Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Thoughts for starting the New Year: Positive change is best made a little each day, rather than by trying to live from big milestone to big milestone

Happy 2018!

I know, I know... You may already be annoyed just reading that statement. You may be thinking, “What’s so happy about it?” or, “How is it going to be any different from last year, when 2017 was so bad because of [insert reasons here]?”

These are legitimate concerns, and I see no value in arguing with people who assert that there’s no reason to think anything will change just because it’s a new year. I also see no value in advising people to rationalize away their negative feelings with counter-arguments about “looking on the bright side.” All that we really accomplish if we do that, after all, is demonstrate to them that we don’t think their feelings are valid, and prompt them to stifle (instead of work through) those feelings and cross us off their list of people they can get empathy or any constructive feedback from.

At the same time, we tend to get more of what we focus on. Choosing to focus our attention and efforts on the positive does not have to mean we ignore the negative by viewing the world through the filter of denial, or that we are being childishly naïve. At the very least, we can start giving more respect and credit to people who have more positive outlooks, rather than being quick to dismiss or argue with them that the world around us is too far gone for any of their rainbows-and-unicorns idealism to make any real difference.

While I also felt plenty of disgust and frustration because of specific instances, people, and policies that created so many unnecessary challenges and setbacks for our world last year, I was pleased to conclude December by feeling hopeful. I focused my New Year’s Eve daimoku on kicking off another year of social-justice dialogues, sharing what I learn on my blog so that other people can benefit from my and my friends’ efforts, and seeking out more opportunities to practice taking better care of myself and improving my relationships with other people.

I know that all the bad stuff that’s going on in the world right now can make all of the above that much more difficult, so I also chanted to continue overcoming my tendency to get discouraged, and to instead be a person who treats these challenges as motivation to do more, and do better, in truly walking my talk.

Speaking of my visions for the New Year, I pointed out in my last post of 2016 that I don’t achieve breakthroughs or quantum leaps in my personal-improvement goals by making a once-a-year resolution that I’m at least 50% likely to taper off on, if not stop, within the first month or two of the year. “I’ve always viewed theming my year with a hyper-focus on weight loss, a fitness milestone, a particular financial outcome, or other surface-level personal change as diversionary,” I said. “The marketing and products created to cater to these resolutions seems designed to encourage people to use them as a defense mechanism against doing the hard, often heartbreaking work of developing the courage and skill-sets to confront and resolve the deeper, darker aspects in their lives that need changing,” which is best done a little each day, rather than by trying to live from big milestone to big milestone. 

Believing that nothing can or will ever change is only a lazy excuse for inaction, and implies we expect other people to “fix” the world around us for us. It’s a defense mechanism against making any extra effort to be part of the solution, even in any small, subtle ways that can add up over time.

Mahatma Gandhi instructed us to “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Daisaku Ikeda tells us that “True happiness can only be attained by praying for a peaceful and prosperous society for all and then working to make it a reality.”1 Leo Tolstoy admonished us that “there is only one way for society to improve. Everyone must improve. To improve everyone, you have only one method under your control—you must become a better person yourself.”2

1  Living Buddhism (SGI Buddhist study magazine),
    September 2016, page 54.

2  World Tribune (SGI Buddhist weekly newspaper),
    November 5, 2010, page 10.

Image: Detail from “Re-Enchantment #1” by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Sharpie marker, Prismacolor marker, Prismacolor marker-blender

Saturday, December 30, 2017

We have to be honest with ourselves before we can be honest with other people...

Lately I’ve been having a lot of conversations, and doing a lot of reading, to help find ways to short-circuit the resistance and ambivalence many white people express when invited to (or confronted with) conversations about race relations.

