A couple of days ago, Sarah read my Understanding versus Empathizing post and asked a very interesting question, “how can we engage with people and persuade them to see that change is their individual responsibility?” The night before, the following true story of staying human, finding common ground, and change came to mind as a possible answer.
I have a friend in New York whose ninety-six year old mother is my best friend. I like to think of her as my personal Maya Angelou. She’s so-o-o-o incredibly kind and wise. I’ve emailed my essays to my friend via her daughter on occasion because she’s ninety-six years old and not technically savvy. A couple of days ago, I was on the phone with my friend (the daughter) …
Friend: Yeah, I enjoyed your essays … they remind me of that piece of yours I read in The Times.
Me: Wait. Say what?
Friend: That piece you wrote that was in The Times.
Me: The New York Times?! When did you see that?
Friend: A couple months ago. You didn’t know about it?
Friend: No! I mean, yes. I mean … I submitted it months ago.
Me: How long ago?
Friend: I don’t know. Maybe back in April. Let me call you back later. I need to talk to The Times—
I couldn’t get off the line with her fast enough so I could ring up The Times.
After half an hour on the phone with a nice customer service rep, I learned that The New York Times published my first essay on race in America from summer 2015 back in December 2015. Of course, I immediately posted the news on my Facebook page and a boatload of congratulatory messages popped up.
(Stay with me, you’ll see where this is going.)
Later that same night, around 3:00 a.m. (because I live on the Vampire Sleep Schedule and all good vampires are wide awake at 3:00 a.m.), a message came in from a guy I worked with years ago on the touring company of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. Todd worked as an animal wrangler, tending to the needs of the show’s animal actors (a couple of camels, some sheep, and a donkey for the Nativity). And I performed as a Christmas elf, dancing teddy bear, and Frosty the Snowman. If you’ve never worked with theater people (singers, dancers, actors, musicians, and the crew), you know there’s never a dull moment. And for those of you who haven’t worked with theater people, let me tell you … there’s never a dull moment.
A third of the way into our three-month run, one of my elfmates revealed to Todd that I was gay. This was no big deal for me because the way saw it once the first person found out the news was sure to became common knowledge.
Back to a couple nights ago, my vampire sleep schedule … Todd’s message came in via Facebook Messenger and it read —
… I respect you. You made a comment about you are surprised that people want to read your perspective on things. I would like to say, we don’t have same views BUT I respect your perspective (no short joke). When we first met I noticed your height. Then I noticed you are black, and then Steve told me you were gay.
You have a different perspective of the world. You are a black male. You are a little person. You are gay. Those alone give you a different perspective on life, add all those together and you have a view no one else has. We appreciate your view because no one else has your experience. You have a kind way of speaking. A way that makes all who like you feel wrapped in a kind of secure swaddling even if you disagree with them. You make us want to agree with you.
I’ve been labeled a homophobe, bigot, pro-gun, racist redneck. I just want to make sure you know that I respect your views. I call you friend. You make me want to look at the world thru different eyes. Thank you for your perspective that I believe wants all of us to be better people.
Love you brother.”
I can’t continue without saying that Todd’s message cause a lump the size of a football to form in my throat. Don’t get distracted here by tinsel or the mention of The New York Times. There’s more.
The year I met Ted, I was consumed with learning my choreography, blocking, and lyrics to be concerned about changing someone’s perception of short, black, gay, Christian men. I didn’t have time to worry about being the poster child for short, gay, black, Christian men. But I did make it a point to get to know the people I worked with and their stories.
As a member of the Christmas Spectacular touring company we spent a lot of time together. We travelled together, rehearsed together, stayed in the same hotel together, ate breakfast together, rode to work together, performed together on the same stage, and yes, we partied together. And every newcomer had a decision to make: to become a part of our rollicking and sometimes messy Christmas pudding of humanity or isolate. Todd the Cowboy and Clay the Christmas elf chose, as did the vast majority of the cast and crew, to get to retain our own humanity and embrace that of others by getting to know one another as people and focusing on our similarities rather than differences.
You see, even though we all had the common goal of turning out at least twelve fantastic shows a week, we were a diverse group of people of all ages, ethnicities, economic background grounds, religious affiliations, et cetera. We came from red states and blue states. We grew to become stronger because of our differences. Everyone was valued because we couldn’t achieved our common goal — putting on the show — without everyone’s contribution.
In my opinion, this is where America has jumped the shark. The country has become a group of factions that has lost sight of its common goal and founding principles of equality for all and unification. Anybody remember “the United States of America” and “liberty and justice for all”?
So back to where we started, how do we engage people?
With respect, care, and active listening. Black Americans and People of Color are not some product to be sold like a vacuum cleaner by a door-to-door salesman. We’re people. And as a society, we have to be willing to engage one another on a non-objectified, human level, right where we are. I mean that in terms of proximity and emotionally.
I can hear you already, but what about people who don’t want to engage?
Don’t let their inability to be human lessen your humanity. If the people exhibiting their humanity outnumber those who don’t, peer pressure will eventually set in, and they’ll come around. Who wants to be the odd man out?
How do we persuade them to see that change is their individual responsibility? Like Sarah said in her post, humans will not change because you want them to or because you put a gun to their head or for any other reason than because they decide they want to change their own beliefs.
Genuine change happens in relationship with others. Be yourself. It’s not so much that we have to convince someone else that they have a responsibility to change. In reality, everyone’s first responsibility is to allow others the opportunity to change.
Love one another.