“I take two steps forward, I take two steps back…”
The first line of those lyrics to the 1989 hit song, “Opposites Attract,” composed by Oliver Leiber and sung by Paula Abdul, swirled in my head as I thought about how to pick up from part one of this article series. If I apply those lyrics to matters of race, lack of racial progress in particular, what baby steps come to mind and what do two (or more) steps back look like?
Now for those of you that read it, Part 1 was about Phyllis and Eugene Unterschuetz’ RV journey across the nation, leading discussions about racial healing. That work culminated in their book, “Longing Stories in Racial Healing,” which they talked about during the November meeting of the 26 Tiny Paint Brushes writers’ guild. I ended part one with this challenge and question – “What should we, as individuals, consider doing next to further racial progress?”
Coincidentally, the same night I started writing part two, I re-watched some of Steven Spielberg’s drama film based on Alice Walker’s book, “Color Purple”. You know it, right? Well in case you don’t, in 1985 Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Margaret Avery turned the film world upside down as they portrayed the very real experiences of Southern Blacks in the early 20th century. Funny thing is (pun intended) the same stuff we saw in that movie is still going on today.
More than three decades after the film’s release, our screens are too often laced with images and accounts of Black men, boys, women, and girls brutally attacked, demonized, and falsely accused of all sorts of things. Arguably, the United States’ racial “reawakening” call sounded when literally millions of people watched the agonizing replays of George Floyd’s life draining out of his body underneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.
So yes, race relations have without doubt taken steps forward, then steps back.
And no, there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to racism. The facts are the facts; the data is the data.
To wit: Black men are incarcerated at significantly higher rates than their White counterparts, resulting in many Black children living in single parent homes, often raised by their mothers or grandmothers.
Writers’ guild co-founder, Terry Howard, believes for us to step through contemporary racial minefields, without stepping on a “live one” that can cause us to retreat or take two, three, four or more steps back, we should start by “deactivating” the language landmines.
“We must learn to navigate conversations around topics that are deeply personal and complex without severely damaging and possibly ruining relationships. Although I don’t have all the answers, I do know and understand that words are powerful and loaded with personal histories. For example, the mere mention of the word “race” or by extension, the words “racist” or “racism,” can conjure pain, denial, fair and unfair accusations, and guilt”, says Howard.
While I don’t have data to prove it, I believe many White people fear being labeled “racist,” which can be the ultimate relationship (and potential career) ender. Given most of the power has always resided in their hands, too many instead choose to shrug their shoulders or sidestep race-based conversations rather than risk the potential landmines words can bring.
“Engaging honestly with a subject like racism means facing down centuries of injustice and inequalities that have been embedded in our society long before we were born,” writes Anna Sale in her excellent book, “Let’s Talk About Hard Things.”
“This means that depending on who you are, the workloads in such conversations are different. Those with the least power and privilege have often had to carry the burden of explaining the costs and historical consequences of dividing, overpowering and excluding based on identity.”, Sale says.
Howard recommends these baby steps towards racial progress for some (big steps for others):
- Ask yourself honestly the WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?) question with respect to developing and improving your Racial IQ.
- Uncover your racial blind spots. Harvard University’s online Implicit Association Test is a great tool for self-discovery of hidden biases.
- Identify a racial feedback partner; someone of another race that you trust.
- Let no biased public comment go unanswered.
- Read books, articles, etc., written by non-traditional authors.
- Attend a place of worship with a different racial composition than yours, then have dinner with your racial feedback partner to discuss what you learned.
- Expand your knowledge of inclusive terms, terminology, and language of inclusion.
Further writes Anna Sale, “When I go into hard conversations about identity, I also have to gird myself for some new realizations about how my blind spots and indifferences have hurt others and be prepared to feel more unsettled than I was before I started the conversation. I have to expect and accept a lack of closure and the experience of not knowing.”
Stay tuned for the final part in this series. In the meantime, I encourage you to take at least two of Terry Howard’s baby steps forward, knowing full well that even if you fall flat on your face you’re actually moving forward. It’ll arguably be more racial progress than taking two steps back.
- The Audacity of Baby Steps and Hope! (Part 2) – by Leslie Nelson - January 14, 2023
- The Audacity of Baby Steps and Hope!(Part 1) – by Leslie Nelson - December 2, 2022