Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Black and White: Talk About Race

You might have already guessed this by observing my rugged self reliance, but to give your suspicions confirmation, I was a Girl Scout from before I started Kindergarden until I graduated from high school.  I didn't belong to a troupe when I was in Phoenix living with my mom for the school years; I only really participated in the summer time while I was living in Salinas with my grandmother, so for most of my childhood, I got to do all the fun summer camp stuff without all the meetings and uniforms and cookie peddling.  I think that's why I lasted so long.

But, I started living in Salinas full time when I was 15, and I finished high school there.  So, around the time of my Junior year, I suddenly found myself trying to sell Girl Scout cookies (for the first time) with my new troupe at a booth in Northridge Mall.

Somewhere along the way, I had seen this old, silent, black & white Girl Scout movie.  I can't find it online, and I don't remember what it was called, but the moral of the story was that all Girl Scouts were sisters.  So when a black girl came up to our cookie booth in the mall and said she'd been a Girl Scout for a few years, I got excited and called her sister.  We chatted for a short while, and after the girl and her friends left, our troupe leader (who was white) scolded me - she was furious that I had called a black person "sister."  I was completely confused and tried to defend myself.  She hissed something at me about how black people call each other "sister" and "brother," and as a white girl, doing the same would look as if I was mocking them.  I was mortified.  I was embarrassed.  I felt like a fool.

After that day, I had a hard time going to Girl Scout meetings.  I felt like the troupe leader and I held each other in suspicion.  Whether it was true or not, it seemed as if she never got over being mad at me for calling a black girl my sister.  And I don't suppose I ever got over being embarrassed for my perceived mistake and angry at how unfair the whole situation was.  After being a Girl Scout for nearly my entire life, I stopped actively participating, and I walked away from the opportunity to earn the Girl Scout Gold Award (Girl Scouting's highest award) in my Senior year of high school.  That same troupe leader said I'd always regret it.  I was never too fussed about awards, so I can't say she was right.  But, I certainly never forgot it.  It's just that, until the moment of writing the above paragraphs, I never really recognized why I stopped going back.

Now I realize that experience left me irrationally afraid to talk about race.   But that's finally changing.  Whether or not that troupe leader saw my heart and knew my intentions were good, I know they were.  In fact, I now know that my innocent "mistake" was far more equalizing than her knee-jerk reaction.

There is a huge problem in the United States.  We never properly healed from the national trauma of slavery and all the other miserable stuff that has come with it over the centuries.  After reading the excellent article by Ta-Nehisi Coates, "The Case for Reparations" (you should read it too), I find myself energized to come out of the closet as a white lady who wants to talk about race relations.  I want to talk about it, and I want to do everything I can to help our country heal these national injuries.

I know from Buddhism, the only way I can do that is to start with myself.

It won't be easy - we're all trained by our society to have certain pre-judgements.  And by "we," I mean everyone - all of us.  In the academic world, these pre-judgements or prejudices are called "hidden biases."  We might think we treat people with equality, but when someone says "doctor," most of us likely assume the doctor is a man.  When you stop to think about it, that's not fair, is it?  That's an example of our hidden bias about doctors.

But I'm not just talking about professions and gender!  I'm sure we can think of all sorts of hidden biases we and our society hold along racial lines.  In fact, I was listening to a podcast last night and heard a great segment about the "Carefree Black Girl" movement - which aims to correct our hidden bias towards seeing black women as either over-sexualized or struggling through massive adversity.  Carefree Black Girl makes a space in our society for images of happy black women, possibly even wearing flowered dresses, riding bicycles, picking daisies...

You (and I) have hidden biases towards certain types of people and against others.  We were trained to have these hidden biases by living in our society, and we can un-train ourselves by understanding our own thought patterns and by being mindful of our own biases and those we observe in others.

If you want to get scientific about it (I know I do!), you can learn more about your own personal hidden biases by participating in Harvard University's Project Implicit study.  It's free.

So, here's my plan: I'm going to take a good look at my own hidden biases and prejudices so that I can root them out and learn to see each person as fairly and completely as I see myself.

This is the first post in what will become a series of posts, written to document my thoughts and experiences around hidden bias and race as a 43-year-old gay white Buddhist American woman living in Brooklyn, New York City, New York, United States of America, North America, Northern Hemisphere, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way, The Universe.  Now you know where things stand.

Here are some flowers from the green roof:



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