Archive | November, 2012

Pretending to be poor

30 Nov

“[T]he 80 people standing with me in this auditorium are not poor. They’re just pretending to be” (

So begins Krissy Clark’s story about her experience in a poverty simulator. In “Pretending to be poor can change your perspective,” Clark asks, “Sounds well-intentioned, but what happened to good old-fashioned empathy?”

Good question.

Let’s talk about “good old-fashioned empathy,” of which I think there are at least two flavors: imagined empathy (I want to understand, and I assume my sympathy for you is first-person understanding and empathy) and experiential empathy (I can relate because I live or have lived it). But even experiential empathy isn’t Empathy, with an omniscient capital E. There’s no Certificate of Empathy guaranteeing that the bearer “gets” everyone else’s experience (in this case, of poverty) based on her own individual experience. While there are cultural norms and normative experiences of poverty, there’s also still unique perspective and circumstance. It turns out that walking a mile in someone else’s shoes entails a lot more than going that mile.

Questions about empathy considered, I appreciate Clark’s wariness, in a time when poverty tourism is social justice-trendy: see the various educational and philanthropic trips designed to do good now and in the future by exposing folks with resources to famine, poverty, drought and other debilitating conditions so that they “get it” and are inspired to make a difference.

Let it be known that I have no beef with making a difference or the show-the-problem approach (this is akin to wildlife programs that expose people to animals in order to make the lives of those animals more meaningful to people). What I challenge is the notion that you gain empathy by taking a trip or doing a simulation. There’s a fundamental, paradigmatic and visceral difference between chronic and episodic (with a clear end) experience.

All that said, I do think there’s something to these poverty simulations (including the fact that they don’t rely on actually impoverished people to represent The Impoverished and educate The Others).

During the simulation, you are assigned a pretend identity with specific circumstances (baby, recently released from jail, and wild cards like unexpected parking fines…) “Over the course of the next pretend month, which has been compressed into an hour for the purposes of the poverty simulation, [your] mission is to go to pretend work, get pretend paid, and find a way to pretend ends meet for [your] family.” Clark reports witnessing crushed optimism, genuine stress and even tears during the simulation.

And in some cases, the simulated experience can translate into real-world change. One man’s experience led him to change his property management company’s policy of requiring a security deposit paid in full upfront to an option to pay in installments. As one of his tenants puts it, “It helps to look on the other side of things.”

Another woman, who in real life has experienced poverty herself, learned from her participation in the simulation as a pretend boss what it’s like to be on the other side of the rules: “You hear so many hard stories that after a while you don’t know which ones are true, which ones are a little fabricated.  And in order for your own sanity, you don’t make eye contact.  You look at their paper work. You kind of like look through–right through–people.”

It seems to me that self-reflection applies to many of us, even those of us who haven’t heard so many, or any, stories. Case in point: how much eye contact do you see with-home folks making with homeless folks when they pass by on the street? As a group, with-home folks (who do include people who have been without homes themselves) do a lot of looking right through. So there’s something to say for a simulation experience, for those who are uncomfortable or unable to hold eye contact, if you will, in real life. Hopefully the simulation becomes a bridge that connects to the participant’s real life opportunities and responsibilities for action.

On that note, a final thought for those of you who are considering involving your students, co-workers or communities in a poverty simulation: consider the diversity you may not be aware of within the group. The simulation is designed “to help middle class folks get a better sense of what daily life is like on the edge.” I repeat: designed for middle class folks. I cannot stress enough how critical it is to set up and debrief any poverty simulation experience with a presumption of socioeconomic and class diversity within your group, unless you know for a fact that everyone you are inviting into the experience identifies themselves and their life experiences as middle class. Poverty is already a condition that we make invisible. Trying to get people (whom we assume are middle class) to see poverty is no excuse for making poor people within your own community invisible.

When white heterosexual culturally Christian men can trust that they earned their success

28 Nov

The post-election hype about the 72% white “minority” (here’s a well-informed response to that mathematical conundrum by University of Michigan professor Juan Cole: is even more pointedly for some, panic about the waning but continued dominance of an even more specific demographic: white heterosexual culturally Christian men.

Well, calm down, people.

In “Why the ‘End’ of White Men Is Actually Good for White Men,” Hugo Schwyzer explains why sharing power and leadership is good, not just for actual minority groups, but for those who historically and still currently constitute the majority of societal power holders. I especially appreciate his fourth argument that when white men as a group don’t just get to run things because they’re white men, “[they] can–-maybe–-trust [their] successes are due to [their] merit” (

One of the most pernicious tropes in the affirmative action debate is that minority and gender-based preferences in admissions or hiring make it impossible for non-whites and women to be sure of their own abilities. For two generations, angry white men have complained that they aren’t given any special benefits by the state. This lament, of course, ignores what’s obvious to everyone who isn’t wearing blinders. (Privilege conceals itself best from those who possess it.) The benefits of whiteness and maleness are so numerous (Peggy McIntosh’s famous 50 point list* hardly covers them all) that most white men just can’t see them. Though middle-aged white men like me may never know just how much of our success is due to unmerited advantage, the eclipsing of our power means that our sons and grandsons have at least a better chance of growing up in a world where their triumphs will be due solely to their merits, not their skin or their sex.

Schwyzer logically points out that unearned success is not some unique and exclusive minority benefit. Quite the contrary, the old-boy network, nepotism and flat-out discrimination have always ensured that at least some white heterosexual culturally Christian men have gotten theirs without earning it. And what a relief to them to know that someday they’ll be free of people thinking, “He only made it because he’s white.”

