a leaf buckled concrete: paths of hope

Every time I spot a weed growing up through concrete, I think, “Good for you.” I can’t help myself. I am biased toward underdogs, toward wildness, toward bucking the system. One of my many faults. While I would not say that I have a pro-weed orientation in life, I prefer the natural world to concrete in nearly every instance. That stubborn little weed reminds me that persistence is a superpower.

 In faith-driven, Biblically rooted justice work, the inequity I hope to expose and reform is massive. I often teach about the systems and norms that created our unjust status quo to folks whose life experiences have sheltered them from interacting with such unpleasant realities. Getting people in the room is a battle in and of itself, but after that I have come to recognize two distinct blocks. The first is visceral defensiveness. The second is perceived powerlessness.

 To learn of such atrocious injustice as an adult who has actively benefitted from and propped up systems in the name of Jesus, patriotism or justice, can be disorienting. Such a shock, in fact, that it is easy to deny this history exists, or to shake one’s head, disbelieving. At the very least, most want to claim innocence: “I’ve never oppressed anyone! I don’t even know people getting hurt by this so-called injustice!”

 Encountering such obvious disparity, people often feel shamed, guilty, or accused…all of which lead to defensiveness. Defensiveness destroys relationships and short circuits curious impulses. We are not capable of learning from others when we are busy defending our own action (or inaction). We cannot think of solutions when we refuse any responsibility or even connection to the problems being addressed. Because I have learned to anticipate such defensiveness, I now name it as the enemy of the good in the very moment in which it occurs. Feeling defensive or attacked is not a reason to walk away. When I name the creeping posture of defense, people usually look up, exposed, but also interested in any available alternative. I encourage folks to notice their defensiveness, commit to investigate it later, and then lean in to the conversation at hand. I ask them to seek to understand before they decide who is to blame (or if they even agree).

The other block many must overcome in these moments is the completely overwhelming—I-had-no-idea—shock of seeing the reality of injustice in our systems. When folks learn to avoid defensiveness, staying invested long enough to learn about the realities others face, they often feel crushing grief. Overwhelmed at the power and longevity of injustice, they instinctively see their own powerlessness to change anything. “I hear you. I’m with you. But what am I supposed to do?! How on earth can I do anything to actually help?” While this reaction can keep relationships alive, it can lead to the same sense of paralysis that results from defensiveness. In either case, injustice remains, with no resistance from well-meaning folks who enjoy the privileges of living in the majority.

I think this is why I love that little weed. Whoever designed and laid that sidewalk probably did everything right. They scorched the earth, leveled the ground, and poured one of the strongest substances known to man on top of it. And yet. Despite all odds, that little spunky weed grew. A leaf buckled concrete. It’s a Christmas miracle! Or maybe a gardening nightmare? Either way it gives me hope that a living thing made to find the light, with enough time and determination, can crack through a system made to permanently block its ability to grow. Go weeds go!

In parenting and educational circles, grit is a new buzzword. We have long recognized the difference in natural ability and growth. Some kids achieve because they are naturally gifted to do so, while others have deficits they learn to overcome through determination, delayed gratification and belief in their abilities. These kids develop growth mindsets, to borrow from Carol Dweck, and they learn to face obstacles that seem insurmountable one step at a time. Yes, failure is likely from their starting position. But taken in small steps, small victories add up until they accomplish their goals, achieving well beyond their initial trajectories.

As a parent of teens and a tween, I now realize I would rather send a kid into the world who has grit, who has learned to slowly overcome odds, than I would a kid who has easily achieved most accomplishments. This is not to say I am against easy achievements. By all means, knock it out of the park, especially if it comes easily! Adulting, though, is hard. Losing a job, working under a mean boss, caring for sick kids or parents, having a marriage fall apart, or suffering in economic distress all require a long term commitment to stay the course and learn the new skills required for the task ahead, even if it feels impossible. Grit, it turns out, wins the day.

