Creativity

As many of you are familiar, my tango history has been greatly influenced by my practice of both roles, and recently, I’ve been reflecting on the leader and follower personas as members of a creative team. If this is true in social dance, can it also be true in the abstract? In other words, are the tasks of leading and following things we can do in our lives as individuals? Can this dynamic serve as our own internal creative engine?

One crucial principle I have learned from my coaching work is that paradoxes produce possibilities. When we feel frustrated or stuck, often it’s because we’ve slipped into black and white thinking: "Either I pursue my dream job or I earn a stable income. Either I lead or I follow. I can’t do both." This kind of thinking tends to polarize a situation and limit its possible outcomes.

Actually, I can do both, but I need to allow the two things that appear contradictory to first sit together on a bench in my mind for a while. With some compassionate encouragement, they may acknowledge one another and perhaps even begin to chat.

After Hours (2014)

After Hours (2014)

Returning to the tango metaphor, I’m curious to ask, "Can I both lead and follow at the same time?" This impossible question, in fact, was the premise of one of my choreographic projects a few years ago, and resulted in a quirky solo that I performed in the character of a brooding, mischievous waitress. Now, however, I’m exploring these roles as orientations to life and work, rather than as physical directives on a stage.

In social dance, we tend to assume that the leader makes decisions and that the follower responds to those decisions. This is true, but the opposite is also true. Followers also make decisions, in certain ways, and leaders also respond. If we look deeply into this paradox, we begin to see greater complexity, and our dancing becomes more rich and varied.

Just like in a tango partnership, these and many other complementary pairs exist within us, as individuals. What does it mean to engage opposing energies within yourself in order to catalyze creativity? Who is my leader self, and who my follower self? What kind of relationship do they have with one another and how can I enhance their communication in order to maximize creative flow?

My life in California has been full of unexpected opportunities and surprising dead ends. I have channeled my choreographer’s mind into my teaching, and I have asked my yoga body to apply itself to a new visual art practice. I currently have multiple professional identities, and I most often work in cities other than the one I call home. Living this way often feels confusing and disorienting, but it nevertheless pushes me to continually renew my own understanding of what it means to be an artist and a creator.

In fact, I maintain that we are all artists, or rather, we all have innate creativity that we may activate at any time. In the same way that I believe in social dance, I believe in social art. In other words, art is for everyone. For me, being an artist is like being a yogi – it's a life path that meanders and climbs and sometimes drops out from under you, but always teaches you about yourself and gives you a way to process your perceptions and connect with others in the ongoing negotiation of living.

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Leaving aside, for a moment, the format of partnership, dancers feel a desire to move. For some this desire is inspired by music, and for others, by a partner, a feeling, or any number of other things. But there’s another part of us that must then take up the challenge of coordinating our limbs and spine, and of managing the ego-trampling process of learning to do this with others. The dynamic of both acknowledging the desire and also acting upon it is an example of what I'm calling lead-and-follow creativity. Whether applied to dance, painting, engineering, or closet organization, for me it’s the degree of exchange between these two aspects of self, and the level of care and attention they extend to one another, that facilitates (or blocks) creative flow.

I propose that we can activate this creative exchange in any aspect of life, inviting intuition to converse with intellect, recognizing that neither great desires nor great skills, on their own, make us creative. We need them to coalesce. When this happens for me, my sense is that I've allowed something to move through me into material reality by activating my body, paintbrush, camera, or voice. It’s a simultaneous act of receiving and doing, or of leading and following.

I believe that habitual creators have found ways to place their being and doing selves in continuous dialogue, that they navigate their projects and their lives in a dance of deep listening and deliberate action. By cultivating empty space and then marking it with bold strokes, they create line by line, step by step.

My experience of creativity also has cycles, and conceptualizing my flow on a spectrum helps me to be patient and to trust myself more. I am sometimes busy, spending time in the “doing” work of learning and synthesizing and producing. But I am sometimes resting, too, in the “being” work of observing, receiving, and allowing. When doing and being collapse into creative flow, my hand flies across the page, or my body tumbles through the room, and my sense of “I” disappears. I feel my "self" as a vast collective intelligence extending itself in some inevitable way into the world.

