A new holiday tradition: study racism

How much of what we automatically celebrate really merits celebration?

In a few days we’ll be celebrating the 4th of July, the founding of the United States of America. Surely that’s not a problematic holiday?

a Black man wrapped in an American flag. Is 4th of July a racist holiday?Weeeeelllllllll….the Declaration of Independence our Founding Fathers signed on July 4, 1776 remained silent about the enslavement of Black people—a practice begun in this hemisphere by  Christopher Columbus, by the way, who enslaved indigenous people in Barbados and instituted “barbaric forms of punishment, including torture” when he served as governor of Hispaniola. Somehow, they didn’t teach us that in elementary school.

England and Europe had already outlawed the practice of enslaving human beings when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence—and, despite the fact that he “owned” enslaved people himself, his first draft condemned the practice. The Continental Congress removed that section, in exchange for votes from the colonies whose economies depended on slavery—not all of which were in the South.

Understand the past, change the future

Today, Black Americans still contend with the effects of this shameful history: how many nonviolent white people get killed by the police? And the judicial system is not the only aspect of our society that’s been shaped by centuries of reduced economic, educational, medical, and social opportunities for Black people. Or, if you’d like a more concise way of putting that, by Institutionalized Racism.

Recently, more white Americans are coming to terms with how we have perpetuated (and perhaps are continuing to perpetuate) Institutionalized Racism.

Sometimes we do it unconsciously, like by not thinking too hard about why the junior white guy got that promotion instead of the more experienced Black person. After all, if we think about it, we might have to speak up.

Or by hearing a middle-aged Black friend talk about being followed by security in a store and saying, “That happened to me a lot when I was a teenager.”

Or by ignoring a white person making a scene in a grocery store or on a sidewalk or in a park when a Black person asks them politely to follow the rules. Walking away in those situations is a privilege, one our Black neighbors do not have.

It’s easier to think about unconscious racism, because its evil twin—conscious, active racism—is an absolute stain on humanity. We have to root that out like the invasive weed it is.

Racism has a hell of a head start on us—400 years, 500 years, more—so it’s not going to disappear quickly. But with diligence and commitment, we can eradicate it. And by “we,” I mean white people. We’re the ones who invented it, after all; we have to take the lead in dismantling it.

A new holiday tradition: study racism

So as you kick back on this 4th of July, think about adding a new tradition to your holiday festivities. Celebrate our freedom as a country, sure. But remember that the Declaration of Independence didn’t free all of us.

In between burgers and fireworks and red-white-and-blue desserts, take a few minutes to think about how unconscious racism might surface in your life.

  • Have I ever failed to acknowledge a Black person in the room?
  • Have I ever interrupted a Black person who was speaking?
  • Have I ever claimed that my experience as a white person was similar to a Black person’s?
  • Do I take the opportunity to amplify good ideas offered by Black people?
  • Do I devote a little time—even 5 minutes a day—to learning more about Black people’s experiences?

This exercise is not about making white people feel guilty. In my opinion, guilt is a totally unproductive emotion. The past is the past—focus on the present and on the future:

What will I do to understand the effects of institutionalized racism better tomorrow than I do today?

Shoes v. Ideas: what makes a great speech?

What makes a great speech? Is it the location? The scenery? The shoes you bought specifically for the occasion?

Or is it the words you say and the chain reaction of thoughts those words start in your listeners’ minds? Is it the ideas you spread? The change you make in the world?

The TED Talks tagline is “ideas worth spreading.” What? you’re probably thinking, you mean it’s not about the shoes?

No, I know you’re not thinking that. If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know I’m all about the words. Although, to be honest, I did wear a spectacular pair of lavender-and-green Fluevogs to deliver my TEDx Talk. (The link will take you to an equally spectacular pink-and-purple pair.)

If you have something important to say, it doesn’t matter if you show up barefoot in a one-room shack. As long as the audience is physically comfortable enough to listen to you…and as long as you say something worth hearing, everyone gets something valuable out of the experience.

the women who spoke with me at TEDxBayRidgeWomen
That’s me in the pink jacket

I did not deliver my TEDx Talk in the grandest of surroundings. That didn’t matter to me, because I knew this was the first time TEDx had come to this particular community. If you’re a smart organizer, you test the concept first: build it and see who comes.

