My racist coworker: a true story

not a picture of my racist coworkerYes, I’m supposed to be on vacation. But I have something to say about Charlottesville, so I’m “reclaiming my time,” in the words of the inimitable Maxine Waters. I have a story you might need to hear, a true story about my racist coworker.

For about six months in 1985, I lived in Jacksonville, Florida. I hadn’t yet discovered my calling as a speechwriter, so I worked at a place that churned out forms for retirement plans. People elsewhere in the building plugged paragraphs into documents; I made small, predetermined adjustments and sent the documents to the printer, then collected the printouts and shuffled them off to the next stage.

The system had been designed for two people to do what I did, but the company had a hard time keeping anyone else in the job. Because the work was too boring? Nope. Because the work was too hard.

So I was thrilled when they finally found someone who could handle it. We’ll call her “Misti”—with an i instead of a y at the end because giving her two i’s allows the Misti of our imagination to dot the first i with a star, maybe, and the second with a heart. That was just the kind of ray of sunshine Misti was: perky and petite, always smiling. If you imagine she’s also white and blonde, you’ve got the picture. A high-school cheerleader straight out of central casting.

Misti proved quite capable at her job, so she stuck around awhile, and I was glad to have someone to chat with. I don’t remember what we were talking about that day, only that her next sentence came completely out of the blue. With all the authority an 18-year-old can muster, she announced: “You know, Elaine, the n*****s are trying to take over the world.”

My racist coworker

I don’t know whether I was more shocked by her statement or by the fact that she’d just used the N-word, right there in the office—with our black colleagues working just a few desks away.

“What…?” It was less a word than a strangled, shocked sound.

“Oh, it’s true,” she replied, in the same chirpy tone she used to describe what she’d brought for lunch. “You always hear them complaining about discrimination. You never hear white folks complaining about discrimination. Do you?”

It’s not easy to render me speechless, but that bit of twisted logic did. Of course, it’s hard to complain about something you never experience. But I didn’t say that. In fact, I don’t think I said anything to Misti. Ever again.

I left town in pretty short order. Hightailed it back to New York, to Brooklyn, where I could imagine that people never thought those kinds of things. Because they certainly never said those kinds of things. Not in polite company. Not around me.

It’s a privilege to walk away

Racism is like that if you’re a white person. It’s a casual remark you can ignore. Change the conversation, leave the room, move out of town and you can believe you’ve left it behind.

I don’t know if I could have changed Misti’s mind back there in Jacksonville in 1985. But I could have given my racist coworker something to think about. I could have introduced her to a different worldview. Instead I left her with her hateful beliefs intact, ready to pass on to any kids she might have in the future. Or, by now, grandkids. That’s three generations of racists I might have prevented. Or maybe not. But the point is I didn’t even try.

White Christmas 

Thirty-something years later: Christmas with my relatives, one of whom started a conversation that veered dangerously close to racism. Did I say something? Reader, I did not. I walked out of the room. I felt guilty about it at the time, but a few weeks later I would feel even worse.

My partner was talking to some black friends of ours, telling them about the experience. I tried to head her off, but she plowed on. I left that room, too. Couldn’t bear to see my black friends’ faces when my partner reached what seemed to her like a triumphant conclusion, “…and Elaine just left the room!”

Later I said, “I wish you hadn’t told them that story.”

“Why?”

“Because,” I said, “if I found out they’d heard someone saying disparaging things about LGBT people and all they did was walk away, I would have ripped them a new one.”

Forgive my salty language, but I feel strongly about people who ignore their responsibility as allies. Of course, I have no standing to criticize. As you now know, I’ve walked away too.

I wasn’t actually in Charlottesville

I left Misti behind when I moved out of Jacksonville. But her illogical argument, her strange racist reading of social interactions—those things pop up everywhere. And they’ll persist and spread until we can educate the people who believe them. And, worse, who act on their beliefs.

