Hidden Challenges: Social Diversity in Conflict

“The influence of social diversity in conflict is complex and challenging. It may be on the table for discussion or buried in the taken-for-granted background. No matter where or how social diversity presents, it shapes assumptions and options for everyone involved. Acknowledging the realities of these dynamics opens up difficult conversations, but is a necessary step if we are to understand how they already shape our conflicts and their possible resolution.”

I wrote this back in 2008 and then sort of forgot about it. Besides wanting to replace “subordinate / dominant” with something more like “marginalized / privileged ” I think it holds up okay.

Cringe Worthy

So I’ve been doing this racial justice work for a little while and most days think I might have some kind of clue, while never forgetting I also have all kinds of blind spots. Remembering that I have blind spots and noticing them are two different kinds of things.

Today a book took the blinders off another one.

I’m making my way through Nice Racism by Robin Diangelo.  In it she writes about credentialing, one of the ways people of European ancestry behave to prove we’re not racist. This includes things like talking about our Black Friend (or child), or that we live in diverse neighborhoods, or that we don’t even notice race. The one that caught me up short was our attempts to create “false kinship” with Black people we don’t know or don’t know well. It’s like we want to go to the party without anyone noticing we weren’t invited.

The thing is, I do this. The way I’m aware of is subtle, but that almost makes it worse. I try to connect with Black and Brown people I pass on the street with a little eye contact and a little head nod. I learned about this by noticing BIPOC people sometimes doing this with each other to (I imagine) create zones of connection and safety as they go through their days. I do it because I want them to think I’m okay. At best this is intrusive and rude. At worst it disrupts that zone of safety.

So now I will stop doing this.

I won’t stop smiling at people when that little spark of humanity leaps between strangers on the street, but I will stop pretending I know how to dap* with Black and Brown people. Really, I was the only person I was ever close to fooling.

* Dap is a friendly gesture of greeting, agreement, or solidarity between two people that has become popular in Western cultures, particularly since the 1970s, originating from African American communities. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giving_dap)

Image: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/dap

When I Knew

Insiders know and outsiders see.

It is a truism in the social sciences that insiders know and outsiders see. We all are experts on what it is to live as us with those like us, but we are sometimes blind to what others know about us: Teenagers know their angst but not that it will pass, fast drivers feel their own power but not their impact on traffic, and white people don’t generally have to know how we look to others. This is a true story about how I was given the gift of an outsider point of view of my whiteness and how that changed me.

Racism teaches me that my story is the center of everything. Beyond the necessary self-centeredness of toddlerhood and the self-absorbed drama of high school is another layer sustained into adulthood which tells me that I get to be what normal is, and that I get to “belong” just about where ever I am. It does this by telling me, and others, that they are not the center of their own story, that they do not define standards of success, and that they do not completely belong even in their own homes doing perfectly normal things.

Looking back over my life I see that the lie of this story that my whiteness was the center of everything peeked out all the way along, including through my parents’ sympathetic conversations about the civil rights movement, and the high school friendship that fell apart when I was surprised by the lack of any white faces in her family photographs and didn’t know how to understand or process that discomfort.

As a child, I did not know how deep the history and impact of racism ran, or how strong the resistance to it was in the first few decades of my life, though I was aware of the four girls bombed in their church, and King’s murder, and students riding buses for voting rights. And I knew when SNCC told white organizers they’d have to leave and do their own work elsewhere, because some of them were family friends. My point in this brief and incomplete review is that issues of racism shaped my consciousness before I had a name for them.

Though I had been prepared by these experiences, the moment I first FELT my “normalcy” as a lie and set about learning a truer story happened half a lifetime ago in a world where I was distinctly not the norm. It happened because I accepted an invitation to cross a bridge of friendship into a different world, if only momentarily, and let myself be changed by what happened there.

The event which served as the fulcrum, the pivot point, in the story of my racial awareness began when I traveled to Jamaica with a group of friends. One of my fellow travelers went there regularly and was friends with a man who lived on the island, Horace. Horace became part of our group, helping with arrangements and showing us around. He and I spent time talking the first few days of the trip, stumbling over my challenges understanding his way of speaking to compare how we each understood the world. Then he took us all to a beach near his home.

