Saturday, July 20, 2013

Living (Surviving?) in a Post Trayvon World

My sons are not expendable
Thanks to George Zimmerman, a man whose toy cop zeal initiated a chain of events that led to him shooting dead Trayvon Martin, my unborn son gets to be birthed in a country where the life of a dog seems to have greater value than that of an African American boy. (People go to jail for running a dog fighting business.)
               As a result of the literal interpretation of Stand Your Ground statutes in Florida and other states, the eight-year-old kid I regularly mentor has to grow up learning early- and mid-20th century post-slavery survival techniques, in addition to reading and writing and arithmetic.
               Because of those statutes, combined with Right to Carry gun laws, my young adult son gets to raise his own kids with the possibility that someone who looks like him can be bullied, then gunned down for no reasons other than the color of his skin, being in the wrong place, and/or having an uppity attitude – just like 100 years ago.
               As for me, I get to grow old knowing my sons are considered by a lot of people as largely expendable. That they can be gunned down out of someone’s fear of their black skin or in anger – and our court system just might not hold anyone accountable, shrug its collective shoulders and point to the letter of the law.
               Admittedly, there has been significant progress in some quarters as it relates to racism at the individual level. Yet young African American males still remain the pariah of a nation that regularly exports values like liberty and justice for all around the world but systematically curbs and in some cases ignores those same rights on our own soil.
               People claim incidents like what happened to Trayvon Martin are ‘complicated’ and ‘tragic’ and insist ‘race played no factor.’ Yet this historically familiar scenario plays out time and again for African Americans on the wrong side of a gun. Or not too long ago, a noose.
Trayvon Martin vigil at Sojourner Truth monument
               Why do laws and human rights always seem to be a moving target when it comes to justice for people of color? While some white people are fed up, others crack jokes like Zimmerman’s defense attorney Don West did after a trial in which someone lost his life. Still others, such as Florida State prosecuting attorney Angela B. Corey, play politics by delivering a losing side ‘thank you speech’ that featured all the pompous platitudes displayed at a post-Super Bowl press conference.
               Thanks to the Zimmerman verdict, my sons have to contemplate which white man (or woman) with a gun on his hip might follow, intimidate, harass and then shoot them. And wonder what are the chances the shooter will bear no significant consequences for his actions. Especially if there are no witnesses. After all, African American males seem to be considered suspect in general. Zimmerman’s exoneration implicitly suggests that if followed by a strange white man, black men and boys have no right to fear for their lives, talk back or take action when challenged on an empty street.
               My sons get to re-live a time when keeping your head down, saying, “yes ‘um,” and never, ever losing their temper to any white person increases the odds of survival.
               And me? I get the chance to hear people say, “You’re overreacting and paranoid. None of that Jim Crow stuff could ever happen again; this is America.” But it’s already happening, in obvious and not so obvious ways.
               Still, I believe we all can do better; we just need more people talking about and addressing issues of race, rather than insisting no problem exists. Do it for your children. For my sons.They are not expendable.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Keep Relationships on Track by Listening for Understanding