Who came was a diverse range of people with stories worth sharing, ideas worth hearing, and a marvelous mix of audience members who laughed, applauded, and even took notes. One woman told me she’d come because a post I made in a Facebook group prompted her to buy a ticket and she was so glad she had.

Who left was a group of five speakers—nearly half the planned lineup—the night before the event. They took with them their high heels, one gorgeous gold-embroidered black velvet jacket, and an attitude that their ideas are only worth sharing in certain surroundings.

The organizer found a few replacement speakers at the last minute and, honestly, those talks—prepared and given in two hours flat—were among my favorites. One woman spoke about the culture of the Sherpas who help people climb Mt. Everest, as she had. One spoke about how the musical theater classes she teaches at a small public college help her students learn so much more than show tunes. A Native American poet spun a gripping piece of word-art out of thin air. Her theme, how we treat each other, acknowledged the wide gulf between the kind of people who would bail the night before the event, and those of us who stayed and shared our ideas and learned from each other.

Yes, it’s lovely to stand on a big stage in front of a velvet curtain and all. But it’s far lovelier—and leaves a more lasting impression—to say something meaningful. If you’re not doing that, no shoes in the world will save you.

I’ll be offering a program on Speechwriting for Speakers starting in January. If you’d like more information, send me a note through this form.

Rachel & Me—and unconscious bias

On the final day of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce convention, I ran into a woman spoken to quite a bit during the previous few days—a straight woman there on behalf of her company, founded and run by two gay men.

“So how was your night last night?” she asked. “Did you go out after the reception?”

“Last night?” I said, “I went to bed with Rachel [pause] Maddow.”

It’s a pretty reliable joke. But on this occasion, it went somewhere completely unexpected.

“Oh,” she said, sort of laughing. “But she’s married to a man, isn’t she?”

[GIANT PAUSE] And then I set her, you’ll pardon the expression, straight.

I know what happened. At least I’m pretty sure—I was too stunned at the time to ask. But I did the important thing: I corrected the record.

I think at some point she heard that Maddow is married and then unconscious bias kicked in. Married woman = woman with husband, right?


Marriage has been legal for same-sex couples everywhere in the country for several years now. It’s past time to drop the assumption that a married person must have an opposite-sex partner.

And this from a woman who works for gay men, who chose to attend an NGLCC conference, who self-identifies as an ally.

Unconscious bias can happen to everyone

woman with hands over her face- unconscious biasDo you have unconscious bias? If you’re a human being, the answer is yes. I mean, maybe the Dalai Lama has escaped it, but the rest of us all form opinions about things. And sometimes we base those opinions not on facts but on stories we tell ourselves.

Regular readers know I’m a great advocate of story-telling, but only the conscious kind. When we tell ourselves stories about people without having any facts to back them up, that’s called stereotyping. Or, if it’s done by law enforcement-types, profiling.

Now this particular instance of unconscious bias didn’t cost anyone their job—although if the woman’s gay bosses found out she thought Rachel Maddow was straight…well, who knows what would have happened?

But her unconscious bias gave me the perfect opening story for the panel I participated in less than an hour later. I used it to illustrate the idea that we LGBT people must continue to be visible, because some people will unconsciously “straighten us out,” as the woman did to Rachel Maddow.

LGBT people can have unconscious bias, too—like when we hear someone’s a Christian and automatically assume that means they think we’re going to hell. Hey—I’ve been an Episcopalian for nearly 30 years; I know not all Christians hate us. And I still get wary when I meet someone who identifies as a Christian.

We’ve got our work cut out for us—all of us. But we can’t eliminate the evils of racism, homophobia, and all the other -phobias and -isms out in the world until we tackle the -isms and -phobias that live in our own heads.

