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Between the dream and reality

From under my cozy blanket, I can hear the soft patter of the raindrops outside. It is the kind of morning that makes it difficult to emerge from a groggy slumber. The cold, gray weather seems fitting for the thoughts that have been swirling around in my head, calling me to sit still a little longer and work them out with pen and paper.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have devoured a podcast series called “Seeing White.” The series takes a deep dive into the history of race in America. It was recommended to me by a friend, and once I started listening, I couldn’t stop. I listened on my way to and from work, in the waiting room, and while I watched the kids swim lessons; times when I might otherwise answer work emails or mindlessly scroll through social media. It allowed me to absorb it in a semi-constant stream, focusing my mind and elevating my level of awareness of the world around me in ways I had never done before. Each episode connected the dots of our history and challenged my thinking in powerful new ways. But, I was left with a nagging conclusion about our national struggle: we are caught somewhere between the dream and reality.

Talking about race makes most of us feel uncomfortable and even defensive. It is hard to take responsibility for something that we did not personally create or do. Since I did not own slaves and do not actively discriminate or treat people of color poorly, I might reject the idea that racial issues are prevalent in our society and baked into our systems. Our intentions and ideals are noble, and we’d rather stay in that space than face reality. I get it. Most of us don’t go in search of the darker parts of ourselves or look for ways to turn things upside down. While that may be a natural human condition, it prevents us from facing the truth, healing, and thriving.

Just for a moment, imagine what would happen if we would just accept that all of us have been conditioned to see the world through a racial lens--that none of us are immune or above it. We could let go of our need to deny or feel ashamed. The truth is that we tend to see ourselves and the world around us with rose-colored glasses. We want to believe that we are a post-racial society with our demons behind us (after all, we elected a black man to the highest office --twice).

For so long, I, too, tucked it away and pretended that it didn’t exist for me. It is relatively easy to do when the world around you looks similar. It wasn’t something I had to face every day, which made it easier to avoid. But that separation gave me a false sense of righteousness and only expanded my blind spots. I may not have done anything intentionally racist, but I also didn’t notice when a room was full of only white people, or when an organization’s Staff or Board lacked any diversity. I wasn’t aware of how different my experiences were from people of color in school, at the mall, or behind the wheel. I did not grasp how racist policies specifically advantaged my ancestors in ways I was currently benefiting from. My worldview was missing essential puzzle pieces.

The podcast was so powerful because it explored what whiteness means, and most white people have never even thought about that. We haven’t had to. It is true that there are hateful, racist people out there. While they generate the most publicity, the vast majority are not overtly racist and are trying to do the right thing. Yet, somehow we are still missing the boat. Even those of us with good intentions and non-racist attitudes go through our daily lives operated by systems that continue to perpetuate racial divisions. It’s why merely being a good person just isn’t enough.

This is where I feel stuck, and a little helpless. If trying to be a good person isn’t enough, how can I impact change and make things better? I can make sure these voices and perspectives are part of the decisions of organizations I support. I can encourage diverse hiring practices at my place of employment. I can seek out minority and women-owned businesses to frequent and recommend to others. I can talk about race, justice, and equality at home, and choose books and activities that celebrate diversity. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of these actions. But, the truth is that change won’t happen until we are willing to get uncomfortable; until we are willing to share the pie or let go of some of our power. Until we are willing to awaken from the groggy slumber of our “American Dream” to face who we really are.

It can be challenging to think about these issues when many of us are focused on getting through each day, taking care of our families, and keeping the household running. But, this impacts all of us in some way or another and says something profound about our moral compass. With the rapid change in demographics, the impacts of inequality will expand and affect our entire economy. Even more, when whole groups of people are marginalized and left insecure financially or otherwise, none of us are truly safe or free. We have the ability to change, but first, we must wake up from the dream and face reality.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

--James Baldwin

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