by WTC Staff and Friends

Not Why But How


The question "Why can't we just get along?" raises many emotions and questions for me. On the surface, it feels like an innocent question, but what are the assumptions underneath it? The first assumption is that we can go along to get along. We're all human, all one in God's eyes, all the same. These assumptions raise the same feelings I have when I hear, "Why can't we be friends?" In unpacking the question "Why can't we get along" I see very complex issues reduced to simple understandings, because the question moves us away from an institutional level of understanding to a personal or individual one.

"Why can't we just get along?" feels like

a cry for an absence of tension or conflict

a cry for friendship and connection

a cry for understanding

a cry in response to complex and complicated race relations

a cry to skip over, to overlook history and past relationship

a cry to overlook hurt and injustice

a cry for the good old days, the way things used to be.

If only we could like each other, be friends, be ONE.

The question poses a structural question and asks us to respond on a personal level.

I don't know all of what white people mean when they ask the question, but I know what it means to have to answer. I see the question as asking me to overlook years of oppression, unequal power relationships and dynamics. It asks me to overlook the access to power and resources that white people have. It asks me to overlook years of injustice, unfair treatment, discrimination and racism.

It asks me to overlook all these issues and feelings. It asks me to deny my reality for the sake of going along to get along.

It assumes one can just simply choose to get along, that it's a simple act or activity. It assumes that by hoping and wishing and denying whole parts of history and of ourselves, we will eventually get to getting along.

What is in it for Black people or other oppressed people to get along? I feel the question silences us, requires us to make the first steps in creating the environment to getting along. I don't know if I feel it's a "vision" or an ideal that we share with each other. In other words, I doubt that African Americans, for example, walk around asking this question and expecting an answer.

In agreeing to get along or to go along, we lose a sense of self. We deny a history of injustice and I feel we contribute to our own oppression. I would like the question to be changed to "Can we get along?" What are the obstacles to getting along? When we do "get along" who benefits and who loses?

Without justice, there can be no genuine getting along and we will continue to limp along.

Unless we are willing to

take risks

tell the truth to ourselves and each other

truly respect difference

put our fears aside and

do justice

we will continue to limp along asking "Why can't we just get along?"


Who Are "We"?

The main reason "we" can't just get along is that too often "we" do not know who "we" are or what "we" is. When individuals meet, we are not just meeting another body, we are meeting a spirit developed in relationship to other people, places and things. We also meet a spirit of vision for the future unfolding of people, places and things. In short, we meet culture. If we share culture and assumptions, it is challenging enough to come to know each other. If we are meeting someone from a totally new culture that our culture has not had direct history with, there are particular challenges to our meeting. But if we meet across a difference of cultures that have a history of conflict, our getting to know each other tends to be that much more difficult.

This country was founded on a profoundly inharmonious meeting of three cultures: European explorers who came here perhaps under duress but largely by choice; Africans, most of whom were kidnapped and enslaved by the Europeans and brought here under the most horrific of conditions; and the Native Nations people who were the land's original inhabitants. In fact, it was many more than three cultures, but the devastation and violence that marked the meeting made people have to identify in huge groups of shared experience, as war often does.

"Trying to build a nation

after a war is like trying to build

a marriage after a rape."

(from Heaven and Earth)

In the scheme of things, the US is a fairly young country. The history of devastation in its creation for Africans and the indigenous Nations of the continent are wounds too fresh and present for all to embrace the notion of a nation "we" have created together.

What would it take to build a marriage on a rape? I'm not sure. But certainly it is not done by pretending a fairy tale wedding. It is challenging enough to get to know someone when you freely enter into relationship. It is challenging enough to get to know yourself, for that matter! Across such a painful meeting it makes sense that it is hard to get along for the peoples who are the descendants of this history.

It is also hard to get along because often people assume the European approach to history. For the African people, the past and the future existed in the present: through the ancestors who guide us and the young ones who bring back their spirit. Often you will hear Europeans complain that Black people still complain about history when it happened so long ago. But by a less linear approach to history, it is still present. Or they will say they are not the ones who took the land from the Indigenous people and they are not the ones who enslaved the Africans and yet they will live care-freely on the Indigenous people's land and on the wealth cultivated by the Africans' free labor. They will say the history of slavery is not their history while they celebrate the Fourth of July and the quincentennial of Columbus' journey. It is hard to make a marriage with such a selective memory. It is hard to get along.

Beyond Colorblindness

In my experience, one of the ways white people try to get along across the difference of race is by being what we call "colorblind." Colorblindness, however, has its problems.

