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  • Valerie Hope

Ep. 57 – Not Quite Strangers: Microaggressions And The Media

Not Quite Strangers | Microaggressions

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Microaggressions And The Media

This episode is quite interesting because this is one of the first times as many times as I threatened my guests to bring them back for another episode. After all, I thought the conversation was so rich or we ran out of time to talk through all the things we wanted to talk through. I did what I said I was going to do. I brought back two guests from a previous episode. I have here Jae and Shelly. Jae and Shelly, welcome to the show.


I want to, first of all, give people a heads-up for those who didn't read the first episode that you guys did. Jae, you and I met in the summer of 2022 when I was in Alabama. I went to Montgomery to visit the Equal Justice Initiative Museum. You and I ended up talking in the gift shop. I was wandering around trying to figure out what to buy and you helped me. We got into a fascinating conversation.


Shelly, you and I met because I ran into a group of you and your peers who were touring the museum or memorial at the time. We happened to run into each other. I asked one of your peers a question and all of a sudden, we got into this huge conversation. I was there with my brothers and sister-in-law and they were like, “Of course, Valerie gets into a conversation with a random group of strangers.” They had a bet that whoever I ended up talking to would end up on the show. Welcome to my life. Welcome back to the show.


Thank you.


It’s nice to be with you again.


Why did you guys say yes the first time and what brought you back the second time?


It was talking to you in the gift shop. The concept of the whole show of meeting someone, chatting with them, learning about them, connecting, and learning was very interesting to me. I enjoyed the conversation the first time. I was all for part two when you said, “Let us do it.” I'm very interested in the things that Shelly does. She seems very interesting and cool. That's why I'm here. I love connecting and it was a great experience.


Thanks for that, Jae. Shelly is cool. Shelly, what about you?


For my part, the spirit with which you engage in conversation was so inviting and generous. It made me feel like we were having a connection. There was a sense of trust that showed up like, “This is somebody that I even trust to have a conversation probably about race publicly.” That is a little bit on the unusual side. Jae, your smile is infectious. You are somebody that draws people toward you and that's a wonderful thing. I'm very happy to keep talking with Jae. You're very interesting. I still would love to hear so many more stories about everything that goes on in your world.


I was fascinated by what both of you shared. I don't even remember where we left off in the last conversation but I do have more questions that I can go on and ask all kinds of stuff. Shelly, you said about this idea of having comfortable talking about race that sometimes is difficult to get into. My mom and I were having a conversation. She reads a lot of books so every once in a while, she'll share some examples of the things that she's read and some podcasts that she listened to about racial reconciliation and that sort of thing.


I want to hear what the two of you have to say about this. One of the things that came up in my conversation with my mom was the idea of how you reconcile. If there's a group of people, whether that's based on race, ethnicity, or religion, who have not received their status, acknowledgment, and their land language, humanity has been disrespected for a long period.


With the groups that have participated in the disrespect or the lack of acknowledgment, how do you balance bringing parodies or the equity piece? Do you look for the conversation to reconcile?


Do you reconcile emotions or systems? Where do you even start? She and I went back and forth saying, “My point of view is you start with the heart.” That's where I go first. For reconciliation to happen, you have to care and be empathetic and compassionate to another group or person. Without that, I don't think the systems will be strong enough to sustain. It could be temporary. I'm curious about what your take is on that. Where do you start reconciliation?


For me, it’s all about conversation, talking about it, and letting the other person know that if they have a question or want to make a statement, it won't be met with any kind of harshness or rudeness. It’s like, “You want to have compassion and everything but let's talk it out. Let's have a dialogue and then we can go into the levels of equity, what that means for one another, and all that other stuff.” For me, it's always starting with talking it out and seeing where that flows with the conversation.


I like your answer because you're taking it from person to person, that deep personal connection. When I hear that question, I hear it in a larger frame though too, which is like how groups reconcile not just individuals who might meet on the street. I've come to this place of multiple choice. I am picking all of the above. I run into people who are situated in four different orientations. One of them is, “How do I reconcile myself?”


What I heard on the front end of your question, Valerie, is what happens when there are some people who maybe even haven't acknowledged that there has been harm done? At least from a racial perspective, I'm coming from a group that's done a hell of a lot of harm. If I can't acknowledge that, how can I expect somebody else to be able to hear what I have to say if I am saying that I refuse to hear what another person has gone through?


