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The Challenge of Engagement

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Okay, so we’re three posts into this blog and we have evoked some racial tension. Actually, it’s a fairly common situation and was inevitable: quite a few white folks have been upset by strong replies coming from a Black man (some other time, I’ll address the varied use of capitalization). What to do about that?

This illustrates one of the reasons the racial divide is so intractable. The basic dynamic is reactivity vs. response. Here is how this often will play out in a group setting:

  • A white person says something that a Black person perceives as offensive, racist.
  • Howard Eagle, or any other Black person, puts out a reaction to what was said because that doesn’t square with his/her reality or experience or knowledge. That message is put out in direct, strong language.
  • The white person, experiencing an initial emotional tweak, may become argumentative, or defensive, or “hurt”, sometimes followed by tears.
  • The white folks in the room, empathizing with the hurt that comes from being “called out”, will rush to the protection of the one who is hurt.
  • An argument ensues that focuses on whether what was said by the Black person was fair or hurtful, whether it was said in a respectful or blaming way, whether the white person intended what they said “that way”.
  • In the meantime, the initial white person’s comment and its possible racial origins get lost in the focus on the white person’s “hurt”.
  • We white folks shut him/her off, and retreat to heal our wounds.
  • The potential for learning passes. And the racial chasm in the group not only persists, but is widened, because racial stereotypes have been reinforced – the “Angry Black person”, the “Defensive, overly-sensitive white person”, etc.

The white participation in this dynamic I’m describing has been given a name: White fragility, coined by author Robin DiAngelo. A brief definition: “The knee-jerk reaction Whites get in momentary racially stressful situations.” In terms that synch with the systems theory I’ve learned and taught, this has to do with my emotional reactivity when confronted with disagreement or accusation. The temptation is fight or flight; coupled with blaming the one who I perceive as the cause of my emotional angst.

To be clear: This is not to say that every Black person who claims offense and calls out the speaker is innocent or even accurate. But this blog is primarily to help us white folks embrace responsibility for our own side and keep the focus there. This is an invitation to recognize and set aside our super-sensitive racial egos (fragility) and to digest the fundamental experience of people who carry histories and current challenges I personally would never tolerate without STRIDENT protest, hurt feelings be damned.

I can’t make Howard Eagle change. He is who he is, and he is a very intelligent, knowledgeable teacher, and dedicated champion of a crucial cause. He’s been accused by many, including me, of ranting. He’s been told by me and others that his style gets in the way of dialogue, that it shuts people off, that it’s disrespectful and – the ultimate accusation in our culture – that it’s hurtful. And he is also seemingly determined to maintain his style, despite frequent evidence that it interferes with conveying his salient messages.

I also can’t change my white sisters and brothers. I can, however, change me. And I can influence others through what I’m learning.

What if ALL of us were to assume responsibility for our own emotional reactivity? Clearly, we’d like the Black person to do that! Why not apply the same principle to ourselves: to check the initial stirrings, listen to what is being said, put aside the manner of delivery, and learn? Can we check our impulse to discard a message just because a critique is written in LARGE, BOLD CAPS with lots of emphasis!!!!???? Is that so hurtful that I can’t continue?

There is a parallel here to the contentious relationships between conservatives and liberals: the stereotypes, the judgments, the reactivity, the polarization. This is a societal issue, a relational sickness that surfaces in families, workplaces, neighborhoods and the world.

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Welcome to this blog. Help make this a forum for bridging the chasm and surfacing the actions needed to dismantle a systemic, cultural, and spiritual divide that robs all of us. I encourage everyone to engage, to notice and manage your own reactions, be honest, clear, concise, to the point, keep it readable. And stay connected. Beyond that, find your action steps. This must be about more than talk.

