The Privilege of a Dream

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash
Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

I am dreading Martin Luther King Jr. Day. There, I said it. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for commemorating Dr. King, but it feels like this day has more to do with social media posts than working to end injustice. We post about his dream as we fleetingly remember the aspects of his life that fit our polite narrative.

Meanwhile, the capitalism-bashing, militarism-fearing, racism-despising man that Dr. King was is relegated to an after-thought at best. Those of us with the privilege to dream, do so at the expense of King’s vision while others remain trapped in the nightmare of an unjust existence.

On Wednesday, CNN aired this story about black workers in a Toledo GM plant who have endured violent racial hostility for years. They are subjugated to racial slurs, derogatory writings, and vague threats, but two specific aspects of this harassment caught my attention.

The first is that, on multiple occasions, nooses have been hung in the plant. NOOSES Y’ALL! The same terror-inducing tool that was used during the height of the lynching era to destroy black life is being used in this GM plant to intimidate black workers. That is how bold people have gotten.

Moreover, both upper management and the union reps. have indicated that they believe part of the problem is the sensitivity of the black workers themselves. Phrases like “you just can’t say certain things anymore” are subtle hints that someone feels the real issue isn’t the violent or degrading language, but rather our PC culture or the sensitivity of the victims. In short, they are offering legitimacy to the abuse that is taking place.

Perpetrators are thus emboldened and those in positions to stop the abuse, are indifferent. More than fifty years after Dr. King’s assassination, workers at one of the flagship American companies are subjected to lynching-era threats and the terrorism is subtly endorsed by those in power. The value of black life is still being demeaned. Lest you think this is just a few bad apples, allow me to remind you that in some way, shape or form, this demeaning of blackness happens daily.

Photo by mwangi gatheca on Unsplash
Photo by mwangi gatheca on Unsplash

I know this because it happens to me. Someone recently told me that I perform my job duties so well that when they think of me, they don’t see me as black.

….wait what?…

Somehow they thought they were complimenting me with this observation. They were smiling when they said it. No context provided. No realization that I might be offended. No insight about the underlying assumptions that drove them to say this. They simply offered their “compliment” as some kind of endorsement of my solid job performance.

Second-by-second, my heartbeat grew louder as it threatened to break open my chest. A strange cocktail of anger and confusion swirled in the pit of my stomach and the weight of the invalidation slowly set-in. I sat dumbfounded as I tried to decide if I wanted to confront them or just move on. I decided to move on, but I emailed him later to explain how I’d received his faux-compliment. I doubt they ever truly understood how problematic their words were. Unfortunately, this experience and the accompanying feelings weren’t new to me.

Whether it’s being called “boy” by an older white man or being called an oreo by white friends, I’m familiar with these subtle invalidations of my identity. (Side note: oreos are inferior to nearly every other cookie product, so being called one is quite insulting. I’d rather eat a box of fig newtons than one oreo. Come at me!)

At some point, people either choose to completely ignore my blackness because they see no value in it, or they use it as the only means to determine how to relate to me. That is the sad reality of being black in the U.S. In one way or another, blackness is devalued or demeaned.

Not everyone who commits a microaggression will hang a noose in their workplace. That isn’t what I’m saying, nor am I suggesting that I’ve gone through anything as traumatic as what those GM workers are experiencing. What I am saying is that our national racial ideology is built upon the premise that black is bad and white is good. Therefore the possibility for terror exists at virtually every moment for people of color. The weight of this possibility is a heavy burden to bear, and we’re tired. I’m tired.

Photo by Kristina V on Unsplash
Photo by Kristina V on Unsplash

As I’ve shared with y’all in previous posts, I already have old anxieties that constantly tell me I’m not enough. I worry that at any moment, people might see me as I am and decide they can’t handle me. This work of countering negative self-messages becomes even more difficult when I’m forced to confront the truth that my skin color or hair texture can actually be enough for someone to invalidate me.

As much as I work to tell myself that I’m loved, appreciated and cared for, I can’t ignore the reality of my experience or forget the history of my people. The unfortunate truth is that at any moment, in almost any place, my perceived racial identity may be enough for someone to reject me, or at worse, threaten my life.