A lot of people are quick to say that they have “candid discussions about race,” as one article put it, on a regular basis. Based on my experience with people who are quick to say that, however, most of the people in this article are probably quick to assert that racism is at an all-time low, that the continued problems of disadvantaged people of color are now their own faults since they have more opportunity now, and then laundry-list ways they think demonstrate their open-mindedness, such as that they have black friends, they personally “don’t discriminate,” played with dolls or action figures of different races without consciously considering those differences relevant, and so on.

Even the assumption itself that race is irrelevant or doesn’t matter at all can do more harm than good, because negating people’s heritage and specific needs with dismissals such as “we’re all human, so individual race shouldn’t matter” is disempowering to people who are still struggling to have their voices heard independently of the negative stereotypes that our white-centric culture has judged them by for so long.

Getting past the filters, misconceptions, and lacks of self-awareness that keep people from honestly acknowledging that racism does in fact still exist, and that they may actually be unwittingly part of the problem, starts with doing two things.

The first is, admitting to ourselves that we are still capable of, and may still actively maintain, prejudices. It doesn’t seem humanly possible to have no prejudice whatsoever. If we are so quick to insist that we have no prejudices of any kind, and quickly shut down any conversation about the subject of prejudice, then we are probably not being honest with ourselves, let alone with anyone else. I admit I still have some: While they aren’t based on race, there are certain categories of people that, after all these years, even after encountering plenty of stereotype-breakers, I still have a really hard time respecting or not wanting to openly repudiate at least 50% of what they say and believe.

When we acknowledge who or what kind(s) of people we are still hard-hearted about, we are taking the first step to keeping those prejudices in check (meaning, not acting on them in any way, including in conversation), and weakening them over time.

The second thing is, not treating ourselves or each other as ambassadors of a whole group. While we each represent a group to some extent, we can only truly represent ourselves when expressing our beliefs and personal experience. When we drop the assumption that all of “our people”—whoever those people are—feel as we do, or have been affected the same way we have by various social-justice challenges, it’s a lot easier to be honest about our experience and to listen to other people expressing their experiences as members from the same or a different group. 

To truly get a good understanding of the experience of a particular racial, cultural, or religious group, it’s essential that we talk with multiple people, not just expect our one friend or coworker from that group to represent the whole. For example, if I’m talking to a friend who’s black about what Detroit is like for him now, I start my question with something like “In your experience…” rather than “As a black person…”

So, thus ends my blogging for 2017. Thank you so much for reading, and I look forward to sharing with you about my intercultural and interfaith adventures next year. We’re even going to kick off January with some planned, structured discussions about race and intercultural relations, including the topic “What is whiteness?” at a gathering in Romeo next Friday. If another Snowmaggedon or work doesn’t prevent me from attending, I’ll give you a full report. 

Until then, Namaste, and Happy New Year :)

Image: detail from "Re-Enchantment #1" by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, Prismacolor marker-blender

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

More thoughts on the difference between race and socially-contrived identity -- and the dark implications of why our ancestors contrived such identity to begin with

One of the most memorable themes for me this year has been the expansion of my focus from interfaith and intercultural relations into race relations. One of the first crossovers for me was an event at the Holocaust Memorial Center which helped clarify the concept of Jewish identity as a race and not just as a religion. While discussing my blog post about that event with Dan, we attracted the attention—and quickly the friendship—of a Jewish couple who helped us expand our understanding further into the story of the Jewish experience and into the idea of “white” being a social construct instead of a race. We had a few excellent opportunities to discuss race relations in the context of Detroit, both in our private small-group conversations and at the SGI Buddhist Center for the fourth installment of the Vanguard Discussion Series.

I also became aware of the most recent additions to the Michigan State University School of Journalism’s cultural competency guides series, including honest and accurate answers to common questions about Jewish people, African-American people, and certain immigrant groups to the U.S., which can serve as great ice-breakers to help mainstream Americans get over the fear and embarrassment that stops them from truly connecting with people from other colors and cultures.

