I am a racist.

OppressionA few weeks ago I came out of a closet. I declared openly and unabashedly that I am a therapist in therapy. I explained why it was important for me to come out of that closet, and why we need more conversations where stigma and shame are replaced with pride and support. Now it’s time for me to come out of another closet. Turns out I’m racist.

Yes, you read that right. I. Am. A. Racist. This was quite a revelation for me and I hope you will not immediately close the window and rant about me on social media. Instead, I hope you will read this sordid tale of self-discovery and insight and allow me to confess my sins. Go ahead and refill your drinks, pop some corn, and grab a pillow. This is a long one.

emancipate-1779132_1920I attended the PolyDallas Millennium 2017 (http://www.polydallasmillennium.com/) this past weekend. The theme was about power, anarchy, and equality in polyamory. Ruby Bouie Johnson is the owner and producer of this highly successful annual symposium, and as a minority woman she is always sure to include a focus on social justice and equity across racial lines. As expected, many of the offerings this year focused on black power and equality.

RacismSpending my entire life in the South, racism is not a new concept for me. Like most white people, my narrative always includes the caveats of having black friends and never once engaging in any form of discrimination. I take pride in being what I perceive as fair, open minded, and socially justice oriented towards the plight of all minorities. I like to think that my personality, my upbringing, my education, and my career speak for themselves in terms of inclusivity.

grunge-2025165_1280Mistake #1: I’m a complete and total moron when it comes to truly understanding the history of systemic oppression and placing that in context for today’s events and the future of a group of people struggling mightily for anything remotely fair and equitable.

Three days ago I sat in a room where I was one of the few white faces participating in a discussion about polyamory, rehabilitation, and the black American. Throughout the heated discussion I took copious notes about books and articles to read, podcasts to download, history to learn, and concepts to consider. Page after page of notes, furiously scribbled so I could keep up with back-and-forths that would rival Wimbledon.

And then came my moment. I opened my mouth and highlighted my ignorance. I freely admitted that I never considered myself racist but had to acknowledge that I was not doing anything to solve this problem on a larger scale. I asked for guidance. What could I do? Where could I start? Day in and day out how could I make a difference?

grunge-2025165_1280Mistake #2: Why was I, an educated individual capable of higher order research, asking a group of people to generalize centuries of experience into a racial primer that I could easily digest? One person very correctly stated I could not have gotten to this point in my life without learning out to pick up a book and read. “Read Baldwin! Nothing has changed since Baldwin coverthen!” James Baldwin. A brave pioneer in the modern civil rights movement who lectured all across the South on racial inequality as a member of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). A writer so prolific in his reporting of racial strife that he made the cover of Time magazine in 1963, corresponded with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and President John Kennedy, and had a larger FBI file (nearly 1,200 pages) than any other writer in that shameful era of illegal surveillance. Aside from the Baldwin reference, I have at least a working knowledge of Google, Amazon, and Ebsco. How condescending of me to request that a group marginalized by my majority take the time to condense their rich history into a Reader’s Digest version for my comfort and ease of understanding.

It was at this point that Ruby, who I consider to be a friend and mentor, said quite emphatically “You are a white person in America! Of course you’re racist!” I was taken aback. First time I’ve ever been called a racist. My blood started to boil and I could feel myself bowing up for a fight. A fight that I most assuredly would lose.

light-bulb-1002783_1920Good Decision #1: I kept my mouth shut and listened. I quickly realized that Ruby’s perspective was a valid one whether or not I liked it and whether or not I agreed with it. It was her lived experience. And I needed to hear it.

 

This was a valuable lesson in active listening. If I want to understand anybody at all, I have to listen to their stories and resist the urge to interject my own story or compare it to my narrative in a battle of who has overcome the most. One of the ways white people really screw up this conversation is trying to prioritize pain. There is no hierarchy here. All pain is valid. Acknowledging your pain and suffering does not negate mine. The reverse is also true. But ranking it to show that I have somehow suffered as much as generations of people systemically oppressed? Oh wow….not a good idea. That is not comparing apples and oranges. It’s more like comparing apples and Toyota’s.

