Last night I found myself in the middle of a Republican fund raiser. There was a broad spectrum of demographics present. I was very curious how I would react amidst a group of people whose political rhetoric was different from mine. I had a mixed experience and spoke at length with my wife, who had played piano for the event, about it. We both learned a lot about how embedded prejudices are within us.
Many of the conversations would end in a passionate but brutal critique of the Democrats. When I spoke with my wife later we marveled how similar this experience was to the Republican bashing many of our family and friends drop into.
My wife said "That's why I love music. It is universal and free of the isms. That's my message." As she said these words I remembered an article I had written several years ago on my experience of discovering my own isms and working with them in what turned out to be a powerful and ongoing healing process. I'd like to share it with you.
Recently I spent a weekend in a "Coaching for Transformation" class with thirty-five of my life coach peers, mentors and teachers. We were in downtown New York on a spectacular Fall day. The topic we were exploring together was: coaching minorities in the light of racism, gender discrimination, sexual orientation, age-ism and other isms that tend to isolate or ostracize people. About half-way through the weekend, an African-American woman mentor coach spoke up and said she felt that the real issue of racism was not being brought into the room in a way that was real. Her vulnerability and passion surprised me. After what seemed a long silence, people voiced their agreements. The majority of the coaches in the room were white. The minorities in the group included one Asian, several Latinos and four African-Americans.
Then someone suggested we coach each other on the issue. My heart began to pound as a voice from deep within me said "you are Australian and Australians are really racist." As no one else had volunteered, I shakily spoke up and said I would like to be coached about my racist tendencies. I was going in blind, not knowing what would be revealed in exploring this with my peers. Another African-American woman, and recent friend I had met in the coaching group, volunteered to be the coach. I was nervous, as I intuited that my deepest fears and darkest secrets would soon be exposed to everyone. Little did I know what was about to unfold.
The woman was about my age. She trusted me implicitly and asked me to explore what it was that made me think I was racist. The terms and expressions from my childhood flooded through my awareness. I was afraid. She leaned forward and invited me to utter the expressions aloud to the hushed room of fellow peer and mentor coaches. I knew I could not do it. I faltered and broke down in tears feeling a deep spiritual pain of remorse. It was deeper than my own personal pain. I was looking at a woman who had spent a lifetime being ignored, under-valued, rejected and isolated because of the color of her skin. I felt deeply implicated and began to confess the myriad of "small" ways this prejudice plays itself out in my life as a school teacher in a school of many and varied minorities.
She and the teachers held the space in the room for everything to emerge safely in front of the group. The teachers admitted that what had opened up in the room was new and they were not sure where to go from here. Our group had many other options to explore that day. Many had suffered from the wounds of prejudice based on gender, sexual orientation, racism and age. However the overwhelming consensus was to stay with what had opened up and to reverse the roles. One coach astutely pointed out that racism was less explored from the African-American viewpoint and so hearing from my friend would in fact take us all into deeper unknown territory. I would now coach my friend and peer so she could share her experience.
We broke for lunch and when we resumed I stepped into the coach's role. I found this challenging. Within minutes the depth of my friend's despair started to surface between us. My friend was frustrated. She felt very little if any, real change in eradicating racism in this country. She recalled her painful experiences at school when her teachers could not conceive of an African-American student as successful. I floundered. I had not known this pain and despair, having grown up in Australia as a privileged white male. I felt awkward as I coached her in front of my peers.
As our coaching time together was coming to an end I fumbled to help my friend go forward. I asked her to reflect and come up with ways to move forward. To my surprise she unhesitatingly rejected my request. "What? You want me to endure more?" I felt deeply embarrassed and unconscious of how deep her wounds went. I could only try to hold the space for her to explore her feelings and options. My teachers, like angels on my shoulders, guided us until the end. All I had to offer was my presence. I could not "fix" anything. It was too wide, too deep, too vast. At the end of our session my friend was impacted and reflective. The miraculous healing brought about through listening with an open heart was present between us.
Simultaneously, I felt an emotional schism between us. I felt my friend had shared a deeply personal wound that was the product of forces that existed before we were both born. I felt our conscious coaching had made the "elephant in the room" visible. The hidden forces of embedded conclusions and unconscious denial of racism had emerged between us and, it seemed to me, had pushed the whites and blacks into their colored corners. We had stepped out of our comfort zones and I could not imagine what would unfold from this spontaneous exploration.
When I returned to school the next day, I was acutely aware of the subtle ways prejudice was playing out within and around me. I embraced conversations with my minority students with heightened care and curiosity. I saw them blossom and open up to me in miraculous ways. Several spontaneously shared intimate facts of their life openly. It was as if they sensed the safety in my new-found awareness. On one occasion an African-American girl in one of my classes shared with me (and the class) that her mother helps her prepare to overcome anxiety in her tests. I felt very moved as she spoke. At some point I felt my friend's presence from the day before enter the room. At first it was as if she was witnessing this moment with me. Then, quite unexpectedly, the young student seemed to look and sound like my friend. It was as if I was seeing her in front of me, as she had been at school four decades earlier.
Something mysterious happened that I alone bore witness to, and this was because my friend and I had dared to explore this painful ism on a sunny day in New York.
"Lawrence Carroll's workshop on personal stress management, which he conducted with my Columbia Grad School class
was a huge success."
Neal Pilson, Columbia University, Former President, CBS Sports