And during last week’s conversations, both at Starbucks and during a Chanukah celebration, I realized that perhaps the biggest contributor to the recent intensification of racist actions in the U.S. is the idea that for “white” people to make more room for diverse viewpoints in conversation, media, the workplace, and politics, they must forfeit their power and compromise their beliefs and values.

As I pointed out last week, it doesn’t have to happen that way. White people don’t have to forfeit anything that’s truly good for them to help people of other colors and cultures to catch up. Allowing more voices at the table doesn’t have to mean that the voices of the people who’ve been there longest must be silenced or cancelled out. They will have to limit their talk-time, however, and that just means they will benefit all the more by spending more time listening.

As a person who was raised “white,” with no sense of ethnic identity of origin coded into that, I realize that the steep price white people have paid for their cultural dominance is the loss of their identity. “White” is not a race. “American” is not a race or a culture. These designations represent a social construct that resulted from many diverse groups of people forfeiting their original identities to break free of whatever negative value-judgments had been historically used against them to create a new identity in a foreign land based primarily on the achievement of social power and economic prosperity.

It drives me and my friends bonkers when people insist that being German, Croatian, French, Cameroonian, Lebanese, Chinese, Slavic, English, Mexican, Japanese, Indian, or Peruvian is irrelevant to the fact that we’re all “American.” This insistence on being “American” totally misses the point that for many—if not most—people who don’t fit under the white umbrella, the idea of being American means very little in terms of social status or economic power, because their groups have always gotten the short end of the stick in the so-called New World.

A great book I intend to read to help deepen my understanding of this cultural phenomenon is 
Working Toward Whiteness, which covers the creation of the defense-mechanism of European immigrants who de-emphasized, or shed altogether, their original identities as Italian, Irish, German, and so on, to equalize their social ranking.

Such attempts at cultural white-washing are not limited to people of European descent; Dan introduced us to the book Brown Skin, White Minds, which explores the heavy toll of colonization among Filipino people, particularly since they are still surrounded by predominately white beauty standards.

A third book Dan brought to the table is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which can go a long way in helping white people understand that the disproportionate representation of people of color (particularly black men) in prison is a systemic problem that can’t be solved simply by blaming and punishing individual people for their criminal behavior.

In my next post, I’ll share some thoughts about ways we can help bypass or short-circuit the resistance and preconceived notions that block many white people from being willing to listen long enough to understand any of this.

Image: "One World Heart," by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, metallic gel pen, white gel pen

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Power is meant to be a shared resource, not a commodity transferred from one group to another

Last Sunday I had the pleasure of attending my first ever observance of Chanukah with my best friends Dan and Joe, at the home of our new friends Lea and Mikael. Dan and I met Lea and Mikael last month at Starbucks, when they jumped into our conversation upon hearing us discussing my blog post about visiting the Holocaust Memorial Center, and we all bonded over our shared passion for interreligious and intercultural dialogue. In addition to sharing food, prayers, and lots of laughs, we heard a detailed accounting of the historical events that Chanukah commemorates, which Mikael read to us from the book The Feasts of the Lord (and which you can find a good summary of by clicking here.)

We also continued our ongoing conversation about race and identity. I wrote previously about the idea of “white” being an American social construct rather than a race, and Dan gave more details on what he’s learned in his social-justice classes to help us clarify the true implications of the dark side of this social construct.

Our current “inside joke” (used more to express our exasperation than amusement) that we’ve unfortunately found ourselves saying more and more lately is “only white people say that!” For example, “racism doesn’t exist anymore;” “I grew up poor too, and I managed to overcome it just fine;” “I played with dolls of all colors as a child, and I didn’t discriminate among or rank them;” and, of course, the defensive declaration that “I’m not racist.”

Rather than demonstrate a truly open-minded and diversity-embracing outlook, such comments actually reveal deep ignorance, to think that just because they don’t personally perceive a problem for people of color, the problem must not exist. This belief that the problem of racism no longer exists then makes it easier to dismiss any further grievances as the complaints of bitter people who are stuck in the past, or who aren’t getting what they feel they deserve because they aren’t “working hard enough,” or they “don’t want to work,” they need to try harder to assimilate, or are simply being hostile.

