What the Hell is Water: Talking to My White Family & Friends About Racism

white and black koi fish

Photo by Nika Akin on Pexels.com

By, Jodie Palmer

This article isn’t for everyone. If you’re white, and you’re questioning racism, keep reading. This is for you. If you’re white and you’ve said you’re not racist, keep reading. This is for you too. If you feel the internal tension between your sense of compassion and equity, and opposition to the current conversation on race, continue on.

I want to be transparent up front. My thoughts here will be criticized on numerous fronts, and will likely be worthy of at least a good helping of that criticism. I invite feedback so I can do better at doing what Love really looks like. Though, I offer an invitation first. Please set down your notepad to respond. Set down your arguments. Hold onto the reflex to get defensive and protective. It’s hard, I know. It’s not how we’re made as we enter into what feels like threatening territory. But, I’m inviting you to do it anyway. For just a moment, explore what if feels like to Listen for Understanding. What I’m attempting to do here is speak in a way that you can hear.

______________________

I came across an interesting thread in my social media feed recently. It was in response to a black college professor’s experience of getting stopped by police on his way to work. The professor described the incident in great detail, his own processing during, and the effect of the experience afterward.

For some, the message he was conveying was clear—the experience a black person has with the police, internally and externally, is different than the experience white people have.

For others, the opposite rose to the surface. There was nothing inherently racist in what these officers did. In fact, their response seemed reasonable and appropriate.

Since George Floyd’s death social media has exploded as hotly as the riot fires across America. What the heat seems to be refining into clarity is the fundamental question—Does racism systemically exist in America, or not?

This is a crucial question, and it makes sense to me why white people are asking it.

Racism did exist in America. We all know this—there were slaves, then there was the Civil War, then there was the 13th Amendment, then there were Jim Crow laws, then there was the Civil Rights Movement, then there was the Civil Rights Act, then there was the Voting Rights Act, and lots of actions and laws in between that protect the equality of people of color in this country. Not only have laws and the constitution itself changed, but at every level of worship, work, politics, academia, social engagement, and even in love and marriage we now rub shoulders with our black brothers and sisters.

If we live in a post-60’s Civil Rights Movement America now, and those cops that stopped the Black professor weren’t racist, and our laws aren’t racist, and “I’m not a racist,” then why does the accusation of racism persist?

For some white people, the answer to the persistance of the claim of racism  are Powers That Be pulling the “race card” to sway the game in favor of more power and gain. No doubt, if there is one thing history can teach us it is that nefarious opportunists exist who will take advantage of any virtuous effort.

Yet, that doesn’t explain away the legitimate gap between Black people telling us racism still exists and white people not seeing or believing it.

We know in America there are pockets of actual racists in the traditional sense of the word—people that believe white people are superior, who are discriminatory, prejudiced, and antagonistic at best and deadly at worst toward people of color. But most of us do not see ourselves in any of the ways reflective of that framework of racism.

So the word racist, and racism is often hard for white people to hear or own. It doesn’t fit the communities we know. It doesn’t make sense in our experience. “I don’t see it” is a response I often hear.

If racism is a word you struggle with, what if there were a word that fit better, that made more sense, and made the unseen seen?

As white people, we may not see overt, legalized racism today, yet its existence has nonetheless slowly ground a groove in the collective lens through which we see. A groove that bends the light.

There is a word that describes “bent light” or ways of seeing that are inherently distorted. The word is implicit bias. Okay, that was two words.

“Also known as implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decision in an unconscious manner.” http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/understanding-implicit-bias/

I like the General Commission on Religion and Race’s definition of implicit bias even better.

“[U]nconscious thinking that evaluates one group and its members relative to another group even when that thinking does not align with our stated beliefs, values, or commitments.” http://www.gcorr.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Implicit-Bias-Workbook-Aug15.pdf

In other words, implicit bias is “what we don’t think we think.”

Implicit bias is not a new idea. In fact, this may not be the first time you’ve heard it. It’s been used to describe the gap between racism we do see and racism we don’t for half a century. We have published works here, here and here that give history, research, and practical understanding of implicit bias.

The myth is that only bad people would be biased, and treat others inequitably. What history and research combine to tell us is implicit bias exists, in every single one of us. Even those who are explicitly anti-racist, anti-misogynist, anti-homophobic, or anti-whatever needs to change. We are unconscious of the glasses through which we see distortedly.

I was recently offered an introspective challenge about my own implicit racial bias. I thought it would be hard to find anything, as I have friends who are people of color, and I legitimately work very hard at treating and seeing others equitably. I was wrong.

