Lessons From Season Two
It's that time again. Time to reflect about what we've learned and where we go from here. I have so far to go...but, thankfully this is a journey and I'm on the path forward. Thank you again for allowing me to share my journey with you.
This would be so much more fun in a community setting if we could each share our takeaways with each other and support one another in our growing and learning process. I gain so much from hearing your thoughts and experiences. Thank you to each one of you who have shared with me throughout the season. And finally, as much as I look forward to sharing what I've learned this season with you, I'm equally nervous. This is very personal. It's as if you found the key to my diary and are able to read my secret thoughts. I feel very vulnerable here. Please know that we don't have to agree, this is just where I am and what I've learned, what I'm confessing I didn't know, what I feel I need to do to improve. I have so far to go...but, thankfully this is a journey and I'm on the path forward. Thank you again for allowing me to share my journey with you.
So, what have I learned this season? More than I have words to adequately express. The main idea: we are all connected, what affects one of us, affects all of us. We are better, stronger, and more successful together. We need each other. I echo Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel's observation that, "if we want to achieve anything good, we cannot do it alone." Some concepts are still sitting on my heart, too raw to be put into words. Others have been ruminating these past few months and I have come to own these ideas as my own and am finally able to verbalize them. This is what I've learned so far from each and every guest I had the honor of conversing with.
There are several overarching themes I gleaned from this season and they are: forgiveness, kindness, listening, dialogue, and giving the benefit-of-the-doubt. As Janice Bonsu from episode 10 so succinctly summed it up for us: "There is no small act of racism or discrimination." Every act, no matter how miniscule it seems, cuts to the heart. Some of the analogies used to describe racism were: the waters we swim in, a back-pack we carry, code switching, and an invisible wall. These helped me gain a better visual picture. There were also some extremely thought provoking metaphors several guests referenced, from Precious' butterfly effect, Crystal's dartboard friends, Chalmer's broken glasses, and Harold's government father. These brought broader dimensions of awareness and understanding to the sometimes narrow definitions of racism.
The first overarching concept would be to appreciate our commonality and celebrate our diversity. And to acknowledge that we can hold both ideals at the same time. This is how we build unity. This is how we show respect. Tribalism happens when we find our identity from only the things we have in common. Relativism occurs when we say everything holds the same weight and we gloss over our unique and distinguishing differences. There is a third way, a nondual way….holding the two in tension. And yes, it is tension because it is a daily choice. We are human and we feel better when we fit neatly into a group. But life is messy. We encounter and interact with people not like us on a daily basis. When that happens, we have a choice to make...we can recoil with disgust at the difference or we can open our circle to include the one not like us without giving up our own unique identity. That is the meaning behind...there is no them, just us.
My second observation is that there is so much fear. Sadly, many African Americans live in fear of being pulled over by the police and how the law can be manipulated against them. This fear is borne of experience and reality and is not to be discounted. Rather we need to listen and learn. How can we make it better? Just bringing up the topic of police reform sets off nasty tempers and commentary on social media. It doesn't have to be polarizing. We can't fix anything if we can't dialogue about it and come to some shared understanding. I agree with Myriama's question, "Why can't the lives of a police officer matter and my life matter?" Just because something might not be my reality does not mean I need to discredit someone else's lived experience.
The sad and unfortunate truth is that in this country Black Americans live a different reality than White Americans do. We cannot judge their responses, fears, or reactions to police encounters the same way we judge a white American's. It is extremely evident given the disproportionate amount of Black Lives unjustly taken by American Police is a massive problem in our country. We are at a boiling point. We MUST listen to the Black experience so we can overhaul this system and have peace keepers working for the good, safety, and protection of ALL its citizens. It can be done, but it is going to take a deep dive into addressing the root of the problem, and that seems to be the biggest issue. Too often law enforcement feels self-justified in their actions and don't want to take a critical look at what can be done differently and/or better. This becomes highly evident to anyone who had the chance to read Officer Coleman's book about his experience in the police academy. African American citizens are suffering under the heavy hand of police brutality, but especially Black Americans and poor Americans. We can do better. We can be better. The more people that stand up against police brutality of any kind towards all people, the more it will force local, state, and federal governments as well as police forces to do the hard, uncomfortable work of self-evaluation, owning responsibility for their actions, and making amends.
