Monday, June 29, 2015

Dehumanizing People who are Different is No Joke

What's the big deal?
It’s so easy to make fun of people who look, think, talk, act or have abilities different than you. Those smile-in-your-face comments are meant to be funny but are ultimately demeaning. Being the constant butt of jokes is not only hurtful but can also be harmful. Even traumatic – especially when society largely accepts, affirms and promotes them.

              Most of us have at one time or another participated in such ridicule: through active speaking, passive listening and/or communal snickering. Thank film, television and social media for our collective conditioning. Those aren’t the only place we learn it. There’s also the bantering as youth on playgrounds, in classrooms, and at home listening to and mimicking parents, siblings, relatives and friends.

              The effect is additive; the more you hear the joking, the more acceptable it becomes. Especially when accompanied by that notorious accountability deflector, “I’m just kidding”.

              I have a 20-month-old son. That means I’ve watched the animated Dr. Seuss flick “The Lorax” more times than I can count. Several scenes and themes in this G-rated movie are disturbing. Things I doubt the writers thought were harmful. Yet they are.

              One centers on the notion that all women should look and behave a certain way. The scene in question involves a woman bearing what many would describe as stereotypic masculine characteristics. She is tall with broad shoulders, a stout torso and tough, fierce demeanor. In a seminal moment one of the characters quips with indignation, “That’s a woman?”


              Another series of scenes carry an equally marginalizing theme. It features a character who is physically much larger than the others. Each scene he’s involved in promotes a message: it’s okay to judge and ridicule people who are overweight. One scene depicts the larger character as lazy, compared to the others who are leaner. In another, we discover him hold up in the fridge slowly sucking down raw sticks of butter as if they were strands of spaghetti. Yet another has him huffing and puffing while trying to keep up with others who are on the run.

              There’s more. This one involves a play for humor at the expense of the elderly. An adult daughter berates her mother time and again in front of her young grandson, suggesting grandma is senile and outdated in her thinking. The message is clear: the elderly are irrelevant, useless burdens to society.

              It should be mentioned that the Dr. Seuss book features none of these insensitive displays.

This movie was funny to me... until I woke up.
              “The Lorax” isn’t the only movie saturated with stereotypes and systematically harmful social commentary.

              The standard rebuttal among ignorant and uncaring folks, those characteristically lacking empathy, is that political correctness is “out of control” and that people these days “just can’t take a joke.”

              The sad thing about it is that the harm doesn’t just stop at the person targeted on the receiving end. It also damages the one making the comment. With each barb, people who regularly do this are chipping away at their own humanity. Dehumanization is a precursor to prejudice, which leads to all sorts of nasty things. Like ableism, body shaming, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia – the list is endless.

              What to do? The obvious solution is to stop with the harmful jokes. Interrupt them when they’re happening. Sometimes in the moment, the teasing doesn’t seem so bad and only later do we realize someone might have been hurt or offended. In such cases, deep reflection is in order. Moving into your own feelings in an effort to experience empathy is also helpful. Another option might be to circle back around to the targeted person to check in with their feelings.

              Yes it can be risky. In some cases the person may vent their frustration on you. More likely, a targeted person will respond with something like, “No harm, no foul.” In others, you might find that your concern over the occurrence is just the soothing balm a person needed. In which case, it will all have been worth it.


Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at Lorax

Friday, June 26, 2015

More Than One Way to be a Father

All in the Family
I’m the luckiest father in the world. Biologically speaking, I have three children. Legally, that number rises to four. Socially, I claim yet another, which boosts my total to five. Three males, two females. These different ways of being a father have widened my perception of what fatherhood and parenting means. But the road to acceptance of those approaches hasn’t been easy.

              In addition to having fathered biologically, I have adopted. I also have assumed a self-described fatherly (okay, grandfatherly) role thanks to a close relationship with a very dear friend’s grandson. I have fathered married and unmarried, interracially and intra-racially. I’ve engaged in under-the-same-roof fathering and cross-country fathering. I have been an absent father as well as one who has been all-in.

              These various experiences have changed me. They’ve revised my perceptions of the role a father plays and helped shift my beliefs about what is possible and what is not. This includes revelations concerning my relationships with mothers.