A hard time to be a white person…and what to do about it

white person
Miss Texas 2017, Margana Wood, from her Instagram account

It’s a hard time to be a white person. Not hard as in we’re liable to get shot just for walking down the street—no, people of color definitely have us beat there. And not hard as in we’ll be ostracized—and maybe lose our jobs—if we express our opinion. Again, that’s much more likely to happen to a person of color (see Miss Texas as exhibit 1 and ESPN anchor Jemele Hill, exhibit 2.)

No, I think it’s a hard time to be a white person because there are a bunch of white people out there who make no sense at all. And to the rest of the world, I look just like them.

No! I want to shout, It wasn’t me! I’m not one of those white Baby Boomer women who voted for him! But there I am, guilty by association.

The Survey Says…

And so we come to the Reuters/Ipsos survey released a couple of weeks ago, in which our fellow citizens had a chance to say just what they think of white supremacy and white supremacists.

The good news: We don’t like ’em. Only 4% supported neo-Nazism; 8% supported “white nationalism.” Now, extrapolated across the whole country even 4% is a pretty huge number. But I’m gonna take comfort in it right now, because I need some comfort, okay?

Nearly 90% of our fellow citizens did us proud, agreeing that “all races should be treated equally.” But that’s a softball question, right? I mean, even the Nazis know what the politically correct answer is.

So the researchers, as good researchers do, asked the question again in slightly different forms: Do you agree or disagree with the statement “white people are currently under attack in this country.”

Who could look at what’s going on in the country—what went on in Charlottesville just weeks before they fielded the survey—who can look at this and say, “Yep. White people are definitely under attack in the United States.” Four out of ten people, that’s who. Okay, 39%—so just a shade under four in ten. But that’s a lot of damn people. A lot of damn people who are maybe just a few Fox “News” reports away from becoming neo-Nazis or white supremacists themselves.

Only 29% of my fellow white people disagreed with that statement. And while that’s nearly three in ten, it should be a no-brainer.

If you can get pulled over for a routine traffic stop and not worry that you’ll leave in handcuffs or a body bag, you’re a white person. If you’re a straight, cisgender white person, you haven’t got a clue about what it feels like to be “under attack” in your own country.

And if you’re a white person who understands this, you have a responsibility to speak up. Don’t make the black and brown people do all the work of dismantling racism—they didn’t create it. It’s our mess; we need to clean it up. Together.

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

My racist coworker: a true story

a black person wearing a T-shirt with Bible verse "I am a child of God"Yes, 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 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.”


“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.

Trumpocalypse & the Reverend Doctor Barber

If there’s anything positive emerging from the Trumpocalypse, it’s the increased visibility of the Reverend Doctor William J. Barber II. The man is a preacher and a thinker—in my experience, the two don’t always go together. He’s also an excellent writer.

The Reverend Doctor Barber in 2013
The Rev. Dr. Barber at a rally in 2013. Photo by twbuckner, CC BY 2.0

Now, the Reverend Doctor Barber may have been plenty visible to other people, but he first hit my radar at the Democratic National Convention last summer. After that, I started following him, um, religiously. And yesterday he published a delicious indictment of his fellow clergypeople. You know, the pious souls who laid hands on Trump this week and prayed for him in the Oval Office.

The photo the White House released only shows the central figure from the back, but I would have loved to see the expression on his face. Was he bored? Preening? After all, it was a whole lot of attention and we know he loves attention. I’m sure the one thing he wasn’t was the one thing he should have been—humbled.

But let’s leave him aside, the man with the yellow weave, and turn our attention to the marvelous Rev. Dr. Barber.

He begins his “open letter to clergy who prayed with Donald Trump” by noting that he was arrested last week, along with other clergy and “people with health issues.” What was their crime?

“…reading the Word of God and attempting to let the Spirit speak its ancient truth through me into the present.”

Specifically, doing all of that scripture-reading outside Mitch McConnell’s Senate office. Praying on government property—essentially the same thing the clergy were doing inside the White House. One group got photographed; the other got carted away in handcuffs. Hmm. What, do you suppose, were the differences?

Reverend Doctor Barber does not mince words

Still, he tries to make common cause with the clergy who crowded into the Oval Office:

While we may differ on Biblical interpretation, we do share a common effort to understand God’s Word and discern God’s will. I have noted your doubtless sincere public statements in recent months that such gospel proclamation is needed in America.

