Around a year ago my blogging shifted from intimate personal narrative to a more objective style. But I don’t think that works right now. In this climate of growing disharmony, I feel the need to revert to vulnerability and to stop thinking so much about what I write! I live my life on the basis that it is personal experiences and stories that connect us, and I believe that we need much more by way of personal connection right now.
So let me jump right in at the deep end with a story.
Personal Stories Over Dinner
At a recent dinner with a small group of friends, conversation shifted to politics and to difficulties people have with the current uncivil public discourse and the rise of intolerance, racism, and prejudice. I offered up my thoughts, which is that we have to get to know those who voted differently us, and that we need to start with listening. An interesting and engaged conversation followed, but remembering how this line of argument had deeply offended a Jewish couple a few weeks ago (see “My Reflections on 2016 and Aspirations for 2017“) I turned to my African American neighbor to check in. I related how this had recently been heard as “Thou shalt submit to thy oppressors”, and she nodded. “Yes, that is exactly how it sounds to me,” she said.
Our sidebar turned the group conversation in a really rich and beautiful direction. Along the way my new friend recounted three deeply moving personal stories of her own. I’ll return to those stories in a moment, but first a couple of thoughts:
- Breaking bread together is a great way to connect. Doing so in a home makes is best. Somehow when we eat together, especially in each others’ homes, we connect. I have been the fortunate recipient of the hospitality of strangers more times than I can count, and it is transformative. And inviting strangers into my own home is also a wonderful gift for both of us. I vow to make this much more a part of my life.
- When did I stop listening? Fortunately by asking the question of my dinner partner I was able to pierce that night’s conceit and error, but how many more errors have I missed? Perhaps the shift in my blogging posture to thinking and projecting, rather than reflecting and writing from the heart, is part of the cause? Perhaps I am seeking outcomes rather than connection? Perhaps I have lost sight of the fact that the outcomes I care about cannot be anticipated or sought directly, and cannot be achieved without personal connection.
So here are the personal stories that my dinner partner related. She did so gently, offering them up in response to specific points over the course of our meal. They felt like just a small sampling of many tales, stories she holds close and which have great power to hurt her: it was a great gift to all of us that she felt safe enough to share:
- The first story was of leaving Stone Mountain Park. She was driving through the village, a small and quaint place, at maybe 10 miles an hour over the 20-mile-an-hour speed limit, and was pulled over by the police. She stopped her vehicle and the policeman pulled in behind her. He got out of his car and approached her car with his hand over his gun.
- The second story was of a home break in. Painters or decorators had, unknown to my new friend, left a couple of downstairs windows open. She didn’t know someone had broken in until they met upstairs. It seemed the intruder didn’t know anyone was home and didn’t want the encounter, so he turned and fled. Shaken, my friend called a couple of her friends who own guns, and they came over. Eventually they persuaded her to call the police, and an officer came, glanced casually at the open windows and muddy footprints on the floor, then at the home owner, and asked, “So what do you have in the house that anyone would want? Do you have guns? Drugs?” The officer proceeded on a rough and casual search of the house then left, without taking pictures of the footprints, without taking fingerprints, and with no attempt either to make the victim of a home intrusion feel safe and secure, or to gather any information which would help apprehend the intruder.
- The last story was of shortly after moving into her neighborhood. When a person ringing the doorbell introduced himself as a neighbor, my friend assumed he was welcoming her, but he jumped straight to the real reason for the visit: “There’s a light in your back yard that’s pointing directly at our living room and it’s annoying my wife.” “I’m sorry: let’s go out and change that,” said my friend, and together they redirected the light. The neighbor spent a few minutes asking about livelihood and interests, then nodded, said, “My wife and I have been in this neighborhood for twenty years, and we’ve seen a lot of changes,” and left.
