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.


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Also published on Medium.