Here in Nashville, succulents are all the rage, and frankly, I’m uninterested. Give me a rainforest over a desert any day of the week. I know they conserve water, but I live in Tennessee instead of Arizona for a reason. I like vibrant colors, gorgeous blooms, and diversity that makes the eye hungry to take it all in. People I love who know about plants love them though, so I finally got a succulent or two. Damned if I haven’t grown partial to these little miracle growers. They are stubborn sons of bitches, and just like my beloved urban weed warriors, they stay alive. They keep growing, even in shameful neglect. I think we could all do well to take a page out of the succulent handbook. Dig deep, determine to grow, and create beauty in the worst of circumstances. Come to the table, pay attention and decide to change your part of the world. Together, let’s see just see how many cracks we can make in the system until there is room for all of us to grow.

on privilege: reconciliation requires a look at white privilege

In Salman Rushdie’s story “A Prophet’s Hair”, the father, Hashim, is a greedy man consumed with delusions of his own generosity and sacrifice.  He behaves as if he is helping others, when he is, in fact, abusing them.  His pride in this projected self makes him a liability to everyone with whom he interacts.  Rushdie weaves a tale in which Hashim’s misplaced self-satisfaction destroys his life, damaging everyone around him in the process.

Rushdie’s story reminds me of our ability to delude ourselves.  Most of us are invested in maintaining a narrative of how we got to be who we are.  America’s obsession with bootstraps and linear growth trickles into each of our lives, convincing us that life is about independent advancement.  My toddler constantly says, “I do it. I big girl,” and my colleagues constantly say, “I built this/did this/achieved this.”  We love the myth of our independence so much that we fiercely defend ourselves against perceived threats to the notion that we earned every inch of our place in the world.

Because of this, when we talk about privilege in society, defenses and accusations fly. While we have been discussing privilege for a few weeks, this essay addresses racial privilege specifically.  Frances Kendall offers an expansive definition that orients the term white privilege in the context of today’s American cultural context:

An institutional (rather than personal) set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who dominate the powerful positions in our institutions.  One of the primary privileges is that of having greater access to power and resources than people of color do; in other words, purely on the basis of our skin color doors are open to us that are not open to other people.
— Frances Kendall

Kendall offers a logical analysis of the structural reality of America: Most power and financial resources are held in white hands.  Any cursory view of our society reveals America is racially stratified in nearly every arena.  Racial disparities are consistent in economics, education and therefore, in access to advancement. 

It takes nothing away from my experience as a white professional woman to recognize that most power and money are held in white hands, and because we live in segregated communities, this impacts access and equity.

Living in a world where you can access every industry, opportunity and service your family requires without going outside your race or area of town is itself an indicator that you benefit from white privilege.  As a result of centuries of systemic, procedural racism, we are mostly segregated in our neighborhoods, schools and churches.  A person unaware of their privilege might say, “I’m not racist.  I never even really talk about race and I certainly avoid racist people.” A person who is aware of their privilege might tweak that statement to acknowledge, “I don’t think about race or privilege as I move throughout my day.  I am starting to see that people with a different racial background from mine might not have the privilege of never having to negotiate racial differences in their everyday lives.  Maybe I could learn something from people who negotiate difference more gracefully (or at least more often) than I do.”

The concept of privilege does not imply unearned talent.  Rather, it is useful in recognizing that in our society, people with white skin are often given the benefit of the doubt, an assumption of belonging, and an earned seat at the table.  For people of color, however, there is an often unacknowledged wall to climb, a deservedness to demonstrate, an “I’m one of the good ones” to convey; simply, people of color are not given the benefit of the doubt, but the burden of doubt.   This reality can best be seen in the fact that when a black man commits a crime there is a level of expectation and confirmation bias felt by many people; however, when a white male commits a crime, most people don’t project the actions of that man onto his entire race.  If he is white, the crime is an abnormality, but if he is black, his actions confirm a criminal proclivity in poor, black people.  White privilege allows my mistakes to represent me, not my entire race.

We love the myth of our independence so much that we fiercely defend ourselves against perceived threats to the notion that we earned every inch of our place in the world.