To get there we loaded up in two boats, which I’m sure have names which would evoke for you the long, low, motorized crafts from which I could trail my hand in the water as we ran through the sea, but I don’t have those words and can only tell you that we climbed into them from the resort’s beach, and then we rode around an island whose geography was not part of my internal maps, and we ended up on the black-sanded beach near Horace’s home and there we spent a lovely day.

And then it was the end of the day and time to go back and we returned to the boats and, as people were climbing in, Horace asked if I wanted to stay and see his home. In that moment on which the rest of my life pivoted I plunged through the unknown and said yes, and then watched as my friends from my home rode away from a place I didn’t know the name of to a place I could not have found on a map. After they were out of sight I stood on the beach with Horace and watched a man wearing a machete stride toward us, and I hoped that the voice that had told me to stay had been intuition and not something less true.

Horace’s home was up the hill in the jungle that met the sea. The building was made of branches and thatch for which I did not, do not, know the proper words. The lighting was kerosene, the cook fire put off fumes which made me queasy, and I remember cassava root in all the meals they shared with me.

“They” were Horace and his neighbors. We sat up late that night, mostly with them talking and me trying to track the conversation through a version of English I couldn’t follow well. At first I was aware of being the “other” there, in culture, class, race, and gender, but the others didn’t seem to care so I sat with them. As I sat there not talking much, taking in what I could of their stories and letting the rest go by, my awareness of our differences began to fade.

In the morning Horace and I headed back to the resort. We walked on well-worn paths through the trees to a dirt track which brought us to a small cluster of brightly painted homes where we got into a taxi with four or five other people to get to a town where we disembarked to wait for a bus to back to my friends from home.

It was mid-afternoon. The town square bustled with kids in uniforms headed home from school, vendors selling vegetables, clothing, and pots and pans from carts and store fronts, and people going from where they were to where they needed to be.

I was in a bit of an altered state from the overwhelm of being in so many new settings so fast, the queasiness from the cooking fumes, and the lack of sleep from sitting up late into the night, so I was just hanging out until the next thing happened when a little orange sedan drove into the traffic circle, stopped for moment while a few tourists leaned out their windows to take pictures and then drove away again. This happened so quickly that I became aware of my reactions only as they left.

The first was anger at “those white people” for treating the people and place as something to be claimed and consumed, though I’m not sure how much of that was my emotion and how much I picked up from the ripple through the crowd. My second reaction was the startled realization that, in many critical ways, I had more in common with the people in the car than those around me. It occurred to me that, besides the people in the car, I was the only white person I’d seen since the boats pulled away from Horace’s beach, and I noticed that, for a day or so, I’d forgotten that I was white.
It turns out I haven’t been able to forget this since.

I framed this story Insiders Know, Outsiders See because I wanted to capture that moment in which I first saw myself as white through the eyes of others, as the carrier of a problem I do not want to be part of.

I didn’t know at the time how much it would change me. I was angry and startled and then a bus came and we went back to the resort and, after a few more days, I returned to the States. I didn’t know until I got back that, in that moment in the square, I had lost something: I had lost the ability to turn off noticing racism. In one moment for which I had spent a lifetime preparing, the shell that protected me from really seeing racism shattered, and I was naked in the face of it.

Everywhere I looked I saw and felt the physical, intellectual, and emotional impacts of racism in a much deeper way than I had before. I no longer had a choice about noticing it. Even though I was not its target, this consciousness wiped me out. It was weeks before I could build filters back up, not to not know or see, but to take it in at a more manageable rate. At that moment in the square it became impossible for me to ignore racism or to accept it without resistance.

I have not always been graceful, aware, or smart in this resistance. Like most (maybe all) white people I’ve been quite bad at it sometimes. De-centering my own whiteness is an ongoing process, but I could not have made whatever progress I have without people who were willing to offer me bridges into what they know about themselves as insiders of other racial identities.

