Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Diversity & Inclusion 101: Time To Walk Through the Doors of Truth

United we stand...
We as a race – the human race – are divided. And not just along color lines. We’re separated and segregated, figuratively and literally. Mentally, physically and spiritually. It’s of our own doing too, consciously and unconsciously.

              A lot of us prefer it this way, being divided. Particularly those part of historically-included groups. You know, male, straight, able, Christian, documented. White. So many benefits, so much access. So easy not to notice the inequities affecting those who are different.

              For historically-included persons it’s comfortable to maintain human categories and social divisions, even preferred. That’s because the alternative requires leaving the bosom of ignorance and facing hard, unsettling truth. Coming to terms with society’s self-inflicted inequities is no psychological walk in the park. Examining the worst of harmful, age old cultural practices and institutionalized policies can resemble a gut punch. It’s jolting, even painful.

              It’s a fact that once faced with the truth, lots of folks refuse to stomach the stench of inequity that exists. They turn away and sink back into the murky bog of ignorance.

              Knowing but not knowing.

              Here’s the good news: if you facedown the sobering fear and shock of truth, there’s salvation. It comes in the form of reclaiming your humanity. All it involves is getting curious. No easy task though when your universe has been tilted.

So many of us see, but do not see.
              Yet it’s also funny how something as simple as getting up close and personal with people different from yourself can help you see their humanness. And yours. That is, if you approach such encounters with an open mind and heart.

              Setting aside bias, prejudice and stereotypes can be difficult, if not impossible. It’s also uncomfortable. There’s nothing like believing in a thing only to discover it is not in fact the truth.

              Take poverty. Like other historically-excluded groups, poverty fosters a toxic, limiting belief system. One that dehumanizes a broad swath of our population. It generalizes, stigmatizes and therefore marginalizes people. In turn, institutions and cultural attitudes conspire to cement in place and thus perpetuate the conditions of those affected.

              It took me serving as board president of Woman’s Co-op to unlearn all I had learned about what poverty is, who’s affected and what their reality is.

Women helping women succeed
Woman’s Co-op is a nonprofit network of women working together to improve their lives through life management skills, education and employment opportunities. Many members have low or no income.

              Until I got knee deep in the work of Woman’s Co-op, I used to make up in my mind what it meant to live in poverty. I based it all on my limited encounters with poor folks: on the street, in stores, at meetings, wherever. I also drew on warped media images, especially on TV and in movies. In retrospect they were mere snapshots – moments in time.

              What it took for me to see the truth was “being” with them. Listening and withholding judgment. Eating with them without critique. Crying with without offering pity. Holding their babies as if they were my own. Laughing to share their joy. Equally important was sharing my own woes – personal secrets that polite folks like myself conveniently keep out of conversation so as to maintain membership in the coveted Middle Class Social Club.

              That back and forth sharing, over time, resulted in an unleashing of a mutual authenticity that allowed me to “see” persons living with lower incomes. And the majority of them are me, just from different circumstances.

              We’re at a pivotal moment in history. At no other time have so many doors of truth been more visible. It’s time for us to open those doors. All of them; not just those we’re comfortable with. Open them and step out of ignorance. Time to embrace justice. And in the process reclaim our humanity.  

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

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Black Hair Matters

Rockin' it all natural
I love black natural hair. The way it looks, the way it feels. And the way it makes me feel, inside. And I’m not the only one. There’s a revolution coming. Maybe it’s already here.

              More and more, I’m noticing African American men and women increasingly embrace their natural hair in all its creative styles. Dreads, plaits, twisties, cornrows, naturals, Mohawks, faux hawks, afro puffs, dookie braids. You name it, I’m seeing it.

              Kinky, curly, coily, bushy, tight, short, long – I’m loving it.

              Reasons for going natural are varied. For some, it’s convenient; for others it supports a healthier, more chemical free lifestyle. For a whole lot more it’s just more affordable.

              Sure, lots of black folks still “process” their doos. They’re perming, weaving, tinting, dying, highlighting, and wearing toupees and wigs. That’s fine by me; do your thing.

Required reading
              Unfortunately, that “thing” includes succumbing to hair-related esthetics and preferences favored by white Americans. Sadly, we (including me) all have generations of social conditioning to thank for that. It’s fueled by media that, consciously or not (read Tom Burrell’s Brainwashed), is designed to prop up whiteness as the end-all, be-all standard. But I digress.

              It’s just I’m lifting up sisters and brothers who are styling their hair in ways associated with our indigenous African American heritage. And they are rockin’ it with flavor. Leading the charge are young folks. No surprise there.

              Back to the revolution. There was a mantra in the African American community of the 1960s: “Black Power”. The catch phrase popularized by activists Kwame Ture and Mukasa Dada, better known as Stokely Carmichael and Willie Ricks. The pair were organizers for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

              Their work sparked one aspect of the nation’s collective Black Power movements, which became widespread nationally and internationally by the early ‘70s. It was further fueled by historic firebrands like Angela Davis and Malcolm X. They and scores of others at the time were demonized by mainstream establishment. In recent years however, many historians have come to view them more evenly and recognize their stalwart efforts during a difficult period of social change.

