Talking About The Elephant In The Room That Never Left

image

Dear Blue and Wheels,

These letters will reach you in a time and place all its own, but they are always written in a particular time. This particular time happens to be at a very divisive time in our nation, after cops shot and killed two black men, protests ensued, and during these protests 5 cops were killed by a black man. That’s an understatement, but right now, nobody needs to hear a rehash of what happened. We all know. If you want to know more, I hope the names Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are merely footnotes in an awful sequence of history, not the beginning bookends of something much worse coming our way.

It’s scary out there, kids. Engaging in any sort of meaningful conversation with someone who doesn’t hold your particular views is seemingly hopeless. All we create is an endless string of hashtags and videos and likes for articles that share our point of view, all while never engaging in any real and substantial movement of unified change. That word is important there: unified. For the life of me, I cannot understand how people cannot see the black lives matter for what it is intended to be. I don’t get the stubborn refusal to just hear that other side, the side that is very angry and fearful about what is happening not just because it is happening, but also because it could happen to them.

Maybe I’m being naïve, or maybe I’m just star-struck by you, Wheels, sleeping calmly next to me as I type this missive, but I think the hope for a world where all lives truly matter, where change is truly affected, is found in you. The next generations, being raised in a 21st century society that has begun to grasp the nuances of communicating on the internet in ways that we don’t grasp yet, and in a 21st century society that has come to terms with the fact that just because there are now civil rights, it doesn’t mean that everyone is treated equally. (Also, maybe one with less guns and one where we have avoided a full scale war with ISIS, but who knows?)

Last year, when I was teacher training, we took a class on multiculturalism in the classroom. I have to admit, I was not the biggest fan of this class. Mostly it had to do with the way it was framed, and the prism through which we were asked to see culture. The instructor talked about multicultural perspectives from the perspective of someone who was oppressed, someone who has been victimized by oppressors. It was not comfortable to hear this. You could feel the nervousness start to bubble up in the room, as cohort peers who had been getting to know and like each other for a few weeks suddenly had to shift gears and reevaluate the people around them.

Can I trust that person? Do they share the same worldview as me? What happens if they don’t? Are they the oppressor?

We hadn’t considered those questions when we started, and now at the end of training, it was a bit jarring to suddenly be faced with our differences when we had been unified in a singular purpose for so long. We were suddenly all aware of that elephant in the room. That elephant that lets us know that not all things are equal.

But, something very interesting happened on the third day of class. We all took a quiz to assess how our ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation affected how we interacted with the world. More importantly, it gauged how the world interacted with us.

I am straight, white male in my thirties. I am over 6 feet tall and I have a full head of hair. My teeth are straight and mostly white. I smile at people and make eye contact. I do not have any debilitating diseases or mental illnesses.

I am white privilege personified, and I have no shame in admitting that when we were asked to line up in order of the quiz score, with the highest score being the most privileged, guess who was at the front of the line?

(Two thumbs pointing back at me.)

We were asked to explain why we thought our score was the way it was. My explanation was simple and truthful. “Look at me. I’m a white guy.”

Everyone laughed at the curt response from the oddly handsome, kind of goofy white guy.

Then everyone else got their turn. And it was a horror show. Story after story of unfair treatment, discrimination, prejudice, abuse…everything. Tears were being teared. Hugs were being hugged.

Then someone spoke up. “I’m sorry. This is bullshit,” said a white woman. “I don’t think it’s right that white people are made to feel guilty for this. I won’t accept it.”

I’m paraphrasing but it was something like that.

The air was sucked out of the room, mostly by awkward silence. The instructor tried gamely to assess her opinion and help her to understand the purpose of the activity was not to make anyone feel bad or ashamed, but it was too late for that. The woman was upset, and not wanting to hear anymore, she left the room.

She left the room. That happened, and while she was gone, the discussion continued on what she had started. It didn’t go how I expected it to go, because nobody else spoke out in anger or frustration towards her. Nobody whined that she was being dramatic or unreasonable.

I remember one guy, a quiet guy whose family is from Mexico. He said, “All we want is to be heard. That’s it.”

That’s it.

Well, okay, it’s not, but that’s a good a starting point as any if we are talking about a path towards true racial reconciliation.

So that you are not unwilling to listen, I want to outline some things on how to approach such a delicate, inflammatory subject as race.

You are not black. You are half white and half Asian. You have color, but it isn’t that color. You have a culture, a particular set of beliefs and values that shape you. Not everyone has these same sets of beliefs and values. A lot of them may overlap, but respect that race relations is and always will be a Venn diagram. We can push to make the middle bigger, but the circles will never totally be the same. If someone tells you they are colorblind, tell them they are a liar.

You are also Asian, which means at some point you might be referred to as a member of the “model minority.” Please, thoroughly and completely reject this. Reduce it to smoldering ashes that flitter away in the wind. Do not stand for it. It diminishes your own standing in the world in a condescending, pat on the head kind of way (not to mention it’s an idea that has been fabricated by the majority) and it also fails to recognize that there are legitimate differences between the Asian American and African American communities that have had a huge impact on their place in American history.

