Tired of Talking about Privilege

Last Sunday, during a program at my college about how to create needed social change, I observed a few of the white students tuning out.  One fell asleep.  Another started texting a friend.  Another tried to pay attention, but her eyes kept wandering to the floor, the window and the faces in the room other than the presenter.  The students of color, on the other hand, were engaged in the topic.  They asked and answered questions and contributed to the discussion.

After this observation, I decided to lead a program on privilege thinking it would be helpful for more of our white students to understand the social, economic, and political advantages they have over people of color.  When I shared my idea for the program with one of my more thoughtful white students, though, she told me that her peers were tired of talking about privilege.  “It’s everywhere, Teri.  Sure, it’s important.  But people are just tired of talking about it.” I was grateful for this student’s honesty, but also wondered how I could stoke the fire of this important conversation.  I decided to go ahead with my program.

In my planning, I came across Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” McIntosh (who is white) helpfully unpacks the invisible knapsack of unearned assets she can count on cashing in every day, but about which, she says, “she was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.”  Because of the color of her skin, McIntosh says she can count on the following:

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily protection.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
  • I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

This last example helped me better understand the disinterest and weariness of my white students.  There are no real consequences for a white person’s apathy, disinterest, or weariness of talking about privilege.  In fact, the system of white dominance and white supremacy that our country has been built upon rewards such passivity. If white people remain oblivious to our unearned benefits, then we cannot be expected to share, give them up, or work towards a more equitable system. It’s hard to hold an oblivious person accountable.  Thus, the system of white dominance is perpetuated.

Through the programs I lead and the relationships I develop, I hope to keep this conversation going.  I hope to keep learning how I can live faithfully with the unearned assets I have inherited and encourage others to do the same.  Jesus keeps calling me to the most disadvantaged.  Although it’s painful to acknowledge that my unearned advantages play a significant role in keeping others disadvantaged, I’ve got to face that harsh truth to have any hope of righting what is wrong.

[Feature Image: Elias Schewel]

 

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Battling Resistance

Since I took yesterday off, I told myself I would sit down to write first thing this morning.  Before getting to my desk, though, I did the following:

  • Cleaned up the dirty dishes in the kitchen
  • Got a load of laundry started
  • Set my kids clothes out for the day
  • Made the beds
  • Scrolled through Facebook
  • Ate breakfast
  • Drank two cups of coffee, slowly
  • Put my daughter’s hair up in a ponytail
  • Went through the hall closet sorting shoes to give away or toss
  • Had my kids try on their winter boots to see if they still fit

In other words, many tasks took precedent over my daily goal to sit down and write.

During yesterday’s readathon, I finally got to Stephen Pressfield’s book, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, which has been on my list to read for a while.  For me, the most helpful part of Pressfield’s book was his characterization of Resistance—that which keeps us from creating, growing, learning and evolving as human beings.

Two of the most intriguing points Pressfield made about Resistance were:

  • “Rationalization is Resistance’s spin doctor. Resistance presents us with a series of plausible, rational justifications for why we shouldn’t do our work.”  (See my list above.)  “What’s particularly insidious about the rationalizations that Resistance presents to us is that a lot of them are true.”  (The majority of tasks on my list above needed to get done.)  But, Pressfield insists, we can do what needs to be done and do our work.  Resistance just does a good job of convincing us that everything on our to-do list is more important than our creative work and therefore must come first.
  • Pressfield introduced me to the Principle of Priority, which states: “a) you must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and b) you must do what is important first.” What’s important, Pressfield wants us to hear, is the work—the daily, creative work to which we are called that makes us and the world better.  “That’s the game we have to suit up for every day,” Pressfield writes, “that’s the field on which we need to leave everything we’ve got.”

I also appreciated Pressfield’s description of what Resistance feels like.  As a writer, he wakes up “with a gnawing sensation of dissatisfaction.  Already, I feel fear.  Already, the loved ones around me are starting to fade.  I interact.  I’m present.  But I’m not.  I am aware of Resistance.  I feel it in my guts.  I afford it the utmost respect, because I know it can defeat me on any given day as easily as the need for a drink can overcome an alcoholic.”

