As I write this, the United States has very recently elected a President who has been accused of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, ablism and anti-Semitism. These qualities have been likened to fascism. A number of the groups and individuals who supported the candidate were openly white Suprematist and/or neo-Nazi. Since the election, there has been an outbreak of hate crimes, hate incidents, hate speech, and harassment against those in traditionally discriminated against groups. These range from violent crimes to simple gloating and misapprehension of what supporters voted for. The Southern Poverty Law Center has recorded over 700 hate incidents as of November 18, 2016.
Even after forty years, I still remember the most important lecture I heard at college. It was delivered to me by a friend, standing in the dormitory hallway. I had once again done something thoughtless and self-centered. She had had it with me. She delivered a lecture on all of my failings, all of the ways I had let people down and acted in selfish self-interest. Defensively, I pushed back. But I also absorbed what she said.
Discussion of rank and privilege is not an everyday topic. In fact, it is often avoided and stirs up a multitude of feelings and emotions. It is too often a taboo topic and avoided. We need to discuss this important issue. In one of my speaking engagements on rank and privilege, just before going into the room, I overheard someone say they would not go to that particular discussion because they anticipated it would be too heated. It was not, and it does not have to be.
My daughter came home from Middle School where they were studying the Holocaust and asked me “Mommy, was grandpa a Nazi?” How do you answer such a question? Easy! I said “No”, because all of my life I had heard my parents rail against the Hitler regime. They sent my father to the Russian front and my mother to the basement for shelter from the Allied bombers attacking Berlin. But thirty years later, a fifth-grader in my French class, who was also learning about the Holocaust, asked me, “Why are the German people so awful?” Now the answer was not so easy, because the student unwittingly used a stereotype painting all present-day German people as Nazi criminals. Without going into the history of WWII, I briefly explained that not all Germans are awful, just like not all Americans are awful. Still, seeing an opportunity for a lesson, I taught the French words for “war and peace” (la guerre et la paix) and went on with class.
“We don’t have diversity problems here. It’s our neighbors south of the border who have those kinds of problems. Don’t forget, this is Canada, and remember, Toronto is the most diverse city in the world!” So said a group of Canadian professionals who were about to participate in a multi-day diversity workshop. These people may have been in denial, or perhaps they were just rationalizing. They were taking diversity to automatically mean a problem in the U.S., primarily with African Americans. After all, who hadn’t heard about the civil rights movement? So after a series of questions that allowed us to peel away the layers of reasoning proffered, these participants were able to acknowledge the issues, ultimately saying, “Yes, we do have diversity problems. It’s just that we are usually much too polite to talk about them, especially in mixed company.”
Do you recall the last time you heard a casual remark about the stereotype of one particular racial/ethnic group? These are not blatant racist jokes, but stereotypical comments such as:
“White men can’t jump.”
“Latinos are lazy.”
“Blacks are better runners.”
“Natives are drunks.”
“Asians can’t drive.”
Close your eyes. Imagine that you are the average white American in the early 21st Century. You can visualize yourself as president of your country (or country club). You can see yourself as the object of widespread adulation for winning an Oscar or Olympic gold. You have no difficulty picturing yourself as a graduate of Stanford or Harvard or Duke, as an inventor, as a diplomat or a thousand and one other achievements. But when you focus your mind on your fellow Americans of African or Asian or Native or Latin heritage, what do you imagine then? What images spring to mind?
Recently in the news, a woman was out to lunch and overheard a group of male IBM business executives speaking publicly (well actually privately, but in a public place) about not wanting to hire young women who are in their childbearing years because they get pregnant again and again.
I raised my hand during kindergarten class in 1979 when I was 5-years old and announced that I’m black. I actually got up on my feet to say it. I am black. And then afterward I sat back down again. I don’t remember what we were supposed to be doing at the time.
In and of itself, this announcement wasn’t all that unusual. The teacher was black, and we were sitting on the carpet of a classroom in the Washington DC area, which meant that plenty of the children around me were also black. What I said wasn’t glaringly out of place, if you can forgive the timing of it. The real problem with what I said—and the reason why the children laughed and I was sent to the principal’s office—was that I am not black.
On Christmas Day 1938 the head of the Bahá’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi, wrote a very important letter to the Bahá’i communities residing in the United States and Canada. (The letter was later published as a book under the title The Advent of Divine Justice.) It was the eve of World War II. The Empire of Japan had already invaded China in July 1937. In March of 1938 Nazi Germany had absorbed Austria into the Third Reich. In September 1938 the Germans forced Czechoslovakia to cede part of its territory to Germany. On November 9, 1938 many German Nazis attacked and destroyed Jewish businesses and synagogues in the pogrom later known as Kristallnacht (Crystal Night). Against this background of world events, Shoghi Effendi wrote this letter.