Friday, January 27, 2017

Staying Sane These Days

A Facebook Friend whom I respect greatly asked this question: "How are you all staying sane in our era of insanity?" This blog post is not about debating whether or not we are in an era of insanity, although I happen to agree that it's as apt a characterization as anything else. After all, we are living in an environment where #AlternateFacts = #DeliberateFalsehoods, as we have witnessed repeatedly when denials are countered by recorded, televised proof, including contradictory statements by the speakers themselves at different time periods.

My response to "How are you all staying sane in our era of insanity?" is shown below:

By working at staying "unhooked" by the news stories and by parsing what is said and done and what the commentators are saying. I'm a pragmatist, and I'm staying focused on the issues but not ignoring the players. Emotional response is a luxury for me when so much is at stake.

I believe in the power of righteous indignation. I also know that fear as a response to what is happening in the current administration is real and has a basis in fact. However, indignation and fear can be paralyzing and also time consumers. 

As a Person of Color and a person from a refugee-immigrant heritage (mother and both sets of grandparents), hate acts, profiling, restrictions on civil rights, etc. are not new news. They are part of my lived experience. They are not part of the lived experience of people who have various kinds of privilege, chief among them, White Privilege. Class Privilege is right up there next to White Privilege.

It is an act of resistance to be disciplined enough to recognize that acting out of being upset and angry (and I feel a lot of anger) is unproductive and wastes time. I also recognize my position as an elder and someone who has done anti-racism work for decades. That means remaining focused on the work of helping others to engage their fears and behavior, which is both goal and commitment to action.

My advice to everyone is to do the homework of learning what is actually going on. Engage in conversations that help you deepen your understanding and that challenge what you know or think you know. Be gentle with yourself, and also be relentless with yourself as you seek to become a better neighbor to all whom you encounter.

I want to make clear that I believe we each have a claim as well as a responsibility to be part of the work that will be needed to become better neighbors to one another. For me, that also means that while your part might be to take action such as marching or protesting, actions such as making phone calls or writing letters are also important and equally valid. It takes all of us to move justice and peace forward, doing what we can, when we can, as well as we can. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Courage is

Courage is an invisible thread
that twists through
my hidden soul
my secret self

courage lies buried
in daily life’s debris
where acquiescence
smoothes the way

The daily decisions
this bread
or that apple
in the end
make no difference
in my life
to my dreams
Earth’s destiny
its disagreement

Who am I
to argue with Nature
I am a member
of a tribe
too large to contain
too diverse to control
too selfish to share
I pray hope
all else fails

Courage is a bitter brew
more frightening
than addictive
I am a member
of a tribe
that judges the price
too large
when I am the one
chosen to pay

This tribe
has devised
creating heroes
to mask
the flight of courage
from the everyday

If it’s posted
If it’s spoken
and shared
Surely that is
and true
that courage
still lives on

Courage is
most sacred
When open
to all
naked of
most powerful
Courage is
the communion
that lifts
the hidden thread
in the body politic
to be warp
and woof
of a people
of a community
of a nation
of the world
Courage is
the secret self
reaching for
its family

Lelanda Lee, 1-25-17

I have a few questions

* I have a few questions . . . *
When did our body politic
become so fragile
that any statement of disagreement
is received
as a personal attack
on our identities?
When did we learn
to focus all our thinking
on formulating defensive responses
so that our moral positions
feel protected
and our egos feel affirmed,
if not lauded?
Is a 30-second elevator speech
laced with adjectives
advertising me
a worthy paean
to this heart that falters
this mind that questions
this body that cannot
fit into a mold
with the non-conforming parts
Dishonesty is not so far
from honesty
They share expanding edges
that we no longer recognize
nor can contain
It is the things
we tell ourselves
that pacify us
When all colors
soak into neighboring colors
no matter the forces
that roil them
the result is mud.
Lelanda Lee, 1-24-17

Thursday, July 7, 2016

"Black Lives Matter"

