Jackie Pack talks in this episode of her addiction and recovery podcast about the social issues rising up currently in the United States, which causes us to want to do something to help. If we can’t begin conversations, we certainly can’t fix the racial discrimination plaguing our country since its inception.
Change is a central issue in the therapy process. The principles that govern change in the individual relate to society as well. How do we initiate change in ourselves and our society at large? How do we sustain ongoing change? How do we act as a force for change in our communities?
TRANSCRIPT: These Times Are a Changing
Hey everyone. If you’re a licensed therapist and you listen to this podcast, this announcement is for you. I’m excited to announce that I will be starting August 1 a coaching group for therapists who are interested in further development of their clinical skills, their business skills, and balancing their persona life. This group will start August 1, 2020 and go through November 30, 2020. We’ll be having lots of discussion about different topics that we may face in the work that we do, how to handle things as a therapist, how to work with challenging clients, and how to help our clients make progress. Over the 26 years in my professional career, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to counsel new therapists or therapists who are finding their niche or changing direction or wanting to expand themselves in multiple ways professionally and personally. It’s one of the things I love to do, working with other professionals. I often get asked from therapists outside of my clinic and outside of my state how they can work with me, and here’s your chance. For more information, go to my Facebook page, Jackie Pack Coaching or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to work with you and have you be part of our professionals group.
Hey everyone, welcome to Thanks for Sharing. I’m your host, Jackie Pack. On today’s episode I wanted to speak to the civil unrest that’s happening currently in the United States. I wanted to start by talking about a song that Bob Dylan wrote called “The Times They are a-Changing”. It was released as the title track of his 1964 album of the same name. Dylan wrote the song as a deliberate attempt to create an anthem of change for the time. Influenced by Irish and Scottish ballads, it was released as a 45 single in Britain in 1965. It reached #9 on the U.K. singles chart. The song was not released as a single in the United States. Ever since its release, the song has been influential to people’s views on society, with critics noting the general yet universal lyrics as contributing to the song’s lasting message of change. Dylan has occasionally performed it in concert. The song has been covered by many different artists, including Nina Simone, The Byrds, The Seekers, Peter, Paul and Mary, Tracy Chapman, Simon & Garfunkel, Runrig, The Beach Boys, Joan Baez, Phil Collins, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and Burl Ives. The song was ranked #59 on Rolling Stone’s 2004 list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. The lyrics read:
“Come gather ’round, people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’”
I don’t mean to be dramatic, but I think we are reconciling suffering, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the social issues of racism are coming on the heels of a global pandemic and the uncontrolled numbers in the United States. Suffering can be a pretty dramatic word, and most people don’t think the term applies to them. I’m not suffering, they say. Suffering is different from surviving, and surviving can often take us out of feeling or being aware of our suffering. Merriam Webster defines suffering as “to submit to or be forced to endure; to feel keenly; to undergo or experience; to put up with, especially as inevitable or unavoidable; to allow, especially by reason of indifference.” I think that speaks to what we’re seeing currently in the United States, and I think as COVID-19 has hit people from all walks of life and it doesn’t seem that the virus much cares who you are, the color of your skin, although it’s impacting those of color more than it is white people, and I think that speaks more to other social issues. I think a lot of things are coming together and people are recognizing that while they may have felt safe in the United States, that feeling of safety is being questioned and is being challenged, and I think when that happens, we start to hear and be willing to listen to those who have never truly felt safe.
Now if you’re alive, you will experience pain. Everyone has a different pain threshold, and yet we all experience it throughout our lives. Physical pain is the nervous system’s internal alarm. It’s your body reacting to a potentially damaging stimulus. It creates an unpleasant sensory experience, such as hunger, exhaustion, an upset stomach, a pounding headache, or the aches of arthritis. Pain also can take emotional form, such as the crush of heartbreak or the sadness of loss. There’s pain from which there’s no escaping, and then there’s suffering, which most often we can do something about. Suffering generally occurs as a chain reaction. There’s a stimulus or a trigger, there’s a thought, and then there’s a reaction. Many times we have no control over the stimulus that causes us pain. We can, though, shift our relationship to the thoughts and the emotional reactions to the pain, which the thoughts and reactions frequently intensity our suffering if we’re not intentional.