So no, I wasn’t part of the angry white mob in Charlottesville last weekend. But who knows how many people have crossed paths with my racist coworker in the 30 years since I declined to talk some sense into her? I stood by as she threw a pebble into a dark and ugly lake; the ripples of her hatred have had a long damn time to expand.

Let one racist continue in their ignorant thinking and that thinking will spread exponentially. But engage in thoughtful conversation with a racist—tell a story, speak about your own experience or the experiences of others—and you have a chance to stop the spread of hate. A slim chance, maybe. But that’s still a chance.

We can’t afford to be silent any more. To paraphrase the Buddhist teaching about planting a tree: The best time to have a conversation about racism is 20 years ago; the second-best time is now.

Yes, I’m looking at myself when I say that. And I invite you to look at yourselves, too.


Time to kick your writing skills up a level? Join me for my popular Writing Unbound program this October. A serious commitment, for people serious about change.

Uncomfortable conversations and the invisible asterisk

It didn’t start out as one of those uncomfortable conversations:

“Thank you for articulating that so clearly.”

That’s a sentence I might write to any of my writers at any time. But I wasn’t responding to one of my writers. I was responding to a black woman I’d never met, who’d posted on our mutual friend’s Facebook thread about the casual racism of a five-year-old white girl on a playground in my old hometown of Maplewood. My beautiful, mostly diverse, so-proud-of-its-perceived-inclusiveness Maplewood.

we need to have uncomfortable conversations about raceThe little girl told a black boy her age that he couldn’t play on the playground equipment: “Whites only.” When the boy’s father reality-checked this with one of the other parents present, the white man dismissed the comment: “That’s not her personality.”

This friend of my friend, a woman named Jan Abernathy, commented on the Facebook post:

“I would definitely say the ‘it’s not her personality’ sounds accurately reported and happens because we believe that bias is for ‘bad people’ versus part of a system in we all participate because it’s all around us.”

“Thank you for articulating that so clearly.” I typed, and pressed Post. And in the next second I thought, Did I just tell a black woman “you’re very articulate”?

I pressed Edit. My fingers hovered over the keyboard. Of course that wasn’t what I meant. My sentence was complete as it stood; no implied “…for a [fill in the stereotype here].” But she didn’t know me; would she understand that? In the end, I added a completely unnecessary “That’s so true” and clicked out of the edit window. Let the chips fall where they may.

Yes, I was uncomfortable. And that’s not a bad thing. Because Uncomfortable is a stage we have to pass through on the way to Inclusion. We really need to get there, as many of us as we can. And that will involve having some uncomfortable conversations.

Uncomfortable conversations — do think twice

My mother always told me to count to ten before I spoke. No one who knows me will be surprised to hear I never took that advice.

But if I think twice, or even twenty times, about my reactions when I’m dealing with someone who is unlike me—especially someone of another race—that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because I have grown up not thinking, not questioning the system, as Ms. Abernathy wrote, “that is all around us.”

Because I am a white woman, that system has mostly been no more visible to me than the air I breathe. As a “lipstick lesbian,” I have encountered it from time to time, not often enough to truly remember it exists. It wasn’t until the results of the most recent presidential election came in that I felt it. Because for the first time I was on the wrong side of the system—as both a lesbian and as a woman. My white skin will not save me from the Trumpocalypse.

Now, I won’t presume that what I’ve felt for the last eight months compares in any way to what a person of color feels from the moment they become conscious of the system we live in (for the child in the story, that sadly seems to be about age 5). But it has opened my eyes—eyes that I didn’t even realize needed to be opened.

I’ve been writing about diversity and inclusion for my clients for a decade now. I always thought I “got it.” I think I’m closer to getting it now. But I also know how far I have to go.

The invisible asterisk

Last week, I wrote about the subversiveness of the Declaration of Independence. Well, yes. But there’s an unexpected bit of punctuation in there, an invisible asterisk. That is, the asterisk is invisible to most of us, but for those who do see it…I imagine that sometimes it’s pretty much all they can see. It grounds the otherwise subversive document firmly in the mainstream of its time—and, sadly, of modern times, too.

