Addressing racial disparities; Unconscious bias and Nonviolent Communication; Africa and a cultural experience
Welcome to the New Year and the January edition of Tips and Topics (TNT). In this edition, the focus in SAVVY is on race relations, unconscious bias and the foundation for nonviolent communication.
SKILLS raises consciousness about systems barriers and biases which work against racial equality and ways to break down walls.
SOUL is about the adventure in Africa this month that will place me face to face with a very different culture.
This edition of Tips & Topics will be addressing race relations and unconscious bias. If you are tired of this topic and it causes you stress, feel free to stop reading.
However, if you dream of a day when we can be more unified and empathic; of a time when we can come together in nonviolent communication, then please read on….
You have heard seasoned clinicians say they learn so much from their clients; and teachers who say they learn so much from their students. Well I have a similar experience in saying that I learn so much from my readers of Tips & Topics.
Last month, I focused on The Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person Act or FIRST STEP Act . It is legislation to reform the federal prison system. I outlined some of its main features.
I explained that the “bill made retroactive the reforms enacted by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentences at the federal level.” I noted that “this would affect about 2,600 current federal inmates. Poorer people of color caught with crack got more time than the wealthier and whiter “cool crowd” who snorted cocaine.”
It was that last sentence (in italics) above which prompted a reader to write candidly:
“While I enjoy your commentary in most instances, here, I think you lost some credibility by describing “cool crowd” use of cocaine using racial slurs/animus. Why resort to that type of rhetoric when discussing something as important as changes to federal criminal justice laws? Maybe less attempts at being a “cool” writer and more emphasis on just the facts. Thanks.”
I must say I was taken aback, however I appreciated that a reader would be courageous enough to take the time to share their concern with me directly, rather than mutter under their breath and write me off. I learned something from that feedback, as it got me thinking about unconscious bias and the language and terminology we use – (not knowing what we don’t know) – about our attitudes, animus and actions.
What I meant by “Poorer people of color caught with crack got more time than the wealthier and whiter “cool crowd” who snorted cocaine.“
In case you also experienced me as using racial slurs/animus, let me clarify and give you the facts behind that statement. I responded to the reader:
“Ironically I was not trying to be a “cool” writer, nor make racial slurs. I was trying to be succinct and summarize a lot of facts into a brief sentence. I perhaps was too brief and made too many assumptions readers would know what I was talking about. Here are the facts and some references if you care to read more and understand what I was trying to summarize”:
1. The new Act seeks to continue to make right the disparities that arose in the 1980s where people of color (mostly African Americans) and those of lower socioeconomic status (poor) were incarcerated more than those who snorted cocaine powder. It was the belief at the time, that crack cocaine was more dangerous than powder cocaine.
2. Crack cocaine was developed when there started to be an overabundance of powder cocaine and the price was dropping. The crystalline version of cocaine (crack) could be sold in smaller, more affordable quantities making it more accessible to poorer people. Prior to crack, cocaine powder was much more expensive and used proportionately more by wealthier Caucasians than people of color, who tended to be of lower socioeconomic groups, as they still are today.
3. In the 1980s when the arrest disparities began, snorting cocaine was considered “cool”. Celebrities and wealthy people used cocaine at parties as part of the “cool crowd”. This was not to be pejorative to whites. It was meant to describe those who felt it was sophisticated and use cocaine that was considered a “cool” drug to use. (See the links below).
I continued to the reader:
“Anyway, thanks for writing and maybe I need to be careful not to try to summarize too much at the risk of mis-communicating. I would however, like to be a “cool” writer, while I write about the facts.”
