My dad, brother, and I are now doing a monthly book club together. One of us chooses a book, we all read it, and then we do an hour-long video conference and talk about it. We’ve done this for about six months now and it’s wonderful.
A few months ago Daniel chose Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. It was a powerful book that started off strong.
“I can think of no bigger misstep in American history than the invention and perpetuation of the idea of white superiority. It allows white children to believe they are exceptional and entitled while allowing children of color to believe they are inferior and less deserving. Neither is true; both distort and stunt development. Racism crushes spirits, incites divisiveness, and justifies the estrangement of entire groups of individuals who, like all humans, come into the world full of goodness, with a desire to connect, and with boundless capacity to learn and grow. Unless adults understand racism, they will, as I did, unknowingly teach it to their children.
No one alive today created this mess, but everyone alive today has the power to work on undoing it. Four hundred years since its inception, American racism is all twisted up in our cultural fabric. But there’s a loophole: people are not born racist. Racism is taught, and racism is learned. Understanding how and why our beliefs developed along racial lines holds the promise of healing, liberation, and the unleashing of America’s vast human potential.”
I found myself nodding many times as I read this book. When I finished, I wandered around the web and found this TEDx Fenway talk by the author which does a great job of a high-level summary of the book.
I particularly liked this framing:
“What I’ve learned is that thinking myself raceless allowed for a distorted frame of reference built on faulty beliefs. For instance, I used to believe:
- Race is all about biological differences.
- I can help people of color by teaching them to be more like me.
- Racism is about bigots who make snarky comments and commit intentionally cruel acts against people of color.
- Culture and ethnicity are only for people of other races and from other countries.
- If the cause of racial inequity were understood, it would be solved by now.”
Dad, Daniel, and I talked extensively about the notion of “Good intentions, bad information.” While it applies to many situations, it’s especially key in applying critical thinking to a complex, or deeply challenging situation, especially one where there is a visceral bias (emotional or intellectual) that appears. Consider applying Curiosity, Courage, and Tolerance by doing the following.
- Curiosity: Ask yourself silently, “Why did I just think that thought?” Force yourself to chase down the “why” before you go on.
- Courage: Resist feeling terrified that you will say the wrong thing. There are lots of different ways to say something with a qualifier that you don’t have any idea whether what you are saying is going to be offensive, interpreted correctly, or correct.
- Tolerance: Tolerate your own feelings of discomfort, anger, grief, and embarrassment. Take a deep breath and calmly press through into the situation.
There’s a lot more in the book that both challenged me and helped me. I’m sure I interpreted plenty of it wrong, but, in the same way that I’m reading and exploring a lot of feminist literature, I’m going to include explorations of race and ethnicity in the stuff I’m reading.
Daniel – thanks for choosing Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race as one of our monthly books.
My weekend reading was Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. I can’t remember who recommended it to me but it was on my Kindle and my random next-book-to-read selection process brought it up. When I finished it a few minutes ago, I only had one word for it – “wow.”
I now put him in my category of amazing people.
While the book is primarily about a case referred to as The Groveland Boys, it uses the story of this case to explore the deep racism, illegal behavior, lawlessness, violence, discrimination, corruption, and political deceit that existed in the United States in large parts of the South in the late 1940s and early 1950s. At the same time, it covers the efforts of Marshall and his colleagues at the NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund around a number of key civil rights cases that were the basis for desegregation.
The story and the book are remarkable. The author – Gilbert King – won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. I won’t try to summarize it – that won’t do it justice – but if you are interested in what was going on in our country a mere 66 years ago, it’s powerful and worth the time.
There was a huge kerfluffle over the weekend about racism in Silicon Valley which tried to end when Michael Arrington wrote a post titled Oh Shit, I’m A Racist. But it didn’t end – on Monday there were stories by CNN reporter Soledad O’Brien defending herself with an article titled Michael Arrington is right (about one thing) and then a well reasoned post by Mitch Kapor titled Beyond Arrington and CNN, Let’s Look at the Real Issues. And I’m sure there will be more posts, including this one.
If you don’t know me, I’m white, Jewish, third generation American, born in Arkansas, grew up in Dallas, lived in Boston for 12 years, and I now live in Boulder, Colorado. My great grandparents emigrated from Russia and Germany – there were people in those countries trying really hard to kill them before they managed to emigrate to America. I say this not because I’m going to prognosticate about racism, but rather I’m going to tell a story. Of something that happened last week. Just to remind all of us that racism is alive and well in the US and in tech.
On Thursday, I got a call from a CEO of company I’m on the board of. He was very upset as he relayed a story to me. He had just heard from one of his employees who had been at a customer site for the past three days with another employee. The first person (person A) is white; the second is Indian (person B). The customer site is a government owned military installation.
Upon arrival, the customer would not shake hands with B. The customer would not acknowledge B’s presence directly. Over the course of the three days, the customer made endless racial and ethnic slurs directed at B. While it was extremely uncomfortable, A and B did their work, put up with the nonsense, and were professional.
While the CEO was relaying this to me, I was pacing outside a room that I was about to give a talk in. I was furious at the customer. I was sad that A and B hadn’t called the CEO immediately – I know he would have told them to pack it up and come home right away and he’d deal with the customer situation directly. The notion that B, and A, had to put up with racist behavior for three days was appalling to me. Especially at a government facility. In the United States. In 2011. In the tech business.
Everyone on this planet gets to believe what they want to believe, but I’ll assert that racism is alive and well in the US. I’ve seen it many times, including in Silicon Valley. Rather than get into arguments about the existence, or lack thereof, I’d encourage anyone who cares about this to listen to some wise words from Mitch Kapor.
“Being meritocratic is a really worthy aspiration, but will require active mitigation of individual and organizational bias. The operation of hidden bias in our cognitive apparatus is a well-documented phenomenon in neuroscience. We may think we are acting rationally and objectively, but our brains deceive us.”
When you see racism, don’t tolerate it. Take action. And don’t deny reality.