When our founders wrote the Declaration, everyone understood that the phrase “…all men are created equal” actually meant

*white men of certain socio-economic standing.

Definitely not women. Definitely not people of color. And although the founders didn’t have words like “homosexual” or “transgender,” definitely not those folks either.

In the couple of centuries since our country’s birth, many of our laws have grudgingly caught up with the errors of omission and commission in the Declaration and the Constitution. But the inequality that those foundational documents enshrined—that invisible asterisk—remains rooted in our culture. And not just in the South, home of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, our present Attorney General, who seems hell-bent on rolling the gains of the Civil Rights movement back to, oh, about 1932. We in the North have our own bigots; just ask Philando Castile, who lived in Minnesota.

You can’t get much less “South” than Minnesota. You also can’t ask Mr. Castile anything; he was shot and killed by a Minnesota police officer. And that police officer was acquitted by a jury of his Northern peers, just as surely as the all-white Southern jury set the killers of Emmett Till free more than 60 years ago.

I’d like to believe such attitudes would never see the light of day in my town. But as long as we live with the invisible asterisk—as long as we remain silent about that damning piece of punctuation—those attitudes have room to flourish. And apparently even five-year-olds are not immune.

Allies: learn to have uncomfortable conversations

So, really, it’s not enough just to be for inclusion. It’s not enough to be a silent ally, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago in a post about a gay football player. And it’s certainly not enough to let a black father stand alone in trying to correct the situation produced when a little white girl says, “Whites only.” Any of the other adults there could have spoken to the girl. To her mother. Better yet, to both. Because all of us should be outraged that—whether she picked it up at home or at school or somewhere else—a five-year-old can casually spout racist language with no consequences.

We need to have conversations—even uncomfortable conversations—about whether we want to live in a system founded on an invisible asterisk that leaves out so many. And if we don’t want to live with the asterisk, what do we need to do to change our country and ourselves?

Thanks to my new friend Jan Abernathy for giving me permission to quote her in this blog. As it turns out, she works in equity inclusion at a small independent school I know quite well. I would write more about her, but this post is already too long so I’ll save it for another day.

I also want to thank Brittany Packnett, whom I haven’t met except through my phone as I listen to the always eye-opening Pod Save the People. Ms. Packnett has taught me more about what Ms. Abernathy calls the “system we all participate in” than perhaps anyone else.

Educating people is hard—especially if the people you’re educating think they already know all they need to. So thank you both for your work, and thanks to everyone brave enough to engage in uncomfortable conversations.


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

No wicked people necessary—history repeats itself

James Baldwin understood the difference betweeen spineless and wicked people
James Baldwin in London, 1969 Photo by Allan Warren – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I’ve been rereading James Baldwin lately; I highly recommend it.

I still remember the shivers that went down my spine the first time I read The Fire Next Time, probably more than 30 years ago. Of course, I didn’t understand it—not the way I do today. And probably not the way I will, if nuclear holocaust or some other kind of holocaust doesn’t take us all, 30 years from now.

If you think of the Civil Rights Movement as ranks of orderly marchers singing “We Shall Overcome,” punctuated by the occasional Southern sheriff wielding water cannons and police dogs; if the Black Lives Matter movement came as a surprise to you; if you don’t understand how deep the roots of inequality are in this country, and how widely its noxious flower still blooms—then it may be time for you to reread James Baldwin, too.

History repeats itself, damn it

Why am I writing about James Baldwin when there’s so much else—so many other horrifying things—going on right now? Because it’s true what they say about history repeating itself. And although Baldwin wrote in another time about another subject, a lot of what I found in his 1962 essay “Letter from a Region in My Mind” could apply to what we’re dealing with today.