Suffering is often about perception and interpretation. It is our mental and emotional relationship to what is first perceived as an unpleasant or undesirable experience. Our stories and beliefs about what is happening or did happen shape our interpretation of it. Currently I think in the United States, we are in the midst of a reckoning, or at least history will tell us if this was our time of reckoning or if we continue to just kick this can down the road for another time by another people, by another generation. I believe there is power in turning our suffering into meaning. Often when I am working with clients who have experienced trauma in their life, we talk about the importance of turning suffering into meaning for them to enact some resilience skills and to move forward.
As I’ve watched current events unfold, I found myself wondering whose suffering is going to be turned into meaning? Is it the suffering of white people behind slavery, racism, discrimination? Are we asking people of color to turn their suffering into meaning in order to make us white people feel better? We are at a time when we are recognizing the suffering that exists and that has existed, and I think we’re at a time where we’re also recognizing that we can do something about this. The question remains: will we?
As I’ve reflected on my life and how racism has impacted me, one of the first things I think about is the Civil Rights Act, which was passed in 1964. This was just 6 years before I was born. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a labor law legislation that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public. Initially, the powers given to enforce the act were weak, but they were supplemented in later years. Congress asserted its authority to legislate via several different parts of the constitution, principally its power to regulate interstate commerce, its duty to guarantee all citizens equal protection of the laws through the 14th amendment and its duty to protect voting rights under the 15th amendment. I think it’s telling that the 13th amendment is the amendment that abolished slavery, and we didn’t have another amendment until the 14th amendment in 1964. Between the 13th amendment and the 14th amendment, there were a lot of years that passed, and we had to recognize in passing this 14th amendment that we were still being discriminatory. We still were not treating the races as equal, even though we had abolished slavery, and I use “abolish” in quotations because I think in many ways, we haven’t truly abolished slavery.
Now the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was the culmination of a campaign against housing discrimination, and it was approved at the urging of President Johnson one week after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Its primary prohibition makes it unlawful to refuse to sell, rent to, or negotiate with any person because of that person’s inclusion in a protected class. The goal is a unitary housing market in which a person’s background as opposed to their financial resources does not arbitrarily restrict access. Calls for open housing were issued early in the 20th century, but it was not until after WWII that concerted efforts to achieve it were undertaken. While the act stopped some of the more egregious instances of housing discrimination, it should be noted that we are far from fair when it comes to housing and one’s ability to obtain it. Race is still an issue and has been, despite the efforts made through the acts listed here.
Seven years ago, in 2013, the Supreme Court issued one of the most consequential rulings in a generation in a case called Shelby County v. Holder. In a 5-4 vote, the court struck down a formula at the heart of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 law that required certain states and localities with a history of discrimination against minority voters to get changes cleared by the federal government before they went into effect, so what that was saying is for states that had a history of restricting some of the voting privileges that we claim to have in our country to black people and to favor white people in determining who was elected and who the leaders were, in order to make changes to their voting procedures, they had to get it cleared by the federal government and prove that it was not going to be discriminatory. Now it’s hard to overstate the significance of this decision in 2013. The power of the Voting Rights Act was in the design that the Supreme Court gutted. Discriminatory voting policies could be blocked before they harmed voters, so they didn’t actually go into effect and limit people’s ability to vote. The law placed the burden of proof on government officials to prove why the changes they were seeking were not discriminatory. Now after the Supreme Court ruling in 2013, voters who were discriminated against bear the burden of proving that they are disenfranchised.
Now I don’t know about you, but proving something to the federal government seems a daunting task, and immediately after the decision, republican lawmakers in Texas and North Carolina, two states that were previously covered by the law because they had a history of disenfranchising colored voters, moved to enact new voter ID laws and other restrictions. A federal court would later strike down the North Carolina law, writing it was designed to target African Americans with almost surgical precision. “The scope of what, frankly, the right could do, in a pre-Shelby world was very limited. Now it’s not so limited,” said Bryan Sells, a voting rights attorney in Georgia. “If I’m a Republican political consultant or strategist, the options that are available to me are now wider than they used to be… It made it more advantageous to tinker.”