Finding common ground is the first step to resolving differences. The Rev. Dr. Barber continues:

The nation needs our prayers, and no doubt the president does, too. But the Scripture cautions us to lay hands on no man suddenly, lest we become a party to his sins. (1 Timothy 5:22) We cannot simply p-r-a-y pray over people while they p-r-e-y on the poor and vulnerable among us.

I hope you love that last sentence as much as I do. Not every speaker or writer can get away with that sort of wordplay, but if you can—go for it. Back to the Rev. Dr. Barber:

The teachings of Jesus are clear about caring for the poor and the sick, and we are called to share His message; we cannot simply serve as chaplains to imperial power. If we pray for a person engaging in injustice we must offer prayers that lead to conviction, not prayers that further embolden them in their wrongdoing. And since faith comes by hearing, we must speak prophetically and truthfully to them about using political power to inflict public pain.

No minced words there.

An image everyone can grasp

…I am troubled by your silence and lack of guidance as the president and his political allies in Congress attempt to deconstruct America’s health care system. If Jesus did anything, he offered health care wherever he went — and he never charged a leper a co-pay.

Jesus “never charged a leper a co-pay.” That may be my favorite line in the whole letter. It’s so immediately accessible. It’s an image everyone can understand, a concept you can grasp instantly. This is persuasive writing at its finest.

He returns to the scripture, calls out the clergy who prayed over Trump as hypocrites:

For decades you have insisted that the Christian political agenda is a “pro-life” agenda. You have taught millions that the image of God is stamped on each of us — no matter the color of our skin or the money in our bank account — and that each and every child of God was knit together in our mother’s wombs, fearfully and wonderfully made. And yet, in this moment of crisis, when our poorest and most vulnerable neighbors are at risk, you say so little. You have been so loud in the past. What spirit has silenced you in this moment of truth for the ethic of life?

And he quotes Frederick Douglass. Remember him? As Trump said this February, “…he’s an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.” I wonder if that’s why the Rev. Dr. Barber quoted Douglass?

I remembered what Frederick Douglass said about our faith after our denominations splintered over the moral question of slavery and the nation stood on the brink of Civil War:

“Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”

The Reverend Doctor Barber — “redemption is possible”

And he is not letting anyone off the hook:

I also write to you in faith and in love because I know that redemption is possible — we all raise our voices and sing the words penned by a reformed slave trader, “I once was lost but now am found / Was blind but now I see.” I have watched the sons and daughters of slaveholders work alongside the daughters and sons of enslaved people to build a new and vibrant moral movement. I have prayed with people who decided to follow Jesus when they heard you preach years ago but are now following Jesus to jail because they know this is what faithfulness requires. I write because you have celebrated your unprecedented influence in this administration and the time has come to use it.

He signs off “in prayer and hope.” Hope is in short supply this year. But if anyone can conjure it in the face of the Trumpocalypse, I believe that person will be the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. Hope, and some direct arguments made from a deep well of unshakable values.

I hope I get a chance to hear him speak live some day.

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

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

Start on common ground

How do we find common ground?
Is it even worth trying?

These days, the most prevalent answers to these questions seem to be:

Who the hell knows?
Probably not.

The political scene in the United States in 2017 looks more like the battlefields of World War I circa 1917: Two sides dug in firmly. Neither of them willing to give an inch; neither of them gaining any ground.

Yeah, that last sentence concludes with a bit of wishful thinking. I don’t count Mitch McConnell out as of any fight, but I certainly hope the GOP doesn’t gain any ground with their deadly “healthcare” bill.

And that—right there—that’s the problem. It seems like the best I can hope for is stasis, paralysis. Is this any way to run a country?

So how do we find common ground?

The answer—well, one answer—came from an unexpected place this morning, as I was preparing to lead my advanced writing class. I re-read a passage from Seth Godin’s book All Marketers (Are Liars) Tell Stories in which he outlines the qualities great stories have in common. The final quality in the list:

Great stories “agree with our worldview. The best stories don’t teach people anything new. Instead, the best stories agree with what the audience already believes and makes the members of the audience feel smart and secure when reminded how right they were in the first place.”