The demise of “the American experiment” seems imminent. Russia seems to have affected the outcome of our most recent election—perhaps even with the encouragement, if not assistance, of the man who now sits in the White House. At any other time in my life, the idea that a foreign power had interfered in the election would have set alarm bells ringing; the fact that it was Russia—the erstwhile “Evil Empire” in Ronald Reagan’s phrase—would have sparked a bipartisan effort to prosecute the offenders and restore trust in our democracy.

But the Republicans in Congress are too busy trying to take healthcare away from 20 million or more Americans so they can enact an unprecedented tax cut for billionaires. And they’re working under a strict deadline—they need to effect this massive transfer of wealth before the president who vowed to sign the bill has been removed from office.

If just three Republicans cling to their humanity and vote No, the bill will die. If not, millions of Americans will die. Possibly even me—so, yes, don’t expect me to be objective about this.

Wicked people not necessary

But I find Baldwin had the same thoughts in 1962 that I have today. To wit:

“…a civilization is not destroyed by wicked people; it is not necessary that people be wicked but only that they be spineless.”

I don’t want to co-opt Baldwin’s argument. He was writing about the scourges of racism and segregation; I’m thinking about the scourge of ultra-Conservative donors buying off key Congressional leaders. Paul Ryan just booked a donation from the Mercer family of about half a million dollars. Half. A. Million. Dollars. (I can’t find the citation for that, but here’s an article from The New Yorker about Robert Mercer.)

And I’m thinking about the scourge of ultra-partisanship—to the point that the Republicans blocked an effort to revoke Jared Kushner’s security clearance, even though we now have proof that he lied on his clearance application about meeting with a Kremlin-connected operative during the campaign.

Are these wicked people? That’s for God, not me, to judge. But they sure as hell seem spineless.

“I sometimes think, with despair, that Americans will swallow whole any political speech whatsoever…”

I despair about that too, Mr. Baldwin. Fifty-five years after you wrote those words, too little has changed. Will it ever?


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

A toe-tapping hymn—Song for a Sunday

A James Baldwin essay I read this morning began with quotations from two bits of poetry. Rudyard Kipling’s paean to colonialism, “The White Man’s Burden,” and a stanza from a gospel hymn called “Down at the Cross.” I’d never heard the hymn before, so I went looking for it. Following the disturbing casual racism of the Kipling poem (and Baldwin didn’t even quote the worst part of it!), I certainly wasn’t expecting such joyful, toe-tapping music.

toe-tapping beat care of Doris Akers
Doris Akers by Source (WP:NFCC#4), fair use

It took a while to search out the right rendition. I found choirs full of white people bluegrassing it up all over YouTube. But I wanted to give you something closer to the hymn as Baldwin would have known it, and I think I did, in a lovely late-1940s recording of three black women singing close harmonies with a brisk, positively toe-tapping rhythm. They called themselves the Simmons-Aker trio: Dorothy Simmons, Hattie Hawkins, and Doris Akers at the piano. I wonder why Hattie Hawkins got left out of the billing?

Turns out Doris Akers not only played religious music, she also composed it. One song she wrote with gospel diva Mahalia Jackson sold more than a million records. Near the end of her life, in 1992, the Smithsonian Institution dubbed her “the foremost black gospel songwriter in the United States. The Gospel Music Hall of Fame inducted her posthumously, six years after her death.

And so today’s song is “Down at the Cross.” Toe-tapping gospel: I dare you to listen and keep still.

“YOU’RE a professional?” Unconscious bias, it’s still here

Bella Abzug, a true professional
Bella Abzug, Library of Congress

The inimitable Bella Abzug always wore a hat. Not because her head was cold, or because she wanted to be ready if the Royal Family asked her to tea. No, Abzug—a lawyer, activist, and politician who represented Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the U.S. Congress for six years in the 1970s—wore a hat because it marked her as a professional. Back when most of the women in the workforce were secretaries, that was an important distinction.

The 1970s—nearly half a century ago. Women comprise a significantly larger percentage of the professional workforce. Yet people still make assumptions about what we can and cannot do, based on how we look.

