On This Martin Luther King, Jr Day

Not sure why, but today’s day of remembrance brought back memories of the time a holiday was first proposed honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. some thirty years ago (wow).

I was in high school at the time, on the cusp of the biggest social change of my lifetime, between the 1970s and 1980s. In the 70s, I remember being taught by hippies to love music, the earth, and one another.

We learned about racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and even got some indirect instruction about homophobia. I remember the day vividly. We were seated in our 2nd grade class, and someone derisively called someone else “gay.” We all laughed.

Then our teacher smiled, and asked everybody to come sit down on the floor next to her (she was beautiful and I was always first). Then she asked us if we knew what “gay” meant and someone said “yes, a really dumb person.”

She smiled again and looked at me. I beamed. “Gay means somebody who loves men,” I said. She corrected me. Then she turned to the class and asked “why in Heaven” it was considered an insult to love someone of the same sex.

We were stunned. Nobody had ever questioned things like that before. In fact, many of us had heard our own parents use similar, if not identical slurs. What was she saying – that our own parents were wrong?

I remember going home and checking this new information with my parents, who seemed a little concerned about my question, but confirmed its accuracy. Wow. “So is it like being racist?”

I don’t remember their answer, but I remember mine.

Then, in the 1980s, something changed. Reagan was elected, and there was a resurgence in national pride. Interestingly, though, this came alongside a real coarsening in our civic dialogue. Almost overnight, Russians, the poor, and anyone associated with labor unions became the enemy.

My teachers began to question out loud the morality or efficacy of social support systems, and the term “Welfare queen” began to enjoy widespread currency. PETCO was dissolved by Reagan and people cheered. Some years later Reagan made his “we begin bombing in five minutes” remark and it seemed like I was the only one furious.

I remember my 10th grade history teacher bringing in a former student who was one of the first people into Grenada. He told us how he landed, and faced no resistance from people he derided as gay in multiple ways throughout his presentation. The class, and my teacher, laughed and appaluded.

I think that was the first time I had ever been so furious I wanted to cry and throw up at the same time (which I almost did, in the Nurse’s office). Somehow the America I grew up in got replaced by a colder, meaner, and far more violent one (Bernhard Goetz was another hero I could never quite fathom).

It was in the mix of all these things that a holiday for Dr. King was proposed and met its first resistance. I remember teachers and parents saying out loud it was a waste of taxpayer dollars, that Dr. King had never held public office, and that “you can’t force your politics onto others.”

I realized that I would need arguments to support my position, and that’s when I began seriously studying for me instead of for school or someone else.

I argued back that this was a step towards healing the horrible history of race relations in this country, which prompted some (teachers, parents, and peers) to look at me and say, “what are you talking about?”

Sigh.

I said the holiday isn’t trying to “legislate a political point of view” but advance the promise of the Constitution. I was met then, as now, with cries about the free speech rights of conservatives and “playing the race card.”

As bad as this was for my social life and self-esteem, though, it’s nothing compared to what Dr. King faced, or any of the other folks who lost friends, careers, or their own lives to the cause of Civil Rights.

Maybe it’s recent events in Arizona, the state that was a hotbed of opposition to the federal holiday, that brought this all back for me. Maybe it’s having an African-American in the White House, or the way politics has become more contentious than I can ever recall.

At least now I know I’m not crazy, just a 70s kid. Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everyone.

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Am I Racist for Feeling X?

This is the question Bill Maher asks, answers in the affirmative, then says, “and I don’t apologize for it.”

Wow, what bravery on the part of that Bill Maher and Juan Williams.

First of all, unless we’re talking Archie Bunker (and often even if we are) it’s almost always better to refer to actions rather than persons as “racist.”

So are feelings “actions?” How about thoughts? I think they’re both “actions” but of a special kind; let’s call them covert behaviors to distinguish them from overt actions, things we can observe.

