Tag Archives: Social Justice

When 50 Years Is Forever But No Time At All

“Time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to work to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.” –Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can’t Wait

Hello friend,

All week long I have been ruminating on the life of Martin Luther King. Well, I suppose it is more like 30 years that I have been ruminating on him. Ever since that day I walked into the library of my high school bent on satisfying the intense curiosity I felt about this man, a fascination that none of my teachers and textbooks had quenched. I read and read, and as I did, the feeling grew that I had found my soulmate across the ages. We were connected somehow, like cosmic brothers. Timelessly so.

My hero was murdered 50 years ago.

FIFTY YEARS!!! That feels like an eternity to me! But even for someone as resonant and consistently present in my life as Dr. King has been, “his time” still feels so long ago and so much before mine. In so many ways, I cannot believe it was only 50 years ago that he died!

I think of all those images in still photographs and grainy video. The fire hoses and dogs, the lunch counters and sidewalk beatings, the policemen’s billy-clubs, the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma, the many sermons in churches across the South, and the Lincoln Memorial and National Mall for the “I Have A Dream” speech. I always see the Civil Rights Movement in black-and-white. Some time long before me, just like the Great Depression and World War II and Charlie Chaplin. Ancient history.

But the truth is that Dr. King was right before me, and his time bumped right up to my time. He was murdered in April of 1968. My sister was born the very next month. My goodness, I have never realized that! It shocks me now that I do. Even though I can see the dates in my head and I understand it to be true, somehow my mind just won’t absorb the concept.

I nearly shared an era with Martin Luther King.

I am so stricken by that realization just now. In my mind, it was such a stretch to connect us, at least from a practical standpoint; I felt him in my heart, of course, but he was always a character from such a completely different time, as much as my other major influences: Gandhi, Buddha, Henry Thoreau, and Jesus of Nazareth. Fifty years could have just as well have been 500! It always seemed so far before me.

Everything about the 1960s has felt that way for me: Woodstock, JFK, the moon landing, even Vietnam, which went into the 70s. I see now that everything before me feels like ancient history.

And just the concept of FIFTY YEARS seems like forever. It’s so big!

I guess that I fail to realize that I am 45 years old. That is nearly half a century itself. Maybe the fact that I cannot imagine myself as being 50 sheds some light on why I see Martin Luther King as nowhere near my time.

I think this type of view changes with age. At least it has for me. I know that I have made an effort in my adult years to expand my range on this, to make more real the idea that 100 years and 200 years and things like slavery, the extermination of the Native Americans, Abraham Lincoln, Adolf Hitler, and the right of women to vote, that none of that was actually very long ago. I have done it intentionally so that I can keep my empathy and be on the alert for narrow-mindedness and entitlement. It is a process that I have mixed results with, occasionally grasping the close proximity of these events to me, but usually not. I take a lot for granted.

The fluctuating nature of my grasp on this concept of Time seems directly proportional to the level of wisdom that I operate with from day to day. When I am clear how near all of this stuff is to today–a blink of an eye, historically–then I am more aware of how important it is for me to use my voice and my life for good and to speak up immediately and passionately against ignorance and injustice, as those things can quickly gain a foothold and wreak havoc on a generation of unsuspecting souls.

I feel like I owe it to my children and future grandchildren to take the long view and realize just how brief a half-century is, how near we are to the previous one, and how quickly the next one will pass. It pushes me to take ownership of my era, to try to leave a better legacy than my generation seems to be allowing to transpire right under our noses.

I don’t want my future grandchildren to look back at this time–my time–and think, “What fools and cowards those people were in that age! How badly they behaved toward one another and toward the planet! They nearly destroyed everything, and barely anyone spoke up on the side of right. How short-sighted they were. Thanks goodness we know better!” I hope that we can see and confront the error of our ways in the present and leave a better legacy than we are on track to.

Fifty years goes by in a blink. That’s what my mother tells me. We can do a lot of good or a lot of bad in that amount of time. When I think about those black-and-white images from the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King’s death–and when I remind myself that that was only one blink ago–I understand the kind of seismic shift we can make in the next blink, one way or the other. Dr. King and every other brave person who spoke, marched, and bled for civil rights in the 1960s made all our lives immeasurably better. But our potential for greater things is limitless. There will not come an era when it will be acceptable to say, “Okay, we have done enough to improve the world for ourselves, for humankind, and for our planet.” The time will always, as Dr. King says, “be ripe to do right.”