In many conversations this past weekend and since, one thing has become very clear. White people love to hide behind the false mask of “I don’t see race, I see people.” After all, I give to the NAACP. I support local black businesses. I might even date a black guy. So I don’t see color. I see other people. I’m going to have to call bullshit on this one. When we say we don’t see color, what we’re actually saying is that we don’t understand the role that race plays in American society. We have been dehumanized by the system of oppression to the point we can lie to ourselves and others when we oh-too-comfortably say “I don’t see skin color” or “I’m colorblind” or “Love is colorblind.”

Don’t believe me? Ever watched someone you know move away from a black man on the street? Or shift their purse across their body? Or lock their car doors? Or avoid certain restaurants or certain parts of town? Or post meme’s about drug testing welfare recipients? Or #BlackLivesMatter right beside #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter? Or laugh at a racial joke and later feel guilty about it….or not feel guilty about it? But we don’t see skin color, right?

grunge-2025165_1280Mistake #3: You know I love Harry Potter right? “I must not tell lies.” I must stop lying to myself and the world around me that I do not see skin color. This is not a harmless lie. In fact, it is quite harmful. I absolutely do see skin color and it’s time I acknowledge it and respect it. Otherwise I will remain forever ignorant of the role that race plays in society.

Eldridge quoteWhat happens when I tell the truth? I am forced to confront a very harsh reality shared by Eldridge Cleaver. “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.” His statement is frequently parsed. No, parsed is a white man’s term to avoid accountability. Cleaver is misquoted on a daily basis because most people forget the first sentence – “There is no more neutrality in the world.” He is absolutely right. There is simply no way to remain neutral on this issue.

Here’s the big one for us white people: we were NEVER neutral on this issue. We’ve had skin in this game since we first loaded slaves onto a ship and whipped them into submission on land we stole from the Indigenous Americans. It was NEVER possible to remain neutral. We have been too comfortable in the middle pretending we aren’t the problem and avoiding responsibility for finding a solution. We have been too complacent for too long, and that has made us complicit. We are the oppressors. We are the ones who benefit from oppression.

questionHere’s a thought exercise for you. Two kids grow up in a poor neighborhood side by side. Jane is black, Sue is white. Neither have much in the way of resources. They attend the same schools until they graduate. Both work two jobs to pay for college where they study business. They work at the same restaurant. Jane is a line cook for minimum wage. Sue waits tables and with tips averages $12/hr. On the weekends they both babysit. Well, Jane babysits and Sue is a nanny. Jane gets minimum wage, Sue gets $10/hr. Sue graduates college on time, and Jane needs an extra year because of funding. Sue is immediately hired as an entry-level manager. Jane is hired as a secretary for $10k/year less. Both came from the same neighborhoods, worked the same jobs, and earned the same degrees. Yet Sue clearly had the advantage. When Jane wonders about equity, Sue shakes her head and says “I’ve suffered just as much and look what I was able to do with it!”

handcuffed-1251664_1920In this thought exercise, which is based on people many of us know, Sue clearly benefited from racial inequity. She directly benefited from the oppression of another person and was never able to see it. Why? Because we are white and we do not have to see it! We get to avoid it, deflect it, lie about it, or remain ambivalent. It’s in our best interest to maintain this system for our own advantage. After all, for one person to have an advantage means another person has a disadvantage. This is not a level playing field. We are not neutral. Now imagine generations of such disadvantages in daily living and opportunities for advancement. What would that look like for your grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and their great grandchildren? I wonder if that’s what the first slaves thought about when they were stolen from their homes and shipped to this country. I wonder if they had any idea what would happen to generations of their progeny who are now my friends and neighbors and colleagues.

So if I can’t be neutral, I’m either part of the problem or part of the solution. Sure, ethicists and philosophers might caution such dichotomous thinking and even cite the logical fallacy of contraposition. But here is the starkest reality. Because I do directly benefit, I am complicit in doing nothing to stop this oppression. And having said that, it’s time to stop calling this oppression and start calling it what it is: white supremacy.

grunge-2025165_1280Mistake #4: White washing racial inequity as anything other than white supremacy so I do not have to feel bad about my advantages and do something that makes the world equitable and just. White washing allows me to continue to receive unfair and unjust benefits while denying my role.

So now that I acknowledge my role and my mistakes, it’s time to do something about it. Where do I begin? With more listening! Fortunately as a therapist I love to listen to peoples’ stories. I love to hear about their lives and experiences. So I’m going to start there. I’m going to listen more and talk less about me.

light-bulb-1002783_1920Good Decision #2: I will actively seek to understand the lived experience of others by asking them to tell me their stories. This is an active process, and not simply listening when somebody chooses to speak. I will insist on learning more.

