Moving Beyond Racism

Is it possible to get over our racism? As the events in Ferguson, MO continue to unfold, one has to wonder if it’s even possible for racism to be relegated to the pages of history. It’s been 150 years since the US civil war which was fought to maintain the institution of slavery. It’s been fifty years since the great civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1964. Yet, in 2014, the neighborhoods of many cities are deeply divided by race. Institutional racism that impacts the way Blacks and whites are sentenced differently for the same crimes remains consistent. New immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa face multiple levels of prejudice and racism. Can it ever end?

I grew up in a rural area of Western Pennsylvania. While there were some Black people in the small cities nearby, everyone where I lived was of European descent. Mostly, people were of German or Eastern European heritage. The first African-American person I knew was in high school. There was one girl who was Black in my high school. We were friendly with each other but were in different social groups. I know there were some African-American students at my college, but none lived on the same floor of my dormitory. There were no African-American people in graduate school, but there were a couple of Black people from Africa. Essentially, I spent my early life, including my educational experience, with white people. While I had values for respecting all people and treating others as equal, I had no awareness of the cultural assumptions I made each day. Why did I need to be aware of the assumptions I made based on race and culture? My world was made up of people with cultural values very much like mine – and they were all white.

After I was ordained, my very white worldview was challenged. There were the occasional people I encountered as a hospital chaplain who were African-American. It was an inner city hospital. I came to understand that African-American people often understood things like the concept of family and relationships much more broadly than I did. I also worked in Appalachia with the rural poor and came to understand the dynamics of race differently in the mountains and hollows of that region of the country. In these settings, I came to understand something of the uniqueness of worldview that is based in race and culture.

My real education about race came when I was appointed as administrator of an international missions program. As a denominational official, I attended a series of workshops on race with other denominational leaders. This was in the late 1980’s. The group of us was mostly white. There were speakers who talked about things like white privilege and power in society and sociological concepts about majority populations and minorities. It was generally informative and provided some insights. But that part of the training was simply informational. What struck me at a gut level was what came later: hearing people who were African-American, Latino, and Asian speak about their life experiences. While some of the speakers were people I didn’t know, others were people I was working with and got along with well, or at least I thought.

Over the next year or two, I sought out some of my colleagues who spoke that day and had private conversations with them. One was a African-American minister from Detroit. We sat for a few hours one evening during a conference in Houston talking over scotch about race, culture, and our different life experiences. While we found some common ground because of my family’s history as Eastern European immigrants, it became clear that because I was a white, educated man, I had far fewer limitations to face. Another colleague who was very insightful was of Chinese descent from Singapore. He shared with me some of the experience of colonialization and his sense of the loss of culture and identity. There were several others I spoke with as well during those years of my life.

I came to understand what racism was really about and the ways it impacted the lives of people by talking with others, developing friendships, and being willing to allow what other people shared with me to change me. That process has continued over the years as I became friends and worked with Native American people in the Southwest and ended up as part of a bi-racial couple with someone who is Chinese from Hong Kong.

Do I still make assumptions based on my white worldview and values? Of course I do. But I’m not embarrassed by it any longer and can generally joke about being a middle-aged white guy. More importantly, I don’t view my cultural view as right and others as wrong. I’m generally aware that there are multiple ways of looking at the same thing. It’s all relative.

Recently research shows that over 40% of white people in the United States have never had a friend outside of their own race. That percentage increases in the South and Mid-West. Among non-whites, only 25% have friends limited to their own race. For Latinos/Hispanics, only 10% report having friends limited to their own race.

One of the most important ways that we can move beyond racism is to meet people and become friends with those who are different from ourselves. By getting to know other people, spending time with them socially, we’ll come to see that, on the one hand, people are people and that we have more in common with each other than we have differences. On the other hand, we’ll find that our differences can expand our worldview and enable us to appreciate life from multiple perspectives.

If you have no friends who are different from yourself, why is that? Can you get to know others who are different from you in your neighborhood, house of worship, children’s school, or other groups? Living in a bubble will only help to perpetuate the heritage of racism that has marred history and ruined lives for far too long. Racism will end when we bring it to an end in our own lives by expanding our circle of friends to include those different from ourselves.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Ferguson, Racism, and Overcoming Fear

The job was taking much longer than expected. I didn’t know enough about it to understand the problem. It was clear to me that above the drop ceiling in the family room, a bundle of cables and various electronic boxes had been stashed out of sight. Somehow, this rat’s nest of cables was preventing the completion of the installation of high speed cable for Internet service to our new home.

The technician was clearly dedicated. I offered him something to drink. After a few hours, I asked if he wanted a sandwich or some fruit. He declined but made a comment that we weren’t like other people in the area. I explained that we had just moved to this community in St. Louis County from Pittsburgh. We knew nothing about the area. We were looking for a ranch style home so that we could maneuver my mother in her wheel chair around the house. That’s how we ended up in that neighborhood.