But perhaps more important to my growth was (is) that some people inside other racial identities have been willing to share their outsider knowledge of my racial identity.
This is a more risk-filled bridge for them to cross than any I have ever gone over: In sharing with me what they see about me, they risk triggering my defensiveness and possible resulting attack from the power position of my whiteness. Even if they have the tools to deflect an attack, they need to decide if the risk or hassle is worth it on that particular day.

Most of my progress has come from people who were willing to take this risk, whether through their public writing or art, or with me directly. Horace and his neighbors didn’t explicitly tell me what they saw, but they permitted me into their world in a way that let me glimpse myself through others’ eyes.

In the decades since I decided not to get into that boat, I have come to understand that some of the barriers to communicating insider awareness may be insurmountable, and that people in targeted groups have no choice but to notice what outsiders think they see about them, but the learning which has taken me deepest is a dual consciousness about my own racial identity, a consciousness that first awoke that day I watched my insider group ride away in two boats and set about learning what outsiders know about me.

(image from http://www.fisher-price.com)

Welcome! Talking About Racial Identities

I’ve had a few people join me as followers recently, so thought I’d say “glad to have you”, and (while I’m here) mention that I’m part of a team leading a conversation about race in Epsom, NH on Tuesday 10/23/18. Contact me here for details, or if you want to know how to bring a two hour conversation to your group in southern NH. Highly informal welcome.


Insiders know, Outsiders see

This is a slightly polished version of a story I recently told at a local story telling event. It’s about a critical turning point in my racial self awareness.

It is a truism in the social sciences that insiders know and outsiders see. We all are experts on what it is to live as us with those like us, but we are sometimes blind to what others know about us: Teenagers know their angst but not that it will pass, fast drivers feel their own power but not their impact on traffic, and white people don’t generally have to know how we look to others. I am here today to share with you a true story about how I was given the gift of an outsider point of view of my whiteness and how that changed me…

They Are All “Our” Kids

Kids are on my mind today.

Not not having them–that ship sailed a long time ago by choice—but loving them, what they need, all the ways to harm them.

First in the queue, of course, are the families being torn apart in our name for a crime the weight of passing a bad check (and sometimes for legally presenting themselves for refuge from the violence and poverty of their homes.)  If you are reading this around the time I write this you are already being flooded with the images of terrified children and freaked out parents trying to keep it together to make it easier for their babies, and that awful chorus of children screaming in terrified need for mami and papi. If it’s later, look up Trump, zero deterrent, and children. This will be part of history and, unless we rise up, history won’t be kind.

Second on my mind are all the vignettes of parents with their kids at the airports where I just spent time. You’ve seen them. Tired parents, parents who maybe are marginal in  my opinion, parents who relate to their kids in ways that I think lead to thriving adults…. All loving their kids enough, all doing their best, all (that I could see) a safe anchor for their 4 to 16 year olds. All whose priorities would change in an instant if some person with “authority” ripped their child from their breast or took them away for a bath and never brought them back. Maybe we should start a milk carton/amber alert system for children whose trauma is being used to keep our borders safe. (If this “safe”, I’m not sure what values we think we’re protecting.)

Finally, one leg of my journey put me next to a seven-year-old who was flying for the first time, and flying alone. If she had been prepared for what to expect, she hadn’t retained it. After sitting next to her I asked if it was okay to talk to her, introduced myself, and spent the next five hours making it cool to be inside and above the clouds, asking her to tell me what she knew about the place she was going, what she was looking forward to, and letting her know it was okay to be a little nervous, that I might be, too. I also created space for her to be petulant and needy, because that helped her keep a sense of control. We talked about why ears pop and how to fix it, and how to make a pillow from her sweatshirt when she got too hot. At the end of our trip she hugged me like the only life jacket she could see in a whole lot of water, I told her I knew she’d be okay because I’d prayed for it (which I had, and which I knew fit her context), and got her permission to kiss her on the head. She has been on my heart ever since.

