Race Reckoning and a White Third Culture Kid

The reckoning is how we walk into our story; the rumble is where we own it. The goal of the rumble is to get honest about the stories we’re making up about our struggles, to revisit, challenge, and reality-check these narratives.

Brené Brown, Rising Strong

Like many of you, I have thought a lot in these past weeks about race and racism. Also like many of you I have posted, reacted, posted again, thought again, reacted again, and finally stopped to catch my breath. It’s only as I’ve stopped to catch my breath and pray that I have felt a measure of peace in moving forward.

As I look at the purpose of Communicating Across Boundaries, it is not surprising that there have been many posts by myself and others around racism, immigrants, refugees, and loving the one who is other. It is the “what”at the heart of what I do. It is the “why” at the heart of what I believe, for if a gospel cannot transform me and our world from the inside out, what good is it? Why does it matter?

This time I post with even more care than usual. We have a huge portion of the population of the United States who are in pain over injustice and racism. It is a callous person indeed that doesn’t recognize this and respond with deep love and care.

As a third culture kid growing up in the developing world, I had my own unconscious privilege to reckon with, and once made aware, to answer for. This privilege took different forms. From thinking “they” weren’t as smart as me to happily enjoying a life that would have been far more difficult if I had been born a different color or had a different passport.

A reckoning is, by dictionary definition, a “settling of accounts.” So what does that mean for me, as a privileged, little white girl growing up in a country where people had varying shades of brown skin? What does that mean to someone who is a guest in a country that had a recent history of colonization by the British Empire? For me, this primarily means being honest.

It took me a long time to recognize my prejudice and even longer to be aware of my privilege. Some of my recognition of this came when I began to write. The more I wrote, the more I articulated my perspective, the more I was reminded that that’s what it was – my perspective. I viewed the world through a particular lens and that lens affected all my experiences. I walked through the world with different skin on, and skin made a huge difference.

As I moved on to writing Worlds Apart, I realized how my childhood was affected by growing up in a land where colonization ended only 13 years before I was born.

To give context, a delightful activity for me as a child was “high tea” at a hotel near my boarding school. During the summer months, my mom would take us to a hotel that served mini pastries and savory snacks on three-tiered China platters. Tea was served in a pot and each of us had a separate pot of tea. There were waiters dressed in turbans and starched white coats, attentive to every need. They treated me like the princess I thought I was. I loved it so much. It was later that I realized there was another side to my experience.

There was a darker side to high tea I would only confront much later. This pleasure that so delighted me as a little girl was a survival of Pakistan’s colonial past. The “British Raj” era, or the era of British rule, lasted for almost 100 years. It included the entire Indian subcontinent. Pakistan was born in 1948, and my parents arrived only five years later. I was completely blind to my privilege as a little, white, English-speaking girl. I cringe now at what I took for granted. 

Those who were white and English-speaking went to the head of the line. Those who were white and English-speaking could casually criticize Pakistanis without thought. We traveled where we pleased, we went first class or third class on trains –it was our choice. We were educated and would have a world of opportunity. I thank God for parents that had the conscience and determination to discipline me and teach me in various ways that I was not better than those around me. Still, with a strong personality and ego to match, those lessons sometimes fell on ears unwilling to listen and a heart that would need continual reminders that privilege is not something I earned or deserved.”

Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

Children grow up to be adults, and as an adult I’ve had to take responsibility for learning and growing in areas where I had a lot of pride and a lot of ignorance. That pride and ignorance led to wrong thinking and distorted theology.

Recently, I’ve focused more on the listening part of learning. My friend Caroline is one of the people I listen to. We became friends one cold, snowy evening as my husband and I made our way into a large room in New Hampshire for a church retreat. Caroline and her husband were helping to register us. It was pretty much love and friendhsip at first meeting. Caroline and I share a third culture kid background. She is ethnically South Asian, raised in several places in the world and a brilliant speaker and thinker. She said this in a sermon given in Wheaton, Illinois this past weekend:

Be on guard against cheap diversity! Cheap diversity settles for representation, cheap diversity is satisfied when the room looks colorful, Be on guard against cheap diversity. Representation is satisfied with people being present, justice says “I care about this person inside this room and outside of it.”  Justice says “We see and do not stand for the way that our society and our culture upholds oppression and racial violence.” Justice says “I won’t quit until all are seen as image bearers.” The kingdom cares about life and shalom and flourishing here and now. If one of us is in pain or grieving, we ALL are in pain and grieving. If one is experiencing injustice, then all are experiencing injustice.”

