Staying In It

My spirit is hurting.  It aches.  When the grand jury’s verdict came out last week in Ferguson, my heart sank.  I found myself taken back in time to my senior year in high school, when the outcome of the Rodney King decision also resulted in riots and a call to action in our country.
I am trying to have this conversation, and I don’t know how.  I don’t have the best of role models in the media.  As an educator, I am trained to look at ‘facts’ and remove emotion, and yet how can we not consider emotion in this dialogue?  All around me, I see people struggling- good people- struggling, and we are trying to have this powerful conversation in the frame of right and wrong.  We want someone to be at fault and someone to be innocent.  We want to put people in boxes- racist, not racist, good, bad, innocent, guilty.   I completely cherish this.
But I fear that this conversation is a reductive one.  This conversation in this way does not allow anyone to enter a necessary conversation around race, in a way that makes them whole.  It does not allow for the validity of emotions that come from crying mothers of young men of color who mourn the deaths of their sons.  It does not allow for the validity of emotion of white people who want to do something to be supportive, but are afraid to enter a conversation about race because if they say the wrong thing, then they are racist.  It does not allow for a conversation about the kind of society we want to co-create- because it keeps us in the realm of a reductive binary, where we point fingers at each other.  Either-Or.  Good-Bad.  Right-Wrong.  Racist-Not Racist.  It does not liberate us to imagine a different world for our own future.
I worked in multicultural affairs for a long time- and I was the educator who pointed out all the ways in which people were {insert …racist, sexist, etc.}, and felt that if people didn’t come to that realization, that they in fact were {racist, sexist, etc..}.  I have also been the person who has resisted honoring people’s truths.  When my friends or colleagues who are gay and lesbian share their lived experiences, I often found myself coming up with ‘logical explanations’ for their experiences, rather than being in it with them, honoring their emotions and lived truths.
If I was uncomfortable in conversations where someone might call me out on my heterosexism/homophobia, I would sit quietly, or exit the conversation.  When I was angry,  about racism and sexism in my life, I would shut people out, and shut down conversations because nobody seemed to be authentic enough, activist enough, progressive enough.  I said I wanted dialogue in both cases, but what I really wanted was to be RIGHT.  When I  was challenged in my heterosexism, I wanted to prove to people they were wrong.  When I challenged others on racism, I wanted to show them how I was right.
I sit in my emotion- because I want to feel uncomfortable, even though I am scared to feel that way.  I want to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.  We have lost that art.  And, if we continue to lose that art, we might lose the most beautiful part of our humanity.  I want to be in the conversation that has us reclaiming our humanity- knowing that this conversation comes with anger, tears, messiness, pain, and rage… before we get to reconciliation and on a road to healing.
So- I have been thinking about how we talk about race (or any other topic)…
1.  What would it take for us to stay in the conversation, even if someone else expressed an anger that made you uncomfortable?
2.  What would it take for us to honor that anger- and recognize that anger is never a primary emotion, it is a secondary emotion that sits on top of the primary emotion of pain?
3.  What would it take for us to allow people to try to show allyship, even though we are tired of having to explain what allyship should look/feel like?
4.  What would it take for us to sit in a both-and space, rather than an either-or space?
5.  What would it take for us to honor the experiences that people have, without invalidating/questioning the validity of their experiences?
6.  In what ways could we be fully present- but understand that different people are in different places in their understanding of the world- and may not be ready/equipped to be fully present?
I am ready to have many conversations with anyone who wants to join me…  I have so much to learn, and so much to feel.
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3 responses to “Staying In It

  1. First of all, Mamta… as you once said to me: “Yes.” You are totally right in many of the things you say: we are afraid of opening dialogues because we are afraid of being proven wrong, we are afraid of talking about race because we are afraid of being called racist… You are absolutely right.