25 thoughts on “The Challenge of Engagement”

  1. Howard Eagle repeatedly makes a certain response which is in direction contradiction to the laws of science. When considering the behavior of a teacher (in this case, Howard) and a learner, science has proven that any approximation of the target behavior should be rewarded (reinforced) by the teacher. For instance, if our target goal is to train a dog to place all four paws onto a mat, we acknowledge (‘mark’) and reward the placement of just one paw onto the mat, and then gradually and thoughtfully, ‘raise the criteria’, from that point. In fact, if a certain dog is reluctant to place even one paw on it, we mark and reinforce for any interaction with the mat at all–a sniff, or even a glance at it. We start where the learner is, and move forward from there. Were we to refuse to mark and give positive reinforcement for those tiny steps towards the target behavior, we would probably never see the target behavior, unless by accident. Speaking of that, ‘by accident’, a quick teacher can seize the accidental appearance of the target behavior and reinforce it strongly, thereby increasing the possibility of its being repeated. Howard does neither of these things, and in fact does something truly egregious: when a learner takes a step in the direction of the target behavior, Howard punishes that by completely devaluing it because it was not the complete target behavior. The result is what one would expect: if no positive reinforcement is forthcoming, there is no advantage to the learner in continuing to offer behaviors, so even approximations of the target behavior will decrease and eventually cease. I know, because I’ve learned from him, that in other areas, Howard respects proven science and is willing to operate by its laws. Because he has a wealth of information and experience to offer, I will continue to hope that he corrects this error in his teaching technique. If his true goal is to teach us, he will. If his actual goal is to provide himself with opportunities to tell others that they’re doing it wrong, or aren’t doing enough, then one can see how his refusal to acknowledge and reinforce our steps in the right direction might not be a mistake.

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  2. Thinking about the dialogue between Howard and Frank, I am reminded of Maslow s Hierarchy of Needs. He was a 20th century psychologist who conceived of a pyramid with the most basic human needs (food, shelter, etc. at the bottom of the pyramid and what he called “peak experiences” (an emotional and intellectual transcendence) at the top. How luxurious and squishy concepts like “connectedness” and “empathy” must seem to Howard who fights for just a foothold on that pyramid. Institutional racism has prevented so many people of color from climbing up that pyramid distracted as they are by inadequate housing, food insecurity, lack of basic health care. Not to mention something like equal education which has been Howard’s longtime struggle, and is up the pyramid a bit.
    On the other hand, well-intentioned whites (myself among them) insulated as we are from the daily grind and stress of scrapping to meet those basic needs, speak in the therapeutic and “peakish” language of connection and empathy; concepts which from our privilege, seem foundational. I don’t wonder why this incites anger in activists like Howard.
    Is it possible that empathy can arise out of awareness and be used not as a sort of olive branch to improve relationships, but as a spur to action. Action aimed to eradicate racism and actually improve conditions on the ground? THEN, from that point, loving, empathic human-relatedness might follow.

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      1. Frank,

        In my humble, but unequivocally-staunch, and informed view — not only should you “thank Jane for [her] thoughtful comments,” but you should STUDY THEM (WITH A CRITICAL EYE AND MIND), i.e., as in THINK DEEPLY AND CRITICALLY about what she wrote — really, really try to process it thoroughly and fully — beyond the basic, cerebral level. I can tell that the latter is occurring (by your nice, but clearly hegemonic, paternalistic, dismissive tone). Don’t REACT — THINK!!!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Jane,

      Very, very well said, especially the last paragraph. I don’t think I could have said it better myself — in fact, I’m not sure that anyone could have said it better. Your words are so profound — that you ought to say it again. NO, LET ME SAY IT FOR YOU: “It IS possible [and for MANY OF US, DESIRABLE] that empathy can arise out of [KNOWLEDGE AND] awareness and be used not as a sort of olive branch to improve relationships, but as a spur to [SIGNIFICANT, CONCRETE, MEASURABLE] action” (in our lifetimes — as opposed to the distant bye-and-bye). Action aimed to eradicate racism and actually improve conditions on the ground. THEN, from that point, loving, empathic human-relatedness might follow.” YES!!! YES!