Caroline Lancaster

She then gives action steps to her listeners. With her permission I am sharing them here:

  • Get in proximity: how can you be in community or learn from a community different than your own?
  • What are your spheres of power or influence? How are you bearing the fruit of justice in those spaces? How can you distribute power, access, money, etc. to steward power and influence well?
  • Educate yourself about injustice in both your passport country and your host country. Don’t walk through the world oblivious.
  • If you are a Christian, choose a passage or a verse that anchors you in God’s heart for justice. Memorize it and meditate on it daily.

I will be on this long journey in the right direction for the rest of my life. Why? Because this is a journey directly related to who I am as a Christian. God cares about oppression. God cares about justice. God cares about hurting communities. God cares about color – he cared enough to create us in different skin tones with different hair textures.

Here are some things that continue to be a part of my long journey:

  1. Confession – I had to begin with asking God to heal my thoughts and my eyesight. It was and still is hard, but in searching my soul I have realized that this sin is against God and fellow man.
  2. Learn to recognize and confess my own bias. None of us is without bias and our bias comes from many things. But we can be crippled into wrong belief when we don’t recognize and confess it.
  3. Develop real friendships with those who don’t physically look like we do. We walk through the world with skin on. That skin is perceived differently depending on its color. I walk through the world as a white woman. I have many friends who walk through the world as Arabic speaking, Kurdish speaking, and Urdu speaking brown women and men. I have other friends who walk through the world as black, English speaking women and men. Jesus himself walked through the world as an Aramaic-speaking brown man. Tamika in a recent post on Taking Route says this about color “If you say you don’t see color, then it means there is something about me that you can’t acknowledge.” Developing real friendships and relationships with people that don’t look like us challenges us and changes us.
  4. Always, whether in leadership or as a follower, have a posture of humility and willingness to learn from people who look different than we do.
  5. Be prepared for that leadership to look different – leadership is culturally based and may feel uncomfortable for a while.
  6. Read and listen and learn. Let me say that again: Read and listen and learn. Then read and listen and learn again.
  7. We will get it wrong. Our proverbial old habits die slowly and often painfully, but if we remain open to correction and change, to true repentance when we hurt others, to not letting pride block us, we will continue to move forward.

In my journey I’m learning more about empathy and standing beside – not in front of – people. Most of all, I’m learning that this is critical to my faith and my belief that we are all made in the Image of God.

This is my long and important reckoning.


Note: Other voices that I’ve been listening to include:  Fellowship of St. Moses the Black, Osheta Moore, Black Coffee with White Friends, Caroline Lancaster, Eugene ChoArchbishop Sebastia TheodosiosElias Chacour, and Ramez Attalah.  They each offer different perspectives based on where they are from and where they live. I have been continually humbled as I hear and read perspectives outside of my own sphere.

[Picture Credit: Pixabay https://pixabay.com/photos/children-road-distant-supportive-1149671/

A Necessary Burden

Eight years ago my oldest daughter and I watched three movies in three nights. The first was a documentary called Central Park Five. The second was Fruitvale Station, and the third was 12 Years a Slave. Thus began my journey into what I didn’t know and what I still need to learn about race in the United States.

During these eight years of learning, God has also gifted our extended family with different cultures, colors, and ethnicities through marriage and partners, and so this learning has become a necessary, important, and good burden.

I am a slow learner, and even when I am confronted with documented truth, I want to question it if it’s uncomfortable. And for me, this has not been comfortable.

Osheta Moore, a peacemaker invites those of us who want to repent, respond, and reconcile to say and work on these three things:

I’m sorry. I’m listening. I’m learning.