While Asians have suffered horrible discrimination and oppression, it does not compare to the plight of African Americans. African Americans, after all, did not have a choice in whether or not they wanted to be African Americans. That decision was made for them by slavers who forcibly removed them from their families and homes. Entire generations of people were lost to the slave trade.

Think about what could happen to a culture’s values, its ethos. It’s not just oppression. It’s devastation, and anyone who thinks that 50 years of equal rights under the law will undo centuries of that sort of systematic cultural annihilation is either not looking at the situation with both eyes open, or doesn’t care to do so. I say this because people will try to feed you this narrative that the only reason certain groups succeed where others do not is because they chose not to be victims. They chose not to blame their problems on others and took ownership of them. It isn’t so simple. History never is.

Finally, you are white. You do, in fact, have privilege. Don’t allow yourself to feel shame or guilt because of that inescapable fact, but do know that it exists. You can no more erase your privilege than you could remove your liver. It is what it is. You are afforded things other people are not afforded. If the Black Lives Matter movement is still around, don’t make the mistake of saying All Lives Matter. Of course they do, but that’s not the point. Remember that when someone says black lives matter, there is a missing word. An implied “too.” It makes all the difference.

I keep going back to that class last year. As I think about this subject, it draws me in like a magnet, some sort of anchor point that helps keep me tethered to the most important question I can ask and potentially answer: What can I do? I am a white man, and for the first time in the history of the world, I feel powerless.

To be fair, this class was over a year ago and I don’t remember all that was said or why that woman said it. What I recounted before, I was paraphrasing. I think I got the general tone right but definitely not the exact words. I don’t want to paint her in a light that she need not be painted, but it doesn’t matter because it wasn’t what she said that really matters; it’s what she did.

She left the room.

Don’t leave the room, guys. The elephant is in there, and it needs to be talked about. And heard.

-Dad

Advertisements

Lesson #95: The Terrible Void Of The Disconnect

charleston

Dear Blue,

Something horrible happened in South Carolina the other day. Someone walked into a church, sat down and listened to a bible study for a half hour, then pulled out a gun and murdered 9 people. Two thoughts keep rolling around in my head. One, it makes me sick that there’s so much evil in the world. We like to sometimes pretend that it’s not there, but evil has a way of making itself known in the worst possible ways. The second thought is much simpler, much more basic. WTF?

Seriously.

In trying to answer that question, I’m going to work out that confusion into something you can hopefully learn about hate.

I work in special education. Starting in 2009, I noticed a disturbing trend of increasing violence. There had always been a certain amount of property destruction and occasional arguments boiling over into fisticuffs, but starting that year, things started getting real. Some examples? I had my car door dented with an angry Nike, size 12. A kid blasted his fist through a window during a fight, severing an artery in his forearm and leaving a trail of blood running down the street that still stains the sidewalk like a drip painting. Another student threw a coffee pot at another student in the midst of an argument. Hot coffee gave a kid second degree burns while I had a cut on my leg from exploding glass.

This is just anecdotal data, but taking a look at the big picture, there is a disturbing rise in brutal, seemingly random acts of violence. Charleston. Ferguson. Sandy Hook. Virginia Tech. On and on it goes. What accounted for this rise? I have a theory.

Ever since the dawn of the comments section, the internet has been a cesspool of negativity and conversations that busily degrade into the vilest exchanges of racism, bigotry and bullying. It’s despicable.

It’s no coincidence that just when I started to see a rise in violence at work, people also started having the internet on hand at all times via cellphones. Being connected at all times is a good thing in theory, but perhaps only in theory.

The true irony of the internet age is that it’s designed as a tool of connection. We implement it as such because we are creatures of connection. We need it. We crave it. At its best, the internet facilitates connection in real and tangible ways that demonstrate the real and true power of collaboration. At its worst, the negativity grabs hold of people and turns them into monsters.

There is a very real, very tangible disconnect that the internet cannot get around. We are designed as social beings, and across the digital span, we can only share ideas through our words. The old nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” might have been true in the past, but in a forum where we only have words to work with, words can do plenty of damage.

Face to face, a rude comment would get a hurt look. Empathy kicks in and at least makes you feel slightly off for saying what you just said. The digital void has a weird way of masking empathy, though. It’s easy to be rude to someone when they can’t see their face because those indicators you are being rude aren’t so easy to detect through a static profile pic.

That’s what happens, Blue. That void makes it easy to disconnect, and when it does, hate becomes so much easier than love.

It doesn’t help that media outlets, in their persistent pursuit of clicks, routinely utilize negativity and sow discord in order to gain attention. It works, unfortunately, and should it be any surprise that if the media is the model for how to generate discussion then social media will soon follow?

I don’t know if what happened in Charleston had anything to do with this. I don’t know if the deranged young man who murdered 9 people in cold blood was ever cyber bullied, but based on the fact that this was a hate crime, I’m guessing he experienced some hate come his way at some earlier juncture.