Now the Supreme Court’s decision didn’t get rid of the Voting Rights Act entirely. Congress could restore the full power of the law by coming up with a new formula to determine which places need to submit their voting changes for pre-clearance, but since 2013, that hasn’t happened. House democrats passed a new formula late last year, but republicans in the senate have refused to take the measure up and vote on it. The 2020 election will be just the second presidential contest since 1965 where the Voting Rights Act isn’t in full effect. Writing for the Supreme Court in 2013, Chief Justice John Roberts said that voting discrimination was no longer as severe as it was when the Voting Rights Act was first enacted in 1965. The mounting evidence, though, in the years since that decision in 2013 have shown that just isn’t the case. The law may be needed now more than ever, and also to Chief Justice John Roberts, maybe voting discrimination was no longer as severe because of the Voting Rights Act that was put in place. Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote in her dissent for the court, “Throwing out pre-clearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
I bring up the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act simply because I think these changes that were made just prior to my birth were progressive changes, were needed changes, were more in line with the constitution that we claim to love in our country, and so in some ways, I feel like I was born into this decade that was also preceded by a decade of change. I was born in 1970, and there were a lot of protests, there were a lot of things that were talked about and that were fought for in the 1970s just as there had been in the 1960s, so I was born into unrest, and going forward there would be unrest in my formative years.
Now my senior year of high school, I took a class called Current Issues that was taught by Mr. Bailey. I’ve referenced this class, in particular Mr. Bailey, before. Mr. Bailey’s class did have a pretty profound impact on me. I think it was the way Mr. Bailey taught and got us to care and think about and discuss issues that were impacting our world and thereby us. I also think it was the time of my life that I took this class that also led to having a profound impact. It was a year-long class, and it was my senior year. Life was starting to look real. The routine I had been caught up in since Kindergarten of going to school, having days off according to the school calendar and the summer schedule was about to end. Never again would anybody tell me what I had to do and when to do it once I graduated. I could feel the world getting bigger throughout my senior year, and I felt the inevitability of stepping into this big world and owning my part in it.
There was a quote that Mr. Bailey had on the chalkboard of our classroom, and he left it up all year. Now maybe he had had it up for years. I don’t know because he only taught seniors and so I had never been in his class before that year. It was a David Bowie quote, and it said, “And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds, they’re immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware what they’re going through.” That’s from David Bowie’s song “Changes”. I read that quote on the first day of class and I’ve thought about it often throughout my years.
A few weeks ago, on the 4th of July, we were just doing a low-key celebration at our house due to COVID-19 and the rising cases where we live. My youngest daughter who’s 17 had her friends over for a BBQ. There were 5 of them. Two had just graduated high school, and 3, including my daughter, will be seniors this upcoming year. It was just my husband and this daughter and her friends on the 4th of July in our backyard. I asked the two who had graduated what their plans were for this next year. I asked them what they liked and didn’t like about a virtual graduation. I asked them what their hopes were for their world and what their fears are for their world. I have a lot of hope in the generations that are up and coming, my kids’ generation. I think they’re going to be a force to reckon with, and boy do they care about these social issues. They’re open. They want change that we have hoped for and worked for and still not fully accomplished, they want that.
Now when I was growing up, my grandpa on my dad’s side, so my Grandpa McAdams, was born and raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I grew up hearing him talk about his home town and his home state. It had actually a big influence on my choosing to attend LSU for my graduate degree, although I have to say much had changed from when my grandpa was young and living there vs. when I was living there. My grandpa died at the age of 98, and it was the year after I graduated high school. He was the 12th of 13 children and was raised on a plantation in Baton Rouge. His older siblings actually fought in the Civil War. His younger and only sister was born when he was 3 years old, and his mother died in childbirth. Because his mother had died, he was then raised by a colored woman, and he would tell stories of her and how much fun he had being in and among colored people who, during that time, would have been sharecroppers. He would tell the story of his dad coming to him when he was turning… I can’t remember if it was 10 or 11, and telling him it was time to grow up and he had to put away childish things, which he would explain meant hanging out and playing with the colored children. When my grandpa was 16, he left home and set out to find his fortune. He said this was the norm in his family, all of his brothers had done it.
