Sunday, April 12, 2015

In black and white.....continued

I spend a fair amount of time studying racism in order that I may be more aware of it in society and in my own life. The ultimate goal being to eradicate it as much as possible from my own life and, maybe, bring some awareness to the people in my world.  So, I consider myself to be somewhat aware of racism and intentional about seeing and refusing to be subject to it.  I know it is not possible to be completely free of racism having grown up white in a racist society, but I am trying...

And then something will happen, something usually very small and subtle, to remind me that I am still relatively clueless and living in a fantasy much of the time.  I suspect most of us are as well.

I was shopping for handbags (pocketbooks for my NY friends) with my dear friend, Melinda yesterday...a chore of which I am not especially fond.  I have a hard time "pulling the trigger" on bigger purchases and handbags (good ones that will last) tend to be pricey. Melinda does not share that problem with me. Her collection of bags is probably worth as much as my (fairly new) car.  Not kidding.  She carries the likes of Louis Vuitton (multiples), Michael Kors, Kate Spade, and Coach on a daily basis...and rarely do I see her with the same bag twice in a week.  I, on the other hand, have 3 and together their value might equal that of a decent coat.  
While we were shopping I saw a lovely Coach bag that was on sale and the price did not make me want to faint.  It was a really beautiful bag and I asked Melinda her opinion.  She said, "It's beautiful! But you know you could not take that on the train in some of the neighborhoods you're in.  It would be a good bag for when you take your car or are not in the city."  I did not expect this response.  I work in New York City quite a bit and take the train whenever I am there.  I asked her why I couldn't take a bag on the train...I was genuinely perplexed.  She responded, "You'll get robbed."  My head spun.  It never occurred to me that my purse would make me a target.  I just don't think that way.

Then I remembered Melinda's stunning collection of designer bags and I asked her why she carried them into the city....bags that were 5x as expensive as the one I was currently considering.  She said (matter of factly, without a trace of sarcasm or anger), "Oh, people just assume it's a knock off when it's me."

Wait.  What?

Me: "Are you kidding me?"
Melinda: "No.  They just can't imagine a Black woman could afford the real thing, so it must be a    knock off, right?"

And then I got angry.  My chest constricted, my breathing got shallow....I was pissed.

Even as I write this I can feel the anger and frustration in my body.  I'm angry that we as a society assume that a person of color could not be smart enough to have a job that would earn her more money than her white friend.  I am angry that my wonderful, beautiful friend knows at her deepest level, without having to think about it, that people, all people, underestimate her just because of the color of her skin.  People assume she is less qualified, less intelligent, less successful simply because she is brown.  And she knows this without having to think about it.  And worse, she accepts this because she has lived her whole life in this racist society.  This really pisses me off. Deeply. Pisses. Me. Off.

We spent the next hour talking about what bags would and would not make me a target and why. I was fascinated and watching a car wreck...I couldn't walk away.  I could not (still can't) let it go...I live in a world where a bag defines me...and either makes me a target or not. And I live in  world where an amazing, brilliant woman cannot be seen because of the color of her skin.

I didn't buy a bag during our shopping trip...but I learned a great deal about the subtlety and pervasiveness of racism.  This was far more useful... 

Monday, October 20, 2014

Thicker Skin

A few days ago, someone said something to me that hurt me a bit. It happens, and, since I like this person, I wanted to share that what he said hurt me so we could continue to grow as friends in honesty.  His response was, "You need to have thicker skin. You're too sensitive." Three years ago, I would have believed him and seen my hurt response as a flaw, as something wrong with me, and I'd have apologized and tried harder not to feel hurt at anything he said from then on since, surely, it was me being overly sensitive or insecure.  Of course, I'd still feel hurt, if something he said hurt me, but I would not express it (to him or myself) and instead it would live inside me, eating away at my self-worth. "Of course it was my fault, I just can't get anything right," and, "Why can't I just keep my mouth shut like a normal person?" would be my internal mantra for a few weeks based on this encounter.

