On patriotism and sorrow: a personal history of the flag

You will seldom read about sports here, but Roger Goodell’s statement on national anthem policy today provokes many thoughts about patriotism and how the ties that bind us can also divide us.

When I was ten years old God got mixed into the business both of patriotism and daily household purchases. This is the year (1954) that the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, not without controversy. I remember stumbling over the word change every morning after Congress passed the Joint Resolution that mandated this change to the Flag Code. Two years later Congress passed another Joint Resolution stipulating that the words “in God we trust” must appear on all U.S. currency. 

These changes mixed strangely with warm feelings of standing with the multitudes at Cleveland Municipal Stadium to sing the National Anthem on pleasant summer evenings, followed by the pronouncement: “Play ball.” And even more strangely with the grainy apoplectic faces of Senator Joseph McCarthy and company: McCarthy, chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, conducted hearings into his charges that the U.S. Army was “soft on communism.” This is among my earliest memories of television. Also 1954.

Flags stood at the front of the classroom in elementary school, and flew from poles in public places. We were taught that Betsy Ross was a seamstress who “made” the first American flag. This may be an apocryphal story first recorded by her grandson. We were not taught that as an apprentice to an upholsterer she also made and repaired curtains, bedcovers, tablecloths, rugs, umbrellas and Venetian blinds.

And then – in 1954! – President Eisenhower standardized the dates and time periods when the flag was to be flown at half staff:  Memorial Day, Peace Officers Day, upon the death of a president or former president (for 30 days), upon the death of a vice president, Supreme Court chief justice/retired chief justice, or speaker of the House of Representatives (10 days.)

My first memory of the flag at half-staff is following the assassination of President Kennedy – nineteen years after Eisenhower’s proclamation. The period of mourning was one of extraordinary national unity.

 

All in all my relationship with the flag was respectful, if perfunctory and transactional. 

So I was more bemused than triumphant when astronauts Aldrin and Armstrong planted the flag on the moon in 1969. More bemused than horrified by flag-burnings during Vietnam War protests.

It was President Nixon who adopted the flag as a lapel pin. He was also the first President to end a public speech with the words “God bless America and God bless each and every one of you.” (The speech was an attempt to exert damage control over the escalating Watergate scandal.)  And flag pins were not uncommon during the First Gulf War (1990-91).

But it was after 9/11 that President George W. Bush – and his staff – and some news anchors, began not so much wearing as displaying them.

 

This is when I started to feel queasy. 

As if something that was a standard fixture in my life was being appropriated to stand in for something that I did not stand for at all: the display of patriotism. As if the terrible assault on our civilian life required the display of a symbol for us to rally around. I’m not talking about fireworks displays or parades on Independence Day. Or the display of respect when a folded flag is handed to the family of a fallen military member. 

What I mean is the display of the flag as a badge of chosen-ness, of righteousness or self-righteousness, the display of the flag as if it is a political brand. Or a team brand. This is where Goodell’s statement of the day comes in:

It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case.

This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem. Personnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room until after the anthem has been performed.

And then there’s the mixing up of patriotism and God. The God I believe in is not the God of American currency, a deity of patriotism, or a deity who favors either a set of political or religious beliefs or any tribe or nation.

 

The flag for me has become real. It has become a sorrow.

Not a symbol of sorrow but a sorrow in itself. Because it is flown at half-staff with such frequency that I often have to inquire of people  – or Google – just who is being mourned and for what reason.

And because in 2018 the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag does not confound a 10-year-old trying to remember to add two new words to her daily recitation, but inspires a six-year-old to decide, all on his own, to take the knee. And because in 2018 a team member can be relegated to the locker room for “bad” behavior (choosing not to stand for the national anthem) the way I could be sent to the coat-room at the back of my classroom in 1954 for behaving out of order.

 

So I heartfully propose that we decommission the flag, the pledge, and the anthem all three as badges of anything. 