Now my grandpa had a love for black people, and I saw him numerous times strike up a friendly conversation with them. Oftentimes he didn’t know them, but he would approach them, and they would have a very friendly exchange. I also knew that my grandpa was racist. Things that he said, words that he used that I heard from him were not politically correct, even back then. I remember my mom telling me once when I was young that while Grandpa was a great person, we shouldn’t repeat some of the things he said. I think I already knew that when she told me. I knew that to my grandpa, the idea that black and white people were the same was just unbelievable. He loved black people. He loved the ones he had known as a young boy and thereby he loved ones that he crossed paths with. He had great memories of his time spent with them. However, the idea that they were equal to or the same as him or me was just too much.
My grandpa on my mom’s side, my Grandpa Ericson, I don’t really remember talking much about racial issues. He was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. Now currently the percentage of black people living in Utah makes up about 1%-2%. It swings back and forth between 1% and 2% of our state population. I’m not sure how different that was when my grandpa was growing up or when I was growing up. Now I was also born into the Mormon or the LDS religion, and I was raised in that religion. My mom’s side of the family were active and practicing members of this faith. The family on my dad’s side, not so much. My Grandpa McAdams was really not a religious person. Now if you’re aware of the history within the Mormon religion, they practice giving the priesthood to boys once they reach the age of 12. Now recently that’s changed and that’s now 11. For many years, this practice was forbidden for colored people, and to this day, it’s still forbidden for females. In 1978, more than a decade after the Civil Rights Act and with some pressure from the U.S. government, this practice of not allowing black males to receive the priesthood was changed, and they could receive the priesthood. I was 8 years old at this time, and it was announced on TV by the bi-annual LDS conference, Mormon conference. That evening, after the conference, my family had gone up to my Grandma and Grandpa Ericson’s for dinner and to visit with aunts and uncles. That wasn’t uncommon. We usually did that on Sundays when I was young. My older sister would have been 10. Like I said, I would have been 8, and I would have had a younger brother who was 4 and another brother that would have been 2. Now I didn’t have any cousins my age, so my sister and I often spent a lot of time listening to the adults in our family talk. Sometimes things kind of went over our heads, sometimes we got a piece of it, but we were around a lot of adult conversations as they talked about various topics of the day, and so they were going to talk about this that night as well.
Now up until this point in the Mormon religion, most of the presidents of the church had preached against giving black males the priesthood, and actually there’s some really cringe-worthy quotes from leaders back in the day about this. This was the teaching my grandpa grew up being taught, and he believed it. I remember listening to the adults talking that particular Sunday evening at my grandparents’ home, and I don’t really remember what was said but I do remember thinking, oh, this grandpa is also racist. My grandpa was not okay with the change that was happening in the Church, and he was quite upset that the Church had changed course when the leaders had always preached that this would never change and that this practice was the will of God. I remember thinking for myself that it seemed like a good thing to change. I also knew to stay quiet.
