Doing My Own Work: Racism and Creating Beloved Community
I have often quoted Mary Karr’s sentiment, “Tell your story and your story will be revealed.”
I would like to add to that sentiment, “Live your own story, lean into the hard edges, and it will set you free. It will liberate you so that you can in turn liberate others.”
I live to let my own story- with all its sorrow, joy and resilience- be the point through which I further embrace my own humanity and connect meaningfully with others, and I do this with great gratitude and joy. This last Friday, I was reminded, in a beautiful way through community and teaching, what it means to do this work of both telling and living my own story in the beloved community of others who are doing the same work in their own unique ways.
It was Friday evening, and I was tired. I had spent the day with my five-year-old son at Cosi, and I was regretting my decision to attend a lecture given by Jane Elliot called “The Anatomy of Racism.” What I really wanted was to order a pizza and curl up on the couch, but instead, I stopped for a coffee on the way to Columbus State Community College’s campus where the event was to be held.
How could I be aware of the deep impact this evening would make on me? In the sharing of Jane Elliot’s story, a thread was first connected, and then deeply interwoven, amongst myself and the women I encountered there.
Jane’s story was this:
The evening after Martin Luther King was murdered, Jane made a decision. Her decision was enacted the very next day, and once she started it, it transformed her life. Her decision was to engage in a social experiment where she would expose her third grade students to racism via an activity where the classroom would, in her words, be turned into a “microcosm of society.” That microcosm was, to quote Jane, “insane.” She created a stratified world where some people were considered to be less than others based upon a physical feature over which they had no control.
This was called the ‘Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes” experiment. From her website, this experiment “labels participants as inferior or superior based solely upon the color of their eyes and exposes them to the experience of being a minority.”
When she decided to do this, her husband warned her she may get fired. And after she conducted the experiment a number of times and received much media attention, she realized the consequences of what she had done were even worse than that: lost relationships, threats, severed community ties and financial strain for her and all of her family.
Would she have made the choice if she had known? She said no.
Her agony, her anger, her tremendous sadness over the world and the death of Dr. King catapulted her into her own story, her own work, and the price was very high.
This is work of leaning into our own story, or in the words of Parker Palmer “letting our life speak,” and it is never easy. In fact, once it is started, the wish is often for it to never have been begun at all. But to stop it would also be to die to a personal truth. To live a lie.
After the lecture, I gathered with three other women- one I knew well, one I had only met briefly before, and one I was meeting for the first time. Each of us was there for some reason, some inner call to do our own work. Through happenstance and good fortune, we connected, began in conversation, and eventually left afterward to go to dinner together.
In the several hours that followed, time melted away as we told our own stories to one another. Some of us cried. Some of us prayed. Some of us stood vigil as a taut connection, an electric current, pushed and pulled us to one another in a way that can only be characterized as grace. (All of this happened in a Cap City restaurant table, I would like to add, just so that you can gain a visual of the experience.)
I cannot share the stories of these other women, but I can share my own. And I have to. Because that is my work to do. Many of the conversations we had were related to racism, a topic of relevance and passion for each of us, but the dialogue was about so much more than race alone. Our dialogue was about the meaning that pushes each of us forward: our story that is still unfolding. It is a narrative that each of us can only hope to comprehend in moments, because it is so much bigger than any one of us, bigger than we can ever hope to understand. And now we are part of one another’s story, these three women and I; for this I am grateful.
I left the evening with a feeling of overwhelming bliss, gratitude, and awe.
What does it mean to do “your work”? For me, right now, it means being present, fully present, with others. It means being as authentic as I can stand to be- even when it is painful, even when I wish I was someone else, even when I want to hide all of my soft, vulnerable pieces in a secret place away from the world where they can’t be hurt.
I want to do my part to bring justice into the world, but I can only do it as myself, through my own story, my own struggles, my own experiences. As I form more meaningful relationships and gain deeper experiences with people-particularly those with different backgrounds, beliefs and experiences- this scope, of course, grows. Through relationship, I can understand things I have never experienced- because I love someone, and their life means something to me- their pain affects me now, and I grow to care about what is meaningful to them, too.
This process is both showing- with utter honesty- who I am, and being open to hearing- really hearing- who the other is, too.
On Friday night, I was so privileged to do my own work in such a beautiful way with such a beautiful group of women. In this moment, as in so many moments, I remembered and resonated with the belief that community is always present.
Simply ask, and it will appear. We are never alone.
I am thankful for my community.
If you are interested in learning more about Jane Elliot’s work, please check out her website. In addition, Frontline has their entire one-hour documentary of her experiment online where you can actually see what happened in her classroom as it unfolded.
She also has some resources on her site for anyone interested in doing their own work on combatting racism, inwardly and out in the world:
- Here is her “Commitment to Combat Racism” which functions as a task list for those interested in taking an active role in social justice against discrimination. Her suggestion was to complete the list, circle the ones not done and then make each a focus for thirty days.
- Here is her “Typical Statements” document followed by her “Clarifications of Typical Statements.” In the first, common statements containing racist sentiments are given, and in the latter, the statements are refuted.
This post is part of an on-going thread on the interwoven connections between mindfulness, social action and social justice. This is the second post discussing racism (click the link to read more).
Thoughts, opinions, connections? Please share.