I need to do that acknowledgment first on some level. I hear people say, “You work on yourself first and then maybe affiliation is going to become possible.” At the same time, a lot of what helped me to recognize myself was the kindness of strangers who were able to be in dialogue with me, hear where I was not hearing things, give me feedback and push back, and help me to see myself better. I appreciate that too. At different times, that's played a big role.


There’s a whole bunch of people in my world who are arguing that this is about systems. If we fix the systems, policies, and cultural frames, we will grow up and see things differently. That would help us do some of that reconciling. I'm looking for where you’re doing any kind of work. If somebody's invested in any of those elements, and that to me is a starting point, I don't know if there's a right one or not though.


I'll follow up with all of the above methodologies. Why pick and choose when it comes to healing? Reconciliation is to make it whole again. Part of it is to heal wherever it hurts most. Sometimes wherever it hurts most, it’s maybe a little too intense. It could be that we need to figure out how the outer layer gets healed first and then work our way in or work from the inside out.


The conversation sometimes becomes a little challenging. We're immigrants to the US. I can't speak for all immigrants but in our case, our family immigrated. We grew up in the military. I shared that with you guys in the first episode. I didn't know I was Black until I was fourteen. Jae, you had some of that experience. Sometimes, there's a matter of, “How do we help healing when we're not injured?”


I can go into the Equal Justice Initiative Memorial Museum and go in as a tourist seeing an exhibit that was powerful, impactful, so well done, and laid out, and not think about whether I had a family member, friend, or neighbor who was lynched or was humiliated at the hands of the Jim Crow laws that took place. There are things about that history that don't connect me at the same level that I know some of my classmates when I went to high school and college in Alabama or people from other states that experienced any of those regions.


I'm wondering how you help or support when you're not that connected. I don't know if that's the word but if not, impacted in the way that some people have. Let's start with Jae. I'm curious more about you. Let's see you work and live in the city that has the center. Are you from Alabama originally?


I am from Montgomery.


Born and raised. When you think about yourself, your life experience, your family, and the people who've come in and out of that center, how does it hit you? Seeing the history, how everything is laid out, and the impact that it has on the people that come visit, how does that impact you?


From a personal experience being in that area, I mentioned in the first episode that I grew up very much in the Suburban neighborhood and everything. Fortunately, my mom kept me carrying the history of African Americans and everything. There were times when a lot of people would come in and be very emotional because they experienced large parts of discrimination or went through a lot of discrimination in their lives and things.


I did not go through that. I'm not saying it didn't happen but not to the extent of some of the other people who come through. When I have talked to them, I have always tried to put myself in their shoes and perspective to see and understand their feelings about it. That's very important to connect and understand. I feel like it wouldn't be authentic if I was like, “I have never experienced that so I don't know what to say to you.”


The whole point of the museum or memorial is for people to have these conversations in those dialogues. For me, it's all about putting myself a perspective. Sometimes, I connect. Sometimes, I don't. One time, we had a visitor. She was in the lobby of the Peace and Justice Memorial Center and was breaking down. I don't know if you both remember the Memorial Monument waterfall in front of the Peace and Justice Center.


She had seen a name once there and got emotional. When she remembered that person, she was a child when she saw that person being lynched. She was a kid when it happened. It was people from her community for her church. When she saw that name, it had a deep emotional impact on her. In that situation, another co-worker and I sat with her, let her express all the emotions, cry it out, and be like, “These people were in my community and church? I remember and know that name.”


Those are the situations where compassion plays a large part. That happens frequently. Even when it comes to people of color who come out very angry, you understand their anger. You have to say to them that it is understandable but we don't want to let that anger keep us from having discourse dialogue and trying to reconcile and heal. I don't think that would get very far. People are coming through different aspects and things, and you see different ways to handle it. I try to put myself in that person's perspective and have compassion for them.


We don't want to let that anger keep us from having discourse and dialogue and trying to reconcile and heal.

It goes for anything. I don't know what it is about this particular subject, especially in the States, when it comes to race, for example. It’s any other time. Let’s say somebody experiences a death in the family, and maybe you haven't experienced that death at that time in your family so you don't feel the same thing. You're not in the same space. You don't have the connection with the same individual that they had.


