The Harvesting Diversity Blog
The Charleston church massacre must be a turning point for America. The shooter has written that he was radicalized by what he read on the internet in reaction to the Trayvon Martin shooting. Yet this young man had family. He had a church. He had friends. Some of his friends now say that he told racist jokes and talked about starting a race war. The friends didn't seem to know how to respond.
We don't know who in our midst may right now be learning racism. We know there are many who actively teach racist ideologies, while others actively fight racism. But most White Americans float somewhere in between, at the mercy of the predominant messages of American society. As the Charleston shooter's life story illustrates, it was not enough that the people in his life avoided speaking and acting in obviously racist ways. The absence of intentional racism is not the same as promoting equality and respect for all.
Racism seems awfully hard to eradicate. But there is something White Americans can do that will make a difference, and quite possibly could have made a difference in the lives of the Charleston shooter and his victims. Most People of Color already do it. But now White Americans who are sickened by the Charleston church massacre must begin speaking the truth of the value and worth of every human being. We must begin, at every opportunity, to respond constructively to jokes and negative generalizations about people with dark skin.
Speaking up it isn't easy, and most of us need help to do it well. Considering the nature of this event, the church is an obvious institution to offer this help. Yet any organization can begin to provide resources to people who want to know how to counter the negative messages that abound in our society.
Research shows that our brains fail us when someone we know says something offensive. We unconsciously make excuses, and tell ourselves, "He really didn't mean it." So, in order to counter those involuntary defensive responses, we need to proactively practice more effective responses. WordSmooth's Socha programs are some of the many positive resources available.
What do you say if your friend tells you he wants to start a
race war? We recommend asking some curious questions. Here are some options:
"A race war, you say? What's that all about?" "What do you hope to accomplish?"
" What's leading you to say that?" The key in asking these questions
is to be curious and non-judgmental. The next step is to listen to and clarify the
answers. These skills are part of a program called ACE-ing Conflict that we
have provided for two decades. The goal of the ACE-ing Conflict skill set is to
open up a window of communication that encourages thinking and a space for sharing
positive information that can turn the situation around. For most people, these skills are not instinctive; the only way to have access to these skills is to practice them.
Maybe we can't eliminate the racist messages in our society, but we can do a much better job of drowning them out with positive messages in every medium: online, televised, radio, musical, visual, verbal, and more. Our goal is for every young person in America to experience three positive messages for every negative one. One of the most basic but informative ways to provide positive messages is through a bulletin board -- physical, online, or both. We can only counter the negative messages if we increase our knowledge of the positive. Please make a personal commitment right now to increasing your positive message output, and contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
My son, Kory, is wonderful. He's so full of love and joy. He does have several special needs. He had a stroke in utero. He has seizures. He has Down syndrome. Kory does not understand "inside voice " or "be quiet" or even "shhhh." While Kory can be quite loud, ironically, he doesn't tolerate loud noises from others very well.
I can remember taking Kory and his brother Kaden to the Nutcracker in a large auditorium in the Metroplex about 5 years ago. It was a day they specially invited children with special needs, but there were no modifications to the performance. We made it about half way through, but the performance was too loud. Kory started crying and I had to take him out.
So these days, except for his brother's soccer games, we don't go many places where we can enjoy watching something together as a family. When Kory's seizures got worse a couple of years ago, I tried taking him to church with me in the sanctuary so I could monitor him, but he couldn't sit quietly for an hour in that setting. So we had to stop going church. For years we just didn't go many places at all, to tell the truth. And Kory and his brother Kaden, who is typically developing, have been missing out on, and really have been excluded from, a lot of the activities that help children develop into healthy adults.
But now I have new hope. Kory had an amazing evolution last year thanks to the sensory-friendly performances at Dallas Children's Theater. At the first performance in March, Kory wore his headphones, he fidgeted a lot, and he was just kind of a mess. And that was just fine with everyone because their mission was to make us feel at home, and that was awesome, because HE MADE IT THROUGH. By the third show in October, Kory watched the full performance intently without headphones, and he didn't fidget. You have no idea what an amazing accomplishment that was. So, we tried going back to church again, because all of the sudden Kory could sit for an hour in an auditorium comfortably. And he made it through church! So now we go every week, and Kaden gets to go to his class, and Kory's my church buddy. And I attribute his growth to his theater experience.
I have to say as a parent, this experience really impressed upon me how beneficial live theater's brain stimulation can be for both of my children. So now I’m committed to ensuring that it's a regular part of their lives and all children lives, because I’ve seen the benefits firsthand. So take your children to the theater – come with us, even! I can't wait to tell you what Kory does next as he has more opportunities to grow at Dallas Children's Theater.
I gave this testimony recently when Kory and I were invited to be part of a Dallas Children's Theater presentation team. It was a wonderful experience because he and I got to spend time with a group of extremely talented people, all highly motivated to make theater accessible to children like Kory and their families. I am deeply grateful to this group and to all at Dallas Children's Theater for their tireless efforts to make their sensory-friendly vision come to life.
Statistically, African American, Latino American, and American Indian students experience lower academic success than White American and Asian American students. There are many contributing factors to the achievement gap.
One significant factor in academic success is the degree to which a student;s culture aligns with mainstream educational culture. While mainstream American educational approaches center on writing, independence, competition, and abstract thinking, education in much of the rest of the world utilizes many of the learning techniques and tools of orality, or oral communication.
The degree to which a student;s home environment is influenced by elements of his or her culture;s traditional orality may be commensurate with the degree to which the student struggles with mainstream educational approaches.
