Empathy, action, and my white privilege

white privilege

Every Sunday morning I put on a pot of coffee and organize my blog for the week. It’s Sunday morning as I write this for you now.

I was planning to publish a post today about the state of blogging. But I couldn’t concentrate on this material because my mind kept thinking of the dozens of powerful images of protests that swept America this week.

Such a flood of emotions. I am so deeply moved. The blogging article will have to wait. There’s something else I have to say.

My white privilege

Five years ago, I read a profound article written by Bernard J. Tyson, the former CEO at Kaiser Permanente. This accomplished executive, a Black American, wrote:

“If you’re not black, it’s hard to relate to situations as a black man might. So you know I’m speaking from a realistic rather than theoretical standpoint, here are a few personal examples I’ve experienced in the past couple of months:

  • Recently I was shopping in an upscale store and I was being watched and also followed by an overly anxious person. This was not someone trying to be helpful, but someone who was assessing why I was there. Other shoppers did not have “help” following them throughout the store.
  • I have gone to dinner at fine restaurants and had the food server explain the tipping program, since apparently black men don’t understand this concept.
  • Sometimes I observe two or three white customers ahead of me and after me pay by credit card — and I am the only one singled out to provide proof of who I am before I can make my purchase.
  • Most CEOs don’t leave their corporate offices, change clothes, and have car doors locked as they walk by or women move to the other side of the street hugging their purses as they see me out exercising. Even as a CEO, the black male experience is my reality.”

On a professional level, I felt a kinship with Mr. Tyson. We had both sacrificed to achieve advanced college degrees, we worked hard to rise to the top of esteemed companies. We were husbands and fathers. But he lived in a state of constant anxiety, and I didn’t, just because of the luck of the draw.

White privilege is an extremely complicated topic. In fact, it is a subject of years of academic research and many scholarly articles.

I acknowledge that I’m over-simplifying the issue because I’m only speaking from my experience and the profound emotion of this Sunday morning.

I have the privilege of living in America without chronic anxiety and fear simply because of the color of my skin. I did nothing to earn this status. That is the reality of my white privilege and by any rational perspective, that inequality is unacceptable.

Black Lives Matter.

We must have an America where every person can be accepted and live free from fear. That is a minimum requirement of this country.

I have mentored inner-city kids (most of them black) for more than a decade. My job is to help them make good decisions and try to get them on their path of success. And yet I know they are entering a world set against them in many ways.

Many years ago, I took one of these children to an outdoor music festival. The event was surrounded by different craft vendors, including one selling rebel Confederate flags, to many an insidious symbol of white supremacy and racial violence. The little boy innocently picked up the tiny flag, waved it, and smiled at me. He thought it was pretty. It was a moment of intense pain. I felt ashamed. I just wanted to bolt out of there.

I have a father’s protective instinct for these children and I feel insignificant and helpless to change what is ahead for them. They’ll face a bias that has become institutionalized in parts of our government, society, workplaces, and sometimes even within the people meant to protect us.

It seems as overwhelming to me as world hunger. I’ve seen protests against racism in America since I was a child. What is the answer and what can I do? And then I remembered a significant gem of advice from a dear friend …

Raindrops from Calcutta

Diana Krahn is one of the bravest people I know. I got to know her well when I volunteered to help her on a project to save Yazidi women enslaved by ISIS.

When she was a little girl, Diana had an opportunity to work alongside Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta. I featured her story in my book KNOWN and I bring it to you now in this time of upheaval in America:

“Mother Teresa was the most authentic person I’ve ever met. She wasn’t simply a saint in front of the TV cameras, or when speaking before the United Nations. She was precisely the same person everywhere … behind closed doors, to the poorest of the poor, and to me. That was the most touching and inspiring thing to witness.

“Of course the shock of stepping from a life of privilege into abject poverty when I visited Mother Teresa was a dizzying sensation. I was a little girl! What could I do to help? There were so many people who needed so much! I was overcome by the immensity of the poverty, the grime, and suffering. What difference could I possibly make?

“Mother Teresa sensed my internal struggle. I suppose my reaction was probably quite common with almost everyone who entered her world for the first time.

“She took me aside, bent down, and said to me in her gentle voice, ‘Diana, you seem so overwhelmed. And you seem so fascinated by how it all works and you want to help. But you see, I started very small. Everything good and great starts as something small.

“Whatever change happens in the world normally begins with little acts. Start with the small kindness.

“Just care for people. Love people. Stop judging others. When you judge people, you don’t have time to love them. So it doesn’t matter who they are, or where they’re from, or what they look like, just reach out to them.

“Maybe one act of kindness seems unimportant when there’s so much suffering. Maybe you feel like one raindrop in an ocean of need. But even the ocean is not complete without that single raindrop. Just care. Just love. Just take one step. The raindrop matters.”

My raindrop, your raindrop

My blog is my public, global voice — a platform that reaches many thousands of people. All I know to do at this moment is cry out in despair over the chronic pattern of injustice in America and offer this post as a raindrop.

Maybe this protest sign will matter, maybe it will be derided, but it is all I know to do on this sad Sunday morning.

“Just care. Just love. Just take one step. The raindrop matters.”

These words from the slums of Calcutta represent the raindrops America needs at this moment. It is certainly a good place to start, something we can all accomplish.

Your raindrop matters, too. Let’s make it rain.

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions and COO for B Squared Media. He is the author of several best-selling digital marketing books and is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world. Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration courtesy Unsplash.com

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