This daily battle with Resistance resonates because it has beaten me so many times, allowing me to excuse myself from my writing.  Pressfield’s clear characterization of Resistance is helpful, then, in discerning what the enemy looks and feels like, as well as the weapons Resistance uses against us.  Resistance keeps us from being the creators we were always meant to be.

 

My First Readathon

I thrive on challenges with set deadlines.  So when my friend Marcie told me she was participating in Dewey’s 24 hour readathon this Saturday, October 21st, I wanted in!  I love to read, yet never feel like I have enough time to get to all the books on my shelves, on my nightstand, piled on my office floor (you get the picture.)  I have a few family things to attend to this Saturday, but no work obligations.  So I am determined to make this readathon work.  Here’s my plan of action:

  • Do ALL the laundry I typically do on Saturday on Friday and Sunday.
  • Take breaks only to eat, exercise, and run the necessary errand
  • Get a good night’s sleep on Friday so I am not a drowsy reader
  • Get my kids involved in the readathon too

This last bullet point is crucial because if my kids don’t read, I can’t read.  I have offered them reward incentives for every 25 pages read during the day on Saturday. I hope this encourages their own love of reading.  They are excited about the challenge (and hopefully their excitement lasts!)

While exploring the internet, I discovered that readathons take place all the time.  Want to try one yourself?  Dewey’s 24 hour readathon takes place twice a year in October and April.  Also, Molly’s Book Nook has organized a helpful list of readathons being hosted all year long.  Take a look and join me in this fun, productive challenge!

P.S. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that I will NOT be reading for a full 24 hours.  I would be worthless on Sunday if I did.  But Dewey is not strict about this.  You can participate and just read as much as you can.

How to Be: Thoughts about Guns and the Value of Life

I made a mistake yesterday.  While waiting to catch my flight home from a board meeting, I joined a debate about gun control on a friend’s Facebook thread. I don’t typically participate in such debates via social media.  Our emboldened rhetoric behind the anonymity of the computer screen is, I believe, problematic. But I was a bored traveler, feeling, I admit, a tad self-righteous.

I did not know the people I was debating.  They were friends of my friend on Facebook.  I tried to choose my words wisely, tried to speak with respect.  But the debate was more about winning than it was about listening—each of us determined to have the last word.  I finally withdrew from the thread, not because I didn’t have more to say, but because the debate itself felt soul-sucking.  The weight of our gun-addicted culture became more than I could bear.

On the drive home from the airport, I tuned in to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” podcast.  Tippett was interviewing Rabbi Arnold Eisen on the life and legacy of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a spiritual leader whom I greatly admire.  Towards the end of the interview Tippett read Heschel’s words aloud: 

In his essay, “Choose Life,” Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Just as we are commanded to love man, we are also called upon to be sensitive to the grandeur of God’s creation. We are infatuated with our great technological achievements; we have forgotten the mystery of being, of being alive. We have lost our sense of wonder, our sense of radical amazement at sheer being. We have forgotten the meaning of being human and the deep responsibility involved in just being alive. Shakespeare’s Hamlet said: ‘To be or not to be, that is the question.’ But that is no problem. We all want to be. The real problem, biblically speaking, is how to be and how not to be.”

Heschel’s words about life—the wonder, radical amazement, and mystery of sheer being—felt like balm for my wounds.  After listening to people defend our right to bear arms and our need for guns, I needed to hear from someone who valued life in this extraordinary way.  Heschel’s words also left me pondering, though. How should I be?  How should I not be?  Even as I asked myself these questions, I knew the answers.  I should be peace, I should be love, I should be for life, not against it, and be for all that honors the grandeur of God’s creation.  Fighting for peace in a Facebook debate where one side seeks to verbally conquer the other is counter-productive and hypocritical.  We are not going to heal our addiction to violence with more verbal violence.  So I will put this mistake behind me.  I will live more responsibly today.

 

Work out your own salvation

“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
Philippians 2:12

Salvation is forgetting about my incoming email as I run alongside my daughter, my hand barely holding the back of her bike seat, while, together, we learn to let go.

Salvation is the rain-filled clouds parting at the end of a long run, revealing a cobalt sky through the poplars, birches and silver maples.