I think we have a habit when it comes to social issues like racism, sexism, or any of the other -isms to look at the issue through a binary—either I’m racist or I’m not. However, I believe most of these social issues are skewed when we look at them in a binary of either or instead of both and. My grandfathers were great men. They were the primary male figures I looked to as a young child, knowing that my father was not a good representation of males. My grandfathers could be soft and gentle and also strong. Both of my grandfathers had a great sense of humor, although in very different ways. They were both intelligent and handsome, and they both had racist beliefs. I think it’s more helpful to look at these social issues on a continuum rather than a binary. Now I wouldn’t say my grandfathers would fall on the far end of a continuum of racism, but they would fall on this continuum, and being their granddaughter, having inappropriate things said in front of me and beliefs shared and being exposed to their way of seeing things requires that I also have some things to dissect, examine, rearrange, learn, adjust, grow, and evolve.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I was introduced to the book “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and for about the next decade of my life, I read that book every summer, regardless of what I was doing. I loved that book. In 2015, the prequel, I want to say it’s a prequel, it’s a sequel to that book, was released “Go Set a Watchman”. In the New York Times book review, Machiko Kakutani, when “Go Set a Watchman” was coming out, she wrote “We remember Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s 1960 classic ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ as that novel’s moral conscience—kind, wise, honorable, an avatar of integrity who used his gifts as a lawyer to defend a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in a small Alabama town filled with prejudice and hatred in the 1930s. As indelibly played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie, he was the perfect man, the ideal father and a principled idealist, an enlightened, almost saintly believer in justice and fairness. In real life, people named their children after Atticus. People went to law school and became lawyers because of Atticus. Shockingly, in Miss Lee’s long-awaited novel ‘Go Set a Watchman’, Atticus is a racist who once attended a Klan meeting, who says things like ‘the negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.’ Or asks his daughter, ‘Do you want negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?’ In ‘Mockingbird’, a book once described by Oprah Winfrey as ‘our national novel’, Atticus praised American courts as the great levelers, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. In ‘Watchman’, set in the 1950s in the era of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, he denounces the Supreme Court, says he wants his home state to ‘be left alone to keep house without advice from the NAACP’ and he describes the NAACP paid lawyers as ‘standing around like buzzards’. In ‘Mockingbird’, Atticus was a role model for his children Scout and Jem, their North Star, their hero, the most potent moral force in their lives. In ‘Watchman’, he becomes the source of grievous pain and disillusionment for the 26-year-old Scout, or Jean Louise as she’s now known.”
The book review goes on to say, “While written in the third person, ‘Watchman’ reflects a grownup Scout’s point of view. The novel is the story of how she returns home to Maycomb, Alabama for a visit from New York City, where she’s been living, and tries to grapple with her dismaying realization that Atticus and her long-time boyfriend, Henry Clinton, both have abhorrent views on race and segregation. Though ‘Watchman’ is being published for the first time now (in 2015), it was essentially an early version of Mockingbird, according to news accounts, ‘Watchman’ was submitted to publishers in the summer of 1957. After her editor asked for a re-write focusing on Scout’s girlhood two decades earlier, Miss Lee spent some two years re-working the story, which eventually became ‘Mockingbird.’”
Now like Scout and Jem, Atticus Finch was also a North Star for me. He was a hero, a powerful moral force who did what was right no matter the cost. He was a father figure that I didn’t have. When the odds were against him and it didn’t look like he could win, he did. He won and justice prevailed. Like with my grandparents, when ‘Watchman’ came out, I had to wrestle with this idea that Atticus too was just a human being, an imperfect human being. I had to allow him to inspire me while also taking him down from the pedestal I had put him on and see him for the complex human being he was, not perfect. He wasn’t a hero or a villain. He was both.
Currently I’m reading a book by Isabel Wilkerson called “The Warmth of Other Suns”. I’m going read to you what was put out by the publisher Penguin and Random House about this book. It’s a book about the migration that happened from 1915 to 1970.
“This exodus of almost six million people changed the face of America. Wilkerson compares this epic migration to the migrations of other peoples in history. She interviewed more than a thousand people, and gained access to new data and official records, to write this definitive and vividly dramatic account of how these American journeys unfolded, altering our cities, our country, and ourselves. With stunning historical detail, Wilkerson tells this story through the lives of three unique individuals… Wilkerson brilliantly captures their first treacherous and exhausting cross-country trips by car and train and their new lives in colonies that grew into ghettos, as well as how they changed these cities with southern food, faith, and culture and improved them with discipline, drive, and hard work. Both a riveting microcosm and a major assessment, The Warmth of Other Suns is a bold, remarkable, and riveting work, a superb account of an ‘unrecognized immigration’ within our own land. Through the breadth of its narrative, the beauty of the writing, the depth of its research, and the fullness of the people and lives portrayed herein, this book is destined to become a classic.”
