Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What's the Difference? Overcoming the legacy of racism

Driving my car slowly out of the U.S. Army National Guard base, I immediately spotted a group of young men in white t-shirts, long pants and black boots walking my way.

I clenched and took a closer look at these darker-skinned-than-me young guys bobbing along in a throng.

Then they spotted me and suddenly I heard my name ring out, “Randy!”

What? Oh my god. These were my guys, the ones I had just spent the greater part of a day with in my role as leadership and communication trainer for the statewide training center of the California Conservation Corps. I cared about them. They were not a gang, they were not inmates. They were youth taking extraordinary steps to make their lives better and make a positive difference in the world. And they’d taken off their uniform shirts to relax between training sessions in the sunshine and fresh air.
I was absolutely stunned I had mistaken them for a threat.  Gut punched with the realization—again—at my deep conditioning and fear of “the other,” despite serious efforts over the years to look at that and see how it had needlessly and harmfully separated me from other human beings.

Black history is celebrated this month in the US, as is Valentine’s Day. Other countries honor people of different heritages in their own ways.  Perhaps the celebration of these two things, one of a people’s struggle to overcome tremendous obstacles and their huge contribution to building the society we live in today and the focus on love this month are no mistake.

In addition to finally recognizing and honoring many more of the heroes in that struggle—I recently viewed the movie 12 Years a Slave and was amazed at both the atrocities and also the power of the human spirit to persevere— perhaps we can look more personally at today’s struggle to overcome and transform the barriers that have hurt and divided us from one another.

While reading a new book by National Public Radio’s Michelle Norris, The Grace of Silence, her most sincere effort to better understand the father who took care of her and his role and treatment during the entry of black soldiers into World War II service—a lesser known piece of the civil rights movement—I also learned about a project she had been involved with that encouraged people to talk about race.

In gearing up for her book tour she had printed 200 postcards asking people to express their thoughts on race in six words.
She found the results to be both “surprising and enlightening.”
The first cards she got were from friends and acquaintances. But after awhile ‘race cards’ came in from strangers, even people from other continents who’d never heard her speak. And the race cards keep coming. She and an assistant catalogued more than 12,000 submissions on http://www.theracecardproject.com. People now send them via Facebook and Twitter or type them directly into the website.
A few of the submissions include:
“You know my race. NOT ME!”
“Chinese or American? Does it matter.”?
“I thought I knew a lot about race,” Norris said, “I realized how little I know through this project.”

I share this to highlight how much so many crave to express what may have been locked up inside a long time, perhaps a lifetime. There is an ongoing need for dialogue, safe and respectful, that can help tear down the walls we may not have created in the first place but largely subconsciously help hold in place.

Dialogue seems to be a starting place and Norris had already begun that work with an earlier project that got people together in person across differences to start the conversations.

Coming closer to home, who are your friends? Do you tend to surround yourself with people that look, think and share the same cultural history as you?

I honestly find that inertia takes me in that direction unless I purposely live in other cultures or go be with people not likely to show up--why would they?-- at events and places that are more homogenized with people that look and generally experience life as I do.  That could mean getting out of one’s comfort zone. When I have, the rewards have been great. I feel more of my own humanity when I learn about the history, experience and cultural delights of someone different than me. And that is where the ogre of negative stereotype can begin to break down and dissolve-- in the midst of budding friendship.
One of the more prominent psychologists of the mid-20th century, Gordon Allport, wrote a book entitled, The Psychology of Prejudice which became one of the books in a college class I taught by the same name. Many of my end-of-the-century students balked at his dated language while I found it to be some of the deepest thinking and practical knowledge about how to overcome the barriers of racism and fear of “the other.”

Allport lists one of the critical factors for moving beyond the artificially created boundaries placed between and implanted in individuals of the same species, as working together for a common cause. When a group of diverse individuals comes together to rise to adversity or meet a significant challenge, perceptions of difference begin to fade. That’s what can and did happen in my beloved and diverse corps of youth working to preserve the environment we all depend on. What becomes important is how “we are all in this together.”

And of course, now we ALL are. With ever increasing climate instability, loss of species and ecological complexity and its negative effects on people’s lives and livelihoods, we certainly have a common cause that can potentially help people rise to a new level of acceptance and tolerance at minimum, real solidarity, harmony, and yes, love at best. We don’t need to be attacked by aliens from outer space to bring us together now. We’ve challenge and opportunity enough.

So, dialogue, friendship and common cause turn out to be necessary ingredients to moving away from old divisions and hostility in the direction of completely owning everyone’s history of survival and triumph as part of our own. And love, don’t forget the Love.

Happy Valentine’s Day!