Bringing EQ to the Work


Just this past week, after winning five primaries, He Who Shall Not Be Named offered this jewel of wisdom: “Frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote. The only thing she’s got going is the woman’s card.”

How many of you are bearers of such a card?

Washington Post writer Alexandra Petri is, and listen to what she has to say:

It is great. It entitles you to a sizable discount on your earnings everywhere you go (average 21 percent, but can be anywhere from 9 percent to 37 percent, depending on what study you’re reading and what edition of the Woman Card you have.) If you shop with the Woman Card at the grocery, you will get to pay 11 percent more for all the same products as men, but now they are pink.

Show the Woman Card to your health-care provider and you will enjoy new limits on your reproductive rights, depending on what the legislators of your state have decided is wise. Get ready to have a lot of things about your body explained to you!

Present the Woman Card to a man you have just met at a party and it is good for one detailed, patronizing explanation of the subject you literally got your PhD in.

Show off the Woman Card on your way to work and you will get free comments from total strangers, telling you to smile. Play it in the sciences and you will get to leave the sciences.

Take the Woman Card anywhere and you will instantly be surrounded by men who feel entitled to your time. Also, to your space. Do not take up too much space; the Woman Card does not cover that.

And so on.

This is just the latest high-profile instance of the sorts of things that our anti-racism, anti-oppression, multiculturalism resolution (ARAOMC, for short) puts its finger on and says, NO. Says, we can do better than that. Says, we – the UUCA congregation – are going to take a stand and be more intentional about fighting oppressions of all kinds and affirming the beauty and rightness of difference and diversity. We’re going to raise awareness. We’re going to add new words to our congregational vocabulary. We’re going to be the change we wish to see in the world. You bet this ARAOMC work is already part of our history and we are already doing some things, but it’s gut check time, a time to get clearer than ever before about intentions, it’s time to get strategic about our future as we inch towards our next Long Range Planning process.

Because the woman’s card is a violation of human rights. So is the differently-abled card. The immigrant card. The poverty card. The LGBTQ card. The race card.

All of them outrage our first Unitarian Universalist principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We saw that outrage in the video from a moment ago. As the holder of a race card, Joy Degruy got to enjoy all sorts of stresses simultaneously: (1) the stress of personal humiliation at the hands of a grocery store cashier; (2) the stress of the humiliation of her ten-year-old daughter, as well as her awareness of needing to be a role model and do the right thing; (3) the stress of having the right to be angry and yet being very aware of that old stereotype of the “angry black person” which others would use to dismiss her. All that stress, all that oppression.

Get rid of the race card. Get rid of all the cards.

But what’s interesting is what happens when we’re making progress in doing just that. Unitarian Universalist writer Doug Muder articulates this so well. He draws on the 1998 movie called Pleasantville to make his point. Movie character George Parker is a good 1950s TV-like father. “He never set out to be the bad guy,” says Doug Muder. “He never meant to stifle his wife’s humanity or enforce a dull conformity on his kids. Nobody ever asked him whether the world should be black-and-white; it just was. George never demanded a privileged role, he just uncritically accepted the role society assigned him and played it to the best of his ability.”

But then change happens. One day he comes home from work “and says the magic words ‘Honey, I’m home!’, expecting them to conjure up a smiling wife, adorable children, and dinner on the table. This time, though, it doesn’t work. No wife, no kids, no food. Confused, he repeats the invocation, as if he must have said it wrong. After searching the house, he wanders out into the rain and plaintively questions this strangely malfunctioning Universe: ‘Where’s my dinner?’”

Doug Muder goes on to explain: “As the culture evolves, people who benefitted from the old ways invariably see themselves as victims of change. The world used to fit them like a glove, but it no longer does. Increasingly, they find themselves in unfamiliar situations that feel unfair or even unsafe. Their concerns used to take center stage, but now they must compete with the formerly invisible concerns of others.”