It is in that spirit that I write this.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry it took me so long. I’m sorry that I had so many questions. I’m sorry that too many times it’s about me. I’m sorry I haven’t recognized my part in a system that puts down and wounds.

I’m listening.

I’m listening to important voices like Osheta, Latasha Morrison, Esau McCaulley, and Black Coffee with White Friends. Perhaps more importantly, I’m listening to over 60 community health worker students who represent communities of color, to a colleague who is a gentle guide in the process, and to people who I have the privilege of calling my friends.

I’m learning.

The books in the picture below are my companions in the journey. I have read Just Mercy, Notes from No Man’s Land, The New Jim Crow, and Between the World and Me. I just began The Warmth of Other Sons. These are not easy books. But if they are not easy for me to read about these circumstances and events, imagine the atrocity of living through them? My discomfort is a minor piece of the journey. My discomfort helps me to reckon with a history that needs reckoning. I’ve had the honor of joining the board of Asian Women for Health, an organization that I’ve long worked with. This takes my connection to a new level where I can learn from leaders in the Asian community as well as work alongside them in things that affect them specifically, the most recent being the many attacks against the community since the onset of COVID-19.

In my cultural competency work, I had a foundation to begin this work, but because my focus was on immigrants and refugees, the black experience in America was something I had put in the background. My inner dialogue was “I care about these other things. I don’t have the energy to care about everything. Culturally responsive care is my area of focus.” The problem with that thinking is that immigrants and refugees are entering into a system in the United States that privileges whites. So if they are any shade darker than me, they will enter into an experience that goes beyond cultural incompetency and enters racism. The other problem is that racial inequities are documented and serious in healthcare, and as a nurse I have a mandate to explore what that means and how I can help change it.

Latasha Morrison is a prophetic, compelling guide as she asks us to consider these “don’ts”:

  • Don’t deflect racism
  • Don’t defend racism
  • Don’t deny racism

Latasha invites us to listen in humility to black people who have lived experience of racism and racial inequities. More than that, she invites Christians specifically into a better way, a way of joining the hard work of justice and reconciliation.

Finally….

The movie Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood) is a bitter old man living out his years in a neighborhood that has changed from working-class white to Hmong and Chinese.  He does not like it and makes no pretense of civility and no apology for being an open racist. No one is safe from this behavior, particularly the Hmong mother who lives next door and who is victim to Kowalski’s growling and racial slurs every time they happen to be on the porch at the same time.

In the course of the movie, his character changes and he gradually makes peace with the neighborhood, getting to know the teenagers who live next door and becoming both friend and protector. A scene showing him at a Hmong feast eating food he has never seen before (and still makes no pretense of liking) is a beautiful image of the grudging respect he is gaining for these neighbors. Ultimately Kowalski gives up his life for these neighbors. It is a remarkable, unexpected story.

Kowalski didn’t back down. Once he began the journey, he continued it to the end of his life, which was shorter than he may have initially thought it would be. Like Walt Kowalski, to join this journey is to recognize that I can’t back down. I’ll be on this it for the rest of my life. It is a necessary burden.


Articles:

On Viruses

“There’s really no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Arundhati Roy

I opened my email this morning to find a message from a friend who I’ve known and worked with for over ten years. The message was asking me to weigh in on a public service announcement (PSA). The subject of the email said just this:

“Anti-racism campaign PSA ideas – need your feedback by the end of today.”

In the body of the email were three scenarios. My job was to read them and comment on which one I thought would be most effective in reaching the public. She had asked for a quick turn around time so before I did anything else, I responded.

It was after I responded that the weight of the email hit me. My friend is from Taiwan. She has lived here for years and is an amazing community member and activist for Asian women’s health. We’ve worked on some extraordinary projects together through the years, projects that don’t make the news but have a powerful effect on the community.

In the midst of a pandemic crisis, my friend is having to worry about and work on an anti-racism campaign. She holds the dual burden of protecting her family and community’s health along with the weighty burden of protecting their safety

I know the excuses. I know the fear that is gripping people. I know what I do when I fear, when I’m insecure, when I want to blame – and I’m quite sure that what I feel is symptomatic of the rest of us. But it is so wrong.