What is “white privilege”? What we don’t know we don’t know about “unearned advantage” and “conferred dominance.“
Twenty years ago, Peggy McIntosh, an American feminist, anti-racism activist, scholar, speaker, and Senior Research Associate of the Wellesley Centers for Women wrote an article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”
She “encourages individuals to reflect on and recognize their own unearned advantages and disadvantages as parts of immense and overlapping systems of power.” (Wikipedia)
Peggy McIntosh’s article and work had me thinking about much more than just “white privilege”. I started thinking about my own “privilege”. I share excerpts of her article not to focus on Caucasians alone, but on the concepts which apply to others who have “unearned advantage” by virtue of a variety of other factors. Or as McIntosh says: “it is hard to disentangle aspects of unearned advantage which rest more on social class, economic class, race, religion, sex, and ethnic identity than on other factors.”
As a comfortably well-off, male physician living in a college town of many educated, economically stable families with well-kept single family homes of 3,000 square feet or more in California, I take for granted many of the advantages I have.
- “As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.”
I’m not white, but I have a number of “unearned advantages”:
- I am male
- I am a physician. I know I studied and worked hard to be a physician, however there are many others who studied and worked hard – to be a social worker or teacher or physical therapist ; they don’t get the same advantages as my chosen profession.
- My parents weren’t wealthy, but they valued education. So I was privileged to attend excellent schools helping smooth the path into excellent universities.
- I had many role models who valued education and professions esteemed by this society, and therefore paid disproportionately higher than other professions.
- That all leads to being able to live in a relatively safe, well-off community.
- “I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are over-privileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged.
- I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”
Check your list of unearned advantages and effects of privilege in your life
- “I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions which I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined.
- As far as I can see, my African American co-workers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and line of work cannot count on most of these conditions.
- I repeatedly forgot each of the realizations on this list until I wrote it down. For me, white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject.”
If you click on her article you can see her list of 26 conditions many of which I too can relate to as a well-educated , Australian-born Chinese man.
Here are the first four of her list:
- I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
- If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
- I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
“Privilege” versus “conferred dominance”
- “The word “privilege” now seems to me misleading. We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work systematically to overempower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one’s race or sex.”
- “I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.”
The invisible systems surrounding people of color assign and assume dominance of one race over the other; and actually still, one gender over the other.
Changing the world
- “Some Notes for Facilitators on Presenting My White Privilege Papers:
My work is not about blame, shame, guilt, or whether one is a “nice person.” It’s about observing, realizing, thinking systemically and personally. It is about seeing privilege, the “up-side” of oppression and discrimination. It is about unearned advantage, which can also be described as exemption from discrimination.”
- “I have met very few men who are truly distressed about systemic, unearned male advantage and conferred dominance. And so one question for me and others like me is whether we will be like them, or whether we will get truly distressed, even outraged, about unearned race advantage and conferred dominance, and, if so, what will we do to lessen them. In any case, we need to do more work in identifying how they actually affect our daily lives.”
As a Australian-born Chinese in “White Australia” and then in the USA, I believed that hard work and taking initiative can bring success in social status, income and achievement of personal and greater good. I feel I have experienced the “American Dream”; and have naively questioned my African-American friends: “Why do people of color always complain about getting ahead, when they just need to do what I did?”
Those friends have raised my awareness of the role of unconscious bias (“social stereotypes about certain groups of people individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.”
Over 10 years ago in the May 2008 edition of Tips & Topics, I shared some insights
from Laverne Hanes-Stevens, Ph.D., a senior consultant at Chestnut Health Systems; her keynote presentation was titled: “Faith, Race and Culture: Building upon Social and Spiritual Supports in Treatment Planning”. I have incorporated some of her tips below.
Identify the “baked-in” systems barriers and biases to racial and other equality.
My African-American friends and indigenous peoples’ views inform me that the American Dream isn’t so easy. There are “baked in” barriers for African-Americans, even more so than for Asians, let alone white Americans and Australians.
Minority populations do not have the privilege of ignoring the salience of race, culture, appearance; when you are in a minority, certain behaviors and attitudes occur that don’t cross the mind of a person in the majority.
