I just watched a presentation by the CEO of AT&T (Randall Stevenson) about racial tension. Take a look at it yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ThO74-oFt_Q
He begins by listing statistics about the violence in our society around racial, gender, and religious differences and the obvious responses of ‘crack down and control’ or legitimate (certainly understandable) anger. Most people, he says, fall somewhere in between these two responses (which means they do nothing). But, he adds, if we were to have a secret ballot about what we feel and what we think we should do, he says, we might be surprised by the results.
To elaborate on this point he describes his own surprise at the response of his upper middle class longtime African American friend to the recent violence. I was ‘stunned’, he says, when he heard his friend’s stories about his experiences as a Black person, from his childhood to the present day. This surprise turned to embarrassment that they had never even discussed these things despite knowing each for years and spending so much time in each other’s homes. If close friends can fail to understand each other’s worlds, he concludes, what chance do others have of doing this? And how and why did this happen, he wonders: was it because it is ‘impolite’ to bring up such things, these secrets that everyone knows? Or is it simply too uncomfortable, too upsetting, too frightening? Or is there more going on?
The immediate point is that we can no longer continue like this, for to do so will mean more death and destruction until our entire society falls apart. We have to start to talk to each other; we have no choice anymore. We have to try to understand each other because our inability or unwillingness to do so is killing us.
Nor can we leave it to the leaders of the country. They can’t do this without us. Or, perhaps more importantly, they won’t do it unless we begin.
Stevenson says we need understanding of each other and not simply tolerance. Tolerance is for cowards; understanding takes courage: the courage to step into the discomfort that honest conversation inevitably brings. We have to face the anger and frustration of our neighbors who are oppressed because of our cowardly tolerance, which allows us – for example – to respond to ‘black lives matter’ with statements like ‘but all lives matter,’ and then do nothing.
It seems to me that what we all have to do as a people is to step into the discomfort of our differences and begin to understand each other. We can only address our shared challenges in this way: together, united by mutual understanding. We don’t even have to agree with each other; that would be impossible but also uncreative. For we also need our differences because they are the actual source of our creativity when they are held together in the right way.
Stevenson elicited tremendous applause when he said that this Dialogue would have to start with him probably because we all know that it has to start with each of us, personally and professionally.
This Dialogue, he concludes, begins with ‘why’ not ‘what’: ‘Why’ do you think, feel, act this way? When we can get to some mutual understanding around this ‘why’, the ‘what’ will follow more easily. And the decisions that emerge will be more effective, because they will have been born out of our emerging shared understanding.