              Over the years I have evolved from the quite inflexible position of not even considering partnering with women who had kids to wholeheartedly embracing the concept, even preferring it. And in the process kicking myself for ignorantly thinking otherwise.

              Credit all the wonderful moms who have touched my life. Each had critical roles in maturing my understanding of how (and how not) to be a father. Especially, my wife. Her fierce, nontraditional way of being is challenging me to rethink all I have come to understand about raising kids.

              Take adoption. Before my parenting journey began, adoption seemed a radical, if not unnatural option. Today, I realize it’s possible for a person to embrace an adopted child with the same depth and breadth of love as any biological son or daughter.

              Another former struggle for me was how I perceived a parenting environment should be structured. I grew up in the classic, traditional two-parent home with a sister. We all were biologically related.

How I used to react to dating moms with kids - stupidly.
              Naturally I gravitated to and envisioned such a family system for myself when the time came. Embedded in my mind were internal cultural pressures to conform, along with external social and media conditioning along the same line. Together, it indoctrinated me to reason that there was only one right way a family system should be structured.

              The result? A rigid, inflexible belief system that held monolithic values and one-dimensional thinking. Sadly, this came at the expense my rejecting alternative systems, concepts and possibilities. So much for progressive sensibilities. Even now I still struggle and consider myself a work in progress.

              This formed the basis for unfairly judging one family model to the detriment of others. Models that might be just as viable and healthy, or in some cases more so, as the prototypic one man/one woman/one house family formation – the one firmly rooted in biological association and our nation’s collective psyche.

              Back then, I had no hard data on whether one family system was better than another. Instead, I relied on close-minded prejudice that was informed by my own personal experience. It was reinforced through an effective mind-scrubbing by old school television (remember “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best?”). This mindset kept me from even considering other ways of parenting and there are many.

              On reflection, I wouldn’t change the way my family system operated growing up. My mom and dad raised my sister and me in a manner that was safe, stable and nurturing. It worked for us. That said, I now realize it was by no means the only possible manner in which to be raised.

              The multiple dimensions through which I am experiencing fatherhood has blossomed my mind to many beautiful possibilities through which familial relationships may thrive. Acknowledge and celebrate your way of growing up. But don’t let bias keep you from considering all the other wondrous models in which family systems can operate and thrive.


Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Friday, June 19, 2015

Give First Responders Training to Overcome Biases

This is someone's actual day job

There are people who, because of societal pressures and traditions (in some cases, institutional policies), are not allowed nor expected, to show their emotions. But emotions nevertheless do show up – often in unintended and harmful ways.

              Fire and rescue crews, police, Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). All are first responders to often life-threatening situations. All are expected by the public to perform perfectly, without error and without displaying emotion. That is, except for the so called “good ones” (i.e., happiness, joy, euphoria, etc.).

              What must it be like to be a human being who works in such professions? Jobs in which danger is a daily reality yet be expected not to have or show fear?

              I can’t imagine.

              It’s hard to conceive what it’s like to arrive at a structure fire to fight it, knowing I may have to enter that inferno, and possibly run into suffering, dying or dead people. Or that I may not leave that place myself in one piece.

              I have no idea what an EMT or other rescue unit must feel when faced with the carnage of a traffic accident. To extract broken bodies from wreckage, provide emergency treatment only to have victims die before your eyes.

              It’s beyond my comprehension what goes through a police officer’s mind when, alone on night patrol, he/she receives a “shots fired” call. Then on arrival being swarmed by persons at the scene – all excited by what just occurred.
Rewarding work, but at what cost?

              How can anyone not have at least some level of fear in these very real cases? I’m told by veterans of such emergencies, “You don’t have time to feel.” “Your training kicks in.”

              Training. It’s important in all vocations, from human resources professionals to factory workers. It is especially critical to the success of first responders. Acquiring quality training can spell the difference between fumbling a rescue and saving a soul. Life and death stuff.

              I’ve been forced to respond in crisis situations a time or three in my life. So I appreciate how being well-trained helps you respond to fear in ways that are manageable. That said, it’s still unlikely most can get the fear trained out of them.