Let us rid all three of sanctimony. Instead let us return them to their essential nature, a true sanctity. Let us consider the values they inspire us to embody, in support of the indivisible Union to which we continue to aspire. Humility shoulder to shoulder with pride. From the depths of our humanity.

I can think of no better antidote to

the American flag as sorrow.

Limits of our seeing, depth in our listening

When we fail to notice the limits of how things look to us, we can inflict a great deal of harm. It is seeing-listening that opens us to human connection.

 

Three stories I heard this week about how deeply our physical appearance affects our lives

Her right arm in a cast and sling, this visionary and hard-working woman was stunned at how thoughtfully people responded to her apparent need for help. No one has made any such allowances for her, she noted, during times when she has actually felt a lot worse.

A courageous young woman struggling with multiple auto-immune diagnoses was dismayed when she heard other women in her online support groups describe how physicians treated them dismissively because Ankylosing Spondylitis is considered “a man’s disease.” 

A skilled, team-playing and tenacious contractor who was let go from her federal position considers her options as she applies for other jobs. The medical marijuana industry attracts her.  She can see herself learning about the industry and ultimately opening her own dispensary.  She also sees the industry as “nontraditional,” offering her freedom to show up where she is less constrained, less hindered by how she is seen in white-male-dominated workplaces: as her gender and skin color.

 

Bias is another way to describe the limits of how things look to us, and limit our capacity to connect

None of us is without our filters as we make our way through life. Even amongst family, close friends and associates, our personal suffering, both emotional and physical, can be “missed” or “dismissed” because we look fine, seem cheerful, have a pretty good energy level. We display no obvious signifiers of distress. No arm in a sling. And when we talk about our distress, what we say, how we are heard, may not override the visual conclusion already reached: oh, she’s really fine.

This is one reason we often turn to people who we know are going through the same thing.

There are other settings – medical or workplace – where the biases, and the harm of our limited “seeing” go deeper. This can play out with the physician reluctant to order lab tests you ask for, or undervaluing your mood, stress, or pain symptoms. The average time from onset to diagnosis if fibromyalgia, for example, is 5-8 years.  Or the lack of opportunities for women and people of color to advance and to occupy positions of influence and leadership.

When we are not aware of our filters, our biases, we are unable ourselves to be full human beings. Nor are we able to meet others as full human beings.

 

Seeing-Listening takes us below surface appearances, where we can be aware of our own biases and meet a fully dimensional human being 

Going by my appearance, one may comment on my outfit, the bags under my eyes, or the expression on my face, and ask “What’s going on?” Then comes the listening (or not.) My tone of voice. My word choices, metaphor of the day. I may feel invited to open up – or close down. But when a friend, a colleague, or a medical professional listens to me deeply, non-judgmentally, with curiosity and nuance, I experience a renewed wholeness.

As a healer, it took me a long time to understand why my clients weren’t put off by my taking notes when I sit with them, and even why the note-taking doesn’t distract me and take my attention elsewhere. It’s about the listening I am able to presence while I take notes. A listening that includes awareness of my own filters. As I can do that, I find I am Seeing-Listening:  I can take in the glorious particulars of her appearance, her story, as she sits across from me, and also the heartfulness of our shared, and flawed, human condition. As I See-Listen, an exchange of giving and receiving flows between us. And in any given moment, either of us may be receiving, either of us giving.

Even in environments fraught with structural barriers for women and people of color, when we can make space for more than transactional relationships, when we set our intention on connecting to one another, there are opportunities to meet across our differences. There are opportunities to bear one another. To appreciate one another. It is Seeing-Listening that allows another person, however different from us, to show up as the full human being they are, not as a representative of their gender or ethnicity or religious practice. Not as a boss or peer or subordinate, but as a whole human being.

It will take many types of collective efforts to remedy the coarseness of our national conversation, as well as our structural problems, the policies and practices of our government and private institutions.

