"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves." --Rainer Maria Rilke Photo (Photo ©julenisse/Fotolia)

Friday, September 01, 2017

Forget the Art of the Deal--Using Art to Heal Racial and Cultural Divides

As seen in

Pink Martini at the Hollywood Bowl

Friday night my husband and I sat on our deck overlooking the twinkling lights of the Los Angeles San Fernando Valley. After a glass (or two) of wine, tears of despair began to run down my cheeks. In the midst of a hurricane, the president had unleashed his latest round of intolerance by pardoning defiant former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and unveiling the specifics of his plan for booting transgender people from our armed forces. We were still reeling from Charlottesville and the “many sides” remarks of a man who also keeps trying to ban Muslims from entering our country, who won’t shut up about building The Wall, and who is determined to undermine the free press.

It’s nearly impossible to come to terms with the profoundly hateful rhetoric and blatant white nationalist symbolism that is infiltrating our lives on a daily basis. I am the parent of an LGBTQ child. My daughter-in-law is Jewish. Over the weekend, a so-called Facebook friend called my husband a “spic.” So I feel defensive and protective of both friends and strangers who are targets of hate groups and ignorance.

Before Sunday night, I had no idea how our nation could reconcile the ugliness that divides us. Then I saw Pink Martini at the Hollywood Bowl. By the end of the evening I felt like I’d participated in a highly successful, hands-across-the-water peace mission cum summer camp, where participants dance around the globe singing “Kumbaya” or “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”

The group’s bandleader and pianist Thomas Lauderdale has said, “If the United Nations had a house band in 1962, hopefully we’d be that band.”

I knew next to nothing about Pink Martini prior to seeing them at the Bowl, the group’s 17th performance at that iconic venue. It was moving and exhilarating to watch the band beckon audience members to join them on stage to sing in their native tongues, which included Japanese, Armenian, French, Turkish and more.

About 10 Arabic speakers backed up guest soloist Ikram Goldman. An Israeli-born owner of a high fashion boutique in Chicago, Goldman famously outfitted Michelle Obama during her husband’s 2008 campaign and first White House years. NPR’s All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro then stepped up to sing a number penned by a Palestinian songwriter.

By the time all was sung and done, and people from Mexico, Nigeria and dozens of other countries had paraded across the stage, the profound sadness I’d felt going into the weekend was washed away by the sheer inclusiveness of it all. LA is diverse, and I don’t know if Pink Martini duplicates this spectacle in Kansas City or Wilmington or Ft. Lauderdale. I hope so, because the message delivered by this show is beyond entertaining, it’s imperative.

It’s no secret that music heals. And we all have something of value to give. Forget the art of the deal. Let’s use art to heal. We all have something to offer and giving can be an art form. If it’s not music or a paintbrush or words, perhaps it’s baking or knitting or teaching. Maybe it’s our willingness to drive or babysit, ladle out soup or simply sit and listen. When I was a young Girl Scout, our troop embroidered gingham dish towels, which we distributed to residents at a senior citizens’ complex—a modest gesture, but one that brought joy and value to folks who may have felt lonely or useless. We all have some gift that can empower us to reach across the divide.

We clearly can’t look to the White House for restoration or leadership when it comes to healing our vast racial and cultural differences. It’s up to us. If, like Pink Martini, we commit to embrace one another, rather than push away all who are foreign to us, we can create an artistic level of compassion and humanity. That would be something to sing about.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Examining My White Privileged Heart in the Aftermath of Charlottesville

Indignant? Horrified? Dismayed? 

I can’t find the exact right word, or combination of words, to adequately describe my feelings about what happened in Charlottesville and in the days since. I can’t fathom the depths of bigotry that motivate the hateful rhetoric and symbolism of the white nationalist movement.

How do we even begin to heal the vast chasm that divides these extremists from the rest of us?

The fact that there is an “us” and a “them” is abhorrent, but I will clearly stand with my sisters and brothers and declare myself on the side of People of Color, Jews, the LGBTQ community, and anyone else targeted by the vile (anagram of evil) fringe that bangs its drums to the rhythm of fanatical narrow mindedness.

Is it a paradox to be intolerant of white supremacists while calling for them to be tolerant of others? Are we allowed to hate them and the people who refuse to harshly condemn them? Can we claim that we are on the righteous side of the abyss and are therefore justified in our indignation? Jesus would tell us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. I am not sufficiently spiritually evolved to be so charitable, all the while needing to believe in my core that love will somehow be the answer.

I also know that I have to frequently examine my own heart as it relates to stereotypes. I am guilty of having put people in boxes. Certainly this week, I have lumped the white supremacists—them—together. There is something oddly comforting in insisting I have nothing in common with that torch-carrying mob. (Thanks for ruining Tiki torches for me, by the way.)

I was raised in a predominantly white, conservative Midwest suburb by progressive, liberal parents who taught me that all people were equal and worthy regardless of race, color, creed, gender, etc. I’d convinced myself that I was color blind, and was horrified by racist comments, attitudes and stereotypes. Of course, with only a couple of black students in my high school graduating class of 450, my experience in putting my convictions into practice was limited.

As an adult, I learned an important lesson on the risks of pigeonholing individuals based on physical characteristics. I call it “The Time I Put My Privileged White Foot in My Mouth.”

I had just met an executive of my husband’s company. Over pre-dinner cocktails, we chatted about education. He’d attended a Jesuit university; my father had two degrees from another Jesuit institution, and my son was enrolled at Loyola in Chicago at the time. At some point, I sized up this affable, 6-foot, 5-inch African-American man and began to ask him The Question:

“Did you play ----?”  

Before I even got the word basketball out of my mouth, he responded, “No. I played the trumpet.”

He was gracious. I was mortified. Thankfully, my daughter played the trumpet, so I hid my shame by nattering on about jazz. It taught me an important lesson about making assumptions, even well meaning ones. I asked myself if I’d have asked the same question of a tall white man—or woman for that matter. I thought I would have. I hoped I would have, but the truth is, I wasn’t sure. At the very least, it was rude of me to assume anything based solely on his height and the color of his skin. Worse, I may have seriously offended him by making such a thoughtless judgment.

I’ve never forgotten the humiliation I felt at having typecast that gentleman, reducing him to a cliché. It was an important lesson in discerning how an offhand or glib comment—one that may seem harmless on the surface—could be perceived as bigoted and thoughtless, perhaps even hurtful, on the receiving end. 

At my high school reunion recently, I found myself in the midst of a discussion about our school’s mascot, the Scout, which used to be illustrated as a blue and gold, longhaired, feathered brave in a loincloth. The logo has since been amended to eliminate the brave, and has been replaced by a spear over our school’s monogram. (A step in the right direction.)

“I don’t understand why they changed it,” a classmate said to me. “We didn’t mean anything offensive by it.”

“Yeah, but what if it was offensive to Native Americans?” I asked.

The exchange was another chance for me to think about what it’s like for the shoe to be on the other foot. And the truth is, I will never really know. I don’t know what it is like to be Native American, African American, Mexican, gay, Muslim or Jewish. But I can seek out opportunities to understand, to have the hard conversations, to stand in solidarity instead of on the sidelines.

I need those opportunities so I don’t get complacent about how marginalization, well-meaning assumption, and cultural appropriation take place in our world every single day.

When it comes to race, it doesn’t matter how good or pure our intentions are if the end result is hurtful or repugnant to an entire group of people.

On the other hand, if my beliefs are objectionable to grand wizards and Nazi flag-carrying, Confederate sympathizers, I guess I’ll just have to live with that.