A good friend asked me to talk about why "All Lives Matter" is problematic in this day and age. 
First, let me say that, of course, all lives matter. And, of course, the lives that matter most to each of us are the lives of those closest and nearest and dearest to each of us. Those are facts, which we all know.
However, when we use the meme "Black Lives Matter," it is a way of pointing out and highlighting that in this day and age, Black and Brown people are targeted unfairly and unjustly in numerous ways that are caused by systemic racism that is institutionalized in how we think, feel, and act. Those systemic racist ways include both explicit racism and implicit racism. Systemic means that we have raised those racist ways to the level of having them embedded in how we organize and live our lives altogether as a society and as communities.
Explicit racism occurs when we intentionally behave in ways that unfairly treat and target Black and Brown people. Implicit racism occurs when we are unaware that we hold prejudices against Black and Brown people that cause us to recoil from them and/or respond to them in unfair and profiling or targeting ways. An example of explicit racism is someone who believes that "those People of Color are lazy or intellectually inferior" and then passes over qualified People of Color for jobs or promotions on purpose merely on the basis of their skin color. An example of implicit racism is someone who doesn't CONSCIOUSLY hold a belief that "those People of Color are lazy or intellectually infereior," but who somehow never manages to choose a qualified Person of Color for a job or a promotion because they somehow always manage to find another reason for why that qualified Person of Color is not employable or promotable, such as "she doesn't seem like she would be a good fit," or "he doesn't seem like he would be fulfilled in that promotion; maybe he'll be happier in the next promotion that comes up," or "I'm not comfortable with having him in that position or working with her."
Implicit racism is particularly pernicious, because it flies under the radar most of the time. Implicit racism exists in the nicest people, people who are our friends and our neighbors and our teachers and our priests. And nice White people are loathe to admit that they have any racist thoughts or feelings or attitudes within themselves, because it means having to face something that we're not proud of and that we can't justify. It may even mean having to repent, to turn away from the sinfulness of implicit racism and to try to behave more fairly and more justly and yes, more honestly. Becoming less racist is hard work, and it requires humility and sometimes a thick skin; there are personal sacrifices involved in giving up privilege of any kind.
"Black Lives Matter" is an important meme, because it DRAWS OUR ATTENTION to the irrefutable fact that Black (and Brown) People ARE presently being disadvantaged, sometimes to the point of false arrests and being killed, merely because of the color of their skin. We often see excuses offered for why these bad things happen -- from "that man or woman shouldn't have resisted arrest and they wouldn't have been shot" to "they shouldn't have been there in the first place" -- which are all excuses based on blaming the victim. As a society, we are still learning how to avoid blaming victims, as is evident in the way that we are learning to address rape culture by not blaming rape victims for the way that they are dressed or their prior sexual experiences as being the causes of them being raped. 
"Black Lives Matter" is an important meme, because it DRAWS OUR ATTENTION to the fact that it is human nature to want to smooth things over and to think well of people we want to trust whom we have, as a society, placed into positions of authority over all of us. "Black Lives Matter" as a meme forces us to look where we may not feel comfortable looking, forces us to have conversations we are not comfortable having, forces us to admit things about ourselves and our society that we don't feel comfortable admitting, forces us to begin the honest, hairy, uncomfortable, and painful process of admitting our complicity in, our participation in the benefits of, a racist system that unfairly disadvantages, to the extreme of death, people who happen to have been born with dark colored skin. 
When White people choose to substitute "All Lives Matter" over saying "Black Lives Matter," they are, in effect, choosing to gloss over the fact that it IS Black and Brown lives that have been so grossly and unfairly treated, harmed, and killed, because it makes them as White people feel more comfortable with themselves and they can comfort themselves with the fantasy that "All Lives" includes "Black Lives." It should, but it doesn't in this day and age, in this society, here and now. It is our goal, but we are not there yet. 
Another way to say this point is to ask why White people who have White Privilege feel the necessity to also grab a piece of the pie that those who have been victimized finally have access to. It's kind of like the unfairness of a teacher on a playground recognizing that Susie hasn't had a turn playing with the ball, but then telling Susie she now has to share her five minutes with the ball with the other children who had it for all the other minutes already. How does that affirm Susie that she has the same rights to play with that ball as the other children? How does it teach the other children that sharing means that Susie deserves to get her turn, too, just like they already had their turns? 
Needless to say, our hope is that as we acknowledge that "Black Lives Matter," we will also recognize that there are so many other ways in which we as a society demean the dignity of so many of our sisters and brothers of any color (such as the homeless, especially those with mental illness) and that through such recognition, we will live into an ethos that says, "All Lives Matter," and mean it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

In Praise of Generosity of Spirit

I write this post in gratitude and admiration for my children, Corin, age 46, and Cecelia, age 30. They both have a tremendous generosity of spirit that I can’t take credit for. Corin lived through his father’s and my difficult separation and divorce at a very young age and had a tough childhood in which I often say that he raised himself. Cecelia grew up during a time when both Herb and I, as older parents (compared to her childhood contemporaries), were focused on building our careers and stressed from traveling constantly in our jobs.

