2020 Mid-Year Report Card

Thank you, Friend Donna, for this thoughtful, introspective, and important piece.

I will look more closely, make my self-assessment, and meditate on the results.

Friends, this is more than a one-time exercise. These questions don’t only apply to events of 2020. If we all took the time and space to query like this regularly, of ourselves and one another, with honesty, transparency, and integrity, think of the possibilities!

Peace and light to all.
–Cathy

A Year of Living Kindly

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” (Maya Angelou)

We’re halfway through what will undoubtedly be one of the most significant years of our lifetime. It’s certainly not the year anyone was expecting. This seems like a good time to engage in a bit of introspection and self-evaluation, a “report card,” if you will.

Tom Bodett once said, “The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.”

What lessons have we learned over these last six months? How have we been tested? Individually and collectively, are we passing, or has our failure been illuminated? Let’s take a few moments to think about the classes we’ve all been enrolled in, and how capably we’ve faced the tests they’ve put before us.

Our first…

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Challenging the Cisgender White Christian Male Default

Old new Dillon Reservoir

What do you take for granted?

How must you adjust your words, your actions, your facial expressions—your very presence, to fit into the world around you?

These questions arose for me again recently reading Seth Godin’s blog post from June 17, “The Dominant Culture.”

One of the great cartoons involves two goldfish in a tank talking to one another. One responds in surprise, “wait, there’s water?”

When we don’t see the water, it’s a sign we’re benefitting from being part of the dominant culture.

Visit a country where they don’t speak English and you’ll probably remind yourself all day that you speak English, something you didn’t have to think about last week. You’ll have to work overtime to understand and communicate. Back home, that stress disappears.

Living within a dominant culture means being reminded of this all day, every day.

It reminded me of the famous 2005 commencement address given by David Foster Wallace, the transcript of which was later published, entitled This Is Water.  He admonishes graduates of Kenyon College to open their eyes and minds to the automatic, mindless ways they make meaning from mundane life experiences, to acknowledge and exercise keen awareness of the inescapable interconnectedness of humanity (my interpretation):

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

I started to think and wonder…  For cisgender, white, Christian men (CWCM), the dominant culture in the United States, the ‘rise’ of ‘other groups’ to ‘power’ can be understandably threatening–Black Brown Asian Gay Trans Muslim Female Other…

But there are CWCM who seem not to feel threatened, and who actively ally/accomplice to help other groups rise, to help them claim agency and work toward inclusion and equity.  They are what I imagine Chip and Dan Heath might call the ‘bright spots’ (see Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard) of the Patriarchy.

While engaging (fighting, overcoming) those who resist, why not also study and amplify those who assist?

What is it about these men, their networks, their environment, or whatever else, that facilitates their allyship with marginalized, non-dominant-culture people and groups?

Or even better, how does their conversion occur?  How do they overcome the perceived threat, conscious or not, to see the benefits of equality, and then join the fight to advance it?  What happens there, and how can we replicate and scale that conversion?

Last week on vacation I started reading Four Days to Change by Michael Welp, recommended to me by a wise old white man.  Welp and his partners run the White Men’s Caucus, the flagship retreat program of White Men as Full Diversity Partners.  As I understand it, the organization strives for exactly this conversion of awareness, enlightenment, and action.  On retreat, white men are provided the space and safety, as well as the excruciating challenge, to explore, without shame or suppression, their personal and shared experience of cultural privilege, entitlement, and responsibility.  I have a feeling this will be a transformational book for me, a cisgender, East Asian, Cathuddhist woman.  How’s that for intersectionality?

The author, speaking to White Men’s Caucus attendees:  “’If we created most of the institutions we dwell in today, they are going to reflect our culture.  But we don’t see this cultural water we swim in because we never have to leave it.  So we equate it with just being a good human.  Others assimilate into it, so it looks to us like it’s everyone’s culture.’”

He goes on to list the ‘core threads of the fabric of white male culture in the United States’ (how do they land on you?):

  • Rugged Individualism
  • Low Tolerance of Uncertainty
  • Action over Reflection
  • Rationality over Emotion
  • Time Is Linear & Future Focused
  • Status & Rank over Connection

After discussion with participants he notes, “’Notice that the guys who bring the skills less emphasized in the culture can more quickly identify how the culture works against them.  You might imagine the same experience for women and people of color.’  …It’s even more critical in today’s global world that we as members of the dominant group understand our water.”  I can’t wait to keep reading and see hearts broken open, as Parker Palmer says, to the power and potential of inescapable interconnectedness.

Lastly, I watched again Michael Kimmel’s 2015 TED talk on gender equality. I mentioned it on this blog in 2016, writing about Brock Turner and white male privilege.  At 1:08, listen to his story about the moment he realized he was a middle class white man.  In 16 minutes, he eloquently addresses gender and racial inequity, with evidence for the myriad societal benefits of dismantling them both.  “Privilege is invisible to those who have it…  It is a luxury, I will say to the white people sitting in this room, to not have to think about race every split second of our lives.”  It’s the water we swim in.  To white men the water is body temperature, almost like a sensory deprivation river, holding them up, always flowing in the direction of their dreams and aspirations, never a hindrance.  For too many others, it’s exactly the opposite.

