Recently I finished novels about people whose circumstances are different from mine—The Turner House by Angela Flournoy and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I became attached to the characters and marveled at how similar we are regardless. I was reminded of a Sunday morning at the cathedral’s 9 AM service when I looked around, knowing say, half of those gathered and thinking about their stories—tales of joy, misfortune, excitement, happiness, piercing grief and sadness. I was overcome with warmth and an outpouring of love and appreciation for these, my dear friends. Next I felt a subtle mind shift when I realized that the other half of these folks, the ones I didn’t know personally, had similar stories. For a moment—a precious moment indeed—I was washed in this deep sense of loving kindness for them too.
This year as I have extended my story-telling sessions about bridging across race and ethnicity from groups at church to my colleagues at work, I have witnessed a similar shift. My heart has expanded with sweet fondness for them too. I find that what connects us as human family is infinitely more important than any differences that threaten to drive us apart.
Story-telling at church and work started blending a couple years ago when we school psychologists along with district administrators were required to participate in one of several two-day workshops called “Undoing Institutional Racism”. In a large circle we reviewed the history of the construct of race in our country. After a series of activities, we collectively defined racism this way: “Race Prejudice + Power = Racism.” At the end of Day One together, I recognized that since this definition made sense to me I could agree with the facilitators, “Only whites (and all whites) are racist.” What a provocative idea. And a sad, challenging one too since I myself am white.
Several (white) participants struggled with this idea. I decided to listen. After all, this notion explained quite a bit especially with regards to the ubiquitous presence of racism in our institutions. It’s true. I am privileged due to my race and on a subconscious level why wouldn’t I and others like me want to preserve this advantage?
From this new understanding I could hear the stories of hurt and anger that evolved out of such a morass. For example, during Day Two a black woman described her fear for her son’s life should he find himself, in her words, “on the wrong side of the law.” I remember being bereft in the presence of her vulnerability. And sheltered too as the mother of a white man. While I worried at times for his safety and well-being, I had been spared the insidious awareness that the black woman suffered. In her case, the cards were stacked against her child due to the darker hue of his skin, not from any fault of his own. And she somehow lived with this reality every long day.
Furthermore I felt guilty, wanting on some deep level to preserve this system that benefits me. After all I may have white grandchildren some day. Shouldn’t I feel grateful that they (and their parents, my children) would be spared this pain (and haunting)? And I remember the mind shift and despair—what if my children adopted black kids or chose dark-complexioned lovers? Such a change of luck! My brown and black-skinned progeny would have to grow up in this unfair and horrid institution of racism.
Stripping the cover back on the issue and peeling the layers deeper into my consciousness left me bare in the face of this fragile mother with her story. I wanted to stand alongside and do what I could to correct the situation and undo institutional racism. After all, what bound the two of us most as fellow human beings in this moment was Motherhood and its core of indelible love for our children. We both wanted only health and goodness for them including justice and a fair shake.
I realized I wanted to help more people tell and hear personal stories. I was invited to try the following activity at the beginning of our monthly provider meetings. First I asked those gathered to read a short story aloud. Each story tells about one person’s experience that is influenced in some way due to their particular race or ethnicity. One is a poem called “Arrivals” by David Whyte. A paragraph from The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander tells about a single mother who was incarcerated after a drug raid. Victor’s story is about his lifestyle as a father and school employee given his immigrant status. Once a group read my own blog post, “Racist Remarks.”
The guidelines for reflection* after the readings are simple and yet sometimes lead to profound sharing. Each 20-minute exercise encouraged us to listen to each other’s perspective and circumstance. Hopefully brief person-to-person encounters like these help us begin or continue to weave a gentler, more understanding web of humanity, knowing another’s position. In my own experience hearing from a variety of my fellow beings has led to ever-expanding mind shifts and heart opening. God willing, this too will contribute to undoing racism, bit by bit and until the walls come down.
*Bridging Stories Guidelines
Sharing and hearing personal stories about connecting—or not–across differences is one path to undoing institutional racism.
First we will listen to a printed story about bridging (aka connecting) as it is read aloud. As you listen to the story, consider:
- What are your reflections about this story?
- Do you or someone you know (family member, friend, student or colleague) have a related story?
- How are the characters, including the author/story-teller, bridging (aka connecting) across differences?
- How does this reading or reflection inform your work with children and families?
After the reading I will invite you to share your open-ended thoughts in pairs. Turn to a person on either side of you. When you hear the chime, one person shares their story and/or reflections while the other person listens without commenting. After two minutes, the chime will sound again. At this time, the listener simply says, “Thank you.” Then the second person begins sharing their story/reflections and the partner listens. When the chime sounds again to mark the end of another two minutes, the listener responds, “Thank you.”
To conclude, I will invite any who would like to briefly share stories with the larger group or comment about the practice itself.
Our story-telling will end with a final “Thank You” and chime.