*Here’s the list:

How to be

26 Nov

Hi and happy post-Thanksgiving!
A quick book rec today: How to Be Black by Baratunde (not Babatunde) Thurston: I’m enjoying it thoroughly (LOL moments that startle my partner at bedtime). I would call HTBB a hilarious and quick read, but it’s not always so quick, at least for me, because there’s some tasty food for thought in this book.

As Thurston himself would point out, it may not be Black History Month, but what the heck. Check it out anyway.

Just in time for the holidays

20 Nov

The Greater Good Science Center has launched, “a private journal of the people and things for which you’re grateful, and it enables you to share your thanks publicly while reading expressions of gratitude from others around the world. What’s more, your participation helps researchers study the causes, effects, and meaning of gratitude.”

Saturday quote

17 Nov

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”

–Harold Whitman

The happiest KKK meeting ever

16 Nov

To quote writer Laura Beck, “This is so great” (

She’s referring to a KKK anti-immigration rally in Charlotte, NC that was attended en masse… by clowns.

Instead of shouting, the clown protesters used squeaky toys, whistles, and noisemakers to drown out the hateful… speeches. The clowns — dressed in everything from giant red squishy noses to banana costumes — outnumbered the bigots 5-1…

When the speakers talked about “White Power,” the protesters sprinkled white flour. Another held a sign reading “Wife Power.”

They said they wanted to make a point that racism is ridiculous.

“The message from us is, you look silly,” said Lacey Williams, the youth coordinator for Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition. “We’re dressed like clowns and you’re the ones that look funny.”

Brilliant. Inspiring. And this reminds me that the way we “do” diversity needs to be diverse. Sometimes, facts and debates are useful. Sometimes personal narratives are effective. And sometimes, laughter says it all. Of course, laughter or facts or stories won’t effect social change by themselves. But they are the diverse catalysts that can help a group of diverse people notice, care and act.

**Thanks to my colleague LM for this article and the smile.

Culture (and couture) a la Colbert

14 Nov

The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan offers a pretty accessible and illustrative definition of culture: Mom.

Culture is how you do because that’s how you were raised. And for those who have rebelled against our parents, I wouldn’t discount “Mom” just yet: resisting how we were raised still means we owe some formation credit to all those traditions, beliefs and daily ways of living that we are trying not to perpetuate. (And I, for one, have experienced the deep, unconscious and persistent influence of my mother despite different choices I may make.)

Concise though Pollan’s definition is, I’ve always had to qualify it for its heterosexist and flat-out sexist bias about who raised us. I put his “Mom” in quotes and translate that culture is how you do because of how you were raised by your community.

So I was quite pleased to read an interview with Stephen Colbert (out of character, but commenting on his TV persona: the conservative pundit Stephen Colbert who headlines “The Colbert Report”), offering another great, E-Z to understand definition of culture. In explaining his “classic and preppie” style (it turns out this was an interview with Women’s Wear Daily), Colbert stated:

My default is, “Give me a blue blazer and a pair of khaki pants,” because that’s how I was raised. Nothing ever supplanted it. I flirted with wearing black and having a beard when I was in theater school, but that passed. I went back to my default settings (

There you have it: culture is your “default settings.” And while Colbert’s definition, like Pollan’s, has its own biases (here, that a blazer and khakis is the sartorial default), the difference is that Colbert owns his bias. It’s his, not the default.

And that opens the door for me to consider my defaults.

Why I do workshops

12 Nov

This fall, I hosted and facilitated a workshop: “That’s racist!” Talking to students, families and colleagues about what is (and isn’t) really racist, and here’s what one participant took away from that morning of conversations and role plays:

[I’m excited about a] simple approach to dealing with students where “racist issues are involved”…this approach is one I learned from a participant in one of the “pairing sessions”…that method is as follows…when there is a sensitive issue that arises and needs to be addressed, work through with the student whether what was said was: 1) true; 2) kind; 3) necessary.

I love the approach, and I love the source.

This is why I do workshops: so I can learn from the thoughtful, diversely skilled people who come together to work towards their 10,000 hours of diversity and equity practice.

Thanks to everyone who attends Blink workshops and brings their game.

Saturday quote

10 Nov

“Differences challenge assumptions.”

–Anne Wilson Schaef

The power of stereotypes

9 Nov

Here’s the headline from an October edition of the NY Times Magazine: “Why Women Can’t Do Pull-Ups” (

I was baffled: I can. Depending on my fitness, I can do just one or maybe a few sets. But I can. So I had to read the article.

And here’s a synopsis:

Women can do pull-ups. There are some physiological, fitness and anatomical reasons why women as a group do worse at pull-ups than men as a group. Ditto for tall people and folks with long arms, who tend to struggle more with pull-ups than short and short-armed people.

But, I repeat: according to the very study journalist Tara Parker-Pope cites, women can do pull-ups.

For a great critique and response to the article, check out Gawker’s “Yes, Women Can Do Pull-Ups” (, which opens with the admonishment: “You should know better than to take fitness advice from the New York Times.”

I’d just like to note the chicken and egg conundrum here: Did stereotypes spawn the Times‘ inaccurate headline and biased journalism (Parker-Pope really strains in her attempt to make the evidence serve her incorrect thesis–maybe her point is that she can’t do pull-ups, and she wants research to prove that it’s not her fault?) Or does her article create a stereotype about women’s physical capabilities?

OK, it’s not a conundrum. It’s clearly a “yes, and…” situation. Her perspective is founded on the same stereotype that she perpetuates, and while a “column” may be less fact-driven than a “news article,” the very act of citing a study is a claim to fact, and thus, this column is a very serious endeavor to make a factually flawed stereotype (yes, that’s redundant) into truth.

Not cool.

All I ask is for a little more discernment and sense of responsibility from Parker-Pope and the Times (who is her editor??) if they’re going to tell people what we can–or cannot–do just because of who we are.