As I see it, western culture is all about telling other people what “I” have going on. It goes without saying that social media is all about this – which can be great fun, but it’s very self-obsessed and its good purposes can be tainted by a culture that puts the self in front of others at such a rate that the sense of self for the individual is almost destroyed – because it’s not balanced by caring about other people.
And focus on the self is often the downfall of society – I’ll bet you can easily see this if you think back on history.
These past few months have taught me to listen, not just how to get other people to see my point of view.
Look at comments by many people these days on the most hot-button issues – it’s frequently the desire to tell “MY” perspective. There really is no listening to anyone else and choosing instead to give another person (or group of people) time and attention to figure out what that person or group is ACTUALLY saying. Just focusing on them – not on ourselves – to LISTEN and HEAR, instead of giving knee-jerk reactions that doesn’t take into account another person’s point of view.
So what does listening mean as far as what I’m writing here? Well, this could refer to so many things right now – anything from mask-wearing to not mask-wearing – (which to me is pretty simple – just follow the guidelines as posted to keep other people safe – I don’t LIKE masks, but if it can help out I will do it) – to racism – which exists because some folks don’t know a basic human rule – treat people the way you’d want to be treated and anything less is not acceptable. This is at the root of racism, and it’s such a simple rule to follow.
And somehow, usually without meaning to, one person’s story of racism and the trouble they have experienced ends up morphing into someone else’s personal struggle – when the one person who first spoke was just asking to be listened to and understood.
The listening and sitting in the uncomfortable emotion someone else is experiencing is so hard for us. We always seek to make someone else or ourselves “feel better” right away – and while there’s no time like the present to take action for the better, short-term actions don’t provide long-term relief. Sitting in that uncomfortable emotion for a while is the meaningful impact of long-term solutions.
For example, many people have heard stories of racism and have turned it into their own guilt stories for simply being a certain skin color – and I mean, white people – mostly women from what I see – feeling badly about the treatment of black people and carrying guilt within for the treatment of others. But then, the story of pain – inadvertently – turns into a white story of pain instead of a black story of pain.
You see how that jump doesn’t really work even though the initial reaction of guilt is something I do understand. It’s just not a productive emotion.
It’s a sticky wicket, though. As a white person, the message was loud and clear that remaining silent meant that you were not supportive of fighting racism. Saying too much could turn your message into something about oneself.
I really hesitated writing a blog post, because I wanted to see how things unfolded, how I processed my own emotions, etc., before I “took pen to paper,” so to speak.
Here are some things that I have considered and am passing on to my teens:
The most important thing you can do is to listen to others. Don’t start sharing YOUR experiences – just listen. This goes for anyone, but the racial tensions of the past few months have showed us that there has been an undercurrent of tension for a lot of black folks that many of us white folks were simply unaware of. We didn’t experience it as white folks, and now the floodgates have opened. Proactively try to understand other people’s experiences to help yourself become a better person.
Don’t assume you know a person’s story. One thing I have seen as I have been reading numerous stories is white people assuming they know a black person’s experience. Honestly, a lot of white folks THINK they are helping – but let someone who knows tell you THEIR experience. While many groups are now speaking for black people, I have learned to be VERY COGNIZANT that everyone’s experience is different, and no one likes to have their experience told to them: “Your life must be very hard being black, and I feel so badly you’ve endured that.” Nope. Condescending. We don’t know another person’s experience – let them tell you at appropriate times what their lives have been like, if they want to.
Saying “I don’t see color” isn’t a statement of accepting a person’s humanity; it’s dismissive of who they are. Sure, every person wants to be treated like a human being (shocker!) with dignity and respect. To be recognized as a human being, regardless of skin color, gender, etc. So that’s a given. But, it’s also appropriate to recognize that folks have differences – race, belief system, etc., are all important attributes of the individual and it’s fine to both recognize AND celebrate those differences. I read one person say to not look at America as a “melting pot” where we all combine into one non-unique entity but instead as a “salad bowl,” which combines many different elements together while allowing those elements to stay true to who they are.
Being willing to see other perspectives. Just because you always thought of something a certain way doesn’t mean you can’t revaluate your thinking to see another perspective. Being open-minded is called – you guessed it – an “Open Mindset” as opposed to a “Fixed Mindset” where thinking is rigid and limiting. Have an open mind is the basis for positive changes and improvements inside and outside of the self.
I also saw a post where a young black woman made a sweeping negative comment about all white people, and another person posting told her she was racist for making an overall negative comment. Another person posting said no, it’s not possible for a black person to make a racist comment against a white person.
Not true. Racism – in whatever form – can be used by anyone to form a negative opinion of another group of people without cause.
Even if the comment appears to be “positive” about a group of people and their intelligence, athleticism, business savvy, etc., or whatever stereotype you’re using, whenever you reduce a person to not being an individual, you can dehumanize them.
It’s a sticky wicket for sure. The show “Modern Family” has really walked that line a lot, but the reason it works for that show is that the individuals making the stereotypical statements are a part of that group – whether it’s age, race, gender or other stereotypes, the characters in the show can say outrageously funny things because we – and the characters are in on the joke. It’s humor that humanizes instead of dehumanizes.
Another point is that while racism can go “both ways,” oppression does not. Black people have never oppressed white people. I can see how the shadow of slavery, along with being kept out of doing things that help you to move up financially in the world – education, home loans, business loans, etc., creates a cycle of resentment, mental health issues and repeated problematic behaviors for some folks.
And this is worth repeating: the snippets you get on the news and what you read are also individual stories – and if that writer or speaker is speaking of their own experiences or drawing their own conclusions you can learn from that individual, but not everyone’s experiences or opinions are the same, and it’s important to remember to honor that.
Human beings are complex – we cannot simplify our thoughts, experiences, beliefs, actions and behaviors into neat little compartments. As a favorite priest of mine used to say “Life is messy, and we need to manage it as it is, not as we would like it to be.”
While it may seem easier for people to process their thoughts and opinions by compartmentalizing, it’s an injustice to do so – we should bear in mind that we need to listen, and listen well.
It is the search for common ground and experiences that will make our interactions with each other meaningful. When I say common ground, I’m referring to basic human emotional requirements such as feeling a sense of purpose, feeling valued for who we are, being treated fairly, becoming productive individuals, leaving a legacy, etc.
I’m sorry our world has had to suffer so much. Truly though, this is nothing new. The human condition is partly figuring out how to manage suffering, how to make things better, how to move ahead. For as destructive and vicious as humans are, we are also creative, intelligent, loving and pragmatic.
In my heart, I believe most people are very good. Most want to see others and themselves succeed. Let’s see MORE of this kind of behavior in our world – and let’s hope our media outlets cover it. We need to be inspired by our world’s stories – not just beaten down by negativity.
Recently the Dalai Lama was quoted regarding eliminating the “we and they” concept and becoming more open to developing “the oneness of human beings.”
How beautiful. How not so hard for the individual to start with these basic ideas.
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