All I know is that it’s far easier to passively hate than to actively love.

That does not mean it is better.

-Dad

 

 

 

 

 

Lesson #94: Diversity Is More Than Skin Deep

diversity

Dear Blue,

 

We live in Los Angeles. Until it breaks off into the ocean or we run out of water and we’re living in scorched wasteland overrun with rabid coyotes and rattlesnakes curled up in the car pool lanes, we live in Los Angeles.

 

And since it’s not a scorched wasteland yet, Los Angeles has the reputation as one of the most diverse cities on the planet. Cultural diversity. Biodiversity. Unidiversity. Every kind of diversity there is, LA has it. It’s an amazing place. I hate the traffic. I hate the trendiness. I hate the house prices. But this place really is one of the most unique and vibrant places on planet Earth.

 

Still, diversity is a word that get’s cheaply thrown around there, as if somehow because we live in a diverse place we are naturally diverse, like diversity is something that’s in the air.

 

Nope. That’s car exhaust.

 

Living with diversity isn’t just about living around people who come from a different culture than you. Ethnic diversity can look like diversity most of the times, but it gets kind of watered down when everyone gets the same kind of education at the same kind of colleges and makes the same kind of money working the same kinds of jobs.

 

True diversity comes with diversity of opinion, and one of the most impactful experiences I had with this was not in Los Angeles, but in Washington, D.C.

 

So let’s go there.

It was 1998. I went with a group of students from our AP US History class as part of this program called Close-Up. The intent of the whole trip was to get a firsthand look at the way government works. We met senators, toured the capital and did all the other things you do on a class trip to Washington, D.C. The best, and most genius part of the whole trip, however, was how the trip coordinators ensured that we could experience a different slice of America other than our own.

 

They started by pairing us in hotel rooms with kids from other states. All I remember about this was that I was rooming with two kids from Nebraska, and they liked Cake. The band, but I’m assuming they liked the baked kind, too. Nothing else about them was in any way different or extraordinary.

 

What was, however, was when we would all gather in one of the hotel ballrooms for discussions on current issues.

 

It’s all well and good to talk about diversity when everyone is excited to share their own culture and you’re enthusiastic about hearing your side of some irrelevant bit of popcorn trivia about your home. It’s not so cool when opinions diverge and a ballroom suddenly is on the verge of turning into Murderpit: The Reckoning.

 

As we gathered in the banquet hall at those big tables with the poofy red chairs that inhabit seemingly every ballroom in the country but nowhere else, we were given a question to discuss and take a side on. The very first question we received was “Should peyote be legal?”

 

Being suburban white kids from Kentucky, our drug lexicon was fairly limited at the time. All we had to go on was the quick summary given to us of the issue at hand. All we knew was that it was a hallucinogen that altered someone’s state of consciousness. Some said cool, but most said not cool, and thus our group can out strongly in the illegal camp.

 

No, a plant that can cause an altered state of consciousness should not be legal, our DARE trained brains concluded.

 

It seemed like a straightforward answer.

 

Our representative spoke confidently, outlining a concise and seemingly bulletproof defense of our position. Man, it sounded good. WE sounded good. This was America, man! Saying what you think and watching things get done!

 

You know that part in Return of the Jedi, when the rebels think they’re approaching a completely defunct Death Star only to realize at the last instant that is in fact, not defunct, and is instead completely able, ready and willing to annihilate them?

 

Yeah, dude, this was totally a trap.

 

Almost as soon as our delegate finished his last word, there erupted a loud voice of dissension from the back.

 

“You can’t make it illegal! You don’t even know what it is?”

 

“Do you?”

 

“Of course!” and that’s when the dude stood up. He said he was from a reservation somewhere, and that they used peyote in their culture and that it had significance to their culture and that we should rethink our answer. He wasn’t just saying this. He was yelling it. He was saying it so strongly his mouth was voluntarily getting rid of saliva to make more room for the words, and he had that look in his eye that made it abundantly clear that the thought of murdering our delegate had crossed his mind, and while the idea was clearly absurd, he hadn’t fully dismissed it at that point. Behind him was an entire banquet table of the same pitiless stares.

 

Which all of us sitting at the table avoided as we counted the number of threads in the carpet like good little non-confrontational white children. Our speaker tried valiantly to debate our position, but it was no good. He was abandoned by us, and without the spirit of conviction, it was a lost cause.

 

I don’t remember how the debate ended. I just remember feeling so stunned that our position was not the popular one by default, and that people had thoughts on the subject that came out of a realm completely outside my own understanding, which was so ignorantly limited.

 

It was a powerful lesson in diversity, Blue. You don’t get to say you appreciate diversity just because you live in a diverse place. True diversity comes from tolerating a diversity of opinions. With that, however, it’s not always enough to simply acknowledge that someone thinks differently than you on an issue. It’s important to realize that if you live in a diverse place, you also have the opportunity to grow from the conflict that results from dealing with diversity.

 

But you have to be ready for the unexpected. That’s diversity, Blue. The unexpected.

 

-Dad