“White fragility” is the buzzword for this phenomenon. “Any white person living in the United States will develop opinions about race simply by swimming in the water of our culture,” Dr. Robin DiAngelo says in her excellent article about the subject (which I encourage you to read by clicking here), and then goes on to point out that the content provided by our education system and info-media are sorely lacking in different perspectives. “Our socialization renders us racially illiterate,” she says; “When you add a lack of humility to that illiteracy (because we don’t know what we don’t know), you get the break-down we so often see when trying to engage white people in meaningful conversations about race.”

Since most of my close friends are people of color, it doesn’t faze me to talk about race relations almost every time we get together. That being said, I freely admit that many years before I met them, when I was surrounded almost entirely by people whose skin is as pale as mine, I was clueless about many of the important points I now discuss regularly. My friends have suffered racism since they first came into the world, and I didn’t even start to learn what racism is until I was ten—from the protected perspective of observer rather than from direct experience.

After many conversations and much reading about race relations, it occurred to me that the defensiveness in white fragility comes from a scarcity mindset. Power and privilege in our society have for so long been based on the idea that for one group to have power means that power must be withheld from others, that it’s difficult for people in the group that has always had the social power to realize that power can be a synergistic instead of a finite resource. One of my favorite quotes about empowerment that I read somewhere is “Power: Share it. It grows!” 

Giving social sanction, equal opportunity, and better resources to people of color doesn't have to equate with taking it away from white people, which many white people seem to think it does. This mindset is the first thing that must change in order for the concept of white fragility to be dismantled so that we can treat power as a shared resource instead of as a commodity to be transferred from one group to another.

I’ll go further into this topic in my next post, including some recommended reading from Dan's race and communication class.

Image: "Eye of an Enlightened One" by Karla Joy Huber, 1995; chalk pastel

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Rather than trying to create successful bridge-building dialogue out of thin air, there are some great ice-breakers available to help get us started...

Apropos of my recent posts about dialogue in peace-building, I recently got an update about some great tools that can assist us if we find ourselves needing some conversation-starting assistance.

wrote last year about the cultural competency guide series, produced by Michigan State University’s School of Journalism and published by Read the Spirit Books, and I’m pleased to report now on what they’ve been up to since then.

In addition to their seven books I mentioned previously, the team has since added 100 Questions & Answers About African Americans100 Questions & Answers About American Jews100 Questions & Answers About Immigrants to the U.S., and 100 Questions & Answers About Veterans. These guides are meant to be concise, practical, and realistic, using real questions that people commonly ask about groups unfamiliar to them, especially those groups that have been heavily stereotyped.

The journalism students who create each guide conduct authentic research, by compiling teams of experts – including clergy, advocates, and elders from the subject communities – as well as citing sources that have been confirmed credible by such experts.

Read the Spirit co-founder David Crumm reported at a recent interfaith networking meeting that one of the first responses, especially from people familiar with or part of the group covered by a book, is that “these are dumb questions” or “this is very basic stuff; people should know this.” The truth is, Crumm pointed out, people actually don’t know.

“We ask the questions that everybody’s asking and no one’s answering,” he said. “These are the actual questions that people ask around the office, or in church group, or in a neighborhood group.” He then challenged us to “walk into Barnes and Noble and find a resource book that answers half the questions in these books.” I know I haven’t found anything else that comes close; any attempts I have found are often blatantly inaccurate, such as what I wrote about here.

To date, the guide series has focused on particular cultures with a solid immigrant presence in the United States, and MSU Journalism Professor Joe Grimm reported that the team is planning to branch out into particular religious groups, including a Chaldean guide that eighteen students are currently working on. The team is also considering requests for a guide about Mormons and a guide about Sikhs (who are often confused with Muslims but whose religion actually has no relation to Islam).

