Tag Archives: race

Enlarging our human circle

This is my last post, at least for now, pulled from the notebook in which I’ve been recording some of my reflections, over the past few months, on dr. john powell’s time in Kansas City. I’m grateful to the folks (including many good friends) at Communities Creating Opportunity for bringing him to town, and for convening people to talk and think about race and justice and how easy it is for us to “other” others.

I hear this a lot, really, in my work with policy impacting undocumented immigrants–the idea that much of this policy is constructed without a basic regard for immigrants as human beings–as though they are somehow non-persons.

And to be honest, sometimes it sounds kind of outlandish, this concept that the root of the injustice that surrounds us is an inability to see each other as people. I mean, I get it that we obviously don’t see kids in urban school districts as our neighbors, or people experiencing homelessness as our fellow citizens, or immigrants as our equals.


But, not even as people?

Except, you know, it kind of explains a lot.

dr. powell shared some tremendously powerful psychological research about how the brain responds to stimuli around difference, and, in contemplating the end results of the policies we end up with, it sort of becomes the only logical conclusion:

surely we wouldn’t, couldn’t, let these routine tragedies befall other people so regularly…unless we didn’t see them as such.

And, so, unless we can bring people into our circle of concern, who are currently beyond it, unless we can begin to see everyone as just as human as we are, then our tools to push for supportive policy responses–to child poverty, to criminal justice, to mental illness–will be severely limited.

Because what has a heavy application of guilt gotten anybody lately?

But if we can enlarge our circle of human concern so that it goes beyond our Facebook friends and our next-door neighbor (maybe) and the families that look just like us, then we can tap into the decency that still abides in many hearts, motivating American voluntarism and charitable giving, albeit in quantities inadequate to compensate for the abdication of our collective responsibilities.

I don’t have the answer, of course, to the key question: how?

It’s getting harder, evidence suggests, because, as our society grows more diverse, there are more and more people we see as beyond our “circle of human concern.”

There are efforts that seem to be bearing some fruit–like Welcoming America, in dealing with immigrant and refugee issues–by helping people see themselves reflected in each others’ eyes, and by connecting on the level of shared hopes and common fears.

There are policy answers, too-seriously integrated schools and mixed-income housing and the preservation/creation of public spaces–to our tendency to draw a tight and small circle that leaves a lot of “others” out.

And we need to tell stories, because it’s still hard for most of us to ignore the humanity of someone so obviously human, while statistics and even aggregations are too easily lumped beyond the circle.

I guess the key is that we don’t overlook this step, as I’ve done for so long. We can’t rush to the policy solution, scratching our heads or lambasting the culprits, without stopping to ask why it’s so easy to harm those whose pains we can’t see or even comprehend.

First, we need to make sure that those we want to help are fully humanized, since we already know they’re fully human. We have to force those in power to face the “other”.

We have to draw the circle. Bigger.

When the “enemy” is a structure

My oldest son is really, really cognizant of bad guys.

Everyone in his world, really, is either a “good guy” or “bad guy”–even though he can recognize gradations in his own moods and behaviors, he seems perplexed, at times, by the idea that someone can be simultaneously good and bad, in that very flawed, very human kind of way we all live, and see, every day.

And, you know, I think we see advocacy, and our quest for social justice, in much the same way sometimes.

People, and institutions, are either “with us” or “against us”, as much as we might like to pretend that we don’t categorize that way.

Yes, as social workers, we have an ethical obligation to respect the dignity and worth of every individual, but, really…how often do you hear social workers talk that way about politicians? Or bureaucrats?

I see it in my students, and I feel it in myself: somehow, everyone who isn’t as committed as we are to seeking justice for those we serve (as we define it), is our enemy–an obstacle to be surmounted and a target for our advocacy.

I know. It comes as a shock that I can be sanctimonious. I know.

And, so, part of what was, for me, so morally and intellectually challenging about dr. john powell’s presentation, and the work of his with which I have familiarized myself since, is his insistence that we need to move beyond calling each other racists.

And I have kind of a problem with that, because, well, some people are racist. It’s not just the legacy of racism–it’s still alive and flourishing, and it can’t live except in people’s hearts.

But, after a lot of reflection, I think I understand more about what he means.

Pinpointing the root of racial inequity in this country–or any other–in the structures that perpetuate racially unjust outcomes isn’t about letting racists off the hook. If anything, it heightens the tension, because when we think about racism as only existing in marginalized pockets of “fringe” outcasts, it is trivialized, in some ways, as compared to locating it properly among those who set up the rules of the game and rig it in their favor.

And identifying the racialized nature of the system brings more of us–those who would never consider ourselves racist but nonetheless benefit in very tangible ways from the injustice of the status quo–into the ranks of the “guilty” too. Because even good intentions can’t excuse racialized outcomes.

And that means that even the “good guys” share responsibility for transforming our systems–economic, political, social–so that they work for everyone.

And that means that even the “bad guys” aren’t really, in the final analysis, all that much worse than the rest of us, just as that pesky “dignity and worth of every individual” clause would have us remember.

Analyzing structures this way isn’t always easy; it can be harder to walk a client through the process of dissecting the systems that impact his/her life to identify the root causes that perpetuate problems than it is to nod when someone talks about caseworkers who have it in for her, or those bums in Washington who only look out for themselves.