              It must be emphasized that I don’t associate fear with cowardice. I believe it’s possible for a person who freezes in one scenario to take heroic action in another. Few are the first responders I’ve spoken to who willing speak of fear; fewer still admit it exists in them. Which brings us to another often ignored topic: bias.

              We all have it. That’s a fact. To deny it is to refute one of the basic tenants of what it means to be perfectly imperfect human beings. Ask around and most will insist they have no biases when it comes to groups of people different from their own. That’s a problem because they do; we all do. A lot of folks are simply not good at realizing how and when bias showing up.

              It can be problematic when first responders possesses one bias or another but doesn’t own up to it or are even aware it exists. Or maybe they are mindful enough but haven’t received the training needed to effectively understand and manage it. Add fear to the mix and what you have is a noxious recipe for poor decision making in the moment that can lead to ugly outcomes.

Rogue cop or battle fatigue
              If you’re tasked with being a first responder in crisis situations, you tend to move reflexively. You often have mere seconds, not minutes to take life-preserving (or life taking) action. So if you don’t know where your biases are outside of emergencies, when you’re in them those biases will surface, often in unintended ways.

              Witness the recent McKinney, Texas, pool party debacle in which an amped up police officer cursed at unarmed teenagers, pointed his weapon at them and wrestled some to the ground, including a 14-year-old bikini clad girl. The officer’s actions were condemned by superiors and he subsequently resigned.

              All of us consciously and unconsciously participate in a cycle of bigotry and oppression due to power, prejudice, and privilege. In the case of first responders, such ways of being can be reduced through specific training around bias. We owe it to them. We owe it to ourselves.


Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Monday, June 15, 2015

Forget the Past and Future: Live the Six Inches in Front of Your Face

Reflecting and envisioning - peering backward and forward in time. Bookends of the human life process. Each are essential elements for understanding reality. Yet if you’re not careful, both hold trapdoors that will plunge you into delusional Neverlands of what never was or what never might be.

              Consider what matters most to you in life. Your relationship? Your profession? Family, safety, comfort? Whatever the priority, when it boils down to brass tacks, it’s what's happening right now – the six inches in front of your face – that’s most important. Not what happened in the past; not what might happen in the future. Today is where your head and heart should be rooted. In the present.

              Mental feedback loops. We’ve all been there. Playing and replaying in your head those vivid, but ultimately unconstructive narratives. Scenarios mentally repeated over and over to the point of obsession. Yet like some artificial foodstuff packaged as healthy, in truth it’s devoid of nutritional (or in this case, spiritual) benefits. Like margarine.

              Nobody’s arguing to ignore the future. Like most folks, I know how Aesop’s fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper” ends. Hint: it ain’t pretty for the grasshopper. So sure, keep an eye on the future. It’s vitally important. In fact, it’s common sense.

              What’s less apparent, thanks to our oppressive cultural norms, is the rate of diminishing return for the poor, hard-working ant. And its corresponding quality of life. Compulsively toiling for a future it may or may not even be alive to experience. As such, there’s more to living than planning for a distant life that hasn’t happened and may never will.

              Instead, it’s prudent to remain rooted in the present. In the end, it's the only place that matters. And just like obsessing on the future, the past can also hamper your way of being if you’re not careful – even if your past was a bright and shiny one.

              See, a sunny past is addicting. Recalling your glory days as if they were yesterday when it was five, 10 or 20 years ago. A bright and successful past can cause folks to cling to an illusion. One in which what was comes to matter as much as what is.

              Same with a dark past. It can be so bright that its glare overshadows the possibilities of what could be. And it can definitely swallow whole what is happening now, in the moment.

              What to do?

              Only you know the answer to that, but here's a clue. Look in the mirror. But get up close because sometimes that looking glass reflects back falsehoods. That's the trap.

              Just like those warped circus mirrors, it can magnify and distort impressions of past successes and failures.

              In the end it’s helpful to take note, celebrate or mourn what you see. But ultimately let them go. Instead of reliving the past, look at today's you. The right now you. Be the one seeking what is. Not what was or might be.

              How do you achieve this? Listen close, really close.

              If you do, you'll hear something. That something is a voice telling you how you feel. What you need to do. How you need to be. Where you need to go. And how you might get there. Just get quiet and you'll hear it.