Another type of fear is that of the "other", the one not like me. The type of fear of someone like J. Kevin Powell from episode 14. Remember how he said that he knew people feared black men in a hoodie and that made him afraid to wear a hoodie until his 40s because he knew white people would fear him? Jonathan Saks in his book, The Dignity of Difference says: "Anxiety creates fear, fear leads to anger, anger breeds violence, and violence becomes a deadly reality. The greatest single antidote to violence is conversation, speaking our fears, listening to the fears of others, and in sharing of vulnerabilities, discovering a genesis of hope." Take some time and sit with that idea for a while to see if it rings true in your life.
Just as white people find it absurd to think that we all experience the world the same way just because we share the same skin color, so do Black people. As Chalmer in episode 15 said so perfectly, "One person doesn't represent the entire race." This was a major theme repeated over and over again this season. Almost every guest, in one way or another said this phrase, "I'm not speaking for all black people here...this is just my experience." They are acutely aware because they've been put in that position too many times before. Are there overarching generalities of both groups of people that are probably true? Yes, to some extent. But, sadly, because of ignorance, self-interest, or hate those are often quickly turned into stereotypes and then the norm. We have to fight the urge to lump large groups of people into stereotypical categories. Sadly, this is all too common. Here are some examples: Chinese people are all good at math, Indian people are all good at computer programming, Mexicans are best at manual labor, Black people make the best athletes, White people are all college educated. Everyone who lives in the country is a redneck. Could these labels be true some of the time? Sure. But to assume any of these are always true, that is a racist idea. It is wrong to attribute one characteristic to an entire race, ethnicity, or geographic location. And that is precisely what I learned this season. Yes, all my guests were Black Americans. Yes, all my guests are infinitely more affected by racism than a white person is. But that is where the similarities end. You heard the stories. Each guest had a unique life experience and was happy to share it when asked. How much more accepting would we be of the "other" if we asked them about their story before making any generalizations or judgements about their life?
From Officer Coleman in episode 9 I learned that as much as I long to include, relate to, and empathize with my guests, sometimes I just can't. And that's okay. Because I'll never know what it feels like to be Black. I can relate when we talk about long lines at the voting booth. But I can't relate when those long lines are infinitely longer in certain districts because of state wide efforts of voter suppression of the Black vote. We can discuss our similarities, but we must listen to and respect the differences. Sometimes the most I can give is my sympathy (think: "I'm sorry you have to go through that. That must suck!"). Other times, the most I can offer is the consolation of: "I see you. I hear you. I'm listening." Sometimes by trying to relate, we minimize other people's pain, exclusion, and experiences. This is something I've recognized I need to be more sensitive to.
In episode 15, Chalmer Williams declared that "It's not so much being sensitive and being aware, that's just the foundation but really opening up the door of privilege, access, and resources." If you are serious about racial equality and social justice for People of Color, it's not enough to be aware and empathetic. It's a great start. It's the necessary first step. But there's more. Let that sink in. It's an admonition we need to hear as allies. I think we wake up to what's been happening for the past 400 years and say, "I see it now, ok, I'm woke. I'm sympathetic to the cause. I'm with you." But what then? The next step is action. If we're all welcome at the table, then we all need to share in the resources of that table. We need to acknowledge the privilege we have that we don't even realize and find ways to share it to elevate the cause of those who haven't been born into it. I needed to hear these words. Staying outside of my comfort zone is where the growth happens...at least in my experience.
Speaking of comfort zone, for those of you who don't know me, I am completely out of my comfort zone doing this podcast. You may have heard me confess a time or two during different interviews this season that I'm not very good at small talk. The hard part isn't the conversation - these deep, heart-felt talks are what I live for. What's uncomfortable and hard is introducing myself to complete strangers and requesting an interview, promoting and marketing my podcast, and just putting myself out there in general. I get embarrassed very easily, I don't have a broad enough vocabulary, I lose my train of thought way too easily. I have zero experience in journalism, interviewing, podcasting, or marketing. Who am I to think I could do this? That thought plagues me every single interview. Imposter syndrome. All the things I lack, am scared about, don't know, am not good at, or feel insecure about cannot hold me back from this greatest of needs. What if I offend someone with a question? I probably will, but that is the cost of learning. What if I don't know how to respond? That will happen too, but at least I'm listening. What if I stick my foot in my mouth? This has happened too many times to count and people have been incredibly gracious with me even though I'm an idiot sometimes.