It’s the idea of having compassion for the person who is grieving or experienced a loss. It makes sense but there's something about this particular topic where the word compassion, sometimes at least in my experience, a gap can feel a little bit bigger. There's so much meaning in attitude on what you say and don’t say.


I don't know if anybody would ever lash out on social media if I didn’t say, “Sorry for your loss,” in the right way and tone. There's something about talking about race that makes it so much more complicated. Even in this conversation, I'm like, “How do I ask this question in a way that makes sense?” Many conflicting thoughts and emotions get tied up in it. Shelly, what do you think about any of this stuff that we've said so far about it?


There are a couple of things that are coming to me about it. One of which is all that extra stuff that's layered on. What I have to admit that I see both in myself and other people over all of my life has been let's say we're going out to a dialogue after we've gone to the center. We've seen all the stuff and felt all the feelings of how much awful stuff has been done


 As a White person, even if my ancestors weren’t on site and not even in the country at the time, I'm still the face of that injury. If I'm not settled with myself about how I'm navigating that, then when I hear people in distress or real anger about it, I don't know how to enter that conversation without bringing a lot of guilt and shame to it unless I have done my work around this topic.


What happens a lot is White folks try to stay away and not be in the presence of someone who's going through so much pain or anger feeling like, “I don't know what to do so I'm going to stay away.” That deepens the divide but yet if you go toward it in a way that doesn't carry sufficient compassion, then we're doing more injury. There is a lot of question of, “What do I do?”


This is maybe where a starting point has been for me. I don't remember exactly where this came through for me and where I learned this wonderful understanding. It is not all about me. If I could personalize it, I’ll recognize that I may be the face of this thing that is generations deep so however I walk is going to be heavier. If I step on people's toes, it is going to be harder. Otherwise, it would be but the pain and angst are not all about me. It allows me to hear, receive, and be present to the pain, anger, and anguish without taking it all in and stopping it.


It's more like, “It can be a breeze that blows through me that allows me to bear witness to it.” I don't think there are enough White people who have borne witness to the pain, anger, and deep trauma. If we can get ourselves together, we can recognize the part that we can learn from this and maybe we do have to be better. There's some part of it that's true about me. If I stepped on the toe, I need to understand how I released that anger in somebody else.


If I'm willing to do that work of figuring myself out, then I also can match that with the ability to say, “It's not all mine because I'm not responsible for all of the history. A lot of what is happening here is grounded in that history, too.” It's not easy. Thankfully, I've got a community that's holding that both-end idea. “It's me and not me so I can survive this.” Let's face it. Whatever I'm going through with my emotionality, listening to the pain, anger, and upset, is nowhere near as difficult as it is to be in the pain, anger, and upset. That is a self-check right there that at least has been maybe useful to bridge a little bit of the gap.


I don’t think I shared this with you guys last time. I had an experience on an airplane. I was sitting in the coach, probably row twelve or something like that. They have first-class seats up to rows 4, 6, or something like that. Usually, when I get on the plane, I'm dead asleep. I go to sleep right away. Before the plane even takes off, usually, I'm out. It was a relatively short flight, a couple of hours or something like that. I remember going to sleep.


Before going to sleep, I do remember people going through from the coach section to the restroom at the front of the plane or that first-class cabin. There is a restroom in the front and also restrooms in the back. I fell asleep. When I woke up and I needed to go to the restroom, I went up to the front. As I was going to pass the first-class cabin section, one of the flight attendants stopped me and said, “Sorry, you can’t use these. You have to use the ones in the back.”


As a flight attendant, it’s within her purview to manage who comes in and out of that section but I remember at that moment feeling humiliated. My face got hot. I felt the tightness in my chest. I said, “I've seen other people.” She goes “Yes, but you need to go to the ones in the back.” I stood there for a couple of beats and turned around. When I looked back, the ones in the back were both occupied. I could see the red light was on so I went and sat back in my seat. I remember my breath coming in short.


That was a microaggression with a macro impact. It was very small but I remember feeling angry, hurt, and confused. Part of me had woken up from a nap too so I was also like, “What just happened? What's happening?” I could have implied that it was something based on race or class. I don't know what it was but I still feel it was hard. I noticed my breathing.