It’s not that we should make water harder for CWCMs to swim.  It’s that white men can and must learn to see how the water hinders so many others, and then use their advantages to help those who struggle.  The collective benefits far outweigh the costs, as Kimmel describes.  The perceived personal risks loom large, and it’s ever clearer to me that only white men can truly lead other white men to overcome their visceral, existential risk aversion.

I’m still figuring out my own role in all of this Work.  I trust that I will know soon enough.

Not Just Words

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Friends, it’s been another week of observing, processing, learning, and integrating.  Holy cow, I really need this vacation.  I need nature, time with family away from work, away from the news.  I need to take a breath.

Things feel different this time.  I think this cautiously; I allow it—hope.  Change will be incremental and slow, but I feel a real acceleration today.  Equality is an infinite game, and we who play to advance it find ourselves in a moment of palpable solidarity and purpose.  But what comes next?  What will the field look and feel like at the end of the summer?  In a year?  In ten years?  When my kids are my age? What progress will we look back and see, initiated in this movement of 2020?  How can we make this a turning point?

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Stories

First, we must seek to understand the scope and nature of the challenge.  For many of us this means listening.  “Facts don’t change our minds.  Friendship does,” James Clear writes.  We humans are not rational, logical beings at our core.  We change our minds when we can relate to someone else’s experience, and the best way to do that is to listen to their stories.

Here are some stories that moved me this week:

Reflections of a Token Black Friend by Ramesh A. Nagarajah:  I think back to when my friends never understood why I wasn’t allowed to play with water guns — or any toy guns, for that matter — when I was a boy. I’d be so excited to visit a friend’s house and use their airsoft gun in the backyard. I used to get so frustrated when my mom told us it was “too dangerous” for black boys to do that and that someone would mistake it for a real gun. When I was 16, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed while playing with a replica toy airsoft gun. I realized my mom was right.  …I think of the way the black girls were treated as second rate in high school. Guys rarely tried to talk to them romantically, and if they did, others discussed it with an undertone of comedy. I never felt this way, personally, but didn’t realize until college that my silence was compliance. I was participating in denying dignity to the black women around me.

A passionate and powerful video by Kimberly Jones, author of I’m Not Dying With You Tonight, which is now in my queue.  Listen and watch to the end.  Embrace the discomfort.  Whatever you experience in these few minutes is nothing compared to what Black people have suffered for generations.  Then mull over her last sentence.

A heartfelt and important essay by Dr. Marie Ramas, on her role as a Black woman primary care physician during a pandemic:  Once again, as a healer working in a system seemingly based more on economics than wellness, I felt forced to make an impossible ethical decision. Then, I realized that the underlying question for me to answer was not whether I would treat individuals at the risk of my own self. Rather, I needed to pan out my scope of view and ask, “How can I help rebalance the scales of justice to reflect the inherent worth of the black and brown lives that I both serve and represent?”

Sensational six FB Humans of St Louis 1 of 7 June 2020

The Sensational Six:  Six Black women graduated from the pediatrics residency at Washington University St. Louis this month.   Follow the link to read the 7 consecutive posts about these remarkable women, and look for their mark on our future.  Their names are

Fehintola Olaiya, MD
Stephanie Diggs, MD
Frances Annan-Fohtung, MD
Mia Henderson, MD/PhD
Olivia Beaubrun, MD
Tobi Olayiwola, MD

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Connection, Action, Accountability, and Togetherness

The goal of all this seeking and listening, of course, is Connection.  The only way to get to shared humanity—true connection—is stories.  And the only way to stay in the infinite game fighting against structural racism is to play together, team members rotating on and off the field.  The metaphor of a choir holding the prolonged single note, strong and clear, by staggering each person’s breaths, applies here.

The team is huge—every one of us has a role to play and a contribution to make.  What Actions can we each take?  Here is a list of 75 to choose from.  Start now.  No action is too small.  Do it sincerely, consistently, and with integrity.

How will we hold each other Accountable?  Company after company declares their opposition and intolerance to racism.  “It’s all words,” as one Black woman told me bluntly.  We need metrics, goals, and transparency.  Medical schools must recruit more students of color.  Companies must promote more people of color to designated leadership roles.  Citizens must demand of our legislators to address systemic and institutionalized discrimination, to give it tangible consequences that motivate change.

Most importantly, we must do the deep work of ferreting out where bias hides in our institutions, understanding clearly how it impacts our practices for the worse, and then reworking our systems to eliminate, or at least moderate, those negative consequences.  The legend of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s blind auditions can instruct us here.  We can claim success when we see people of color represented proportionally in leadership, policymaking, and all of the most influential and impactful aspects of our culture.

We have so very far to go.  But at least it feels, for the time being, that more of us have opened our eyes to the path ahead.  And rather than turning (running) away, we turn toward—Together.  We find each other’s hands and grab on, holding tight.  We take one tentative step, then another, and another.

If we keep walking, together, we will make progress.