Resetting Language: Leading the Conversation on Diversity II

October 13, 2020
In this longish newsletter, I resume my attempt to affect how we all, and especially leaders, approach talking about our most acute group identities, particularly race, and how to improve our approach. (Part 1: Setting the Context appears here)
This time, I focus on how we consider two current words/phrases in good standing, namely racist and color blind. It gets personal. It may prove provocative. I hope that it proves useful in these troubled times. If you choose to read on, then I ask that you take the time to read carefully and with good intention—this subject can prove difficult at best even when we’re paying full attention to one another and trying ever so hard to communicate, perhaps especially to hear.
I entered my 20’s during the 1970’s. The title of a best seller that appeared in the late 1960’s captured one major stream of that period—‘I’m Ok, You’re Ok’.  Aside from the book’s content, which I’d contend is worth a look, I remember thinking at the time how counterproductive, misleading, and even dangerous the title was—my version was and is ‘I’m screwed up, you’re screwed up—I’m working on my screwed-upness and if you’re not working on your screwed-upness, then you’re more screwed up than I am.’ I don’t imagine that my title would have increased sales for that or probably any other book, but it provides a way into the following:
I’d contend that ‘racist’ isn’t a binary, am/am not variable and that treating it as such gets in the way of our conversation and thereby of our understanding and learning. Such a binary, machine language approach to our thinking impairs our ability to do justice to the complex and thereby limits our ability from the outset to act as effectively as we might. Racism, like so many characteristics, is a spectrum– in this case of how much of a given sort of psychological garbage we carry around and just what are we doing about it.
I am American by birth, three generations removed from a varied set of European immigrants. As such, I arise from a deeply aspirational, in many ways admirable and, at the same time, flawed history. I am imbued with the American creed of hope and of human rights, a gift from generations of believers, not the least of which being my family’s WWII veterans. Even so, I have lived and continue to live my life within a society that has struggled from the beginning with who qualifies as a citizen beyond white, male landowners of a given age, a society built in no small part upon massive wealth generated by a slave society in the South and a slave economy in the North as cotton plantations generated tremendous wealth, financed by Northern (and European) banks and spun in Northern (and European) factories.
All this transpired on land taken and retaken from Native Americans who saw treaty after treaty torn up or blatantly and often violently disregarded by a people preaching the rule of law, especially contract law, a people who justified such savagery by deeming Native Americans as savages.  ‘All this’ included 250 years of slavery, a century of Jim Crow, resounding Northern hypocrisy (e.g., state laws prohibiting both slavery and residence by anyone formerly enslaved), and decades of sputtering progress. ‘All this’ meant defining ‘progress’ as pronouncing the end of 250 years of enslavement and its mind numbing and heart wrenching abuse and forced illiteracy, then building an American apartheid system and labelling all that ‘freedom’.
We can all find regrets in our lives, some deep. At our best, we own them; we toil not to ignore or deny them but to make them part of ourselves, of our story and not simply to learn from them, but to address them, to incorporate them into our understanding of ourselves and to enhance our connection to others. America is a magnificent, sweeping story and, simultaneously, oh so flawed, especially as viewed from its own highest and most admirable standards.
I come from a family at least four generations deep in taking various personally risky actions in support of human rights, including those of Blacks– not marching on Selma Bridge risky, but every day risky enough to have consequences, bad and good. For example, I’ve been assaulted by whites for raising/pursuing what I viewed as employment discrimination against a black person and I’ve been invited by the black faculty chairperson of a university African American Studies department to facilitate a departmental planning retreat. All that said, to grow up white in America, as I did, is to grow up racist to some degree and very color aware. Period.
We can work and rework the definitions, but IF racism means carrying potentially harmful prejudicial views based on another person’s race (ditto for sex or gender or age or ethnicity or religion or sexual preference …), then I find that wiring all the time—in me. It came and comes in the water supply, in the American air I breathe, along with the ingredients that I treasure. (It likely comes in other water and air in other countries regarding same and different groups, since studies tell us of the ubiquitous homo sapien problem with ‘other’. For my part, I share my country’s manifestation of this larger, very human, timeless problem.)  I am not immune, upbringing notwithstanding. I too am infected.