    Now… I have to disagree in a couple of points… (You know, I’m Spanish, disagreeing runs in my blood!). My first idea springs from a conversation I had with an African-America (is that the right term? or better colored?) staff this same week, while students where protesting at the entrance of the cafeteria in a heart-moving action. She said: “You know, I disagree with them, and I am black! I disagree ’cause black people die every day, I have many friends who are dead, and nobody cared until now.” She expressed in a simple way a thought that is very complex. Let’s say if my English skills are good enough to explain it:

    Black communities bleed, every day, every hour black men and women, and children, die. They die shoot by their peers, by others; they die of AIDS, rape, gang violence, famine, drug addiction… they die. Their lives DO matter, but they do not matter only know, they have always mattered, always, every night, every day… why, then, do we only hear these rhythms of sorrow now? Is it the product of hegemonization of activism?

    I fear these questions have no answer… Yet, I am determined to give some answer (a remnant from my English language student days, I always hated grammar books without answer key). How can we change the situation? And, first, why do we have this situation? The color line is well known, the causes for racism are available everywhere… yet, why it stays the “same”? Whereas the gay movement seems to advance at full speed… the Civil Rights are in a coma!

    Here is my ideas on how to have this conversation:

    1. Be open. Not “be open to accept that racism is wrong,” be open. Open to talk in a friendly way with a person who believes in white supremacy. Grant them humanity, as you want them to grant it to you. We are a complex wheel of identity, don’t cut it to “racist.”
    2. Be aware. Not just know that posting about Ferguson gives you likes in Facebook, always.
    3. (This one may sound wrong, but I do believe in it). Racism is illogical, it’s a faith, not a science. Don’t fight against a brick wall… just go around. Go around and improve the living conditions of Black Neighborhoods, go around and help them to go to college, or learn a trade. Go around and see them as peers, not as pets in need of your help (this is something awful that sometimes I perceive). Just go around the wall. The wall will fall, give it time.
    4. Be happy. I know it’s hard… yet, aren’t you tired of the stereotype of activist as “anger with two legs”? Ok, then be happy. Be polite, don’t shout, don’t think those who disagree are ignorant… Again, be open, be friendly even when you’re having dinner with somebody who shares a complete different view… Candance Grinich said that “activism is just a conversation”, I add: “it’s a conversation, but doesn’t need to be about activism”. Show them you are not a threat, just a friend, a person trying to do your best, show them you’re human and they are. Be Happy. And you’ll find strength in that happiness.

    As for Rollins… if we want dialogue, meaningful, fruitful, productive, groundbreaking dialogue, we have to change the speakers on both sides. There’s no point in talking about race with other aware people, we have to talk with those who seem our opposite. What about coffee and cookies (it seems a truly Rollins tradition!) with a “pro-segregation group”… I know, hard. Let’s not talk about race, let’s make it a cooking class! Let’s get to know each other. Let’s appreciate the personal narratives, the identities, then, let’s create synergies and learn! We have to be awkward to make change, but we can be blatantly awkward or just slightly so. Change happens when people talk, not when some shout and accuse and the rest walk by.

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  2. To acknowledge my own “isms” does not mean that I have given up on change. It means that I know I live in an in between space, where parts of my experiences and beliefs have already made it to wholeness and acceptance of others, while parts of me are not there yet. It is the already and the not-yet, the dialectic, the struggle, that makes me seek out other hearts and minds to learn and grow. It is a mistake to pretend we have already arrived when we are still in process. It leaves us lonely, trying to be perfect, silent about race and gender, afraid to blurt out HEY! I NEED SOME HELP HERE!
    One key to being sully present, and understanding that people are in different levels of understanding, is to talk about our own processes with people who know more.

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  3. Jaime, it is about much more that what you write in reference to your reaction to a conversation with the African-American woman in the cafeteria. I imagine that she was expressing her frustration that it’s been an ongoing problem and why not protest continuously…sometimes we have to make use of the resources before us as the media decides what should get mass attention….protests come in many forms, this one happens to have the support of the media. How would/do you feel when people wrongfully stereotype you and deny you the opportunity to pursue the American dream? Jim Crow Era Racism is still alive in America. I have seen Black men and women try very hard to live a respectful life working hard everyday to care for their families only to be stereotyped as lazy criminals. Some have given up and that is sad for all Americans. We cannot live separately without feeling the pain of our neighbors near or far.

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