Today, however, I see things very differently, and my response to this friend was, "Actually, no, I don't need thicker skin, I need friends who are sensitive and kind."  Because here's the new reality: Who I am is just fine.  Who I am deserves to be treated kindly and with respect.  Sure, people will say insensitive, hurtful things.  Sure, life is not without it's difficult moments and I need to be able to handle myself gracefully in them.  But I don't have to change who I am in order to accommodate your insensitivity, friend.  I don't have to regulate my emotional well-being or my perception of reality so that you can say whatever hurtful thing pops into your head without any consequence.

Who I am is just fine.  Who I am deserves to be treated with kindness and respect.

That's a statement that many of us, particularly women, are not comfortable saying. It is a statement that many of us, particularly women, would feel self-conscious and even selfish saying to someone who has hurt or criticized us.  It's a statement that many of us, particularly women, would want to qualify with something like, "as long as you like/agree with/aren't angry with/approve of me."

But we (men and women) are free to feel however it is we feel, regardless of the other person's intentions or needs. If I feel hurt, it is my right to feel hurt and if I express that hurt to you, it is my way of deepening our bond as friends because I am trusting you with my feelings. It is also your right to decide if you will defend your right to say hurtful things or if you will honor my feelings and acknowledge them. Some people just can't, and I have to respect where they are, too. That doesn't change the fact that my feelings are valid and I deserve to be acknowledged. At least by someone who wants to call himself my friend.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

In black and white...

Melinda is one of my favorite friends.  She’s incredibly bright, articulate, funny and kind. She’s also beautiful, which makes her someone I really don’t want to like as much as I do, but, fortunately for me, her kindness and all-around-awesomeness cover over that particular flaw. And she’s a New Yorker, which means that no matter where I drag my sorry, plain-jane, Midwestern self behind her, it ends up being a special event.  She’s cool that way. She makes things special.  She makes me feel special. That’s why she’s my friend. One of my favorites.

No matter where we go, whether to the ballet (another favorite) or to get a pedicure or a cup of coffee, something happens that I can always count on.  I notice it each time and when I mention it to Melinda, she does this Brooklyn-ite thing where she makes a “tsk-ing” sound with her mouth and flaps her hand at me and tells me that I’m crazy. Which is likely true, but not the point.  The thing I notice just about every time I pay attention is that I get preferential treatment by others when I am with Melinda.  Waitstaff almost always address me first when we are seated together. The ladies at the nail salon look past Melinda to me to ask how I am today.  In department stores, I am approached by salespeople first. Always.  And it doesn’t matter the gender, age, or ethnicity of the person in question.  People look past my dear friend, who is far more approachable, far prettier, and far nicer than I am, every time.

When I first started noticing this phenomenon, I thought perhaps it was because she is so fabulous that she intimidates people.  Especially other women who are not as fabulous.  Or that it was my inherent hesitancy…I tend to hang back and perhaps service people, those who are in helping professions (waitstaff, sales people, etc) wanted to draw me out when I might not be bold enough to ask for what I want.  Or perhaps they recognized a clueless Midwesterner who doesn’t really know that a pedicure should cost around $25 and not $60.  Of course, I thought it was all about me. It had to be something wrong with me that everyone could see and respond to that was causing this strange behavior in others.

But those are not the reasons. The reason is far more basic and far more awful than I imagined.

It’s because I’m white. And Melinda is black.

I told this to a colleague (male, white, 30 something) and his response was, “Well, maybe, maybe not, but I’m not carrying ‘white guilt.”

Really?  That’s your response?

Not, “Wow, that’s interesting!” or “You’re crazy!” or even, “Why should I care?”  His response is the same response many white folks in America have whether at a conscious or sub-conscious level.  “It’s not my problem and I can’t even think about it” is the message I got from him.  His response shut the door on further conversation.  That’s what happens when we touch a nerve….the door slams shut and the conversation is over and nothing ever changes.

It’s not just me; other people have experienced this phenomenon.  Another colleague, Grace, shared an experience of going through airport security with her son when he was 8 months old.  A security guard approached her and told her she would have to “surrender” her child to the authorities until his identity could be established.  Grace had forgotten his birth certificate, which, in most instances, is not a big deal. In fact, I have traveled alone with my three sons since they were very young and have never once been asked for their birth certificates or any form of identification for them at airports.  But I am white, and Grace is black.  Grace’s husband is white and her children are mixed race but have very fair skin and appear white.  The airport security guard assumed that a black woman carrying a “white” baby must be a problem.  Grace refused to hand her child over to the guard and stood her ground.  When asked how the situation was resolved her answer was, “I have a white husband.”