What I still haven’t even acknowledged yet is that for a variety of reasons, my privilege has protected me. I’m light-skinned and college-educated, so there are ways in which I don’t feel the full brunt of this terror. Memes won’t undo this reality and quotes won’t awaken us from this nightmare. We need action.

Instead of posting about King’s marches, will you march? Instead of quoting from his speeches, will you speak out? Instead of lamenting the bullet he took, will you offer your body so that black and brown folks might save theirs? This ‘dream for a day’ way of commemorating King is tired and ineffective. Nooses still hang. Black bodies still burn, and black existence is still invalidated in large and small ways daily.

I’m not looking forward to Monday because I know that Tuesday always comes. On Tuesday, there will be another noose. On Wednesday another abuse of power, and on Thursday we’ll be told we’re too sensitive or, all lives matter or some other bullshit that does nothing but reinforce the nightmare that Malcolm spoke about so often.

Monday will come whether I want it to or not. When it does, please save the dream memes and instead name the realities of this nightmare from which so many cannot yet awaken. There are resources at the end of this article that you can utilize to help you think about what that might look like.

As always, I pray you first do the uncomfortable work of looking within. I still find myself perpetuating negative stereotypes and racist thought from time to time, so know you are by no means alone in this on-going work. Continue to make time to learn and reflect, and as you do, I leave you with this question.

How might your silence or inaction be creating space for terror?

Resources

Becoming a White Ally

Black America Again

Punishing Effects of Racism

The Case for Reparations

Herstory #BLM

Lynching Data

Why Being Colorblind Doesn’t Work

Dr. King Three Evils Speech

Still I Rise

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Old Tapes

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

For the last six weeks, I’ve written about my personal experiences, inner dialogue, and life lessons. I’ve enjoyed the work and appreciated the affirmation I’ve received along the way. Today I’m inviting you to join me in a more intentional way. First, let’s talk about 80s technology.

One of the most consistent things I’ve written about, but not yet named, is how old tapes affect our lives. Old tapes are those messages from our past that we play over and over again. In order to do this topic justice, I need to take us back to the revolutionary technology known as the cassette tape. Most of you are…um…I want to say “experienced” enough to remember cassettes right?

Cassette tapes allow you to store and listen to your favorite audio tracks, and for a variety of reasons, are the perfect metaphor for the emotional messages we carry.

Like our emotions, cassettes often get tangled. Some days we know we don’t feel right, but we can’t fully decipher why. The messages within are so jumbled that rather than one distinct emotion, you feel an intense collection of energy within your body that you can’t diffuse. The knots are too tight. The messages too jumbled and the process of untangling too daunting to actually unpack what you’re holding.

Part of the reason for this jumble is the amount of information that we collect over the course of our lives. Like cassettes, we have multiple sides that we can record on. We might store positive messages about ourselves on side A and negative messages on side B. As we work to improve ourselves and undo the negative messages from our past, the other side of the tape still plays from and takes us back into the darkness we’re trying to outrun.

Because we have so much storage space, we’re constantly recording our environments. With old cassette players, you can literally hit record and document everything that was happening in your environment. As conscious beings, we do this recording naturally, so that whether we remember a specific moment or not, it still has the capacity to affect us. Traumatic moments like death, divorce or abuse are all recorded and the messages are stored in our minds and in our bodies. When we’re least expecting them to, those old tapes start playing again and we’re suddenly re-living that first trauma.

Finally, like tapes, we can erase and record new information. This process takes time and looks different for different people, but it is possible. There are a variety of techniques you can use to begin recording new messages. The imaginative exercise that I mentioned in last week’s post is one of them. Other examples include intentionally speaking your new truth to yourself throughout the day. You might simply whisper “I am loved” whenever you’re feeling insecure. If that isn’t your speed, you could stop, take in several deep breaths and tell yourself that you have all of the love, acceptance, etc…that you need in this moment.

Over time, these new messages will take hold, and you’ll find them playing more often than the old tapes you’ve carried thus far. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m keeping this week’s blog short so that I can invite you into this work of naming our invisible truths. Take 5-10 minutes, and reflect upon the tapes that are playing in your life. Where do you notice yourself acting or reacting to situations in ways that aren’t intentional? What is causing the reaction? Do you notice any messages being played?