Now I think a lot of what we think and feel we inherit from our parents, one another, and the culture at large. I also happen to believe a lot of what we think and even more of what we feel is reactionary, in response to our environment. Think skin flushing, hair standing on end, or the human sexual response. Largely involuntary, in my view.

So I don’t hold people morally responsible when they say, “look, this is what’s in my heart.”

The moral question for me is, what are you going to do with it?

It’s one thing to say, “hey I have this biased thought or feeling and I struggle with that because I know it’s not true.” It’s quite another to say, “hey I have this thought or feeling and I’m going to proclaim its truth from the highest balcony.”

It’s one thing to say “I have this biased thought or feeling and I know it says much more about me and my struggles than anything else.” This, I think, is an act of humility and considerable social courage.

It’s quite another to say “I have this thought or feeling and I regard it uncritically as a fully accurate representation of a reality outside of me.” That’s an act of bigotry, as well as cowardice, in my view.

The bigotry comes from generalizing about others uncritically based on one’s own experience. The cowardice comes from refusing to stand up to social pressures that legitimize and invite us to hate the group du jour.

Just me.

Harry Reid’s Mistake

By now, anyone who follows politics has heard of the controversy surrounding Harry Reid’s remarks. According to a recently published book-length gossip column (or, to be kind, a tabloid), he is reported to have said that then-candidate Barack Obama speaks “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

The GOP assault on Reid, with Michael Steele leading the indignant charge of the light brigade, is not surprising. What’s more surprising is the difficulty with which conversations about race continue to take place in this country. Specifically, I’m troubled by the relative ease with which attributions of malevolence, especially racism, are made.

Here’s my thinking. Imagine you have a favorite program on your computer, which you’ve relied on for years. You’ve heard over and over again about updates to your software, and even newer and better hardware to take advantage of it.

For whatever reasons, you’ve resisted, preferring to rely on the comfort of your current setup.

Then one day you’re forced to upgrade either your software or your computer. Someone sends you a very important attachment that your program can’t open. Your computer begins to take way too long to do the same thing it’s always done. You get a virus. Or you just like the new models. Whatever.

And then it happens. You were used to doing a task one way, and on your new setup it’s different. Your program crashes, or just refuses to do what you want it to do.

People may or may not notice. If they do, they may or may not look away. If they stay to watch, they may or may not point a collective finger at you and say, “look, everybody, this lady / guy still thinks s/he’s on version 1.1!”

They, of course, are up to date. And as we all know, this immediately makes them smarter, more sophisticated, as well as better people over all than the person who didn’t upgrade. Simply because they have an easier time with the relevant technology than others.

Harry Reid used an old version of the English language to convey a number of important points. The first of these is that there is a difference in the way people speak. Anyone who’s gone across their town, this country, or the world can attest to this.

In his comment, Harry accounted for that difference in terms of race. Pressed further, I’m sure he would have admitted that geography, class, ethnicity (not the same as race), level of formal education, gender, gender identity, sexuality, and yes, even age (gasp!) all play a role as well in shaping the way we talk.

But he used an outdated word to make another uncomfortable point. That is the fact that we judge people by the way they talk.

In my part of the country, it’s still quite fashionable to make fun of the way people talk in another part. The unspoken argument is that our fellow Americans who talk that way are by nature unsophisticated, uneducated, ignorant, or just plain dumb. And that we doing the judging-by-joking are so much better, simply because of where we live.

This is the phenomenon Sarah Palin has tapped into so well: the understandable outrage that many have over being judged by their wealthier cousins.

And before you say, “not me!” think of how common it is to judge a person’s intelligence from the way they write, spell, or form letters on a printed page.

A Very Rascally Aside

Very few of us are accustomed to saying, “while s/he really struggles to read, speak, write, or get things done in the most efficient manner, don’t underestimate their motivation, smarts, or savvy.”

Fewer still say, “well, in a culture like ours that values a certain kind of cognitive-behavioral efficiency (and passionlessness) at the expense of everything else, people like this are at high risk of bleeding self-esteem from a very young age.”