MLKAnd once I have listened and absorbed and processed, and run through that cycle a few more times, I will then speak. I will have uncomfortable conversations with my peers. As Goody Howard put it, “you need to call in and call out.” For me, calling in is more about accepting that we will screw this up a lot and we need to be lovingly reminded of what is reality to keep us on track. Calling out includes publicly pointing out oppressive behavior so that the person knows they are wrong, and the people around them know it too. Putting into psychobabble, calling in is about using a personal connection to help someone gain insight and awareness for personal growth and change. Calling out is relying on a social learning paradigm to very publicly teach a much needed lesson to a bully and their supporters.

light-bulb-1002783_1920Good Decision #3: Calling in and calling out will become part of my daily routine. I will have uncomfortable conversations. Certainly this blog entry has been uncomfortable. Talking to my friends last night was uncomfortable. But the more resolute I became the more comfortable I grew.

As you can see, I was able to identity a FEW of my mistakes and some INITIAL steps I can take to do things better. Because right now I am a racist, but I don’t want to be. I want to be better. I want to do better. For me and for those around me. Because I can. Because I have power. Because until I do I am a white supremacist.

I cannot make any trite and cliched promises about my ability to negotiate grand changes in the oppressive system. I do not have enough knowledge…yet. I do not wield enough power…yet. I am not that important…and never will be. All I can ever do is keep educating myself by listening and reflecting and making active changes in how I approach the world. Oh my fellow white people, please join me. Let’s stop being racist.

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Small Town Surprise

grooms cakeLast week I was fortunate enough to serve witness at a wedding. A gay wedding. In Oklahoma. A small town in Oklahoma. Initially I was surprised that the grooms, who live in the Dallas area, chose Oklahoma; however, one of them graduated college there and had an affinity for that area. And given the still-limited number of places where they could get married, I suppose Oklahoma is as good as any.

But I’m going to be honest about this…I was dreading it. Not because it was a gay wedding. I’m not a hypocrite. Rather, I was dreading a gay wedding in small town Durant. Should you ever need to know, it’s pronounced “doo-rant” and not “dur-unt.” I was corrected several times by the locals. The same locals I was sure meant to do us harm.

You see, I grew up in a small town. Well, I grew up outside the capital of Arkansas and then graduated high school in a town of 4,455 with only one flashing red four-way stop at that time. So I have some understanding of the small town mentality. I was quite fearful of what we might find in Durant. As we crossed the state line and entered the sleepy little town, it was very much like my adolescence all over again. Rural area. Lots of wide open spaces. Traffic crawling slowly enough to pass on a bicycle. People congregating to talk about passerby and clearly unknown cars. Felt like home, and not in the best of ways.

When we arrived at the courthouse to retrieve the license, my fears were palpable. We entered through the doorway for marriages, and there was a big, burly backwoods bubba of a guard talking to a woman who looked like a regular customer on “Breaking Bad.” They sized us up, and saw one female in our party of four. The guard asked who was getting married, and the two grooms proudly raised their hands and declared it was their big day. Without missing a beat, the guard asked if they would be using the gazebo outside facing the main street. He explained that jurors from a trial gathered there to smoke and could sometimes get unruly. And then he gave an instruction that caught me entirely off guard. He said that if anybody gave us any problems we were to immediate find him because he was our “problem solver” that day. Then he offered hearty congratulations, which was quickly followed by his conversation companion with a big smile. Needless to say, I was flummoxed.

This only continued when we went to the clerk’s office and watched them all conference in hopes of solving a computer problem and not delay the “handsome” grooms on their special day. And then, again, when I met the man who would serve as the officiant and his lovely wife, both whom I have now connected with via social media. And lastly during the ceremony itself, which was held on a particularly popular and picturesque walking bridge on the college campus. Passersby would smile and wave and apologize for intruding. Very friendly.

