Mentors and the end of Tell Me More

Today I was listening to Michele Norris’ last week of Tell Me More. I listen to her regularly either on the tell me more podcast or on npr via the race card project.

She was an incredibly powerful keynote speaker at last year’s People of Color Conference in Washington D.C. that I was thankful to attend, so I thought I would dig out a few of my tweets from her keynote and share them again here. (I misspelled her name in the tweets and they can’t be edited. I tried!)

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Her Wednesday, July 30th episode was focused on mentors, and I tried to capture a few messages that resonated with me here:

Bernard Shaw, former CNN anchor, tells us to pursue for our dreams but to realize the trade offs because success will cost you. “Don’t let anyone tell you what you should do.” No one can tell you whether or not to pursue your dreams. I also appreciate his humility and gratitude in sharing that he had so many mentors and supporters that he feels it is his duty to pass that on to those younger.

On the subject of women and specifically women of color mentoring other women, Michele shared that there was a study out of the University of Colorado that found that women and non-white executives who push for the success of other women or non-whites actually suffer in their own performance reviews whereas white men who do are rated more highly. This is the revelation of a Blindspots that infuriates me.

Freeman Hrabowski III, President of University of Maryland – Baltimore County, emphasizes the importance of knowing how to get back up, because all of us will go through tough times in our life, work, health, etc. Our resilience defines our success. He speaks of creating a culture of mentorship at UMBC and how he institutionalizes this in a way that is meaningful: it’s all about students. This resonated with me as a teacher: what’s best for kids is what has driven my work for the past 8 years.

Michele Norris herself finishes with the wisdom that we are all part of minorities and majorities at different times of our lives, but the media often gives more attention to certain minorities or majorities. On this show, she has sought to bring out those NOT in the media spotlight. It makes me angry that NPR has cancelled a show that is unique in the content, guests, and audience, given their own report about social media allowing us to stick to our own opinions and the report about people polarizing on politics about the polarization of politics and media. How can NPR bring us the world and tell our story, as they claim on their “About NPR” page, if they cancel shows like this?

I will take Michele’s advice that she gave at POCC, “We must have conversations with people who disagree with us.” Thank you, Michele, for all the wisdom you have shared and facilitated in the past 7 years on this show, and I look forward to continuing to hear your voice on the radio.

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald

My reading list this summer has been an interesting one – more fiction than usual, including rereading some favorite Barbara Kingsolver such as Animal Dreams. I picked up this book, Blindspot, on my list as part of my continuing self-exploration of privilege and diversity, begun in earnest when I attended the People of Color Conference last December (written about here).

I’ll admit I was not particularly compelled by the book. It offers good lay descriptions of how psychology tests are laid out, particularly the IAT, or Implicit Association Test. It interprets the results and helps the reader understand their conclusion. But in response to their own question, “How can we outsmart our own minds’ blindspots?”, they offer little advice. I realize this may not be even possible, given that they themselves say that there is little evidence of any treatments or procedures that change the IAT. (The one thing that they did say can reduce implicit associations for college students was the finding that women college students had “a strengthening female = leader and female = math association after they have sustained exposure via their college courses to women faculty members.” (p.152) Interesting.)

I liked being able to take the IAT’s through the links they shared in the book. To be able to get personalized results of my implicit associations I think improves my understanding of the test and affords the gut understanding of what the results mean personally. Like the authors themselves and many White and non-White Americans, for that matter, I have an automatic White preference. This puts me in the category of “uncomfortable egalitarians:” White Americans, who “earnestly describe themselves as egalitarian but nevertheless have differential behavior towards Whites and Blacks.” Additionally, they “have no awareness they are doing anything discriminatory. They see themselves as helpful, but it turns out that their helpfulness is selective, caused in part by their discomfort in interracial interactions.” The frustrating conclusion, though, particularly for someone who seeks intellectual understanding to change behavior, is that despite knowing this, I probably won’t see the differential actions. So who can give me the feedback that I need to become more aware?