So, I have to think…what if Grace had a black husband and just happened to have very light skinned children?  What if Grace had a Hispanic husband? What might the outcome of that situation have been?

I cannot imagine such a scenario as anything other than a story someone told me. I have never been questioned or been the object of suspicion because of my appearance.  It horrifies me, as it would horrify any mother, that I could be that vulnerable and unable to protect my own child from “the authorities.”  It horrifies me that I should have to even think about protecting my children from “the authorities.”  In my world, the authorities are there to protect me, right?  Well, perhaps they are, but not from what I think they are there to protect me from…

In a conversation with several colleagues about our teenaged children getting their drivers’ license, another colleague of mine told us, rather matter of factly, (not trying to be dramatic or exaggerate or even make a point, he was just telling us the story as he lived it), about his instructions to his son regarding how he should behave should he be pulled over by the police while driving.  He shared how he had instructed his son to place both of his hands on the steering wheel, not give eye contact to the officer, and remain calm at all times.  He instructed his son to do exactly what the police officer told him to do and never to argue or question his/her instructions.  He said, “I told him that he should think about everything he does and says and make sure nothing can be interpreted as a threat.”

I’ve never had that conversation with my sons and all three have had their drivers’ license for a while.  It never occurred to me that I should have that conversation, that they should have to be on guard with the police and maintain a close watch on their actions and words so as not to be perceived as threatening.  After all, I just assume that if my son is pulled over by a police officer, he (my son) has clearly done something wrong. Why else would he be pulled over?

But my sons are white.  My colleague’s son is black.

Black teenagers get pulled over for any reason at all, especially if they are driving in a wealthy suburb.  Black, male teenagers are often perceived as a threat by white police officers (and white folks in general) even if they are doing nothing wrong.  Even if they are just driving home from school in the suburb where they live. 

Whatever your personal feelings about the Treyvon Martin case, I can tell you this: my youngest son dresses exactly like he did.  My youngest son walks to and from the deli on the corner and can often be found carrying candy and energy drinks or soda, wearing baggy pants and a slouchy hooded sweatshirt. Sometimes I think my son looks like a hoodlum, but I never, ever worry that someone will perceive him as a threat in our neighborhood and chase him down.  I never (well not before now) worry that my son won’t come home from the deli with his candy and soda.  I never worry that my son will be shot for walking down the street of a middle class subdivision.

But my son is white. And Treyvon Martin was black.

And that inherent suspicion of black people by white people, that automatic preference for white skin and the automatic assumption that a white person is right and a black person is wrong has a name.  It’s called “white privilege.” You can toss aside your white guilt all day long but that doesn’t change the fact that we are a society based upon and invested in maintaining white privilege.

Grace tells another story of being in line at the supermarket with her son when a white woman came right up to them, took Grace’s son by the hand, pointed at Grace, and asked him, “Is this your mommy?”

He replied, “NO! That’s my MAMA!”

The woman asked again, “Is this your mommy? What’s her name?”

The four year old boy had no idea what his mother’s name was….she was Mama. What four year old boy knows his mother’s first name?

The woman held firmly to his hand and began to lead him away saying, “Let’s go find your mommy.” To which Grace responded, “Excuse me! I am his mother and if you do not let go of my child, I will call the police!”

Yeah, that’s never happened to me. 

When I posted that conversation on my Facebook page (as a re-post of Grace’s blog post on her experiences of being a black mom to white-looking kids--see link at bottom) to see how friends might respond, I fully expected outrage and empathy from other moms for Grace.  One response startled me…
“Well, maybe that woman had mental illness, we should consider the source.”

Ok. I appreciate an empathic heart…one who chooses not to judge quickly…but this conversation was posted as a whole blog post with 9 examples of Grace's experiences of being a black mother with children who look white and the grief she has experienced over the years at the insensitivity of white people and the overwhelming presence of white privilege.

