We all want to be comfortable. We start each day, hoping it will go smoothly, even when we fear it won’t. So, it’s not surprising that we don’t want to talk about race. It’s rarely a comfortable topic, and there’s a good chance someone is going to be offended. It might even be you.
Last year, on Martin Luther King Day, it was me. My personal partner and I attended the MLK Now event at The Riverside Church, where Dr. King gave his famous speech against the Vietnam War–exactly one year before he was assassinated. (This was especially significant to us this year because we have been watching Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War film series and are pretty uncomfortable about some of the details we were not taught in school.) I expected and wanted messages of unity among the races, as that is what I know Dr. King to promote to a large extent. I might have also needed those messages.
The MLK holiday is always challenging for me because the night before is the anniversary of the night I was violently assaulted on my way home from a peacemaking workshop. My assailant was a 14-year-old boy of color whose Facebook page suggested he wanted to be in a gang, if he wasn’t already in one, or he at least wanted to be perceived as a gang member who had access to a lot of money, sex with girls, and marijuana to smoke. The police and prosecutors suspected I was targeted because I was female, if not also because I am white, but I don’t want to adopt their suspicions without sufficient evidence of this, and I certainly don’t want to project one teenager’s actions on all people of his age, gender, ethnicity, or affiliations. So, perhaps I go to the MLK Now event to keep my brain’s amygdala from playing those tricks on me.
As imperfect as I sometimes act on my commitment, I want to be part of the solution to racial tensions, which is why it was hard for me to remember much beyond the anger and hatred toward “white girl tears”. I sat in the pew with tears filling my eyes, not because I wanted attention. I don’t think I was even able to do that as a child, when I wanted something. I was emotional because I was experiencing empathy.
Although I am limited in my understanding of racial exclusion and institutional racism, I can relate to the pain of exclusion from groups that are important to me. My family has excluded me from many activities since my mother was too ill to go home without 24-hour care, seven days per week. After she died, I was faced with the choice of accepting emotional and possibly physical abuse or creating family elsewhere. I chose not to accept the abuse, which is what I assume a lot of people do when they are being oppressed and see no way for that to end. My situation is very different, so I try to imagine it 10 times worse. I cry because that is the pain I suspect my brown brothers and sisters face, and I hurt with them.
Then, I try to imagine having the majority of systems built to not only exclude me, but to limit my chances of inclusion, if not also of survival. Again, it’s not the same, but I have to start with something I can relate to.
I think about the people at my Catholic school who suggested I was eternally damned because my parents were divorced. In their eyes, nothing I could do would be good enough for heaven. In several of my early jobs, I was excluded from opportunities that men had because my supervisors couldn’t stop focusing on my gender, rather than my skill set. Family members and friends even tried to limit me to “women’s roles”.
At times, I thought I would never be acknowledged as the complete human being I am, regardless of my gender, economic background, and family structure. It was painful and frustrating. I multiply that by 10, in an attempt to understand, and my understanding again causes tears.
I kept wondering why my tears were so wrong. Despite my discomfort and fear for my safety, I stayed at the event last year. I didn’t leave with an epiphany, but I did leave with a deeper commitment to listening with compassion (Third Ear Listening) and to creating the unified world race I think most of us want, even if it seems a little scary or unlikely. I wrote a poem to free the emotions (Choice #4 in the Third Ear Conflict Resolution process) from my experience. Then, I soldiered on.
Last September, for the American Bar Association’s Relational Practices Telesummit, I recorded a program that grew from the 2018 MLK Now event. I’m still learning, but I got that in trying to keep me safe, my brain was playing tricks on me and perceiving danger that wasn’t imminent, if real at all. There is often a chance that I could be targeted for my race, but I am part of the majority race in the United States. It is more likely that a minority will be targeted, and that makes me physically sick to my stomach. I’m still working on action plans to largely alleviate that.
Even if we can’t fully eliminate racism and hatred of any kind, there are actions we can take toward that goal. We must not shirk our duties to create something better, solely because perfection is unlikely.
That is what I am up to today. At 12 PM, I will host a Free Law Talk on Implicit Bias and how to overcome our brains when they play tricks on us, based on our perceptions of race. Then, I will be headed to the 2019 MLK Now event.
I am open to being uncomfortable–with my thoughts and feelings, as well as others’ ideas and expressions. I’m ready for plans we can take action on right away, and I invite you to share your suggestions. If the conflicts among races, religions, and economic classes could be resolved in any way possible, what would happen?
Let’s make this the best year yet–for each of us.
Need additional training?
- Diversity Training
- Using Your Third Ear to Uncover Implicit Biases
- We Must Be the Change We Wish to See
Nance L. Schick, Esq. is a New York City attorney and mediator who focuses on keeping people out of court and building their conflict resolution skills, especially in business and employment disputes. Her holistic, integrative approach to conflict resolution draws from her experience as a crime victim, human resources supervisor, minor league sports agent, and United Nations representative. She is a 2001 graduate of the State University of New York Buffalo Law School trained in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), and International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation (ICERM). She is also creator of the Third Ear Conflict Resolution process, author of DIY Conflict Resolution: Seven Choices and Five Actions of a Master, and an award-winning entrepreneur, who has been acknowledged by Super Lawyers (ADR, 2018), the New York Economic Development Corporation/B-Labs (Finalist, Best for NYC 2015 & 2016), U.S. Chamber of Commerce (2015 Blue Ribbon Small Business), Enterprising Women Magazine (Honorable Mention, 2014 Woman of the Year awards), and Urban Rebound NY/Count Me In (Finalist, 2013 Pitch Competition).