Life with Jesus / race / Social Justice

On Surviving the Third Way

I’ve discovered a new Zumba studio. It’s not full of yuppie grandmas who wear their yoga pants to Target. I’m actually the only gringa there- it’s all latina women who come every day, sometimes multiple days a week. Here is what I look like after class:

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It likely comes as no surprise to you that I’m the worst in the class. The problem is that in yuppie Zumba classes, there are usually lulls between difficult songs. Like you might do a song that gets your heart rate up and then you might do one that focuses just on arms or just on abs. Also, usually the teacher will tell you to take a water break at some point, even though you don’t need it!

Not so at my new studio. It is a hardxcore, all hands on deck, “Probably should have laid off the milk-based breakfast smoothie” kind of class. This is not usually the way that I approach exercise. I have never been (nor will I ever be) one of those Crossfit types who pushes their bodies to the limit for the fun of it. It’s not that I don’t like pushing myself,-it’s just that I don’t like feeling like death is imminent so I usually back off before that feeling starts to build. I can tell that this attitude bothers my new Zumba instructor as she gives me lots of attention and tries to get me to stop standing around watching everyone else leave me in the dust. After the class where we did Zumba with weights, I couldn’t lift The Baby for three days. My arms, however, are looking quite trim.

Because the name “Beth” is unpronounceable in Spanish (the “th” sound doesn’t exist for Spanish speakers from Central and South America), no one at the studio could remember my name. Last Friday, I made the mistake of telling them that they could call me, “Elizabet”, which is a Spanish name and the instructor spent the next hour screaming over the music, “Elizabet! You okay? You okay, Elizabet?” I think she was genuinely worried about me as my face was as red as it has ever been in my life and I did feel like the Grim Reaper was standing right behind me, ready to catch me when I inevitably succumbed to exhaustion.

This class has helped to remind me that I have more perseverance than I previously thought. While it’s hard and I kind of hate it, I’ve been able to push through and feel really proud of myself at the end.

***

I recently watched Right Between Your Ears, which is a documentary about the science behind belief. If it sounds even mildly interesting to you, I recommend it. The storyline of the doc is about a group of Christians that predicted the end of the world in May of 2011. The doc follows several people both before the date (when they were quitting jobs and selling houses) and after (when the world didn’t end).  How did those people cope? What was going on in their brains?

One of the neuroscientists in the film had a really interesting monologue about cognitive dissonance, which, according to wikipedia, is the “mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values.” The documentary traced how people who deeply believed the world was going to end dealt with the cognitive dissonance produced by the world not ending.

She explained it this way: Most of us believe that we are above average- smarter than average, more ethical than average, just better than your average Joe off the street.  Sometimes, we’re presented with information that challenges this notion of ourselves. Here are some examples:

  • “I am a good, loving mother” VS “If these kids don’t get out of my face, someone’s gonna die today.”
  • “I am colorblind. I don’t see race.” VS “White people benefit from racism and almost all white people hold unchecked racial biases.”
  • “I love the sinner and hate the sin.” VS “LGBT+ Christians do not interpret Scripture the same way and are deeply wounded by straight Christian attitudes about their sexual orientation.”
  • “I’m a good, considerate person.” VS “I consistently put my foot in my mouth.”
  • “I’m a good singer” VS “No, you’re not.”

When this alternate narrative emerges that maybe we aren’t the best, brightest, nicest people in the world , we usually do one of two things.

Dismiss the evidence.

I see lots of this, particularly in our current culture of dismissing anything we don’t like as ‘fake news’. But we also do it with other things. For a long time, when LGBT+ Christians and their allies would try to tell me that I was missing something about their experience, that there isn’t just one way to read the Bible and interpret things, that my belief about their sexuality was directly contributing their feeling ostracized by God and His Church, I would dismiss them outright with an intellectual shoulder shrug.  “But the Bible says…” My belief that practicing homosexuality was wrong was such that there was no wiggle room for anyone else with differing opinions to be right, precisely because those two beliefs cannot coexist. Either it’s okay or it’s not. So, for a long time, I chose to deny listening to anyone else that believed differently than I did. I dismissed their evidence.

Adjust our self-image. 

I think I could argue that there are stages to how we respond to information that clashes with our sense of self and this would be the second stage. When I first started really listening to people of color talk about racism, my kneejerk reaction was to dismiss them outright. After all, I had a handful of friends of color and none of them had ever told me about racism they’d experienced. I’d certainly never seen it. I lived in a blissful colorblind world. These race-baiting people of color must have it wrong.

It didn’t take too long for me to realize that they weren’t lying and I needed to listen. What followed next was a healthy dose of white guilt. You see, if my self-image had been, “I’m a good person. I’m not a racist” and now I was discovering about all these biases I had, things I’ve ignored, hell, even things that I had ignorantly said to friends, my self-talk switched to “I’m not a good person. I’m a piece of shit racist!” Thankfully, I’ve moved out of that into stage 3 (which I’ll talk about below) but I want to sit here for a second because I’m really good at beating myself up.

Because I’m an Enneagram 1, I expect alot of myself, like damn near perfection. However, I also screw up alot, often in epic ways. If you are friends with me for any length of time, you have probably recieved an apology email from me. If not, it’s coming. As much as I want to never disappoint people in my life, I am still a human and I make mistakes. My perfectionism kicks in and I try to make things right as best I can, but the aftermath is ugly. Even after things are resolved with the other party, I might spend days thinking about it, feeling guilty, kicking myself for not preemptively not putting my foot in my mouth. I sit here, in this guilty, Eeyore stage, quite alot.