But this white “friend” would prefer to believe mental illness was the problem rather than prejudice.  Because that would be easier to tolerate.  That allows us to toss aside white guilt again. The poor creature (who was white) was mentally ill and couldn’t help herself.  She just wanted to help.

Except that she could. Except that she acted intentionally and thoughtlessly and in a privileged and wrong manner.  Even if mental illness was to blame (maybe especially if mental illness was to blame) the fact remains that a white woman felt justified in taking the hand of a child that was not hers, a child standing with his mother, because he was standing next to a black woman.  If Grace had been white, that woman would never have looked twice. Mental illness aside, if Grace had been white, I wouldn’t have a story to tell you.

If the woman who took Grace’s son by the hand had been black and Grace and her son were white, there would be police involved. And a trip to the local police station. And likely a restraining order and possibly a news crew.

But Grace is black.  And the woman who suspected her of taking a child that was not hers was white.  And in our culture, that is ok.  In our culture, that is acceptable behavior.

Except that it’s not.

To read Grace's blog post go here: Grace's Blog Post    Thanks, Grace, for letting me use your stories!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

It's not what you say, it's where you say it….

You know I love me some regional/geographical/demographical comparisons, so here are some of my most recent observations:

What happens when you say, "I'm having a fire!"

In Wisconsin:  You are planning for people to come to your home and you will have a fire in a fire pit in the backyard, or possibly the driveway, where you will roast hot dogs and or marshmallows, drink sodas, beer, and wine coolers, and chat with friends until either the wood runs out, or the mosquitos get too aggressive.

In New York: Someone calls 911.

What happens when you say, "I shot a buck!"

In Wisconsin or Michigan:  People will congratulate you and ask you questions like, "How many points?" You will take numerous pictures and post them on FB where folks will show appropriate enthusiasm and jealousy.

In New York:  Someone calls 911.

What happens when you say, "I can hear the neighbors from here!"

In Wisconsin: It is pretty exciting because your neighbors probably live at least a quarter of a mile away and you probably end up going to their house to see what all the excitement is about (often a fire or a buck). And you'd be welcome to show up and join in whatever is going on.

In New York:  Someone calls 911.

What happens when you say, "I was up at 4:00 this morning."

In Wisconsin:  Of course you were, isn't everyone?

In New York: You just hadn't gone to bed the night before…and when the neighbors saw you in the driveway at 4:00 am, they probably called 911.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Someone recently said to me, "It's never too late to have the life you want."  

Of course, my first response was, "yeah, right, I'd say, "it's usually too late, you've screwed it up beyond repair so just deal with it." (never claimed to be all that upbeat).

As I thought about what he said, I realized that I have lived my life, much of it, in a rather haphazard way. I've done some deliberate things like go to college, raise my kids, leave abusive relationships, attend seminary, become a minister, raise my kids some more…those things I've done with mindfulness and presence (often after much encouragement and support from people who care).  But the rest?  It's kind of a blur.  And this makes me somewhat sad and feeling like I have let a lot of my life just happen rather than pursue it with gusto (like the young people in television commercials do).

"The life I want" is elusive. I don't know what life I want. Most of us only know the life we have. Does the life I want coincide with the life God wants for me? Do I care? (being totally honest here).  Let's be honest…even those of us who have really, REALLY, tried to live the life God wants for us sometimes wish that life looked different. 

Mostly this meant-to-be supportive piece of wisdom has caused me a lot of sadness. Some days I feel like it is too late. I see young people on the train and in business and I feel as though I wasted my youth doing things that other people wanted me to do. I feel as though I didn't appreciate being young and beautiful (because from where I sit on the train, everyone under 35 is young and beautiful) and I didn't have nearly enough fun. I was insecure. I was fearful. I didn't know I was loved. I let others determine my life. And now I'm kind of ticked that it is gone and I sit here in my 49 year old self wishing it had been different. Wishing I had been different.

After the first piece of wisdom, and my response, he said this, "Regret is inevitable, self-recrimination is optional."  

Ok, I get it. I think.

