If you live in the St. Louis area, an in-person study group started working with this book and will continue for the next few months. Let me know if you’d like to join us and I’ll you hook you up!
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This post is brought to you courtesy of my week. It has two trains of thought. I hope they hook up strongly at the end and don’t collide into each other!
First train — public speaking.
I gave my fourth presentation at a local library about Cuba yesterday and I have a fifth scheduled next month. The most helpful advice that I ever received about speaking was to realize that the audience is on my side. I knew it was true because when I’m a part of an audience, I like the performers before I’ve even seen them and I wish them well because that will give me the best experience.
So, there’s a good example of empathy and its positive effect on me. When I’m in an audience, I put myself in the shoes of the speaker. I express my support with a pleasant, expectant look on my face and by chuckling audibly at the first funny bit that I hear. When I’m the speaker, I put myself in the shoes of the audience. I believe that they want to like me and I honor their trust in me by being fully prepared. I relax into the love and support that I know is in the room for me, even if it’s an audience composed completely of strangers.
Second train — witnessing whiteness.
There’s an awkward phase that white people go through when we wake up to race. Shelly Tochluk describes that dynamic in her book Witnessing Whiteness:
Where once we never noticed race (or at least claimed not to), increased awareness makes issues of race appear ever-present. Race consciousness is at its height and we can often feel paralyzed while trying to figure out how to behave in order to subvert the racism in the room while not appearing racist by concentrating on the race in the room! (p. 38)
Witnessing Whiteness is the book we study in the 10-session program of the same name. Amy Hunter (check out her amazing TEDx Talk) started this program as an offering of the YWCA of St. Louis about 5 years ago and interest in it exploded after the events in Ferguson in August 2014. I went through the program then which qualified me to be a co-facilitator. I’m currently co-facilitating for the second time.
Amy occasionally pops in for a session, so we were pleased that she joined us last week for our discussion of Chapter 2, featuring the above quote. She says that the problem for white people is that we so desperately want to be liked — it’s part of our social conditioning. Wanting to be liked is so much a part of our conditioning that white people assume everyone else feels the same, but they don’t. Amy points out that black people in our culture don’t experience everyone liking them, so that desire to be liked plays a much smaller role in their interactions with the world.
Amy’s remedy for us white people is to walk into the room that Shelly Tochluk mentions with the strong belief that everyone in that room loves us. “Why wouldn’t they?” says Amy. “You’re a lovable person and you know that because there are people in your life who love you. I love you! Everyone in that room will love you, too.”
Coupling the trains
Amy’s advice is very similar to what worked so well for me as a speaker. I’ve heard her give that advice several times.
How come I still struggle with it?
I realized that it’s because when I put myself in that room, unlike when I put myself in an audience, my thoughts aren’t all positive toward any new person who walks in the room. What’s up with that? Why am I such a positive participant of an audience but such a judgmental person at a party or meeting?
As far as I can tell, my difficulties arise from a series of unfortunate events in Junior High school combined with the odd focus on business opportunities at networking events. I experience rooms of people with a toxic mix of defensiveness and a “what’s-in-it-for-me?” attitude. It’s no wonder that I’d rather give a talk to 50 people than make small talk with them. In the first situation, I’m convinced that they like me. In the second, I fear that they are judging me. I believe those things because that’s how I am in those situations.
I turned 54 last week. Forty years is a long time to nurse a wound from Junior High. I can let that go. I also don’t have a need to get something out of other people that I meet. Relationships that are mutually beneficial are always a bonus, but not a desperate need at this stage of my life.
I want Amy’s vision of experiencing a room full of people who love me, even if they don’t know me yet. To get there, it’s clear that I want to be a loving person in that room. Empathy is my path. Last week’s meditation on empathy is a good tool — I can send energies of friendship, compassion, joy, and even-mindedness to every person in a room. If that’s who I am in a room, it will be much easier for me to believe that everyone else there is also open and willing to love me as I am.
A long train
What do you think? Did those trains of thought link up in a way that worked for you? Obviously, I’m still my refining my thoughts around these issues, so I’m open to constructive criticism, challenging questions, and more ideas.