A few years ago when my parents were visiting me, I introduced them to a Nigerian neighbor who was studying in the U.S. During the course of the ensuing conversation, my father said, "We're colorblind." I don't remember anymore what that was in response to, but I do know that it was not the first time I heard him use that term.

What suddenly occurred to me was that I have only ever heard white people use the term colorblindness when we are in the presence of persons of color or when the subject of race happens to come up. I suddenly realized that the only reason white people use the term at all is because we are in fact noticing color. Most of the time, when white people are surrounded by other white people, we aren't noticing color at all. We don't think about the fact that we're white. In fact, it's when we're "on our own" that we're blind to color (our own). When we are in the presence of people of color we will notice color — theirs, not ours.

I know what my Dad means when he says, "We're color blind." He means to say that the fact that people of different races have different skin colors is irrelevant to the way in which he treats people. He believes all people are children of God and should therefore be treated as though their skin color doesn't matter. He means to stand in opposition to that white point of view that overtly says that people of color are inferior to whites. He told my neighbor, "We're colorblind," because he wanted to tell her that he isn't prejudiced against her.

I know what my Dad means, and I know that his sentiment comes from his deepest convictions and best intentions. But, besides the fact that colorblindness isn't an accurate way to describe what he means since it is only used when color is being noticed, I don't think the term is helpful. It isn't helpful because while we may believe that people of color are white people's equals, the way in which society is set up doesn't accommodate this reality. We may believe that God made us all equals but the fact is that white people in this society have the power to decide what "equal" means, what "children of God" means, what "people" means. More often than not, white people who believe in color blindness believe that underneath their skin, people of color are basically white, as though whiteness were the standard for everyone.

Color blindness doesn't acknowledge that there might be other ways to understand our humanity, other ways to create culture, other ways to do and see things that aren't anything like the white way and are not only often equally valid, but often more life-affirming. Because white people's standards and white people's way of understanding things is the dominant way, most white people don't even know that there are other ways. We name our Way as the Truth. It is our failure to see the spectrum of truths that makes us colorblind. And this is not a virtue. As Ruth Howe says, "How can a vitamin deficiency that causes you to see less than there is be held as the standard?" As long as we believe in colorblindness, we will never notice the deficiency of our way. We will not see that it is very limited. Nor will we see how our limited way of seeing keeps us from getting along with others. And that failure is on us, not them.


Understanding Institutional Racism

It was at a conference, in the summer of 1970, that I began to understand institutional racism. The national YWCA had recently adopted its "One Imperative: to thrust our collective power towards the elimination of racism wherever it exists and by any means necessary." The students and young adults in the YWCA, many of whom had been on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, had been instrumental in the adoption of the One Imperative by the National Board of the YWCA. I attended the 1970 National Student Conference in the summer as I moved from Duke to accept a position as Associate Chaplain and Director of the YM-YWCA at Oberlin College.

It was at that conference that I was asked, for the first time, to think about what it means to be white, and this, in a session in which white women and women of color were meeting in separate groups. It was here that I first understood, by hearing the poem, "A Black Woman Speaks of White Womanhood," (Footnote *) the chasm that racism creates between Black and white women. It was here that I began to understand that racism is a white problem, and that I as a white woman had a responsibility to use the power to which I had access toward its elimination. Although I was convinced of my responsibility in this regard, it was not immediately obvious to me at age 30, working in a rather low-status job in a small liberal arts college, what sort of power I had to exercise. Nevertheless, I learned, at this conference, to identify those elements of power, however limited, I did possess by looking at those places in which I had the capacity to make decisions — hiring staff, developing programs, teaching courses for which students received academic credit, training volunteers for community programs, to name only a few.

This conference was clearly, at the late date of 1970, not the first opportunity I had had to learn all of this. I had, after all, been in college during the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. I had participated in the Student YWCA as a student, participating in integrated student conferences in the still-segregated South, and had argued with college officials and church leaders against the late 1950s justifications for segregation. Later, in graduate school, and in my first campus ministry position at Duke, I had continued to ally myself with groups seeking racial justice. It was not, however, until the Duke incident that I had really heard what had been there to hear for years. That incident remains emblazoned on my consciousness as a moment of "awakening." It was that incident that challenged my assumption that "racial justice" and "integration" were synonymous terms. That challenge pushed me to a beginning awareness of racism as a structural and institutional problem.

Circles and Pyramids

As we do anti-racism and anti-internalized racism work, there are so many things that bring us back to Rodney King's question: "Why can't we just get along?!" Often, we are amazed and frustrated that the work is so long and hard and so complex. Participants will often look back on the painful history of racism and see improvements and be totally confused as to why we seem to rehash the past. They believe if we just look forward and try new ways of being, we will get along and ground ourselves in our similarities and our connection instead of going to the past and dredging up our tales of divergence and separation.