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Frank.

      Again, I appreciate your efforts to contribute to anti-racist dialogue. I hope you don’t think or believe that my critiques of your articles are meant for destructive purposes. On the contrary, they absolutely are not. Instead, it is my intent to provide stimulation and encouragement relative to deeper thought and additional clarity.

      I don’t believe it is accurate to say that you “have evoked some racial tension.” So-called racial tension is fundamentally a binary concept, but the “situation,” which you described as “inevitable,” is obviously unitary in nature, i.e.,”quite a few white folks have been upset…” Thus, the “situation” is the result of a single race unilaterally displaying, deep cognitive dissonance and fragility-based, hegemonic, reactionary impulses — period.

      Before you attempt to “address [my] varied use of capitalization” — it’s important for you to clearly and fully understand the nature of that which you plan to attempt to “address,” which you cannot possibly do — without consulting with me. What in the heck do you mean by: “What to do about that?” Since it probably would have never occurred to you to ask me about my “varied use of capitalization” (had I not EMPHASIZED the need and necessity of doing so) — as opposed to just assuming (wrongly) that it’s about so-called “SCREAMING,” or “YELLING” or some other such EUROCENTRIC FOOLISHNESS — let me see if I can spare you the trouble of being publicly-corrected later. My “varied use of capitalization” HAS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH SO-CALLED “SCREAMING” or “YELLING,” and please don’t talk to me about so called “proper” email and/or social-media etiquette or protocol — because my question would be — “proper” (according to who)??? You see Frank — one of the oppressors’ pillars relative to ability to effectively perpetuate and maintain the racist status-quo is his/her ability/power to DEFINE EVERYTHING (WITHOUT EVEN CHECKING WITH OTHER RACIAL/CULTURAL GROUPS). Related to this reality is the fact that many whites believe that just because a bunch hegemonic, white “scholars” declare that something is true — automatically makes it gospel. A classic example of this is embodied within the fact that someone gave me an article just yesterday (in attempt to prove that utilization of ALL-CAPS is improper). The article declared that “there’s one convention that is incontestable: Typing in all caps is internet code for shouting, and it is rude.” REALLY??? Well, I just contested it — period. The article in question was written by Alice Robb, and referenced the following ‘experts’ : Ben Zimmer, Dave Decot, Professor Paul Luna, John Mcwhorter, Philippa Schuyler, Robert Moses, Robert Caro, Matthew J.X. Malady, and Pieter Hintjens — all of whom of course are white with the exception of one black man, and a mixed-race woman. I’m fairly certain that the latter two were just thrown in for good measure. That is, when white ‘scholars’ attempt to prove points or issues that they know are potentially, racially-controversial — they frequently turn to the widely used tactic of finding a person of color or two who agrees with them — so that supposedly their arguments become insulated as non-racist and therefore so-called “incontestable” — right. This phenomenon reminds me of the following comedy routine: https://www.facebook.com/urbanintellectuals/videos/10153421488399366/UzpfSTY1Mzg5MDcxNToxMDE2MDQyOTU0MjY2NTcxNg/

      Frank, do you know who Dr. Maulana Karenga is? Have you ever heard of Kujichagulia ( http://endarkenment.com/kwanzaa/nguzosaba/kujichagulia.htm ). YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND THAT MANY OF US RESERVE THE RIGHT TO SPEAK AND TO DEFINE FOR OURSELVES — AS OPPOSED TO JUST AUTOMATICALLY ACCEPTING OUR OPPRESSORS’ DEFINITIONS OF EVERYTHING. Thus, in this particular case — the thoroughly Eurocentric idea, or notion that proper email/social media etiquette requires us NEVER to use ALL-CAPS, and if we do — it automatically means that we are “SCREAMING” or “SHOUTING” — is nothing more or less than hegemonic, Eurocentric nonsense. MY USE OF ALL-CAPS HAS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH SO-CALLED “SCREAMING.” Instead it is utilized SOLELY, EXCLUSIVELY, ONLY AS A MEANS OF HIGHLIGHTING AND EMPHASIZING CERTAIN VITALLY IMPORTANT IDEAS, INFORMATION AND/OR REALITIES — PERIOD (NOTHING ELSE TO IT).