I appeal to all of us, but especially those of us who are white and may have friends that are crafting and spreading memes and messages that spread laughter and racism. We must open our mouths, our keyboards, and whatever other ways we communicate to speak up and out against this racism.

The focus on anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment comes from the myth that the corona virus is a Chinese virus.

Here are the facts: This corona virus was unknown until an outbreak in Wuhan, China in late 2019. “Shortly after the epidemic began, Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of SARS-CoV-2 and made the data available to researchers worldwide. The resulting genomic sequence data has shown that Chinese authorities rapidly detected the epidemic and that the number of COVID-19 cases have been increasing because of human to human transmission after a single introduction into the human population.” [Source: Scripps Research Institute]

Rather than blaming China, we need to begin thanking them for identifying the virus and going to massive lengths to quarantine a huge population. Yes, their government had missteps (just as most governments did and are daily facing the consequences of those missteps.) This piece is not about government action or inaction. It’s about the wrongs that are being committed against a group of people under the guise of a virus.

Here are some truths about racism: It is a virus. It has to find a host. It cannot be spread without people -it lacks the ability to thrive and reproduce outside of a host body. Racism can mutate. It takes root in a willing host, then it mutates and changes, depending on the particular issue or people group. The racism virus is also like other viruses in that it is unsophisticated. It lacks the ability to live independently. It can be invisible, but it manifests itself in outward, visible symptoms.

The outward symptoms we are seeing of this virus are many. Spitting on people, physical violence, racial slurs, yelling ‘there’s a corona’ as they pass by someone who appears to be Asian, memes that attack a specific group, hate mail, invisible blame that comes out in subtle ways are a few of this disease.

And here’s the thing – Corona virus will eventually go away. But the virus of racism? That’s a lot harder. It takes root and stays in its host a long, long time. It can’t be treated with traditional cures and medicine. Instead, it needs to be rooted out with repentance and healed in relationship.

So here is my plea to all of us: May we not be willing hosts to this virus. May we see it before it takes root and run far away. May we examine our hearts and souls. May we refuse to pass on memes and cartoons that can damage others. May we learn the facts about the illness. May we call or email our friends who are from Chinese or other Asian families and check up on them because let’s face it – the American public are not good at distinguishing where people are from – right now, if you even look remotely Asian, you can be a target. May we always be ready to speak up and speak out in support of someone who is facing racism in a store, on a street, or in a public place.

Most of all, may our inner examination of heart and soul continue – where does racism find a willing host and what am I going to do about it?


“We’ve all been exposed. Not necessarily to the virus (maybe…who even knows). We’ve all been exposed BY the virus. Corona is exposing us. Exposing our weak sides. Exposing our dark sides. Exposing what normally lays far beneath the surface of our souls, hidden by the invisible masks we wear. Now exposed by the paper masks we can’t hide far enough behind. Corona is exposing our addiction to comfort. Our obsession with control. Our compulsion to hoard. Our protection of self. Corona is peeling back our layers. Tearing down our walls. Revealing our illusions. Leveling our best-laid plans. Corona is exposing the gods we worship: Our health Our hurry Our sense of security. Our favorite lies. Our secret lusts. Our misplaced trust. Corona is calling everything into question: What is the church without a building? What is my worth without an income? How do we plan without certainty? How do we love despite risk? Corona is exposing me. My mindless numbing. My endless scrolling. My careless words. My fragile nerves. We’ve all been exposed. Our junk laid bare. Our fears made known. The band-aid torn. The masquerade done. So what now? What’s left? “

Clean hands Clear eyes Tender hearts. What Corona reveals, God can heal. Come Lord Jesus. Have mercy on us. As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ.


*I do not know the author of what I have printed. If any of you do, please contact me and I will give credit where credit is due.

A Life Overseas – “But they aren’t as smart as I am”….