I work to rework the wiring and to override it, in myself and in others. For instance, we whites frequently offer up proof of how we’re not racist—’other whites, maybe, but not me.’ It’s a way we express our defensiveness and perhaps our shame, at the very least for not doing more to counteract America’s brand of racism. It’s also a way in which we can, perhaps unwittingly, forestall deeper conversations about race, especially with Blacks, by signaling a perceived lack of willingness to own, to engage our own racism or to acknowledge the benefits that we have derived from the racism of others. I have seen this dynamic in the work that I do in this area.
Again, I am not immune. I have all kinds of prejudices and I’ll die with all kinds of prejudices, but I do work on them and, yes, I could and probably should work harder. I accept this aspect of my screwed-upness and sure as hell have and continue to work on it. Or, as I said recently to an international group that had asked me to join a discussion on social disparities in American healthcare, ‘I’ve worked on reducing the racist part of myself for most of my life. I’m regularly trying to clean my lenses so that I can see more clearly, and I often find that we can help one another clean our respective lenses.’ For what it’s worth, I find the acceptance of my ongoing struggle most helpful in continuing it.
Color Blind
As for ‘color blind’… there’s a piece of what I understand is in the intention behind the phrase that I value (i.e., not being ‘blinded by color’… or gender or sex or religion or…), but there’s also a danger in the phrase that I believe has contributed to the damaging, greeting card, conversation limiting quality present in much of political correctness– and especially so beginning in the 1990s when so many simply gave up trying to ‘have the race conversation’ or ‘the gender conversation’, opting instead for what I would term ‘greeting card safe’. This is not safe ground, important ground to walk, but not safe, either to walk or to avoid.
Of course I see color… and age and gender and… I am not, indeed, blind. Color is part of whomever I see, including myself. I’ve kidded in groups on occasion, ‘Hey, did you know I’m white?’—non-whites tend to laugh and whites, well, ‘not so much’ – non-whites being immediately (and I’d suggest necessarily) consciously aware of my race while whites were (I’d suggest) unconsciously aware that my color wasn’t an issue for them precisely because I was white and therefore moved on. Or, as a Native American friend once told me, ‘It’s very important for an Indian {He always referred to himself as and requested that others refer to him as an “Indian”} who goes on an ‘off res’ school bus to know the difference between being on it and being on an ‘on-res’ school bus.’ Yes, race is a relatively recently articulated construct AND it’s part of who I and others are in this society and how we’ve lived what we’ve lived. To not see it would be to deny important aspects of another and of me, our lives, and most likely our relationship.
I am an older, white, American, heterosexual, Christian male of Irish-Catholic descent.  I believe that I’m more than a sum of those parts, but there sure is a lot of me that a multivariate analysis using those variables could account for. And when I meet a Native American, a Black, a South Asian, an Arab, a woman, a Jew … I do not claim to be or seek to be seen as ‘color blind’. Quite the contrary, I try to see and to take in group identities and I try to approach that person conscious and appreciative of those characteristics. Yes, hopefully we see one another as human beings first, foremost, and always, AND we see one another as coming from groups that have lived being a human being differently. At my best and with time, I try to approach– with respect, humility, empathy, and curiosity– what their experience of being human is and how through our differences (as well as our similarities) we might share and perhaps inform one another’s journey.
I was hospitalized at the end of 2017 as the culmination of what proved to be a very successful medical assault on my blood cancer, myeloma, the disease that killed my father. Over Thanksgiving, I was in a blood cancer unit for a stem cell transplant—two to three weeks of sheer bliss. I’d trained for this ordeal as I would have trained for one of my treks, at least as far as I was able, given a year filled to that point with major back surgery, radiation, chemo, etc. The stem cell transplant process included putting melphalan, arguably the strongest available medicinal poison, into me in the highest dose possible to try to wipe out every white blood cell in my body, i.e., to wipe out my immune system and turn me into a petri dish, before injecting me with my previously harvested stem cells and another drug to reboot my immune system, hopefully minus the cancer that had reached, via my blood, into literally every corner of my corpus. Then my body would spend (has spent) years cleaning things up and I would get to treat the disease as a chronic disorder akin to diabetes. (In my case, not so incidentally to me anyway, so far, so good, so very good.)