The technician, an African-American man in this 30’s, said that he couldn’t tell me much about the area. “I only come here for work. I wouldn’t come in my own car, just in the company van.” Of course, I asked why. He explained, “Well, if I did, I know I’d get pulled over by the police.” I smiled. “So, you’re telling me this is one of those areas where you can get pulled over for driving while being black.” He let out a hearty laugh. “I didn’t know white people knew about that stuff.” I apologized that this kind of stuff went on and said that if I knew it earlier, I wouldn’t have moved there. Over time, I came to understand that the problem wasn’t just in the incorporated village I lived in.

For four years, we lived in St. Louis County. Our home was about a 15 minute drive to Ferguson. We lived south of the airport and Ferguson is east of the airport. I was surprised by the racism I witnessed while living in St. Louis County. My mother’s home care aides were all African-American women. Every one of them was routinely pulled over by the police as they came to our home. They had their driver’s licenses, registration, and insurance checked, and then let go. They told me that the police never gave a reason for pulling them over. I spoke to the pastor of a local church about it. He was a white guy from back East like me. He explained that people in the white suburbs considered it a crime when someone made them nervous. “And they get really nervous when they see someone Black in their neighborhood, even when it’s their next door neighbor’s cleaning lady.”

As I’ve watched the news on the events in Ferguson unfold following the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer, I can honestly say that I’m not surprised. I’m not surprised the shooting happened. I’m also not surprised by the reactions of local officials and the residents. The only thing surprising to me is that this didn’t happen sooner.

Let me be clear: this kind of racism is not confined to St. Louis County. I experience it in Atlanta as well. Shortly after we moved to Atlanta, we were trying to figure out which Costco was most convenient to our home. We went to one. It was clear that in doing so that we moved past some invisible divide that separated integrated DeKalb County from an all white area. It wasn’t surprising when a year later that area incorporated into a separate city so as not to be part of DeKalb County’s majority Black government. That’s not the only part of metro-Atlanta dominated by white-flight. Further, it’s commonly believed that referenda to expand public transit in Atlanta routinely fail as ballot measures because predominantly white suburbs don’t want African-Americans to have easy access to suburban neighborhoods.

On some level, it would be easy to say that racism is just a white-on-black problem. I live in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Like any urban area, we have had some problems with crime: burglaries, theft of items from parked cars, and stolen property. What surprises me is that the calls for harshest treatment of young Black men in our neighborhood come from other African American people. As one woman said to me, “Ya gotta know how to treat the Black boys. Ya gotta hit ‘em hard so that they understand.” This was from an African-American mother living around the corner from me. Living where I do today, it’s clear that the messages of racism have been internalized and accepted. There are times when I think African-American people can be hard on each other in ways white people don’t treat each other.

It’s very naive to assume that just because an African-American family has lived in the White House for six years that the United States has gotten past racism. Instead, it seems to me that the visibility of successful African-American professionals results in the re-entrenchment of racism. The success of some African-American people taps into some deep fear about what could happen to white people as people of African descent succeed. When any minority group that’s been oppressed or marginalized moves into the mainstream of society, change does occur. But is it reasonable to be afraid of change? To fear that things become different? My answer is no.

Change is inevitable. Just as clothing styles from my teenage years have changed, just as we transitioned from one party-line telephone at home to each person carrying a cell phone, just as automobiles have become increasing fuel efficient, so all things change over time.

It seems to me that a primary root of prejudice is fear. Fear of those different from oneself often undergirds prejudice. But today, we face issues not limited to prejudice. Today, it has once again become acceptable to express racial hatred toward a people of African, Latin, and Asian descent. Too often we hear voices in society that prey on those fears and stoke the fires that lead to hatred. If there is evil in the world, this is surely a symptom of that evil. Tragically, many people of good will fail to stand against the social evil of racism.

Ultimately, I understand fear as a spiritual issue. As a Christian, I return to the words of Jesus found in Mark 5: 36 and Luke 8: 50: “Fear is useless. What is needed is trust.” Our fears of others, in whatever form those fears are experienced, are useless. It doesn’t do us any good at all. Fear leads us to paralysis. It shuts us down. If we find the ability to respond out of fear, it’s generally to lash out. It’s not productive.

Trust does not mean we look at life naively. Instead, living with trust requires a certain level of awareness and rationality. Trusting that other groups of people want to lead productive and meaningful lives as I do, I don’t view other groups with fear. Instead, I pay attention to behavior from individual people that may be untrustworthy. To put this in another context, it’s unlikely for me to have reason to distrust the Black teenager walking through my neighborhood wearing a hoodie and baggie pants. A person walking down the street with ear buds listening to music hasn’t done anything to merit concern, no matter how the person is dressed. But there are others I may have good reason to approach with caution, like financial services companies or politicians who have clearly demonstrated that their intent is not the benefit of others.