During the challenge I watched the movie, The Mountains Between Us. It’s about a black man and a white woman whose plane crash high in the mid-winter mountains. They have to rely on each other to survive. I decided I’d watch it and just see what happened inside of myself. I was so surprised by what rose to the surface.

  1. At the beginning of the movie the black man took center stage. It wasn’t long before I realized that I kept waiting for the main character to arrive. He was the main character. Implicit bias.
  2. Spoiler Alert: Mid-movie the black man and white woman became sexually intimate. I was so surprised by the feeling of resistance I had to the scene of a white woman and black man having sex. What is noteworthy is that I have friends in mixed-race marriages whom I love, and whose marriages I fully support. Implicit bias.

I was a fish, completely unaware of the water of implicit bias I was swimming in. Until I was invited to look.

The centuries of racism that shaped law, science, financial structures, and social culture are not undone with the winning of a war, or the stroke of a pen, or even through genuine relationship with each other. Though we wish it were enough.

In an interview in the Atlantic, Patricia Devine, psychology professor and director of the Prejudice Lab, led “a series of experiments that laid out the psychological case for implicit racial bias—the idea, broadly, is that it’s possible to act in prejudicial ways while sincerely rejecting prejudiced ideas. She demonstrated that even if people don’t believe racist stereotypes are true, those stereotypes, once absorbed, can influence people’s behavior without their awareness or intent.”

Devine says,

“There are a lot of people who are very sincere in their renunciation of prejudice, yet they are vulnerable to habits of mind. Intentions aren’t good enough.”

White people are being honest when they say they aren’t racist. Black people are being honest when they say they are experiencing harmful racism. Again, what is the gap here? The gap is what is unseen, but experienced—implicit bias.

Film is a powerful way to see what is often unseen in real life. Grey’s Anatomy tackled the issue of implicit bias in its episode entitled, “Personal Jesus.” (Season 14, Episode 10) Trigger warning, it is difficult to watch, especially for people of color. There are many examples of film that help us see the grooves carved out by racism that result in implicit bias. I will list a number of these films at the end of this article. I hope that you will watch some, or all of them, to experience the idea of implicit bias in a new way.

What is hopeful is there is a way to change implicit bias. It is a solution studied and refined by Patricia Devine’s research. Jessica Nordell describes Patricia Devine’s successful process for changing implicit bias in her article for the Atlantic, Is This How Discrimination Ends. Essentially we become alive to our own implicit biases, and then interrupt those biases with choice.

If you question the existence of racism, if you describe yourself as not racist, if you are feeling the tension between your heart and your politics on racism, I invite you into an experiment to explore your own implicit racial bias, where you may be seeing distortedly.

THE EXPERIMENT

  1. Choose one of the films listed below, or any film that has black and white characters.
  2. Before beginning the film, quiet yourself and check in with your intention to explore your own implicit bias while watching the film.
  3. As you watch become alert to the auto responses that enter your mind or body. Don’t do anything about them, just observe them.
  4. Debrief your experience with someone. The comment section here is a welcome space for debrief.

Here are 9 other ways to explore your explicit bias.

Implicit bias is just one conversation that bridges the gap between what white people see and what black people experience. It’s not the only conversation about racism we have to navigate together. Yet, no conversation is navigated effectively if we are seeing distortedly.

Remember the fish unaware of the water she swam in? There’s another end to that story. This could be the beginning of the end of our story of racism in America

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” and the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

-David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.

______________________

Films to Explore the Experiences of People of Color

  1. Just Mercy: https://youtu.be/I3vwF6ZpyCM
  2. The Hate You Give: https://youtu.be/3MM8OkVT0hw
  3. Loving: https://youtu.be/bQMF5MSohPA
  4. The Banker: https://youtu.be/IpyUJ9ncoRM
  5. Jane & Emma: https://youtu.be/BkwYD083Tt0
  6. 13th: https://youtu.be/K6IXQbXPO3I
  7. The Best of Enemies: https://youtu.be/zxfWbmmdz9A
  8. Selma: https://youtu.be/x6t7vVTxaic
  9. The Butler: https://youtu.be/DUA7rr0bOcc
  10. The Help: https://youtu.be/aT9eWGjLv6s
  11. The Sun Is Also a Star: https://youtu.be/3On0BXzGnuI

10 Documentaries To Watch About Race Instead of Asking A Person of Colour to Explain Things For You

15 Kid-Friendly Movies to Help Build a Conversation About Race and Racism

If you want to continue your personal learning, consider the following resources as a beginning.