This book, like a good book is supposed to do, has made me think. There have been times when I’ve had to stop reading and sit for a few days and think about what I just read. This happened? Yes, this happened. I felt a great deal of sorrow, sorrow about the fact that our country fought a Civil War mainly about this issue, and the North was on the side of abolishing slavery. However, in the following years after the Civil War, as black people migrated from the South to the North, they just experienced a different kind of racism. This book has also had the impact of making me angry, especially as I look at where we still are as a country. We still don’t talk about these things, at least not in an honest way. I wasn’t taught about this in my public education years.
Currently here in Utah, as in so many cities and states across the country right now, we have the opportunity to look at symbols, traditions, and legacy with a new lens, a clearer lens, and I hope we’re asking ourselves hard questions. In Southern Utah, there’s a college named Dixie State University. It’s located in the beautiful city of St. George, Utah, which is known for its red rock formations. It was opened in 1911 and was owned by the LDS church as an academy and would later become a college and then the university it is today. In 1933, the LDS church ended its ownership of the junior college, and local residents began financing the school themselves while appealing to the Utah legislature to take over its management. Now in 1956, the school made a confederate soldier its mascot and a statue went up on campus of this confederate soldier. In 1960, the confederate flag began flying as a school symbol. I don’t think that we can look past the coincidence of these years also being years of the Jim Crow laws.
In 1970, the year I was born, the school officially changed its name to Dixie College. After I graduated high school, me and two of my friends from high school went down to Dixie College, and at that time just a junior college, it was only a 2-year college, and I attended 2 years and graduated from Dixie College before moving back up North and attending another university for my four-year degree, for my bachelor’s degree. Now in 1993, three years after I had graduated from Dixie College, the college officially dropped its use of the confederate flag as a school symbol. In 2007, the school announced it would abandon the rebels as a school nickname, which was also the school mascot, that rebel soldier, and in 2009, the mascot was changed to the red storm. Then in 2016, the mascot was again changed to trailblazers, which it is currently. In 2013, there was a petition to change the name of the college when it was moving from a 2-year college to a 4-year university. The name was not changed. The vote to keep the name passed unanimously. In defense of the decision, the board chairman stated that none of the board members were “aware of any racial discrimination in our past.” This claim was met with incredulity by the president of the NAACP of Salt Lake City, Jeanetta Williams. She said, “That is totally ridiculous. Have they not seen all the blackface, the mock slave auction that continued through the 1980s?” Well the answer to her question is no. They don’t want to see those things. Even though these events are recorded in the yearbooks and even though if one were to dig just below the surface, one would find evidence of racial discrimination.
When I was going to graduate school in the mid-90s, I had Dixie College on my resume, and I’m sure you can imagine some of the questions I was asked about a school named Dixie in Utah when I was living in the South. The term “Dixie” generally refers to southern confederate states, and it appears that initially St. George was nicknamed Dixie because of its warm climate an early cotton-growing enterprises. With all that’s happening across the United States as we attempt to grapple with our dark history of slavery and continued racial discrimination, the conversation has risen again around the name “Dixie University” in Southern Utah and has again created a petition to change the name. However, the conversations around this, which can be pretty divisive and pretty defensive, tend to focus more on the value of historical figures, despite their racial beliefs and practices, and less about the continuation of systemic racism that persists in our country and even in our state.
I was talking with a friend of mine as I’ve been working on this podcast episode. It’s a little bit daunting to put out a podcast that goes public and to say that your grandfathers were racist, so I was talking with this friend about that and just kind of struggling with saying this knowing I have lots of cousins, I have aunts and uncles still living. I don’t know that they listen to my podcast, but they might take issue with me saying this. Some of them might also still have some racial beliefs. I was reminded of a “Between the Scenes” clip by Trevor Noah by this friend of mine. Now Trevor Noah is host of The Daily Show. He took over when John Stewart retired, and he is a black… actually he’s a mixed-race man from South Africa who has come to the United States. In January 2020, this clip was put out. Now Trevor in this clip was asked by an audience member this question: if there was one aspect of South African culture that you could transplant to America, what would it be? His answer was that it would be the general ease of talking about race and our racial past. He went on to say South Africa and America have very similar racial histories in that there were many things that were done to people of color that were extremely heinous. He said because of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that exists in South Africa, we were forced to talk about it and we just talk about it. It’s painful, but we talk about it. He said whereas in America, I find that there is a lot of tension in and around the topic, it helps to have conversations about these things because it then helps us understand how we got to where we got to. If we can’t have these conversations, then we have to operate in a blind space where we can’t see the big picture and what is connected to what.
