Letter From a Tennessee Suburb

Letter From a Tennessee Suburb

I am the prototypical white, privileged, straight male. I was raised in a middle class home, and though my parents were far from wealthy I was sent to college and they paid for all of it. I moved into the professional work force, and eventually earned a master’s degree that was fully funded through grants and contributions from others. I now live in a very nice house in one of the richest counties in the U.S., and earn a nice salary.

I’ve never had to worry about standing out in the crowd, except for when I was a kid with really big, ugly glasses. I can walk down a street without arousing suspicions. I can get pulled over for a traffic violation without the fear of losing my life. People don’t stare at me when I show up in nice stores, high-end events, or sit with my loved ones or friends in restaurants.

I possess, in a nutshell, an automatic “benefit of the doubt.” And with that, as I’ve come to realize more and more, a tremendous responsibility to advocate for those who haven’t been granted such a privileged benefit.

I think that I generally sucked at such advocacy for the first 40 or so years of my life. I was one of those “good people,” as they like to call themselves, who didn’t practice any outright racism or sexism or homophobia, or any other kind of overt, negative behavior toward people who are less privileged. But I didn’t do much to help, either. I didn’t get to know many of them, at work or in the community. I lived in my bubble, focusing on my career and my family, writing articles and pieces of prose that were generally directed at people like myself.

Things began to change for me during the latter part of the previous decade. I started reading books by people with a larger world view; especially, proponents of Eastern thought. I went to work for a company, T-Mobile, that employs thousands of people of color and gender diversity, and built strong relationships with them that continue to flourish. As time has passed, I’ve come to see my T-Mobile colleagues as part of my family. And I see up close, in ways I didn’t bother to do when I was a younger man, how much they suffer at the overt actions or subtle indifference of white, privileged, straight men and women.

I know people whose loved ones cannot get back into our country, even though they’ve lived here for years. I know people who’ve lost loved ones to violence. I know people who have experienced awful discrimination because of their gender identity or lifestyle. I know people who live in Puerto Rico or have family there, where a humanitarian crisis is emerging.

I don’t just read about them anymore; I know them, and I have relationships with them. And that makes all the difference, because once I moved into that realm it became impossible not to care.

In my opinion, the truly “good people” are those who pro-actively advocate for an inclusive America, one where as many people as possible are invited to participate in the numerous particulars of our cherished quality of life: Residency. Citizenship. Safety. Housing. Employment with fair, pragmatic wages. Health care. Mental health. Voting access. Opportunity unhindered by disabilities. Education. Gender equality. LGBTQ rights. Marriage equality. Reproductive rights. And so forth.

Political party or religious identification matter little to nothing to me at this point. The question for me is, “Are you helping to include or exclude?” And if you don’t care about people being excluded, you need to; because one day, it might be you on the outside looking in.

So what is to be done, fellow privileged white folks?

I’ve spent some time studying the writing and speeches of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King spoke of a future, “beloved community.” According to The King Center, “‘The Beloved Community’ was first coined in the early days of the 20th Century by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. However, it was King, also a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who popularized the term and invested it with a deeper meaning which has captured the imagination of people of goodwill all over the world.”

King viewed three “triple evils,” identified as poverty, racism, and militarism, as forming a vicious, interrelated cycle that hinders beloved community from coming to fruition. (I’m fairly certain we have generous amounts of all three evils alive and well in our nation.) As his general framework for gradually defeating these evils, King offered six fundamental principles:

1. Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.
2. Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding.
3. Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people.
4. Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform.
5. Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.
6. Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.

But taking things closer to the ground, these six principles also inform six steps for peaceful social change:

1. Information Gathering
2. Education
3. Personal Commitment
4. Discussion/Negotiation
5. Direct Action
6. Reconciliation

These steps are powerful and simple in focus, although implementing them in full requires lifelong practice and a willingness to become comfortable with discomfort.

For example, a quick dive into King’s first step (information gathering) reveals things we can do to make a difference. According to King, “To understand and articulate an issue, problem or injustice facing a person, community, or institution you must do research. You must investigate and gather all vital information from all sides of the argument or issue so as to increase your understanding of the problem. You must become an expert on your opponent’s position.”

Let’s chunk this down and be honest about how such “information gathering” is not happening in our current political and cultural American landscape:

  •  “You must do research.” Sadly, much of what we tend to believe regarding political and social issues comes from social media, infotainment “journalism,” and the often sloppy opinions of our peers and family. How many of us truly take the time for independent research?
  • “You must investigate and gather vital information from all sides of the argument.” It’s much easier to “major” in your existing opinion; and, in fact, there’s lots of money to be made in doing so, and it takes less effort and energy to maintain familiar perspectives.
  • “You must become an expert on your opponent’s position.” Raise your hand if you can truly rattle off five or six actual policy proposals that were set forth by either President Trump or Secretary Clinton during the 2016 election. Can you speak to the essence and details of the Republican or Democratic platforms, or those of the Libertarian or Green Parties? Can you speak with any understanding to the unique problems minorities face regarding prison sentences, court fines, routine traffic stops, and easy access to the polls?

I’m striving to integrate these six steps into my daily thinking and acting. I can only imagine how our country could be transformed in sustainable ways, if a critical mass of privileged individuals such as myself also embraced them with a vengeance, and spent less and less time justifying their own lives while so many other people are suffering.

I learned in graduate school that the Greeks have two different words to describe “time.” One is “chronos,” which simply refers to chronological time. The other, however, is “kairos,” with a meaning emphasizing the importance of a particular season or era of history.

We are living, I believe, in a crucial “kairos” moment. And the things we say or don’t say, and the things we do or don’t do, will matter for a very, very long time.