If you are reading these words, you are in the midst of one of those 50-year blinks. Someone is going to look back in wonder 50 short years from now–it might be you, it might be your grandkids, it might be the History books–at the time in which we are living. They will see the images we daily create: school shootings, climate events, cowardly displays of greed and short-sightedness from our elected leaders, showdowns over nuclear weapons, killings of unarmed Black men by the police, and lots of people taking selfies as the rest of the list goes on in the background? Will they be impressed or aghast at us?   Will they find any heroes in their review of our time, anyone like Martin Luther King?

These questions haunt me now in this rare moment of clarity about how quickly time flies by. At least for this moment, before something distracts me and clouds my vision, I want to make a bigger commitment to make this historical blink–our blink–a more positive one. A time for growth and for progress. I want this blink to be characterized by an increase in EMPATHY and a corresponding natural boost in Social Justice and Peace. I want it to be characterized by an awakening in our hearts and minds about the disastrous effects of our actions (and those of our ancestors) on each other and on our planet, and with that awakening a newfound conviction to live bigger and better than we ever have before.

I sincerely hope that with that awakening and conviction come heroes. It would be a shame to be a party to an era that leaves behind no heroes for the next era. It reminds me of the John Mayer lyric from his song “Speak For Me”: You can tell that something isn’t right when all your heroes are in black-and-white. I hope that for the sake of the coming generations, we can leave behind a legacy of moral progress and broadminded vision, and some genuine heroes, too.

Dr. King died 50 years ago this week. Perhaps the more staggering fact is that he was alive for only 39 years. If History blinked, it would have missed him. That’s how fast it goes. But if you do it well, as Dr. King showed us, your blink can shine forever. I want my blink–our blink–to be better. The thought of my hero inspires me to rise up and do my part to make it so.

How about you? Do you realize how quickly your era is passing and the impressions it is leaving in the greater evolutionary journey of our species? Open up your journal and contemplate this infinite topic. What is your sense of the magnitude of 50 years? Does it seem like forever to you–taking you to some foreign territory like a black-and-white film that you can’t make real in your colorful mind–or does it feel like just a little while ago? Do you think this is entirely dependent upon your age–i.e. 50 years seems like nothing for people older than 50 but feels like forever to people younger than 50–or are some people just better at comprehending our tiny spot on the vastness of History’s timeline? As a 45-year old, I grew up with color TV shows but also some after-school re-runs in black-and-white (e.g “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Three Stooges”) that I always had trouble connecting with. Do you think the switch from black-and-white to color images in photos, TV, and movies will change what seems “contemporary” to this and future generations, or will our color images seem old and unrelatable to them, too? Are your heroes from your lifetime? Has the past 50 years–the time since Dr. King–produced a proportionate number of heroes to the other historical eras? If not, what is it about our era that is lacking such that we have not produced the kind of people who are worthy of our idolatry over the long haul? It seems reasonable that with social media and the Internet, this era’s potential paragons of virtue would be easily visible and widely accessible to a broad audience, making it seem likely that we would produce an exponentially greater number of heroic figures than previous eras. Are we? What will be the legacy of our era–this blink–when people look back at it 50 years from now? Will it be all of the negative stuff we see on the news everyday–the corruption and cowardice in Washington, the shootings, the climate change–or is there something greater at play that we are missing amidst all of this narrow-mindedness and short-sightedness? Or is that very pettiness and folly going to be our legacy, the thing that sticks out to the writers of the History books? Perhaps. Now switch gears: what would you like the legacy of this era to be? How different is that than where it appears to be heading now? What could we start doing differently to get it going in the direction you want it to go? Is it a reasonable ask, or are your hope and our reality a bridge too far to cross? What can you personally do to make our era more like the one you would like it to be remembered as? Is that something you can begin today? I hope so. Leave me a reply and let me know: What lasting impression will this historical blink of an eye leave upon History?

Be your biggest,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, I hope you will share it on your social media. We need to grow the conversations that make us better. Thank you!

P.S.S. If you haven’t read the Journal of YOU book yet, you can find it on Amazon or any of your other favorite online booksellers. Please leave a review if you have. Thanks!

Where is Your Outrage? Getting Angry in an Apathetic World

“If you aren’t outraged, then you just aren’t paying attention.” –Lisa Borden, The Alphabet of Avoidance

Hello friend,

This week I watched the newly-released police videos of the murder of Philando Castile and its immediate aftermath. I watched as Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, sat handcuffed and distraught in the backseat of a police cruiser with her four-year-old daughter. The little girl pleaded with her to stop screaming because she didn’t want her mother to “get shooted” too. At the end of the heartbreaking video, she cries to her mother, “I wish this town was safer. I don’t want it to be like this anymore.” I swallowed hard and wiped the tear from my eye. Then I got angry. Really angry. I wanted to scream, but felt like I couldn’t produce one loud enough to represent the extremes of my outrage.