I have felt similar things, fleetingly, in social dance, on the stage, while writing, while painting, in meditation, and in conversation. It is the primary reason I feel that my spiritual practice and my creative practice are so closely linked. They are like two paths spiraling around one another like a strand of DNA. The more familiar I become with my own rhythm, and the better I get at nudging myself from one end of the spectrum to another, the less concern I have about judging what I do as good or bad and the more often I find myself in that elusive creative flow.

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Looking at life as a creative project has provided a sense of possibility and personal power that, to a great extent, counteracts the assault of consumer culture, whose primary message seems to be to one of weakness and insufficiency. When I remember that I am in charge, that I am creating my life, I feel less vulnerable to sensationalist news, excessive spending, and superficial entertainment. From this perspective, I know that on some level, all is well and nothing is really missing. I feel more curious about change, less fearful of making mistakes, and more likely to see each new day or year as I would a blank sheet of paper or an empty rehearsal room: as yet another creative field.

How do you connect with your creativity? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Self-Care First

So, in March I had to take a break from calling my representatives and even reading the news. I got overwhelmed, and then of course I felt disappointed in myself. I had to shrug that off pretty quickly, though, because I really do know better. Specifically, there are three things I know. First, I know that it's okay to take breaks from resisting this not-at-all-normal political situation we are in, because it's going to be a long haul and resting is the only way I'll make it. Second, I know that if I want a sustainable healthy outcome, I need to engage in whatever I'm doing in sustainable, healthy ways. And third, I know that my strongest contributions emerge from a foundation of diligent and compassionate self-care. Right now my self-care mostly looks like pieces of thick paper holding many layers of color:

Self-care often seems counter-intuitive when there is so much "other stuff" to be done, and when the need for that other stuff seems so urgent. But no real change can be made without both a clear vision and a belief that change is possible. Both vision and belief have a positive, expansive energy, and grow naturally from emotional states like gratitude, pleasure, and appreciation. If I'm not in one of these states on a regular basis, I start losing my sense of possibility, and then I literally can't see clearly, even if the answer is right under my nose.

Silly example, but a true story: More than once, I've failed to find my keys on a shelf, bench, or table, truly in plain sight, simply because I was convinced that I had left them in a purse or backpack. I also spiral myself into an anxiety whirlpool when this happens. My partner Isaac, always calm in a crisis, and of course under no such delusion about keys being exclusively lost in bags, finds them every time.

So connecting to possibility is key (terrible pun, I know, but stay with me). Shifting our emotional state really does help the mind to see clearly and form ideas that move it closer to its stated goal, whether that goal is finding lost objects, running a marathon, or unrestricted abortion rights. And maintaining a base level of gratitude, appreciation, and pleasure is what allows us to keep reconnecting with that possibility, and to therefore continue forming visions in our imagination.

I know this with more certainty than I used to because I've been watching myself slip out of hopeful states again and again for weeks now, and it's not random. There is a pattern to it. The main thing is my anger. I get angry much more often than usual since Jan 20, and I can see that what I do with my anger makes an enormous difference, and that I need a stronger-than-before self-care practice to manage it. If I get angry, sit at my desk all day, blame myself for my part in letting this all happen, and imagine apocalyptic future scenarios, then I waste a lot of precious time. I don't do much at all, in fact. Not my own work, not advocacy for others, not political calls.

On the other hand, if I get angry, go out and pull some weeds in the garden, paint in my makeshift art studio, and remind myself of the incredible life that I am living right now, then I will reliably finish my own to-do list, call members of Congress, and research community organizations to support. When I respond by stepping up my self-care, I compassionately manage my emotional state and remember that change is possible.

Taking amazing care of yourself, though, especially if you're a woman, can feel very wrong. Otfen, when I move to step up my ways of caring for myself with time, treats, or nourishing activities, alarms go off in my head that scream variations of "Stop being selfish - you have plenty to eat and you're safe, so put your head down and do some work" or "You don't need anything, help someone else." For a long time I believed these voices. It's true that I live an enviable existence compared to most people in the world. It's true that work is valuable, and that helping others is rewarding and healing in itself. However, listening closely to these voices, I hear the same pattern that is responsible for even the most extreme oppression and control of women and various other groups of people around the globe. The common message is that my needs, desires, and wishes are invalid or unimportant. By extension, I am unimportant. The only thing that is important, rather, is that I work or that I serve others. That's not an uplifting, life-giving message. It's not humane. If you really take it at face value, it's thinly-veiled slavery.