Too many Black voices have been silenced, ignored, degraded, mocked, and harassed for far too long. This saddens me, angers me, embarrasses me, and humbles me. Because at one time I ignored these voices begging to be heard, yearning for equality, and for better opportunities. I'm embarrassed because it is mostly people with skin color like mine that have actively worked for hundreds of years to suppress these articulate and necessary Black voices, to keep them in a place of powerlessness. I'm sad because too many people have died, too many lives ruined, too many opportunities lost, too many slurs brandished, too many families torn apart in an effort to degrade one human being over another simply because of their skin color. It is unacceptable. I can't not speak up. I feel compelled to offer my small, pathetic contribution to the chorus of voices echoing over the past centuries to show solidarity. If being "uncomfortable" is the price I must pay….so be it. This isn't about me. I am a conduit, a friend, an ally. Whatever power, privilege, or opportunities I possess, I desire to use them to benefit my Black brothers and sisters; to promote their cause, to advance their equality, and to put a stop to this ridiculous idea that they are inferior in any way, shape, or form. You heard all the stories this season. The array of gifts these 19 people offer society by just being who they are have humbled me to my core.
Janice Bonsu from episode 10 hit the nail on the head when she said, "We're not criticizing you, we're criticizing the situation and the system and you can be an active agent to fixing it." This! This is what it is all about! Bringing these black voices to white communities in a non-threatening manner so that people will listen and transformation will abound. Please don't be fooled, although we need to and must listen to Black voices, your solitary white voice for equality and for inclusion in the sea of white voices shouting the opposite will be heard. It might not be popular. It might only be to one other person. But it's a start. We have to start somewhere - simple conversation with a friend. We have to find non-threatening ways to bring people into the conversation. Dr. Meredith in episode 13 gave us a beautiful way to word those types of actions….she called them: generous assumptions. Since we don't know where people are at in life, let's give them generous assumptions.
Throughout this season, I've been continuing to study and learn more about what makes people have such negative assumptions about one another. One of the answers I kept bumping into was that of our biases. Author Brian McLaren succinctly explains our biases in his writings and podcast called "Learning How To See." I've listed 13 types of biases as well as their descriptions as described by Brian in the show notes if you are interested in continuing to learn more. None of us are immune to bias. But we can be made aware of them and recognize when we are operating under a certain type of bias. It takes consciousness, work, and humility to see beyond our biases. Believe it or not, learning about our biases has helped me show more compassion towards those who don't see things the same way as I do. We are blind to our own biases because we think they are the "normal" way of seeing. Of course I wish all people would be inclusive, understanding, and compassionate towards others. But the truth is, the lens through which we see often clouds our judgement, reason, and ability to see. If your bias has always been confirmed because that is the community you are surrounded with, it's understandable that it will take a shake up to wake up. Or sadly, sometimes the shake up causes some to double down in their entrenched belief system instead of question it. Becoming aware of our biases often starts shaking our foundations and that's a scary place to be. This seems to be something that most of my interviewees this season instinctively understood. I was impressed with the level of compassion from those who were on the receiving end of racist actions. Who am I to withhold the same grace? All I'm saying is, in your zeal or passion for racial justice, remember that your patience, generous assumptions, and forgiveness go a long way. As Malcom X once said, "Never get mad at someone for not thinking the way that you do because at one point in time you didn’t think that way either."
I have found stories to be genius ways of learning new concepts as well as teaching tools. The reason they work so well is because they are non-threatening ways of communicating ideas. Each person listens to the story from the vantage point of which stage of life they are currently in on their journey in life. When I listen to a story, whether it's fiction, non-fiction, biographical, or mythological, I glean what I need to know for where I am at exactly that moment in time. If I go back several years later and re-read the same book, listen to the same podcast, watch the same show, hear the same speaker, I have a completely different understanding and take away. Isn't that just wonderful!?! It shows how our consciousness is ever evolving throughout our lives. This is why I appreciate each and every guest who has shared their story with us. Not only have they opened up their lives and shown deep vulnerability. They have given us a snapshot in time of where they are in their life's journey. I imagine if I go back and interview some of my guests again in 10 years, we'll see how they have incorporated more of what they've learned into their stories because their experience is so different after 10 years. This is why I close with the tag-line, "I'll see you down the road." We are all on different points on the path in this journey called life. It is not a race. It is an adventure. You might have already reached some amazing places in your journey that I haven't made it to yet. I'm excited to hear where you've been and what you've learned and what I have to look forward to. I might have recently journeyed through a valley that you haven't ventured through yet. After making it back up the mountain path, I can look back and speak about my experience in the valley and maybe it will encourage you and help you when your path leads through the valley. This is why we share stories with one another, as a way to give encouragement, hope, perspective, and warning. Life is not a competition. We are all just on different random points of the same continuum. Perhaps the path is even circular. Who knows? But the beauty and purpose comes in sharing it with one another.