Doing this work is about trying to heal a relationship between Peoples. It is not about individuals and how much we like each other except to the extent that the dominant culture- — white or Western culture — places great or even primary emphasis on the needs and realities of "the individual." It is one of many very powerful ways of looking at the world but as we step back from it we see the deepest and most sacred meaning that it has for that culture. But we also see the places that it might clash with other cultures and we see the places that it might be desecrated by a superficial and naive understanding of it within that culture.

A chart (Figure 1) that I first saw done by Asoka Bandarage, a Sri Lankan feminist gave a visual understanding of the complexity of relationship. It often helps participants to answer their own questions about why this work is so long. With the right understanding, it still continues to take all the time it takes, but it need not be so draining.

The chart is in many ways about "the self." A series of concentric circles represents the series of relationships that make up "a self." We are, it is true, in one sense "an individual" but we become who we are through our experiences with others. There are the one-on-one intimate relationships that form us: mother- child; father-child; husband-wife or life-mate; Godparent-Godchild; intimate friends etc.

On the next rung, much of who we are is created through our relationship to our family. Did we have siblings? How many? Were our parents able to care for us or were we reared by extended family? Was our larger family grounded in one region and prominent in our growing up and making life choices or did we grow up with our nuclear families far away from our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. There are so many ways that our life experience of our families make us who we are.

The next rung of relationship is our racial / cultural / identity community. Perhaps more than the other two this is a relationship of the head and the heart. With whom do we share a history and culture? And how? We are formed by "our People." This is not an opinion — it is a reality. How did we come to understand ourselves in relationship to others with a shared history? This too has a big part in making us who we are. For many of us, it is constantly shifting throughout our lives but there is a foundation of the culture and history we come to know ourselves through that deeply creates our sense of self.

Then there is the larger human level. Some of us see ourselves in relation to others on this planet through our nationalities. For others it is through our religion. Increasingly, there are many who see themselves and relate through their social class or the economic structure — we see that as Corporations cross borders and gather up peoples or People who want to live tribally fight to maintain a measure of group self-sufficiency that does not require such huge organizations of people.

Finally there is the planetary level of our relationship: how were we taught to relate to the rest of the planet, the non-human world? Is it our oyster — to be gleefully opened up and slurped down? Is it our enemy, to be beat into submission? Is it our home, to be cared for and tended and made to be nice like we want it? Or are we simply a small part of it responsible for being in harmony to the best of our ability?

All of these layers of relationship and more make us who we are. And so while we can think that we are just two people meeting when the sacred meaning of "the individual" is held up, we understand that that meeting is a scared event because there in that individual are the many people and experiences and historical circumstances and cultural understandings that have shaped this one person and it is a profound thing that happens when we meet.

The deepest meaning of valuing the individual would make up understand the complexity and beauty of really trying to "get along" or perhaps to go along to some new place together.

When we desacralize this meeting we see a disease in our understanding of "the individual." We can think then that we are just two separate bodies meeting and that can lead to anything from superficial understanding of relationship that we see in popular culture: you meet a body and are instantly intimate with it. Or worse, you meet, think it is "just another body" — not one particularly related to you — and are able to visit unspeakable horrors on it.

Another part of this that cannot be forgotten, however, is that even this chart is culture-bound. I remember reading Frances Fitzgerald's Fire in the Lake about the Vietnam War. In her brilliant analysis of the tremendous culture clash between the Vietnamese People and the West, she said that in the Vietnamese language there is not even a word for self as it is understood in the U.S. People typically refer to themselves in relationship not as individuals (e.g. daughter of So-and-so). Thus if a Western-oriented U.S. person were to meet a U.S. person with strong Vietnamese roots, even the starting assumption of the "individuals" meeting would be in conflict.

As another example, I saw a similar chart drawn by Pat Weeden, a Wampanoag trainer. At the center of the circles, she put "the Creator" — because all in existence begins in her People's understanding with the creator. There are so many ways that our understandings of what it is for two separate beings to meet can differ. When we understand this, we may still not understand why we can't all get along but we will certainly remember why it is no easy process to know each other or to be in authentic relationship.

The complicating factor that keeps bringing us back to our histories as Peoples on the racial/ethnic/culture circle is that we have had major horrible clashes that shape how we see each other as Peoples. As "those who do not know history are bound to repeat it," those who do not understand the intricacies of disrespectful encounters between people are bound to repeat them. There is much wisdom about how to meet other Peoples respectfully but we must know the minefields of relationship in order to know what exactly we need to know if we are to build something truly different together.