After last Friday’s not guilty verdict for the officer who fired seven bullets into Castile as he sat seat-belted in his car next to his girlfriend and her daughter, I was devastated. Just after my wife told me the news, I had to pick up my kids from camp and explain to them why Mommy would be crying when we got home. We had to have another difficult discussion about race and injustice in America, including our own city, where the murder took place. It is depressing to be forced to have these conversations over and over with a six-year-old and an eight-year-old.

I had been thinking since the verdict about this sad fact of racial injustice in American life and how it pains me that my kids need to know this stuff so young. But seeing this new video of that poor little four-year-old child not only witnessing a murder of a loved one by a police officer but also being cognizant of how little it would take for them to kill her black mother, too, well, that just takes it to a whole other level. As I said, it broke me into tears watching it.

But my heartbreak morphed quickly into its natural successor: outrage.  

I was really, really mad. Mad that Castile’s murderer got off. Mad that this woman had to sit in handcuffs when she had just witnessed her boyfriend murdered and she wasn’t charged with or suspected of any crimes. Mad that this innocent little child had to witness both Castile’s murder and her mother’s humiliation. And so damn mad that we live in a world where that kind of scene—from the phony, racially-profiled traffic stop all the way to the Not Guilty verdict—is commonplace for people of color, just a regular part of what it means to be black in America. It is such a damn shame on us.

But what makes me more outraged as I simmer down from all that other stuff is that this whole thing—which was actually quite famous due to Reynolds’ Facebook Live video capturing Castile bleeding out while his murderer’s gun was still pointed at him—doesn’t seem to even cause an eyebrow to be raised for most people outside of the black community. Nothing!

We cry about it at my house and have long talks with my children, and then I write and share about it on Facebook to both educate and grieve communally. As I scroll through my Newsfeed, though, there is barely a mention of it.

Some of my black friends and a couple of my white friends—literally a couple—that live in the city of the killing share their sadness and disgust. Otherwise, crickets. Silence.

That silence, of course, chaps my hide even more. When I shared on Facebook the video of the handcuffed Diamond Reynolds and her weeping daughter in the back of the police car, along with a call to action, I got a grand total of five acknowledgements in the next 24 hours. Not comments—none of those—but Likes or Sad Face or Angry Face. Five! I bet I could get on social media right now and type “I love chocolate ice cream!” and get twice that number of responses in an hour. Apathy.

I am outraged by the lack of outrage!!!

No wonder most black people in America feel like they can’t trust white people: we do nothing but let them down over and over again. And not just by killing them and getting away with it, but mostly by our absolute apathy about such injustice. It’s not the killers that are so hurtful; it’s the vast silent mass of passive condoners of the killing who act as a rubber stamp of its approval. Our collective silence does more damage than that officer’s bullets.

I just don’t get why everyone is not more upset by this.

Why do you have to be black or have black loved ones to feel outraged by injustice toward black people? Or disabled people. Or poor people. Or LGBTQ people. Or whatever! What makes us so unfeeling, so uncaring about stuff that doesn’t happen in our own house?

And I am not saying that we all have to share exactly the same sensibilities and all have to be upset by the same things. I am outraged by what is happening in Washington, DC almost every single day, too, but I know people who are perfectly content with it. Fine.

But there is so much obvious injustice in our world and so many things that would seem to bind us together in our collective outrage. Alas, I just don’t sense it out there. Not from the crowd I am listening to. My family. My friends. My social media contacts. My world. It breaks my heart how silent and unmoved you are by things that matter so much to me (and that I want to believe would matter to you).

It is this deep sadness, this disappointment, that always remains when the fire of outrage quiets. I am more often sad than mad about stuff. I think that is part of my disposition. But I am feeling—deeply, passionately, painfully—and if nothing else, that reminds me that I care. I just don’t know about anybody else.

I am looking for it, desperately wanting to feel that flame from others the way a captain lost in the storm wants to see the lighthouse. I long for some sign, some indication that it’s not just me, that I am not alone in my pain and indignation at injustice. I want to know that the collective response to everything isn’t just a shrug, a “Whatever”. I want to know that there exists some degree of indecency, immorality, illegality, or injustice that will cause a critical mass of us to not simply raise our eyebrows but also our hearts and voices.

I feel myself both inside the world and outside, knocking on the door and wondering if we are still in here, if we will answer it or if we will turn down the lights and hide in the basement until the knocking goes away. I need to feel some reassurance that we are going to answer, because right now, I am getting nothing. That silence makes me want to scream.