But there is no choice closer at hand to us as individuals in relationship, whatever the personal or professional context. All it takes is a pause to remember: this angry/strange/different person in front of me may have more sorrows than joys, and still has a human heart.  Offer the gift of Seeing-Listening, even in small ways, as you go about your day. You too may start to wonder who is the giver, who the receiver.

Freddie Gray: three years gone

I am an older white woman. My presence does not provoke a call to 911.

If I get pulled over for a broken tail-light, the most I have to worry about is a pricey ticket.

If I get followed by a salesperson, the most I have to worry about is her zealous devotion to making a sale.

If I am locked out of my house, the most I have to worry about is getting back in and maybe replacing the window I had to break to do it.

I am an older white woman. If I see a cop on the street, I am not likely to flee on foot, as Freddie Gray did on the day of his arrest. According to charging documents, ”unprovoked upon noticing police presence.”

 

Dear Freddie Gray

by Sara Eisenberg

 

Freddie Gray,

there’s a lot of people you never met

whose lives you changed.

 

You should have your own flag, rising

above your own Memorial

Stadium,

while we take the knee,

especially we

white people, 

it was our city that

would not hear your

story in your own words,

who you were, 

what you wanted,

what you wanted to give, 

what you wanted to leave behind,

 

and then leaving long before your time,

 

leaving a lot of people you never met,

whose lives you changed

these three years ago,

people you never met,

whose lives you changed:

in your name,

we’re not leaving

without changing

black men’s lives.

Timeless power of language: nonviolence and violence

Nonviolence: using peaceful means rather than force, especially to bring about political or social change

Nonviolence, in Dr. King’s words, Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored…I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth… So the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

 

Dr. King’s death was widely reported as an assassination, carried out by a sniper, a lone gunman, who was a white man (or men, if you follow one of many conspiracy theories, as did King’s family.)

In the shadow of the death of Dr. King, who had unparalleled command of language, voice, and delivery, I feel called upon to simply place the following words and their definitions in proximity to one another.

We may identify these words with quite different historical periods. Let time collapse into this historical moment. This moment. Today. As you reflect, let these words talk to one another:

Violence: behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something. In law: the unlawful exercise of physical force or intimidation by the exhibition of such force

Sniper: a person who shoots from a hiding place, especially accurately and at long range

Assassination: the murder of an important person in a surprise attack for political or religious reasons.

Terrorism: the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

Lynching: kill (someone) for an alleged offense without a legal trial, especially by hanging

Segregation: the act or policy of separating people of different races, religions or sexes and treating them in a different way

Mass incarceration: the imprisonment of a large proportion of a population, used in particular with reference to the significant increase in the rate.

Slavery: the practice or system of owning persons as legal property who are forced to obey their owners.

Institutional racism: racial discrimination that has become established as normal behaviour within a society or organization

White supremacy: the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society

Jim Crow: the former practice of segregating black people in the US; an implement for straightening iron bars or bending rails by screw pressure.

Redlining: refusal to give loans or insurance to people in an area that is considered to be a bad financial risk

White privilege: inherent advantages possessed by a white person on the basis of their race in a society characterized by racial inequality and injustice

(Note: definitions according to the Oxford English Dictionary)

For myself, I find the significance of each word 

is illumined by the others.

I am better able to take in each word as

the timeless/time-bound piece of reality it is, 

when amongst the others.

I take these words together to be the still 

unaddressed lineage of our country.

It is long past time to own up to our long history

of behaviors intended to hurt, damage, or kill.

May our reflections open us to insight and inspire us to action.

         

P. S. Historical note on the concept of race

IMG_1554THE HISTORY OF THE IDEA OF RACE… AND WHY IT MATTERS Audrey Smedley, Professor of Anthropology Emerita Virginia Commonwealth University, 2007, American Anthropological Association.