I'd like to share an incredibly impactful story from Isabel Wilderson's book, Caste. I had barely finished the introduction and she'd already brought me to my knees. In the intro Ms. Wilkerson talks about a famous photo from 1930s Germany in which a crowd is gathered and everyone has their arms raised in the Heil Hitler salute that was fashionable of the day. All except one man. He was the lone resistor standing with his arms folded across his chest. Isabel's re-telling of the story is infinitely better. But I mention it here because of the eloquent words she writes after describing the photo and story behind it. She says, "We would like to believe that we would have taken the more difficult path of standing up against injustice in defense of the outcaste. But unless people are willing to transcend their fears, endure discomfort and derision, suffer the scorn of loved ones and neighbors and co-workers and friends, fall into disfavor of perhaps everyone they know, face exclusion and even banishment, it would be humanly impossible to be that man." What is the price you're willing to pay? This is our time. This is our opportunity to be on the right side of history. Are you willing to align with the "outcasts" to do it? I must confess from experience, you will get discouraged. You will be alienated. You will think your small contribution isn't helping the larger cause. You will want to quit. But people of color get up day after day and keep going, despite the odds, the frustration, the despair. Who am I not to do the same? We are better together. All these small efforts together make one, gigantic bond that moves with the force of hope, unity, and love.
If you are Black or any person of color listening to this podcast, I hope you feel seen, heard, and understood. If you are White and listening to this podcast, I hope you sense an awareness you hadn't felt before. I hope you can sympathize with the unique struggle racial bias plays in Black lives and it's ever present impact. And I hope you're more empowered to seek out opportunities to befriend, stand-up for, and converse with people of color outside of your bubble. I recently came across a quote from the late anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson that proclaimed, "We are not what we know, but what we are willing to learn." Isn't that beautiful and encouraging?! We are all in the process of "Becoming" like Michelle Obama so eloquently expresses in her dynamic autobiography.
J. Kevin Powell, in episode 14 introduced us to a whole new way of looking at race. He suggests that culture is deeper than race. Learning about culture includes coming to a better understanding of all "isms" faced by our society. And I think he's onto something big. Racism is born out of a culture of hate. Why do certain cultures in our society rally around hatred of the other? Kevin believes it's because of the deeper culture of a group. When we dive into culture, we understand customs, institutions, beliefs, verbiage, and history unique to a group. Since we're trying to learn more about the lives of Black Americans in this episode, we need to open our eyes to see past the skin deep differences. This whole season we've been listening to unique experiences of people that share a group based on their skin color alone. And as we've learned, their experiences vary widely. In an effort to understand, learn, and listen, we must make sure not to claim understanding of the "Black Experience" since we've now heard 19 people share their life stories. It's a start. It's a great start. It has opened our eyes, given us a new awareness we previously lacked. But a 1 hour podcast is not enough to share a lifetime of experiences that a Black man or woman has lived. That takes relationship. That takes purposeful effort of getting to know someone different from you and sharing life together. This idea has popped up multiple times over both seasons of Gramercy….get to know others outside your bubble or culture. You will encounter awkwardness, discomfort, and feelings of inadequacy...but those are just temporary growing pains and mild compared to the joy that comes with new relationships and an open heart and mind to new ways of seeing the world.
A friend recently asked me if I was hopeful that we'd ever see a more compassionate world where skin color, among a host of other differences, didn't matter as much. I meditated on this question for a very long time. I don't think there is an easy answer and I don't believe I'm qualified to answer it. We should ask those most affected by racism and all types of discrimination to give us their take on it first. However, I do feel we have to remain optimistic and hopeful because otherwise, how could we keep moving forward? I believe change happens one relationship at a time. Maybe the whole world won't change, but the relationships that we touch can. Defeating slavery seemed like an impossible mountain to climb at one time too...but it happened. It happened because our collective consciousness changed over time. Children were shown a different way of thinking and living opposite of the norm and these children would grow up to become leaders who had power to affect change. I have faith and trust in the younger generation of now to be the same way. But most importantly, African Americans have led the charge and fought a terribly long, courageous battle throughout time...be it during the time of slavery, reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement, or now while reminding us all that Black Lives Matter. I look to these martyrs, heroes, everyday people, and leaders. Since they have not given up hope, neither will I. On the other hand, I'm also a realist. I do not think this will happen in my lifetime. Wounds are too deep and fresh. The fires of racism are being stoked by prominent people with large followings. Change takes purposeful choice and action. Governments and systems are slow moving with lots of red tape. I started with a quote from the renowned author of Night, Elie Weisel, and I'd also like to close with a quote by him as well. He spent his entire life questioning why people hate and working towards peace and inclusion. I have learned so much from his teachings and example. I could quote whole paragraphs of what I've gleaned from him. But I think this is the heart of it and applies perfectly to the journey we've been on in this podcast. He says, "I do not know how to end hatred, but recognizing our shared humanity is a good beginning."