Translation: when you can’t finish the first grade as fast as everybody else, or you sense or feel things much more intensely than others, you’re often made to feel bad, like you failed. And sad thing is you might actually be pretty smart, if only people could see beneath the kinds of behaviors schools and workplaces typically (from my standpoint) overvalue.

Yes, we judge people. And for many, a very convenient cognitive shorthand for this process is race. For others, it’s gender. For others, it’s nationality. And so on.

I think Harry Reid was also trying to say is that for a substantial portion of the electorate, the notion of a black male occupying the White House is terrifying, and that Barack Obama’s way of talking works quite well to reassure people he’s not as threatening as they have been programmed to think.

For me, the controversy over Harry Reid’s remark highlights more than ever the need to cut each other some much-needed slack when having racial conversations.

Instead of taking immediate and permanent offense to what someone said, ask them what they meant first. And if you don’t like what you heard, say so without accusing the person of being a racist (because even if they are, this is very unlikely to cure the problem).

Instead, separate them from their words and direct your attention exclusively to the latter. If you like, show how easily and in what ways their choice of words can be “misunderstood” by someone with your experiences. Educate, if possible.

Most importantly, invoke the hermeneutic principle of charity. That is to say, when confronted with an alien text (book, speech, religious object, work of art) make these your first presumptions: 1) that it’s speaking sincerely, 2) that it’s meaningful, and 3) that no matter how much it’s failing in either of the above, it’s trying.

If you want to be fancy, keep in mind that the text you are attempting to decipher may not be meant for your ears but someone else’s.

If you want to be super fancy, keep in mind that sometimes texts play with their authors as much as their audiences, at times even without their knowledge or permission.

Yes, I know: it’s not your responsibility to educate your fellow American, especially when s/he upsets you so much. Sure.

That line of thinking works great when it’s not your house and these aren’t your chores. If we want to make this country ours, I suggest we all do our part to turn down the thermostat, rewind the videotape, and do the hard work of understanding.

We can always judge later, if the need arises. When it doesn’t, you’re home.

The N Word

I had an interesting discussion on the way home from a conference once. I’d just done a workshop on diversity issues in a healthcare workplace, and was approached by one of the participants as I was packing away my laptop. This is usually the time when I get the best questions: the ones people are afraid to ask in front of colleagues and workmates.

“Hey, can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Why is it that black people think it’s OK for them to say [the N word] but not anyone else?” My interlocutor was white, and I’m Latino.

“Honestly, can’t say for sure. Probably have to take a poll. But something tells me you’re more interested in letting me know what you think about the matter.”

“I just think it’s unfair when blacks use the word but white people aren’t supposed to.”

“You really want to use the word, don’t you?”

“No, that’s not my point at all!”

“Oh, then it’s the principle of the thing – you want the freedom to be able to use that word.”

“No, not quite.”

“Well, then can we say that you see issues of justice here?”

“Yes, sort of. I just think if a word is wrong or inappropriate, then nobody should be allowed to use it. Period, the end.”

“Final answer.”

“Final answer.”

“Final solution.”

“The solution is for everybody to follow the rules, regardless of race.”

“No exceptions.”

“No. Aren’t we supposed to be a race-blind society?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know? I thought that was the point of lectures like these!”

“Workshops.”

“Whatever. So you think that’s right?”

“Are you sure you want to know what I think?”

“Yes, go ahead.”

“Well, I think there’s a lot of history tied up in that word, history people like me can only hope to understand through books, on the outside, because we’ve never had to live it from the inside. At least not in the same way.”

“Sounds like you’re trying to make excuses for bad behavior.”

“You know, what’s really interesting to me about conversations like this?”

“No, what?”

“Questions like this: who gets to decide what bad behavior is? Who’s invited into the conversation that decides what’s right and wrong in a particular situation? And who gets the last word?”

“Look, you’re not answering my question. Are you trying to tell me saying [the N word] is OK?”

“I think for some people, in some settings, yes. And I think for other people in other settings, no. You’ll notice, for example, that I always say ‘the N word’ instead of the word you just used.”

