I just returned home from playing 18 holes of mini-golf with my wife and three other very special people (as pictured): my two sons and my 10 year-old mentee. Given the recent increase in very emotionally-charged conversations about race and the situation of black males in particular, I’ve thought a lot about these boys I love so much and what the future holds for them and others like them. Discrimination is obviously present in many forms and on all sides. White privilege is very real and unjust, yet most who benefit can seldom know exactly how and don’t purposely perpetuate it. Movements with excellent intentions like Black Lives Matter are beleaguered by controversial verbage and contradicting representation. And then people on “opposing sides” start getting injured and killed, and it all just gets worse.
As I lament these tragedies and fear for my own loved ones, I’ve become more intent on discovering how everyday people like you and me could respond to effect true progress. Of course I neither have all the answers nor all the knowledge I would need to be sure of them, but after much observation and thought, I do think some easily implemented ideas could take us a long way forward. When I have seen black (or insert any race) lives matter most to people, it is because they…
1. Focus on the inequality, not the ethnicity
It has never been a problem that white people are white or that black people are black. The problems are the unequal pay, unequal opportunity, and unequal treatment by various entities that has arisen among these two and other ethnic groups. Therefore, the solution will never be found in focusing on what color people are, but rather on achieving equality for those subject to inequality. I somewhat understand the focus on color because most of the time, certain colors experience more inequality. But the correlation is far from perfect, and sometimes those colors experience some form of privilege while those of a typically privileged color experience the inequality. I went to medical school in Ann Arbor, which prides itself on diversity of color. Truly, the variety of skin tones in my class was impressive, until I realized that virtually every non-Caucasian I met seemed to come from a more affluent and prestigious background than even myself (I fully admit being privileged growing up!). Race was made the solution when race was not the problem, and who knows how many underprivileged aspiring doctors of all colors were discarded in the process?
As a doctor, I can tell you that women suffer from autoimmune diseases much more often than men. Yet if I focused a practice around simply treating all and only women for autoimmune disease, I would be unnecessarily treating many women without autoimmune disease and not treating any men with such disease. In other words, I’d be a lousy and very rightfully contentious advocate for those I’m caring for. So why would we unnecessarily be such an advocate for the underprivileged we care for by emphasizing the plight of a color to alleviate the problem of inequality much of the time when we could just as easily focus on the plight of the unequal to alleviate the problem of inequality all the time? Make all-not just most-of your time and resources matter to the people who need mattering most.
2. Constantly remember that people aren’t one-dimensional
A second problem with making people’s race (or any single characteristic of them) the focal point of your position or plans is the way their color becomes a summary of their identity. Obviously, it is wonderful and encouraged to enjoy the part of you determined by skin color, but that part is not more important and is often independent of the many other beautiful aspects of who you are. When labels of color become more of an identity to you than the rest of who you are, multiple dangers emerge. These dangers apply to any label-not just race-that is allowed to be considered a greater proportion of who you are than it actually is. The first danger is judging yourself inaccurately. Many have falsely claimed to champion diversity by merely getting different shades of melanin in a room rather than actually caring about the practical problems and true inequalities among them. On the other hand, you might falsely consider yourself a failure when you realize your traits of compassion and hospitality have only reached people of your race, even though they might have been the ones around you truly in need. The second danger is judging others inaccurately. One of humanity’s greatest obsessions and worst faults is its haste to identify an enemy (Click to tweet), and elevating one dimension of a person to a summary of a person encourages that fault. If the label I most strongly and emotionally associate with is “white” (don’t worry, it’s not), then I will most strongly and emotionally associate against those with a non-white label, especially when I perceive my label is affronted in any way and regardless of what other labels might actually apply to me or them. The same, of course, is true with labels of politics, gender, sexual orientation, etc. But race is the most visible dimension and the one least alterable (people change their political party, gender, and sexual orientation rarely, but more often than ethnicity or color!), making it very hard to identify with or truly understand those with the “opposing” label. Not to mention the tragic but unfortunately real historical record that made color labels bitterly antagonistic even before they are applied to individuals today. As such, race-circumstantially and through no fault of its own-could very well be of all labels the most amenable to inducing an unhelpful us/them mentality and to creating instant enemies of people who are actually friends accordingly to many other dimensions we ignore when we subordinate them to color.
