Our very different pains rhyme

During this week of Martin Luther King Day, I’ve found myself reflecting on both the state of equity in America and my personal journey toward the greater understanding of such.

In the Air Force, we received annual training designed to teach respect for differences and promote the value of diversity. We were taught that in spite of any “deeply held beliefs”, we must not act in a manner inconsistent with Air Force values. The Commander of Air Mobility Command General Darren McDew, wrote in 2015 that,

“Diversity is part of our DNA. America’s strength is even greater than the sum of its parts. Our best qualities as a nation shine through when we embrace different cultures, backgrounds, and ways of thinking.”

While serving, I felt the Air Force believed this ideal even if it wasn’t always successful at achieving it.

It wasn’t until I retired from the Air Force and managed a nonprofit with social justice as one of its core tenets, that I gained deeper insight into the meaning of equity. In fact, I was some 50 years old before I can remember hearing the term “white privilege”, especially used in reference to me.

The job was an ill fit for a hard-charging retired Colonel who wasn’t really prepared for the vastly different culture I would encounter. One example was my effort to learn more about each staff member by taking them to lunch. One of my goals was to learn what was important to them and how I could support them. One, an African-American transgender male, seemed very distrustful of me and was not interested in opening up to me or helping me navigate the new environment. He indicated early on that I didn’t understand and when I asked him to help me understand, he said that wasn’t his job. I was incredibly put off by his response and did not try again to reach out to him.

A decade later I understand more about what he meant when he said it was not his job to make me understand. When I think back on it now, I’m mortified at how ignorant I was about the real state of equity (or rather inequity) in America. I credit the Arizona School Boards Association for much of my increased awareness and understanding. I’ve gained great insights via attendance at conferences, tuning in to webinars, being a part of the Black and Hispanic and Native American Indian caucuses, or just talking to the very diverse membership. I’ve also enhanced my understanding of equity challenges by reading a variety of books and articles on the subject.

One such book is “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. According to the publisher’s summary, it “is the first scholarly work to tell America’s story from the bottom up – from the point of view of, and in the words of, America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, the working poor and immigrant laborers.” My perspective is that it lays bare, the truth about American exceptionalism. Yes, our founding fathers set out to create a “more perfect union”, but they did not do it on their own. They did it through a combination of grit and ruthlessness and on the backs of those who largely, were not white.

White settlers n America and the soldiers that paved their way, were for all practical purposes, a conquering force. And let’s face it, those being conquered always get the raw end of the deal. As we know though, America’s indiginous people were not the only ones used, abused and slaughtered. There has always been some group of people who paid the price for the rest of us to succeed and prosper. Another book I recently listened to, poignantly drove that message home. It is a novel called “Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan and tells the story of the fear and brutality of slavery in the 1800s.

These books helped me understand the sins of our American past that set the stage for the inequities many of our citizens continue to experience. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really understand that connection earlier in my life. I didn’t understand what impact centuries of systematic oppression could have on people living today. I didn’t know that poverty is the greatest barrier to student success and that those students in poverty are overwhelmingly of color. I certainly didn’t know about our discriminatory policies such as “redlining” to deny blacks homes in certain neighborhoods (still happening today), that insidiously creates barriers almost impossible to overcome.

These aren’t the only barriers that seem almost impossible to overcome. According to the Pew Research Center, in the twenty-five years they’ve been surveying Republicans and Democrats about how they view the other party,

“the majority of respondents in both parties answered ”very unfavorable“ for the first time in 2016. More than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican party makes them ‘afraid’ while 45% of Republicans say the same about Democrats. And just half of the members of both parties say that the other party makes them feel ‘angry’.”

I’m not trying to equate racial hatred and oppression with political polarization. Isn’t it all though, tied together in some way? Hate crimes in the US are up by 20% since 2016 and in the first three months of 2017 alone, anti-Semitic incidents were up by 86%. We know it has always existed, but a political environment unmoored from norms has unleashed the ugliness.