How about you? Is there any rage coming out of you from the way our world is working? Open up your journal and consider what, if anything, raises you to the level where something has to be said or done about it. Is there anything? When was the last time you felt truly outraged about something? What was it? How did you vent your frustration and anger? A group protest? A Facebook rant? A vent session with a loved one who empathizes with you? Or did you just stuff it all down inside you to keep stewing? What type of thing usually draws your ire? Social justice issues? The ineptitude and acrimonious dealings of our elected officials in Washington? Environmental issues? Concerns of unfairness in your workplace? Income inequality and the dominance of the wealthy few over the many? Mistreatment in individual relationships? Why does expressing our outrage over blatant societal injustice have to be polarizing and scare us into not expressing ourselves? Is it actually controversial to say that Philando Castile was dealt an injustice or that his family was dealt another one with the verdict? I think it takes a fairly high degree of denial to survive and remain sane in this society, because there are so many causes for outrage around us. Do you find that to be the case, and how do you filter the many triggers? Do you ever worry that you have taken that filtering and denial too far, to the point that nothing outrages you anymore? I feel like most people have gotten that way about the mess in Washington. Do you think some outrage is healthy, though, as a sort of proof that you are alive and engaged with the world? I like the H.L. Mencken quote, “Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.” How often should you allow this outrage to surface in order to remain happy and balanced? How can you apply your outrage to activism for positive change? On a scale of one to ten, with one being always silent, passive, and even-keeled, and ten being outraged, vocal, and actively engaged in protest, where do you generally fall on the spectrum of outrage regarding societal injustice? Does that feel like a healthy spot for you, or is it time to make some changes? What aspect of your world needs your outrage and your voice? Are you ready to give it? Leave me a reply and let me know: Where is your outrage?

Speak and act your Truth,

William

P.S. If this resonated with you, please share it. I would also love to hear from you, either in the comments or on Facebook, especially about which of the many injustices in the world rile you most. Thank you for energy.

Who Do You Wish To Be, Part 2: The DOING Part

IMG_2404“What we do comes out of who we believe we are.” –Rob Bell

Hello friend,

Last week, I wrote to you and asked, Who do you wish to be? It was a general question about the type of person you were striving to become, your vision for your best self. It was about the character traits you want to exemplify and the impact you want to have on the world in the rest of your numbered days. I asked you to keep it about who you wanted to be, to not get bogged down by needing to know exactly what you wanted to do. The being and the doing are hard to separate, of course. I tried, and here again is what I came up with for my best version of me:

I wish to be a person who inspires others. I wish to be an example of how sincere self-reflection and an open mind can allow you to know who you are and what your purpose is. I want to be an example of how that self-knowledge, far from being something to fear and find shame in, is something that can grant you the deepest peace and gratitude, basking in the beauty that is your Truth. I wish to share the stories of people who are doing the daily work of lifting others up, providing the rest of us with living examples of empathy, courage, kindness, generosity, forgiveness, and social justice. I wish to be a person who brings people together to learn from each other, help each other, and enjoy each other. I wish to expose injustices where I find them, to give a voice to the voiceless. I wish to enlighten the most powerful among us in hopes that they will use their power for good. I wish to be an example of loving kindness for everyone I meet. I wish to be an example for my children of integrity and authenticity. I wish to show my loved ones how valuable they are to me. I wish to embody Gratitude every day. I wish to be relentless in the pursuit of my dreams. I wish to be unapologetically me, all the time. I wish to be Peace. I wish to always be mindful of the Divine in me, and the unity of us All.  

Okay. A week later, that still sounds about right for me. As I read through it, I keep nodding my head in agreement and feeling my heart rise up in me. That tells me my vision rings true for me. It resonates. So, what now? I can see how I want to be and the impact I want to make, but how do I do that? Just sitting here thinking good thoughts is nice, but it isn’t going to amount to anything if I am content with that. I need to take some action!

But what? What kinds of things will get me from here to there? Probably it is better to pretend for the moment that excuses don’t exist, that there is nothing holding me back from doing the things that will make me feel like the person I want to be. All of those things I habitually tell myself—there is no time, no money, I can wait until the kids grow up, I need more practice, I’m not good enough, I don’t know the right people, etc.—need to get checked at the door if we are going to do this the right way. Because we are talking about our own happiness and fulfillment here, friends! And we are talking about our ONE lifetime with these gifts and these opportunities. This isn’t a dress rehearsal here! The clock is ticking, so let’s—at least for now—pretend those obstacles don’t exist.

Imagine it: a clear path to the You of your dreams. All you have to do is take the actions to get from here to there….

This is tough! I am feeling the pressure. Okay, clear action items…. As I re-read that vision a few more times (am I stalling?), the concepts that jump out at me are 1) Be an example; 2) Share the best examples with others; 3) Speak up, on behalf of others and because there is light that needs sharing; and 4) Be grateful, mindful, and unabashedly me. Okay, that helps. I can see my best self more clearly in action now. So, here goes! These are some things, if I had no excuses, my best self would be doing:

I would volunteer more for causes that would help people who need a hand up. Homeless shelters, food shelves, family crisis centers, that sort of thing. I am so, so blessed, and frankly, it feels wrong to not do more for others than I am doing now. I am embarrassed by this.