Trevor goes on to say talking about this doesn’t fix it, and that it’s also not about assigning blame. It’s addressing what happened and what needs to be fixed and how this problem got there in the first place. I don’t think we do this very well as a country. It’s been sad for me through many times throughout my life to recognize that the ideals that America stands for, freedom, equality, all these things stated in our constitution or in the Bill of Rights, these things that are talked about have actually never truly been practiced, not if you were a colored person, not if you were a woman, not if you were non-normative sexually, also not if you were just a poor white person. These ideals that America and its symbols stand for, I believe are worth defending and are worth fighting for. However, often we fought for these ideals in other countries and we’ve neglected fighting for these things in our very own backyards.
I also talk with clients when I look at what’s going on now, I think oh wow, this is also the process of therapy. How do we acknowledge how and what impacted us without making it only about blame? I often tell clients you can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge, and I don’t think that’s true just for people who come to therapy. That is true about cities and countries and religions and other systems and institutions. Change is not an easy process. It is typically messy, longer than anticipated, and it requires tenacity and perseverance. It also requires us getting comfortable being uncomfortable. This need for change has made its way to the surface again, and I believe it’s a lifelong project we get to participate in, one that will be beautiful at times and one that will make us very uncomfortable at other times. The conversations that are needed will be both emotional and exhausting.
I think it’s also going to require listening, real listening, active listening. We can’t listen with the feel of a debt collection notice. Debt collectors don’t want to know why you haven’t paid your bills. They just want you to pay so things can proceed as usual. Really listening to people with pain is hard. Not having answer or response or counterpoint is also hard. It’s hard for us to listen and not respond. It’s going to require a paradigm shift. Listening doesn’t work if you aren’t willing to suspend your reactions and your comfortable denials. Real listening doesn’t mean we jump in and minimize people’s pain just because we found an answer that makes us comfortable. Real listening isn’t about providing a solution as much as it is about honoring the person’s feelings and their struggles. Listening is about hearing how my ancestors and my people made things harder for them, that what was normal for my ancestors can’t be normal any longer. Real listening should also lead to innovation. If we want to unite our country and work through the pains and shames of our past, we can’t simply dismiss the feelings and experiences of those who are struggling. We can’t sweep difficult truths under the rug or offer meaningless platitudes. Innovation means being open to not returning to business as usual. For too long we have viewed those at the top from an unrealistic vantage point. We see things as they wanted us to see them. We believe history as they wanted that history written and remembered. We allowed them to have power over and haven’t required power with or power to or power from.
In June 2020, a story broke about 22-year-old Kennedy Mitchum, a recent graduate from Drake University, and Merriam Webster dictionary about the definition of racism published in the dictionary. Merriam Webster’s first definition of racism is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Mitchum said many people she’s talked to used this definition to dismiss her concerns about racism and overlook broader issues of racial inequality because they don’t personally feel that way about people of color. She was arguing that this definition of racism fails to address systemic racism that is inherent in our country and thereby inherent in all of us living in this country. On this particular incident, Mitchum said she sent her email on a Thursday night and she got a reply from editor Alex Chambers the next morning. Now she sent multiple emails, but this was the time she got a response. After a few emails, Chambers agreed that the entry should be updated and said a new definition is being drafted. Chambers said in an email to Mitchum, “This revision would not have been made without your persistence in contacting us about this problem. We sincerely thank you for repeatedly writing in and apologize for the harm and offense we have caused in failing to address this issue sooner.”