And it’s more fun to throw darts at a face than a structure, for sure.

But it’s far more accurate, and ultimately more powerful.

Because we can’t hope to win if we’re not fighting the right fight.

Seeking transformational solutions in a transactional world

I had the opportunity to hear dr. john powell (sic) of the Kirwan Institute speak at a Communities Creating Opportunity event in Kansas City a few months ago.

There’s something so life-affirming about sitting in a multiracial crowd, struggling together with the reality of “structural racialization” (his term, and my new favorite) in our society, in our organizations, and in our individual lives.

It was a really challenging and tremendously invigorating afternoon, and those ideas have continued to swirl in my mind. This week, I’ve written 3 posts related to aspects of what he spoke about, and how I’ve tried to apply it to my life and to my social work in the weeks since.

One of the parts of the afternoon that struck me the most was the story he related about a mother sentenced to jail for lying about her residence in order to get her kids into a better school. There was a great deal of sympathy, in the room, for her plight, but what dr. powell pushed us to think about was how frequently we take such actions, in our own efforts to cope with systems which are inherently unjust.

And how, in so doing, we’re seeking to change the terms of those unjust transactions, rather than transforming the system.

And that got me thinking about advocacy, and about how often our advocacy revolves around trying to improve a client’s (or clients’) outcomes in a given transaction–advocacy to get someone in a decent apartment, or to make sure that a school district meets a child’s IEP parameters, or to get an employer to give a second chance to an ex-offender.

That advocacy is important. Securing more favorable transactions for those marginalized within oppressive systems can change people’s individual lives, opening doors that were closed and allowing them to access an entirely new plane of opportunities.

And it’s often how we engage with the systems that impact us personally, too; just as the mom highlighted in the story did, we look for ways over, around, and through the obstacles we confront, because, quite honestly, it’s often just too much to try to figure out how to dismantle those barriers entirely.

But, as dr. powell reminded us, only such transformational approaches–those that ask not how can we find a way out of this trap, but who keeps setting traps in the first place?–can reshape the landscape for ourselves and for those who will follow.

It’s a harder lift, obviously.

And, in a world of such structural racialization, with so many injustices woven right into the fabric of the systems, it’s heaping oppression onto oppression to say that this mom, or any individual, is to be blamed for seeking a better transaction rather than a radical transformation.

Because, like the fault in the first place, that’s a responsibility we all share.

Transforming our society by rethinking the systems that govern our lives–asking why and why and why and why–falls to all of us. It’s not enough for me as a mother to want the best for my kid, when I know that I can do something to make “best” within the reach of other kids, too. It’s not enough for me as a social worker to be skilled at getting more for my clients, when I know that more is owed to many.

The best deal isn’t nearly enough.

We need a whole new game.

Shaping our first impressions

photo credit, The Future, by Denkyem84, via Flickr

It’s been more than a year since so many of you weighed in on my struggles around where and how to educate my kids–how I’m torn between the advantages that they may accrue in the public schools where we live now, and my growing angst over the social costs of such a racially-exclusive environment.

And, no, I haven’t reached some happy conclusion.

Really, I’m more conflicted than ever.

I read a disturbing piece of the book Blink about the conclusive psychological research demonstrating how the racial stereotypes we all hold influence even our most subconscious decisions. It’s sobering for us all.

More alarming for me, though, was the research on how we can consciously influence these internal processes, by priming our minds to approach race, and racial difference, differently.

How does such priming occur?

Through intense and sustained positive interactions with people of different races, of course.

And what, precisely, are my kids likely to be denied, at least through their schooling, given the dire demographics?


As a parent, I want to give my children the best.

Not the best toys, certainly (we wouldn’t even know what those are, since we don’t watch TV!), but the best chance–to learn, to grow, to experience a full and wonderful life.

That requires a good school, certainly. But don’t I also want them to have the best chance, at least the best fighting shot at it that any of us can hope for, to beat back the demons of racial prejudice that so plague much of humanity?

It has already started, certainly, the awareness of divisions. My oldest son remarked how one of his friends at ‘nature camp’ (a boy of Indian-American descent) has “darker skin than mine, but lighter skin than Hayden (an African-American friend)…it’s funny, Mommy, because his skin is kind of the same color as Grandpa George’s (my husband’s maternal grandfather is Mexican), but they don’t know each other!”

Indeed, this sophisticated classification of skin tone gradients.

At the same time, there’s a definite opening now, an innate sense of fairness that is part developmental stage and part, I suspect, a product of our influence on them.

I was preparing to go to a pro-immigrant protest, and Sam asked me where I was going.

“I need to stand up against a man who doesn’t like people who come from other countries, to show that I won’t accept that in our community.”

“Why, Mommy?” he asked. “Why am I going?” I asked.

“No,” Sam said softly. “Why would anyone not like someone from another country?”

What’s the best answer, for influencing their minds and hearts so that, in the blink of an eye, they’ll always see justice and fellowship and equality?

Science, and human instinct, tell us it’s a multiracial environment, the likes of which are rare in this highly segregated and stratified society, a search even further complicated because we also want for them a chance to learn the knowledge and skills that they’ll need to succeed.

Gladwell’s book is subtitled, The Power of Thinking without Thinking. But this is one dilemma I can’t seem to think, or unthink, my way around.