      I must point out that your latest treatise is filled with abstract, and in some cases nonsensical notions and contradictions. For example, in one paragraph, you declared that the purpose of your “blog is primarily to help [you] white folks embrace responsibility for [your] own side [what ever that means] and keep the focus there.” You issued “an invitation to [white folks to] recognize and set aside [your] super-sensitive racial egos (fragility) [WRONG — FRAGILITY IS ABOUT MORE THAN SO-CALLED “RACIAL EGOS”] and to digest the fundamental experience of people who carry histories and current challenges.” WHAT??? “…digest the fundamental experience of people who carry histories and current challenges.” WHAT??? ALL PEOPLE “carry histories and current challenges.” So, what are you talking about??? What is your point???

      You also attempted to discuss what you referred to as “one of the reasons the [so-called] racial divide is so intractable.” However, what you obviously do NOT realize is that the concept of a so-called “racial divide” is (in and of itself) a fundamentally flawed, and potentially racist idea. It is very, very important to question abstract concepts such as a so-called “racial divide.” Those who have an interest in continued white-supremacist-oppression and domination are often very crafty with language, and will frequently use it to avoid clarity surrounding societal issues and concerns. For example, the concept of so-called “racial divide” ultimately carries with it the inherent idea that we are all equally responsible for addressing it, which of course is true. However, what is not true is that we’re all equally responsible for creating, perpetuating and maintaining it (for centuries).

      You’re darned right — you “can’t make Howard Eagle change.” I’m glad that you’re smart and wise enough to know better than to try.

      Indeed I’ve “been accused by many, including [you], of [so-called] ranting,” which is nearly impossible to take seriously, especially in light of the type of gibberish contained at the following link: http://wxxinews.org/post/connections-debby-irving-author-waking-white .

      Yes, I’ve been “told by [you] and others that [my] style gets in the way of dialogue, that it shuts people off, [whatever that means] that it’s disrespectful and – the ultimate accusation in [your] culture – that it’s hurtful,” BUT HAVE YOU THOUGHT ABOUT THE QUESTION OF WHETHER OR NOT YOUR “STYLE GETS IN THE WAY OF DIALOGUE, THAT IT SHUTS PEOPLE OFF [whatever that means], THAT IT’S DISRESPECTFUL??? My questions are completely rhetorical. I already KNOW that you have NOT. You don’t have to — that’s the way hegemonic, white supremacy works, i.e., ideas and concepts such as “getting in the way, shutting people off, disrespectfulness”, etc… are to be seen ONLY through the oppressors’ eyes, and people of color are to constantly adjust to your deep-seated, hegemonic, cognitive-dissonance-based FRAGILITY — NOT THIS GUY — NEVER!!! So, I am NOT the only one who is “seemingly determined to maintain [my] style, despite frequent evidence that it interferes with conveying salient messages” — AM I???

      You claim that you “can influence others through what [you’re] learning,” but to what extent and degree??? I see NO SIGNIFICANT, CONCRETE, MEASURABLE EVIDENCE — NONE — NOT ONE IOTA.

      Indeed “this must be about more than talk.” SOME OF US ARE WALKING-THE-TALK. MOST OF YOU ARE NOT — PERIOD.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Howard, I appreciate your encouragement to continue. And I’ve never assumed that your commentary is meant to be destructive.
        The “varied use of capitalization” referred to my use of Black and white, not your use of caps.
        I get that your caps and punctuation are meant as emphasis. Doesn’t irritate me. It had irritated others, and I had written to say to them “Get over it” and get to the messages.
        My characterization of “rant” comes more from the fact that you tend to be IMHO verbose and repetitive.
        As for your other comments, I’m absorbing and sorting. Trust that, please.
        Now, we’ve taken this to the point where my blog stats tell me that no one else is listening in any longer. So onward. The next post is due 6/12.

