on stoning: glass houses, arguing badly and hypocritical living

As a novice participant in the Twittisphere, I am new, and frankly overwhelmed by, the manic nature of the thing.   Having spent a lifetime in which completing tasks gives me great joy, Twitter might be my new Kryptonite.  You can’t finish.  It’s never done.  You check and get caught up, and then 10 seconds later there is more, so much more.  Your eyes burn, your brain is constantly in what feels like the-hour-before-a-headache-starts, and your attention span has suddenly always just done a line of coke, unable to focus and jittery as hell.  As I said.  Manic.

But I have begun with a digression.  Twitter has confirmed for me that many people feel under siege.  There is a sense that the sky is falling constantly.  I get it, and I feel it too.  The clarity that arises with 280 characters, combined with the ability to do simple fact checking, can lead one to feel like some of our nation’s leaders are really petty, mean, liars.  And yet, here is my problem: Twitter can be, at times, a metaphorical arena for a brutal stoning.  A target arises who has said or done something wrong, and people quickly gather, rock in hand, and fire away.  I am not that interested in our capacity to be mean to each other. This is not new. What is worth thinking about, however, is the lack of context we bring to the stoning.  How do we, either through attacking a person or even by our collective outcry of “Wrong!”, not realize that we are contributing to the problem?  Not to mention glass houses and all that.

I want to argue that we might temper our engagement in macrodiscussions with an awareness of ourselves in the micro context.  Many of us loathe the extremist and hyperbolic views we hear spouted on tv and social media.  We feel outrage when we hear people tell half-truths or give junk analysis of a situation.  We are angry when a person’s character or judgment is maligned.  We lament the cowards who do not speak up for, or write policies for, the vulnerable among us.

I am all for outrage.  I am all for resistance.  Our status quo is criminally unfair for the poor and for people of color.  To quote Jesus tho, “Let he who has not sinned throw the first stone.”  If we really care about helping each other find our most compassionate, honest selves, can we justify screaming at others for being unkind?  As we engage in this macro battle for our country, can we also wage war in our own micro realities?  Can I see all the terrible out there while also acknowledging all the terrible in here?  As much as it stings to say out loud, I have come to the conclusion that the “Washington swamp” is a perfect reflection of all of us.  I say that with great reservation.  I spent the last year trying to understand how “they” could be so terrible.  How all of “them” voted for “that.”  The truth though, is that the level and manner of discourse out there is not that far removed from my own ways of communicating.  We tend to believe the end justifies the means, but in this case, the end happens in the first place because our means are so dysfunctional.

How often do we talk to people with whom we disagree?  Do we take the cowardly way out and assume it is “bad manners” to engage in subjects that make us uncomfortable?  Many of us talk freely as long as we know no one will disagree or challenge our perspectives.  This kind of hiveminded thinking leads to confirmation bias, strengthening our particular arguments without actually exploring other angles.  And yet this is what we accuse our leaders of doing. 

How often do we weigh in on issues we don’t fully understand, demonizing one position with a drastic oversimplification of the issue?  How often do you double down on your point of view when someone challenges you, discrediting or dismissing your conversant instead of listening with curiosity and responding with humble conviction?  We rarely take the time to inform ourselves and simply dismiss anyone who disagrees by calling them a name or placing them inside a well known extremist tribe.  And yet this is what we accuse our leaders of doing.

How often do we speak up for vulnerable people in a way that brings understanding?  Regularly we either remain silent in the face of passive racism or ignorant stereotyping, or we attack the speaker in a way that shames them and ends the conversation.  Have you ever tried the hard awkward work of firmly, with kindness, challenging passive racism in another?  Of helping someone see their privilege or subtle bigotry in a way that might help them never do it again?  Changing an unjust status quo is exhausting work, but societal reconciliation and economic equity will require all of us; we will never work together if we don't learn to speak to each other without accusation.  And yet this is what we accuse our leaders of not doing.

It is hard work, but the necessary path.  I am not arguing that we should ignore the macro until we get the micro right.  I am not arguing we have to be perfect in order to earn the right to speak up.  I am arguing, however, that many of us regularly contribute to the toxic and mean spirited environment that we now decry.  We have easily identified the guardrails here.  We know it is cowardly to stay silent and brash to publicly destroy people for their inappropriate views.  What about all the options in between?  Before you “stone” someone on Twitter or face to face for being close-minded, extreme or bigoted, explore all the options available to you in the way you interact. 

There are so many ways for us to be a part of the solution. The first is simply to acknowledge that we are part of the problem. It is not just out there. It’s in here. Let’s hold ourselves to the elusive standard we pretend is possible when we criticize our leaders. Could we inform ourselves, pursue collaborative conversations with people whose perspectives differ, and find ways to engage others with compassionate curiosity?  This, although perhaps not instinctive, is, especially in our given context, a bold rejection of the status quo and a major act of resistance. If we the people start acting like we the people, then maybe our leaders will begin to represent us well. Civil discourse doesn't happen on the public stage because it doesn't happen at our kitchen tables or social media feeds.  Right now I am afraid our leaders are the perfect representatives of our bad behavior. 