What I am working on this month is releasing this pattern in me, putting aside the quantifiable elements of my civil identify such as wealth, status, education, and access to resources in order to quiet that voice that tells me I am unimportant unless I work or serve others. If I want to get at the pattern itself, I need to ignore these more superficial aspects, at least temporarily, and give my inner echo chamber a new script proclaiming my needs, desires, and wishes of maximum importance.

Only you know what your optimal self-care activities are and how much of them you need and when. Here are some guidelines for recommitting to honor your own desires, whatever they are:

1. Self-care is not a to-do list. It must bring you delight, calm, pleasure or other feelings of expansion, even if it's just 5 minutes to drink a cup of tea. Really. Enjoy that cup of tea!

2. Your self-care is YOURS. No comparing with other people's self-care. Read vampire novels, eat a bowl of raspberries, run 10 miles, or meditate. Whatever brings you feelings of joy, gratitude, and pleasure, dedicate some consistent time to that thing.

3. Acknowledge and accept any dissenting voices in your head. Welcome them and then kindly ask them to take a seat in the corner, or lie down under a shady tree in your mind, while you go about your delightful business.

Since starting my life coaching business in January, one of my primary focus areas has been sustainable self-care and work/life balance. If this area is something you feel motivated to shift right now, please contact me for a totally free, no-commitment phone consultation. Fill out the short form in the right hand column and I'll be in touch within 24 hours. I would love to connect with you.

Perspective

There's nothing like getting out of town to shake up habitual thought patterns. Even a walk around the block would have been helpful, but with the freedom of wheels and a home base along the Southern California coastline, we decided to head south last week for an afternoon escape. Thanks to Isaac, my partner in crime, for these images of San Elijo Nature Center.

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What I know, but never tire of re-discovering, is how changing our environment can change our inner perception. The opposite, of course, is true as well, but on this sunny day we decided outside-to-inside was the way to go. As we walked through the rock formations and listened to squirrels and rabbits fluttering in the bushes, gratitude for warmth, safety, food and shelter filled my awareness and my body. Muscles relaxed and joints moved freely. That we can take this walk at all is an inconceivable gift. That the sun rises and sets, for that matter, is a daily phenomenon of massive proportions. These words, I know, read like clichés, yet it's also true that my freedom and ability to write them is evidence of a tremendous amount of luck.

But here's what really shocks me about getting outdoors to refresh my perspective. It's not the rush of gratitude, the overwhelming miracle I suddenly grasp in the perfect alchemy of dirt, stone, and shrub. It's the wishes and desires that come into focus soon after I walk down the path, as if someone has turned a manual camera lens, and what was blurry is now crisp.

On this particular day it happens about an hour after the hike, as I'm sipping hibiscus kambucha in a cafe in Encinitas. I give myself, out loud, a very straightforward creative assignment: paint through my remaining paper supply and then purchase several larger format panels. Previously, I had been unsure of how to proceed after a year of dabbling with pastels, but this next step reminded me to focus on process over product, and that's usually what gets me moving on creative projects. That, and a deadline. I also make a decision about professional direction: update images on this website and develop more content around empowerment coaching. This one involves Isaac, so we pull out our calendars and set a date for a photo shoot.

These ideas come with remarkable clarity once I press the pause button on my current life, pass through the gratitude threshold, and both inwardly and outwardly gaze toward the horizon. It's as if the path has simply been waiting there for me the whole time, scented with eucalyptus and edged by yellow flowers.

Ironically, I used to resist the ease of my delicate, creative life. How is it, for example, that I get to dream and imagine the next satisfying project while others struggle, starve, or drown? That isn't fair by any human standard you may care to apply. But this is a question without an answer. None of us, individually, has enough perspective to see the whole picture of why things happen as they do, not all things anyway. At some point, I realized I needed to change the question.

Instead, I started asking whether there might be anything to be gained from me NOT taking walks, NOT making art, NOT writing, based on the premise that so many others don't have the freedom to do these things. Would me giving them up make the world better in any way? Should I replace them with things I enjoy less or not at all? An absurd proposal, perhaps, but I've learned that sometimes asking silly questions is a good way to clarify my thinking. And very quickly, the obvious answer was no. No, there is nothing to be gained from me ignoring my own goals and creative aspirations. There is nothing to be gained from spending my time doing what someone else thinks is best. On the contrary, a downward spiral to confusion, depression and illness waits on that path, and in that state I am surely no help to anyone.