“So you agree with me that the word’s just not right.”

“No, I didn’t say that. What I said is it depends on the speaker and circumstance. What I also think is that the N word is an incredibly powerful one which doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to a group of people with a particular history and story to tell – about things such as the N word.”

“Sounds like you’re trying to make excuses again.”

“And it sounds to me like you’re playing judge and jury again.”

“Why? Just because I’m white and I have an opinion about the word [the N word]? Please!”

“Well to be frank, given the history I find deeply important and you find a distraction, I’m deeply suspicious of attempts on the part of white people to tell people of color what they can and can’t say.”

“Oh you guys really all stick together, don’t you?”

“Look, let me ask you this: do you feel your civil liberties are at stake in this discussion?”

“You’re damn right I do.”

“Freedom of speech, things like that?”

“Absolutely.”

“Then let me suggest that, in your gut at this very moment, are the emotional seeds that’ll connect you in a very felt way to the history I’m talking about.”

“I don’t get your point.”

“What I’m saying is, follow your outrage. If I’m right, it’s trying to speak the language of social justice, right and wrong, no?”

“All right, I’ll agree with that.”

“Then all I’m saying is that your concerns are not entirely different, in substance, from those of the people you’re criticizing.”

“Yeah, but the difference is they’re trying to take away freedoms from people like you and me.”

“And I can imagine how you feel about things like affirmative action.”

“Don’t get me started.”

“Of course. Look, I’m just about to miss my train.”

“Oh, I’m sorry – go, go.”

“Can I ask you a favor?” I handed him my card. “E-mail me so we can finish up this conversation some other time?”

“Sure.”

Dude, It’s So Not About You

A couple of recent events really bring a pet peeve of mine to life. That is the tendency on the part of certain individuals to (often obnoxiously) direct attention to themselves when they feel it is being inappropriately directed elsewhere.

The most obvious recent instance is that of Kanye West, who, as we all know, rudely interrupted Taylor Swift in the process of receiving an award for best video. This was rude and uncalled for, sure. I’m sure even Kanye would admit that now.

But why did he do it?

Then just a few days later, the President of the United States of America is addressing a joint session of Congress. A Republican congressman – who forever earned himself the title of impudent whelp with this one – gets up and yells, “you lie!”

Why did Joe Wilson do this?

I suspect, in both cases, it was because the gentlemen (I use the term loosely) in question felt a particular form of injustice was being committed. This is an injustice that they alone were in a position to point out (but not to redress – that’s up to us), and which admits to only one form of solution. At least under the exigencies of the moment.

What each gentleman did was hog the spotlight, and cry out in pain. “My pal Beyonce should have gotten the award!” “I hate the President!”

Now why didn’t these fine gents do something with their displeasure other than inflict it upon as wide an audience as possible? For instance, why couldn’t they have contained their outrage long enough to speak to someone privately, write a letter, or confess their sentiments to a reporter afterwards?

Why, indeed, did each bolt out onto the stage (in their own way), take the mike, and express what’s on their mind?

The key word here, of course is their. Not what’s on Beyonce’s mind, and most certainly not what was on Taylor Swift’s or the the President’s. Their mind. Why theirs?

I suspect because each felt a unique form of personal injury. Under most conditions, things that hurt us get worse under conditions of greater attention. But some injuries, interestingly, seem to demand it.

These injuries hog the spotlight the way tumors hog blood supplies: you’d get a sense the entity in question would die without its oxygen. So when does attention equal oxygen and what’s at risk of suffocation in these cases?

Well, what’s dying (if only it could be permitted to do so quietly!) is the image each of these gentlemen hold of themselves. Each of them, unwittingly, and usually with the help of friends, family members, society, and other enablers, has allowed their self-esteem to become hitched to an idea.

On the one hand, that Beyonce should have won. On the other, well, that someone else should be president.

When that idea dies, each of these individuals die, a thousand deaths, on the inside. That’s because, for whatever reasons, they’ve come to identify so much with the idea that their identities are tied up with them. Just look at or ask any sports fan who they love and who they hate.