Tessa Ann Taylor, Senior Software Engineer at The New York Times, says she still encounters people who seem mystified by the fact that she can be female and an engineer.

Speaking at last week’s Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference, Taylor said that people—okay, male people—have literally asked her “How are you a software engineer?”

Bella Abzug understood this mentality. She once said that while men have been told to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” for women it was “talk softly and carry a lipstick.” That may have been a guaranteed laugh line, but Abzug’s journal entries are less jocular:

“I spend all day figuring out how to beat the machine and knock the crap out of the political power structure.”

Taylor may not be trying to “knock the crap” out of the corporate power structure, but she does do a lot of training to help people recognize the Unconscious Biases That Will Not Die. Or at least That Haven’t Died Yet.

Women of color in professional leadership

On the final day of the conference, I attended a workshop called “Leadership as Disruption: Women of Color and their Allies Moving Beyond the Boundaries,” led by Aziza Jones, MSW. Jones challenged us to identify strategies to support and increase opportunities for women of color to lead. And also to identify ways in which we can support them as allies.

The bottom line for all of this work: Be willing to have difficult conversations. The more we can share our reality—and understand our privilege, for those of us who have it in this crazy world—the more we’ll be able to connect with others. Whether those others are women of a different race, or the clueless men who ask questions like “How are you an engineer?”

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” —Alice Walker

Talk. Connect. Use your power—for yourself and for each other. It’s time for us to change the world, don’t you think?


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

Make America America Again – lessons from Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes offers an alternative to "Make America Great Again"
Langston Hughes, photo by Gordon Parks, 1943

We’ve gotten used to seeing the red hats: “Make America Great Again.” I found the seeds of a slogan that resonates better with me in an article last week on the step-up in deportations: Make America America Again. Not such a great acronym—MAAA—but it’s a lovely vision.

I have to credit the poet Langston Hughes. The Huffington Post article on the anti-immigrant raids quoted a bit of his poem “Let America Be America Again.” Here’s the full text—scroll down in the box below to get it all.

Make America America: See it through someone else’s eye

I used to have a newspaper clipping over my desk. I saved it for the headline: “For the Clearest View, Use Someone Else’s Eye.” Langston Hughes—an African American, most probably gay; doubly an outsider in his own country—offers a crystal clear view of America in his era. And, sadly, in ours as well.

The first few stanzas of the poem read like a patriotic hymn:

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

But before we can wallow in those noble sentiments, Hughes corrects the picture:

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Then he catalogues the oppressed, by race, by class, by birth, detailing the ways they’ve been beaten down or turned away by forces in this country. Still, he finds optimism:

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The irony stings—enslaving people to build a “free” nation. Yet there’s hope, people hanging onto a daring dream “so strong, so brave, so true.” Langston Hughes must have had a deep reservoir of optimism about this country that had so mistreated him, and treated his ancestors even worse. Because despite all the wrongs, he still wants to save his country, to make America America again:

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Optimism: still justified?

“Let America Be America Again” may be the most patriotic poem I’ve ever read. Not the easy, jingo-istic patriotism of the folks who slap a flag on their lapel and then pursue their selfish objectives. But the patriotism born of true love, a patriotism that can see the worst this country can dish out (well, the worst to date) and still see the power of community to knit us back together.

I’ll be reading more Langston Hughes. And praying that his optimism is still justified.


Like what you’re reading? Click here to keep in touch—and I’ll send you my “$100,000 Writing Lesson” as thanks.

America divided against itself — Mark Twain’s vision

America divided
Big River’s album art, (c) Decca Records

It may seem hard to believe, but once upon a time we lived in an America divided against itself and its citizens. I revisited that time on Wednesday night, by way of a Missouri native-turned-New Englander, Mark Twain and a good ol’ country tunesmith named Roger Williams. Yes, it was the New York City Center Encores! production of Big River.

I’d never seen the show before—and it’s been decades since I read the novel it’s based on, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But the rollicking title song was still lodged in my brain, hammered there by the original production’s endless TV commercials. And of course I remembered the image on the poster: a white boy and a black man, floating in solidarity down the river.