For the same reason we can't answer the first question about life being unfair, we may never know, in an absolute sense, how or if our actions help others, but it's also true that our greatest chance to do so is by keeping ourselves as physically, emotionally, and mentally healthy as possible, and by making choices from that stable perspective.

It's taken me years of small, incremental testing to really feel in my body that when I take care of myself, especially when I go past the point that my mind deems "reasonable" or "necessary," I always, ALWAYS think bigger and more expansive ideas reliably come.

How much time do I dare to give myself to take walks, to paint, to write, trusting that the next unforeseen idea is waiting for me on the other side of the new level of appreciation I am allowing into my nervous system? What new way may I help to bring beauty and justice into the world? I trust that it is there waiting for me a little further along the path.

What do you feel grateful for today? How do you give to yourself? Please leave your responses in the comments.

Beauty

I've just returned from a glorious week on Maui, co-hosting the annual Aloha Girls Retreat with Brigitta Winkler. Our time together with 22 creative and inspiring tango women was full of playful and productive dancing in our two private studio spaces, new and deepening friendships, and exquisite vistas from Maui's sparkling, turquoise beaches to her lush green highlands.

I was, yet again, overwhelmed by the beauty of the island, but what was even stronger for me this year was feeling this sense of beauty begin to seep into my own skin, remembering on a cellular level to truly feel and know my own beauty as a woman.

I will not list here the many ways women are trained to loathe themselves and their bodies. Those old patterns float around in all of us to some extent, no matter what our age or background, like environmental pollution. Instead, I will share the ways that mother Maui gently peeled back yet another layer for me in the "onion project" of self-acceptance and self-celebration.

Nature wisdom is one of our oldest and most basic sources of insight, and so I've organized my thoughts here in response to the elements that spoke to me most clearly on this visit:

WINDS: There are thousands of traditional songs and chants that honor the breezes that flow over the islands. We are, after all, in the middle of the Pacific ocean. The air is never still. This constant caress on the skin awakens my nervous system, makes me aware of the soft surfaces of my body and of its delicate presence on the earth, in the room, on the dance floor. It's a gentle sensation, like being washed in an energy bath over and over again, each moment carrying away tiny strands of self-doubt, hesitation, and self-consciousness. Every day I felt more loving toward my physical body, more comfortable in my own skin, more sure of my barefoot steps on grass, sand, and stone.

PLANTS: The overflowing tropical green leafy-ness of Maui surrounded and held us from arrival to departure. But the irresistible allure of the flowers captivated my attention. On Maui flowers burst forth from trees and bushes in explosive yellows, pinks, and reds in spectacular and unabashed splendor. LOOK AT ME! They seem to be saying. I AM BEAUTIFUL. My tuberose lei filled my bedroom with its singular perfume, and I feel asleep in a divine cloud of scent knowing that my most essential job in the morning would be simply to receive the light of the new day. I try now to remember the flowers, how exuberant their opening, how natural their sensuality. I want that joyful, expansive, sensual quality to exist in me, too. Perhaps one day I will even step onto the dance floor, or onto the sidewalk, and announce telepathically to the world, Look at me, I am beautiful.

WAVES: The ultimate model of beauty, perhaps, is the ebb and flow of water. We change constantly, both in body, mind, and spirit. Our graceful flowing from one year to the next, from one moment to the next, from one step to the next, is one definitive and personal way to claim our beauty and grace as dancers and as women. One morning I watched the waves for nearly 30 minutes and had no sense of time passing. Their elegant rolling is a continuous work of live kinetic art. I practice imagining my life that way, and I aspire to the ocean's ease with changes of all kinds, whether in my physical form, my perspective, my occupation, my home, or anything else.

How has nature inspired your sense of beauty? Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Tango Sisterhood Pledge

Sharna and Brigitta, TangoMujer 2004. Photo by Astrid Weiske

Sharna and Brigitta, TangoMujer 2004. Photo by Astrid Weiske

International Women’s Day is coming up on Wednesday, March 8, and in my daily search for positive and productive ways to direct my energy, I discovered the Global Sisterhood Project.

On that particular Wednesday, I will be on the island of Maui, co-leading the Aloha Girls retreat for tango women with one of my early tango she-roes, Brigitta Winkler. We will briefly join our women’s tango circle that evening with Global Sisterhood’s international synchronized meditation.