I'm a meditator so I could notice my body reactions. I was able to take some breaths and calm down. Finally, when I saw the bathrooms were not occupied anymore, I got up and went to the restroom. I remember thinking while I was in there, “If they changed the policy, they should have made an announcement. Why didn't they make an announcement?” All the stuff is running through my head.


I'm in the bathroom and there’s a beep. “We like to remind our passengers that the restrooms in the front of the plane are for our first-class passengers.” They made the announcement and I felt a little better because I didn't feel like it was personal. Had they done that in a tone that was a little less curt, I may have also not been as reactive. That was a small moment.


I’m someone who hadn’t experienced some of the historical transgressions that my family or ancestors, who at least I was connected with, haven’t experienced near the amount of microaggressive behavior that many other Black people have. It was hard to come back from that. It was just a two-minute span of time. The reason I'm saying this is because, coming back to compassion, I’ve had that brief experience and other things in my life.


This was not the only one but this is where I felt that level of anger that I remember thinking, “Can you imagine feeling this way every single day and moment?” If my mom had been living in the ‘60s, ‘70s, or ‘50s, this would be her life constantly when she went shopping, went to school, or walked on the sidewalk. It was so eye-opening to me. At that moment of anger, I was able to rationalize it back down.


I did go back and wrote a letter to customer service saying, “I don't know what was happening. I'm sure there were other things in play but it’s the way it came across, was sent with the tone of voice, and not having changed the policy over the intercom. It could have been that they said it while I was sleeping so taking responsibility but the way in which it was communicated, I felt was not inclusive in the service.” It’s something to check on whatever they're dealing with that was not kosher.


Microaggressions are the worst type of thing because they compound. You get to this point where you have another answer of a microaggression and you want to lose it. It’s like what you said, “What,” and then, “I've had enough.” You may not intend to take it out on that person but it's this compounding of these microaggressions like, “You speak so well for a Black person. You must not be full Black because your hair is so curly like that.” I would rather you be flat out.


Microaggressions are the worst type because they compound.

Create impressions than deal with the microaggressions. Take a deep breath, take a moment, and step back but they compound. A lot of people should be aware of the power of microaggression and know what microaggression is so they can recognize if they are being microaggressive. Something very subtle is saying to them what you may not be thinking is offensive like, “He speaks so well for a Black person.” It's offensive to be told, “How am I supposed to speak or sound?” Something more people should be aware of is the definition, knowing what it is, when they're doing it, and how not to.


Microaggressions are like paper cuts. They sting and can be painful, especially if you keep rubbing up against it but they're not going to bleed or create any infection necessarily after some time.


That's the thing though. Another analogy that goes along with that from what I have heard is, “It does by 1,000 paper cuts.” It does by what you said about wanting to lash out or the fact that this one statement caused you to write a letter as nice as you were about it. You even were taking responsibility for someone who pained you. That's a lot of emotional labor to have to put into having somebody treat you in a way that feels respectful.


I agree with you, Jae. We all need to know it. It's not just racial microaggressions. It's all the different types for different identity processes. I do try as best as I can to become aware of the places where I'm doing microaggressions. I know what they are and a bunch of them. I know how to avoid them. What I've also figured out is how much my mind wants my intent is still what counts. Here's what I mean. “Where do you come from?” If I'm in my White community, nobody trips out over that. Depending on who I'm asking that question to, it has a whole other different kind of impact.

Not Quite Strangers | Microaggressions
Microaggressions: Try as best as you can to become aware of the places where you're making microaggressions.


Here's the trip part. Even though I know that that's true, and I'm going to be more cautious about that question, I will flip-turn in my mind all kinds of different ways to ask a different kind of question that still hits what I want to know because I do want to talk to you about where you come from. Ultimately, I'm still seeing you as someone who maybe comes from someplace else. There's still racism in that even if my good intentions are trying to make it like the nice version of it.


I remember doing this one thing with a partner where we were analyzing all the different statuses of racial identity. There are all these ways that we can do that same thing super offensive or in our super nice way but it still has an underlying offense to it. We don’t realize it until we know why it's a problem. What is the underlying message being delivered? That's where the big fail often is.