“In the middle of the 20th century, a new generation of historians began to take another look at the beginnings of the American experience. They spent decades exploring all of the original documents relating to the establishment of colonies in America. What these scholars discovered was to transform the writing of American history forever. Their research revealed that our 19th and 20th century ideas and beliefs about races did not in fact exist in the 17th century. Race originated as a folk idea and ideology about human differences; it was a social invention, not a product of science. Historians have documented when, and to a great extent, how race as an ideology came into our culture and our consciousness.” 

http://www.understandingrace.org/resources/pdf/disease/smedley.pdf

 


 

Photo of segregated drinking fountain taken at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, October, 2016

“Good questions” can clear a path through incivility

We are desperately in need of good questions to draw us out of our silos, to connect us as human beings during these divisive and acrimonious times.

Good questions can clear a path through half-truths, lies, justifications, insults, declarations, vilifications, clarifications, obfuscations, rationalizations, denials.

Good questions invite us to drop our personas, masks, even the half-truths we tell ourselves.

Good questions open up possibilities.

They have many answers.

They are even likely to have different answers at different times.

 

Here are the most relevant “good questions” I have heard in months.

English teacher Laurel Taylor recently challenged her 12th grade students to sit down and talk with someone with whom they disagreed on a foundational issue, such abortion, or who they supported in the presidential election. The students were to ask the following:

What is it like to be you?

What is your life like?

What is it like to be known and by who are you known?

The students learned something of what shaped the “other,” discovered common ground as well as differences that were not resolved. Built relationships.

They went on to each answer the same questions for themselves, and share with their class-mates. More surprises: discovering they were not as alone and exceptional as they believed as they encountered the many challenges of adolescence.

 

These questions inspire me in their simplicity, plainness, and directness. They say, “I really want to know who you are, what it’s like for you to make your way through daily life.”

When we ask “good” questions we make space for surprise, the unexpected, revelation, AHAs. Space for other questions to arise. For more information to come in. More insight. Also mystery, doubt, vulnerability, confusion.  Also awe, joy, pleasure.

As these students learned, when we are able to let in what shows up, what is actually present and real for us, our capacity for compassion grows, even compassion for ourselves.

 

Invitation to practice:

You may share the same reluctance and discomfort these students did, but risk asking someone these questions, then answer them for yourself.

And please share your own “good questions” with us here.

 


For the full story: In a time of divisiveness, lessons on listening at a Virginia school, by Debbie Truong,  Washington Post, February 26, 2018.

We cannot “#metoo” and leave our weeping behind

Which comes first, the weeping or the story?

#metoo has me asking: where do we bring our stories of misogyny into the daylight?  On social media? by filing legal charges? testifying in a court of law or a legislative hearing? sitting with a therapist, a friend over coffee, strangers (but not) in a support group? via text message, Facebook post, letter to the editor?

And how do we bring our stories out, pull the words up from our guts and out of our mouths? dry-eyed and reportorially? in a whisper? with weeping and railing? with what combination of anger and anguish?

I have thought a lot about modesty over the years – what gets exposed where, whether it’s a woman’s skin, a woman’s heart, a woman’s pain. Truths are being exposed. Must they also be an exposé?

Women are blowing the lid off generations of stories of suffering at the hands of a certain class of abusers of power. Frat boys. Good ‘ol boys. Locker-room buddies. Rich guys. Formerly adulated “stars” of screen and turf. A friend and I concluded ruefully that the US economy would tank if every guy who had sexually harassed, stalked, cornered, or violated women were fired from their jobs.

The public naming/shaming of these men is a lurid shadow of the shame that reinforced women’s silence. Condemnation by other men – the public distancing from the contaminated, is a lurid shadow of the isolation of every woman who bears her story, told or untold.

There are many possible outcomes of the above strategies. A woman might garner some mix of relief, validation, the protection of other women, closure, shaming, revenge.

 

But how do we heal?

How do we consecrate these stories, these bodies and psyches, these women, our sisters, holy each and every one?