              Listen and discern. Then start walking. Even if, on the surface, it doesn't make sense at first. Trust yourself. Sometimes the obvious choice is the wrong one. Comfort can go stale (or run scared) in crisis. Keep that truth in mind. Then go out there and claim today’s self. It’s your destiny.

Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at

Friday, June 5, 2015

Facebook Illustrates White Supremacy at its Purest

"I don't care what it feels like boy, it's not racism."
Racism is alive and well in Battle Creek. The proof is on Facebook. One of my Facebook “friends” got something stolen from his vehicle and posted his frustration. It was apparent to anyone reading that he felt violated. Understandable. Then he and his friends frustrated and violated me.

              In his post, “Steve” (a 30-ish white male) referred to the two women who removed property from his vehicle as “dark-skinned ghetto bitches.” When I got curious with him about his choice of words, he balked. Then one of Steve’s friends responded by posting an image of a noose. We’ll circle back to that.

              In addition to writing this column, I work in the community and around the state on issues pertaining to race, diversity and inclusion. Professionally trained, the works. In my experience I’ve found it true that sometimes people say and/or do racist things without even realizing it. With that thought in mind, I informed Steve that what he said was racist.

              What he said was racist; not he is racist. There’s a difference and I indicated as much. Didn’t matter.

              Cue the avalanche of denials, rebuttals and insistence by Steve (and his friends) that he’s not racist but a good person. My attempt to engage in meaningful dialog about a serious social issue drew ire, jokes, personal attacks and “race-baiter” accusations – all leveled at me by supporters of his statement. And there were a lot of them. Lots of colorful metaphors launched in my direction too.

              What I considered a teachable moment on how stereotypes about persons of color are perpetuated, engrained and objectifying, turned into a lesson on white supremacy. That is, how racism is consciously and unconsciously propagated.

Local government-sanctioned terrorism
              Most folks believe racism is confined to acts of extreme hatred. In truth, it can be subtle or blatant. And it operates in both ways across our nation’s institutional fabric. That includes education, law, housing, government, politics and our food system. Media is especially culpable when it comes to perpetuating racism and stereotyping. Vis-à-vis, Facebook.

              About the noose.

              The noose conjures ominous connotations among African Americans and other communities of color. Since slavery ended, throughout Reconstruction, Jim Crow and government sanctioned segregation – all the way through the Civil Rights era – lynching was/is a form of homegrown terrorism. It’s designed to strike fear into targeted groups. The purpose? Intimidation and control.

              Between 1882 and 1968, upwards of 3,500 African Americans were lynched in the United States. This, according to a publication from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.

              The fellow who posted the noose image thinks he was being clever. I believe he was being calculating. The evidence? This country’s historical reputation for systematic lynchings. That, combined with present day nooses hung from school yard trees, on college campuses, in workplace cubicles and restrooms, and in police and sporting team locker rooms.

              As for the rest of the attackers on the Facebook thread, it’s remarkable their refusal to accept the possibility that “dark-skinned ghetto bitches” is offensive to African Americans, persons of color, and even some white people. Remarkable because no matter how many different ways communities of color explain their oppressive experiences when it comes to race, inevitably most white people believe they understand racism better than we do.

              It’s our experience but they are the experts. White supremacy at its purest.

Why you complaining? All y'all like watermelon, right?
It all begs the question: where’s the empathy? How do you get people to “feel” compassion toward folks subjected to racism? Do they feel but are ultimately unable to articulate it (hence the joking and sickening banter)? Are they shut off from or denying their feelings? Why the callousness and denial?

              Back to “Steve.” For a moment I thought to “unfriend” him. Then I considered: how many times in the past have I unthinkingly said or acted prejudiced, sexist, heterosexist, ableist, classist, you name it?

              So instead of shutting out the ugly, I choose to face it. I choose to continue posting information on systematic inequities, especially topics on racism and how to combat it. And name it when I see it.

              There are scores of white folks and people of color who believe as I do. Good people. Earnest people. If only they enacted their thoughts and values, rather than remain silent on the sideline. We are all on a journey. Who will walk with me?


Follow J.R. on Twitter @4humansbeing or contact him at