All societies throughout the world first communicated orally. Orality, or thought and communication that is verbal rather than written, is the traditional human form of communication. The world has produced over 3,000 languages, but less than 100 have been written down. While familiar with writing, many societies still communicate today primarily through the voice. All societies retain aspects of their oral tradition (such as the American jury system), and many societies in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia, the Arab world, and Europe retain significant orality.
Why does that matter? Our communication style, our understanding of education, and yes our entire worldview is impacted by whether we grow up with an emphasis on reading and writing or an emphasis on the spoken word.
Writing was developed around 6,000 years ago, and human memory has never been the same since. In his book Orality and Literacy, the widely esteemed researcher Walter J. Ong, Ph.D. explains that while promoting more abstract thought, writing has led to the underdevelopment of memory. Yet communication in oral cultures is structured to promote remembering. Eloquence and creative language, participation such as call and response, rhythm and movement, and verve and polarized discourse are some of the many tools that teachers with an oral worldview use to help their students learn and remember information.
In chirographic (writing-based) cultures, students look up information in reference books or on the web. They may rephrase content while copying it down, but often later forget it. In oral societies, teachers are the reference resource. So in oral cultures, there is no significant learning without a relationship with the teacher. Therefore, caring staff-student-parent relationships are another key to academic success for many children.
Teachers who come from an oral worldview, as well as those from a chirographic worldview who appreciate orality, know that spoken stories that provoke emotion are memorable. These teachers also know that students from oral-based cultures learn best when participating in groups. Perhaps most importantly of all, an oral worldview motivates learning through a practical focus that helps students understand how what they are learning relates to their own lives.
African American researchers like A. Wade Boykin, Lisa Delpit, and Deborah Ford, as well as Latino American researchers like Juan C. Guerra and Marcia Farr have documented how these characteristics appear in African American and Mexican American culture, and many have called on educators to utilize them more often to help bridge cultural learning gaps.
The Socha program offers a series of Culturally Compatible Education workshops that engage teachers as they explore these concepts and assist them in applying them to actual classroom scenarios and lessons. Please contact us for more information.
Former President Bush has been in the news lately because he remembers being thought of as a racist the lowest point in his eight year presidency. His reaction to the Kanye West statement during the aftermath Hurricane Katrina that Bush does not care about black people opens a window into just how seriously many people take that issue.
As children we used to say, Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me. There are some people with extremely strong character and high self esteem for whom that adage may work. But for most of us, hateful comments do hurt. Moreover, such comments usually are accompanied by or lead to actions that, at the very least, exclude and often directly discriminate. Yes, he was president and all, but did Mr. Bush ever think of picking up the phone to let Mr. West know how much it hurt him? Kanye West has acknowledged that he would express himself differently if he had it to do over again, now that he knows how the former president reacted.
When confronted with the touchy issues of race, gender, sexual orientation or religion, many usually well-spoken people have no idea what to say. We typically respond in one of three ways: Ignore it, become judgmental, or talk about it to other people. What is the result of each of these approaches? They all keep us stuck in our current behavior patterns.
Many people of good will struggle with how to respond for fear of being accused of being politically correct. But the term political correctness has done a lot of damage to this nation. It creates an image of people being forced to use sensitive and respectful language. Why should we have to be forced to be respectful? Yes, the constitution guarantees our right to say almost anything, but most of us choose to balance that right with a desire to be respectful.
So then, what can we do when someone says something insensitive, offensive, or awkward about hot buttons issues of race, gender, sexual identity, age, language, national origin, or other similar attributes?
Ask a Question
When we hear an insensitive comment, our first inclination might be to come back hard with an opinion. But a much more effective response for encouraging change is to suspend our opinions for a moment, and to develop a spirit of curiosity about the perspective of the speaker. Asking a question with a spirit of curiosity can be very disarming.
Why ask a question? Questions engage the other person by conveying interest. Questions create space for thinking. On the other hand, statements of opinions usually create defensive responses. Eventually, when you say how you feel, the other person is much more likely to listen to you if you have listened to her first.
Another important and usually overlooked response is clarification. Have you ever misunderstood what someone else said? Have you yourself ever been misunderstood? Most people answer yes to both questions. That is why clarifying is such an important element of communication.
Often, repeating an offensive comment in the form of a question is all that is needed. When the person who made the statement hears it back with his own ears, s/he may take it back or rephrase it without any additional prompting.
Expressing Feelings, Beliefs, Desires
If we have asked a curious question or two and clarified the answers, now we have created a space in which we can sincerely express our feelings, beliefs and desires about the comment. Expressing feelings in words means we do not have to resort to the silent treatment, slamming doors or worse.
I have found that one of the most powerful ways to express my position on racism is to tell a personal story about how it has affected me. People have a hard time arguing with me if I just share my own experience.
The new patriotism
While I take the responsibility of responding to insensitivity seriously, I still want to be smart. If I ever get the feeling that I am in danger, I do not respond, and I advise the same to all. But that is the exception.
I also recognize that not everyone is willing to work this hard. Many people of color have told me they are tired of the conversation. So I am issuing this call most specifically to my American brothers and sisters of European heritage (in other words, white folks). Only by having these conversations, and processing our still unresolved pain and regret, will we finally come together as a nation.
Speaking up for oneself is empowering. Speaking up for the dignity and respect that everyone deserves may just be our patriotic duty.
For more on the ingredients of a satisfying diversity related conversation, pick up the book Navigating Diversity: An Advocate/s Guide to the Maze of Race, Gender, Religion and More