gaining understanding

January 18, 2011

community work

Windmill perception made an interesting statement in her blog, “I look across at others, not down”. That one statement sent my head spinning in a thousand different directions. There are so many ways that statement can be interpreted in so many contexts.

What I enjoyed so much was that windmill perception, Trudy, is an African American woman. I rejoiced that she has the confidence to make that statement. Not too many Indigenous women I know (or Indigenous men for that matter) would have the confidence to make a statement that implied equality at any level. Such is the depth of their oppression.

I am not saying that Trudy does not experience racism or oppression. Reading her blog I understand that she receives bucket-loads of it. I just really admired the psychology behind the statement. I think I took the statement out of the context in which Trudy meant it, and for that I must apologise, but I loved how it made me think and reflect. Trudy explained what the statement meant for her…

“Many people assume if you dislike something that you “hate” the person who does it. Not true. Many people dislike things I do but still love ME. That is what I truly meant about looking “across” not down on others. We all have little quirks that someone loves or doesn’t love as much but who we are in essence is unchanging.”

Last semester at uni, we studied white power and privilege. We had to complete a  questionnaire titled “Because of my race or color…” (adapted from McIntosh) . In our class, the fair-skinned people scored the highest indicating a high level of privilege and power, a young Muslim woman wearing hijab scored the lowest. For the most part, people in the dominant culture do not have to worry or think about many of the items in the questionnaire.

I replied to Trudy…

“I battle on a daily basis with humility. Not because I think I am better in any way than anyone else, but because it is a reality check that I must do to ensure that I am treating others with respect and dignity and allowing their voice to be heard. Most days I think I have to ‘look up at others’ to truly appreciate their strengths and not let my education (and thus judgements) get in the way.

I work in the community. I once had a discussion with my husband that I hated the word “empower” that community workers use when describing their work. My primary objection was that “power’ is the root word and that has so many connotations, power is so easily abused. He is a mental health nurse, and he suggested that a better word might be “enable”. I thought it was a lovely insight.”

I recently had a conversation with someone that disturbed me deeply. A fair-skinned woman I know had been overseas with her family for 10 days. She was waxing lyrical how wonderful the country was, and how she would like to live there (the ‘grass is greener’ scenario). It went like this:

me: A friend of mine grew up in that country. She has told me that she won’t go back to live there due to the racial tension. She has dark skin.

woman: I didn’t see any racial tension. There aren’t any problems between races there now, that must have been a long time ago. Police are more visible there than they are here.

me: That was her experience. Her family still lives there, and she has been back to visit.

woman: That wasn’t my experience. 

What disturbed me is that someone’s lived experience is so easily dismissed. This not a phenomena exclusive to race, but any experience of disadvantage. We can’t know what people experience, the how and the why, until we engage with them in an open way.

We can’t always walk in other people’s shoes, but we can enquire about how the shoes fit. Is the path smooth or is it strewn with obstacles? It’s one way of gaining understanding and hopefully moving forward together.

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About hakea

groupworker, parent educator, therapist, mother of three boys.

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6 Comments on “gaining understanding”

  1. Trudy Says:

    Thanks for the mention in the post. Good post.

    I am very bothered by the traveler that you mention. It reminds me of a photographer I know that tries to browbeat me about the fact that Great Britain no longer has racism and only America does. He genuinely believes this in his heart, that is why it is not even a debatable topic for him. I tried to explain to him as a White male, he might have to consider that his experience with racism differs from people of colour that live there. I hear very different stories from people about racism depending on their experience and location.

    If people who have privilege deny the experiences of those who do not, it is a form of prejudice. Also, another thing. A vacationer or traveler will never have the experience in a country that someone who is born and raised there or at least lived there for years will. These two factors should be obvious to anyone, but apparently they are not.

    People have to try to make the effort to understand other people. It’s that simple. This is not complicated to think about or try–it’s just a matter of who is willing to or not.


    • hakea Says:

      Thank you Trudy for visiting and for your comment.

      As Dr William DeJean says, people of the dominant culture can pass. He gives the example; if he (being a white male) walks in late to a lecture with a cup of coffee in his hand then everyone says “that’s just William”. If a dark-skinned person walks into a lecture with a cup of coffee in his hand, people say “that’s what those people do, they don’t have any respect”.

      Years ago, I worked with Cambodian refugee children. One little boy was ever so slightly darker than the other children. He came from a remote part of Cambodia, where the people had darker skin. The other boys called him “black face”. Maybe we are conditioned to look for differences rather than similarities? Maybe it goes way back to when humans hunted and gathered, and needed to be on alert for threats to their existence? Primal fear?

      As I tell the kids at the school I work in, we are all different but we all have one thing in common – feelings. If we seek to get along with others we have the opportunity to learn from each other.


  2. kloppenmum Says:

    So much of prejudice is in our initial wiring: until we get rid of common parenting practises that disassociate babies and small children from their emotions, sadly I don’t think education programmes can have the affect they need to. So few of the under nurtured even give a damn…especially if society is telling them they are successful because they have X amount of dollars and only mix with those in the same situation.


    • hakea Says:

      I always work with hope in my heart. It’s not a hope that I impose on others, it’s a hope that others will find their own truth which will lead them to a more productive or harmonious life whatever that means for them. So many children’s potential is limited by their family and community’s circumstances.

      I have seen the Second Step programme make a real difference in school, especially with the children up to Year 4. The students really enjoyed tuning into their own feelings and learning about how to respond to others. The teachers and myself were amazed at the children’s progress. It is however a year long programme and requires commitment from the teacher to complete.

      The most important role for the teacher however is to provide emotional safety. I have observed that many teachers are behaviourist and they admonish students for making statements that the teachers don’t want to hear, or for not giving the prescribed answer. When teachers do that the students close down, stop participating.

      As I taught Second Step in school last year, I was able to provide that emotional safety for the students. If a kid said something outrageous, I responded “that’s one way of looking at it” and usually his peers took up the argument. The Year 5/6 class was an interesting challenge. It was the first time someone had challenged their homophobic and racist views, and it made for interesting discussion. I don’t think it changed their views but at least they were challenged.

      I agree, that it is a parent’s job to teach children social and emotional skills, but for lots of reasons some parents don’t have the capacity. Many parents and children are in survival mode. Having seen the benefit of teaching these skills in the classroom, I will definitely be teaching Second Step when I become a teacher.


  3. kloppenmum Says:

    I’m not familiar with Second Step, but Roots of Empathy is another in-school programme which might be similar. I think you’re right: begin with the children and live in hope…I’m just unsure how to raise consciousness in adults. Is it possible? Should we even try – or allow others to move at their own pace?


    • hakea Says:

      I wrote about Second Step here

      Adults? With prejudice I’m not so sure, it’s not my area of expertise. Last semester we had to do a cultural plunge. Students were asked to immerse themselves in a culture which they had some prejudice about. So, for example, if someone held some opposition to Muslim culture they were encouraged to go to a prayer session at a Mosque. It was a potent exercise. I chose to go to a local church which I have had some issues with in the past (tithing, openly criticising other religions like Buddhism and Islam, locking adolescents in the hall after a youth disco so the pastor could preach to them, just a few items in a long list).

      People get more stubborn when their views are challenged in a confronting or aggressive way. I try to quietly go about dispelling the myths and stereotypes. The community I work in is unique, like all communities. They dislike all strangers, it doesn’t matter what their colour, faith, or ability. So at least they don’t discriminate in the conventional ways! One really has to work hard (in a quiet and persistent way) to win their trust.


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