The circles diagram is a very neat and orderly presentation of what we all know is not neat and orderly once you get many circles of selves interacting with each other. Since we cannot interact perfectly — at least our histories have not shown this to be likely — there are all levels of dis-ease that our selves suffer and must heal through different methods.

Another chart that helps in diagnosing some of the problems that must be tended and that is what anti-racism is about. It is about healing diseased relationships between people. It is not about who the Peoples are. It is not about who is good and who is bad. Perhaps it is not even about who is right and who is wrong. The only judgment is in if we have the courage to use our power to heal old destructive patterns that contribute to or perpetuate the disease or if we are brave enough to risk going to our core to find the balm that promotes healing.

The second diagram (Figure 2) can be seen as a slice of the pie that is the first diagram. Out of what is best about Western perspective, it breaks things down and thus is a good tool for diagnosis of particular problems. It is important that we don't fall into what I see as one of the major flaws of that system: to mistake being able to describe something with understanding it. We must remember that it is just a piece that must continually be fit back into the whole, not an explanation that stands on its own.

At the top of the pyramid is the personal which corresponds to the self. At this level, as it relates to difference across race, is prejudice and stereotyping. These are common to all human beings and they do not have to be acted upon. It is possible that they can rest inside us and others might not even see us take actions that expose them. These are flaws of dividing ourselves and the rest of humanity (and in some cultures, from the rest of creation) that our entire spiritual lives are devoted to releasing.

On the second level is the interpersonal. This involves our interactions with others. Here is where we would put discrimination, bigotry and scapegoating. Again, these are things that all human beings do. We have limited resources and so we must decide how they will be distributed and to whom. Bigotry is the negative side of prejudice in which prejudices are acted out in our relationships. And scapegoating is another human flaw in which it is easier to project blame onto others than to enter into our sacred connection with them and figure out how to bring about wholeness for all.

Racism — systemic oppression — however, happens on the bottom two levels. It is about how we organize our interests collectively and use collective power. The structural and institutional level is where the symptoms of systemic inequality are bound to show up. Who has the power to make and enforce decisions for the whole? Across racial difference this is not just about whether your particular people are represented but to what extent they are able to make and enforce decisions that address the particular needs of your community as it has named them — out of their shared reality. Secondly, who has access to resources broadly defined. To what Peoples do the resources of time, money, attention, love, presentation, etc., go?

At the base of the pyramid is the cultural or ideological dimension. Who has the power to set the standards for what is deemed "normal" or appropriate or of value? And finally, who names reality or defines what it "the problem" or issue that needs to be addressed?

In a situation of racism, the pyramid is inverted and there is a small, narrow group that has the power of the bottom two levels and the "masses" are lumped together as "individuals" and their collective realities are given little import. If their interests do not match those on the bottom levels they are pronounced "the problem" both collectively and as individuals promoting their group's concerns.


Institutional vs. Individual Racism

In 1979, I wrote a manual for women in the battered women's movement on how to build a multi-racial organization. I wrote that at a time when the movement was facing issues of leadership. Women of color were not represented in that leadership and questions of how to recruit and maintain both a diverse staff and volunteer pool were coming up.

Since that time, I have come to believe that the organizational culture or climate is the hardest to get people to see and it is the place where change is the hardest to make.

Looking at the culture of an organization is both an internal and an external process. Individuals must look at whether they are open to and willing to undergo a change process. That change process typically requires personal examination and unpacking of assumptions.

At the same time as individuals are looking at their personal assumptions, the organization as a whole must examine its ability and flexibility and commitment to change. In this process, there must be a buy-in from the board of directors. A plan must be made and developed. There needs to be clarity about the organization's goals with regard to changing the composition of race, class, and/or gender. Changing the organization structurally has implications for its day-to-day functioning. There will be implications for program planning, fundraising, board recruitment, public relations and image. Adequate time and resources must be committed to this process.

It is typically easier to get individuals to change, to offer strategies and a checklist for individuals to use.

In the past few years there has been a move in the race relations industry toward "diversity" and away from "anti-racism." This has further isolated and made mystery of people of color as the "other." It has created an image of the other as unknown, needing special attention. The other becomes synonymous with change, and often therefore with bad or evil as they represent the reason change is required of the dominant group.

Managing diversity asks us to celebrate difference. It begins with the assumption that we are all different, that in any workplace we bring that difference with us and we can be our best selves in the work place if the work place will accept the difference or the other with open arms. (tension: organization vs. individual) The individual -- the other-- comes into a structure that has not changed. Maybe the individuals have done some work but is that social change?