After Darkness, There Will Be Light

“Harmony will prevail. After darkness, there will be light. The light cannot come without the darkness. Better days are bound to come now.”  – Sook Nyul Choi

Terrible things happened in our country today. It’s all over the news and people way smarter than me have already written down their thoughts and reflections about today’s events. I am not a news reporter and I am not interested in the details about what happened. All I know is that a group of white people, who embrace hate and believe that their skin color makes them superior, caused terrible things to happen in Charlottesville, Virginia. Lives have been lost and many of us are shocked and angered that such a blatant demonstration of white supremacy, hate, and violence could happen in this country.

The events of the day have caused me to pause and reflect on those things that moved me from not seeing racism when I started college to being able to see and understand the role racism plays in our country. In addition to understanding racism, I also think it’s incredibly important to identify and be aware of white privilege. The two go hand and hand and are basically two sides of the same coin.

When I reflect on the things in my life that helped me better understand racism and white privilege, I think about (in no particular order):

  • Developing close personal friendships with people of color over a long period of time.
  • Reading Roots: The Sage of an American Family by Alex Haley.
  • Watching the entire 14-episode Eyes on the Prize series. It’s long but incredibly important. Every American should be required to watch this award-winning documentary.
  • Being in situations where I was the only white person in a group.
  • Re-learning American history with a balanced and multicultural lens, such as A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.
  • Watching a Frontline documentary called A Class Divided that helps demonstrate the effect of prejudice and bias, especially on children.
  • Reading Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.
  • Working to understand my own upbringing and the limited way I was taught to see the world.
  • Reading White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh.
  • Learning from wise and open-minded teachers and mentors, both white and people of color, who were willing to guide my journey and share their experiences.

Some of these videos and books are older, but many have been revised and are still relevant today. If you are interested in increasing your knowledge and awareness about racism, each of these is a great starting point. I would humbly suggest devoting the time and energy to try all of them. You will have no regrets!

I am also interested and curious to hear your thoughts and experiences. What would you recommend reading, watching, or doing to help white people broaden their awareness of racism? What do you feel compelled to share after witnessing the hate and violence in Charlottesville?

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Where Should My Children Go to School?

A friend of mine asked a few questions in the comment section after my last post. He also cited a June 2016 article published in the New York Times Magazine. The article was titled “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City” and was written by Nikole Hannah-Jones.

I decided to share my response and open the topic up to further discussion. I want to thank Brandon for bringing up a tricky issue: where to live and where to send your children to school. These are difficult questions for me, and maybe for you too. First, I want to share a bit of personal history.

When my husband and I returned to Cincinnati after college, we moved to a diverse suburban neighborhood we loved. We lived there for 2 years and then moved out of state, only to return to Cincinnati 3 years later. The neighborhood we loved had started to decline so we moved to a different suburban school district that was known for its diversity.

But over time, we started to hear about problems in the district and we witnessed several neighborhood kids falling through the cracks at the high school. At this time, we had our first child and moved once again. This time, we opted for great schools and a safe community. Unfortunately, this decision landed us in an extremely homogeneous community with little to no racial, ethnic, religious, or income diversity. It’s exactly like the childhood community where I grew up. My kids are living in the bubble I was hell-bent on avoiding.

I tell myself my kids’ experience is different because they are exposed to diversity outside our neighborhood and we talk about differences all the time. My children know about aspects of diversity I didn’t even know existed until college. As a family, we routinely acknowledge that our neighborhood does not represent the “real world.”

However, I cannot escape the guilt I feel. I think about moving or sending my kids to different schools on a regular basis. I check the real estate listings constantly. I weigh the pros and cons of living where we are now vs. a different neighborhood or school. We are trying to do what is best for our kids while also recognizing that our decisions have unintended and problematic consequences.

I also recognize that our decision to live in our current neighborhood is possible because of the privilege that comes with our skin color and economic class. The New York Times Magazine article is fantastic and I encourage everyone to read it. The author addresses the challenging issues related to selecting schools and echoes the struggles many parents face.

It also describes how the education system is built on racism, classism, and housing discrimination (which was legal until 1968). The system is wholly imperfect, unfair, and biased against people of color and the economically disadvantaged.

What choices have you made regarding where you live and where you send your children to school? How do those decisions make you feel?

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The Second Ripple

After my freshman year at Gettysburg College, I transferred to Cornell University. On the first day of classes at Cornell, I experienced my second ripple of change. I walked into a small classroom and saw “Does racism exist in America?” written in big letters on the chalk board. As we filed into the classroom, our professor, Don Barr, asked us to divide into small groups and discuss our responses to the question.

I didn’t take much time to think about my answer because I had an immediate response. Based on my personal experience, I planned to share my answer without any hesitation or thought. My answer was a simple “no”.

How could I answer “no” to this question? Well, it’s important to remember where I was coming from. I came from a community that had very little cultural diversity. In my personal experience, I did not see many people of color, let alone witness racism. Like many white people, I had been taught to think of racism on an individual level. Here is what I remember thinking:

  • Was I in the KKK?
  • Did I use racial epithets?
  • Was I disrespectful towards people of color?

Since I answered “no” to these questions, I figured I personally wasn’t racist. In fact, I was proud to admit that I would sometimes go out of my way to be extra nice to people of color, just to show I wasn’t racist. I would hold the door open maybe longer than usual or just be extra helpful, just to make sure I didn’t appear racist.