Yet, somehow, throughout the trials of their childhoods, our children each managed in their own way to grow up into extraordinarily generous-hearted adults who are good partners to their beloveds, friends their friends can count on, and caring colleagues. (We call them our children, and they call all the various sets of parents their parents.) How does this happen?

I suspect part of the answer is that both Corin and Cecelia are inherently good people who value life and have compassion for other people’s difficulties. To say that we all have been blessed is a huge understatement. We also can claim sizable extended biological families on all sides who maintain family ties, emphasizing that all the cousins of our children’s generation get to know and love each other. Mutual respect is paramount in establishing good family relations when divorce and remarriage occur.

All of us parents and significant adults (while we were still dating) who passed through Corin’s and Cecelia’s lives subscribed to some basic tenets of good behavior and respect for others. There was no hitting, verbal abuse, or cheating allowed. Sacrificing for education and employment were priorities that we spoke about explicitly. We talked with our children like they were fully people and not merely youngsters who were not yet people. We told them the truth, even when it was complicated and disappointing. We included our children in everything we did as much as possible, so that they met our friends and came to our events.

I must comment that we were greatly helped by living in Hawaii at the time, immersed in a Polynesian/Asian cultural environment where children are included without question. None of our group, including us, used hired babysitters; our children were cared for by our friends and extended biological families when we had to be somewhere or were traveling without children. The culture supported us to nurture relationships that value children and place them fully and centrally in those communities’ midst. That kind of community focus matters, and it helps to create healthy children who become healthy adults.

Both Corin and Cecelia share a great love for animals and humor. Corin and his family care for three dogs, and Cecelia and her partner live with two cats. Along the way, both have also fostered additional cats, dogs, and the occasional sugar glider flying squirrel and rat. Corin and Cecelia also share a love for stand-up comedy and puns, which I envy. (The fact that Cantonese is my first language inhibits my English-language comedy appreciation, to Herb’s and my great regret.) I think compassion and a sense of humor are spiritual dimensions that transcend barriers to good relationships.

I admire the fact that Corin never says an unkind word about anyone. That is a lesson I am still trying to learn, and he is one of my teachers. Corin has worked successfully in a sales field for a couple of decades. I’m convinced his success derives from his belief in the unexplored goodwill hidden in people, who respond positively to his expectation that they will bring their best selves to the table.

Cecelia has surprised and pleased her father and me with her generosity dating back to her pre-teen years. She has also affirmed Herb, me, and her grandmother frequently, expressing her thanks for our presence in her life. She often gave from her own treasures to teenage friends who needed to know love, and she has helped other young adults at a financial cost to herself when she did not have many resources to call her own. Cecelia now also works in a customer service field, and her empathy for others is reflected in the collegial relationships she has built.

As Herb and I get closer to the end of our earthly lives, we feel truly fulfilled and grateful for our good fortune that our children have graced and blessed our lives and the lives of others. Our prayer is that other parents experience some of these blessings in their lives, too.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

“Speak the language of love like you know what it means.”

Nicole Chung, managing editor of “The Toast,” posted an article at “Race” on her Website on January 5th titled “What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism.” It’s powerful story and truth telling about microaggressions and the thoughts and feelings that People of Color experience in a culture that makes the White experience normative.

I felt a cascade of emotions when I read Chung’s article, starting with dismay, but not surprise, that a racist comment was made at a family holiday meal. Next came disappointment, also not unexpected, at the writer's choice not to address the comment head on, and finally I landed on empathy and compassion for the author's analysis of the situation and her predicament and situationally forced decision not to rock the boat. Been there, done that, and reflected on the subject of microaggressions for many moons. Will not be buying any teeshirt.

