1,000 words — what story does a picture tell?

Last night, I went looking for a picture of a black child to illustrate a piece I wanted to submit.

I went to Stencil, my usual royalty-free photo source, but no matter what I typed in the search bar—”black boys,” “black children,” “black children playing”—I got something like this:

Let’s leave aside the ones that are not obviously black, like the guitar-playing dude in the upper left corner. The search results look like the casting call for a “Save the Children” ad: Angry black children. Sad black children. Scroll down and you’ll find unkempt black children playing in what looks like an abandoned yard. What kind of twisted message do these photos send?

So I tried to be more specific. I searched for “happy black children” and got…

Yep. A bunch of white kids. But in BLACK-and-white photos.

Hey, Stencil, I’ve loved using your service. But—newsflash—happy children come in all skin colors. And black children do more than glower.

They say a picture tells 1,000 words. These photos tell a pretty damning story about how stock photographers look at the world. And how at least one purchaser of stock photos perpetuates that worldview.

Can baseball bridge divides? Maybe yes, maybe no

Some activists unveiled a banner about racism in baseball at Fenway Park this week. Baseball has figured into a couple of political conversations I’ve had in the last week. It’s left me wondering: Can baseball bridge divides in our society?

The case of the curious Lyft driver

I caught a Lyft when I arrived at the Cincinnati airport a couple of weeks ago. It was around midnight but my driver was chatty and I mentioned that I was in town to catch a baseball game. His next question came right out of the blue, like a pop fly in July:

“Are you married?”

He had kind of a thick accent—from somewhere in West Africa, he later told me—so I thought perhaps I’d misheard him. But when I didn’t answer, he asked again. Much more emphatically. Half-turning around in his seat:

“Are you married?”

I laughed and said, “That’s a very personal question.” He explained that he was just wondering because I was a woman going to a baseball game alone.

I tried to smile as I made it a teachable moment: “Well, as you’ve probably noticed in the year and a half you’ve been here, women in the United States often do things without their husbands. And husbands do things without their wives.”

I’m not sure I convinced him that our culture really does allow women to have agency (at least it has historically). But he did ask me how much the tickets were, and said he’d try to catch a game one of these days. If I didn’t manage to enlighten him, perhaps I created a baseball fan.

Can baseball bridge divides? The case of the translator

I found myself watching a game on TV with a relative of mine.

can baseball bridge divides?Baseball is one of the few things we have in common (although he roots for the wrong team). Then in the post-game interviews, one of the players showed up with a translator by his side.

“Now that—that I don’t go for,” my relative said, appending the familiar blather about how if you’re going to play ball here you should learn the language.

I knew I’d have to address the situation—I’m done letting teachable moments pass—but a combination of jet lag and my cold had ground down all my feistiness. So I said quietly, “Oh, I don’t know. Learning a new language is hard.”

And then a question popped into my mind. So I asked it, willing my voice to stay calm and curious:

“Have you ever tried to learn another language?”

I expected to hear something about high school Spanish but he just said, almost sheepishly, “No.”

Was his mind opening a crack?

“Well, it’s hard,” I said, still gently. “And then imagine that you’ve got to speak in this new language you’re learning in front of TV cameras and millions of people will hear you speak, and your bad accent, and maybe you don’t use all the right words. I can’t even imagine having to do that.”

My relative couldn’t either.

Listening, thinking can bridge divides

Now, my relative is not going to run right out and join a pro-DACA demonstration. But he’s thinking about at least one part of the immigration issue in a new way.

Can baseball bridge divides? Maybe. Not with banners but with personal interactions.

One conversation, one new idea planted. Starting right where you are, whenever you get an opening, whoever you can talk with.

It’s a long road, but it can lead to lasting change.


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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.


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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:

White.

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.


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