Holy hearing, Batman!
I have really good hearing. No joke; it’s 20/20, or whatever the equivalent measurement is called in the world of sound. Sometimes I believe my great hearing is divine compensation. That is, it’s an unexpected benefit of my having no sense of smell. Either that or I just pay attention to stuff sane human beings don’t bother listening for. In any event, that’s not what makes this ability of mine so interesting. Rather, it’s my uncanny power of filtering. I suspect others possess this unique if not dubious skill too.
Strange how often my self-described superior hearing seems to fail when it wants. Or is it when I want? It tends to happen at the most opportune moments – like when somebody’s telling me something I don’t particularly want to hear. Bad news for instance. Example: I’m preparing to go mountain biking and get reminded of unfinished household chores. Funny how that can disrupt my auditory senses. Then again, maybe I am hearing; it’s just that I’m not listening.
It’s especially annoying that this can happen when a person is telling me about myself. Maybe they’re sharing with me something I said or did – perhaps a word or phrase I uttered that was insensitive or worse, offensive. There have been times when such a thing occurred that my ability to listen has been derailed. Ego is usually the culprit; my mind rejects the other person’s assertion because I pride myself on being an open and tolerant individual; one who works hard in the world to see and respect each and every human being I encounter.
What did you say?
Problem is, I’m human too.  As such, I am subject to my share of gaffs and boo boos. Some the likes of which could surely make your toes curl. Sometimes these goofs come in the form of clowning that goes too far. In other cases, I simply get lazy and carelessly mouth off without thinking. I like to think the times I do this are far and between and that they are decreasing in frequency the older I get. I also like to credit all the various learning labs, seminars and other trainings I’ve been through over the past several years. These opportunities supposedly educate and raise my awareness of practices related to various -isms (racism, ableism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, etc.). Pick your poison; I’ve studied it.
The thing of it is I can still get things wrong. All that learning and supposed enlightenment and I can still slip up. What’s worse, sometimes I stubbornly try to defend my use of a word or phrase, rather than accept what was said as inappropriate, condescending or marginalizing. From there, it’s usually downhill and not in a good way. And it’s all because I’ve stopped listening to the one who has been ‘injured,’ instead, wrongfully focusing on my insistence that I’m a good person or that injury was not my intention.
I'm listening
The solution? Just listen. Listen closely and learn. For instance, when someone says you’ve said or done something harmful, be slow to jump to the, “I meant no offense” defense. And for heaven’s sake hold in the urge to tell someone to just, “Get over it.” That is, if your heart really is in the right place.
Rather than insisting that your intentions were right and honorable, instead seek to understand the impact of your words. That way, you just might find yourself with less egg on your face. Take it from one who has experienced these things, such an approach will go a long way in helping keep relationships from being unintentionally derailed.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Beat Holiday Stress by Not Expecting Perfection

I want this holiday to be perfect!

What is it about holidays? They’re the most joyous of times of the year for a lot of us. However, more times than not, that celebratory distinction can be dubious for some. That’s because the expectation for a perfect, stress free experience also makes holidays among the most stressful times of the year.
               Granted, not all holidays are created equal. Matter of fact, Independence Day may just be one of the least stressful. Barbecue tends to do that, I guess. Yet the truth remains that annual calendar celebrations often bring out the worst in some folks. Why is that?
               Reasons vary, I guess. Alcohol is a leading culprit. We’ve all witnessed how drinking can often be no laughing matter. The trouble is some folks get a wee too into the spirit. In a quest to have a good time, they often tip the bottle too far.
               Pressure is another perpetrator. Holidays are a time to relax and unwind. The problem is some people are so desperate to achieve nirvana that they wrack their own nerves (and everyone else’s) trying to get there. The result? Little things end up sabotaging their big picture desire for tranquility.
               Lack of family or friends is yet another foil that can disrupt a person’s dreams for a peaceful holiday. The need to be with others can be strong in people. Scientists say humans are wired to be social creatures and I for one believe it. So for some, being isolated can often amount to torture – in some cases self-inflicted. On the other hand, some individuals have little choice but to be alone.
Happy 4th
               At the other end of the spectrum, unexpected guests can influence a person’s attitude over holidays. This is especially true when Uncle Joe arrives with his awfully loud mouth. Or worse, awfully loud Hawaiian shirt. Then there’s ‘busy’ Aunt Minerva (who’s not really related) or Luther from around the way, or any number of neighbors or kin who fall through – complaining about everything and everyone. In-laws or outlaws, it makes no difference; their uninvited presence can deflate the joy of any occasion.
               The remedy for all this? Some might say reduce the number of holidays, conduct a boycott or embargo. Others favor just getting rid of them altogether. But those solutions are not an option for most. Besides, they’re half-baked remedies. Fact is, we love our time together celebrating. After all, we’re the hardest working country in the world, with our 60-hour work week and all. We deserve a break, right?
               Perhaps another, more reasonable choice is to get rid of the triggers that set off the anxiety, frustration and drama of it all. However for some, eliminating booze and all but the closest people is also not an option. That leaves few viable solutions and typically, the grin and bear it approach tends not to work so well. It may for guests, which typically don’t know or care that you’re a hair away from wigging out.
Here's to stress free holidays
So what to do? Good question. Trouble is, I’m a columnist, not a social psychologist. What I do know that works for me is to lower my expectations about holidays. That is to say, don’t minimize your excitement or anticipation for them. Rather, I expect the unexpected; realize that things can and will go wrong – even with the best of planning. I factor hiccups into my holidays. That way, when they happen, I can tell myself, ‘I told you so,’ pat myself on the back for being clairvoyant and get on with it. And if I get it wrong and everything goes off without a hitch, so much the better.