I’m often tempted to dismiss this kind of quiet internal work as less important than public protests or calls to representatives. It’s not. Both are important, because our internal and external lives are constantly mirroring one another. As we grow within, we are able to see more clearly the work to be done in the world. And as we interact with the world, we identify the next step of our own personal evolution. It is this balance of internal and external work that keeps me grounded, calm, and productive. If I linger on either side for too long, I start to lose focus.

In addition to the synchronized meditation, I am inspired by this organization’s Sacred Sisterhood Pledge, which acknowledges the habits of competition, comparison, jealousy and judgment that deteriorate our emotional lives and our relationships. Again, the damage is simultaneously internal and external. If we want to see (and be) strong women in the world, we've got to pull these stubborn weeds out by the roots and replace them with something else.

Since I’ll be working in a tango environment next week, I decided to write my own Tango Sisterhood Pledge. For myself, I know that the process of owning up to my negativity and transforming it, over time, into more positive and uplifting attitudes is the single greatest factor in whatever success and joy I have experienced in my life and in my career.

Sharna and Angelika, TangoMujer 2005. Photo by Astrid Weiske

Sharna and Angelika, TangoMujer 2005. Photo by Astrid Weiske

Still, it’s always good to revisit old territory and keep sweeping out whatever stray cobwebs may remain.  So here’s my pledge to tango women everywhere:

Dear Tango Sister,

I admit that I have been jealous of you in the past. I have envied your clothes, your boleos, your dance partners, and even resented you for having them. I have invented elaborate, fictitious justifications for the times you got something I thought I deserved, like a dance or compliment, or a job. I have judged you harshly and unfairly. I have compared myself to you and concluded I was worse or better in countless ways, all of which left me feeling miserable and powerless.

I am sorry for this. I’m sorry for doing this both to you and to myself, because I fully understand now that it’s always both or neither. The inside and the outside always match.

From this moment forward, I promise to abandon the habits of competition, comparison, jealousy and judgment that chip away at our self-worth, keep us divided, and drain our precious creative energy. I know that the best way to keep myself strong is to strengthen you, too, and that solidarity is the only path to health and stability both individually and collectively.

Sharna and Valeria, TangoMujer 2005, Photo by Astrid Weiske

Sharna and Valeria, TangoMujer 2005, Photo by Astrid Weiske

I hereby take this Tango Sisterhood Pledge:

1. I will care for my body, mind, and spirit as best I can, so that I’m never tempted to put you down as a way of making myself feel better.

2. I will speak well of you in public and private, no matter what the circumstances. At minimum, I will refrain from negative comment.

3. I will take responsibility for my own actions and set clear boundaries around what is and is not ok for me so that I can remain generous and open with you.

4. I will encourage you and celebrate your achievements and success.

5. I will respect your choice to lead or to follow at any time.

 

Ready to take the pledge? Leave your name, or add your own suggestions in the comments!

 

Self-Defense

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Just after the New Year, I started taking classes in self-defense, or as Isaac calls it, "ass-kicking." Studying a martial art has long been on my personal “to do” list, and for a variety of reasons now seemed like a good time. It’s refreshing, if humbling, to be a beginner again, to try on new movement patterns, and to leverage weight and momentum in new ways. The system I’m learning, Sanuces Ryu, combines techniques from various traditions but defines itself as a street fighting form of jujitsu.

I’m ok with blocking, but I discovered quickly that I have a hard time with strikes of any kind. It’s something that I struggle with in every class, this hesitation to hit another person. Not that we hit hard, but still, the intention to cause harm, even in self-defense, feels profoundly wrong to me. I was beginning to worry that my survival instinct was forever lost under many layers of non-confrontational, “good girl” programming.

But last week, another white belt helped me change my perspective by suggesting, “Don’t think that it’s the person you’re striking, but the dark energy.” My interpretation of this rather mystical advice is that rather than inflicting harm for harm’s sake, my task is to prevent an action or behavior that is dangerous. In other words, if someone attempts an assault in the street (harm for harm’s sake), my training could enable me to stop it.

To be fair, said training would, ideally, inflict damage on the perpetrator of an assault. Still, this change of framing helped me a lot. As I’ve discovered over and over again in dance, yoga, and improvisation, the focus of my intention fundamentally changes my experience. Instead of hurting my partner, I focused on establishing a clear boundary, and was then able to commit more fully to the drills and to finally stop holding my breath.