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  3. I could never express my thoughts as well as Bill did (above) but you, and Howard, challenge us all, Frank, to be better than we are today. I personally may not, yet, have made any huge “action steps” but I can honestly say I am not the same person I was two years ago before coming to an awareness of racism in our society and how that effects each of us….and, what are we doing to change that so that in our lifetime we can begin to see the “shift”.

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    1. Sandra,

      I’m glad that you accept the “challenge.”

      I know this might sound harsh, but to tell you the truth (UNLESS AND UNTIL YOU ARE WORKING CONSTANTLY AND CONSISTENTLY WITH OTHERS IN AN ONGOING PROCESS TO IMPACT THE TRIPARTITE BEAST AND ILLNESS IN SIGNIFICANT, CONCRETE, AND MEASURABLE WAYS — IN OUR LIFETIMES — AS OPPOSED TO THE DISTANT BYE-AND-BYE (where MANY OF US are concerned), it really does not matter that much — whether or not you’re “the same person [you were] two years ago before coming to an awareness of racism in our society and how that effects each of us….” Your “awareness” (in and of itself) changes NOTHING. It’s only a baby-step (an important one) — yet ONLY A BABY STEP NONE THE LESS. Hopefully, you will join us in the struggle to build a deadly-serious, viable MOVEMENT soon. WE CAN USE ALL THE HELP THAT WE CAN GET. The Struggle Continues…

      http://www.blackpast.org/1857-frederick-douglass-if-there-no-struggle-there-no-progress

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Frank, I appreciate your blog and especially your efforts to focus on some of the subtle — and not so subtle — ways that white people often perpetuate racism through behavior that they believe to be helpful. Howard Eagle has given me a great gift through his many challenges of my comments and actions. I have also learned many things from other people of color, and whites, as well. The point is this: if we stop trying to protect our fellow white brothers and sisters from the inevitable confrontations around racism, if we listen, learn, change our behavior, then we might begin to be more authentic allies for racial justice. But I can’t emphasize enough: we first have to listen and stop trying to excuse, explain, defend, protect…. The pain of racism is real, and largely unknown to those of us who are white. Is it too much to ask that we make an effort to stop protecting fragile white egos and instead try to open ourselves to the stories of those who have been silenced? Maybe we, as white people, can then be more genuine allies, rather than fair weather friends.

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    1. Aaron,

      You’re welcome for the “gift.” However, in my humble, but staunch and informed view — it has NOT been nearly “great” enough, especially since, as far as I know — it has NOT helped to inspire you to ACT, at least NOT beyond the baby-step of dialogue.

      It is critically important to understand that if you “stop trying to protect [your] fellow white brothers and sisters from the inevitable confrontations around racism, if [you] listen, learn, [and eve] change [your] behavior (depending on the specifics of what’s changed) —- does NOT NECESSARILY, NOR AUTOMATICALLY mean that you are “authentic allies for racial justice.” The reason why is — because NONE of the things listed above will automatically, nor necessarily (in and of themselves) change policies, practice, procedures, rules, regulations, and laws by which the tripartite beast is SYSTEMATICALLY propped up, reinforced, perpetuated and maintained.