If we think that our intention is the problem, then we don't have a problem because we know our intention is positive but if we know that there's some deeper assumption underlying it, then there's room to mine it so that we stop stepping on toes. It tripped me out. We were trying to break this thing down and I was finding myself in it. I'm like, “What if I have to get that way? Can I still get the information?” I'm trying to do all the right things but they are not there yet.


The big fail often is if we think our intention is the problem.

The difference though is so much of it has to do with exposure. I feel like so much happens because we have a lack of exposure to people who look at certain way or we do not experience people more intimately. I grew up in the community in Panama City, Panama where people look different. They're from all different ethnicities and backgrounds, Brown to Dark Brown to Caramel to Light, and all the shades in between. This is in a Spanish-speaking country.


I go to other Spanish-speaking countries like Argentina, Mexico, or Chile and there are not as many Dark skin, especially not as Dark as I am. People do ask, “Where are you from? How do you speak Spanish?” I speak Spanish like a native speaker so people are even more surprised. They're like, “How do you know Spanish?” I'm like “If you got out more, you would know that there are Black people all over the world and we speak all kinds of languages, not just English or Spanish. There are Black people who speak German, Swahili, and Arabic.” Part of it is exposure.


Having gone to the University of Alabama, I spent a lot of time with international students who came from other countries to study in the States and met people from all over the world. That was a big part of that experience of being asked where you’re from but doing so from a place of honor and curiosity. Is the intent not understanding how come you're different than everybody else here? “Where are you from,” with suspicion perhaps or some ill intent versus there's an appreciation, acknowledgment, and love.


I know a lot of friends who are people of Asian descent who were born and raised here in the States, who would not ask the question like that. “I'm American. What are you talking about? What do you mean where I'm from? My great-grandfather was from Korea. Is that what you want to know?” There's stuff like that and some of it comes from ignorance that we often don't acknowledge.


Much has to do with exposure. I always feel convicted that so many of us would learn. Go someplace where no one looks like us for a week and see what it's like to be asked that regularly. Either the question or the intent behind asking that question would change. The experience and exposure make a huge difference. Thank you for that.


Last time, we were talking about stories that moved us on our way and prompted us on our journey. I don't think I shared this one with you before but what you said brought me back to one of my first opening moments. I grew up in Orange County, California, which I understand is a pretty conservative area but didn't know that at the time. I was unaware. It was also a place where a lot of immigrants were moving through during my high school period.


As many White kids do, I was able to move through classes without having my social structure impacted. I had mostly White friends. Most of the White kids were middle-class kids who went out for sports and that framed my experience. I was a track and field athlete. I was a sprinter. I was decent. In my Suburban neighborhood, that meant I was the one who was moving on from our local area to the regional area and then on to the larger arena.


By the time we got to the step before the state meets in California for the 400 meters, it meant that I was becoming slowly but surely the White girl that was going to be in that race. I was a sophomore in high school. It was the meet before the state meet. There were 36 and 4 heats young ladies. I was the White girl out of the 36. In my 1 heat, there were 9. I was one of the nine and the closest one on the track as we were walking from the far end up to the start lines. It’s a 100-meter walk.


The stands are full of a very mixed crowd but track and field draws a particular crowd in Southern California so at least there were half Black folks, which is far more than the representation of the population at the time. I'm walking down and all of a sudden, there's all these people pointing at me and laughing. I can hear, “What is she doing down there? Look at the White girl.” I'm here in the whole thing down the track.


It drove me away. I was already nervous and feeling myself as others, even heading where we were stretching out and getting ready. I'm feeling like others at that moment but I can look back at it and understand that this is a good thing I was able to do. It's not like anybody was saying, “It’s horrible. Get her out of there.” Nobody was coming at me. I wasn't in any danger but the entire experience was with me feeling other and the only one who got that feeling like, “Maybe they're talking about me. Somebody's off over here having a conversation. Maybe it's about me.”


It didn't take a week, Valerie. It's just a second. It was a very quick amount of time before all of a sudden, I'm having all the reactions that a lot of folks do when they're in the minority. I didn't know any of this at the time but as I started to piece things together, I was like, “That's real.” It was an entire lifetime of experiencing the questioning, wondering, and sometimes pointing and jeering that's not positive.


I took that and ran with it in terms of there's a whole way of living in this existence and it is not the way I'm living in this existence. That was an open doorway. Without that moment, I don't think I would have been as open or responsive to people who then took the risk to start telling me about their lives. That is all of what helped continue me on the journey. I've been on for all these years. I thought about that long time.