Another interesting piece of the book was the persistence of fear responses to conditioning against an in- or out-group: “White Americans showed faster extinguishing of fear toward a White face than a Black face, and Black Americans showed the opposite effect, being faster to recover their fear of the Black face…. While the persistence of such negative reactions may once have had a survival value, this is yet another instance of a hard-wired response that has lost its relevance. In the modern world, where friendships, collaborations, businesses, and entire economies span the globe in a highly networked web of interdependence, the ability to create alliances that bypass boundaries of race, nationality, and culture can have bearing on our well -being, our prosperity, our productivity – and perhaps even our survival.” (p.135)

And finally, they rephrased privilege: “Receiving the benefits of being in the in-group tends to remain invisible for the most part. And this is perhaps why members of the dominant or majority groups are often genuinely stunned when the benefits they receive are pointed out. Blindspots hide both discriminations and privileges, so neither the discriminators nor the targets of discrimination, neither those who do the privileging nor the privileged, are aware. No small wonder that any attempt to consciously level the playing field meets with such resistance.” (p.144) (This makes me think back to the whole Tal Fortgang exchange this past May. Tal’s piece in Time, Katie McDonough’s response on, and Mark Ritvo’s longer response. There were also many Facebook exchanges with people’s thoughts on the issue.)

To me, understanding white privilege is a way to understand my experience and others’ experiences in our world. During ICC Day#2, one of the key points made was the importance of humility in learning intercultural competency. That has remained with me, and it guides me to understand and not judge, to describe and not evaluate, to change my behavior and understandings in an effort to understand how my actions and behaviors might be interpreted and to question my perception of others.

I find it interesting that I reread Animal Dreams prior to this. Although there are many themes, in the book, including race and Native Americans, the title refers to the question of whether a city dog can dream of chasing rabbits, given that it has never seen any. In other words, can I imagine a world where there is no racial privilege? When Banaji and Greenwald put things in terms of in-group and out-group preferences, or even Dr. Seuss’ star-belly and plain-belly sneetches, I have to admit I can’t see a world where everyone is proclaimed exactly equal by some arbiter of equality given that we are hard-wired to prefer those like us.

Reverend Bill Sinkford, preacher at First Unitarian Church of Portland, whom I’ve quoted before, says it like this in his sermon, People Get Ready, perhaps the most important message I had heard ever about diversity, inclusion, intercultural competence, change, and UUism:

Ours is a theology of radical hospitality to the human spirit. That is what valuing the inherent worth and dignity of every person, our first principle, means and that is how it calls us to live.

If we in fact, and not just in theory, want to create the Beloved Community in this pluralistic world, then learning how to deal with differences becomes not just a practical necessity but a spiritual requirement and a spiritual calling as well.

Cultural competence is not so much about getting it right as it is getting comfortable in a world where the assumptions of your life are not universally shared.

The day is coming when all will know

That the rainbow world is more gorgeous than the monochrome, That a river of identities can ebb and flow over the static, Stubborn rocks in its course,
That the margins hold the center.

Will we welcome the rainbow world in new ways?

Can we imagine a future where the margins and the center are held together in one thriving Beloved Community? Or to ask it another way, with our theology and our commitments, how could we not?

While psychology research may give us some tools for documentation and analysis of the human experience, it is the UU theology that gives me the principles and wisdom to shape my journey and the hope to sustain me.

Summertime and Transitions

The Columbia River GorgeAt the end of June, we packed all our belongings into a 16ft moving van and drove east, leaving Portland to return to my home state of Wisconsin, where I will being a PhD program in Madison. Transitions are a time of excitement and dread, delight in the new and longing for the old, exhilaration and exhaustion. I’ve moved a lot, but this time it felt different. Maybe because Portland is the longest I’ve lived in one place since I was 7. Maybe because it’s where we began our family. Maybe because it is the strength and love of the school community. Maybe it is the profound cultural and physical feeling of being home.

Our choice to move was based on wanting to advance my career and the desire to be closer to family for awhile. I am thrilled to be going back to school at a time when I feel confident in my experience as an independent school teacher, ready and open to learn from the experiences of others, and motivated to make a difference on a new level.

I’m settling into life here at the beginning of August, with just enough time left of summer to enjoy the calm before my program begins. I’ve spent time disconnected from my devices, played scrabble with my mom, and built train tracks. I’ve gotten a commuter bike set up with kid seat and explored the bike paths and playgrounds with my son. I’ve visited family, gone camping, and played outside.

I wrote this six word story some time ago and have always wanted to share it but never found the right context. Perhaps it is all the more appropriate, then, to share it in this time of transition, tension, growth, adventure, and change. Although I share my professional writing online or personal posts with friends, sharing poetry makes me feel quite vulnerable, so please be kind.

Strong wings

Growing roots

Learning being