Several times in the past week, I’ve found myself in conversations where someone has said, “I want to talk about race, but it’s just too toxic right now. All everyone does is yell at each other.” Listening to folks pile on and say, “Yes, yes, yes. That’s right. I really do want to talk, but it’s just impossible to have a safe and constructive conversation,” I couldn’t help but remember the old saying that when you point your finger at others, three fingers point back at you.
And I thought, “Isn’t that just what we’re doing in America right now?” Pointing the finger at each other rather than taking a look at ourselves. See, what I’ve learned on my journey as a gay man, as the great-grandchild of a woman with Native American blood, as a white guy who tries to practice inclusion, is that the temptation is always to look outside of yourself for either the solution (or the reason why you can’t achieve the solution). But the work, the journey, the solution is actually inside.
Which is why at some point in each of the “finger-pointing” conversations I’ve found myself in this past week, I’ve gently invited folks to check themselves. Specifically to:
- Check your commitment. In my experience, commitment drives action. For example, it is rare that I am committed to cleaning the house. So, I always find an excuse not to (“I need to do some work”, “I forgot to buy Windex”, etc). On the other hand, when I really want to do something, nothing can stop me. When I turned 30, I told myself that I would be part of a group that rode our bikes (pedal not motor) from Boston to New York to raise awareness about and money for HIV/AIDS. During the ride, we had to ride up a hill that was over a mile long. For 30 of the 55 hours we pedaled, it rained. Hard. We rode 100 miles in the rain and then slept in partially flooded tents. But we didn’t turn away or stop or take a break. Because we were committed. I think it’s like that with systemic racism right now. Many of us feel like it’s something we’re supposed to do something about. But we’re not really committed. And so we practice avoidance.
- Check your plan. Now, maybe you really are committed, but you truly don’t know where to start or what to do. That’s ok. Take a step forward by making a plan. I’m not talking about the plan to eradicate systemic racism (unless that really is your plan). I’m talking about your plan. As in the plan about what you can do right now in the teeny-tiny world that each of us occupies. The plan that says, “OK, so I’m afraid to wade into the race discussion because it’s so toxic. So…what am I going to do about it?” The possibilities are endless. Read up on the topic (one of my favorite recent books is Eddie Glaude’s “Begin Again” about his (and James Baldwin’s) journey as Black writers and thinkers). Google your questions. Talk to folks. Two words of advice on that:
- First, own your discomfort and perhaps lack of knowledge. Don’t start a conversation with, “I don’t get why Blacks are so angry all the time” or “Why does everything have to be about race?” Instead, try something like, “I am trying to find my way into the whole conversation about race and one of the things I’m not sure I yet understand is why some folks always bring things back to race.”
- Second, if and when someone pushes back, ask what you could have done differently. Could you have asked a question in a different way? Is there a phrase you used that makes some people really uncomfortable? And, remember, you’re not asking to become perfect at this nor to endlessly apologize (sometimes when folks push back hard on race conversations, they, too, could stand to remember the wisdom of the pointing finger). You’re asking to learn. And to grow.
- Check your comfort with discomfort. If you’re waiting for the moment when it’s comfortable to talk about race in America then, as my mom used to say, “You might as pack up and head home.” Because it ain’t gonna happen (and if you should find yourself in a comfortable conversation about race, then consider that maybe it’s not a real conversation). With only three or four exceptions, America has been hiding from the race conversation for over 400 years. And all over the world, humans have been hiding from the truths of what we do to “others” since civilization or society began. The bottom line is that we feel uncomfortable being around folks who are not like us and we feel really uncomfortable when someone points that out. So, as you figure out your commitment and put together your plan, get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Use it as an indication that you’re on the true path and making progress (even when you feel like you’re not).
And always remember that your progress, no matter how small, no matter how uncomfortable, becomes society’s progress. And that your commitment, your plan, your discomfort is the only way we can go from pointing our fingers to opening our hands.
This-n-That is just that (and this!): A collection of words that don’t fit elsewhere, but that I still want to share.