Just listen to that. The George Parkers among us are awakening from the slumber of their privilege, and it’s not an easy awakening. They awaken to voices and stories that have been formerly invisible but are now all too visible, and it’s threatening. They awaken to the nuances of oppression and are introduced to words that help articulate those nuances, but the words to them feel negative and offputting. They, the George Parkers among us, experience all this and, in the end, can feel demonized and oppressed. They cry out, “Honey, I’m home!” but the only reply is cold silence.

Which brings us to the first emotional intelligence pointer of this sermon, as we do the work of ARAOMC and IF we want to stay united as a diverse community, IF we want to go far because we’re going together: Be aware that there is discomfort all around, but acknowledge and honor the fact that there’s different discomfort levels.

The George Parkers who are just starting the ARAOMC journey and are intellectually grappling with new terminology and are struggling with the concept of privilege—that’s us. That’s who’s in the room.

But also in the room are people whose very lives are threatened, people whose actual quality of life is being suffocated. UUCA member Dr. Tony Stringer spoke to this in a City post a couple of days ago when he said, “As a person of color and a resident of Stone Mountain, I am conscious of the planned [KKK] ‘rally for racists’ in Stone Mountain Park [which took place last Saturday]. This is less than 15 minutes from where I live and sleep.  This is where I took my daughter as a child to hike and play in the public playground.  This is where I kayak in the summer.  This is where I go every Sunday morning to sit by the lake, sip my coffee, and renew my connection to the spiritual essence I find in nature.  Speaking very personally, I don’t find anything overly intellectual about [the ARAOMC] resolution that welcomes me, stands with me against oppression, and values my cultural contribution.  It is possible that for some, racism and oppression are intellectual concepts.  For me they are real.  They are 15 minutes away from where I will go to sleep tonight.”

We are all in this space together. But there are different levels of distress among us. Writer Margaret Atwood, as she brings things back to the “woman card,” puts it like this: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” I know that’s not a pretty picture, but it’s honest. The way forward is compassion towards hurt feelings in the George Parkers among us and sympathy towards their distress (because first of all it’s the right thing to do and second of all we need the George Parkers to use their power for good)—this, and then, in the face of honest to God oppression, which is an entirely different universe of discomfort, how we respond is with JUSTICE. The two levels are not equal. “My straight-white-male sunburn,” says Doug Muder,“can’t be allowed to compete on equal terms with your heart attack.”

We’re feeling discomfort all around. Distress is in the room. But it’s not all on the same level.

And this is why (as a side note) it’s very painful for some to hear others pick apart the language of the ARAOMC resolution. To insist that the language be perfect before endorsing it. Now of course we want the language to be generally sound. I’m not saying we can’t raise issues about the language. But what I am saying is that exclusive focus on the language (rather than on the spirit and good intent) can feel, for some, like folks are wordsmithing a fire code when the actual building is actually burning down! We need to know this. We need to hold each other’s vulnerabilities gently, more gently than ever before.

We need to bring emotional intelligence to the ARAOMC work.

And now here is a second pointer for us. Most generally, it relates to something Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön speaks about. “Develop unconditional friendship with feelings,” she says, “which is not to condone them, but be able to hold disturbing thoughts and gently come back to the breath: ‘I see you. I know you. I’m not accepting you, but I am observing you.’ Pushing against one’s thoughts only makes them stronger,” she says. “Be patient. Impermanence happens. Allow thoughts to flow.”

And then she says this: “The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”

Did you know that the lifespan of any particular emotion is only 90 seconds, and after that, we have to revive it in order to get it going again? So when a thought arises and it’s disturbing and we push it away, the thought only persists and the emotion of disturbance only increases. So Buddhism says, soften the emotional energy. Soften the edges. Do not do fundamental harm to yourself. Breathe.

And really, that’s one way of describing the emotional and spiritual core of ARAOMC work. Know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

But the knowledge of the truth is disturbing. It’s the truth of “unconscious bias” which sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has called “racism without racists.” But these biases affect us all; we all have them about gender, disability, body size, age, economic status, and on and on. I don’t care how dedicated a religious liberal you are—how deeply committed you are to our Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles—you are also a human being shaped by evolution and part of your brain (the reptile brain) is constantly broadcasting survival fears that are probably way out of proportion to what’s actually happening but that doesn’t stop the inner reptile from shouting “Oh my God someone is taking something from me and I’m gonna die!” or “Oh my god did you see what they just did? I need to run away/I need to attack!”