For me it starts with weeping, weeping together as we women encircle one another with kindness and every bruise-healing balm we can muster.

 

And here lies a brutal challenge to my full humanity.

Can I –  who was raised to consider men irrelevant at best and fools at worst – loosen the bonds of my own identity just a bit?

Can I lay down my sword and shield for a sacrosanct second or two?

Can I weep for the offending men too, my brothers, who are so lost to themselves?

I think I could get there if the men in my life were ready to ready to weep with me.

And that is my human imperfection, not theirs.

Election Day and the Color Line, One Year Later

I have found myself jittery and anxious the past few days – and concluded it was anniversary jitters, as we approached Election Day 2017, a one-year marker of sorts. Not unlike the anniversary of more personal traumas – say the death of many loved ones during the month of March. Related feelings of grief that wash over me in the spring sometimes take me unawares. There was no way to be unaware Election Day was immanent and the color line accentuated.

 

I have also been dreaming, vividly.

For which I am grateful: these dreams have been instructing me about shifts in how I perceive and make meaning. It is during sleep that our neurons are pruned and our learning is consolidated.

To all appearances we were eight white women of various generations seated around a table in a well-appointed middle-class livingroom. The table had been set for lunch with a starchy cloth and full place settings. We had just finished lunch. Our mostly-empty plates sat in front of us.

My mother was sitting not directly next to me, a woman between her age and mine sitting between us. Mom was quiet, though it was a setting in which she could be at home.

Greg C., pastor and executive director at a local spiritual wellness center, came into the room, greeted each of us as he went around the table, and then left. I knew Greg lived a life of practice, although different from mine. He had his own deep and truthful way of listening to text and life.

Then the youngish woman sitting across from me told her story. Of how, at a young age, she was separated from her family at the auction block. How she  was sold with her mom, “but of course the sons went with their fathers when they were lucky.” She filled in  details. Tears rolled down my cheeks. Around the table every woman, including my mom, was crying.

 

Abruptly I woke up.

It is the day after Election Day. I have not yet seen the results of the campaign for governor of Virginia that, after some months of focus on local bread and butter issues – transportation gridlock, affordable housing – had turned acrimonious with an influx of campaign bucks from all quarters of the nation, and inflammatory rhetoric about confederate monuments and laws regulating women’s wombs.

 

Step up to the color line and listen.

I look at how my mother grew up on one side of the color line. How I grew up on one side of the color line – during both our generations the line reinforced by Jim Crow. How my kids grew up on one side of a color line just barely fractured by the civil rights movement. How my grandchildren are growing up on one side of a color line stretched but not breached by Obama’s eight years as President and Commander in Chief.

Whichever side of the color line we grew up on, it’s long past time for each of us to listen prayerfully to generations of stories of the color line. To live inside one another’s stories, as the women in this dream. To weep together. To guard these stories as treasured truthfulness. To take in what it means “to pass” – as a woman of color, as a human being, as a democracy. To wrestle what it could mean to rebuild a democracy founded on knowledge of our shared and deeply flawed history.

 

One story at a time.

When we don’t recognize our own stories, they are powerful unthought knowns that steer our perceptions – and our votes.

It takes courage to risk the telling, humility to risk the listening. As we allow one another’s stories to live, to take up a square in our quilt, we birth one another into our full sorrowing humanity. That’s when we stop “passing” as humans.

Who knows what we might create together out of such broken-heartedness, how we might bend, bend with the long arc of the moral universe.

 

AN INVITATION TO PRACTICE…if you are ready have your heart broken open

This week, whose story are you prepared to invite – without burdening the teller with your desire to understand?

This week, whose story are you prepared to receive?


Banner photo taken at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, October, 2016

 

 

Growing up racist in Post-World War II America

Banner photo: Girl holding a child  Arkansas, ca 1855, at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

I am grateful to white historian Charles B. Dew for The Making of a Racist, a stark and insightful guide to his personal acculturation to the Southern story of slavery and the civil war, and to his profound cognitive dissonance on waking up to it. His primary sources, documents of the slave trade in Richmond, Virginia, chill Dew and the reader alike with what was their obviously pedestrian nature at the time.