I would write a book about how regular folks like you and me can do simple things in our everyday lives that will help make our homes, neighborhoods, communities, and our entire country places of greater compassion, kindness, inclusiveness, courage, justice, and joy. I am actually in the early phases of that project right now, and it definitely feels like the right thing to be doing. It checks all of those four boxes I just mentioned, so I am doing a little cheer inside as I realize that. Go, Me!

I would put myself out there more, really engage the people I come across, and act as insatiably curious as I really am inside. I am horribly unsocial, so I tend to keep to myself even in obvious social situations, and then later I wish I had dug a lot deeper, found out what someone is passionate about, and made a true connection. I have a long way to go on this one.

I would write Journal of You. Even on the days I am feeling sorry for myself about how few people actually read these posts—bless you, my dear reader—I know that this is the right thing for me to do. It is a labor of love.

I would write more about social justice issues. Though I know they stir stuff up—and probably contribute to my small audience—I can tell by how I feel when I am writing them that it puts wind in my sails. I definitely fits that third box of speaking up on behalf of others. I need to be more brave here.

I would create a media outlet—web-based newspaper, YouTube channel, social media—that would tell the stories of all of the people doing great things in my community. I mean people who are living examples of generosity, compassion, inclusivity, forgiveness, open-mindedness, peace, and justice. I would tell their stories and let you know how you can connect with them, perhaps contribute your gifts to their work. I would make a calendar of local events that bring people together across difference so that they might get to know each other, learn from each other, and ENJOY each other. It would be a clearinghouse—a one-stop shop–for all that is positive in my area. And I would make it reproducible, so that the same format could be used in other cities. Anywhere in the country, you could know where there are good things happening, where you could be helped, where you could shine your light, and where you might find your tribe. This is a recent vision I have been brainstorming, and I love it! It is enormous, though, so I am definitely in the mode of making excuses and letting in lots of limiting beliefs. Pray for me!

I would make all of these things happen and find a way to make them my full-time lifestyle, something I could earn a living at and not just squeeze tiny bits of them in here and there. I feel like I owe that to myself, and I owe that example to my kids. I tell them how important it is to serve others. They see me trying to write while at their swimming lessons or soccer practices, but they know I work a regular job during the day. They hear me tell them to speak up for others, to ask questions, and to fully engage the people they meet. And while I know that it is important for them to learn that striving to act well and striving toward one’s dreams are part of the bigger process, I desperately want to be the guy who is exemplifying a lifestyle of acting well and living out one’s dreams. I want to show them that following their passions is both expected and rewarded.

I guess I want it all!

How about you? If you were being your absolute best self, what would you be doing? Open up your journal and let your mind run. As I mentioned, I think it is best to not be so “realistic,” that is, to not allow yourself too many excuses based on your current time constraints and responsibilities. However, when you finish with the exercise, I do think it is helpful to name all of those excuses and do your best to dismiss them as quickly as possible. So, let’s get to your best version of you. If you didn’t write it down last week, write that out first—the general picture of the character traits you would like to exemplify and the type of impact you would like to have. With that vision of who you wish to be clearly in your mind, start filling in the picture with actions, things you would be doing while being your ideal You. In what ways would you treat people? How would you spend your spare time? What would your career be? How different are these actions of your ideal self from the things you do now? What are some things you do now that you wouldn’t change, that speak to your highest self? In what area of your life are you closest to your best? In what area do you have the furthest to go? On your list of things your best self would do, is there something that you can get started on today? No matter how small, I bet your soul would appreciate the doing. How confident are you that you will live out your vision? Is the striving toward it reward enough? Leave me a reply and let me know: What would the best version of You be doing?

You can have it all,

William

P.S. If today’s letter made you imagine a life that made you smile, I hope you will share it with someone. We all have greatness in us. Share yours!

Love It or Leave It? What Respect Do We Owe to Our Flag & Anthem?

DSC_0641“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” —Muhammad Ali 

This week has found me totally captivated by the story of Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, and his decision to remain seated during the playing of the national anthem before a preseason football game. When asked after the game about this highly unusual action, Kaepernick explained himself: 

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder. …This is not something I am going to run by anybody. I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. …If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.” 

BOOM! Fire started.