I remember Arthur Fletcher's comment in an ethnic Chambers of Commerce keynote talk 25 years ago. Fletcher at the time was chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and known as the "father of Affirmative Action." Fletcher was also the president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund who coined the phrase, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” On that night in Denver, Fletcher was 67 and had undergone bypass surgery. He declared that there is no benefit in keeping silent about the dismal state of civil rights in USAmerica and that he would speak out again and again. I'm approaching 67, and I've felt the same way since I first encountered the civil rights and women’s movements. Speaking out is something anointed and professed leaders are called to do. 

Human interactions become racialized when someone says or does something that makes race an issue. “Do people ever tell you that you look just like everyone on that show?” asked the woman at the dinner table of Chung, referencing Chung's interview with Constance Wu of the television series Fresh Off the Boat, featuring an Asian family. Chung is an Asian woman in an apparently dominant culture family (White, I’m guessing) and has biracial children, just like me.

Chung wrote that several possible responses flitted through her mind, including, "Why on earth would you say something like that?" and "For one wild second I allow myself to imagine speaking freely, with no attempt at self-deprecation or careful diplomacy.” She characterized her unspoken question as being “brutally direct.” Wow! Just wow!

We People of Color have been carefully taught through the school of hard knocks to be circumspect in our speech so as not to cause any conflagrations and be accused of making a mountain out of a molehill when we could have "just let it go." A White woman from the dominant culture could speak freely and say any thought that popped into her head, including “Do people ever tell you that you look just like everyone on that show?” -- something I am positive no one ever says to a White person. 

Just imagine me saying to a White person, "Do people ever tell you that you look just like everyone in most Fortune 500 board rooms?" It's offensive and demeaning to talk to people that way, and it also can rob the person at whom the remark is directed of her power and self-esteem as she attempts to overlook the question for the sake of a semblance of family peace.

I agree with the direct characterization of "brutally direct" that Chung ascribed to her possible response of "Why on earth would you say something like that?" However, I don’t find the question brutal at all. I find the question honest. I'd really like to know what is going through someone's mind when they say things like that.

We teach our children to question why things are said and done, so that they learn how to discern the motivation behind the things that people say and do. I believe that we also need to model that kind of questioning so that we don’t become too domesticated and trained into model minority behaviors of self-deprecation and careful diplomacy as matters of habit, practicing “going along to get along.”

I am a person who bears those characteristics of self-deprecation and careful diplomacy. When appropriate, I am self-deprecating. However, I find self-deprecation to be overrated as a false show of humility and a characteristic that is unfairly encouraged in females as a means of keeping women down. Remember the biblical verse admonishing us not to hide our light under a bushel basket? [Matthew 5:15] I am also diplomatic, scanning the waters of relationships with diligent alertness to show care and concern for others by how I speak and behave so as to avoid breakdowns in communication and relationship.

Relationships become racialized, but they don’t have to become strained, provided everyone exercises openness and honesty about what they know and don’t know about race and racism. Tina Turner performs a song titled “Simply The Best,” which has a wonderfully relevant lyric on this subject: “Speak the language of love like you know what it means. . . . It can't be wrong.”
  • Conversations need to be direct, using words that convey what we actually mean.
  • Questions need to be precise, asking what we actually want to learn and understand.
  • Feelings of offense need to be owned, disclosed, and respected.
  • And no, you don’t get to say that your feelings are now hurt as your defensive response to having said or done something that was offensive to another, especially to a Person of Color. 
In other words, “Speak the truth with love.” No embellishments to dress up the truth. No diminutions to soften the impact of the truth. No lies to cover up the truth. Let your openness – your vulnerability – be the shalom that you offer.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Being Brave – aka Being the First-Born Son

A friend wondered if my years of participating in church and community leadership – teaching, writing, and speaking – have been fueled by a need for acceptance and approval. My response is that it’s more complicated than that.

I have often remarked that my cultural experience of being a first-born female in the Chinese culture, which values first-born sons as the correct way to form a family, is the defining experience of my identity. My paternal grandmother, who was an iconic matriarch, made it known in words meant to punish my mother for producing an eldest daughter and not an eldest son and thus, being an unworthy daughter-in-law. I was a precocious child, who soaked up these lessons and sought to protect my blossoming heart by trying harder to speak, sing, and dance in ways that might attract the praise of elders. But a child’s version of speaking, singing, and dancing could not elicit the countervailing opinions sufficient to withstand my grandmother’s power to shape a girl-child into a whole person.