But how do we emphasize the other potentially more unifying aspects of who we are without giving our ethnicity or skin tone too little emphasis? How about focusing on how color contributes to those other dimensions? Others can’t identify or empathize with your color, but they sure can (and probably already do!) understand and appreciate how your color is positively associated with physical, culinary, musical, and other talents. Abilities they’d even love to learn from and stand in awe of. Do not even the most racist white males in sheltered small-town USA revere the athleticism black culture exemplifies during football season? You can choose to define yourself, others, and movements meant to unify you all with terms that innocently but definitely invite division and limit empathy, or you can choose to define them with a greater diversity of terms and dimensions allowing both parties to find plenty of common ground and see each other as the multi-dimensional, respectable people they are. After all, do you matter most to others if you’re valued for a certain skin color or for your great diversity of personality traits, some of which are associated with your skin color?
3. Truly value diversity by valuing a diversity of diversities
Given recent events, it seems that promoting an understanding of diversity limited primarily to race has not resulted in reduced racial tensions. The previously noted insights (that such a narrow concept of diversity ignores the true problems people have and reduces them to one-dimensional enemies) are two reasons why, and here’s a third: Only caring about racial diversity is in itself a rejection of diversity. How can you value diversity without valuing a diversity of diversities? And how can you value these diversities maximally if you only focus on the ones you already value? Is not the diversity each of us should pursue the one each of us (or our communities) values the least? Maybe that is racial diversity, but if you already get pumped about a menagerie of skin tones, you should probably focus on immersing yourself in people with a diversity of income, social skills, gender, education/intelligence, age, beliefs-whatever people you find hard to love, even if you have valid disagreements with them. Maybe you are like my best friend’s white 67 year-old dad, who just last week told me he’d never hugged a black person until he fell in love with his grandchild recently adopted from Africa. Racial diversity was the likely one he needed to pursue most! But maybe you’re a white adult who feels completely comfortable around blacks but has trouble appreciating teens. You’d most value diversity by pursuing a positive experience with them-even if they’re all white. The point is valuing a diversity of diversities-not just the most trendy, easy, or visible one-is what will make the people who need to matter to you matter the most (Click to tweet).
This all might sound to you like watering down the important issues or inequalities surrounding race, and if you’re used to championing one ethnicity in particular, I can understand that. However, the efforts-especially of late-I have witnessed that are persistent in using color as their focal point seemed to have created more controversy than collaboration and more negativity than progress. Much of this is not their fault, as the media seems to emphasize the bad and as there has been much misrepresentation with dubious connections to these movements. The problem though is that the outcome-not the intention-is what is most consequential and lasting. There is nothing wrong-and often much right-about being the spark (an effort of your time/resources) to apply to a fuse (a specific movement) to ignite a beacon raising awareness about an important cause. But you can choose fuses that will keep the beacon contained and therefore focused and effective, or you can choose one that is too close to the gasoline ocean of racism, lighting a fire rapidly exploding out of your control and doing more harm than good.
In my sons and mentee, I have three important, personal reasons (and actually quite a few more) to keep the beacon of lives mattering who are discriminated against and subject to inequality. I acknowledge white privilege and desire its end. And I would prefer everyone to be able to accurately use any identifying terms they want without being instantly hated or demeaned. But as suggested above, prioritizing race/color/ethnicity-probably the most faultless yet inflammatory aspects of a person throughout human history-over problems, people, and true diversity does not seem to be the best way to achieve those objectives.
Instead, I’ve seen black and other lives matter most, to me and others, when we focus on solving problems anyone can appreciate the significance of rather than on a skin tone only some can. And when we see people as the multi-faceted humans they are, full of potential similarities to us, and don’t disproportionately consider their color as a reason to favor them or not. And when we have found true value in diversity by experiencing community with those who are different from us, not just those who look different. Jesus is known for not alienating people because he never focused on one group in a way to make others feel excluded. He dealt with their problems, not their ethnicity. He healed the whole person-physical and spiritual, not just the surface issue. And he engaged the rich and poor, prestigious and outcast, healthy and sick, leaders and servants, Jews and Gentiles, and hospitable and hostile because he valued the diversity of diversities he was sent to save.
When my wife and I applied for adoption and when I applied to be a mentor, there was no specification of color/ethnicity, just an intentional pursuit of new relationships diverse in many ways compared to our own. It is in practicing those and many other such relationships-not in prioritizing or protesting race-that I have found how much these lives matter to me in ways I never thought possible. As I look to the uncertain and somewhat unsettling future, I have every reason to believe such an approach would make so many less-valued lives newly matter to others as well.