I spend time with a lot of people who are becoming aware of the foundational racial tension that exists in our country.  While the way in which they are leaning in—pursuing others, exploring their own bias, awkwardly learning about experiences different than their own—inspires me, some of these dear friends rigorously clam up when “white privilege” is mentioned.  I have noticed two consistencies in these friends:

1)   They are incredibly compassionate and generous when they engage another person who is different from them or is in need.  The attitude of shut-your-mouth-and-calm-down only occurs when that individual need is contextualized within the realities of systemic racism and racial disparity.  Individuals inspire compassion; systems inspire rejection. 

2)   They derive a great deal of their value from their own stories of ascension.  Their narratives of learning to position themselves as subjects (not victims or objects) is deeply invested in the lore of their work ethic.  These friends react defensively to the idea of white privilege, immediately feeling attacked.

And yet, there is a palpable energy in our country to face our collective past trauma.  From our last national election, with its strategically divisive rhetoric, to white supremacists marching, to dozens of unarmed black men being killed by civil servants, our racial issues are obvious.  Most of us now admit we are a society deeply divided along racial lines; the conflict begins when we try to explain why. 

Rather than blame, might we benefit from simply encouraging continued curiosity and observation?  To my friends who feel that acknowledging white privilege is an unfair attack on their personhood, I ask them to shift from, “Don’t dare call it privilege; my family worked hard for every single thing we have,” to, “My family worked hard for everything we have, and I am starting to see that a family of a different race could work just as hard and not end up where we are.”  Could we recognize that we live in a society that allows what Michelle Higgins calls, “privilege [that] specifically applies value aside from talent?”

What if we worked to acknowledge these biases, bringing them into the conversation?  It takes nothing away from my experience as a white professional woman to recognize the reality that most power and money are held in white hands, and because we live in segregated communities, this impacts access and equity.  When a person mentions white privilege, they are not attacking me, calling me lazy, or suggesting I have not earned my place at the table.  Instead of being defensive, I now recognize that when I don’t invite people of color to my table/work/church, I am hoarding my privilege and, importantly, limiting my ability to relate to and know others.  If we are sincere in our desire to lessen these divides and move toward reconciliation, we must all learn to acknowledge and counteract the real impact of white privilege on our outlook, behaviors and understanding of America.

on privilege: the problem with weaponizing words

Few phrases are more polarizing than “white privilege.”  I live, write, teach, parent and work at the intersection of wealth, race, religion and politics, so I regularly witness how this phrase is accepted as true and rejected as utter horseshit, depending on the audience.  Part of what makes my life so ‘beautiful ugly,’ to borrow a West Indian phrase, is the reality that every day I talk to people who do not believe the same things I believe about the world.  We certainly interact with people whose experiences do not reflect our own in any way, but some of us are functionally isolated, and cannot conceive that other views of the world even exist.  These distinct realities exacerbate the ever-expanding political divides we suddenly noticed in the fall of 2016, and we now seem to live in a world in which we cannot accept the lived experience of another, let alone understand terms that help explain such diverse realities.

Even though it is often perceived as such, an acknowledgement of the existence of privilege is not itself an act of aggression.  Privilege is a dynamic in every type of community, real or imagined. 

White privilege is such a term: terribly helpful and utterly divisive.  For folks who understand American culture as one that instinctively privileges whiteness, this phrase describes the result of a history of unchecked bias and power.  For other folks in my community, this label is an aggressive attack and a callous dismissal of hard work.  I have had the privilege of teaching about America’s history with racial divides, our fruitful attempts at protest, and our slow path toward acknowledgement and reconciliation to rooms full of people whose experiences share little in common.  The tiny needle I try to thread, as a starting point, is to convince sincere but sheltered white Americans that our society is deeply racist and that white privilege is both real and not a personal indictment against them, while simultaneously not “losing”—for lack of a better term—the people of color in the room.  At times, in trying to offer a working definition of white privilege, I sense a collective eye roll…from EVERYone.  How do we learn to identify with, acknowledge and challenge a concept so critical to discussions about equity and reconciliation when we can’t even begin the conversation without losing everyone in the room?