 

Raised in the industrial midwest, I have my own version of growing up racist.

When I saw the banner photo above, I immediately recognized its personal significance. Somewhere in my family album was a picture of a dark-skinned Fannie Mae holding a white baby – my older sister. It would have been taken in Cleveland, late in 1938, 83 years after Girl Holding a Child. By my birth in 1944, someone replaced Fannie Mae, and I think she was white.

I was in 11th grade before I met Paul, the first black student I ever went to school with – seven years after Brown v. the Board of Education.  The only other direct contact I had with African-Americans growing up was with Gertrude, the cleaning woman who worked for us for many years. She was kind, friendly, reliable, and just about as distant from my world as any other adult. My mother referred to her as “the Woman,” which even as a kid I thought was strange. And the feeling of how I remember this is that my mother also seemed to make a point of fixing lunch for Gertrude, same as she would for me, an act that carried some unspecified moral weight.

 

And somehow I imbibed that by weekly proximity to my white family, Gertrude was blessed to have escaped a fate of poor character or bad luck.

A few years ago, I wrote the following vignette:

According to Historic District documents,  I grew up at an aspirational address. My parents had been among “newly married couples of social prominence” drawn more to “the street of the brides” than to any other real estate in late 1920s Cleveland. The Winslow Road house stood on a prominent corner, one convenient block from the Lynnfield Rapid Transit stop. Convenient also for the Shaker Heights police, whose black and white cruiser regularly sat for hours just past our driveway, ready to spring right or left onto the nearby boulevard in chase of – something. It was the 1950s, suburbia: segregated from despair, violence, and color.

Loudly enough to be shushed, I used to ask my mother about the poor people as the Rapid took us through trash-strewn gullies and neighborhoods of shabby, grey, tilted homes. I hit a rust spot in my imagination when I try to recall, or reconstruct, her answer.

The civil rights movement was in full swing, heady and terrible, by the time my own children were born, and I can note only these tiny incremental changes, and with the same unspecified moral weight I had sensed from my mother: It was always Mrs. Bond. And we often sat down to lunch together.

Not surprisingly, Dew is never quite able to reconcile his love of his parents and his admiration of his mother’s kindness with the stories he was fed (including the same Little Black Sambo of my childhood) and the way his father treated the black gardener for coming to the front door. Over and over again he asks, “How could they?”

I understand his dilemma. They” could and my mother could, because they didn’t question. For way too long I didn’t either.

What did you take in about race while you were growing up?


More on our cultural stories:

https://alifeofpractice.com/daily-practices/stories-to-heal-what-ails-me-what-ails-america/

https://alifeofpractice.com/bend-the-arc/getting-to-justice-stories-that-heal-me-heal-america-part-2/

Getting to Justice: stories to heal me, heal America Pt 2

Justice must be hard-won over and over again. In these chaotic times, our centuries-old dueling narratives are shaped by identity politics and intersectional disputes.  The heart of each narrative is how we identify with our social groups  – and the biases, assumptions, and expectations that hide within the cultural stories we inhabit.

There is both personal work and collective work to be done to establish that every single story bears seeds of truths, that no single story is The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth.  To the degree that we fail to understand this, we will continue to duke it out, trying to make the world over in our small image of justice.

 

Here’s my cultural story

I’m an aging Jewish woman. That’s how I think of myself. “Aging” has to do with the seventy-three+  years I’ve been traveling around the sun in this body, which is both slowing down and holding up. “Jewish” has to do with my tribe and a world-view that feels like home. How I see myself: as a wanderer, question-asker, wrestler with God, inheritor/innovator of tradition, admired/envied/despised Other, repairer of breaches, restorer of justice, story-teller, lover of wordless melody, cycler through a liturgical year, devoted learner.