I'd like to end our time together this season with a Franciscan Benediction. Whatever your religious leanings, I think these sentiments echo deep in all of our souls. It encapsulates my heart's desire with the most thoughtful, poignant words. May these words guide you in your on-going journey of inclusion, anti-racism, and love of the other:
May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.
May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.
Podcasts: On Racism, White Privilege, Black Lives, Bias
Scene On Radio with John Biewen
Books to read:
Just Mercy - Bryan Stevenson
Dignity of Difference - Jonathan Saks
The Color of Compromise - Jemar Tisby
Caste - Isabel Wilkerson
The Warmth of Other Suns - Isabel Wilderson
Fatherless Son - Rashod Coleman
Open Windows Culture - J. Kevin Powell
Willie - Ja'Quintin Means
How to be an Anti-Racisit - Ibram X Kendi
Truevine - Beth Macy
Black Boy - Richard Wright
Life Is So Good - George Dawson & Richard Glaubman
For Young Readers: (I'm not young but I read all these and LOVED them!)
Nic Stone - Dear Martin, Dear Justyce, Odd One Out, Jackpot
Christopher Paul Curtis - The Mighty Miss Malone, Bud, Not Buddy, The Watsons Go To Birmingham, Elijah of Buxton
Laurie Halse Anderson - Chains, Forge, Ashes
Amend: The Fight for America - The story of the 14th ammendment https://time.com/5939045/black-history-month-documentaries/?utm_medium=email&utm_source=sfmc&utm_campaign=newsletter+brief+default+ac&utm_content=+++20210218+++body&et_rid=31830110
PBS’s The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song
Hip Hop Uncovered on Hulu
Taken from: Brian McLaren, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself) (Self-published: 2019), e-book.
People can't see what they can’t see. Their biases get in the way, surrounding them like a high wall, trapping them in ignorance, deception, and illusion. No amount of reasoning and argument will get through to them, unless we first learn how to break down the walls of bias. . . .
Confirmation Bias: We judge new ideas based on the ease with which they fit in with and confirm the only standard we have: old ideas, old information, and trusted authorities. As a result, our framing story, belief system, or paradigm excludes whatever doesn’t fit.
Complexity Bias: Our brains prefer a simple falsehood to a complex truth.
Community Bias: It’s almost impossible to see what our community doesn’t, can’t, or won’t see.
Complementarity Bias: If you are hostile to my ideas, I’ll be hostile to yours. If you are curious and respectful toward my ideas, I’ll respond in kind.
Competency Bias: We don’t know how much (or little) we know because we don’t know how much (or little) others know. In other words, incompetent people assume that most other people are about as incompetent as they are. As a result, they underestimate their [own] incompetence, and consider themselves at least of average competence.
Consciousness Bias: Some things simply can’t be seen from where I am right now. But if I keep growing, maturing, and developing, someday I will be able to see what is now inaccessible to me.
Comfort or Complacency Bias: I prefer not to have my comfort disturbed.
Conservative/Liberal Bias: I lean toward nurturing fairness and kindness, or towards strictly enforcing purity, loyalty, liberty, and authority, as an expression of my political identity.
Confidence Bias: I am attracted to confidence, even if it is false. I often prefer the bold lie to the hesitant truth.
Catastrophe or Normalcy Bias: I remember dramatic catastrophes but don’t notice gradual decline (or improvement).
Contact Bias: When I don’t have intense and sustained personal contact with “the other,” my prejudices and false assumptions go unchallenged.
Cash Bias: It’s hard for me to see something when my way of making a living requires me not to see it.
Conspiracy Bias: Under stress or shame, our brains are attracted to stories that relieve us, exonerate us, or portray us as innocent victims of malicious conspirators.