Other identity-related topics being considered are gender identity; sexual orientation (distinctly different from gender identity, Grimm pointed out); generational groups such as “Millennials” and “Generation X;” and police. There have even been discussions about producing a guide regarding human trafficking, which is also (tragically) very timely right now.

Another thing the team decided to do per Crumm’s suggestion is two-page samplers to promote each guide, and give people a quick, free conversation-starter if they don’t have the whole book in their hands. At the interfaith networking meeting, Grimm distributed copies of the first one, featuring ten questions from the guide about Muslim Americans across a two-sided  8 1/2” x 11” sheet, which is great for making copies of and handing to the (unfortunately many) people we know who really have no clue what real Muslims are like and what they really believe.

I'll keep you posted as this series develops, and I encourage you to please read these guides!

To see all the titled currently in the series, you can click here to see Read the Spirit’s online book catalog or check out the individual pages:

Image: "Highland Creek Bridge" by Karla Joy Huber, 2008; oil pastel

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Changing the world, one coffee-talk at a time...

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend that part of the world within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.”

I read these words today in the December e-newsletter of the Song and Spirit Institute for Peace, and thought them to be a great summary of the way I've chosen to contribute to kosen-rufu.

I’ve always been a person who prefers to minimize the amount of time I spend in crowds and who needs a lot of alone-time for reflection and art. Thus, if I thought I had to attend marches and rallies, give regular presentations to groups, or be engaged with a social-justice organization’s weekly activities in order to truly support diversity and inclusion, my contribution would be minimal.

SGI President Daisaku Ikeda says, “The fundamental aim of Buddhism is to live in a way that is true to ourselves” (Faith Into Action, page 26). I’ve found one-to-one and small-group dialogues, and writing about what I learn through these dialogues here, to be much more sustainable ways for me to make authentic contributions toward positive change in the world around me, and I’ve been surprised at how effective these simple and subtle means have proven lately.

The regular holding of such dialogues—most of them impromptu and often with people I didn’t previously know—involves a level of social comfort that I wouldn’t have if I was trying to do this by myself. Thankfully I don’t have to, having had Daniel Moen to team up with for over seven years. These dialogues usually occur when our coffee-house conversations attract the attention and interest of people around us, who express how encouraged they are just by hearing people talking so openly and honestly in public about race relations, interfaith relations, and other social-justice concerns without the usual clichés, labels, or self-righteousness.

The most recent example was a couple weeks ago, when I shared with Dan at Starbucks my November 15 blog post about an interfaith event at the Holocaust Memorial Center, and we were overheard by a nearby couple who happen to be Jewish. We become instant friends with Lea and Mikael, who enriched our conversation—and our cumulative life experience—through their personal connection with the subject matter, including about relatives who perished in or survived concentration camps and the discrimination-based challenges that Jewish people still face even today.

Leah also gave a great example of why we must try harder to rid ourselves of slapping limiting labels on each other. I once heard a Jewish coworker say she was offended whenever anyone implied that, as a Jewish person, she was not “white.” Lea was amazed at this, because in her experience, she feels her identity negated and misunderstood every time someone tries to tell her she is classifiable as “white” because her skin color is the same as theirs. Jewish people were never extended the privileges of being white, so to her the idea of calling herself such is as inauthentic as it is inaccurate.

“Whiteness” is a social construct, not a race or an identity, as Dan, Carolyn Ferrari, Laurent Schiratti, Khary Frazier, Loralei Byatt, Zen Zadravec, and others discussed earlier this month at the fourth Vanguard Discussion series event at our local SGI Buddhist Center. The idea of being just “white” (to contrast with and at the expense of being “black”) is a purely American construct, created out of self-defense against being given a lower social and economic ranking for being Irish or Italian or Greek instead of English or German or French.