Since I can't go back and be different, and to avoid self-recrimination and do something a little more productive,  I've been thinking about what I'd like to tell my sons who are about to embark on adulthood. They are young and beautiful, smart and loved. I want them to sit in their 49th year thinking, "Wow, how awesome am I??"  Here goes:

1.  When you are young and beautiful, know that you are young and beautiful.  Live as though you are the most beautiful creation ever because you are exactly that.  

2.  The only limits on your life are the ones you place there or allow others to place there.  

3.  Allow yourself to love and be loved.

4.  Have fun. Work is important, fun is too.

5.  Keep your eyes open for God. If you let him, he will show you the best way to go.

6.  Surround yourself with people who love and appreciate you as you are. Don't mold yourself into someone else's image. You are perfect just as you are.

7.  Don't make decisions out of fear or anxiety.  Dismiss fear and anxiety from your life whenever possible, they are enemies to good decision making.

8.  Do things you love to do.  Be with people you love to be with. There is no time to waste with people who bring you down, who criticize, hurt, or demean you. There are so many great people out there, go find them.

9.  Even when you feel alone or afraid, know that you are loved and cared for by God and your mother. (and others, of course).

10.  Know that you can always go home. For any reason. At any time.  Always.

Ok, so I am pretty clear that I am having a bit of a mid-life crisis…maybe a little late since it's likely past the "mid" point…but it's never too late, right? At least that's what I hear...

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Palm Sunday 2013...

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

That is the whole Gospel story told elegantly and succinctly by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians.  Jesus was God.  He did not put his place in the Trinity above his obedience to God’s purposes for the world, instead he emptied himself, he put aside everything that did not line up with God’s purpose and became a slave to that purpose.  Part of that purpose was that he be born as a human…that is the result of his total emptying of himself and becoming a slave because he “found himself” in human form. He did not plan to be in human form, for the plan was no longer his to make. Once he emptied himself of his being God, God’s plan determined what would happen to him, not he himself.  Upon discovering this part of the plan he humbled himself, he accepted the role he had been given to be subordinate to God, to be dependent on God.  He was a slave, he asked for no special pass at the end.  He submitted to death the same way he submitted to everything else that made him human.

Jesus’ humanity makes it possible for us to aspire to similar obedience. Paul says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”  Apparently Paul thought it was within our reach.  On Palm Sunday, we don’t just witness one person’s obedience to God, we witness the kind of self-emptying we are all capable of.  We can see ourselves in the same kind of relationship with God and the world as Jesus saw himself.  Sooner or later, we are all going to be called to be obedient to death and in that moment we will be slaves to it, having no opinion or action that will change the outcome. In the meantime, we are as free as Jesus was to decide how we spend our energy: on self-protection, or self-donation; on saving ourselves or on giving ourselves away.

What might it look like for us as individuals to become obedient like Jesus was obedient? It is hard to empty ourselves of ourselves.  We often squeeze God in around the edges rather than empty what we have so he can fill it all in. We hold a lot back for ourselves.  When we get busy and overloaded in our own forms, what is usually the first thing squeezed out?  Prayer? Church? God?  What if there was nothing BUT God in that space?   What if God occupied our entire purpose and all we had to do was be obedient to what God leads us toward?  I’ve heard people use the phrase, “Let go and let God”…this is what that really means….let go of our own ideas, preferences, purposes, etc and let God choose them for us. It’s not all that tough to “let go” and stop worrying about something when we choose to, but I wonder how many folks actually do the “Let God” part.  Let God do what?  Let God make my decisions for me? Let God take over my life? My bank account? My family?  Let God choose how I will spend my time and with whom?

 Most of us will read that proposition and think, “I like my life as it is, I just want to fit God in around the edges like I’ve always done.”  And the beautiful thing about God is that he gives you that freedom to choose.   Yet, this scripture passage today, from the book God has given to us to guide our lives, opens with “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”  So what might it look like for individual followers of Christ to have a mind that empties itself and finds itself in whatever form God has chosen and then lives obediently in that form all the way to death?  It’s pretty radical stuff…and not for the feint of heart.

Jesus didn’t go to the cross expecting some reward for himself, some new title or accolade. He was already God and gave that up…there was nothing left for him to achieve…he gave up everything. He held nothing back for himself.  