The backlash was instantaneous and venomous. Social media was flooded with videos of people burning their Kaepernick jerseys—this age’s trendy way to protest a player’s actions—images that were quickly picked up by the mainstream media. Memes slamming him were everywhere on Facebook and Twitter. Everyone seems to be weighing in. I have heard commentators in and out of the sports world, as well as other professional athletes, describe his actions as “ungrateful,” “unpatriotic,” “selfish,” and “pathetic.” There has not been a lot of support. That much is clear.

I have actually been pleasantly surprised, though, by the number of sports people who have at least acknowledged that the cause he is trying to stand up for—or, rather, sit down for—is an important one. But most of these same folks still think the anthem is the wrong way to address it.

Much of the pushback seems to be military-related, as in, “You disrespecting the flag/anthem is a slap in the face to all of the people who have ever fought for the freedoms you are exercising with this action.” Another argument seems to go more like, “How dare you disrespect the flag of a country that allows you to earn millions for throwing a football? This country has given you everything!” There are certainly others, but these themes are pretty constant.

Nobody seems to be questioning if he has the right to do it but just whether he is right to do it. The most common answer: No matter what your issue is or how big it is, you just don’t disrespect the flag or ignore the anthem.

But, really, why not? Is the answer that black-and-white? Should it really be that simple? I don’t know.

I suppose I grew up thinking of the anthem—and the American flag—as “sacred,” something that you just didn’t mess with. No matter what. Sort of like The Bible, I suppose: you could Pinkie Promise or swear on your life and maybe get by unscathed if you broke it, but you didn’t dare put your hand on The Bible and swear your oath unless you were absolutely certain. It was flirting with the Devil. I remember being in complete shock when I first saw someone burning the American flag on the news. I couldn’t believe it. I just didn’t know that was even an option. I suppose that for most people, something like that happened when they heard about Colin Kaepernick’s protest, like “What? No. You don’t get to sit for the anthem!” 

For some reason, though, I didn’t have that reaction. Don’t get me wrong, I was startled by it, because I knew it was taboo. But I wasn’t outraged. I wasn’t even really dismayed. More than anything, I was fascinated.

I think I was fascinated as much by my own reaction as I was by his motivations and how it would be received. I was aware that I was okay with what he did, but I felt really odd about being okay with it? I wondered if I should be as outraged as almost everyone else seemed to be. But I just wasn’t. I think it was because the more I considered the issue, and particularly his motivation for sitting out the anthem, the more I realized what a complex web of issues was involved. It was a lot more grey than simply black or white.

I know that much of the sentiment against Kaepernick and his statement can be summed up something like this: “He’s a disrespectful coward, and he has no gratitude to the country that has made him rich and famous. Pathetic!” 

I understand that sentiment. I really do. I think it’s the easy reaction, and if things were only black or white, I would probably end up with that reaction, too. But, as I try to empathize with him and really take the words he says seriously, I find myself feeling another way.

My guess is that Colin Kaepernick grew up a lot like I did, and probably like you did. He probably cheered “U.S.A.!! U.S.A!!” at the television during the Olympics like I did. He probably looked at the flag and the anthem as sacred, too, and was probably shocked when he first witnessed a flag burning. And because I am inclined to see him as more like me—just like most everyone in the world—than different, I have to believe it took some serious soul-searching, lots of inner turmoil, and finally some real bravery to take this bold action. That much I can definitely respect. I also figured out something important: that I can separate the fact that I respect him for his convictions from the entirely different issue of whether I think the final display of his convictions—sitting for the anthem—was a wise or foolish choice.

I also look at the flip-side of the argument that he has no grounds to sit out the anthem because he has made millions of dollars by living in this great country. The flip-side is that he actually has a lot to lose by making this statement. Endorsement dollars, potential job opportunities, fans, relationships. He didn’t ask any teammates to join his protest because he immediately felt the public backlash and didn’t want to subject them to it, too. But he was willing to kneel for the anthem for this week’s game, too. With all that he had to lose, he did it anyway to keep getting his message out there. I can appreciate that kind of courage.

Finally, he didn’t seem to be pulling this as some immediate reaction to an incident that happened to him. As far as we know, he was not recently a victim of police violence or profiling. So, it wasn’t obviously a personal thing. He has previously been outspoken on social media about civil rights issues. This is all just to say that I give some credence to the idea that he was actually using his large public voice to speak for the voiceless. He was taking a stand for others who had less power to stand for themselves. That, all by itself, is admirable to me.

In the end, I still can’t say for sure whether Colin Kaepernick sitting out the anthem is “right” or not. I definitely think the cause he is speaking up for is a worthy one, but I don’t know if sitting out the anthem succeeded in bringing enough of the right kind of attention to the cause or not. The issue of him sitting clearly blew up in the media, but did the issue of racism and police violence against people of color blow up as well? Are people talking seriously about that now, too? I hope they are, but I am not sure. I think the jury is still out and waiting for time to tell us if the protest will be successful.