I wish for all of those kids in the detention centers that some adult will give them a little of what I was able to give my fellow passenger, and I am trying to figure out what I can do to help them get back to the place they ought to be getting it from.

p.s. I also gave Corniesha my Black Lives Matter pin and talked about how it included her. I am a little curious what her relatives will make of her story of the white woman who gave it to her. She took my number, so maybe they’ll text to ask. I’d like that, to know she got there okay.

Maybe We’ll Do Better This Time?

I was going to write about guns and culture and why kids protesting death by guns didn’t get attention or money until mostly white students with some privilege stood up. But then I realized I should shut up and let people tell their own stories.

> The amazing Emma González writing in Teen Vogue (which you should check out if you don’t know about and which you will miss when they fold) including:

We Stoneman Douglas students may have woken up only recently from our sheltered lives to fight this fight, but we stand in solidarity with those who have struggled before us, and we will fight alongside them moving forward to enact change and make life survivable for all young people. People who have been fighting for this for too long, others who were never comfortable enough to openly talk about their experiences with gun violence, or still others who were never listened to when opening up about their experiences with gun violence or were afraid to speak out — these are the people we are fighting with and for.

The media afforded a group of high school students the opportunity to wedge our foot in the door, but we aren’t going through this alone. As a group, and as a movement, it’s vital that we acknowledge and utilize our privilege, use our platforms to spread the names of the dead and the injured, promote ideas that can help spread kindness rather than hostility, support those who aren’t being heard, take our voices and use them together with the megaphones provided.

> The editorial staff of the Parkland School student newspaper, The Eagle Eye, who lay out a comprehensive and detailed set of policy changes, including changing the law so you have to be old enough to buy a handgun (21) before you can buy an AR-15 (currently 18).

> Dahleen Glanton of the Chicago Tribune, who unpacks the discomfort we have rising up in mass opposition to the murder of Youth of Color by the police.

The Black Lives Matter movement is extremely marginalized. It is specifically about protecting African-American lives. It will take much more effort to get the rest of America on board with that cause.

> Michael Harriot of The Root (a go-to site for me about racial identity politics and culture) who gets into how we collectively respond when Black youth protest to save their own lives.

The 17 lives ended in the halls of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shouldn’t matter any more than the countless ones snuffed out by the drug war, police brutality and—yes, I’ll say it this time—black-on-black crime. You don’t think black kids want to feel safe, too? Contrary to the belief of police officers and “All Lives Matter” activists, black bodies are not bulletproof.

> And finally, because information and tips to deal with these messes never hurt.

To do this we must act swiftly and lead the conversation about genuine school safety and lift up the voices of young people of color and communities that are most deeply impacted. We must simultaneously support the end to gun violence AND promote a vision for our schools that centers solutions that work and truly create safe and healthy environments for all. We offer the following ways to talk about gun violence and school safety to uplift racial justice.

Laughing at Sexual Harassment

Lately I’ve been hanging out with someone when they watch Third Rock from the Sun.

For those who don’t know it, it’s a comedy television show which ran from 1996 – 2001. The premise is that a group of aliens are sent to earth, disguised as a human family, to experience and report life on the 3rd planet from the sun. The cast includes John Lithgow, Jane Curtain, and a young Joseph Gordon- Levitt, and the observations about the silliness of human culture is fun, but….


Wired deep into the humor of the show is a fundamental assumption that men will assertively sexualize women (and girls) and it will be (1) assumed to be normal and (2) deflected and laughed off (or (3) welcomed.)

The first scene here (to 1:19) is pretty representative

It seems to happen at least once each episode. I wonder if the writers and actors even noticed.

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CONTACT: theother.azzi@gmail.com __________________________ Welcome to all who are interested in engaging my views on the Middle East, on Islam, on being Muslim in America, and on issues of Conflict and Identity to an archive of my commentary as well as some selections of other work, comments and profiles. ______________________________ All content ©Robert Azzi 2022 / All Rights Reserved unless otherwise noted or attributed.

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