Dr. Hanes-Stevens spoke of “cultural scanning”:
- A person in the minority scans the room to sense and assess what the experience will be like for them, in this room, with these people, at this time.
- A person in the majority culture doesn’t think to do that.
If you are not identifying with the racial inequities, think how there are other systems and biases besides racial ones. Consider the person who is:
- The only overweight person in a group squeezing into a taxi cab.
- The only smoker in the group going to a restaurant (Now that we non-smokers are the majority, we don’t mind if they squirm)
- The only Plain Jane in the group of ‘the beautiful people.’
- The only single person in a group of happily married couples.
- The only short, skinny guy in a group of buff jocks.
Recognize your “unconscious biases” in interpreting behavior.
Two groups of teenagers are being loud at the shopping mall. One group is white and one group is black. Do you have a bias about the black group of teens being inappropriate in a public space; while the white group are just “teens will be teens” and being noisy and exuberant?
You are stuck behind a slow-driving car. You eventually are able to pass and glance at the driver.
- It is woman. Do you mutter to yourself: “No wonder I was stuck, it was a woman driver.”
- It is an Asian driver: “No wonder, those people are so timid and cautious.”
- It is an older grey-haired senior: “No wonder, an old guy.”
Maybe the car was going slow because it was faulty and the driver had to take it slowly en route to the repair shop.
Recently you have read about incidents like: “A black Yale graduate student took a nap in her dorm’s common room. So a white student called police.”
There must be incidents in the opposite direction of whites being arrested or singled out by blacks just for the color of their skin. They don’t seem to be publicized as much. Send me a link when you find such a news story.
Listen to Marshall Rosenberg explain Nonviolent Communication and how common societal values set the context for violence and conflict.
Creating a world where everyone wins; where conflicts are resolved with nonviolent communication; where we are as committed to meeting others’ needs as much as meeting our own needs sounds idealistic, unrealisitic and air-headed.
This is because we live in a culture of win-lose; right-wrong; and reward-punishment.
Can you find the time to see Marshall Rosenberg who pioneered Nonviolent Communication (NVC), explain why we have so much trouble using nonviolent or compassionate communication? Even if you can do just the first 35-40 minutes, it could change your life. I was fortunate to attend a couple of his workshops. You can only do that now via video, as he died February 2015.
I have written about NVC In SKILLS of the February 2007 and March 2010 editions of Tips & Topics
You are receiving this month’s TNT a bit earlier than usual because we are off to Africa. A dear longtime friend has had a dream of hers ever since college – to facilitate a group of
humanitarians experiencing cultural, personal and spiritual growth in unique and interesting places in our world.
Marcia and I are helping fulfill her dream and what a place to start: The Maasai Mara, Kenya, Africa to “experience your bigger picture, through yoga, individual cultural immersion, hands-on service, a safari on the Mara & a lot of connection!”
Now I will really get to see what a new culture is like.
Here are some of the activities we’ll be participating in:
- Assist with Momma Baby Oral Health Clinic in remote manyatta.
- Assist with launching “I am Responsible” in school cavities prevention program in a remote setting
- Predawn departure all day private safari on Maasai Mara Game Reserve
- Yoga on the Mara
- Fire chat with Maasai elder
- One With One – spend time with a Maasai individual experiencing their life.
- Teach first-aid skills, learn how to slaughter a goat (Not too sure about that one for me!)
- Mara hike with staff naturalist (armed) (Armed!!)
- Hang out & enjoy a good book by the small pool (OK, I can handle that)
- Walk to Mpopongi to participate in a traditional Maasai Christian church service
- Overland to our guard Masoi’s manyatta to experience a traditional family’s way of living.
- Nkoilale, the market town – experience an authentic Maasai Monday market while pioneering a public health model.
You get the picture. Not your usual African tourist experience. I’ll tell you all about it.
On the way back, a brief three day stopover in Istanbul, Turkey. That will be your usual tourist experience. I’ll tell you about that too.