Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Archive for the ‘Racism’ Category

Happiness in the Time of Covid, Part 6: Making Mistakes

IMG_3021

Masks and sanitizer on a table by the front door.

Anybody else making mistakes lately?

How could we not? We’re all being squeezed by virtue of living in an incredible moment in time, with so many pressures already bearing down on us (did someone say climate change?) even before the full-blown Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic was still playing havoc with our social norms and expectations when the murder of George Floyd set off a massive Black Lives Matter uprising,  both close to home and worldwide. Life in the United States in 2020 is breathtaking and disorienting. Our brains are on overdrive. I assume I’m not the only one exercising poor judgment from time to time.

Fortunately, when I mess up, I’m able to call to mind and heart Tal Ben-Shahar, my number one happiness teacher. Tal has a number of wise sayings, including “permission to be human.”  This is a succinct reminder that we are all biological creatures — animals, actually — with complex brain wiring designed for evolutionary purposes that may or may not be helpful in the 21st century. We often have only a rudimentary understanding of what is going on inside us, and why. Thus, even in the best of times, we are bound to make mistakes aplenty. 2020 is clearly not the best of times — though, I am hopeful, we are transitioning to a time when we can vastly improve our systems, if not our wiring. We shall see.

In the meantime, we might as well get comfortable with the idea that we’re going to make mistakes. Permission to be human, thank you very much. That doesn’t mean it’s okay to cause harm, emotional or physical. We may in fact accidentally do that, and if we do, we must make amends in some way if possible. As one of my favorite conflict books, Difficult Conversations puts it, intent does not equal impact.  Still, understanding that we are all humans who simply cannot help but mess up with regularity might allow us to ease up on judging of self and others. We can choose compassion and kindness instead. Yes, I still want to do my best. The same is probably true for most of you. It just doesn’t always work out that way.

Which is to say, one of the keys to happiness in the time of Covid is accepting our basic humanity, our very natural tendency to goof up. As usual, this not only about happiness for self — it also encompasses others. When we can look at ourselves and others with more compassion, we put down the burden of unreasonable expectations for all of us. That can open the door to greater understanding, easier communications, and happier relationships.

We all make mistakes, whether it’s negotiating Covid-19, white supremacy, or standard life challenges. Pretty serious stuff, but it still reminds me of a song from Sesame Street: Everyone Makes Mistakes.” 

Here’s another positive to seize on: we can learn from our mistakes, as I did recently. It was an early May evening. Vermont was still mostly shut down and those of us who could stay home did so, except for essential trips, like buying groceries. Nobody had been inside my house, except the six of us who live here, since late February. But that night a neighbor called with an urgent request. She needed a bed for the night. I was the only one she could call.

Almost reflexively, I told her to come over. Yes was the obvious answer in pre-Covid times. After I hung up, though, I wondered, should I have said that?? It went against our household rules for decision-making during Covid.  So I guess that was a mistake. But I did tell the neighbor she needed to wear a mask inside our house. She also brought her own bedding. After she got settled on the sofa bed in my office, she came downstairs to the living room to catch up. Without a mask on.

I was uncomfortable as we sat facing each other, about four feet apart, maskless. I didn’t think this was okay, but I also didn’t want to be rude to a guest in my house, and say, “please put your mask back on.” This was definitely a mistake. In retrospect, I see that a pandemic may be a good time to adjust what being polite looks like. Perhaps it is not actually polite to allow germs to spread to one’s family.

While we sat there, my husband Bob walked through the room. (BTW, I write this with his permission.) Bob rarely gets angry, especially not at me. That May evening was an exception. He was furious. After the neighbor went off to bed, I found him lacing up his shoes, preparing to head out. He was too angry at me for having potentially brought Covid into our house, without even checking with anybody else, to talk about it or even stay inside. He headed out for a walk.

It was a rough night in our relationship, but by morning were able to talk it through. I felt he made a mistake or two also (he agreed), but we were both understanding, and I was definitely contrite for not consulting him and for not insisting that the neighbor wear a mask. I learned from my mistakes, I apologized, and I didn’t beat myself up for having exercised poor judgment. I was behaving under old rules. I haven’t quite figured out the new Covid-19 rules yet.

At this point, after nearly 50 years of marriage, I’m pretty comfortable making mistakes around my husband. I am much less comfortable making mistakes as a white person eager to be a good ally in the Black Lives Matter movement. Part of this, I think, is due to identity — another really valuable concept discussed in the book Difficult Conversations. I consider myself to be a good person, a social justice activist, someone who strives to be open and loving, and definitely not racist. Difficult Conversations teaches that some of us (including me) can have an “identity quake” when one of our self-defining concepts is threatened.  Ugh. That’s definitely me. Some mistakes — like saying or doing something that seems to prove that I’m a bad white ally — leave me wanting to hide under the blankets.