So, would I do it? Would I sit or kneel for the anthem? I never have before. I like to think that I am quite aware of and sensitive to the way our country and our culture has systematically failed large groups of people, including the ones Kaepernick is standing up for. America has a history of deep, dark injustice that has not been well addressed and thus continues to be a cancer on us all. Those things are worth a protest. But America—and by extension, the flag that stands for it—is also about ideals. There are lofty philosophies—freedom, equality, justice, and more—that our nation strives to be a model of. The flag symbolizes those ideals and also the people who fought and died to give the rest of us the chance to keep striving for them. In my mind, of course I know we haven’t lived up to those ideals. Societally, we fail regularly and miserably at that. I get that, and I can see why Colin Kaepernick wants to remind us that we need to do better. But I also understand how, at least for me, it is important to stand for a couple of minutes sometimes and listen to a song that reminds me of the ideals that we all so desperately need to keep striving for.

How about you?   How do you feel about the idea of someone sitting out the national anthem in protest of America’s shortcomings? Open up your journal and see if you can flesh out the complexities of this very polarizing issue. First, what is your initial, gut reaction to hearing about this protest against the flag or the anthem? Is it a strong feeling, or just mild? On a scale of one to ten, how patriotic would you say you are? Do you think that patriotism dictates the severity of your reaction to this issue? Is Kaepernick’s cause—racial injustice and police violence against people of color—important enough to tread into such a volatile (though peaceful) form of protest? Has it so far succeeded in getting you and those around you to think about or discuss these issues? In your sphere, has the racial injustice discussion been overshadowed by the anthem/flag discussion? Do you agree with me that it required courage and conviction to protest in this way? Can you respect and admire those qualities in him even if you disagree with his actions? Would you sit out the anthem for this cause? Is there anything our country could do—e.g. enter into an unjust war—that could make you sit out the anthem or desecrate a flag? Should we honor our anthem and flag because of the ideals that we would like the country to stand for—and the people who fought for those ideals–or because of how the country actually is? Should the flag simply be out of bounds when it comes to protests, i.e. should Americans salute it no matter what is happening here or what types of conflicts the country is participating in? Leave me a reply and let me know: What do we owe to our flag and our anthem? 

Be your best today,

William

P.S. If this helped you to consider this difficult topic in a new light, please pass it on. Let’s spread the empathy around! Bless you.

Racism in America: How Far Have We REALLY Come?

DSC_0061 2“Racism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome.”   –Rosa Parks

Hello friend,

Last weekend, there were two pretty amazing stories in the news. First, it was the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March in Alabama, which was a significant moment in the Civil Rights Movement. That event fifty years ago–and those days of Jim Crow and the blatant, overt forms of racism that were commonplace and accepted in so much of this country— usually feels like a million years ago to me. I am thankful for that.

When I hear the words and see the deeds of so many old, raised-to-be-racist folks, I often have the thought, “Not that I wish them ill, but just the same, it will probably be a good thing when this generation dies off.” I like to see my generation as significantly more progressive, open-minded, and inclusive. Then I see the current generation of kids—my nieces and nephews and other students of mine—and how much more they are exposed to in the media and via the Internet. It seems to be the norm for them to have knowledge of—even if they are not always close with—historically marginalized people. Whether that is White kids having more Black friends, or high schoolers finally being willing to come out as gay, it feels as though we are on a one-way track to equality and acceptance in the current generation of young people. I love it!

But then comes the second amazing news story of last weekend. This was the one out of the University of Oklahoma, where the members of a fraternity, in a party bus and dressed in formal attire with their dates, were filmed while gleefully chanting a song about never letting a Black person—their word choice was not as politically correct as mine—into their fraternity, including a line about lynching. And this is where our seeming express train to equality and social justice jumps the track. What the heck?!?!

I first saw the video last Sunday and was completely floored by it. Of course I was outraged, too, but I was just so totally stunned that this would be happening in a group of college students from the current generation. It disturbed me greatly in that moment, but I also happened to be very busy right then and thus moved my thoughts past it out of necessity. It was two days later, driving alone in my car, when the topic re-entered my life via a talk radio program. Suddenly, the scab that was forming over my initial reaction was violently ripped off. Out came the emotions that had gone dormant in my busy-ness. In an instant, I became so sickened at the thought of this incident and the vivid image of the merry, fist-pumping, tuxedo-clad leader of the hate-filled chant. My gag reflex kicked in hard as a wave of nausea swept over me, and I very nearly had to pull the car over. Then tears came to my eyes in the sheer sadness of the whole thing. I was truly devastated at the thought of young people still living this way. Then I was smacked again with the realization that other people have to exist in their world as the targets of such hateful and narrow-minded people. The final straw was the thought of my own children—each half-Black and half-White—becoming victims of such blatant ignorance. It is a terrible thing to have to consider, to put it mildly.