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As a public health nurse working with underserved communities in Massachusetts in cancer prevention, I’ve been greatly challenged as we look at racism and inequality in communities that we serve. We are doing this because the evidence of health disparities in non-white communities is overwhelming. One of the ways to begin to address this is by seeing our programs and communities through the lens of racial equity, looking at why, historically, these communities have had worse health outcomes. Studies show that much of this is a result of prejudice and bias on the part of health care professionals; some of it conscious, but much of it unconscious.

It is hard, hard work. Like looking into a mirror and seeing the flaws on my skin, I come face to face with my own prejudices and my own wrong beliefs. I have continually had to confront my deep need for forgiveness and healing.

In every area of life, racism, prejudice, and bias exist – and that includes missions. We are an incomplete body when all we see is white leadership; when our missions conferences are overwhelmingly led by speakers who look like we do. We are a crippled group if we are only led by those who look like us, think like us, and act like us. And we are desperately in need of grace and forgiveness if we think this is okay.

In writing about racism and prejudice, I must first acknowledge my own inadequacy in talking about these things; there are far better and wiser voices, but in obedience I’m opening the door to a conversation that I pray will lead to something good. I also must admit that it is not an easy conversation to have, but it is too important to avoid.

I grew up as a privileged, little white girl in a country where people had varying shades of brown skin. It took me a long time to recognize my prejudice and even longer to be aware of my privilege. Some of my recognition of this came when I began to write. The more I wrote, the more I articulated my perspective, the more I was reminded that that’s what it was – my perspective. I viewed the world through a particular lens and that lens affected all my experiences.

As I moved on to writing Passages Through Pakistan, I realized how my childhood was affected by growing up in a land that had been colonized not many years before I came into the world.

There was a darker side to high tea I would only confront much later. This pleasure that so delighted me as a little girl was a survival of Pakistan’s colonial past. The “British Raj” era, or the era of British rule, lasted for almost 100 years. It included the entire Indian subcontinent. Pakistan was born in 1948, and my parents arrived only five years later. I was completely blind to my privilege as a little, white, English-speaking girl. I cringe now at what I took for granted. 

Those who were white and English-speaking went to the head of the line. Those who were white and English-speaking could casually criticize Pakistanis without thought. We traveled where we pleased, we went first class or third class on trains –it was our choice. We were educated and would have a world of opportunity. I thank God for parents that had the conscience and determination to discipline me and teach me in various ways that I was not better than those around me. Still, with a strong personality and ego to match, those lessons sometimes fell on ears unwilling to listen and a heart that would need continual reminders that privilege is not something I earned or deserved.”*

When I went back overseas, I was no longer a child. As an adult I had to confront some of my ugly and just plain wrong thoughts. Among them were these subtle, and deeply dangerous thoughts….


Read the rest here at A Life Overseas. 

From Privilege to Responsibility

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In the United States, Charlottesville, VA has occupied the top news for over 48 hours. This is not a cause for celebration, but a tragic reality where a rally largely controlled by alt right racists turned violent and ugly. The city is now mourning the death of a young woman who died needlessly as the result of a car attack.

The racism displayed was blatant, proudly worn without hoods or disguises. There seemed to be no shame, no lowering of the eyes, no regret.  Instead, it is animal like and brutal.

What have we come to?” So many shake wounded heads and sigh as they voice those words. Alternatively, many rightly respond that this is nothing new; that if you are unaware of the racism in this country then your eyesight needs to be healed.

“It is not the episodic marches and rallies that define white supremacy, it it is the ordinary, dull ways that society props up the racial caste system that lead to the most egregious offenses. American citizens, particularly white people, have to realize how they unintentionally allow Charlottesville and white supremacy to happen.” From RAANetwork.org

I am on my own journey and have much to learn, but I have learned this: As a white woman I must speak up. I must do these three things:

  • Point out injustice
  • Recognize I walk through the world differently than my friends who are people of color.
  • Influence people in my space

I wrote the words below exactly a month ago and I am reposting. Why? Because in my current reality, it’s the only thing I know how to do. That and to pray those ancient words: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on me, a sinner. 