Books to Read

Racial Justice From the Heart, Dr. Amanda Kemp

For Faith-Based Conversations

What the Hell is Water: Talking to My White Friends About Racism

white and black koi fish

Photo by Nika Akin on Pexels.com

By, Jodie Palmer

This article isn’t for everyone. If you’re white, and you’re questioning racism, keep reading. This is for you. If you’re white and you’re anti-racist, keep reading. This is for you too.

I came across an interesting thread in my social media feed recently. It was in response to a black college professor’s experience of getting stopped by police on his way to work. The professor described the incident in great detail, his own processing during, and the effect of the experience afterward.

For some, the message he was conveying was clear—the experience a black person has with the police, internally and externally, are different than the experience white people have.

For others, it was the opposite that rose to the surface. There was nothing inherently racist in what these officers did. In fact, their response seemed reasonable and appropriate.

Since George Floyd’s death social media has exploded as hotly as the riot fires across America. What the heat seems to be refining into clarity is the fundamental question—Does racism systemically exist in America, or not?

This is a crucial question, and it makes sense to me why white people are asking it.

Racism did exist in America. We all know this—there were slaves, then there was the Civil War, then there was the 13th Amendment, then were Jim Crow laws, then there was the Civil Rights Movement, then there was the Civil Rights Act, then there was the Voting Rights Act, and lots of actions and laws in between that protect the equality of people of color in this country. Not only have laws and the constitution itself changed, but at every level of worship, work, politics, academia, social engagement, and even in love and marriage we now rub shoulders with our black brothers and sisters. This is our world now.

So, why does this question of racism persist?

For many white people, it feels like the “race card” is just being pulled from the deck to sway the game in favor of Someone(s) seeking more power and gain.

However, there is a legitimate gap between Black people telling us racism exists and white people believing them.

We know in America there are powerful pockets of actual racists in the traditional sense of the word—people that believe white people are superior, who are discriminatory, prejudiced, and antagonistic at best and deadly at worst toward people of color. But most of us do not feel or behave in any of the ways that are reflective of that framework of racism. Let’s all praise the Lord for that!

If we live in a post-60’s Civil Rights movement America now, and those cops that stopped the Black professor weren’t racist, and our laws aren’t racist, and “I’m not a racist,” then why is the accusation of racism so loud? It just doesn’t seem to fit. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t see it.

What if there were a word that did fit, that made more sense, and made the unseen seen?

Though we may not see overt, legalized racism, it has nonetheless done the work of slowly grinding a groove in the collective lens through which we see, which bends the light.

There is a word that describes “bent light” or ways of seeing that are inherently distorted. The phrase is implicit bias. Okay, that was two words.

“Also known as implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decision in an unconscious manner.” http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/understanding-implicit-bias/

Implicit bias is not a new idea. It’s been used to describe the gap between racism we do see and racism we don’t for half a century. We have published works here, here and here that give history, research, and practical understanding of implicit bias.

What is indisputable is that implicit bias exists, in every single one of us. Even those who are explicitly anti-racist, anti-misogynist, anti-homophobic, anti-whatever needs to change. We are unconscious of the glasses through which we see distortedly. We are fish, unaware of the water we’re swimming in.

I was recently offered an introspection challenge about my own implicit racial bias. I thought it would be hard to find anything, as I have friends who are people of color, and I legitimately work very hard at treating and seeing others equitably. I was wrong.

During the challenge I watched the movie, The Mountains Between Us. It’s about a black man and a white woman whose plane crash high in the mid-winter mountains. They have to rely on each other to survive. I decided I’d watch it and just see what happened inside of me. I was so surprised by what rose to the surface.

  1. At the beginning of the movie the black man took center stage. It wasn’t long before I realized that I kept waiting for the main character to arrive. He was the main character. Implicit bias.
  2. Spoiler Alert: Mid-movie the black man and white woman became sexually intimate. I was so surprised by the feeling of resistance I had to the scene of a white woman and black man having sex. What is noteworthy is that I have friends in mixed-race marriages whom I love, and whose marriages I fully support. Implicit bias.

I was a fish, completely unaware of the water of implicit bias I was swimming in. Until I was invited to look.

The centuries of racism that shaped law, science, financial structures, and social culture are not undone with the winning of a war, or the stroke of a pen, or even through genuine relationship with each other. Though we wish it were enough.

In an interview in the Atlantic, Patricia Devine, psychology professor and director of the Prejudice Lab described, “a series of experiments that laid out the psychological case for implicit racial bias—the idea, broadly, is that it’s possible to act in prejudicial ways while sincerely rejecting prejudiced ideas. She demonstrated that even if people don’t believe racist stereotypes are true, those stereotypes, once absorbed, can influence people’s behavior without their awareness or intent.”