Please note, however, that both “aging” and “Jewish” are merely adjectives that modify my primary identity: “woman.” And my particular story about woman: strong, container, crafty survivor, undervalued, physically and economically vulnerable, home to mystery, darkness of all kinds, holder of the keys to life. My particular family lineage story about women also conveys an implicit story about men: not trustworthy, and mostly, not necessary, albeit they are in (undeserved) positions of power and authority.

If you ask for more, I’ll tell you I am “a post-war baby.” That’s World War II.  Only from within the viewpoint of my generation is World War II understood. Otherwise it’s a natural question to ask, post-war? Post which war? My generational view elaborates on the aging self: we keep our troubles to ourselves. And underpins my Jewish self: highly assimilated, rising middle class, infected with a post-war surge of optimism that masked the extermination of six million Jews – a trauma so fresh it could not be talked about.

Rising middle class doesn’t get the explicit role in my story it deserves relative to its influence: the unearned gifts – and limitations – it has showered on my life. My 1950s neighborhood was well-segregated from despair, penury, and violence. I regularly rode the Rapid Transit downtown with my mother. And I regularly asked her about poor people as we traveled through trash-strewn gullies and neighborhoods of shabby, grey, tilted homes. I have yet to recall, or reconstruct, her answer.

If you are wondering about the limitations of my secure middle-class upbringing, here are I few I can speak to: the primacy of appearances, caution or paralysis in violating norms, condescension to the less fortunate, expectations of safety and happiness, reverence for the intellect, and low emotional intelligence.

 

Here’s how I haven’t consistently thought of myself until recently: white. 

I have only selectively thought of myself as white  – not as a key part of my identity. I noticed my whiteness and its significance as my working life opened up to include relationships with many black people. When I worked in Baltimore City for a mission-driven non-profit founded and fueled by black churches. When I came to head that non-profit and set out to make it look more like the city itself. When I then had to figure out how to address expectations, assumptions and biases about “professional behaviors,”  and foster respect, cooperation, even friendship across employee racial divides. When we chose how to challenge public policies that enshrined institutional racism. Immersion in black culture was humbling. I stumbled. I had many patient guides and teachers.

Through those years, and others, when I team-taught diversity work to business, nonprofit and business leaders, I often took my work home with me. Still, I went home to my white neighborhood, prayed with my white progressive Jewish fellowship, and thoughtlessly enjoyed the comforts of being on the white side of privilege. 

 

These days, I am uncomfortably white most of the time 

I am pricked by my whiteness as I follow the daily news, pray for justice, sign petitions, join a march, read the black press or black-authored fiction, shake and wake myself and my white world,  indulge in mourning either my lost innocence or my “guilt,” and go about my still-protected white-charmed life.

I still move freely through my days with vastly confirmed expectations that wherever and however I show up 1) I am not in immanent physical or psychological danger and 2) I feel I actually “belong.” It requires thought, effort, a willingness to be vulnerable. To choose to show up where I am in danger of being called out on my cultural story and ignorance. To stumble as the ideal ally I wish to be!

And that implicit family story about men that figures so prominently, the untrustworthy men in (undeserved) positions of power and authority? Those are white men. I am married to a white man, which affords me numerous comforts and protections beyond those of my own white skin. More discomfort, as close to home as you can get.

 

Yet, I am not uncomfortably Jewish enough.

Meaning I am aware of how much more attuned, and motivated I am, when it comes to racial justice than anti-semitism. The trauma of the Holocaust that could not be talked about in my childhood is much more difficult for me to be uncomfortable with, read about, wrestle with, than racism.

Anti-semitism is not something Jews will ever “solve.” It takes non-Jews, whether motivated as religious believers or secular moralists.

Just as it takes legions of white people to dismantle ways of doing business that perpetuate racism, to hold space for the personal and societal telling of stories, for reconciliation and healing, for policy and procedural changes, for changes of heart.