The other piece that comes to mind here too is how much conditioning we receive from the media.


I've been watching the show Homeland. It's an oldie but a goodie. It won many awards back in the day. It came out 10 years after 9/11 here in the States. It was on Showtime. I don't know how I got into it but I decided to start binge-watching it.


I saw that in Wikipedia they talked about how some of the backlash that the show received had to do with a lot of anti-muslim sentiment that's depicted in the show. It's so true. I have wonderful close friends who are Muslim. Not only that show. I'm sure there are others. It's so fascinating to see how shows have the ability to program us, to look, think, and hear things over and over again in certain ways, and how people are depicted and not.


I asked a very close friend of mine who’s an Egyptian. He's not watching the show with me but I shared with him some of the things that I heard and saw in the show. I was like “What is it like to have TV shows like this that are so popular and are given awards? They are so lauded for their action or acting and all these other things but they dishonor oftentimes your religion and culture. What is that like?”


He's like “It's pretty much every show that you see you'll find something that's going to be an anti-muslim message. Everyone's radical when they use the word terrorists. It is usually because somebody's from a Middle Eastern background. They don't use it in turn for US-born, non-immigrant people.” He started pointing out some things. That could be said for a lot of different cultures. That's not just in this case, the Middle Eastern culture. I’m curious about the television, movies, or music. What role do you guys think they play in how people think? Even with the controversy of The Little Mermaid. What do you think, Jae? 


I'm a bit sci-fi geek nerd person. All those things came out with these comic books and the characters aren't being portrayed by the standard White person and everything. With The Little Mermaid, I don't get it. Seeing the fictional character, she’s a story. She could be anyone. Representation is very important. Little Black girls should see Little Mermaid differently. This should be different ethnicities and everything. I always wonder on these TV shows when they show different cultures like Homeland. I've watched it. It's good.


Maybe have someone there to be part of the show or production, or maybe behind the scenes to be like, “You want to portray this but let's not take it this far.” A lot of shows are maybe doing that but in the past, I was like, “We're not going to have somebody control,” or not control but how we depict people. Representation is everything. It's important because when you see yourself, it makes a big difference when you can relate to a character, at least for me.


I feel like for a lot of people, it's something that we need to see. When you see shows that only be paid by Black people or other people of color as dogs and things like this, that's not how it is in that world. I will say a show that I do like, and I don't know if you all see this, is Dear White People. That's a good movie. The TV show is good. I always tell people, “You should check out Dear White People.” It's nuance. It's good.


To me, it gives you a little peek behind the curtain. They talked about microaggressions and how it is to be biracial, Black people in a predominantly wide area, why I believe in college, and how those movements go. Media plays a large part in how we depict ourselves and others. There needs to be more representation. People should embrace that instead of being like, “She can't be Black, that Little Mermaid.” If you prefer it to be White, get over it. It’s okay.


The media plays a large part in how we depict ourselves and others.

I love the way you said that, Jae, and the way you talked about Dear White People being nuanced. That's one of my favorite shows to recommend White People to watch. The thing that I study is identity development. What I’m stip in is White people's development. There are different ways we go through stuff but we're not the only ones who have identity development. Other groups do, too.


I love that show because it undermines the idea that all Black folks are the same. There are so many different characters going through different things and changing their positions. It's a complexity and the nuance of real people. There might be certain things people go through that can be wrapped into tendencies but on the other side, that's true too.


I love how it breaks down the idea that White people individuals and Black folks are all the same. It stops that thing that a lot of folks do. That's important. I'm going to play this out and see how this works but I feel like it's like Peter Parker. We're starting in a different direction. We're in different positions. White folks were so used to seeing a representation of ourselves. It's like the expected norm. It's all the privilege and expectation. “Wait, you're telling me to love this character? I have to see her differently and as somebody other than myself. Maybe I'm going to find a relationship with her. That's in the way back.”


White People are having this attack about it. Color is a meaningful representation and exists within the US society that's inviting folks or forcing people to relate across visuals all the time. We got to meet in the middle here and have a place where it doesn't matter what the actual physical form is of the person unless we're talking about cultural stuff. Some shows are going to display and uplift the cultural issues. We need that representation. There are some things where we need a variety of people to show up and that might break that white-flavored thing that is so real.