As you become aware of what these old messages, write them down. Make sure it is somewhere that you can return to. You’ll want to add to the list as new messages reveal themselves. Now think about your counter messages. What do you want to believe about yourself? What do you need to hear in order to feel validated, accepted and full? It need not be complex. It just needs to feel affirming to you. Now write down your new truth. Good so far? OK, here’s the challenge.

Once you’ve written down your messages, share them. Use the hashtag #invisibletruthschallenge, tag this blog and share the title of your old tape along with a brief description of your new message. You can write as much or as little as you want. The important thing is that you share your truth. I’ve given an example below that rings painfully true for me:

@invisibletruths My old tape is titled Always an Oreo. At various moments of my life, I’ve been told I’m not black enough. I feel insecure about my identity and am afraid that at any moment, someone will notice that I don’t measure up and my blackness will be invalidated.

Today I name that I am enough. My blackness is uniquely my own, and it is powerful. There is room for me at the bbq.#invisibletruthschallenge

Once you’ve posted with the hashtag, share this blog post, and invite others into the invisible truths challenge. It won’t go viral, but by stepping into this uncomfortable vulnerability we’re modeling a more authentic existence that will open us all to deeper healing.

I recognize that sharing something so personal isn’t a risk that everyone will take. I strongly encourage you to lean into this discomfort as much as you’re able. If you’re not yet ready to take this step, I understand. Instead, share your old tape with at least one person you trust and invite them to do the same. If you go this route, you’re still welcome to share the blog post and use the hashtag anyway :). The purpose of this challenge is two-fold. It helps us to recognize the messages we’re carrying and gives us the opportunity to practice more intentional vulnerability. In short, it is an opportunity for us to be stretched.

I hope you’ll join me in this work. I won’t make asks like this often, but every now and then, I will invite you to be more intentional about not only supporting me but also living out the authenticity we long for. You know, “be the change…” and what now 🙂 #ghandi As we each take ownership of our healing and create space for others to do the same, we’ll begin to notice cycles of pain and inauthenticity broken.

Reflect, record, and share what you discover. Invite others into this journey with you, and repeat the process.

What old tapes are playing for you?

Who’s driving?

Photo by Samuele Errico Piccarini on Unsplash

“I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want—instead, I do what I hate.”(Romans 7:15).

As critical as I often am of the Apostle Paul, sometimes he kept it 100. How often have you gone into a situation determined to do something different or feel something different only to fall into the same tired patterns you’ve been in for years?

It happens to me a lot, and I’m often left wondering why? If I want to do something different, why can’t I?

For instance, when I’m with some of my dearest friends, I often feel the most anxious and insecure. These are people that I will be friends with until the day I die. We’ve got that LeBron-Dwayne Wade, or JT-Jimmy Fallon type friendship.

We’re vulnerable with each other. We challenge each other, and most importantly, we laugh with each other. They’re great people, yet when I’m with them, I notice my chronic anxiety go into overdrive.

I feel anxious aftershocks reverberating through my body; starting at my chest and pulsating outward. I breathe deeply, focus on the moment and try every trick I know to shut the anxiety off, but the aftershocks continue. Each one carries a different version of the same question:

What if I’m not enough?

Black enough, funny enough, smart enough…there are an endless amount of enoughs that I can generate to convince myself that I’m not worthy of the love and acceptance I’m experiencing.

Question after anxious question runs through my mind. One voice reminding me that I’m loved and accepted as I am. The other voice screaming that I’ll be rejected as soon as they realize I’m not good enough.  

Back and forth it goes until the moment passes, and I regret not being able to be fully present. If I don’t want to feel anxious, and I know that I’m loved and accepted, where does that other, anxiety-ridden voice, come from? Who else is vying for control of my psyche?

Cue boxing announcer, aka, Michael Buffer voice

In one corner, we have 30-year-old millennial who stands 5’7 ¾” tall (I’m counting every fraction of an inch) and 145 lbs (I’m being generous). His confidence often outweighs his abilities, but he’s got a lot of heart. Known as Btapp, Tapper or to those that know him best, smartass. Ladies and gentlemen its Ben Tapper.

