Otherwise, a totally nice guy

15 Apr

In “Bullets, Blood and Then Cry of ‘Heil Hitler’” and Dan Barry of the NY Times write about Frazier Glenn Miller, the man who shot and killed three people outside the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and nearby Village Shalom on Sunday 4/13/14 (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/15/us/prosecutors-to-charge-suspect-with-hate-crime-in-kansas-shooting.html?hp&_r=0).

A theme emerges in the interviews with people who know Miller: what a “regular guy” he is, “pleasant enough”–”affable” even… except for his virulent anti-Semitism and racism.

The Times‘ coverage, which keeps returning to these comments about Miller’s congeniality, suggests to me a level of surprise, perhaps even shock, that an anti-Semitic, racist former KKK leader could also be a nice “enough” guy. And I don’t think the Times is alone.

The popular conception of an anti-Semite and racist is that their hate defines them. They are not “a person who is anti-Semitic”: they are an anti-Semite. By nouning them, the rest of us can create a buffer between ourselves and any association with, accusation of or perpetuation of anti-Semitism and racism. Or so we hope.

But this myth of anti-Semitic and racist people being meat bags of pure hate doesn’t serve us so well, at least if our intent is to eradicate anti-Semitism and racism. Because the fact is that anti-Semitism and racism (and homophobia and sexism) are perpetuated by people who are often otherwise quite nice. They are perpetuated by our neighbors, our colleagues, our friends and family. They are perpetuated by us.

So we can hate on Frazier Glenn Miller all we want. We can point and express our shock at his hate crimes and try to convince ourselves that he had everyone fooled: they just didn’t see the true Miller under his fake “regular guy” exterior. But if we really are horrified, then we need to accept that he is both anti-Semitic and a nice guy (albeit only to people he perceives as white and Christian).

And, like Miller, we need to stop thinking of Them as the problem: whereas for Miller, “Them” is people who are Jewish and non-white; for others of us, “Them” is people like Miller. And no matter who my Them is, the problem is that I’m thinking of Them as a separate, sub-human group, which justifies my treating Them as less than (and helps me sleep well at night, confident that I am, in fact, a good person. After all, Them deserve what they get).

If we really want to stop reading headlines about hate crimes, I believe we’re going to have to get over this Us v. Them mentality and recognize that the victims and the perpetrators are Us.

The difference between intention and impact

14 Apr

Look, I know you’re a nice person. I know you mean well.

I do, too.

The question is: what are you and I doing with our good intentions?

This is an awesome short video about the difference–and sometimes the vast distance–between intention and impact: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBuC_0-d-9Y.

It reminds me of Mia McKenzie’s decision to replace the noun “ally” with the action verb “currently operating in solidarity with.” Helping the poor is not a status. As McKenzie writes, it ought to “describe what a person is doing in the moment. It does not give credit for past acts of solidarity without regard for current behavior. It does not assume future acts of solidarity. It speaks only to the actions of the present” (http://www.blackgirldangerous.org/2013/09/no-more-allies/).


“Let me show you how we did it”

4 Apr

The other day, I had the privilege of facilitating a conversation about inclusion as everyone’s work in a school. This particular community is experiencing a transition in staffing that involves several leaders of the inclusion work to date leaving at the end of the year. Throughout the conversation, colleagues touched on this change, noting their own sense of loss and concern as they looked to next year.

At the end of the meeting (which generated lots of concrete recommendations, requests and personal action items), I asked for any final thoughts, and one of the employees who is leaving stood up to speak.

She offered to show her colleagues just how she and others led the work of inclusion. I’ll do my best to quote her here:

We asked: why shouldn’t it be us?

We rolled up our sleeves.

And we got to work.

It was one of those moments that I’m so grateful to get to be part of, doing this work: learning from a colleague and witnessing the power of intentional leadership.

She nailed it: why shouldn’t it be us? Me? Once we’ve asked that question, there’s not much else to do but get started.

** Many thanks to this colleague for her voice, leadership and inspiration.

Horrible, even if you’re not offended

2 Apr

I just caught comedian Louis C.K.’s opening monologue for Saturday Night Live, and he nailed a very simple concept: that things can be horrible, even if no one feels offended. And the fact that no one’s offended says more about us than about the nature of the thing itself. Which leaves us with the question: so what do we do? Do we need someone to be offended (or more specifically, to let us know they’re offended–which presumes they have the agency to tell us) in order for a horrible thing to matter to us?

I won’t ruin great comedy–and truth–by summarizing it here. You can watch his monologue here: http://www.hulu.com/watch/615361.

Picture this

1 Apr

A high school senior just got accepted to all 8 Ivy League colleges.

Now you probably filled in this person’s age, based on the information I gave you. (If this HS senior were 40, I’m guessing you’d be more surprised than if they were 17.)

Research indicates that as soon as we meet someone, whether in person, on the phone, on paper or via e-contact, we read whatever information we have available to identify them. The first three categories we tend to fill in: race, sex and age. Not necessarily in that order.

So let me ask you: what sex and race did you picture this student being?

And if you want to answer that you didn’t picture a person of any particular race or sex, I’ll ask you why you think it may be important to you that to believe that you didn’t. Because odds are, you did. Reflexively, before you even noticed that you did it. Not because you’re racist, sexist and ageist but because you’re human.