And I am still left with my own bias: it’s white women I depend on. White men are my “Other,” and late to the party. “They” have a lot to lose: “their” unchallenged narrative of reality, based on an individual’s hard work and unbridled capacity to pull oneself up by the bootstraps. That’s my cultural narrative speaking.

 

These are a few broad strokes of my cultural story, what’s yours?

Understanding that the biases and expectations I have expressed live in my cultural stories brings me to a vital and wakeful noticing, and changes how I see myself, and even how I see the white men I Other, including the one I am married to. I hope it helps me to be a more intelligent, self-questioning and awake ally.

If I am ever going to really live in this body, the only one I have, I have no choice but to continue my personal work here, that includes engaging with you in the collective work of dismantling barriers, reconciling hearts, and pursuing a just world.

Together we must both bend with and shape that arc of the moral universe whose end remains beyond our sight.


Banner photo taken at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Read Part 1: Stories to heal what ails me, what ails America

 

Stories to heal what ails me, what ails America

Life events, aka Reality, continuously weaves surprising plot twists and characters into my preferred story about my life. Pops or induces slow leaks in my inflated views of myself, nudging or hurtling me towards the Real. Deprives me of false hope and false comfort.  So it goes with America’s stories as well. Whose precious and difficult story are you willing to hear, bear, receive, and hold?

 

Sara’s story: the idealized and the real

In my preferred telling, the Main Character is selfless, empathic, honest, fair and equitable, and trustworthy. To claim these virtues as parts of myself is to claim some hard-earned wisdom. To claim that is the whole of who I am is to idealize myself, to leave aside my limitations and the work I have yet to do, to flatten myself into a paper doll. Because I also can and do fail to even consider another’s needs; steel myself against feeling another’s turmoil or suffering; deliberately ignore, skirt or disguise what I understand to be true; play God; fail to follow through on a commitment. I become a human, dimensional, interesting Protagonista when I invite all this into my story.

The problem is not that I have ideals and wisdom that I aspire to live into. Nor is the problem that I fall prey to quite human limitations. The actual difficulty is when I take a partial view of myself as the whole. Not a believable character, but one I maintain by default whenever I fail to notice what I am doing. Or when I take my story as Everyone Else’s Story.

 

Once I notice what I am doing, living into these questions helps me:

  • What story, whose story am I telling?
  • Who are the heroines, the allies, the enemies?
  • What drives the action?
  • Who and what am I leaving out, filling in, emphasizing, dismissing?
  • What pattern of my lineage or culture am I continuing to act out or react against?
  • How am I responsible, and how do I act on on that?

 

Reflection – Ask yourself

How do I appear in my own story?

Who and what am I including?

Who and what am I leaving out?

The shattering of an idealized America

We live in raucous times, pitting our stories against one another. Heroines, allies and enemies are shaped by where and when we were born, into what circumstances, with what skin color, with what religious belief, with what expectations, with what gifts and burdens of history – and countless other influences.

From all around and within us our many and varied stories resound with the thunderous cracks of shattered dreams, the heavy sighs of disappointed expectations, and piercing cries for justice. We are challenged to separate out the many actual injustices from the collapse of our idealized stories of ourselves – and most especially how our stories are supposed to end, our partial stories of others, and our partial versions of America itself.

To draw on Khalil Gibran’s potent words – we are in an agony of pain as the shells that enclose our understanding, our precious and difficult stories, break one after another. Until such time as we each, in our own way, are willing to hold the pain of one another’s stories, even the pain of someone who we have written in as an enemy in our  own.

CHALLENGE: Whose precious and difficult story are you willing to hear, bear, receive, and hold?

How big a story treasury are you willing to risk becoming?


Banner photo: Lend a Hand, acrylic by Linda Carmel, Hillsborough Gallery Of Arts, Hillsborough, North Carolina