And so some people cry out in pain, for relief: “save my idea!” Tragic thing is, they cry out in ways that almost secure their loss of social status, credibility, and likability. But cry they do nevertheless, and they need our help, like it or not.

Their favorite didn’t win. Did you hear that, nationally televised audience? They’re upset, and you should be too. And here they are to tell you all about it. You should thank them.

Of course, if you don’t share their view, then you must be their sworn enemy. Either that or just another piece of furniture.

And guess who gets to decide your ontological status!

This is the kind of injury that, for very good reasons, just cannot be kept private. That’s because the solution is believed to be – that is to say, deeply experienced as – something that can only come from the outside. Each of these people is seeking their liberator, the person who can set things right for them, reassure them, or cure them.

Cure them from what? Well, to be specific, from the relentless assaults on the integrity of their experience. That’s what Rush, Beck, and Dobbs do so well for them: reassure them that everything’s going to be ok, that there’s nothing morally wrong with them for being so afraid and hating so much, and that big daddy is going to make them feel like a grown-up again.

The biggest threat to these demagogues is the healer: someone who can put out the fires raging inside some people instead of throwing lighter fluid on them. You know, someone empathic, who can speak effectively to people’s pain…like any recent Democratic presidents you know?

Of course Rush hates Obama. But he’s got to love what the man’s has done for his ratings.

But back to the pain. All of us, without knowing it, not only like to feel like a whole person, but need to. When we don’t, it’s one of the worst feelings around. Try to remember the last time your head and heart were not on speaking terms. Now imagine feeling like this every time you turn on the TV and someone like Rush Limbaugh is president.

I know. Yikes and yuk.

Ordinarily, the integrity of our experience isn’t called into question. But this presumes we made it through childhood and adolescence OK, and/or that we don’t live under conditions of constant criticism or personal attack.

But people who do, or have, know viscerally how easily and powerfully a word, tone, or glance can humiliate or devastate. And of course anyone with feelings knows they can be hurt, more or less severely, more or less suddenly.

This, I think, is what happened to these gentlemen. Imagine growing up with or otherwise developing a skin so thin that everything you see or read itches, irritates, or stings your self-esteem. Not fun.

When their idea was threatened, so were they, in ways I can only imagine they may have known far too well growing up.

So next time you look out at the birthers, town hollers, town maulers, and all those Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck fans who cry over the loss of their beloved country, think pain. Their world was rocked last November in a way it never could be for others.

And ever since then, our political discourse has been, regrettably, one of having to tend to their injuries. Sad to say, but powerfully painful feelings of political, sexual, intellectual, cultural, economic, and even racial inadequacy were opened up not too long ago in millions of Americans. Those of us who lived through the Civil Rights or busing struggles know what I mean.

Yes, it sucks. And no, it’s ultimately not about them. But you won’t change these people – or get the conversation back to what it should be about – unless and until you speak to or otherwise address their pain. Anything else done in the meantime – politically, socially, legally – is just temporary, in the service of containment. Cure and healing are another set of processes entirely.

I’m not saying stop being outraged over what they’re trying to do to our country, no. Or let them put (or keep) their foot on our neck. No, continue to oppose them as I do in the public square. Keep letting them know, in no uncertain terms, that there are more important things in this world other than their own personal pain.

Like health care. The economy. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Equal protection for all Americans. You know, other people’s pain.

All I’m saying is let your awareness of their pain add to your creativity, flexibility – and yes, patience – in dealing with them. They’re selfish because they have to be, and until they’re fed and sheltered, they’re not going to be available for the kind of compassion and generosity we might otherwise expect.

So, oddly, it does end up being about them, even though we wish it didn’t have to be. Well, sometimes fires burn in our city; we put them out first and only then go looking for the arsonist or other cause.

After all, the birthers, town maulers, and other equally obnoxious types are our neighbors too. And someone smart once said that it’s hard to love your country if you can’t find a way to love your fellow countrymen.