Because it’s so much on my mind lately, I can’t help but apply this re-framing to our current political situation. It’s becoming clearer by the hour that this is not about party values anymore, but rather about real dysfunction within our government. The question that looms large is how long will we allow the dysfunction to continue? When will we draw the proverbial line in the sand?

As much as any of us may dislike (or like) the President himself, he is not the point. The point is that questionable executive orders are being issued and extreme right policies are being written into law. There are ethical violations that need a strong defense. For me, it is easier to fight when I remember the point is to stop harm from being done, not for my party or my candidate to win over another. I don’t care about winning. I care about stopping the damage.

So when I read the news now, I do my best to screen out language that attacks individual people, and to focus instead on information about actual deeds, events, or legislation, and then I look for ways I can address those concrete things.

What do you consider worth defending, and how to you do it? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
 

 

 

Social Bias: Interview with Isaac Oboka

My partner Isaac and I recently celebrated ten adventurous years together. This is a wonderful, lovely thing, but it’s a thing that I sometimes remember would not have been ok before 1967, the year the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of justice and equality in the legendary case of Loving vs Virginia.

Isaac and I are an "inter-racial" couple, and we have spent ample time discussing race identity in our time together. Lately, though, we’ve been discussing it more. For himself, Isaac prefers the term bi-ethnic. His father is from Nigeria, but Isaac himself grew up with his white American mother and half-siblings in Denver, Colorado, listening to the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and Queen. His perspective is unusual, and his insights around interpersonal communication and social bias, in particular, seem to me rather important these days. Talking with him has informed my thinking about listening, empathy, and community.

The following is a transcribed and edited interview that took place at our dining room table:

Sharna: Isaac, can you summarize your thoughts on interacting with new people and strangers, especially if we consider them to be different from us in some way?

Isaac: I think we all have social bias inherent in our being, and it’s one of the first things that is triggered when we interact with someone else.  Social bias can be positive or negative. As soon as you see another person, you have some sort of idea of who you think they are. Understanding and accepting that we all have this impulse is important because it gives us a chance to separate the image we have of the person [in our minds] from the real person that’s standing in front of us.

S: Can you explain a little more what you mean about separating the ‘image’ from the ‘real?’ I feel like that is really critical.

I: There’s always a difference between the image of the person in your mind and the person that is actually in front of you. Say you meet someone who looks to be of Latin American decent based on their coloring. The assumptions held about that person will be different from individual to individual. You might assume they speak Spanish, or that they don’t speak English well. You might assume that they are an immigrant, that they are lazy, that they are free-loading. That is a stereotypical image that you may have. The problem is that if you don’t recognize that image as a social bias, then even if that person tells you that they grew up in Ohio and recently got a PhD in social psychology, I don’t think your original image will change very much.

S: So, not even hearing real facts from the person’s own mouth can change the false image?

I: Generally, no. If you think a person is intelligent, you’ll really only listen for things that confirm that. If you believe, say, that women are NOT intelligent, then no matter what a woman says or does, you’ll make up things to justify your belief. Similarly, if you believe black men are gang members, then it doesn’t matter their level of education or courteous actions, you’ll still see them as dangerous, violent, bad guys.

Does this look like a dangerous, violent bad guy? I didn't think so. How can you not love a man who smiles like this?

Does this look like a dangerous, violent bad guy? I didn't think so. How can you not love a man who smiles like this?

Ok, pause. There is now a whole field of research, of course, that has come to the same conclusion that Isaac has about social bias, including the famous Harvard Implicit Bias Test. I was curious, though, how he had learned this through his own life experience, so I asked him about that, too:

I: I grew up in a white middle class environment, but I was not white and our family was not middle class. Starting in middle school, all of my peer interactions involved me explaining myself as NOT a drug dealer, NOT a gang member, and NOT having natural ability at sports. When we played Star Trek on the playground, I could never be the captain; I was always the Klingon. I don’t think any of us made these decisions consciously; it just seemed like we all knew that was the way it was supposed to be.

I didn’t understand the difference between me and the other kids for a while. I only knew that there WAS a difference. We grew up watching the same TV shows, playing on the same playground, attending the same schools, sitting in the same classes. I think once I realized that the difference was skin color, and noticed the way that they were treated and the way that I was treated, that’s when I started paying more attention to TV shows, movies, and different kinds of music.