Okay, in my memory they had equal weight in the graphic. I see that’s not so. But it’s a fair representation of the show, which I expect might have seemed a lot more funny in 1985 than it does today.

Huckleberry Finn: A time capsule of America divided

For those of you struggling to recall the story: Huck Finn is a scamp of a schoolboy living with two spinster ladies who try to give him some religion. In a world in which piety was not incompatible with slavery, the spinsters’ household also includes their very own enslaved person, Jim.

Huck and Jim escape separately from the spinsters’ house, run into and help each other, and embark on their rafting trip down the Mississippi. Huck is of course an ingratiating character, and the actor playing him sings and dances up a storm—he’s hard not to like. But every time we in the audience start to warm up to Huck, he calls Jim the N-word or considers giving him up to bounty hunters, or goes along with some con artists who convince him to chain Jim up, for the optics. He is indeed no angel and he knows it. Of course, he and the audience have different views about just what his misdeeds consist of: several times, Huck berates himself for being—oh yes, this is a direct quote—”a low-down, dirty Abolitionist.”

At one point, Huck returns to the raft and finds Jim chained and with a blanket over his head. Does he remove the blanket and comfort his friend? Reader, he does not. He assesses the situation and giggles with glee because Jim’s defenselessness allows Huck to play a trick on him. He disguises his voice and pretends to be a slave-hunter come to capture Jim. Naturally alarmed, Jim jumps up to defend himself, and almost attacks Huck.

Perhaps this scene provided comic relief when Twain wrote it in the 1880s. I don’t know, maybe audiences even laughed in the 1980s. But you could have heard a pin drop at City Center this week. That’s progress of a sort, I guess.

White privilege, then and now

Of course, musicals aren’t life. (Not even when they’re written by Stephen Sondheim.) But they can give us a glimpse into life. Twain’s novel—written in 1884 but set in the years before the Civil War—offers a commentary on the politics of Reconstruction in the South.

And—hey—look what I found on the website for the Mark Twain House & Museum:

“By 1877‚ neither the Republican nor Democratic Party were willing to continue their standoff concerning Reconstruction‚ and in order to secure the election of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as president‚ his party”s leadership pledged that Hayes would remove the troops and restore full state sovereignty in the South if the Democrats pledged to accept the fraudulent result of the recent election that denied Samuel Tilden‚ their party’s nominee‚ his rightful place in the White House. The deal was struck‚ and Reconstruction came to an end.”

Imagine that! Democrats rolling over—to the detriment of their supporters—after having had the presidential election stolen by Republicans. Hard to believe something like that could ever happen today.

But to my point: Neither musicals nor novels are life, but they can hold a mirror up to life. Twain dramatized the moral dilemma of people coming to understand that the law they were told to follow, the laws that would keep them on the side of Right, were themselves very wrong. When breaking the law is the only way to maintain your moral compass, well, the choice may be clear. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Big River ends with Huck’s narcissism and white privilege on full display. When he invites the newly freed Jim to accompany him on further adventures, it may sound like an interracial olive branch. But Jim looks at him quizzically. He reminds Huck of what he’d said earlier: that his first order of business on becoming free would be to raise enough money to buy the freedom for the wife and children he hadn’t seen in years. Perhaps the 1985 production played this scene differently, but at Encores I heard hurt, dismay, and resignation in Jim’s response: How could Huck have forgotten such an important detail of my humanity? Then again, how could I have expected him to remember?

It’s a time capsule America divided then—and reflection of America divided today. We don’t pay attention to the humanity of the “other”—whoever the “other” du jour may be.

We call it “white privilege” when white people ignore or minimize the challenges and experiences of people of color. Of course that’s an ironic use of the word. The privilege we should exercise is listening to each other.

So let’s climb back on Jim’s raft—together. Because we’ve still got a ways to go. Talking, listening, hanging onto our moral compass when our leaders seem to have dropped theirs in the nearest swamp. Over 130 years after Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a lot has changed about the world. And too much remains the same.