That explains the entrenchment, right? The Republican side listens to Fox News and that awful, racist website whose name I can’t bear to repeat and parrots their talking points (see last week’s post about Ana Marie Cox interviewing people at a Trump campaign rally in Iowa). The Democratic side listens to Rachel Maddow and reads The New York Times. The same New York Times that our president has branded as “failing.”

Having a self-appointed media critic as president only heightens the divisions. As he succeeds in sowing distrust of media outlets (“fake news CNN”), his supporters become even less likely to accept any objective reporting they may stumble across. How can we reach them with the truth?

Maybe we need to start with their worldview. Instead of fighting it, slip into it for a moment. Not all of it—of course, some of the president’s supporters have reprehensible views—but the worldview of the average person on the street. Or, in my case, behind the counter at the dry cleaner.

The Dry Cleaner & the Humpback Whales

A couple of weeks ago, I went to retrieve a jacket from the dry cleaner’s. The lady working the counter was listening to a talk radio show host rant about womyn’s studies—”spelled with a Y”—and dying humpback whales. The bit about the whales featured mournful background music, like one of those movies where the teenager finds true love just as the deadly disease claims her life. It was way over the top.

And I got offended. I felt disrespected. I mean, listen to whatever you want on your own time, but when you’re working in a public-facing role in a business, don’t make your customers listen to it too. After all, some of those customers might care about endangered species. Or be “womyn.” Okay, back in the late ’70s I too mocked “womyn”—but that’s not my point. Or maybe it is.

Common ground—there’s common ground, if we just care to look for it. Now, I wouldn’t have engaged the dry cleaner’s salesclerk in a discussion of male privilege and language. But I could have said something more constructive than what I did say—basically, that I thought they did great work but I wouldn’t be coming back because of “that crap you’re listening to.” Nope, no common ground there.

Opportunity Lost

As soon as I got back to the car I realized I’d missed an opportunity. I could have found something we’d both agree on. After all, the Congressional Budget Office had just published its score of the Senate’s healthcare bill. Millions of people would become uninsured, and those of us with insurance would face drastically rising premiums and drastically reduced coverage.

I wish I’d talked to her about healthcare. Maybe said something like, “Why are they talking about humpback whales on your radio show when the Senate is ready to vote on a healthcare bill that will affect everyone in the country?”

Or that’s probably even too partisan-sounding. Common ground: “Man, there sure is a lot that needs fixing in this country. Do you think whales are really the most important thing to talk about? I’m worried about my healthcare. How about you?”

Maybe I’d open her mind a little, get her to think for herself. Maybe the next time I saw her, we could find a little more common ground. That’s how cultural change happens. In one-on-one interactions, millions of them. Every single day.

common ground, literally
Literal common ground. An artist’s reconstruction of the Christmas Truce by A. C. Michael – The Guardian [2] / [3]Originally published in The Illustrated London News, January 9, 1915., PD-US

Time for a “Christmas Truce”

One Christmas Day in the middle of World War I, opposing soldiers stepped out of their trenches and rediscovered their common humanity. No fighting, just eating. Some drinking. Singing. An improvised game of soccer. Small gifts.

One British soldier, Murdoch M. Wood, speaking in 1930, said: “I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.”

Can we take it upon ourselves to stop the verbal assaults? Stop the mudslinging? The politicians won’t stop on their own. The media won’t stop either; even the more objective outlets cover politics like it’s a blood sport.

But we can stop, individually.

Let’s fight the politicians with every argument we can muster. But when we talk to each other, let’s choose to look for common ground. It’s pretty much literally the least we can do.

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

“Bring enough for everybody” — healthcare and chewing gum

“Did you bring enough for everybody?”

I can still hear the disappointment in my first grade teacher’s voice when she caught someone chewing gum in class. Of course the offender didn’t have 20 sticks of gum, just a pack. But we all knew the rules: either everyone had it or no one did.

