Tuesday, March 6, 2012
North Minneapolis, Race, and My "Aha!" Moment (Part 2)
Post and image (a screen grab of an Aha! moment) by the Hawthorne Hawkman.
After getting the surprise hug, I went back to the discussions on race on the Get to NoMi page. For some reason, I just started viewing them in a new light.
Now prior to my newfound way of seeing things, I would read phrases like "Only White people can be racist," or "Black people can't be racist," and that would just send me into a tizzy. Because clearly I know I am not a racist, so anyone saying these things must not know me, and maybe they are a racist themselves. So I felt the need to either disengage entirely, or to prove that they were the problem, or to show off my non-racist credentials:
I lived in Honduras, I speak fluent Spanish, I was married to a Cuban, when I did mortgage loans, most of my business was either Latino or African immigrant clients. I attended a bilingual (Spanish/English) and bi-cultural (Latino/Scandinavian) church, where I became president of the council for a year. My best friend is Laotian, I've worked on Hmong issues in Hawthorne and helped fill up Farview Park several times for Hmong community forums, and I helped get a Hmong-speaking police officer on the day shift in our precinct. I did mission work in Tanzania, I now attend a Liberian/Scandinavian church where again I am council president. I really honestly do have close friends from pretty much every census demographic, so much so that whenever we go out to eat at a suburban Applebee's, the restaurant manager begs to take pictures of our group for use in their promotional materials. I once saw this movie where Morgan Freeman played the role of God and I wasn't even offended.
(Those last two are jokes, by the way. My friends usually don't go out to eat in the suburbs. And Bruce Almighty did offend me, but that was Jim Carrey's fault.)
My point here is that by getting so defensive over things, what I was really saying was...
"Why can't this one group of people realize what an amazing, culturally sensitive guy I am???" I hope readers can appreciate the absurdity of that viewpoint.
The second light that went off was in regards to the role of the provocateur. To demonstrate this, I'm going to compare Johnny Northside and some of the recent statements on various Facebook pages. When John Hoff started to take off on his blogging adventures, there were a great many of my friends and acquaintances who said, "Finally! Someone who's saying the things we've all wanted to say for YEARS!" And the fact that Hoff was so brazenly in your face about his blogging, and that he was saying things in such a controversial way only added to our approval. If Hoff had merely stated certain things as if he were reading a weather report, that would not have drawn the same kind of attention as his provocative style. Part of the success of his message (whether you agreed with him or not) was in the delivery of that message.
But then when others have made similarly provocative statements on discussion threads about racial issues, many people (myself included) reacted much in the same way as those who viewed Johnny Northside in a negative light. We became focused on attacking the provocative element of the message instead of taking a deeper look at the truth within the message itself. The discussions often regressed into a back-and-forth over the characters and motivations of those posting comments instead of a deeper look at the issue before us.
The racial aspect of such a disparity hit me like a load of bricks. A White provocateur, saying things from a White perspective, drew cheers from (not only, but for the sake of this analogy) White people for saying what White people thought needed to be said. But when a Black person was doing virtually the same thing, only from their perspective, the same people focused on the delivery of the message instead of being glad that the message itself was delivered. I realize this description is simplified somewhat, but it's the best I can do to describe the dynamic of the provocateur.
This comparison isn't meant to support one side or another in regards to the provocateur, but has made me start to evaluate how often I, and others, have been utterly blind to the ways in which provocative statements have been received. There is much to reconsider here.
Similarly to those "magic eye" posters with a repeating pattern and an underlying image, I began to look not directly at such comments, but through them to the message beneath. If nothing else, I wanted to start by accepting that what was being said was reality for the person saying it. In so doing, I no longer had the need to subconsciously defend my own point of view or to change another person's mind. When THAT happened, suddenly a whole new vision of reality came into view. These contentious dialogues no longer felt like a battle over who is right or wrong, but instead became something akin to a set of glasses that one could look through to better see and understand our neighbors.
That was my Aha! moment, and it transformed how I looked at recent discussion threads. I could now read a post with 100+ comments going back and forth about race, and pick out the two or five interchanges that really meant something for a few people. I wasn't hung up on what might look like discord to others because I could see the seeds of growth and understanding that were being planted though that dialogue. And that positive dialogue simply would not have happened if people weren't given a space where things could get "messy."
The Aha! moment has led to another realization that was as unexpected as a surprise hug. When I had been more defensive about my positions on topics about race issues, the prospect of changing my mind somehow was seen as a tremendous burden. But once I started to look at things differently, what I thought of as a burden has instead transformed into the most freeing and uplifting mindset I've had in years. The closest I can come to describing it is the sensation from when you were a child and afraid to jump into the deep end of a swimming pool. But when you finally did it, you found out you could swim after all.