On the Skip Gates Controversy

Count me among those who spend the better part of each day trying to avoid conversations like these.

Why? Well, because discussions involving race are extraordinarily difficult to have. To the degree to which they’re open, honest, and direct, they hurt people.

For some, their worst nightmare is that they’ll be regarded as racist for something they’ve said or done. For others, it’s the sinking feeling that, once again, indignity and injustice is being overlooked, justified, or even supported.

In order to avoid such risks, conversations on race typically try (sometimes very hard) to “play it safe.” This, however, invariably disappoints, as it does little more than recite platitudes which to little to advance understanding.

Invariably, people who take race seriously leave discussions like these feeling important dimensions of the topic are left out, ignored, or just not addressed. Another chance to get somebody to see what’s eating you – what’s not to easy to say or point to – and another chance lost.

Life is nothing, it seems, if not a constant series of reminders that there’s another side to existence besides the warm and rosy. Things that happen that infuriate, perplex, and, left unaddressed, have the potential to crystallize into a prison of hatred or despair.

Most of you are familiar with the broad details of the controversy. Just over a week ago, Skip Gates, professor and head of African American studies at Harvard, was arrested at his home after trying to break into it with the help of another African American who happened to be his driver.

Not surprisingly, accounts of the incident differ wildly among the participants. The arresting officer has one account, Skip has another.

What doesn’t seem to be in dispute is that Gates is an old man who walks with the assistance of a cane. It also appears to be the case that at some time during the encounter Gates produced evidence that he was the owner of the home.

What may be more contestable (but not controversial, from my point of view) is the notion that the police officer is the one in charge of the situation, and that this power differential confers upon her (or him) numerous advantages as well as enormous responsibilities.

My question is this: was there really and truly no chance at all for the presiding officer, with all his training and experience, to de-escalate the situation? Even in the case of someone belligerent prior to the officers’ arrival, was there no way at all to turn the heat down? Or did egos really have to clash in such a schoolyard manner?

I think the President was right, last night, to call the actions of the police officer stupid. Not the officer, the actions; if a man owns a home, he shouldn’t end up being arrested for trying to break into it, even if he wants to be.

The President was equally righ this afternoon, in my view, to question on what basis an elderly gentleman needs to be led away from his home in handcuffs.

On right-wing talk radio the next day, the arresting officer repeatedly referred to Gates’ “belligerence” in justifying the arrest. He went on to scold Gates, saying he didn’t expect such behavior from someone “of his caliber.”

This raises the issue of what Skip’s crime was. Raising your voice to a police officer? Asking for a name and a badge?

Protesting a perceived injustice? Irritating an impatient police officer?

Being an uppity brown person who doesn’t know his place?

Doing any or all of these things on your property, or inside your own home?

It’s not the cop’s job to retaliate for a perceived insult, it’s her job to insure the public safety. And is the interest of public safety really advanced by humiliating a black man before his neighbors and community? There’s no way we can ever know this with certainty, but could some portion of the intent have been to send a message to dissuade other people of color from talking back to edgy police officers?

I read with amusement the articles supporting the officer in the local paper. One details how he tried to save the life of a noted African American basketball player by administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Another is a statement from the attorney representing his union, saying the President “will come to regret his remarks.”

More schoolyard taunts, except this time threatening the President of the United States. This gentleman is sure to be a hero now, among his fellow birthers and tea partiers. Look for him to be the next darling of the GOP talk circuit.

And while I support the President in his remarks, I do think it would have been better if he’d given some attention to the challenges police officers of all races face on a daily basis. If they’re not always the nicest people in the world, or don’t always have the best manners, I think we can understand some of that as the result of serving on the front lines of a war.

All the more reason, in my view, for officers to receive more and better training in race relations.

This leads me to my closing thought: I wonder how often things like this would happen if we, as a nation, took the history of race relations in this country seriously enough to teach it to every child.

As seriously as, let’s say, the ability to add, subtract, or divide.