Like what you’re reading? Click here to keep in touch—and I’ll send you my “$100,000 Writing Lesson” as thanks.

What the customer wants — inclusion (if the Super Bowl ads are right)

“Listen hard to your customers. (Then listen some more.)”

Translation: Find out what the customer wants. And give it to them.

That particular advice comes from Pat Fallon and Fred Senn’s book Juicing the Orange. I haven’t read the book, but I did read a review of it in The New York Times back in 2006, which is how their “seven steps for creativity” landed in my quotation file.

The other rules, for the record:

“1) Always start from scratch
2) ‘Demand a ruthlessly simple definition of the business problem’
3) Find a ‘proprietary emotion’ you can appeal to. ‘Marketers who favor reason over emotion,’ they write, ‘will find themselves quite literally forgotten.’
4) Think big. Don’t be limited by the budget or the initial challenge.
5) Take calculated risks.
6) Collaborate with others both inside and outside your company to solve the problem.”

All of these, except perhaps the last, resonate with me as a writer. Be original. Boil complex issues down to simple (but sophisticated) explanations. Appeal to the audience’s emotions. Hmm…how to translate “think big”: Write what you feel needs to be written. Don’t second-guess or censor yourself.

 

what the customer wants is inclusion

But in the aftermath of the Super Bowl, I’m most struck by the ideas of listening to your customers (the audience) and leveraging emotion to convey your message. The video game and movie commercials treated us to a violent, dystopian world—one commercial showed tanks exploding into everyday situations; Tienanmen Square in your very own living room! But the consumer products companies told a story of compassion and inclusion. I’ll take that world, thanks.

The customer wants inclusion

My favorite was Airbnb’s “We accept” ad.

This isn’t just a political statement—it’s also brand positioning for Airbnb, which has faced issues stemming from some of its hosts discriminating against guests. See this piece on the Twitter hashtag #Airbnbwhileblack and this one about a “straight-friendly” host evicting a gay couple.

It’s a challenge for Airbnb, one they seem to have tackled forthrightly. But as discrimination becomes more socially acceptable, they may find they need something stronger than a feel-good advertisement or even a nondiscrimination pledge in their user agreement:

“We believe that no matter who you are, where you are from, or where you travel, you should be able to belong in the Airbnb community. By joining this community, you commit to treat all fellow members of this community, regardless of race, religion, national origin, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation or age, with respect, and without judgment or bias.”

This is decidedly not the United States the current Republican administration envisions. But it is not what the customer wants — or most citizens, for that matter. Here’s hoping the corporate vision wins this battle.


Like what you’re reading? Click here to keep in touch—and I’ll send you my “$100,000 Writing Lesson” as thanks.

“I know you believe that”—the wisdom of Hidden Figures

There’s a lot to love in the movie Hidden Figures. It not only tells the story of three remarkable African American women whose analytical skills enabled the space program to succeed. It’s also an eye-opener for anyone who doesn’t fully understand all that white privilege has handed us over the generations.

 

If you think police antagonizing African American people is a new phenomenon, feast your eyes on the opening scene, when the women’s car breaks down on the side of a country road. A police car rolls up, lights flashing, and tells them they’ve picked an inconvenient place to break down. As if they had a choice.

If you think the judicial system can settle anything without local support, feast your eyes on the “colored” bathrooms and water fountains, the segregated schools—heck, even the libraries were segregated. And if you wanted to educate yourself on something important, forget about finding the book you need at the “colored” library. As a judge helpfully reminds the audience, this happens after the Supreme Court outlawed “separate but equal” facilities in Brown v. Board of Ed. Also after President Eisenhower overruled the Arkansas governor and directed in the National Guard to escort nine black children into Little Rock’s Central High School. But none of it mattered in Virginia, not back then.