This was not at all what I expected. I was ready for a rumble. In my mind, I was there to witness an exchange of vows and declaration of love, but also to be there for my boys in case there was any trouble. I sure did feel foolish. mob

You see, what happened was a common psychological phenomenon known as cognitive thinking errors. We all do them, and quite frequently. It really is part of our everyday experience. Left unchecked, though, they can become quite problematic and lead to all kinds of craziness. I spent the drive home reflecting on my errors. There was mind reading, where I assumed I knew what others were thinking without having any real evidence of their thoughts. I sure was catastrophizing, or having a very firm belief that something bad or even unbearable was sure to happen. And lets not forget one of my favorites, overgeneralization. You know that one…we perceive a global pattern of negatives based on limited events. In my case, I falsely assumed that all the backwoods citizens of Durant (overgeneralization) would absolutely hate us on site (mind reading) and possibly come after us with lynches and torches while wearing white sheets (catastrophizing), or at the very least prevent the wedding through some nonviolent means (catastrophizing) because they firmly disapprove of or outright hate the LBGT population (mind reading).brain gears

I’m not alone here. You do it too. We all do it. And I promise that is not an overgeneralization. It’s back of the human experience and a natural part of our self-preservation instinct. But it sure can get out of hand and make life miserable for you and those around you. Think about someone you know who is depressed and views the entire world through a negative filter. Or the overly anxious person always waiting for doom and gloom. Two examples of what it’s like when it gets out of control.

But what about lesser variants that may be just as toxic? Look at what I did! I’m a therapist and I engaged in distorted thinking to the point I was ready to fight an imaginary angry mob. In fact, there were several times I kept looking around and over my shoulder waiting for something that never happened. To be sure, I did not let it impact my day or cast any negative light on my friends’ big day. Thank goodness for an implacable poker face. But you see my point? Even on a smaller scale thinking errors can have a big impact. It’s good to have checks and balances. That day, my friends were my checks and balances. I shared my thoughts, which were not unlike their own actually, and we were able to laugh about it and enjoy way too much fudge from a local shop on the drive out of town. Checks and balances are important. They keep us on track. They refine our perspective. Therapy is absolutely a great place for this, but never underestimate the power of what I call “social therapy” in sharing with your friends and experiencing their views as well.

Enjoying Our Lucky Friends

I stumbled across an article this week where the author had this crazy notion that the happiest people are around when things are going right for other people instead of for themselves. The underlying assumption is that we too often define friendship based on having people around us when our lives are falling apart, and commiserating with others in their own misfortune. We reach out in times of need, or boredom, or to help others. Yet when things are going great for our friends or loved ones, we are less available. Happy people, so the argument goes, spend more time with their friends celebrating others’ success and triumphs.

Hmmm…there does seem to be a certain logic to this thinking. When I apply it to my own life, I am happier when I’m surrounded by happy people; likewise, I’m far more unhappy when those around me are miserable, or when I’m avoiding people because I think they are too happy for my sanity or for their own good. The more I thought about it, the more I realized why people are who present with things go right for others are happier.

For one thing, there is a certain amount of social learning that happens in our relationships. That’s a psychobabble word that basically means we learn how to behave from watching others. If our friends are happy, and we help them celebrate those joys, we should be seeing how they accomplished this happiness and maybe it will give us guidance. Also, I think there is something to be said for “leading by example,” and if I want my friends to celebrate my success and happy moments, I need to show them how it’s done! I’m going to raise the bar here! Up the ante! No puny celebrations…because when it’s my turn I want a party to rival Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

It’s good for other people too. There is research that shows us that storytelling changes the memory of the event. When your friend tells you about a particularly great date, the memory becomes more meaningful for them. The same is true for you. When you share the details of how you won a tough court case or worked long hours to earn a promotion, or even fought the laundry monster to finally defeat your sweat stain arch nemesis, these events have even more positive meaning for you.

Probably the best reason I can think of take pleasure in the joys of others is because it makes us happier. Sure, there is an altruistic component and it’s great to be there for friends. I bet there’s even a cutesy coffee mug with that sentiment you can give your bestie. But let’s not underestimate to value to ourselves in supporting those around us. Without getting into all the science of dopamine pathways and neurotransmitters, we feel good when we are happy and those good feelings can come in waves of positivity when we share in special moments of those close to us.

Here’s a challenge for you. Take a look at your social media footprint from the past 30 days. How many of your friends’ posts about good things in their lives did you simply “like” versus comment on with words of affirmation? You don’t even have to count for me to say it was too many. I’m guilty of it too. So for the next few weeks, let’s try and make a conscious effort offer some words of affirmation to our friends’ lives to help them celebrate their joys.