In movies, for example, I noticed that there was rarely someone who was black, and if they were black, they were the first person to die in a shootout. Which was horrible, but it gave me a possible understanding of how other people viewed me, and once I understood that, I started really thinking about how perceptions of me had been formed long before I even said anything.

One of my favorite images from the tango chapter of our life together. Did I mention Isaac's hugs are world-renown? (2006)

One of my favorite images from the tango chapter of our life together. Did I mention Isaac's hugs are world-renown? (2006)

One of the many things I admire about Isaac is his ability to not take things personally. How many of us would gladly give up a few years of our lives to have this super power? Isaac can talk to just about anyone: Hollywood celebrities, far-right conservatives, homeless folks, church ladies, academics, construction workers, and performance artists. I was curious if this skill was related to his early observations of patently false racial assumptions:

I: I think I try to keep in mind that anything in your past can lead you anywhere. It is possible that the homeless person on the street was once a multi-million dollar tycoon that made a bunch of money in the dot.com boom and for some reason lost it all. That’s a possibility. Just like the person who is a million dollar tycoon could have grown up on the street. There’s no reason that these things are not possible. So I generally go into a conversation looking for information that contradicts any social bias that I might have.

S: Would you say part of your strategy is a habit of checking your own social bias?

I: I think those judgments that I have happen so quickly and strongly that they seem to be built in. The only way to deal with that is to recognize that it is happening and to take steps to manage it. When you see someone, you make assumptions about that person, but those assumptions are almost never true. So it’s always more beneficial to figure out who the person is and if they mean you harm or don’t mean you harm and the only way to do that is to interact with them.

I think currently the line that we are all still getting is that if you are not a white Christian, you’re bad, and that is scary because that is absolutely not true and as the diversity of the country grows we need to figure out how to interact with people who don’t look like us, who don’t sound like us, who don’t talk like us, and figure out how to get to know them, which is the part that we are missing.

S: Ok, but how do we get to know each other if we all have social bias?

I: My general strategy is to say something that is a fairly common stereotype about myself. I am 6’2”, fairly athletic, and a black man. So I make a joke like, “I almost got drafted for the NBA but they couldn’t teach me how to shoot a basket.” Usually I can gauge the other person’s reaction, whether they are remotely open to the idea that the reality of who I am might be different from that stereotype. If they do laugh, then I might mention some kind of open-ended stereotype about them.

S: So you make jokes about stereotypes on both sides?

I: Yes, the most far-fetched stereotypes possible. If they are Asian American, I might ask them if they know kung-fu. I think this opens up the possibility for me and the other person to get to know each other. I don’t play basketball, you don’t know kung-fu, so what DO you like, what DO you know, what DO you do, where did you grow up, who are you as a person?

I actually end up asking the same question a number of times because at first, people filter through their own biases. When *I* initially ask people about things they’re interested in, it’s generally listening to rap music or playing sports, but that may not be the things they are most interested in, they are just showing what they think I want to see or trying to gain social capital with me, which is ridiculous. So over time I ask similar questions and I start to get more personal information.

I also think it’s important that I try to be truthful and honest straight from the get-go, which sometimes shocks people just right out of the gate. When people say “How are you doing today,” if I’m having a shitty day I usually say something like “You know, I’m not having a great day or things aren’t that great.” People are caught off guard because that’s not the proper response. You’re supposed to just say, “I’m fine how are you?” Then, sometimes they ask follow-up questions like, “Well, what’s not going well?” and that puts me in a position where I can share something more about myself. That gives us more to talk about.

- - -

Isaac is really great with kids. He says he appreciates their directness and authenticity, and of course their willingness to share milkshakes.

Isaac is really great with kids. He says he appreciates their directness and authenticity, and of course their willingness to share milkshakes.

Listening to Isaac’s story, his insight seems so clear, his turnaround rather incredible. As a recipient of continuous and flagrant racial bias, he developed an anti-bias approach to communication. Excluded from any existing racial group, he became radically inclusive of others.

Although he admits that calling stereotypes out on the carpet can sometimes backfire, his conviction that there is always more to every person than what meets the eye guides all of his interactions. Perhaps not many of us would argue with that premise; however, recognizing truth in the abstract is one thing, putting it into practice is quite another, and that is what I think is truly remarkable and worth underscoring here. Isaac doesn’t pretend anyone is immune from social bias, even himself. It’s his full acceptance of bias in the first place that allows him to shift it, one conversation at a time.