Natural history
Hair is a big deal in American society. Unfortunately, the tops of African Americans’ heads have for generations been a blistering battlefield. A scarred landscape on which oppressive cultural warfare continues to be waged.

              Witness the systematic and institutionalized workplace racism centered on hair. Citing policies and “appropriateness” as placeholders for white supremacy, African Americans were/are made to conform to hairstyles that as much as possible resemble standards of beauty and acceptability associated with whiteness.

              Dreads, twisties, braids, cornrows, even if perfectly coifed, until recently were banned in office environments. Still are in most mainstream institutions. In spite of it all, African Americans, though savaged by their inability to express a cultural individuality, nevertheless endure. But at what cost?

              It all speaks to resilience, what’s happening now. Figuratively speaking, once upon a time Black Lives Matter was called Black Power. But like the ‘60s and ‘70s slogan, it’s being twisted. Perverted by those afraid of some sort of uprising in which African Americans are “gunning for whitey.” But nothing could be further from the truth.

A person's hair is nothing to toy around with
              More and more persons uncomfortable with the Black Lives Matter movement assign blame of recent tragic killings of law enforcement personnel to an adamant but peaceful activist campaign. It’s a move rooted in fear and driven by a resigned notion that in our society there are people who must necessarily be oppressed in order for others to thrive.

              I don’t buy it. Neither should you. Natural black hair, like Black Lives Matter, embodies a growing reclamation of cultural humanity and sense of social justice. It’s time to set aside fear in favor of authentic efforts toward equity in our institutions and systems. Join the revolution.

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

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Selfie Sticks: one more way technology is robbing us of our humanity

President Obama has a selfie stick? Say it ain't so.
The selfie stick is a real product. For the longest I thought it was just a running joke on social media. You know, a gag gift. It’s not. It’s a legitimate photography accessory that enhances one’s ability to take smartphone self-portraits – selfies. Guess I’m in a cave when it comes to certain popular culture merchandise. Still, as marketable as it is there’s another, less welcome aspect to the apparatus.

              Selfie sticks are handheld telescoping extenders that increase the distance between people and their smartphones when snapping pictures. In the process they create another kind of distance, the kind between the photographer and passersby. And that’s the rub.

              In the old days you had to ask a stranger for an assist if you wanted your entire group in a shot. Now we have one more way not to interact with human beings we don’t know. ATM’s, automated customer service, grocer self-checkouts – we're moving farther and farther apart, thanks to technology.

              Although the spellcheck ap on my computer keeps flagging “selfie”, it’s listed in Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia defines the selfie stick as, “…a monopod used to take selfie photographs by positioning a smartphone or camera beyond the normal range of the arm.”

Why interact with fellow human beings when you don't have to?
              Personally, I exalt this product to the same degree I covet refrigerator door magnets and Chia Pets. Who actually buys them? Turns out, an awful lot of people. How this cultural phenomenon got my eyeballs and into the mainstream is beyond me. Maybe it’s because I’ve never seen one in action.

              A simple Internet search further confirmed my ignorance. They’re sold everywhere – from WalMart to Best Buy. Google lists a site that rates them. “The Top 8 Selfie Sticks”. There’s even a website called Who knew?

              Taking a deeper dive, I surfed and guess what I found? Selfie sticks. Lots of them. They sell from a few bucks to more than $100. Some even have a Bluetooth feature that allows it to do something, although I wasn’t curious enough to keep reading and find out.

This might be why Disney banned selfie sticks
              Back on Wikipedia I noted with no small degree of satisfaction the banning of selfie sticks at some public venues, citing safety reasons. Disneyland is one of them. I looked it up on their website and it’s true.

              (Random factoid: Disney also prohibits certain “inappropriate” tattoos, so I might be personally banned if I show up shirtless to see Mickey. Luckily the facial hair restriction is no longer enforced. Oh wait, that was just for park employees).

              This whole isolation thing reminds me of the mentality most of us have about being in physical proximity with each other. Like at shopping mall food courts. People go out of their way not to sit at tables occupied by strangers that have open seats. Even if there are no other chairs, folks will orbit, trays in hand, until an entire table is vacant before swooping in.

              Privacy is the reason given for not wanting to share space with others, (second only to “germs”). Privacy from what? Do perfect strangers across from you who are enjoying their Kung Pao Chicken really care about your Aunt Mable’s preferred hemorrhoid product?

Quick, open seats. No wait; we'd have to share the table.
              Distasteful example I know. The chicken dish I mean, but you get the idea. My guess is most people sharing your table tune out your conversation and vice versa.

              In the end, sure it can be uncomfortable to approach a stranger and ask them to take your picture. The benefit though is that it stretches you in such a way that bolsters your sense of humanity, acceptance and inclusion. And be honest, after you help a group of smiling faces with their Kodak Moment, doesn’t leave you feeling good inside? That alone is the price of admission, tattoos or not.


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