Stories You Can Watch
One question that came up in the dinner conversation was “What can I do?” My friend’s answer: “If I can allow myself to not succumb to defeat, I only ask that if you ever see anything that looks unfair or out of place, especially with the police, please intervene.” It is important, as a first step in this, to cultivate awareness and empathy. So while they are uncomfortable, I’d ask you to watch the following videos in their entirety and try to put yourself in the position of the victim.
- The first is a relatively successful intervention in that, although the man still went to jail, at least he experienced someone trying to help. As you watch this and any other future police-related videos, keep in mind something the videographer says late in this video: “He’s scared. People die in these situations.” I repeat, “People die in these situations.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=djyysjn6vCg
- The second video is a complete fail in that the person videoing does nothing to intercede…and in the closing comments to the YouTube audience, the narrator says, “Wouldn’t it have been great if the [victim of the racist tirade] had just turned around?” Unfortunately this is a horrible thing to say, for the powerless can’t turn round. Just recording the incident does nothing to help: to make a difference you must make a move to intervene on behalf of the powerless: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZH0tko77Kb8
- Here’s a video or a really sad mother/daughter arrest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snFk-v1CDEI
- And last but not least, there’s this story of a man who was beaten by the police and arrested after fixing and driving off in his own car. http://www.theroot.com/how-a-nosey-woman-got-a-doctoral-candidate-beaten-and-a-1791178348
Where Do I Go With This?
I have received a lot of wake-up calls recently. Yes, it’s important for people to get to know those not like them and build bridges, but it’s also important to retain the wisdom and perspective to identify and stand up for injustice. While walking my middle path I have had an eye on not becoming like Neville Chamberlain who, through not standing up to Hitler and the rise of Nazism, was influential in allowing the rise of the Third Reich and the start of the Second World War. I am steering too close, and the primary direction of my wake up is to be much more attentive to and intentional about the rights of those who do not have the same privilege as me. Standing up for the rights of others is not in conflict with having civilized conversations with those who think differently than me, but rather it is the foundation, the basic set of ground rules that are required before the conversation can even be started.
Trump is about to be inaugurated. I maintain that he is the president of all Americans, that it is cutting off our nose to spite our face to wish him anything other than great success, and that protesting against Trump per se is not the most useful of things to do. But although he is not yet president, he is already engaging in the political process, and to the extent that he says or does things with which I disagree, particularly to the extent that they are racist or polarizing or infringe on the rights of those without privilege, it is time for me to speak up and engage. As I look at his cabinet nominees, I can see the talents and merits of many, and in some cases a potential political purpose of reducing Federal government, but in other cases I see a very dark picture.
Top of the list of candidates I find objectionable is nominee for Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions. He has a horrible record of Civil Rights and, beyond that, his nomination is a slap in the face to all who are not white, Anglo-Saxon protestant males. I do not find a candidate with this voting record an acceptable choice for Attorney General, and at this time when black, Latino, women and other “minorities” are scared, I find his nomination especially inflammatory. So I have written to and called both Georgia Senators to oppose this nominee. And to add to the voice that is standing up for civil rights, I will be joining the March in Atlanta on January 21.
Beyond feeling the need to get more actively and assertively engaged in political action, it is also important to me that I listen more closely to the voices of others. And that requires deep listening and the building of real bi-lateral trust. I was inspired by a recent guest on my podcast to build a young and diverse Board of Advisors, a group of people who represent the voices of those I want to support. Whether I formally form this group or not, I don’t know, but I am going to be very deliberate and intentional about seeking out people of color who are willing to be brutally honest with me, not just by being willing to share their stories, but more by being willing to call me on my own blindness, privilege, and ignorance, and help me move closer to empathy.
I’ve come to understand not just that those who are not members of the dominant social culture will behave in ways that conform – code-switch, to use an old term – and that their individual personal histories of not being heard or seen mean they see little value and considerable risk in being forthright and sharing stories. I am determined to see beyond that and be a true friend and ally, though I know that will require much work over a long period of time.