Knowing the bias is there, Isaac looks for ways to sidestep it by telling jokes, asking personal questions, and sharing his own stories. His way of engaging with people increases the chances of a human connection being made, and that connection short-circuits social bias. It’s what allows us to hear each other, to feel we belong together, that we’re on the same team.

As we witness a “connection crisis” in our country right now, and worldwide, I personally feel challenged to go beyond what is comfortable in rethinking what connection means to me, what community means to me. How can I connect authentically with those who seem, at first, different? Those who seem, at first, to not understand me, to disagree with me, who resent me, even? These are not idle questions, but urgent ones. We need lots of creative and diverse answers to them. Please leave yours in the comments.

 

Radical Listening

I am blessed and proud to live in a beautifully diverse community in Long Beach, CA. Diversity, however, sometimes pushes ugliness to the surface.

Today, I dashed to the post office in between (miraculously) rain showers. On my way home, a fabulously dressed black woman steps out of a shop, glances upward, and says "It's going to rain again? Hell no!" It was hilarious. I giggled. Then a small, shuffling white man shouts from across the street "Use proper English, black *W%)@%," and various other horrible racist epithets. I froze for a few seconds, then walked slowly back toward the woman. As the exchange ended, a few young Latina women nearby said "Just ignore him." All I could think to say was "Ma’am, I'm with you." She smiled and said “Thanks, baby.” I thought about the women’s march on Saturday, and about what the simple actions of walking and standing can convey. Literally, where and when we walk and stand matters.

Anyway, I don't want to give the impression that I did anything particularly good or heroic. I didn’t. And this woman was in no way "victimized." She yelled “Hell no” about six more times. She did not appear to be intimidated, and she was smiling when I left.

But that is just the beginning of this story. I continued my walk home. As I turned a corner, the same man was there, walking the same direction down the sidewalk. I walked two blocks trailing slightly behind. It was very easy to hate him, to envision punching him in the face, to rehearse in my head the brilliant lecture dismantling all of his absurd, despicable beliefs. But then I thought about this insightful article, which explains how mundane, in-person contact was the only thing that, in the end, could turn the tides under Hugo Chávez’ militant dictatorship in Venezuela. I thought about listening, about radical compassion. 

We stopped to cross the street. I’m right next to him now, and he’s still mumbling “black this, black that” under his breath. And I do something I would never have done before the 2016 US election. I turn and ask him what only another white person can safely ask this man: "Why don't you like black people?"

It felt very odd to ask this question, like I was violating some deep moral law. The very existence of the sentence is offensive, and it tasted foul as it left my mouth. And, significantly, the 2 seconds of time that it took for me to speak it aloud felt SO MUCH HARDER than getting up at 7am on a Saturday, sitting on the train for an hour, and walking slowly with 750,000 other happy people on a sunny morning in Los Angeles for twelve blocks. This two-second question was a whole different category of hard.

Yet, the question came out. It traveled at the speed of sound through the few feet of air space between us. And the man’s response, initially, was the type of racist propaganda regurgitation that you might expect: “They’re uneducated and don't know how to speak proper English and don’t respect America, blah, blah, blah.” But then he said this: “I have a BA in journalism and I’m homeless.” I didn’t get a chance to ask any more questions. We were on the other side of the street by then and he wandered into a Rite-Aid on the other side.

Now, based on that statement you might rightly argue, “He's educated. All the more reason he should know that what he is saying is ridiculous.” Journalism, of all things: a field devoted to investigation, to facts. It just made the whole episode even more ironic.

BUT, when he told me he was homeless, something clicked in my head and in my heart. This man was struggling. Things were tough for him. He actually needs help. To be clear, there is nothing in this world that can excuse this man's behavior. It is wrong in every possible way. AND, simultaneously, he is a human being who has lost something, and whom, perhaps, the system has failed in some way. I don’t know and I'll probably never know his story. But, for a few hot seconds, I was able to hold these two truths in my awareness at the same time, and honestly, I no longer wanted to beat his head against a wall. I really didn’t. I actually wanted to find out what had happened to him; maybe, even, to invite him over for dinner to meet the intelligent, charming black man who is my husband. If I see him around the neighborhood again, maybe I will.

What might happen if we started listening in unexpected places? If you’re white, where can you use your “skin privilege” to ask questions and listen where others cannot? Leave your thoughts in the comments.