But hiding under the blankets is not an option. This is the time we all need to be stepping it up in the fight for racial justice, not nursing our wounded identities in a corner somewhere. Instead, I need to take a breath and grant myself permission to be human. Though I will try my best to do my part to help dismantle systemic racism, I will inevitably say or do the wrong thing. Again, how could I not? Just as I hold onto old, pre-Covid behavior rules in my head and just as we are all governed by stone-aged wiring in our brains that we don’t even know is there, so, too, am I a product of a white supremacy system. There are surely implicit biases wired in there somewhere.

I saw a wise essay on a friend’s Facebook post, but I cannot remember who either the author or the poster was so I cannot give credit. The gist of the wisdom, from an author of color, was something like this: “White people, I know you’re confused. You’ve heard from people of color both to read more books and this moment isn’t about white people being in book club; reach out to your black friends and tell them you care and I don’t want one more of my white friends reaching out to me like this; and, you have to speak up and you have to shut up and listen.” The writer noted (again paraphrasing), “I know it’s exhausting, it’s been exhausting for us black folks for a long time. But you can figure it out.”

It’s hard to imagine figuring it out without cozying up to the idea that I’ll make mistakes. I’m not thrilled about making mistakes, but if I don’t help do the work of ending white supremacy, I will not be living my values, and that will make me unhappy with myself. Doing the work and making mistakes, and then beating myself up about making mistakes, will also make me unhappy with myself. Further, if we all ran away from the work for fear of making mistakes, that would mean enormous continued unhappiness in this country for oppressed peoples of color.

It is clear: for my happiness and yours, I must allow myself to be the human I am, and make the mistakes I will inevitably make. Maybe yours, too — maybe I can give you permission to be human, too. This being human thing isn’t all that easy. No need to make it unnecessarily harder for anybody by pretending we’re better equipped and differently wired than we actually are.

Happiness in the Time of Covid-19, Part 5: Investigating White Privilege

IMG_3191

Preface: The following essay, which is longer than usual, was also harder than usual to write, more painful, less happy. But I really wanted to write stories about my own growing awareness of white privilege in a way that might help other readers who identify as white investigate your own privileged experiences.  My hope is that we can use our stories to help other white folk better understand the pervasiveness of systemic racism, and to deepen our own commitment to stand up for racial justice as allies. There are so many ways to do this work; you can read a list of 75 options here.  And what does all this have to do with happiness? To me, it’s a no brainer. While my anguish at seeing killing after killing of unarmed black people in this country can hardly compare with the pain felt by people of color, the murders and other evidence of ongoing racism do, in fact, make me unhappy. And why wouldn’t they? We are interconnected and interdependent.  Most of us are empathetic. We are all sentient beings equally deserving of love, compassion — and economic, political, and cultural systems which provide maximum support for our well-being. The Dalai Lama has said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Now more than ever, that means love.  “In times like these,” according to Representative Antonio Delgado, love is “justice in action … grounded in the moral observation that we are all one.” In this moment in time, love and compassion mean: Black.Lives.Matter. For everyone to have a greater opportunity for happiness, we need to see it, feel it, and make it so.

Investigating White Privilege:

When my son was 14, he had a sleepover birthday party. I remember the event so fondly. He and his friends were still ever-so-slightly little boys, innocents on the verge of full blown adolescence. There were lot of giggles, burps and farts (and jokes about burps and farts), and pancakes. By his 15th birthday, it was a whole different scene. But that year, at 14, they were still so young. One of the party guests was Ben’s friend Calvin*. Calvin was very tall. I remember looking way up at him when he came to our door. He was still a child, but because he was black, and so tall, I sometimes worried that people meeting him on the streets would be afraid of him. This was long before 17 year-old Trayvon Martin was gunned down, so I never actually worried for Calvin’s physical safety. I just felt sad to think that people would be afraid of him. This sweet innocent tall boy.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I see white privilege in this story.  I could and did feel bad for someone else’s son, but I never once worried that anyone would be afraid of my own child — much shorter, yes, but more to the point: white.

A couple of decades later, I had the white privilege of being only the slightest, tiniest bit worried as my pregnant daughter more-or-less breezed through both pregnancy and childbirth. She might disagree with the verb “breezed,” but there was never anything to be seriously afraid of.  I didn’t think of it as a white privilege, though, until six years later. That’s when I read an April 2018 article in The New York Times called “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis: The answer to the disparity in death rates has everything to do with the lived experience of being a black woman in America.” Oh. My. God. This article is a must read. A healthy pregnancy is a privilege.

