The national conversation on race is proving once again to not be so easy. In my first blog, I talked about the importance of starting the conversation from a point of common ground. I highlighted that in order to improve race relations in this country, we as human beings, must grapple with our inherent subjectivity and learn how to be more objective. I believe that another area of common ground that is important to acknowledge is that as a society, the majority of us believe in equality for all. In spite of this however, we seem to get stuck in the past. The conversation becomes uncomfortable, devolving into the white privilege, shame-blame theme that can be divisive and counterproductive. In order to achieve equality for all, we have to get unstuck and ignite collective action, not just from minorities, but from everyone to eliminate structural discrimination in our society. In order to effectively address issues such as stand your ground, voter suppression, racial profiling and the school to prison pipeline, again, I think being more objective is critical:
1) Objectivity is seeing things as they are without projecting our past experiences and fears onto the current situation.
We have indeed made progress in race relations over the last 100 years even though the Zimmerman verdict clearly highlights in a very emotional way that racial disparities still persist in this country. We should take it as a signal that we, as a society, have much more to do in order to achieve the MLK vision of equality for all. However, the verdict does not mean that we are going back to the days of the civil rights movement. Projecting the past onto the current situation minimizes the progress we have made and evokes fear, frustration, and anger, all of which impede our ability to move forward. The fact that we have the first Black President does not mean we are in a post-racial society, but it does mean that we have moved forward.
2) Objectivity is acknowledging that our common experience as human beings is that we all have bias.
The challenge is that many of us who are aware of our biases are ashamed of ourselves for having them. When we feel ashamed that we have bias, our tendency is to deny it, become defensive about it, and distance ourselves from it. We have to accept the fact that it is in our nature to have bias; and it is not just toward African Americans. It can be toward anyone who is different from us in any way. We must stop blaming each other for having bias we must stop feeling ashamed that we have bias, but we must hold ourselves accountable for our behavior toward one another. We must realize that each of us has the capacity to overcome our bias, take the time to get to know the other person, beyond the superficial, and treat everyone respectfully. I am fortunate to have a positive experience of this at an early age:
During the time of the civil rights movement, when we were in the fourth grade, my twin sister and I integrated a small private school in the suburbs of Philadelphia. My mother was a savvy woman who was fiercely devoted to her children. She knew that the only way we would get ahead was if we got a good education and were given a chance to develop our God-given gifts and talents. But I was scared and very nervous about my sister and I being the first and only African Americans at the school. I was afraid of how I would be treated and nervous that I would not be accepted. My mother sat me down and told me that I could not let anyone else's opinion of me dictate who I was going to be. She said I was the only one who could decide that for myself. I just had to focus on who I was, being the best I could be; then people would see beyond my color. I took that to heart, and I spent the next eight years just being myself. The people in the school got to know me and like me, and they were open to learning more about my culture and my background. I was the first black Peter Pan in our sixth-grade play, and I was elected president of my class many times and also president of the student council. It turned out to be a wonderful experience for me. By the time I graduated, I was no longer self-conscious about my race, and it was clear that I had had a very positive impact on the school. In fact, we had Smokey Robinson playing at our graduation!
Recently, my classmates from the private school connected on Facebook and shared this picture. It was heart warming for me when one of my classmates sent me a message saying: "Loved you like a sister! I have so many memories of laughing with you in my Mazda! Nice to see your beautiful face." This is what is possible.
3) Objectivity is the power to see things as they are, which includes us. We cannot control how any one will respond to us, and we cannot project other people's biases, assumptions and past experiences onto how we feel about ourselves. I learned this lesson the hard way:
In my early 20s, I was living in Dallas, Texas, working for American Express as the first and only black account manager, charged with selling AmEx's travelers cheque program to banks in Lubbock and Amarillo, Texas, and the state of Kansas. I was determined to do well. My goal was to be #1 in the region and get promoted and be transferred back to the East Coast.
I had set up an appointment to meet with a banker in Wichita, Kansas. Apparently, I didn't sound black over the phone because when I got there he said, "When did American Express start hiring black people? I do not do business with black people." He told the security guard to escort me out of the building.
I was shocked, hurt, and ashamed! I went to my hotel room that night and cried myself to sleep. But my mother's words kept ringing in my ear. I decided that I would never tell my manager what the banker had said and done. I would not request a transfer, and I would never use my race as an excuse for failure no matter what. I was not going to allow a banker to dictate my future and keep me from achieving my goals. This is what I kept telling myself but deep down, it was hard for me to shake the fear and shame I felt from being treated this way.
Determined to overcome my fear and shame, I kept calling the banker. I focused on being undeniably competent, making the business case for why he needed American Express travelers cheques. He finally agreed to see me. After enduring racist jokes at every meeting, I finally won his business. It was an $11 million dollar account. With that, I was promoted and was able to get the heck out of Kansas.
Now, I know that this experience is in no way comparable to the institutionalized racism that many of our young African American men face each day. Although I have never been stopped or frisked, I do understand the pain, fear and anger of where we have been and the issues we still confront. However, in order to change this I believe that we must all come together. We must acknowledge the progress we have made, recognize and transform our biases, and judge and value ourselves and each other based on the content of our character, not the color of our skin. My next blog on this subject will focus on unconscious bias and how we can all learn to respond to each other more objectively.