In the other corner, is a 9-year-old lean mean anxiety machine. At 3’9″ tall he is light enough to be blown away by a stiff northwest wind. He’s best known for bossing around his younger siblings and getting nose bleeds at a moment’s notice. He can destroy a plate of biscuits and gravy in under 2 minutes flat. Introducing ’97 Ben.

If you managed to read all of that in Michael Buffer’s voice, give yourselves a pat on the back. 2019 is going to be a great year for you 🙂

 ’97 Ben is the source of my anxious messaging. He carries the weight of the world on his small shoulders and remains vigilant in order to protect the people he loves. He is an anxious string bean of a boy whose fears are as strong as his smile is bright. He knows that rejection and disappointment are waiting around every corner, so he lives each moment bracing for the worst. 

Which is why he is constantly looking for reasons I might be rejected. I can’t possibly be enough for anyone because he’s never felt like enough, so he’s watching and waiting for things to go wrong like they always have.

Here’s the thing though. ‘97 Ben is more than an over-burdened, hyper-anxious 3rd grader. He is also strong, adaptive and determined. He survived child abuse and neglect. He lived in homeless shelters, played in roach-infested motels and spent many nights sleeping in the car.

To name only the anxiety and worry is to incompletely define him as a person. The truth is, he embodies both my deepest insecurities and my boldest resilience. 

The trouble is that ’97 Ben has been in the driver seat of my life for too long. He helped me survive a very traumatic decade, but I don’t need him to be in charge anymore. I don’t need to be constantly guarded, and I don’t want to spend every second bracing for the worst. If I’m to be fully present with the people I care about, I’ve got to let ’97 Ben off the hook.

To do this well, I use a contemplative exercise that is part meditation and part imagination. I close my eyes, breathe deeply and imagine myself in a car. I’m in the passenger seat traveling on I-65. I look to my left and see my younger self behind the wheel. His eyes are locked on the road with all the intensity and focus that a 9-year-old can muster. I ask him to pull over so we can talk. Once the car comes to a stop, we both get out, and I kneel down so we’re looking eye to eye as I begin talking.  

“Hey lil man. I really appreciate you driving for so long. You must be tired.”

He nods and warily waits for me to continue.

“Without you, I wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t be here. Thank you so much! You’re amazing. The good news is, you don’t have to be in charge anymore. I got us from here. We’re okay.”

I rub his head, tell him he gets to relax now, and invite him into the back seat. There is a game boy and a to-go box filled with my mom’s biscuits and gravy waiting for him. I buckle him in, and as he picks up the game boy, he looks up at me and says “thank you.” I close the door, move to the driver’s seat, take one last look in the rear-view mirror to make sure he’s relaxed then start the car and go.

It’s an elaborate visualization, but as wonky as it sounds, it works. It eases the anxiety and reminds me that while my past will always influence who I am, it doesn’t have to be the driving factor in every moment.

Who is in the driver’s seat of your life?  

Reflect on the mountaintop and valley moments of your life. Have you experienced sudden life changes or traumatic experiences? Where were you when they happened? How old were you? How did you feel?

Take note of these things because it is those moments that can freeze us in time and allow past selves to remain in the driver seat long after the moment has passed.

As you’re able to name significant moments and see your past selves begin to take shape, imagine what they what they need to hear in order to move from the driver seat to the back seat. Remember that they embody both your greatest and most uncomfortable qualities, so even if they’re unhelpful right now, they served a purpose and deserve to be treated, even within your own imagination with love and respect. How might you let yourself off the hook with grace?

If we can find and connect with our past selves, we’ll experience freedom we’ve not yet known. This work of connecting with ’97 Ben is ongoing for me. He’s been driving for so long that my constant anxiety and obsession with rejection feel normal. It will take some time before a new standard is set for me, but it is time well spent.   

As you enter the New Year, I invite you into a deeper awareness of the internal voices that influence you. Take note, be curious and receive all of the love, grace, and acceptance you need to move forward. Know that you will grow tired of this work. You won’t catch yourself every time, and you’ll feel like you should be further along than you are. That’s normal my friend. When it happens, pause, breathe in the love you need and give yourself permission to keep doing the work without judgment.

We don’t have to spend 2019 falling into the same patterns that have always dogged us. When you get a chance, ask yourself:

Who is driving?