“It’s not important how you compare yourself to others,” Daisaku Ikeda says, “but how you compare yourself to whom you were yesterday.” He also advises that it's better for one hundred people to take one step together than it is for one person to take one hundred steps: “If you see that you’ve advanced even one step, then you’ve achieved a victory.”

This shared journey usually starts with dialogue; such dialogues are even better, of course, when they include tasty coffee.

Image: Detail from "Nothing Without Love" by Karla Joy Huber, 2016; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, white gel pen, metallic gel pen

Monday, November 20, 2017

Detroit can save itself, if we actually listen to the residents tell us what they want and don't want from us

For the one-year anniversary of the Vanguard Discussion series, Carolyn Ferrari invited all the former panelists back and centered the discussion on race relations, particularly in the city of Detroit.

Specifically, our discussion centered on the commentary in the Focus: HOPE documentary “In Pursuit of Hope,” which features city residents’ reflections on the few-day-long 1967 Detroit riot, including what led up to it and what people in Detroit are doing now to help assure it doesn’t happen again.

The stark picture painted by the residents’ narratives really brought home the eerie similarities between the inner city and the reservations that the U.S. government forced Native Americans onto—Habitable patches of land from which the investment money, resources, and education that could help residents create viable businesses and prosperous communities have been removed, and given to the people in the surrounding areas which were deemed more deserving of them.

One point that really stuck out for me from the documentary was that all the attention (and judgment of Detroit as a failure) has focused on the people who fled the city, leaving abandoned, scary neighborhoods, burned-out buildings, and closed schools. Little attention or credit has been given to the people who stayed, and have been working to stabilize and help their communities prosper.

Focus: HOPE is one organization that has been empowering Detroit residents to help themselves rather than conditioning them to rely on “hand-outs” from “white saviors,” a term defines as “western people going in to ‘fix’ the problems of struggling nations or people of color without understanding their history, needs, or the region’s current state of affairs.” (For an informative analysis of this devastating socio-political phenomenon, please click here.) Another example is the Artists Village centered on Lahser and Grand River, which I’ve made a couple explorations into (and blogged about here).

The more dialogues I have with people who grew up in and/or still live in Detroit, the more I realize that Detroit is capable of restoring itself if we just let it.

By this I don’t mean cut all ties and just let them figure it out on their own in isolation; what I mean is that we need to let the people who live in Detroit have a chance to determine their own fate, rather than more affluent outsiders assuming what should stay and what should go in the city. What many people are lauding as Detroit’s supposed “comeback,” after all, is not so much a self-restoration that could truly be considered a comeback; much of what they’re actually referring to is gentrification—bringing in real estate, dining, retail, and entertainment that most long-term residents of the city can’t even afford to partake of.

That’s not saving Detroit, that’s taking it away from its residents.

All that being said, one thing that can help make discussions about interracial and intercultural reconciliation more productive is to stop insisting on the ideas of “blame” and “fault,” which have always gotten us nowhere.

If, because I'm mostly “white” (my Native American ancestry being invisible to most people), I treated myself like some kind of villain, or allowed other people to view me as a villain because the system favors “my kind” and not “their kind,” then I’m not going to come to any productive conclusions that will do anything other than make me feel defensive, ambivalent about my social position, and uncomfortable talking with anyone who isn’t in the “white” box.

On the flipside, I can say that, as a person who has something that many other people don’t, I have a social responsibility to share.

This mindset encourages me to think, What ways can I help my neighbors or friends who don’t have what I have? How can I encourage them, change my ways of thinking and behaving to help bring about a culture-shift that helps them prosper? What legislation can I support? What greed-based businesses can I boycott? What local businesses can I patronize and promote?

The way to finding these answers starts with dialogue, and sharing what we’ve learned from our conversations. That’s what I strive to do here, and I’ve got more to come next week.

Image: "One World Heart" by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, white gel pen, gold gel pen