      Again, just because you “make an effort to stop protecting fragile white egos and instead try to open [yourselves] to the stories of those who have been silenced” — does NOT automatically, nor necessarily make you “more genuine allies, rather than fair weather friends.” AUTHENTIC, GENUINE, ANTI-RACIST ALLIES ARE NECESSARILY INVOLVED IN WORKING WITH OTHERS CONSTANTLY AND CONSISTENTLY IN SUPPORTING (BEYOND LIP SERVICE) DEADLY-SERIOUS, CALCULATED, STRATEGIC, ACTIONS THAT ARE AIMED SQUARELY AT IMPACTING THE TRIPARTITE BEAST AND ILLNESS (IN SIGNIFICANT, CONCRETE, MEASURABLE WAYS — IN OUR LIFETIMES — AS OPPOSED TO THE DISTANT BYE-AND-BYE) — VIA CHANGING/MODIFYING AND/OR ELIMINATING POLICIES, PRACTICES, PROCEDURES, RULES, REGULATIONS, AND LAWS — BY WHICH THE TRIPARTITE BEAST AND ILLNESS IS SYSTEMATICALLY PROPPED UP, PERPETUATED, AND MAINTAINED. ALL ELSE IS MERELY SUPER-HYPER, SUPER-LIBERAL, RHETORIC AND NOISE — PERIOD.

      http://minorityreporter.net/the-tripartite-beast-and-illness-of-individual-institutional-and-structural-racism/

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  5. Thank you for sharing your perspective.
    Could you clarify what you meant in this sentence? After the word “digest,” I am a little confused.
    Thanks in advance,
    Erin Egloff

    “This is an invitation to recognize and set aside our super-sensitive racial egos (fragility) and to digest the fundamental experience of people who carry histories and current challenges I personally would never tolerate without STRIDENT protest, hurt feelings be damned.”

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    1. “Digest” may not have been the most descriptive term, Erin. I’m referring to the process of hearing, reading about, learning about events and current situations faced by Black people that are not in our white experience/knowledge. Absorbing/digesting those stories and situations increases empathy and connectedness and, hopefully, action. Make sense?

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      1. Frank,

        IF it’s true that “Absorbing/digesting those stories and situations increases empathy and connectedness” — then how do you explain the widespread. pervasive lack of “ACTION?” As far as many Black folks are concerned — so called “empathy and connectedness” means absolutely NOTHING — if it does not motivate you to ACT COLLECTIVELY (in ways that significantly, concretely, and measurable impacts the tripartite beast and illness — in our lifetimes — as opposed to the distant bye-and-bye).We are NOT striving for “empathy and connectedness” (In and of itself). Instead, the Struggle is about CONCRETE, MEASURABLE CHANGE AND IMPROVEMENT — PERIOD.

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      2. I understand your point, and we’ve been here before. As I see it, people don’t jump to concrete action unless they’ve acquired empathy and connectedness. Well-documented human nature. What good does it do to scream “action” at a person entrenched in racist beliefs?

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  6. Frank …. your blog is tremendously important especially in encouraging a local conversation on race related topics. Furthermore, commenting on Howard’s response to your blog demonstrates a recognition that our inherently white racism and fragility cannot be ignored …. thanks for the courage to do this and thanks to Howard for presenting the opportunity. We must continue our learning about the totality of the black experience and build individual relationships with blacks through active participation. Your blog is part of that learning.

    Bill Wynne

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    1. Bill,

      I agree that Frank’s blog is important for the reasons that you outlined.

      As it relates to you “learning about the totality of the black experience” — that’s probably not possible (just because the history is so vast).

      Yes, “building individual [AND COLLECTIVE] relationships with blacks through [constant, consistent,] active participation” — in the process of supporting (beyond lip service) deadly-serious, calculated, strategic ACTIONS that are aimed squarely at impacting the Tripartite Beast And Illness — in our lifetimes — as opposed to the distant bye-and-bye — via changing and/or eliminating policies, practices procedures, rules, regulations, and laws — by which the Tripartite Beast And Illness is SYSTEMATICALLY propped up, perpetuated and maintained.

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  7. I am wondering why Mr. Eagle is the only person of color allowed in on this blog? Would be helpful to have the perspectives of others as well. Your latest post, Frank, was valuable.

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    1. Ms. Bleeg,

      You didn’t really THINK that I am the only person of color allowed in on this blog” — DID YOU???

      I would just love to see “the perspectives of other [persons of color here] as well,” I would just love to engage them. By all means, please, please encourage your friends and associates “of color” to comment here.

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