The socialization that I've been most paying attention to with a little bit of heartbreak is deep socialization about how I have been taught to see the police and the media. Let me acknowledge that my father was a police officer. He's retired but all the layers of my life taught me to see law enforcement officers as the good guys. They are the ones who are going to come and save you.


They're the ones who are going to be good. They're not the ones to be questioned. All these movies and TV shows taught me that even the rogue cops are doing their illicit behavior for good reason. That's what all the movies told me. Even when there's a police officer who's doing illegal things but they're doing it for all this good reason stuff, I had to break that one down.


How did you break that down? 


It’s been a long time but it was taking seriously the avalanche movement, the police movement, and trying to have an orientation toward activism where I don’t immediately get defensive and reactive. I may or may not think it's a good idea to defund the police's whole large fire moment could all go away. I may not think that's smart but I taught myself to go underneath the headlines and find out what are they talking about and why. What are they proposing and why?


The why is so important. It's been amazing to understand that there are so many people in this country who would rather take risks with criminals than have to deal with cops. I had to ask myself, “Why would that be true? Why would the people that I was taught to appreciate and rely on meet people that other people would trust so little?” It's been a multi-year process and conversations with my Dad.


What should your dad think about all of this, if you don't mind me asking, from his point of view as being in the force and seeing things play out? If it's too personal a question, that's fine but it's very interesting to know what another police officer feels about these things going on with the police.


This has been a long conversation with Dad. We've been picking away at different elements of this since I first started coming to awareness, trying to articulate it well enough to bring it home, and saying, “Here's what I'm thinking. Let's talk.” The police stuff has been much more recent. It's been a process, too. I don't know if it's 100% thing but I know we'd have some conversations that have helped me recognize that my father is more so able to see that the police force of the present may not operate like what he was part of years ago.


That was an important part of trying to personalize it to get him to see that it was not about him. Having the conversation gets translated into, “What did I do? What was the step I made? I'm feeling attacked.” If only we could have a conversation like, “This is not about you or your activities. This is about the system that's being militarized with its weapons. This is a system that is having people go on in certain training that's far more aggressive and enacting it way more than maybe was true in your system decades ago.”


Another pump that we needed to get over and talk about was who is the individual and the choices they made versus what's the system's issue. There was a particular moment in one of our conversations where I was hearing my dad talk about choices in certain types of events where he had a feeling that negative things were going to happen. The people who were harshest on the force might take more overt action that we might call abusive.


Slip that in the conversation to say, “What does it mean that you were the one who decided not to do that? What does that say about the larger system that more people were likely to do that behavior that you were thinking was unsavory and that you decided to stay out of?” A far more sensitive question that we've gotten all the way through is, “What does it mean to be in a situation where you felt that your livelihood was under threat for naming that's a problem? What does it mean not to have stood up against that at the time? What are we asking people to do standing up against things at a time when they may not feel that they have power within the system?”


That's a long answer but it's been quite a process. The last thing I'll wrap up by saying is we had a conversation that surprised me. I went to jury duty and decided to be honest. I told the judge that I was going to have some difficulty believing the police officers who might come in to testify. I heard and saw too much. I'm no longer in that socialized position. I'd always heard from my dad when I was a kid a joke about, “You can usually get off jury duty. Just say your dad was a cop and everybody's guilty.” I said, “I went in the exact opposite direction, Dad.” He said, “I would have had to say that too at this point.” That was interesting.


I can see his point of view. I understand that it could be a different system and method than back then where he was. I agree with you that it should be not just an individualized aspect of it. It’s the entire system of law enforcement. Why are our costly training aggressive methods? Are there ways that they could teach them? Just because you know these methods doesn't mean you have to use them.


I would think there could be other ways to de-escalate. You don’t have to go straight to, “If this happens, I’ll try to be full force.” That's very cool to know being the police and their thoughts. Thank you for sharing that. I agree with you. It's more of a sister thing. I do think that a lot of people at times don't look fully. I would not know what to do if I were in a situation where I felt my life was a threat as a police officer.


I will feel like those moments are fast-paced. Do you have enough time to be like, “Let me think about the other instead of going straight to ten, the most aggressive way?” More people should give that a little consideration while trying to find ways to fix the system where people aren't just taught to go straight to hardcore, ask questions later, or things like that if I'm making sense.