One of the problems with talking about privilege is that we tend to think in terms both too large and too intimate.  We use totalizing language about how people “always act,” resorting to stereotypes and worst-case scenarios.  Not helpful.  On the other extreme, we take any mention of history or statistics to be a personal indictment, as if anyone who acknowledges an unjust status quo thinks I am to blame for societal inequities.  Also not helpful.  Having experienced these two reactions, I think it best to first explore how cultural norms are established and eventually privileged, outside of a racial construct. 

When the concept of privilege is either used to attack others, or is perceived as an attack, productive conversations cease. I want people to understand privilege in all its forms, from cultural to religious to power to wealth to race, but weaponizing the term to put someone on edge incentivizes no one to reflect on their own areas of privilege. 

Can we admit we all experience moments of privilege?  Privilege is a reflection of cultural preferences and power dynamics in any environment.  Rather than articulating the role privilege plays in injustice, perhaps a productive line of inquiry leads us into micro-settings in which privilege plays a role.  Consider Oberlin College and MIT.  Given their draw to boundary pushing, artistic minds, or savant-esque math and coding brains, respectively, these two environments privilege very different types of people.  If you are a person who seeks and celebrates beauty, who values counter-cultural creativity, then Oberlin might be the place for you.  At MIT, on the other hand, the dominant culture values logic, systems’ thinking and order. While wonder and creativity certainly play a role in the way engineers engage the world, an emphasis might be placed on understanding and deconstructing, rather than on appreciating and creatively engaging.  Those who view the world through an artistic lens are privileged at Oberlin.  At MIT, a systematic, computational mind is privileged as superior. 

The norms of these universities do not exist to demonize one type of person; instead, they are the natural result of perspectives shared by the majority stakeholders of each institution.  Privilege, in that way, does not represent a moral good or reveal an intentional hierarchy that is foundationally rooted. Instead, the existence of privilege simply reflects a reality that certain people will receive a warmer welcome, an assumed sense of belonging, and the benefit of the doubt.  People who do not share the perspective of the dominant group—whether because of their point of view, gender, language, ethnicity or race—face implicit and explicit barriers to being appreciated, valued and welcomed.

Privilege exists in every environment, and most observant people recognize the power of norms to protect the status quo and the privilege it provides to those who share the dominant culture.  Indeed, at the micro level, many types of racial privilege exist.  For instance, I know white women who try to connect with black colleagues in a majority black office, or black women who try to volunteer in a majority white Parent Teacher Organization, both of whom feel like there is an invisible barrier they cannot cross, relationships to which they do not have access. My point here is to remind us that the acknowledgement of the existence of privilege is not itself an aggressive claim.  Privilege is a dynamic in every type of community, real or imagined. 

When the concept of privilege is either used to attack others, or is perceived as an attack, productive conversations cease.  White privilege is a phrase sometimes weaponized by those advocating to halt increasing inequities across our communities.  Those of us who are troubled by polarization in society know that underestimating and simultaneously protecting privilege is the root of segregation and inequality in society.  I want people to understand privilege in all its forms, from cultural to religious to power to wealth to race, but weaponizing the term to put someone on edge incentivizes no one to reflect on their own areas of privilege.  When I privilege my perspective on privilege, I sometimes spew the term out as an accusation against white or wealthy or male or Christian others.  This is not helpful.  Like a driver who ignores the impact of her choices on those with whom she shares the road, a person accusing others of white or wealth or male privilege, making no effort to continue a conversation or contextualize our places in society, is inadvertently privileging her perspective on privilege.  My hope is that if we deconstruct the way we use this term, perhaps we can lower defenses long enough to encourage the open observation of our own areas of privilege, and then begin to ask at whose expense—if any—we maintain our place.  

Next week I will discuss the realities of white privilege, the damage it does to all of us, and unpack the defensiveness and difficulty that follow our use of the term.  If we don’t learn to keep the conversation going, we will never form a more perfect union.