Paul then tells us what we need to know in light of all of this in the second part of this passage: “Therefore  (and therefore is important.  Therefore means that everything that came before is crucial to what comes next, so the whole part about being an obedient slave is crucial to understanding the rest) God also highly exalted him and gave him the name above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

While Jesus didn’t embrace his humanity in order to receive honor or recognition, God exalted him above every created thing.  Jesus didn’t get on the cross expecting to receive a crown or a prize at the end and yet God has made him King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the king of all creation, the highest name in heaven and earth.  Is this God’s reward to Jesus?  

No. It’s not a reward to Jesus.

It’s the inevitable outcome of obediently doing God’s will. 

When we are obedient to God, God does amazing things with our obedience.  Things we could never imagine.  Things we could never accomplish on our own.  Things that go beyond all expectation and hope.  This is the inevitable outcome of obedience to God.

It’s powerful when we recognize something like this.  When we honestly take a look at the outcomes of obedience.  Sure, the process for Jesus and his followers was painful and hard.  Yes, Jesus suffered and died, as will we all eventually.  The difference is that Jesus’ died in obedience….and with his death came grace and forgiveness that prior to him was unimaginable.  Beyond all expectation.  And not just for him, or his immediate followers, but for everyone.  For you and for me.  When we look at others who lived lives that were emptied of self in obedience to God …Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, the girl in Columbine High School who was shot upon responding, “yes” to the murderer’s question, “Are you a Christian?”…we easily recognize that we are changed because of them.  Our lives are better, our world is brighter and we have hope because of their obedience.  Yes, they died.  And we will die. Every single one of us.  The real issue is, will we die slaves to God or will we die slaves to ourselves…and what will the inevitable outcome of either choice be?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Moving toward Easter...

There is no Easter without Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.  As Christians, we know this and yet, often, we gear ourselves up for a huge Easter celebration and completely dismiss Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and, sometimes, even Lent as a whole.

Easter is much more fun than Maundy Thursday, and it is easier to get excited about a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection than it is to spend time in reflection about his betrayal and death.  The flow of Holy Week is important to consider, though, both in our worship together as a community and individually, as followers of Christ.  It is a model of what life often looks like and an example of a faith life that is rich and full.

In regular life, the big things we celebrate: weddings, births, anniversaries, achievements - all come through a process that includes struggle and pain.  Weddings are the outcome of a relationship between two people that has undergone testing and has endured.  The birth of a child takes 9 months, during which the expectant parents can do nothing to hasten the day of celebration, but can only prepare and wait patiently until birth itself comes with great struggle and pain.  Anniversaries and achievements are celebrations of relationships or situations in which people have endured both good times and bad, struggle and success.  It is a rare anniversary or achievement that celebrates a period of time that has passed without any pain, disappointment or challenges.

During Holy Week we ultimately celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, but first we travel through some challenges and difficulty.  We must spend time reflecting on Judas’ betrayal of Jesus on Maundy Thursday.  Often in our lives we will feel betrayed by those close to us, we will experience the pain of discovering that someone we care about, and who we thought cared about us, had a different agenda and was willing to hurt us in fulfilling that agenda. 

After dealing with the loss of a betrayal, we must then experience the pain and suffering of the cross.  We all experience pain in life to some degree or another, particularly when there is something important at stake.  Jesus’ death on the cross was one of great suffering, agony, pain, and humiliation….all feelings we would like to ignore in our own lives and do what we can to avoid them.  Yet the story of Easter includes them, and so we must remember in our own faith lives to recognize the necessity of times of suffering and agony, pain and humiliation, on our way to the glory and promise of resurrection.

In our own lives, often the struggle comes and we can’t see how it will turn out, we don’t know whether or not the next part will bring joy and celebration.  Sometimes the struggles in our own lives don’t end in celebration. During those times we can look to the Easter story and remember that the disciples didn’t know that Easter was coming, they only knew the struggle and pain of betrayal and uncertainty.  They did their best to be faithful followers of Christ and we can do the same and we can do it even more boldly because we know how the story ends…we know that after suffering comes joy and that our God has been faithful to keep His promises.