In February 2009 Los Alamitos, CA Mayor Dean Grose resigned after sending an email to
“a select group of friends” with the above photo and the message: “No Easter Egg Hunt this year.”
Grose claimed he didn’t know his “joke” was a racist stereotype.
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My earliest memory of racism in my life is as a young child in grade school. The class is all out on the baseball field playing some sort of game that requires you to run the bases holding the hand of a partner. The partner chosen for me was probably the only black girl in the class; I’m white. I remember feeling awkward just having to hold her hand. This was back in the early 60’s in Kansas, and I came from an upper middle class, liberal family. I have felt shame for many years thinking of that story. Thinking of the awkwardness. Knowing in my heart that there is no difference in the value of people based on race, and feeling shame with my awkwardness in relating to Black people. It’s only recently that I’m beginning to touch my anger about this. My anger about having been brought up in a society so permeated in racism that my desire to be “colorblind” is thwarted on a deep, insidious level.
There are wonderful writings about the concept of racism and white privilege that you can find here, here and here. I find it interesting to read the comments to the writings. The comments I believe reflect the reaction we are seeing today to the Black Lives Matter movement. “When will we be doing something about the overrepresentation of Jewish Americans in higher paying jobs?” “This article is a vain attempt by a white person trying to prove their racial ‘sensitivity’, but the only thing proven is the extent of her idiocy.” “I still believe that, regardless of any of these factors, if you are a decent, hard working person who is a good steward to those around you, you should never feel pressured into apologizing for your background or personal choices.” This last one I think gets to why we have such a difficult time having a real race conversation in this country; white people are hearing themselves blamed for racism. I’m not saying Black people are blaming, I’m saying white people are hearing blame.
In The Surprising Purpose of Anger: Beyond Anger Management: Find the Gift, Dr. Marshall Rosenberg shares a personal story about racism. Dr. Rosenberg is Jewish, and he gets into a cab one morning with another man and hears over the cabbies intercom a direction that someone needs picked up at a Synagogue on a certain street. The man sitting next to him says, “These kikes get up in the morning early so they can screw everyone out of their money.”
Dr. Rosenberg felt very angry, but he was aware enough to know that this person wasn’t causing the depth of his anger and fear. These emotions were running very deep, and were connected to a lifetime of memories. And he wanted that man to understand that, to understand the depth of the pain that was stimulated by his comments.
He also knew the only way that man was going to hear his pain, was for Dr. Rosenberg to hear what was going on for that man first. And the only way he was going to hear what was going on for that man, was to give himself some empathy. He imagined the things he would like to say and do to that man, some very violent things. And then he used those thoughts to connect with the feelings and needs underneath. He went from his head to his heart. When he made that heart connection, when he got to the pain, there was a release, an ability to hear the other man.
And so he began guessing at what the man felt and needed. “It sounds like you’ve have some bad experiences with Jewish people.” The man looked at him and said, “Yeah, you know those people are disgusting. They’ll do anything for money.” Dr. Rosenberg then said, “It sounds like you have a lot of distrust and you need to protect yourself when you’re with them about financial affairs.” The reply was “Yes.”
The conversation kept going in this manner and in a few minutes the man was just pouring out all kinds of sadness and frustration and the conversation moved from Jews to Blacks and some other groups. This man had a lot of pain. After about 10 minutes the man finally felt heard and stopped talking.
This was when Dr. Rosenberg said, “When you first started to talk I felt a lot of frustration, discouragement, because I’ve had quite different experiences with Jews than you’ve had, and I was really wanting you to have much more the experience that I have. Can you tell me what you heard me say?” The man replied, “Well, look, I’m not saying they’re all…” at which point Dr. Rosenberg interrupted him and said, “Excuse me. Hold it, hold it. Could you tell me what you heard me say?” The man was now confused, “What are you talking about?” So Dr. Rosenberg said, “Let me say again what I’m trying to say. I want you to hear, really hear the pain that I felt when I heard your words. It’s really important for me that you hear that. I said I felt a real sense of sadness because I’ve had such different experiences with Jewish people and I was just wishing that you could share a different experience than you’ve had. Can you tell me what you’ve heard me say?” Now the man was feeling angry, “Well, you’re saying I have no right to say that.”
And here is where the important piece comes in. Dr. Rosenberg replied, “No, I really don’t want to blame you. Really, I don’t have any desire to blame you.” Blaming is too easy; guilt is too easy. If someone hears blame and feels guilty, they aren’t going to hear what is going on for you. People don’t have to agree; they don’t have to change their behavior, we just want them to understand.
When we see people defending, they are hearing blame. And when they are hearing blame, they can’t hear us. It’s that simple. And this is why we in White America, can’t hear Black Americans. We are hearing blame. The fact of the matter is we are all victims of this racist society, although certainly not in the same way. I, as a white woman, have some unearned privileges that I take for granted. I also have unearned disadvantages, just as we all have varying degrees of unearned advantages and disadvantages bestowed upon us at birth. And underlying this whole system of advantages and disadvantages is the belief that there isn’t enough in this world for everyone.
I have been discussing my thoughts about racism and my personal experiences lately with my family. My adult daughter was shocked that I considered myself racist, she doesn’t consider herself as such. My husband didn’t have any stories from his childhood like mine; he just has memories of having Black friends in early high school. Both of these responses at first just angered me. How could you not have these thoughts and experiences? I think this anger was my defensiveness again, my push back at hearing blame.
When I realized this I was able to go deeper to the real sadness I felt. I’m very sad that I was brought up in a society that insidiously molded me to feel awkwardness with Black people. I’m longing to have ease and openness with everyone.
So I don’t want to hear blame, I don’t want to feel shame. I don’t want others to hear blame, or feel shame, because they won’t be able to connect with others and hear and see what is going on around them. This is going to take a lot of work; we have centuries of this imbedded in us. But I believe with time and open hearts we can start to heal others and ourselves.
“When my consciousness is on another human being’s feelings and needs, I see the universality of all of our experience.” Marshall Rosenberg, PhD
Heather Schlessman, PhD is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner who has spent her career either working with or teaching about families. She is also a mother who, like so many other parents, spent years muddling her way raising 3 wonderfully different children, one who happens to be experiencing a disability. Fortunately she has a life partner who muddled along with her. Spending most of her time trying to be perfect, as that would be the safest way to live, she became aware of a desire to be able to see people in a more compassionate way. Little did she know that the person she needed the most compassion for was herself. There is a saying that when you are ready to learn a teacher will appear, and so it was for Dr. Schlessman. She was introduced to the work of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, the developer of Nonviolent Communication, and her world completely changed. She learned a way to have an intimate connection with herself and others, a way to truly contribute. Her passion now is to help others find their way to a more compassionate life. You can find more of Dr. Schlessman’s empathic expressions along with her husband’s, Rev. Mark Schlessman on their website.