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.

all (black) lives matter

A cursory view of American headlines in the past three weeks reveal a deep sickness in the way we relate to and value each other.  The spotlight on the unjust treatment of people of color has unfortunately led to an increase in the societal divide we experience in our view of race.  When Obama was elected, celebratory cries of a post-racial society were heard.  When Trayvon Martin’s death kicked off a spree of monthly spotlights on the killing of men of color by white civilians and police officers, thoughts of a post-racial society were arrested.  At times I feel like we are experiencing a time warp, as if this pattern of openly hating or killing members of our society must be viewed as an admission that men of color (and women, like Heather Heyer, who stand with them) are seen as criminals at worst and as expendable, or not valuable, at best.  For many, the 2016 election and recent conflicts in Charlottesville confirm that some Americans do not value others who are not white and Christian.  In other moments, when I remember the long view, the historically slow path resistance and change must take, I am encouraged that at least such routine and rampant injustice is finally being broadcast.  Exposing the status quo as unsustainable must happen before resisting the status quo can take root.  Surely these reports, and the public outcry and angst they cause, are a good thing. 

Exposing the status quo as unsustainable must happen before resisting the status quo can take root.

Just as one can view the last 40 months as depressing or as a step toward health and healing, the dominant responses to these patterned killings are disparate, and seem to feed off of different realities.  For many, the sequential headlines force us to acknowledge our systems and structures of power place an unjust burden of suspicion and criminality upon people of color.  For some, these deaths are deserved—a result of criminal behavior and disrespect for noble and selfless authority figures.  For others, the fact that these deaths are now headlines is evidence of a biased, liberal-leaning media.  For a few, like many of the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, the unrest is due to an unfair world that values new minorities and punishes old majorities.  These responses, and the passion with which they are held, belie a stubborn commitment to hold our views tightly, refusing to consider new information or the perspective of another.  Rather than engaging those around us with curiosity, we often resort to shouting our own experience, unaware of our particular bias.  If a person does not struggle under the particular curse of being born into poverty or with darkly hued skin, she can live freely in a world in which she expects to be helped in stores, respected by strangers, and kept safe by law enforcement officers.  However, a poor or black or Hispanic person has no such luxury.  Their experiences of life—not liberal bias or manipulated optics—teaches them that strangers treat them with suspicion and the police are sometimes not allies, but a hindrance to their flourishing.  Until we learn to engage each other’s stories, listening with interest instead of attacking out of a posture of defense, we cannot hope to understand what half of our country believes about the images and reports of the last few months.

Until we learn to engage each other’s stories, listening with interest instead of attacking out of a posture of defense, we cannot hope to understand what half of our country believes.

The response to Trayvon Martin’s death gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM).  The movement, fluid and evolving, orients itself around a few guiding principles: “Lead with love. Low ego, high impact. Move at the speed of trust” (Jane Kramer, Oct. 19, 2016, New Yorker).  Although this movement has often been characterized as full of angry and irrational people with chips on their shoulders, these principles suggest a value system built on humility, and therefore highly resonate with Christian perspectives.  Didn’t Christ also demonstrate a foundational belief in the community’s worth instead of a self-centered orientation?  The guiding principles of BLM, if not always demonstrated in action, suggest a way of moving that requires consideration of another’s perspective, rather than boldly moving forward in “rightness”, or even justice.  These principles suggest that change is possible, and can even be achieved, with civility.  Despite the higher calling here, this movement, because of its actively-resisting-oppression name, gave birth to exasperated counter claims that “All lives matter!” 

Didn’t Christ also demonstrate a foundational belief in the community’s value instead of only a self-centered orientation?

Of course all lives matter.  That is the point!  What if, as a society, and particularly as people following Christ, we started to listen to one another?  What if we decided to recognize that each of us has an experience and a bias, and perhaps we should claim those truths about our selves even as we also listen to the—by definition, different—perspectives of an other?  What if we decided to eliminate defensiveness as an option of a response?  The All Lives Matter (ALM) reaction and claim suggest that their adherents are correcting BLM so that it can be more inclusive.  Not so.  The cry of ALM is more often a stubborn endorsement of the status quo.  It refuses to acknowledge that in this country, many of our laws, educational systems, housing plans, stereotypes, law enforcement officers, financial systems and neighborhoods, black lives do NOT, in fact, matter.  Black lives are underestimated, feared, rejected, suspected and criminalized as a matter of course.  This movement is, foundationally if not always in action, a humble but persistent plea for people to agree on this most basic of assumptions: that all lives matter.  It is also a damning indictment that ALL lives cannot matter until black lives matter.

It is also a damning indictment that ALL lives cannot matter until black lives matter.

This easy jump to “all” without acknowledging the “black” has a long history in our country.  Tane-hisi Coates, in his book Between the World and Me, helpfully reminds us that in this very country our mainstream version of history simply erases the contributions of people of color.  If anything, we celebrate any teacher or curriculum that offers a level of robust explanation about what slavery is and how it worked.  We are thrilled when these questions are answered.  And yet, this easy satisfaction ignores the fact that these very same slaves created the wealth, infrastructure and buildings of the Southern United States, paying off the country’s debt from the Revolution in the process.  No, slaves were not just victims; they were craftsmen, artisans, child-rearing experts, chefs, physicians, builders, farmers and administrators.  Just as our history has denied the fact that our country was built by—not just on the bodies, but with the help of and under the leadership of—African American slaves, so the “all lives matter” cry seeks to ignore and overlook the needed assertion that black lives do matter. The legacy of our claimed history is that black lives were maybe one day abused, but now they matter just like the rest of us.  Until we proclaim all the ways in which black lives have contributed to our country, despite living through centuries of terror and pain, we cannot admit the many ways that black lives continue to be viewed as expendable, despite their great worth. 

Next week, thoughts on Labor Day.