The opposing, sheltering winds came from the unlikely community of a German-language Lutheran church that taught me scripture and instilled in me a salvific belief in something beyond the authority of my family and culture. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” [John 3:16 KJV] I also learned to sing, “Jesus loves me! This I know, For the Bible tells me so; Little ones to Him belong; They are weak, but He is strong.” [Anna B. Warner, 1860]

My maternal great-grandfather was evangelized in Guangdong Province and rode a bicycle around his village, and was known widely as the “Jesus Man.” It was his Christianity that tempered his Chinese character, leading to schooling for his girl-children and no beatings for the servants and indentured labor. My mother would adopt her grandfather’s modern Western views and nurture me as the eldest daughter of herself, an eldest daughter, who was also mothered by an eldest daughter, my grandmother.

I went to public school in Detroit, Michigan, in a time (1954-1966, 1st through 12th grades, skipping 2nd and 5th grades) when citizenship and civics were still taught. I gravitated to the concepts of equality and liberty and justice as the lifelines that they promised to be. I was saved intellectually by lofty concepts that overshadowed the demeaning and mean-spirited cultural memes that made me, a girl, less than a real person. It was only later, in my maturation from teenager to adult that I learned the hypocrisy of the USAmerican dream – that it didn’t apply to girls of color and girls from refugee-immigrant families. I’ll tell that story another time.

It was only within the last two decades that I came to name the cultural meme that denigrates first-born girls as a form of child abuse. Naming is a powerful liberating force, and it is never too late to say the true names of things for all to be freed from the tyranny of cultural memes taken for granted as false truths.

Being the precocious eldest child led to the duties of taking care of the English interactions that make a household function when the father works the 12-hour swing shift laboring in Chinese restaurants and the mother speaks only Cantonese. That early responsibility actually restored an identity where one had been ripped away as the first-born girl. My aplomb at carrying out the adult duties gave me gravitas as an eight-year-old and helped me to develop bravado. What was the worst that anyone could do to me? Hit me? I had already been the recipient of verbal blows from an early age. I was already accustomed to racist epithets from the White kids on the way to school and the Black kids on the way home. I already knew how not to cower at the verbal criticism that the adults didn’t know I had heard and absorbed.

I learned at a very young age the power inherent in being openly vulnerable. It is the same power that lives in the story of Jesus Christ who was strong in his human vulnerability, his seeming weakness. Enduring suffering does more than build character. It is like the stone that sharpens the sword, especially if you know that you are shaped by the One Creator who declares that His Creation is very good. 

I know several highly talented, articulate, fabulous women who have important thoughts and experiences to share with the world, but for myriad reasons they are blocked from speaking out and do not allow themselves to be seen as their true selves in the public eye. These women have journeyed from different posts in the USAmerican culture. They receive praise of their gifts with grace and are truly grateful for the recognition. As much time as they have each spent achieving distinction in careers and volunteer service, nonetheless they are mostly hidden from view and not necessarily by their choosing. It is as if their psyches have chosen for them, without their bidding or permission.

I have stumbled and fallen in public, both figuratively and on the steps up to a podium, more times than I can recount. I have made big, painful, public mistakes and paid the painfully exquisite consequences, and I have sometimes repeated those biggies until I finally figured things out or had things pointed out to me. I have hurt my family, especially my children, and caused them to pay for my errors. And yet, I continue to embrace open vulnerability, because I believe in its power to lift up, affirm, and reaffirm the authentic woman I’ve become, grown up from that first-born girl, who early in my 30s claimed the position of first-born son with all its attributes and privileges. I really, really like Star Trek, where all command officers are addressed as “Mister.”

I am sad that these women friends cannot find the release button to present their authentic selves in public, to reveal the hidden parts that their fears control. I recently read a People Magazine article as I sat in the waiting area of a doctor’s office about Spanx. In case you don’t know, Spanx is the life-changing underwear that oft-photographed celebrities wear to bind their bodies so that they can fit into body-hugging clothing that doesn’t allow for eating, drinking, or peeing. I think Spanx is the metaphor for people who cannot be openly vulnerable in public.

Just as I talk about empowerment as something that one claims rather than waits to be given it, so, too, I think of being brave as claiming the role that carries the power and the privileges and owning it. Be it, and strut it, boss!