Peter Sokolowski, who is an editor at large at Merriam-Webster said, “I think we can express this more clearly to bring the idea of an asymmetrical power structure into the language of this definition.” He said that dictionary definitions have traditionally been short because they had to fit so many words into their print editions. However, that’s no longer the case since so many people use the dictionary online. Sokolowski said they update the dictionary 2 or 3 times a year to keep it as up-to-date as possible. He said the new language will probably be ready for the next update. He went on to say, “The mission for Noah Webster himself, you know, back in his first dictionary in 1806, was to essentially present the current active vocabulary of American English, and that’s still our mission today.” Mitchum said she hopes the vocabulary change helps people have more productive conversations about race. She said she appreciated them taking her concern seriously and talking through the issue. She said, “I was super happy because I really felt like that was a step in a good direction for a lot of positive change for a lot of different positive conversations that can really help change the world and helps change how people view things.”
So this isn’t just about individual racism. We also have to look at this is about systemic racism. What innovation can happen if we listen and if we hear and if we understand? What is the point of history and tradition if we don’t learn from it and find ways to improve what was given to us? I could have watched history play out from a distance here in Utah, where like I said, the black population is between 1% to 2% of our state’s population. I could have joined the throngs of those voices saying, “It wasn’t me. I’m not racist.” However, when racism came in the words and sayings of the people I loved and the men who I saw as good, I feel a responsibility to do something with what they left me. My grandfathers, like Atticus Finch, also had to be taken down from their pedestal and seen as imperfect people who I loved and who loved me. They aren’t a hero and they aren’t a villain. They’re both. When I can see this in them, I can also see it in myself, and when I can see and acknowledge what is, then I can do better.
So this month is July. Many of you if you live outside of the state of Utah, you probably don’t know that July 24th is also a state holiday here in Utah. It’s celebrated as the day that the pioneers first entered the Salt Lake Valley and thereby kind of the beginning of our state. It was several years more until we actually became a state, but this was kind of the beginning of our statehood. I was raised in the Mormon culture. I know Mormon theology, and I’m a descendant of Mormon pioneers, some of the first to enter the Salt Lake Valley. I grew up hearing the stories of the pioneers, being inspired by what they accomplished and the feats that they experienced. I was also really glad I wasn’t one of those pioneers. So on July 24th, we celebrate Pioneer Day. Today it will be much different because there’s not parades, etc. like there wasn’t on the 4th of July. And for those people living in the state who don’t consider themselves members of the LDS church, they lovingly refer to this state holiday as “Pie and Beer Day” instead of Pioneer Day.
Now I also know that the history of Mormons has been whitewashed. It has been shined up, and it’s been told in a way that doesn’t reflect real history. I don’t know how many people living here in Utah who are active in the LDS faith realize that some of those early Mormon pioneers also brought slaves with them, and they also then enslaved Native Americans once they got here. I struggle, and I did struggle from the time that I was young with the practice of polygamy that my ancestors believed in and fought for. In many ways I see this as another form of slavery. I don’t want to diminish what black African Americans went through or other colored people who were enslaved, but in many ways I see that as kind of that practice as a slavery of women. My Mormon ancestors are a part of me, and they’re a part of my story, even if I didn’t want them to be. However, I have felt the need before and I feel it again now. This story of polygamy that is interwoven into my family’s story on my mom’s side is something that is also a part of me, whether I want it to be or not. This is something that the women and the men in my ancestry believed in and practiced. However, I have felt the need before and I feel it again now to pick up their handcart in the dirt where they left it and do with it what I need to do, to go in the direction that is best for me. I can have admiration and inspiration for who they were and what they experienced, and I can also say “not for me.” I can’t continue on the path you forged, but I will take up what you laid down and I will walk in the direction that is true for me.
Change is messy, and it’s not a linear process. It requires balancing empathy and responsibility. When we know better, we do better, but if we can’t hold ourselves accountable and take responsibility for what is done and what our ancestors did, we are not going to be able to do better. Having discussions and knowing this is an important step that requires us to sit with discomfort and to tolerate the emotions that come. My advice would be to take care of yourself during this process because it’s heavy and it’s hard, and we don’t want to get burned out. We need to have the strength to stay firm in making changes that are long overdue.