Dorothy Vaughan, one of the Hidden Figures at NASA
Photo courtesy of Dorothy Vaughan’s family, posted on NASA website

For me, the emotional high point of the movie wasn’t John Glenn’s pioneering flight; it was a short encounter in a newly integrated ladies’ room at NASA. The white woman supervisor looks at Dorothy Vaughan, played by Olivia Spencer, and says, “I don’t have anything against you.”

And Vaughan replies, kindly, “I know.” She pauses. Is that all she’s going to say? It is not.

In the same tone of voice she adds:

“I know you believe that.”

Spencer has been nominated for an Academy Award. If you ask me, she deserves it on the strength of that line alone.

Hidden Figures and the banality of prejudice

Hidden Figures does an excellent job of not demonizing its main white characters. While they do and say some despicable things, they’re not mustache-twirling villains. They’re not neo-Nazis. They’re just office workers, trying to do something that’s never been done before under an impossible deadline.

But there’s nothing new about their behavior, and surely their parents and grandparents did even worse. They have no concept of how their actions affect the African Americans they work with (who they would never imagine as “colleagues”). In fact they barely even notice them, except by their absence.

Prejudice isn’t always easy to see. Oh, the people being discriminated against see it very clearly. But the rest of society may just mistake it for life. Sometimes prejudice is utterly banal—and that’s when it’s scariest.

So in 2017 when the nice people in what’s left of the United States of America start talking about LGBT people and people of color wanting “special rights”—when the good Christians start talking about how they “love the sinner but hate the sin” and that Muslims are free to practice their religion, elsewhere—when someone tries to identify any group of human beings as somehow less deserving of respect and dignity—let’s start by channeling our inner Dorothy Vaughans: “I know you believe that.”

And then what?

Then tell a story—a real story. If you can touch someone’s heart, you might be able to open their eyes. Hidden Figures does.


Like what you read here? Click here to keep in touch—and I’ll send you my “$100,000 Writing Lesson” as thanks.

What makes America famous? We get to choose – Song for a Sunday

It’s not the song I thought I’d be writing about today—Harry Chapin‘s “What Made America Famous.”

Harry Chapin wrote the song "What Makes America Famous"
Harry Chapin in concert Photo By Cindy Funk (harry61880) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
I went to YouTube in search of his “She Sings Her Song Without Words.” I thought I’d juxtapose the “song without words” with the song without music of the powerful poem Ashley Judd delivered at the Women’s March in Washington last weekend.

But as I was listening to Chapin sing his sweet, very of-the-era love song, I noticed a video in the sidebar called “What Made America Famous.” As a long-haired, guitar-playing teen I was a Chapin fan back in the day. But I couldn’t quite place the song title.

So I clicked on the video and heard something I need to share with you.

It’s a typical Chapin story-song—an eternity at seven minutes long, but the length is part of what makes it work.

The length and the rhythm lull you into complacency as he sings about the mom-and-apple-pie things that “made America famous.” He builds the intensity as he approaches contemporary life, the Vietnam-era world neatly divided between the “us” and “them.” “Us” always being white, middle-class and “them” the hippies, people of color, people stuck at the lower end of the economic spectrum. Disposable people. We don’t know anything about that world today, do we?

Chapin could have ended his song on a hopeful note, a Norman Rockwell picture of comity. But he knows that’s only part of the story. So sit tight ’til the end.

What makes America famous? Our choices

Chapin wrote the song in 1974. A lot has changed in our country since then. Or at least it has seemed that way to those of us in the “us” category. I have no doubt the country will change more before the song marks its 50th anniversary, just two presidential elections from now. But I’m not sure things will get better.

So join Harry in a primal scream:

Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Is anybody there?

And when you’re done screaming. Think about these words from another Chapin song, the words engraved on his gravestone:

Oh if a man tried
To take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one man’s life could be worth
I wonder what would happen
to this world

How we answer that question will determine what makes America famous going forward.


You’ve been wanting to write more? It’s time to start. My Writing Unbound program will give you the skills and the support you need. Check it out.