The problem is that it doesn’t really help anyone. The people in my life are generally not masochists and they don’t want me to flog myself over things that happened in the past, especially after I’ve tried to make it right.  Wallowing in guilt keeps me all up in my feelings, preventing me from centering the feelings of others who should be centered. Intellectually, I know that I’m not a crappy person but this stage keeps me feeling like I am emotionally.

It’s a terrible place to be.

Thankfully, there’s a third way. This neuroscientist said that while usually we do one of those two things- either dismiss the evidence or we wear hair-shirts and think that we’re terrible, our third option is good but it is one that requires emotional resiliency and pushing through some initial discomfort.

Discover that we can be a good people who sometimes do crappy things, even without meaning to.

Here’s an example of this: Right at the beginning of my worldview shift from colorblind to racially aware, I realized that I am biased against Black men. As a woman in 2018, I’m almost always aware of my surroundings, always on the lookout for suspicious people who could mean me harm. I regularly think through what I would do if approached by a man when I’m by myself in a parking lot. All things being equal (dress, age, attitude, affect, etc), I would be more afraid of a Black man than a white man. Last year, I was walking in my neighborhood and not paying attention until a Black teen rounded a corner right in front of me. I was very surprised at how quickly adrenaline flooded my body at the sight of him, even though he had done literally nothing to present himself as a threat. While my senses are heightened around white men when I’m by myself, my body doesn’t go into fight or flight mode as quickly. I am biased against Black men.

This realization crushed me. I’m really invested in being a good person who loves everyone and right here, in front of my face, was the reality that my body responds differently to Black men, even with no reason! I’m a racist!

I probably did spend some time wallowing in that truth but I kept reading and learning. Say what you want about social media but it has been integral for me in starting to undo all of the ways that I’m tied up in oppression. It’s allowed me to be a fly on the wall in discussions about racism, to listen in on the lived experiences of people of color and other marginalized groups. Heaven knows that adult adoptees and first parents who are willing to share their experiences have made me a better parent.

Anyway, I digress. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink helped me discover how I can try to counteract these unconscious biases that I picked up unknowingly from the world around me. He has a chapter on racial bias and talks about how people who hold racial biases can combat them by flooding their brain with positive images of the people you’re biased against AND building real life relationships that challenge the fake versions of people created by the media. I was more afraid of Black men because, in movies and TV and the news, Black men are often presented as dangerous. It’s rare for us to see benign depictions of Black men as fathers, loving husbands, knitters. Those messages, combined with my lack of friendships with Black men, lodged the message that Black men are dangerous in my brain.

Instead of dismissing the evidence that these biases were real or thinking that I am just a crappy, terrible person, I got to work. I accepted the evidence that I was biased and I looked around to try and fix it. I pushed through that initial discomfort and asked what I could learn from it and how I could do better.

I heard Austin Channing Brown speak this summer and my biggest takeaway from her interview was that white people really need to develop the chops to be emotionally resilient. We need to be able to hear “Black Lives Matter” and not have our kneejerk reaction be “WHAT ABOUT WHITE LIVES?” We need to be able to hear that our silence or our words have hurt marginalized people, without responding immediately from a defensive posture. Marginalized people, crushed under the weight of oppression, sometimes do not respond in a way that makes us feel good. Anger, pain, frustration, rage. Those can be hard emotions to handle, especially when they are directed at us. What if we actually listened to them?

We do discussions at our church during the sermons. A few weeks ago, in a sermon about submission, one of the men in our church told a story. This summer, my friend Sarah preached. When this man and his teenage daughter got home after Sarah’s sermon, she chewed him out for not exposing her to more female preachers in her lifetime. She was angry. Instead of getting mad at her for her tone or dismissing her feelings or immediately defending himself, he listened and responded with, “You’re so right. I could have done better.”

As soon as he said it, I started crying.  The lack of defensiveness, listening posture, and commitment to do better in the future without policing her anger really meant alot to me (and I wasn’t even involved in the conversation!) As a woman in church, whose desire to lead has historically been relegated to “the women and children”, who still has very little female representation in the pulpit or theology books, I found his response deeply meaningful. I realized how few times men in authority in my life have had that posture.

Now, I’m evaluating how I can have that same posture in relationships where my race or sexual orientation or citizenship status or economic status give me privilege. How can I be actively listening, owning my blindness or ignorance, and learning to do better?

Truth be told, the third way can be difficult. Sometimes, learning to listen to people who are angry can be hard, especially for us Southern “Let’s all be polite and not rock the boat” people. It can be very uncomfortable to acknowledge that you may have hurt someone unknowingly. But, similar to my terrible death Zumba classes, there is something magical that happens when we push through it.  We can actually survive difficult conversations; we can persist through the discomfort of anger directed at us; we can learn to do better by listening actively right now.

People with privilege, we need to build up our emotional perseverance. Much like my Zumba class, it starts with placing yourself under the direction of marginalized people and it might end with you red faced on the floor, but I promise you that you’re more resilient than you think you are and you’ll survive it.

Let’s listen empathetically. Let’s own our mistakes and learn from them. Let’s be committed to not running from discomfort but leaning into it because we know we might learn something.

Let’s do better. We can choose the third way and survive it.

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