Like many white people, I also thought of racism as a historical issue. It was 1990. Were African-Americans drinking out of separate drinking fountains or sitting in the back of the bus? No. Did they have the right to vote? Yes. So, again, my simple conclusion was that racism was something that had been in the past and simply didn’t exist anymore.

As I gathered in a circle with my small group, what I vividly remember is that I was the only one who answered “no” to the question. Fortunately, no one laughed at me. Out of a class of 30 people, maybe 3 of us answered no. Although I don’t remember much about the class dialogue that day, what I remember is feeling a ripple. There was a sense that things were happening around me that I was totally unaware of. At the same time, I had a feeling that my world was about to change.

Looking back, I’m embarrassed that I lived in such a bubble. But I remind myself that people today still live in bubbles. Many communities are just as segregated today as they were in the early 1960s, if not more so. Being uninformed is easy if you are a member of the ingroup. Like me, you have the privilege of not needing to know about these things.

Imagine walking into a classroom and seeing this question: “Does racism exist in America?” How would you respond and why?

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In loving memory of Professor Donald Barr, 1935-2008. He was an inspiring teacher and a passionate social activist. Little did I know, that this first day of class with him was just the beginning of a long and influential relationship. Rest in peace.

Picture of Don Barr

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Describing the Water

When you are part of the ingroup or the majority, it can be difficult to answer the question, what is culture? I recently talked about right handed people not having to think about being right handed. It is like asking a fish to describe water. When the water is all around you and it’s all you see and all you know, it can be difficult to even notice the water. Let alone describe it.

The times I have been most aware of the water around me is when I have experienced what it is like to be in the outgroup or part of the minority. These moments have brought a range of emotions; from discomfort, frustration, confusion, disbelief, and anger. They have been unforgettable teaching moments that have stayed with me for decades. For now, I will highlight a few of the times that I became very aware of the water based on three different dimensions of culture:

  • I can remember a wonderful night spent with a bunch of friends. All of them were native Spanish-speakers. Even though I knew some Spanish, I was not fully engaged and involved. It was a super fun evening with lots of laughter and everyone did their best to make sure I felt included. Although I enjoyed the people, the music, and the food, I still felt just the slightest bit detached and isolated. I wasn’t part of something that I wanted to be a part of. It made me think about people who are constantly surrounded by people who don’t share their native language and what that must feel like day after day.
  • I’ll never forget a rainy day that I spent with a friend who uses a motorized wheelchair. I drove her accessible van to a music concert that was held in a historic building that was not accessible. To get to our seats, we had to enter the concert hall from the back of the building and go through the kitchen. After the concert, someone parked too close to the van and we couldn’t use the ramps. After that experience, I try to remember the challenges that my friend faces every day when she leaves her home and I also watch the lines when I park near an accessible space.
  • I vividly recall a meal shared with an African-American friend at Cornell. After going through the cafeteria line together, I could tell he was upset about something. When I asked, he shared his frustration with the racist cashier. We talked and I told him the cashier was always super disrespectful to me too. We eventually came to the conclusion that she was just a nasty person. But I suddenly realized that my friend interpreted negative interactions based on his skin color and the possibility of racism, while I had never once had that thought occur to me.

Have there been times in your life that you noticed the water? How did it make you feel? Did it have a lasting impact?

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Are We There Yet?

If you have children or have been around children, you know that every road trip involves the dreaded question: “Are we there yet?” Adults often moan and may eventually shout a response to the question depending on how frequently it is asked and how much more time it will take to reach the final destination.

I think the journey to become more culturally competent is somewhat similar. You might wonder if you are there yet. You’ve read some blogs, you have read some children’s books, and you think it’s important to talk about differences. Are you done? Are you there yet?

The answer is no. I’ve been on my journey for over 25 years and while I feel comfortable with cultural differences and am knowledgeable about issues like bias, privilege, and most of the -isms, I still have room for improvement. We all have room for improvement.

I want to give you an example of a recent stumble I made. About a month ago, I observed two men working on the telephone pole in our yard. One was white and one was black. I had a quick question so I went outside and approached the men. Without thinking, I found myself asking the white man my question. As the conversation started, I quickly realized my bias in addressing the white man and assuming he was in charge. Despite my commitment to cultural awareness and equality, I found myself perpetuating a common and subtle form of racism.

After this experience, I reflected on what I had done. We have talked about the need to be self-aware. That means being aware of your own culture and the biases and the blind spots that come with it. It means reflecting on your actions and attitudes and taking responsibility when you mess up. And you will.  It’s important to own your mistakes, learn from them, and continue on.

So am I there yet? Nope. But I know what I need to do to keep moving forward on my journey. If you have the desire to become more aware of cultural diversity and to feel more comfortable around differences, the research suggests that there are three distinct actions that you need to take. To begin your journey, you must:

  1. Practice cultural self-awareness.
  2. Gain knowledge and information about other cultures.
  3. Learn skills that enable successful interaction and communication.

Over time, we will look at all three of these actions in great depth and detail. So far, we have done a bit of self-reflection, but there is much more to do. We have also discussed the importance of windows in gaining knowledge and information about other cultures.

The journey towards cultural competence is on-going and never-ending. There is no finish line. There is not a final destination. This is a trip that is best done in fellowship with others and even better when done as a family. Are you ready for the trip of a lifetime? Are you ready to see where the journey takes you?

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