Perhaps the phrase “white privilege” is uncomfortable to you. I’ll admit, it took me a while to accept this description of all the many many ways being white in this society makes our lives easier. Since some of the realities of racism were brought to my attention when I was 14 years old, I don’t think I ever doubted the concept of white privilege — though, it’s taken decades to realize even partially how pervasive it is. It’s just that privilege to me felt like something that belonged to the world of very rich people. It should not be a privilege to believe that your son is likely to come home alive, or that your daughter’s pregnancy is likely to be safe. Those should be more or less normal.

But of course that’s not the reality. In our white supremacy culture, so much of normal life is a privilege not available to all, especially people of color. Recently, when I was writing a sermon on kindness, I was stunned to read a section of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between The World and Me, that illustrated how even receiving kindness from a stranger can be a matter of white privilege. Kindness! I found that devastating. Talk about dehumanizing!

Ultimately I realized it was of zero importance whether not I like the term white privilege. Maybe my rejection of the words was a form of white fragility. I don’t know. What I do know is that is urgently important to get it, to better understand white privilege — my own and others — and then, take whatever steps I can take to help change the system.

As I reflect back, however I named it, sometimes the privilege was immediately visible. When my children were teens, they each brought a friend for a week long family beach vacation. As it happens, both friends were people of color. One night, we went out to dinner at a local seafood restaurant. I can’t remember the specifics of the incident, but both friends were upset at how the staff treated them, presumably based on the colors of their skins. I think we walked out, but I’m not sure. Later that week, though, we definitely walked out of an arcade, after our son’s friend felt unsafe due to racist threats. Lesson learned: in that particular beach town, feeling safe in a restaurant or an arcade might just rest on having white skin.

Just a couple of years ago, I got pulled over for speeding. By this time, not only had I heard the phrase “driving while black” many times, but Sandra Bland’s death was also very fresh in my mind. Throughout the incident, I was well aware of my white privilege. As the officer approached my car, I fully expected to be treated with respect, and I was. I kept wondering, what would I feel right now if I was a black woman? Would I be afraid?

There’s a stop sign on the dirt road in front of my house. For some reason, many people — white people, as far as I can tell — run that stop sign with great regularity. I have often wondered, would these drivers so blithely break the law without the protection of white privilege?

When I take the time to look, at past and present, there are so many other stories where white privilege stands out — like the time I learned taxis didn’t like to stop for black women in Washington, D.C… Or just last Saturday when I decided to check out the lake front property we’ll soon be renting for vacation. It occurred to me that I might not have felt safe walking up the empty driveway if it weren’t for my white skin. Of course, none of this makes me happy. It’s just all so wrong.

One example of white privilege that I’ve thought about over and over was a Gross National Happiness USA project, the Happiness Walk.  That Walk covered 10,000 miles over eight years, on foot, often relying on the kindness of strangers. I participated in that walk myself for about 300 miles, and was the recipient of much generosity from scores of very diverse people. Again, though, I often wondered, how many people would have stopped to help — with offers ranging from buying us bug spray to providing housing for multiple nights — if more of the walkers** had been people of color? And how safe would a black walker have felt in accepting those offers? I cannot know, but I think it’s clear that white privilege was on the Walk with us.

My final example is a biggie: voting. Voting in the 21st century should absolutely not be a white privilege. But. The GOP has been systematically gerrymandering and suppressing the vote in many other ways that land especially hard on people of color, who often vote with the Democratic party. This past winter, I saw the movie “Suppressed: The Fight to Vote” several times; one of the groups I am active with sponsored the showings as a fundraiser for Stacey Abrams’ group, Fair Fight. “Suppressed” is a documentary of how Georgia’s then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp and others systemically robbed voters of color of their fundamental right to vote in 2018, when Kemp ran for governor against Stacey Abrams. The film is horrifying. I’ll admit, I was shocked at how brazenly Republicans are stealing the right to vote! from people who fought so damned hard to get that right. In this case, there are very specific ways white allies can help fight back. My activist friends and I have not only supported Abrams’ group, Fair Fight but have also volunteered for Reclaim Our Vote and contributed to the Black Voters Matter Fund. Additionally, we have canvassed, texted, and written postcards for candidates of color — some of whom, like Antonio Delgado, have won.

I’ve been passionate about politics since the second grade, so this is an obvious arena for my involvement. That might not be your preferred way to get involved. Fine. Find something else to do. We all need to do more than post “Make it stop!” in response to yet another video capturing a sickening racist incident. Turns out, we — the big collective we, with people of color leading the way — are the ones who must make it stop. History has its eye on us. We are in a unique moment in time, when we just might be able to make a real and lasting difference. Let’s seize the opportunity to make this country a much happier place for everyone. Black lives matter.

 

* Not his real name.

** To be clear, there were only a handful of walkers the entire time. Paula Francis, who is white, walked most of the Walk alone.