So, when something like this happens in my country—and yes, I know this is only one incident and that many examples from the headlines of recent months, from Ferguson to New York City, could have been chosen—and my rose-colored glasses are ripped from my eyes, I have to wonder, “How far have we really come?” Seriously. Despite all of the outward signs of progress and of living peacefully amidst difference, how far could we really have come if a bunch of White, educated, middle-and-upper-class, college-age people are chanting gleefully about excluding and lynching Black people?

Like I said, I normally go through the world with rose-colored glasses on. Sure, I am aware of so many of our societal shortcomings, but I also tend to see people as inherently good, and I tend to be naturally inclined toward looking for the ways we are collectively moving forward. I am an optimist and a believer in our greatness. So when something like this blatantly racist chant finds its way into my consciousness, it is a real gut-punch. As I said, it makes me physically (and psychologically) nauseous. And beyond that, it just really makes me sad. Then I start to question my optimism. It is a quick path to me feeling very disillusioned. Are all of my assumptions about people incorrect? Have I given us—especially the younger generations—too much credit? Are we still mostly a bunch of ignorant, closed-minded bigots?

In my moments of disillusionment, it may be hard to see, but I really do my best to grasp for a more forgiving, positive outlook. I have to cling to that outlook in order to keep going. I know that there are an increasing number of examples of inclusivity and social justice in our society today. I also know that, despite the fact that kids may be exposed to a few more things from the Internet and the media earlier than we would like, they are also getting to see a lot more examples of diversity than we were as children.

I guess I just have to be cognizant of the fact that the influence of those aforementioned old, raised-to-be-racist folks isn’t going to just magically disappear simply because Hollywood has become more progressive. Those old bigots had children and taught them what they knew, and now those children have children. And even though awareness in general has been raised and political correctness is a force, those things do not automatically demolish generations of racism passed down. Bigotry is a learned thing. That racist chant on the party bus did not sound like something those students just made up that night. They learned it the way generations before them learned it. I am reminded of the funny-but-wise comment by the comedian Denis Leary: “Racism isn’t born, folks. It’s taught. I have a two-year-old son. Know what he hates? Naps. End of list.”

Perhaps it is best to admit from the outset that what we see as America’s greatness was built on a foundation of racism. Our early and enduring relationship with the American Indians and the African people brought here as slaves set the tone for a difficult and obstacle-filled path to equality and social justice in this country. There are traces—and sometimes full-blown imitations that reveal themselves in viral videos—of those attitudes and injustices that remain today. It is not an easy skin to shed.

But despite these challenges passed down from our ancestors, I also see the signs of real progress. I see people who were raised to be racist but instead have chosen to walk the path of inclusion and respect. I see people who, for all their ancestors taught them, should be swimming in bigotry, but they have chosen to be accepting of difference. And I also see amazing teachers who are showing us all what it means to go beyond mere acceptance and move into celebration of difference. I go on my Facebook feed and see friends who daily share such wonderfully uplifting stories and educational articles on social justice from multiple viewpoints. These are our teachers! See them as such. And finally, I see myself in the mirror and know that every day, in every interaction, I have a chance to teach Love. If I can lead with Love, I believe that we will be a step closer to becoming the people I KNOW we can be. I am ready to take that walk together.

How about you? Where, in your opinion, are we as a country on this path out of our racist roots and toward a model of equality and social justice? Open up your journal and think about your relationship with the issue of race. Ignoring your true feelings and opinions, how were you actually raised to feel about and treat people of other races? What were you taught? Were you more influenced by your parents and family, or by society at large and the messages in school or the media? How big of a disparity was there between the message at home and the one from society? On a scale of one-to-ten, how racist were your parents? Was their racism directed mainly toward one particular group, or was it spread pretty evenly? On that same one-to-ten scale, how racist are you? This is probably something that doesn’t come up in regular conversation—or that you might not dare to admit the answer if it does—so your journal is the perfect confessional. Did you score yourself more favorably than your parents? If so, do you think that is because you had better influences in society as a whole, or did you simply not like what you saw in their attitudes and determined to do better for yourself? Would you say you are more or less racist, on the whole, than your siblings and friends? How about compared to the average American citizen? What is the most overtly racist thing you have ever done or said? How do you feel about that now? What is your reaction to something like the Oklahoma fraternity video? Do you think things like that are more commonplace in this country than we realize, or is that really an abberation? Leave me a reply and let me know: How far have we really come?

Teach Love today,

William