As a middle-age white guy, I know I can’t solve the problem of racism. But I can make sure that I don’t add to the problem by buying into the irrational fears that are a foundation for racism. I can also use my voice to speak out about the realities of racism in the world and make sure others pay attention to it. That’s what I’m doing right now. Racism is real in the United States today. It’s both personal (aimed at specific people in specific situations) and systemic (like white-flight communities that work to remain racially pure).

What’s the solution? By treating others I meet with respect and dignity rather than with distrust. When I saw that the high speed Internet technician was faced with a job that entailed much more than a routine installation, I knew he deserved a break. He worked on the installation for about five hours. I did the decent thing. I offered him a drink as well as a snack. I’d do that for anyone in my home in a similar situation.

Racism has created a systemic reality in which there are multiple standards for the treatment of people. I could drive freely down the streets of St. Louis County and was never stopped by police. But a different standard applied to the Black people who came to my home. That’s the America we live in. It’s not the America I want to live in. We can do better.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Robin Williams: The Sad Clown?

I heard the news while driving: Robin Williams was dead. The apparent cause of death was suicide. The next day it was confirmed that Mr. Williams had killed himself.

Since the first announcement on August 11, we were reminded that Mr. Williams struggled with depression and had recently been hospitalized for rehabilitation. Many of us struggle to imagine how someone who seemed so full of life and who could create humor out of any situation would be depressed. In this short time, I’ve heard and seen various media commentaries on humor and depression. Some commentators have asked if comedians have a higher incidence of depression than the general population. Others have used the metaphor of “the sad clown” to describe comics with depression. I’ve wondered how many of these commentators have bothered to learn about the mental illness commonly called depression.

In the United States, the term depression is not a diagnostic term. Instead, there’s a group of what are called mood disorders. Under the category of mood disorders are found several depressive disorders. Major depressive disorder (also called clinical depression) is most common. But there’s also melancholic depression, psychotic major depression, catatonic depression, postpartum depression, seasonal affect disorder, dysthymia, and a few others. The other category of mood disorders is comprised of the the various forms of bi-polar disorder, which also have episodes of depression.

Approximately 9% of Americans experience some form of depression. While anxiety disorders are the most common mental health diagnosis in the United States, the depressive disorders come in as second. Among more than 2/3 of those who commit suicide, depression is somehow involved. Depression is much more common than most people realize.

Depression isn’t about feeling blue or sad. Most people who are depressed report feeling not much of anything. They are tired, disengaged, have no motivation, and can’t find a way to become engaged. Activities they’d normally enjoy aren’t interesting; things that would normally draw their interest seem meaningless; everything that they do seems hollow or empty. For many, the most basic feeling is something like, “Why bother. It really doesn’t matter anyway. It’s just too much effort.”

The most successful treatment is a combination of approaches. The first approach is typically medication to help stabilize the production of neurotransmitter levels in a person’s brain to help the person actually feel again. Too often, people think that medication alone is the solution. Typically, it helps relieve the symptoms but doesn’t change the overall problem. The second step is the right kind of therapy. There are a few well researched counseling approaches that have been proved to be effective. This is one area in which psychology has a great deal of evidence. Specific cognitive approaches that teach a person to think differently about life along with proper medication lead to significant improvement in depressive related disorders in over 2/3 of people. The last has to do with life changes: diet, exercise, and practices like meditation. Diet, exercise, and meditation are “brain healthy” activities that reduce the chance of relapsing into depressive symptoms.

In this mix of treatments, the spiritual dimension of life is often helpful in resolving depression. When someone, with the help of spiritual practice, is able to affirm the goodness of life in the midst of struggle or find hope for the future, there is movement away from depressive symptoms. While people with depression can be encouraged and supported toward positive outlooks, ultimately it’s something that each person needs to embrace for self. But that’s really not different from when one attempts to integrate spirituality with any other life experience. Yet, discovering that life can be meaningful or purposeful is essentially the anti-thesis of depression. Meaning, purpose, and hope for the future are all hallmarks of the spiritual journey.

I don’t know what Robin Williams did to treat his depression. I don’t know what was working or not working or anything about his situation. I expect that the media will portray a variety of sensationalized facts that are out of context. What I am sure of is that Robin Williams was not “a sad clown.” Instead, he was someone who struggled with an illness. In the end, he died because of complications related to an illness, just as someone else may die due to complications related to cancer or heart disease. Perhaps if we, as a society, were better educated about illnesses like depressive disorders or anxiety disorders (including PTSD), people wouldn’t be ashamed to seek treatment. Perhaps if there was most social support in society, then people wouldn’t attempt to treat depression and anxiety themselves with alcohol or other drugs, which commonly occurs. Perhaps if mental illness were no less stigmatizing than a broken leg or a bout with the flu, people would have a greater chance of recovering.

While I’ll miss Robin Williams and his humor a great deal, I can only hope that his death will cause us to consider more seriously what mental disorders are all about. After all, if we don’t experience a mental disorder ourselves, we know many others who do. We probably just don’t realize it.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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