Now what if I tell you the student’s name is Kwasi Enin? Now whom do you picture? (Here’s a photo of Kwasi: http://www.newsday.com/long-island/suffolk/shirley-student-kwasi-enin-accepted-at-all-8-ivy-league-schools-1.7565720?firstfree=yes.)

The reason it’s important to notice our tendency to fill in identifiers as soon as we encounter another person is that on the heels of those identifications, our biases crowd in. And if we don’t notice those biases, they’re a lot more likely to drive our behaviors. Like, for instance, our public response to this kid’s good news (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/01/kwasi-enin-ivy-league_n_5067211.html).

I do wonder how the comments would read if Kwasi were Asian? White? Jewish? A student at an elite private prep school? A girl? (At least one viewer goes there with “No white or Asian student…”) And I wonder if, while we’re pasting all our identifiers and biases onto Kwasi, we can remember that he’s also a person.

Simulating poverty

31 Mar

Have you played Spent?

Key word: “played.” It’s in the URL (http://playspent.org/) for this poverty simulator, which is another reminder that some folks–too many folks–don’t have to “play” at poverty to understand the experience.

I do recommend this simulation to you, whether or not you yourself have experience or currently live in poverty–to notice what the simulation provokes in you. And I recommend playing out different choices, to see not only where the simulation leads you, but also what it feels like to make those different choices (ex. opting in or out of health care).

Now, if you’re thinking about using a poverty simulator with students or already do, I would add some recommendations:

  • Don’t assume that poverty is a new or unfamiliar experience for all of your students. Introduce the activity as an experience people understand and are connected to in different ways. (For example, I am one generation removed from poverty, but not the kind the simulation proposes: both of my parents grew up in Korea during the war and lived through starvation and homelessness. Getting a job with any kind of consistent pay, let alone health insurance, wasn’t an option for their parents, their older siblings or themselves. So while I myself have never lived in poverty, the people closest to me have.)
  • Let the students know that whether or not they’ve ever lived in poverty, they’re perspectives are no more or less valid than their peers’. Everyone’s experience is authentic. What we need to be mindful of is when we assume that our experience is the norm, and that our opinions are right, as opposed to just our experience-informed opinions.
  • Talk to the students about empathy, including what I think of as empathy simulation. That is, claiming empathy when I really don’t understand an experience because I think saying “I get it” is proof that I’m a good person. (See Mia McKenzie’s blog post on “being an ally” that has appeared in a couple of my earlier posts this month.) Sometimes, I really don’t understand your experience or perspective. And acknowledging that is a lot more respectful than editing, revising and contorting your experience to fit what I can understand.
  • Use individual reflection and journaling to help students process and think before they speak.
  • Ask students to notice their reactions (questions, feelings, impulses to act), where those are coming from (in their experience, identity, worldview) and what’s going on for them as they navigate their choices. (To start the simulation, you have to choose to play or “Exit.” Then, throughout the simulation, you can click “I can’t do this.” I wonder when and why people click this button.)
  • Address the idea that money = happiness (in The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner discusses how a baseline of money is a critical factor in happiness, but beyond that, more money doesn’t correlate absolutely with being happier). In other words, address a common, normative assumption that wealth makes us happier. Acknowledge the truth and misconceptions in that, as well as students’ perspective on their own experience and cultural norms surrounding the pursuit of wealth.
  • Connect the experience to a concrete “try today” or “try tomorrow” (ex. helping to educate when someone else says that people who are poor should just work harder, volunteering at a food bank…)

On that last point: if you’re going to educate about poverty, you have to empower student to do something about it, and not just to learn more about the issue. Learning more is important, but education without application can be demoralizing and even destructive. They may not end poverty (although I’ll still hope!) but they can stand up when someone says something classist. And that’s a real part of the problem that simulators like Spent are trying to solve.

What’s with the “”?

30 Mar

A microaggression is a subtle (to the person or group who just did it) but stunning (to the person or group who just experienced it) slight or dismissal of an identity as being unimportant, invalid or unworthy.

An example: I just took an online survey (because I’m procrastinating), and at the end, the company was gathering demographic information, including the relationship status of the survey takers. My options included:

Married or in a relationship with a “significant other”

The air quotes were theirs.

It’s a small detail, but one that potentially screams: “Because that’s what you call each other, but we all know your partner is only really significant when you put a ring on it!”

I’m just saying. And as a married person who:

  1. Has experienced the weird and powerful legitimization that “married” status suddenly confers on couples, not just socially but legally,
  2. Knows people who previously hadn’t been able to or still can’t get married because marriage is a heterosexist institution, and
  3. Doesn’t think people should get married (because a committed relationship is a committed relationship)–although it’s fine if they choose to

I think this company is doing itself a disservice by casually letting its unmarried but committed customers know (in a throwaway question at the end of this survey) that they are persona sorta-grata… after the marrieds.

To which I say (and wrote in my e-mail to the company): just remove the quotes already! Because they don’t serve your customers, and they don’t serve you. That’s the thing about microaggressions: they’re not useful for much, if you want to build community.


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