Devine says,

“There are a lot of people who are very sincere in their renunciation of prejudice, yet they are vulnerable to habits of mind. Intentions aren’t good enough.”

White people are being honest when they say they aren’t racist. Black people are being honest when they tell us they do experience harmful racism. What is the gap here? The gap is what is unseen, but experienced—implicit bias.

What is hopeful is that there is a way to change implicit bias. There is a way to close the gap between what we see and what someone is telling us they experience. It is a solution studied and perfected by Patricia Devine’s research. If you’re not racist, put your money where your mouth is and take the invitation to explore your own implicit bias. Jessica Nordell describes Patricia Devine’s successful process for changing implicit bias in her article for the Atlantic, Is This How Discrimination Ends.

Remember that fish unaware of the water she swam in? There’s another end to that story. This could be the beginning of the end of our story of racism in America.

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

― David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life

The Conversation We Didn’t Even Know We Needed: An Unspoken Impact of the BYU Honor Code Change & Clarification

persons wearing denim jeans while holding hands

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

By, Jodie Palmer

In his book Torn, Justin Lee introduces the concept of the Side A and Side B Gay Christian. The Side A Gay Christian believes same-sex relationships including intimacy within same-sex marriage is not inherently sinful. The Side B Gay Christian believes that being gay is not inherently sinful, but that God does not approve of gay sex.

Historically, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has aligned with the vast majority of Christian belief that homosexuality is inherently sinful regardless of behavior. However, on the issue of same-sex sexual orientation the church in recent years has taken the position of Side B Christianity.

As Elder Ballard confirmed, “Let us be clear: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes that ‘the experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them.’” (“The Lord Needs You Now!” Ensign, Sept. 2015, 29).

But where does the church stand on how gay members should move forward in their lives?

The official position of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that mixed orientation marriage is “not a remedy” and that church leaders should not encourage gay members to enter marriage as a panacea for their same-sex sexual orientation. Though, some feel called to that path nonetheless.

For gay members of the church who desire to live within church doctrines and do not see mixed orientation marriage as a healthy choice, the only other option is to choose celibacy.

It is important to consider why this is noteworthy.

Celibacy is Different than Being a Single Member in the Church

It is widely known that marriage and family is deeply rooted as fundamental to the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We sing about it in primary. We recite it as youth. We are pointed toward it as we return from our missions.

It is difficult when, for many reasons, a companion doesn’t materialize, or a person must search for a companion again. There are varying degrees of loneliness, isolation, judgement, and even marginalization that single members of the church experience. It’s just hard. Full stop.

However, there is always an open door for companionship for single members.

Celibacy, on the other hand, is a choice to remain single and chaste for an entire lifetime, regardless of whether a worthy partner comes into your life.

Most straight single members regularly pray they will find that “special someone.” Gay single members regularly pray they don’t.

What does all this have to do with the BYU Honor Code changes and clarification?

Consider the psychological and physical impact of watching friend, after friend, after friend seek for a companion, pair-bond with another person, and marry, knowing that will never be something you can do or have. Consider the psychological and physical impact of finding someone with whom you would like to share your life, but you must abandon that relationship because of its unsustainability with the doctrine of the church. Imagine the psychological and physical impact of this happening to you over and over and over again.

The church does require a small segment of its membership to live with this very real experience. To simply discipline or excommunicate those who cannot sustain this level of psychological and physical impact is unconscionable.  What can be done?

The church can take more seriously its ability to support sustainable celibacy.

When BYU dropped the “homosexual behavior” portion of its honor code, some saw it as an indicator of doctrinal changes to come. But, it actually opened a door to something far more in line with the church’s current statement of chastity(Abstinence from sexual relations outside of a marriage between a man and a woman), which could also make things immediately better for many Side B gay students.

Dropping the “homosexual behavior” portion of the honor code could allow gay individuals to physically, emotionally and spiritually thrive by developing legitimate same-sex intimate plutonic relationships—relationships that have a degree of physical and emotional intimacy but are not sexual.

There are many Side B gay Christians that are maintaining their commitment to a traditional Christian sexual ethic, AND sustainably supporting their physical, emotional, and spiritual health by choosing to have intimate platonic relationships.

The recent documentary Faithful explores just this sort of relationship between Marylu and Lauralie, two faithful gay Latter-day Saint women.

Faithful also illuminates the discrimination and rejection these two women experience from their faith community in their effort to find a sustainable way to stay faithful to the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as gay women. In the midst of their sacrifice of celibacy, why must they also endure the shaming and rejection of those who should be supporting, embracing and celebrating their effort?