The Republicans in Congress apparently never learned that lesson. They voted yesterday to take  healthcare away from millions of currently ensured Americans. And even to gut the provisions requiring employers to provide healthcare. But they kept their own plan intact. Members of Congress and their staffers will remain safely insured, pre-existing conditions and all.

They certainly brought enough hypocrisy for everyone.

I could point to about a dozen abominations in the new bill: the “Pro-Life” party cutting insurance for babies who need care in a neo-natal intensive care unit—and insurance coverage for pregnancy, too. Domestic violence and rape become pre-existing conditions—which will no doubt result in fewer women reporting them.

How, exactly, does that make America “greater”?

Apologies for the short blog today, but you don’t want to hear the words I have in my head today.

Curses? Oh yeah, I’ve got more than enough for everybody.

Difficult conversations, tough realizations

I wrote this post about “difficult conversations” two weeks ago. But it was late and I was tired and it’s such an important subject I didn’t want to publish it before I had some sleep and re-read it. I found it in my drafts folder today; turned out it didn’t need much cleaning up at all. And, sadly, the subject remains relevant So here you are.

I’ve been resisting Anna Marie Cox’s new podcast, Friends Like These for a while. She advertises it as being about the “difficult conversations” we have with one another—or, more accurately, don’t have often enough. I’ve heard her talk with a pastor whose flocks (he has churches in two different counties of some midwestern state I’ve forgotten) both voted for Trump. And she draws heavily on the expertise of her colleagues at MTV News, which brings more people of color to the microphone than the white bread podcasts run by her colleagues at Crooked Media (yes, that’s the company’s real name).

But the podcast I listened to today—already a couple of weeks old—got me thinking in a new way. Part of it focused on conspiracy theories. Cox and her guest Adam Savage contended that while the crap that’s going/has gone on with Russia is clearly important, our pursuit of the conspiracy at least partly serves to distract us from the even more depressing thought of the millions of Americans who needed no outside persuasion whatsoever to vote for Velveeta Voldemort.

That’s the real scandal here. We have turned into a country of intolerant people.

No—it’s a more difficult conversation than that:

“We have always been a country of intolerant people, but it’s no longer possible to ignore that.”

For many educated white people like me, who have been living in a Disneyland Shondaland where Diversity and Inclusion seem to increase daily, this comes as quite a shock.

Lava pools of racism and sexism, religious intolerance, xenophobia, homophobia have been bubbling beneath the surface of our society for decades. It was only a matter of time before they burst to the surface, like the volcano that lurks beneath Wyoming. There’s a volcano underneath Wyoming? Yes, according to yet another podcast, Stephen Dubner’s highbrow trivia contest, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know.

Difficult conversations with myself

Anyway, the bubbling lava pools of intolerance shocked the hell out of me, and a good percentage of polite society, when they burst out, seemingly ten minutes after the election results were announced. I said “polite society,” meaning the kinds of people who don’t go around creating swastika-covered cupcakes at birthday parties. But really “polite” is not the right word, though it rhymes with it:


Yep, even though I like to think of myself as “diverse”—y’know, because I married a woman and all—I have had no freaking clue what’s been going on in my own country to people whose skin are, as Oscar Hammerstein put it, “a different shade.”

Oh, I haven’t been living under a rock: I know about the black youth killed by police, the unrest. I know Black Lives Matter. And Muslim Lives. And Trans Lives. I know we can’t disappear them into the seemingly tidy package of “All Lives Matter,” because one of the things that matters about Black and Muslim and Trans lives is that they deserve to be visible.

But the daily drumbeat of unconscious bias, the kind of stuff you’ll find under the Twitter hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork—really, I thought we were past all that.

We’re not. Take a look at some of the tweets collected in this Essence article:

difficult conversations

Every problem looks like a nail

Someone said “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

My particular “hammer” is communicating. But, really, wouldn’t that help? If we all learned to speak our truths, if we had the guts to call out people who behave like this, and the tools to make our case forcefully—wouldn’t that help? Would they be difficult conversations? Sometimes, you bet. But the alternative is allowing these unconscious biases to stand. And that will not end well for anyone.

We allies have a responsibility to speak up. Grab that word-hammer and use it. Even—especially—when the conversations get difficult.

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