Doesn’t matter that “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations” is your style. You are also a human being shaped by thousands of years of culture and history and what’s perennial is some system of haves and have nots, some system of who’s in and who’s out – and this cultural logic cranks away in our heads and we can’t help but divide the sheep from the goats. The thoughts happen, and they can feel so disturbing….

 

Doesn’t matter that “affirming inherent worth and dignity” is our number one principle as Unitarian Universalists. We are also Americans, and 400 years of slavery and its continuing legacy is woven into the fabric of our country. That legacy has an independent logic that plays out in our heads, and so, the most professed anti-racists among us can, in actual behavior, be unknowingly offensive – and it hurts so much to discover that. It hurts so much to know that we might be involved in microaggression. The shame is incredible. We’re UUs! But that doesn’t stop an entrenched system of bias that was put in place long before any of us ever emerged on the scene. A system which explains why employers are 50% more likely to call back job applicants with white names than those with black names. It explains why, when iPods are offered for sale online, and the photo shows the iPod held by a white hand, it receives 21 percent more offers than when held by a black hand. It explains why black babies reject black dolls in favor of white dolls. White dolls are pretty. White dolls are good.

It breaks the heart.

But we must be brave. We must do our emotional and spiritual work. We must remember Pema Chödrön’s inspired words: “Develop unconditional friendship with feelings, which is not to condone them, but be able to hold disturbing thoughts and gently come back to the breath: ‘I see you. I know you. I’m not accepting you, but I am observing you.’” “The most fundamental aggression to ourselves,” she says, “the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”

It also limits the real possibilities of change. New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof speaks to this. “A rigorous study by economists found,” he says “that even N.B.A. referees were more likely to call fouls on players of another race. Something similar happens in baseball, with researchers finding that umpires calling strikes are biased against black pitchers.” And then he asks the key question: “If even professional referees and umpires are biased, can there be any hope for you and me as we navigate our daily lives?” The answer? There is.  He says, “The N.B.A. study caused a furor (the league denied the bias), and a few years later there was a follow-up by the same economists, and the bias had disappeared. It seems that when we humans realize our biases, we can adjust and act in ways that are more fair. As the study’s authors put it, ‘Awareness reduces racial bias.’” Nicholas Kristof concludes: “That’s why it’s so important for whites to engage in these uncomfortable discussions of race, because we are (unintentionally) so much a part of the problem. It’s not that we’re evil, but that we’re human. The challenge is to recognize that unconscious bias afflicts us all — but that we just may be able to overcome it if we face it.”

Face it, and do this with less defensiveness and more self-compassion. We are born into a system that’s way larger than any of us. But unconditional friendship with our feelings is the path to freedom. It changes things. That’s what emotional intelligence does.

It is a challenging time in the life of our nation. The phenomenon of He Who Shall Not Be Named is but symptomatic of how much pain is in this country. So is the Bernie Sanders phenomenon. People are feeling the bern. As writer David Brooks says, “Up until now, America’s story has been some version of the rags-to-riches story, the lone individual who rises from the bottom through pluck and work. But that story isn’t working for people anymore, especially for people who think the system is rigged.” And then he says, “I don’t know what the new national story will be, but maybe it will be less individualistic and more redemptive. Maybe it will be a story about communities that heal those who suffer …, a story of those who triumph over the isolation, social instability and dislocation so common today.”

That’s what I hope for. And we need to grasp this moment in time, be a part of creating the new national story.

And we can do that, united, going far because we are going together, if we remember that ultimately the work is about loving our selves and loving each other more deeply than we have ever believed possible. Loving ourselves and each other beyond the shouts of our defensive reptilian brains, beyond our cultural training to divide the sheep from the goats, beyond the American legacy of slavery that continues to bind us all in a sickness of the spirit. There is no way out but through.

Love is calling, and we must go.