Not every Side B gay member of the church will resonate with or feel the need for an intimate plutonic relationship. However, for many it could be a literal life line, and an anchor to staying in the boat of the gospel.

On March 4th Elder Paul V. Johnson, Commissioner of the Church Educational System confirmed that BYU’s honor code is “principle based.” The objective of a principle based system—from missionary teaching, to ministering, to church curriculum, to the BYU honor code—is to support the unique needs of individual members as they follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and live within the doctrine and values of the church. Essentially, a principle-based approach is the way to more sustainably and practically balance between what Elder Johnson reminds us as the “spirit as well as the letter of God’s laws.”

The Honor Code change could have allowed many Side B gay students to balance between greater physical, emotional and spiritual health while maintaining the law of chastity requirement. This is an example of a principle-based system working at its best for the unique needs of a particular population within the church membership.

For the clarification of the BYU Honor Code to say that, “Same-sex romantic behavior cannot lead to eternal marriage and is therefore not compatible with the principles of the honor code” was a deep blow to so may, but particularly to celibate gay members of the church. It felt as if the initial honor code change was a life raft in the stormy sea of celibacy, but the clarification pushed many gay members back into the raging waves to fend for themselves once again.

It is difficult not to feel as one gay woman described, “The church demands a unique and unqualified sacrifice from me, which I am making every effort to give, but in return I so often feel shamed and abandoned.”

No doubt there are many arguments from all sides against the consideration of intimate plutonic relationships.

“Gay people won’t be able to stop at a plutonic line.”

“Gay people shouldn’t have to stop at a plutonic line.”

“If gay people don’t like the honor code they should just leave BYU.”

“The church causes physical, emotional and spiritual harm. Gay people should just leave the church.”

“The doctrines of the church are clear, and anything other than absolute adherence to the black and white law is simply a slippery slope.”

Wherever we land on the statements above, we all have our vision of the perfect world. But, this is our world, today, right now.

Let us help each other thrive where we are. Helping each other thrive and also advocating for what we feel is right is not a zero-sum game. It is the game entirely.

Walking Through the Weeds of Josh Weed’s Latest Revelation

alligator-2151574_960_720

Photo Credit: Max Pixel Free Photo

“Today, we need to let you know that Lolly and I are divorcing.” 

-Josh & Lolly Weed

A few years ago, a straight female friend said to me, “I think that gay people just have a libido on overdrive.” At the time she was trying very hard to empathize with what it was like to be me, and this was the closest thing she could attach to.

Her comment was disturbing to me, because it didn’t at all reflect my experience of being gay. And, it perpetuated a prominent belief that a gay person is simply a sexual deviant. However, I think that she came to that conclusion honestly.

Depending on where you take a peek into the “gay scene” it can reflect a bunch of freaks that are hyper-sexualized. (This is another post altogether, however, you may find the comments section of interest in the matter.) Continue reading

Joe Biden, Lady Gaga, and Mormons: A Conversation on Rape Culture

In case you didn’t subject yourself to the Oscars, Lady Gaga and Joe Biden took the national stage to speak out against campus sexual assault.¹

I feel compelled to post on Biden’s final statement regarding victims of sexual assault–“They did nothing wrong!”

I believe the majority agrees that sexual assault is a crime against humanity. However, there is debate on the issue of responsibility around sexual assault–who is at fault? Was the victim drinking? Were they wearing revealing clothing? Were they walking in a dark, secluded area?  Continue reading

A Little Girl, Love, and the Butterfly Effect

After the mob of school children passed my house on their way home I saw a little girl walking in the opposite direction, crying. I went out, as a mother would, and asked if she was okay. She had lost her little brother, who she usually helps get home from school. I asked if she wanted to call her mother and she said, “No, she’s working, she won’t know where he is.”

She was beyond distressed, and began to run down the sidewalk calling out his name. I was a stranger, and she wasn’t going to engage me. When I returned home I gathered my little children around and told them her story, and we said a prayer for her and her little brother.

Continue reading

Grace, Big Girl Panties, and the Challenge of Heterosexual Privilege

I’m a closeted lesbian, but my aunt has known I’m gay for a long time. I never told her and she never asked. She just knew. She’s like that. Super em-pa-thic. A few years ago I told her I was thinking about coming out publicly. I expected her typical open, affirming, supportive response.

“Don’t do that! Why do gay people always feel like they NEED to tell people they are gay? Your sexuality is private. Nobody wants to know. Seriously, don’t do it.”

Continue reading