Contending with Painful Political Paradigms

Recently, I was speaking with some friends, and I mentioned that I was reading the new book, Hidden Figures, (currently a just-released movie that I really want to see! trailer below) about the black female mathematicians who were a critical part of America’s moon landing and many other aeronautical achievements during the 1940s, ’50s, 60s, and 70s.

One of them asked if I knew there had been white female mathematicians that were a part of that effort, and I was delighted to answer yes.  In fact, I had recommended to them the movie they were now recommending to me (Top Secret Rosies – a great documentary!) about that history.

What was said next stunned and deeply saddened me.  “It’s too bad the new movie focuses only on the black women.  It really shouldn’t be about race.  It should be just about the story.” I couldn’t believe my ears.

I replied that I didn’t quite agree, as the book made clear the amazing amount of institutionalized racism the black women endured that the white women certainly did not, and that I thought that their story merited a separate treatment on that basis alone.  As more points were discussed, it became clear that not only did these friends not agree with me but were uninterested in considering my perspective.  As, frankly, by that point, I felt the same way towards them, it was a relief when the conversation moved to more cordial waters.

But I’m ended up suffering from minor insomnia, because I couldn’t get over that conversation. I never would have thought that these friends, one of whom several years ago highly recommended the excruciating but inspiring Melba Patillo Beals book, Warriors Don’t Cry, about the horrible racism and violence she endured as one of the Little Rock Nine integrating Arkansas public schools, would be casually espousing what I think are racist attitudes.  In the moment, I felt paralyzed as to what I could possibly say.

When I took a gender paradigms class in college, one of the first things we learned was what exactly a paradigm was: a set of attitudes and assumptions about the world that you don’t even realize you’re holding.  If you can’t see it, you can’t examine it, and that’s the frustration of trying to have conversations with people of a different paradigm – they cannot consider your experience as being different from theirs. (It takes constant vigilance to keep from doing the same yourself!)

This became incredibly clear when the teacher asked the women in the class to share things they experienced on a daily basis as women in a male-dominated world.  Many women spoke, but the one I remember having the most impact was when one female student mentioned the normality of always walking with her hand on her keys, in order to have a self-defense weapon available if attacked.  One of the male students burst out incredulously, “Really?  You actually do that?” and every single one of us females in the classroom nodded.  He was a naturally boisterous and good-natured guy, but for the rest of that class period, he sat quietly with a really upset look on his face, later sharing that he was stunned at the idea that that sort of hyper-vigilance was natural and apparently necessary for women on a daily basis.

In that moment, his paradigm had been exposed to his own eyes, and he suddenly realized how much he didn’t know about others’ experiences, even though these were people he actually knew quite well.  It was cathartic for me as a woman, because more often, men simply don’t believe (and, even more so, don’t want to consider) female perspectives – whether about sexual harassment or sexism in video games or anything else we face.

I wish I’d had such a simple yet effective example to share with my friends in the racism situation.  I love them, and I consider both of them very intelligent, thoughtful, caring people, so I am really troubled that I felt utterly stymied as to how to communicate with them.

Why did these friends feel this way?  In retrospect, I think that might have been the right question in the moment – showing them that I cared about their perspective and potentially discovering how they ended up with their paradigm. Admittedly, though, I was scared of the conversation moving even farther into horrifyingly polemic waters that I wasn’t prepared to face.  Maybe I will have the courage to ask either of them in the future.

How else can one lovingly (and, of necessity, patiently) reach friends like this?  How do we heal our world of both the overt racism and bigotry we see rising across the globe in the nationalist tsunami, and, more importantly, of the more subtle and thus more insidious casual and institutionalized forms of these errors? And most importantly, how can we break down the entrenched divide of national discourse? I’m working with prayer, primarily, but I’d love to hear what other approaches and techniques friends (of any paradigm!) are working with.

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