***** 

“There was a darker side to high tea I would only confront much later. This pleasure that so delighted me as a little girl was a survival of Pakistan’s colonial past. The “British Raj” era, or the era of British rule, lasted for almost 100 years. It included the entire Indian subcontinent. Pakistan was born in 1948, and my parents arrived only five years later. I was completely blind to my privilege as a little, white, English-speaking girl. I cringe now at what I took for granted. 

Those who were white and English-speaking went to the head of the line. Those who were white and English-speaking could casually criticize Pakistanis without thought. We traveled where we pleased, we went first class or third class on trains –it was our choice. We were educated and would have a world of opportunity. I thank God for parents that had the conscience and determination to discipline me and teach me in various ways that I was not better than those around me. Still, with a strong personality and ego to match, those lessons sometimes fell on ears unwilling to listen and a heart that would need continual reminders that privilege is not something I earned or deserved.” from Passages Through Pakistan © Doorlight Publications, March 2017

In recent years, I have done a lot of thinking about how I view the world. Part of this came as I began to write. The more I wrote, the more I articulated my perspective, I was reminded that that’s what it was – my perspective. I viewed the world through a particular lens and that lens affected all my experiences. As I moved on to writing Passages Through Pakistan, an excerpt of which I’ve included above, I realized how my childhood was affected by growing up in a land that had been colonized not many years before I came into the world.

Another significant part of this journey has come through friendships with, and reading about, people whose life experience has been a stark contrast to my own, due to nothing other than the color of their skin. In other words, I realized that I experienced privilege of which I was completely unaware.

when our eyes are open, we can make wrong situations right.

I know many of us who are white may get tired of words and phrases, that there are times when we want to shout “Not me! I’m not like that!” when we are confronted by stories of racism and bias, but I’ve been learning how important it is to remember that I, as a white woman, walk through the world differently than people of color. I see the world through a lens of privilege. And because I walk through the world differently, I have a responsibility. It’s not a responsibility born of guilt, it’s a responsibility born of privilege.

In the words of Courtney Ariel from Sojourners Magazine:

“Privilege means that you owe a debt. You were born with it. You didn’t ask for it. And you didn’t pay for it either. No one is blaming you for having it. You are lovely, human, and amazing. Being a citizen of a society requires work from everyone within that society. It is up to you whether you choose to acknowledge the work that is yours to do. It is up to you whether you choose to pay this debt and how you choose to do so.”

It is with this in mind that I want to share a short, three-minute video. In this video three things stood out to me. They are clear and they are actionable.

  • Point out injustice
  • Recognize we walk through the world differently
  • Influence people in our space

We think we can’t change the world, but, when our eyes are open, we can make wrong situations right.

“And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remain silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.” Elie Wiesel

There is a verse in the Old Testament that I learned when I was a teenager. I have memorized it, quoted it, and written about it. Because it is what distinguishes empty religion from true faith. The prophet Micah has been asking rhetorical questions about sacrifice, wondering what God requires. In the verse I love, he answers his own question and the words have been recited and inscribed through time.

He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God.

And that’s exactly what we are called to do: Do Justly. Love Mercy. Walk humbly. 

Note – this article has been updated since it was originally posted to include new thoughts and new links.

#Hashtags and Relationships

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It’s difficult to write today, but it would be worse to keep silent.

“I don’t want to become a #hashtag. Becoming a #hashtag is a very real fear in my community.” 

Yesterday at the end of a long and good meeting, a few of of us began talking. The conversation was around race and privilege, power and perspective. It was rich and challenging. It was a Haitian friend who began the conversation by talking about being a hashtag.

She was referring to the common social media practice of writing or tweeting about shooting victims by using the # (hashtag) symbol. As a first generation Haitian immigrant, Maddie* falls under the ‘black’ category. She talks with her black friends about being a hashtag, a victim of the endemic problem of being black and being shot. They all worry about this.

“I think about this” she said. “I think about how I would be described and validated –‘she baby sat for kids down the street. She was a straight-A student. Her family was known in the community.'” We talked about the stress that she feels daily; the thought she has to put into decisions; the orientation she has to give to Haitians who are new to this country and don’t know what it is to be black in America.

