorantly, for decades, I thought discrimination had ended with the passage of critical pieces of civil rights legislation. I believed this country was a meritocracy. I believed that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you would ‘win’ by American standards. I was so very wrong. I didn’t understand the facts or the subtleties, the biases that shaped how the world was presented to me.

It wasn’t until recently that I began to fully appreciate the white lens through which many stories and ‘facts’ are told. Even when the recounting is not directly by a white person, the story is influenced by the majority culture/lore/norms. With each visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, or when reading posts on the blog, The Root, for example, I get a deeper appreciation for how much I never learned of the history, the accomplishments, the positive impact of black people on America. And it still isn’t being told in the dominant media.

It took the injustice of Trayvon Martin’s murder, coupled with the lack of consequences for his murderer to shock me out of my stupor. And it took listening to countless podcasts like ‘Uncivil,’ absorbing the wisdom and in-depth racial analyses from leaders and thinkers like john a. powell (capitalization is his preference), Robin DiAngelo, Richard Rothstein, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram Kendi for me to learn the insidiousness, intentionality, and impact of structural racism; the structures in place for decades causing black people to be disadvantaged as white people moved farther and farther ahead. My learning until 2012 had been casual, family-influenced, experiential. After the horror of Trayvon, my eyes opened to an obscured reality. I started on a conscious learning journey to understand the depth, breadth, and impact of structural racism on society and on me.

There have been decades of Band-Aids placed haphazardly with no real sense of where the wound was or the fact that the injury may present as a flesh wound — a small cut, quickly addressed, but it isn’t. IT is cancer, invasive, and all-consuming. Those Band-Aids were insufficient unless their intent was not to heal but to both mask the problem and the fact that no one was trying to cure it.

That’s how I see the rush to racial healing. Another Band-Aid.

Even though wounds can be ugly and painful to look at, they must be revealed and their cause understood. That’s my issue. I don’t think the racial wound has been fully revealed and understood. Has it been diagnosed by people with the insights, knowledge, and sensitivity to determine the problem fully, i.e., has the cadre of diagnosticians gone through the educational rigor to understand the symptoms, how the problem operates and how to treat it? Who is studying how to prevent it from returning? Who is focused beyond treatment to eradication?

Personally, I want to heal. I want America to heal. I just know that if it has taken me, a black, educated person directly affected by structural racism and implicit bias, some time to see and begin to understand it, how long will it take those who benefit from the way the country is?

America doesn’t seem ready – as a country — even to admit that racism exists, much less to learn how it occurred, and how it continues. And there is no quick, easy fix. It will take years of work. Racial healing is a process, not an event. We must unspin the web that created and now perpetuates racism. Then, systematically, we must replace it with a new societal reality. Only then do I think we can heal.

“It takes a deep commitment to change and an even deeper commitment to grow.”

– Ralph Ellison

Note: Look to the August Daughters of the Dream blog for my thoughts on how I think the racial healing process might begin. Continue reading “Racial Healing”

See Me/Know Me

“If you can’t see past my name, you can’t see me.”

― DaShanne Stokes, noted author, thought leader and sociologist

 

June is often the month for graduations. A hallmark of these events is the reading of the graduates’ names. A friend, who this year has that responsibility, has been practicing pronouncing names. At her school, each graduate records his/her name so those charged with announcing them can hear the correct pronunciation. Good.

Many of us have names that may be outside of what someone perceives as ordinary, i.e., white, Eurocentric, names. Our names may be common in our country of origin or cultural homeland or names created by parents wanting to celebrate a child’s specialness or names that are just… different.

My name is one of them: Tamara. It doesn’t look all that hard, but the options for how to name tagsay it may be more than you think. TA-Mar-a is correct, not TA-mare-a or Tam-A-Ra or TA-Mere-A. My name is TA-mar-a. From birth through high school, my name was almost always pronounced correctly, maybe with just a one-time correction. That was true even though it wasn’t commonplace. I didn’t meet another person with the same name (or spelling) until I was an adult.

So, why did I become Tammy in college?

Well, I didn’t at first. When fellow students mispronounced my name or tried to give me a nickname, I would correct them. Eventually, however, I thought their fear of mispronouncing my name prevented them from saying hello or engaging with me in any meaningful way; so, for four years, I responded to ‘Tammy.’ Only in hindsight did I recognize that the black students at my primarily white institution had no problem pronouncing my name. In fact, one of my black college classmates laughed out loud when I recently mentioned being called ‘Tammy.’

“Tammy,” he howled. “Where did that come from? You’re definitely not a Tammy.”

“Definitely not a Tammy,” well what did that mean? I guess more often than not, “Tammy” is perceived of as a white girl’s name. So, were the white students being intentionally disrespectful by giving me that nickname? I don’t think so. I think they were trying to be friendly. Upon reflection, however, I wonder if, consciously or unconsciously, they were trying to make me more like them.

If you watch the ABC network show, Blackish, you may recall the episode when the African-American parents struggled over the name DeVonte for their new son. The father wanted this name. The mother said it was too ‘unconventional,’ i.e., too black-sounding. The show proceeded to highlight what research shows: DeVonte will be less likely to get a call back on a job interview than say Chris or Jack or Nick.

Just as Tammy may be a racialized name, DeVonte probably is as well, but why does research show that ‘DeVonte,’ an African-American sounding name, produces thoughts of an entire, full-blown, imagined life story—usually negative—based solely on the name? Does ‘Nick’ bring forth a story on its own? What about ‘Tammy?’

So what is a name?  It’s a label, of sorts, that often provides a shorthand of information.  Almost immediately you believe that Reverend Nick Bright will know a lot about religion. Dr. Nick Bright might be a PhD well steeped in a particular subject matter or an MD skilled in medical diagnosis and treatment. Those titles reveal something about their education/their knowledge, but nothing about them as people. Another layer of assumptions is probably added if the name changes to Reverend/Dr. Jamal Bright. Again, we know something based on the title—and maybe based on his first name—but our ‘knowledge’ doesn’t get close to the critical level of character.

It’s positive that the fictional, upper-middle class, black, Johnson family in that TV show named their infant son DeVonte, knowing he would be assumed to be black and celebrating that. It’s positive that academic institutions are taking the time to learn how to pronounce ‘unconventional’ names as graduates walk across the stage. At the same time, the notion of conventional names is changing. While ‘Barack’ hasn’t made it – yet — to the  U.S. Social Security Administration’s list of the top 1000 American names, i.e, the so-called conventional ones, the name is rising in usage and no one today, except maybe very, very old friends, would ever think of calling Barack Obama by the nickname he once accepted, Barry. And, I can’t imagine a moment now when I would accept being called Tammy.

It seems that slowly, but increasingly, we do not expect names to conform to a dated sense of convention. We’re not there yet, but we do see growing acceptance and celebration of diversity, including in names.  So, today, I ask that you listen carefully when being introduced to someone, respect the person’s name, and try to pronounce that name correctly. And be mindful of any stereotypes that may race through your head based on that name. Clear your mind to fully meet the person.