Salvation is driving by the men’s prison where I teach and seeing it not as walls, barbed-wire fencing and sniper towers, but as the place where Sam, Jose, Jesse, Khabil and Curtis live.

Salvation is writing my way into new understanding; following the silvery, slippery thread of inspiration to words on a page.

Salvation is a glass of ice water on a ninety-degree day; the velvety fur of my German Shepherd’s ears; warm whiskey on a sore throat; clean sheets on the bed; laughing hard enough to cry; the last page of a good book.

Salvation is all that turns me toward the world, not away from it.  More than a ticket to paradise, salvation is resurrection for the here and now.

[Feature Image: TMimages PDX]

The Blessing is Outside your Comfort Zone

“The blessing is outside your comfort zone.”  I recently heard this quote on a podcast about the spiritual practice of running.  But this truth extends beyond the topic of physical exercise.

A month ago, I was escorted to a classroom in the men’s maximum-security prison twenty minutes from my home. I was there to teach a class to fourteen inmates on the meaning and importance of empathy for healthy, human relationships.  The class was part of a research program funded by New York University to offer support and resources to the incarcerated and hopefully reduce the rate of recidivism.  Ten of us at my college have volunteered to develop and teach a liberal arts, literature-based curriculum as part of this program.

As I prepared for the class, I felt anxious about the teaching and about how I would be received.  From the volunteer training, I expected to meet murderers and sex offenders as well as men serving unreasonable, unjust sentences for minor drug charges.  I expected the men to come from lives and backgrounds vastly different than my own.  I expected the majority of the inmates to be black and brown—because these are the people we incarcerate in America today.  (I was right, there was only one white man in the class of fourteen.)  I expected that I would have to win them over and earn their respect, in spite of what seemed like huge relationship obstacles.

But when I arrived, early, they were already in the classroom at their desks.  I decided not to sit behind the large teacher’s desk at the front of the room, but rather sit at a student’s desk in a circle among them.  One of the inmates didn’t like the rickety desk I had chosen to sit in, so he stood up and insisted I take his because, as he told me, it was better.  We went around the room and introduced ourselves and I asked them to share why they were interested in the class.  Their answers varied a little, but every man shared that he wanted to better himself, wanted to learn, and wanted to give back to his family, his community and his society.

The men devoured the literature I had given them to read.  I asked them to read one chapter of a book and instead they read the whole book.  And when the class was over, every single inmate, before leaving, took a moment to shake my hand, look me in the eye, and say, “Thank you for coming. Thank you for teaching us.” Clearly, I had an amazing experience teaching this class full of engaged, thoughtful, respectful men who, I discovered, defied many of my expectations and assumptions.

I’ve been back to the prison many times now to teach.  It’s never comfortable going there.  I have to leave my cell phone in the car, cutting me off from communication with the outside world. (This is terrifying.) To get to the classroom I have to walk through multiple large metal doors that open as I approach, then close and lock behind me. (Prison is no place for the claustrophobic.) But the men I meet there, the stories I hear, the meaningful conversations we have and the pain I feel when the class is over, knowing they will go back to a small shared cell with paint peeling off the walls, is worth traveling twenty minutes down the road where the blessing lies outside my comfort zone.

[Feature Image: Mitchell Haindfield]

What is stopping you?

Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) will be on September 21st and 22nd this year. In preparation for this new beginning, The Well is offering reflection prompts for each day of the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah.  The prompt I discovered this past Saturday on Twitter was so good, I couldn’t help but  #Reflect4Rosh myself.

Here’s the prompt:

What do you hope to let go of in your life?  What is stopping you?

Here are a few of my answers:

  • My monkey mind that climbs every tree of distraction
  • My compulsion to pre-plan and fear of spontaneity
  • My desire for more (time, money, cool stuff, love, attention, kudos, success) in the face of what is already enough.
  • My fear of looking or sounding stupid
  • Saying “yes” to things that I should say “no” to
  • The way I allow certain people to irritate and anger me
  • Watching stupid television at night or staring at my Facebook feed instead of reading a good book or simply going to bed

How about you?  What do you hope to let go of?  What is stopping you?

#Reflect4Rosh

[Feature Image: Thomas Hawk]