Everyone on that floor (perhaps 20 patients) and another floor had a type of blood cancer. Physicians were injecting some type of poison into each of us in order to try to kill what was trying to kill us without killing us with the cure. Consequently, each of us had the same constant companion– an IV pole—that’s how you could identify members of the resident blood cancer tribe.
I kept up as much of my training for as long as I could. Beginning first thing in the morning, I did endless laps around the unit, my home away from home, my neighborhood, in order to help my body deal with and rid itself of the poison modern medicine had prescribed for me. Early on in my travels I met an Egyptian Muslim. I never saw him out of his bed, not a good sign, but he was perky and alert first thing (around 6:30 or 7:00 a.m.), although he spent most of the rest of the day slumped over and semi-conscious. Over two weeks, he had only two visitors that I knew of and didn’t talk on the phone. He seemed quite alone.
He loved jokes and we exchanged at least one each almost every morning. I know a lot of jokes, but after two weeks I was beginning to run low. One morning he started our joke swap, but I paused before reciprocating. “What’s your joke today?” he asked as I stood in my usual position just inside the doorway to his room. I answered, “I have a joke, but I don’t want to offend you.” “What would offend me?” “Well,” I said, “it involves a Persian, it’s got some religion in it and in effect Allah.” He dismissed my concerns saying jovially and affirmatively, “We joke about everything. Tell me the joke.” I told him the joke and he found it ‘throw your head back and laugh’ funny. “That’s a good joke!” he declared. It was, judging by his reaction, the best joke I ever told him.
Several days later, I approached his room only to observe two white-coated docs enter his room and close the door. Never a good sign in a hospital. A very bad sign on a cancer floor. His door remained closed all day.
The next morning I found him far from his usual perky self. Rather, he slumped over and looked away. “How are you?” I asked. He shrugged and didn’t make eye contact. I wasn’t giving up. “You had a tough day yesterday.” He shrugged again briefly looking at me. I decided that I’d roll all the relational dice for my IV pole fellow traveler and said, “Allahu akbar”, an Arabic phrase that means ‘God is great/the greatest’ and a phrase used often by Muslims, including to note a blessing or, as in this case, to note that God is greater than any challenge or hardship, including death.
He sat upright and locked onto my eyes. Over the next few seconds, I watched something I had never seen. Waves of emotion passed down his face so quickly that one hadn’t left his lower face before the next began on his upper face—shock, confusion, anger (so powerful that even though I stood perhaps eight feet from him, I took a step backwards, feeling forcefully pushed away), and finally calm. He then replied earnestly and intensely, “Allahu akbar”. We held each other’s gaze. No jokes today. I nodded once slowly, waited a moment, turned and left. They moved him from his room later that day, to palliative care or hospice, I presume. I never saw him again. We had never told one another our names. It had never seemed to matter.
Being ‘color aware’ or aware of both our differences and our similarities made that moment possible in the form that it took. If we had been ‘color blind’, in the sense of not being alert to one another’s differences (as well as to our common suffering humanity) or willing to knowingly speak to them, then he and I could not have created such a moment. I couldn’t have offered the gift as I did and he couldn’t have accepted it as he did. He was an Egyptian Muslim dying alone with only an American Christian there at that moment to offer heartfelt, heart aching support and trying hard to offer it in the tradition of the other, in his tradition.
I did that as appropriately and respectfully as I could… and he was willing to see it just so and to accept it just so. We were two human beings aware and trying and connecting more, not less, because neither of us was ‘color blind’. Our mutually recognized differences made possible the particular uniqueness of the gifting process that constituted, for each of us in our own fashion, that moment.
Hopefully, this newsletter and its sister (Part 1) will help in our leading one another to the creation of such moments–shared, glowing moments to light our trail for however long it may extend in front of any one of us. Or, as Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Peace.
Be well. Stay well.