That’s why I was drawn to a book called “The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity”, by Sally Kohn. Tired of the 24/7 vitriolic bombardment and of feeling helpless to affect the change we need, I was looking for some nuggets of wisdom. Kohn offered many such nuggets, primarily gleaned by going into the field to talk to people in situations where they have every reason to hate, but then overcame that inclination and exhibited just the opposite. From the Palestinian vs. Israeli conflict, to the Rwandan genocide, to the real and very painful hate played out everyday in our own country (on-line and in-person), Kohn provides hope via examples of people who have “listened to their better angels.”

“Our identities and experience in the world in our skin aren’t the same”, she writes, “but can we all perhaps notice how, as the writer Anand Giridharadas says, ’our very different pains rhyme”’?”

LOVE this! We all are after all, just and equally, human.

Unfortunately, that concept often eludes us. The concept of “cultural hegemony” Kohn writes, is that

“whereby the worldview of the elite becomes the accepted social norm. The dominant view in the United States that white people should rightfully have more privilege and power is a form of cultural hegemony. And groups who benefit from hegemony don’t see their own bias – they just think that’s the way things should be. As the saying goes, ‘When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.’”

So, not understanding that I have “white privilege” doesn’t necessarily make me a bad person, but not being willing to learn about it and work to mitigate its potentially deleterious impacts (at least on a personal level), just might. As Kohn points out, “writer Audre Lorde suggests that forgiveness is injustice:

“Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.”

So, I suspect, my former employee didn’t want to waste energy trying to educate me, when he didn’t believe I would either “get it”, or be part of the solution.

I understand now that the equality is not the same as equity. I also understand that the real question is not whether we are biased but rather how much bias we have and what we do to counteract it. Research shows it benefits all of us to do just that. We know that racial and ethnic diversity is great for communities, increases home values, and lowers crime (without putting up fences and gates). It also raises the achievement of all students in a school, not just those disadvantaged. But, as Kohn points out,

“it is too easy to believe that poverty and crime afflicting urban black communities is their fault, not seeing it as the result of centuries of violence and oppression, economic discrimination, and white flight. Just as it’s too easy to believe that poverty and crime afflicting rural white communities is their fault, not the product of discrimination and perverse health system incentives and the massive shift of manufacturing jobs from those rural towns to overseas. Because if it’s their fault, then there’s nothing for us to try to understand, let alone have to address. If it’s hard enough to overcome our own individual prejudices and biases, overcoming systemic hate is an even steeper uphill battle.”

Key to “Repairing Our Humanity” according to Kohn, is understanding our commonality.

“All hate is premised on a mind-set of otherizing. It doesn’t matter whether that “other” is someone of a different color, or gender, or race, or political party. The sanctimonious pedestal of superiority on which we all put ourselves while we systematically dehumanize others is the essential root of hate. In big and small ways, consciously and unconsciously, we constantly filter the world around us through the lens of our explicit and implicit biases [which we ALL, every single one of us has]. We think we’re good people, but we don’t see how that sphere of moral concern is constricted by hate, by the history and habits and culture of who matters and who doesn’t in our society, which we have all bought into, whether we mean to or not. The opposite of hate is the beautiful and powerful reality of how we are all fundamentally linked and equal as human beings. The opposite of hate is connection.“

One great example of this concept is the movie ”Green Book” which I just saw. I won’t go into it here, but trust me, it is a great illustration of the difference connection can make.

So, connection is key, but so is the personal responsibility to work for it. We must, as Kohn writes,

“become more conscious of our own hate – in all its forms, and work to catch and challenge our ideas and assumptions. We must support policies and institutions that bring us together, rather than divide us.”

That, she writes, will take talking to each other differently. “With the generosity and open-mindedness and kindness and compassion of connection-speech, instead of hate.” Again, a pearl of wisdom from Anand Giridharadas in a 2017 speech,

“Real change is systemic and self-implicating, urging us to see our role in vast, complex problems.”

We ALL, each and EVERY one of us, have a responsibility and role to play, to get us out of the gutter. No one has a free pass that relieves them of that responsibility.

Kohn spoke to me throughout her book to include this sentence,

“I haven’t arrived at some place of enlightenment. I’ve simply realized I need to turn on the light – and start noticing things differently and trying to be different.”

There is not a person on earth who does not have a bias. Realizing our biases exist is the first step. The second one is taking the required actions to see through them so you can be a part of the solution versus part of the problem. Mahatma Ghandi said we must each, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” And as the ancient Chinese saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

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