Unsure How to Help? Ask Madeleine

Dear Readers,

This week I am using this space to address my own questions—questions that have been on many people’s minds:

How can I help? What can I do? What actions might count?

We can no longer look away. The time has come to challenge ourselves to be better humans. It is hard to know what to do. We are intimidated into shutting up—the risk of saying the wrong thing and being mocked and humiliated on social media is real. I lost sleep over the possible hazards of writing this column. I am sure I will offend someone who disagrees with me. And probably someone who agrees with what I say, but has a quibble with how I say it. It is a lose-lose. I would much prefer to be answering a work-related question.

But if not now, when?

I went to our Diversity and Inclusion expert, La’Wana Harris, and asked her for guidance. This is what she sent me. I think it is a great starting place.

How to Talk to Black People Right Now

Don’t—unless you’re willing to do your own self-work, educate yourself, and follow through with meaningful action.

The often well-meaning, but superficial, version of allyship for traumatized black people as they grieve another senseless death of an unarmed black man is counterproductive. As a society, we have demonstrated a tragically inept capacity for addressing social issues. It’s not from a lack of capable individuals and organizations. Social heroes have tried for centuries to lead us, hand in hand, out of the abyss of historical and present-day crimes with extreme grace, temperance, and sacrifice. The books have been written, the workshops facilitated, and the artwork displayed. We have dedicated physical space, digital space, mental space, and spiritual space to the thankless work of guiding the community out of the clutches of systemic oppression and its toxic impacts. But now is not the time to open up a dialogue unless you are fully vested in moving beyond lip service. There’s a lot of energy around what needs to be said and not enough focus on what needs to be done.

People opposed to injustice and bigotry are tired. Black people are the focus, but we don’t own this issue. We aren’t the only people suffering from our dehumanization. Make the decision to make this personal. Take this problem on. Do your research, discuss it first with the non-black people around you, and come ready to mobilize. Be intentional about being on the right side of history during this time of unrest.

If you feel lost and don’t understand the deep historical and systemic aspects of what’s happening right now, you should commit to studying long enough to catch up. The enlightenment of white people is an inside-out job. Check out some of these resources and know that this is not the time to make a request of black people to take responsibility for something that you can do for yourself.

Are you willing to correct inappropriate statements among your friends? Are you willing to be uncomfortable and push through the awkward moments for the sake of meaningful progress? Are you ready to face the harsh realities of power, privilege, and systemic racism in America? If so, let’s talk.

Madeleine again. So: First, get educated. If you have had your head down, paying attention to other things, look up and look around. Read. Print out the resources, order the books, and read them. Watch the documentaries with your family. Identify the sticking points in your own thinking—and possibly speech—that reveal your own unconscious bias. Everyone is biased. It is almost impossible not to be. Ms. Harris says:

You shouldn’t feel guilty about having biases. Everyone has bias as part of our cognitive response system to help protect us from danger. We need cognitive shortcuts to know when to heed our fight/flight instincts. Bias becomes problematic when it’s based on erroneous thinking. Awareness is a good first step.

The next step is to pay attention to what you may have thought, done, or said that triggered the behavior that betrays your bias. That way, you can build on your awareness to understand what triggers your bias reaction. Then, ask yourself ‘How does this affect how I show up? How does it keep me from being my best self?’ Finally, you can build some practices, habits, or rituals to support your best intentions.

Identify what you think is important to you and use those principles to make decisions about what you are willing to commit to.

Examine Ms. Harris’s questions: Are you willing to correct inappropriate statements among your friends? Are you willing to be uncomfortable and push through the awkward moments for the sake of meaningful progress?

I know this about myself: I am a big conflict avoider. It is rarely an issue with friends but in business and family gatherings, it can get sticky. I get worried about being perceived as too serious or too political. Who am I, after all, to censure others? But now more than ever before, it is clear that I am no longer allowed to be gutless. I have to say something in the moment. It is appropriate to censure the unacceptable. And I know to be ready to do that, I need to have language and I need to practice saying things out loud so I am ready.

I did a little digging on potentially what to say, and the long and short of it is that we have to call it out when we hear it. No blame—no judgment even—just nope. Not acceptable. “That’s racist, and we don’t allow that kind of talk in our home” or “I think what you’re saying is biased and mean—please don’t use that kind of language around me.” Maybe we won’t be brave enough or ready the first time we need it, but if we stay focused, we will get there.

Discomfort is unpleasant. I have arranged my life very specifically to be comfortable, and I like it a lot. But I know I need to get a lot more uncomfortable. And look what I found for inspiration. Luvvie Ajayi defines herself as a troublemaker, and, well, wow. She challenges us to say what needs to be said when it needs to be said. Her rules for speaking up in ways that you won’t regret are:

  • Do you mean it?
  • Can you defend it?
  • Can you say it with love?

I can live with these rules. Bet you can, too.

Courage is required. Most difficult situations require us to do hard things. Angeles Arrien, the author of The Four Fold Way; Walking the Paths of the Warrior, Teacher, Healer and Visionary says this about courage: “Where we are not strong hearted is where we lack the courage to be authentic or to say what is true for us. Strong heartedness is where have the courage to be all of who we are in our life. The word courage is derived from the French word for heart, coeur, and etymologically it means ‘the ability to stand by one’s heart or to stand by one’s core.’ Whenever we exhibit courage, we demonstrate the healing power of paying attention to what has heart and meaning for us.”

I expect my reading and watching will reveal what meaningful action makes sense for me. I am ready to commit at least as much time to educating myself, making a plan, and following through on that plan as I do to every other thing that is important to me.

So can you. Stand by your heart.

If not now, when?

Love, Madeleine

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