I don’t know about you, but I never worry about becoming a random victim of a police shooting. I don’t worry about being stereotyped as someone who is dangerous. I don’t worry that my life would have to be validated by how “good” I was in order to justify that I shouldn’t have been shot. I don’t worry that I will become a hashtag on someone’s twitter feed.

My heart is heavy. For so many of my friends, none of this is theory. It is daily life.

I realize that I am privileged to know the people I do, to live and work in places where diversity is the norm, not the exception. Because you look at life differently when your friends come from all over the world. You experience life in new ways when you rub shoulders with a black woman who grew up in Roxbury, a Haitian woman who moved to this country as a child, a man from Malawi who sits in the cubicle next to you every day.

I’m convinced that the best way forward for individuals is through relationships. When black Americans are your friends, your conversations look different. While I can never know their reality, I can listen and learn about what is harmful and what is helpful. While I cannot walk in their shoes, I can learn what it is to walk beside them. While I will not experience their particular sorrows and pain, I can ask them questions and pursue cultural humility.

So I have no answers other than to challenge all of us on the value of having friends who look different than we do. If people all around me mirror my skin color, my hair color, my language, and my culture then it is difficult to see the world through the eyes of another.

My friend Jody writes from a perspective of living in a cross-cultural marriage and learning to navigate “a complicated world of race relations while living as the only interracial family in a small Midwestern town for eight years.” Jody is a bridge-builder and has written an excellent and practical book called Pondering Privilege -toward a deeper understanding of whiteness, race, and faith.

In her first chapter, Jody extends a call for cultural humility. She says this:

Instead of “Get over it”, cultural humility responds. “I don’t understand. Can you help me understand more deeply?”

Instead of replying with some variation of “quit whining” to someone who feels wronged, cultural humilty responds, “I’m so sorry this hurts you. How can I walk alongside you in this? What do I need to learn?” 

Instead of saying “Why do you keep causing problems?”, cultural humility responds, I’m sorry I keep hurting you. It seems like I’m missing something big. How would you recommend I start to better understand your experience?” 

Instead of keeping quiet because of cultural ignorance, cultural humility responds, “I’m a little embarassed that I don’t know much about your background. I don’t even know how to ask you questions about it, but I would love to learn more.” 

 

In closing I too want to extend a call – a call to build bridges and tear down walls. Every day we see the results of a fractured world; a world of people unwilling to listen and at the ready to defend and construct barriers. I am utterly convinced that we are called to build bridges, to tear down walls, to mend fences, to move forward in relationships. Indeed, there is no other way forward. 

The Painful Realities of White Privilege by Jody Wiley Fernando

You can buy Pondering Privilege here. 

*Not her real name.

Unequal Treatment

These past two days I’ve been at a summit on race and equity. Specifically, A Call to Government and Community. The conference goes across spheres and participants represent housing, justice, immigration, education, the arts, and health. It has been full of stories and ideas –ideas that I agree with and ideas that I don’t agree with. Overall, I feel privileged to be a part of this conversation.

Taking ownership for my part in racism is not easy. There are times when I think “Well, I didn’t do that” or “I don’t think that.” But, as difficult as it may be for me to admit it, I am part of a bigger picture that benefits white people.

In a piece called “When white people don’t know they’re being white” Jody Fernando says this:

When white people don’t recognize how our position of cultural dominance influences us – when we don’t know that we’re being white – we can be like bulls in a china shop, throwing everything in our wake askew without even realizing what we’ve done. For us, this understanding begins with learning a perspective of cultural humility and seeking to understand another’s experience without judgment.  May more of us boldly begin to walk on this long and winding path.

Part of what the last two days have been then, is a soul-searching on what this means to me personally and professionally.

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In 2002 the Institute of Medicine released a report called Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health Care.

The report was a landmark study that documented the disparities that racial and ethnic minorities experience even when their insurance and income are the same. Prior to the study, many thought that the narrative of disparities verbalized by both patients and health professionals was just that – a narrative. Or they thought that it was about health care access. The conventional wisdom was that if you give a person health care access the disparities will go away.

In fact, they found this to be categorically false. In compiling hundreds of studies across the nation, documented disparities were found in almost every area of health care. The results were absolutely clear: Racial and ethnic minorities get poorer quality of health care then white people. Here are just a few of the disparities that were found:

Cover of "Unequal Treatment: Confronting ...

  • Receipt of appropriate cancer treatment
  • Pain control – Minority patients more likely to be under-medicated for pain than white patients (65% vs. 50%), more likely to have severity of pain underestimated by physicians
  • Mental health services – “plagued by disparities.” One study indicates 44% of White English speakers to 27.8% of Blacks received treatment after a diagnosis of depression.
  • Heart procedures – including bypass surgery
  • Diabetes – from diagnosis to amputations disparities were found in diabetic care
  • Pediatric Care – Less satisfaction, cite poorer communication, perception of lack of response

It is a thorough report that shows many factors contributing to these disparities, some of which are stereotypes, unconscious bias, and lack of cultural competency. The report gave a number of recommendations and also demonstrated that we have a long way to go to provide equal treatment for the minority populations in the United States.

And that brings me to Tuskegee. 

Between 1932 and 1972 the public health service of the United States enrolled 600 poor, black men into a study to document the effects of untreated syphilis. Approximately 400 of these men had syphilis before the study began. The men enrolled thought they were receiving free health care from the government and they were promised food, burial insurance, and medical care for participating in the study. They were merely told they had ‘bad blood’ and were never treated for the disease. In the early 1940’s Penicillin had become a standard and effective method of treatment for the disease. None of these men received penicillin, in fact – treatment was never offered for 40 years. The study is known as the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

It has been 42 years since Tuskegee and to this day, it is difficult to get African Americans to participate in research studies. It does not take a rocket scientist to wonder why.

It was 30 years after Tuskegee that the report Unequal Treatment was released.

“For a serious offense,” writes psychiatrist Aaron Lazare “such as a betrayal of trust or public humiliation, an immediate apology misses the mark. It demeans the event. Hours, days, weeks, or even months may go by before both parties can integrate the meaning of the event and its impact on the relationship. The care and thought that goes into such apologies dignifies the exchange. For offenses whose impact is calamitous to individuals, groups, or nations, the apology may be delayed by decades and offered by another generation.”*

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I am a white woman. Anyone who reads this blog and has seen any pictures knows this. I did not grow up in this country and did not think about race – ever. I was raised as a privileged white minority in a country that still had memories of British occupation where whites ruled and were regularly sent to the head of the line. I now work as a nurse in public health with minority populations and regularly confront issues of racism and unequal treatment in health care.

The disparities that happen in health care have historically been wrong. The disparities that occur these many years later are wrong. There is no other word for it. They are wrong and a corporate apology is in order.

And I want to apologize. It doesn’t matter that I was not involved with Tuskegee. It doesn’t matter that I was not one of the care givers in any of the studies documented for Unequal Treatment. What matters is that I am part of a health care system that has routinely discriminated against people because of their color; a system that has treated people unequally based on their outward appearance, not their presenting symptoms.

To use some of the words of Aaron Lazare who I quoted above – these offenses were calamitous to individuals, to groups, to our nation as a whole.

In Notes from No Man’s Land, author Eula Biss talks about being a teacher at a public school in Harlem. A young boy a foot taller than her hissed at her in the hallway. As she sat in the principal’s office, waiting while the principal went to “hunt him down,” another kid stepped into the office. She writes the following about the interaction:

“I’m sorry I sexually harassed you.” I stared at him. He wasn’t the same kid. “But it wasn’t you.” I said finally. “Yeah,” he said as he pulled down his baseball cap and started to walk away, “but it might have been my cousin.”*

So today, as the conversation on race and justice is at the forefront of my mind, I borrow from the last sentence of Eula’s book. I apologize for the unequal treatment that is a present part of our health system. I apologize for Tuskegee. Because no – it wasn’t me — but it might have been my cousin.

*As quoted in Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss page 189

Note: this blog post was adapted from a piece written in February, 2014