Not Quite Strangers | Microaggressions
Microaggressions: More people should give it a little consideration while trying to find ways to fix the system.

As human beings, we've all been equipped with a fascinating system that lets us know when we're in danger and when we're not. When we're in danger, these very automatic systems kick in. That's why there’s this fight, flight, or freeze so we know what we need to do in those moments when they don't require thought or analytics. We don't have to deliberate whether, “Should I run here? If I do run.” By the time you get through the top process, something dangerous could have happened.


I don't know what it's like when it comes to law enforcement and the kind of training they receive but it seems to me that so many of us could benefit from understanding how our brains are wired and when we're under threat and when we're not. I'm not a neuroscientist but I know the basics. If we had the ability to think clearly about these consequences like, “If I do this, I could do it with minimal impact,” that requires a lot of thought.


I meditated every day and spent 30 minutes in silence so I was able to see all these reactions I was having and it enabled me. My personality is not one to lash out anyway so I’m not the one to get angry, louder, be physical, or any of that. I have been conditioned that way. Being able to go “I need to breathe and think. What am I going to say to get to then? I need to write a letter or make a comment.” It does require something.


There's this place called the Neuroleadership Institute and the gentleman who runs it is David Rock. He has put together this tool, which I use often in my coaching, called The SCARF Model. It identifies that our brains have two modes, one is to avoid threats and the other one is to seek reward. It's a hair trigger in feeling threatened. He points out in The SCARF Model these five different domains or places where one might look to see where they're feeling threatened. S stands for Status, C is Certainty, A is Autonomy, R is Relatedness, and F is fairness.

Not Quite Strangers | Microaggressions
Microaggressions: The scarf model is about identifying that our brains have two modes. One is to avoid threats, while the other is the secret reward.


Whenever we talk about things like this around race, and it happens when I am talking with my mom, it’s something like The Little Mermaid. That’s status and certainty all day long. If everything has been using a White flavor for a long period, your status may be threatened and all of a sudden, you’re like, “Hang on. That's been wrong all this time? We're not good enough,” or whatever that dialogue is but the idea is that people feel that their status has been demoted.


Loss of any kind can be devastating to human beings. Video games and getting cut off in traffic make people angry. Loss of any position can trigger a threat. The other piece is a certainty. If you know that you can count on this being the same, what to expect, and some things have been changed without your acknowledgment, input, or approval, it can also bring up a threat response.


A lot of the stuff that we've been talking about comes to race and reconciliation. That's why so much of it has to do with the individual. We get to see where our triggers are. When we think about asking someone where they're from, that's a reward-seeking behavior for relatedness. “I want to get to know this person and understand where they come from, how they think, and who they are.” That could be reward-seeking.


For some people, it could be a threat. “Where are you from? Where are you going? Why are you here?” I love systems like that because they help me to slow down my thinking enough like, “Can I plug it into this formula to see where I might need to look?” In my case, I was triggered by status and fairness on that plane. I didn't think it was fair that they weren't explicit or at least I didn't hear the policy had changed at some point during the flight.


The fact that I was called out in front of however many people were around me at the time was a threat. That's how my mind works when it comes to all of these different issues. Thank you so much, guys. I feel like we always dig into stuff that I don't get to talk about very often with strangers. I talk about stuff with family.


Thank you for sharing that model. That was brilliant. I love the idea of learning that well enough to be able to move things through that analysis in the future. Let me ask you a question because I feel like this would be right up your alley. Have you read the book My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem? You want that book, Valerie. It's perfect because it is like a healing book but about how we go deep into our ancestral background. What is the trauma that we need to heal from our lines?


There are three major orientations and groups that he addresses. He addresses Black folks and White folks. What does it mean to have gone to lynching as a White person and shut off our emotional body to personalize in a way that is negative depersonalization in a dehumanizing form? As White people, we need to recover ourselves to not be so cut off. There's the trauma Black had gone through. He addresses police officers too, the trauma that police officers go through, and the special responsibility that police officers have to navigate that trauma so that they don't lash out at others. It feels like a nice wrap-up to all of what we’ve been talking about.


Of this whole conversation, this being our part two, what's something that you're walking away with from our talk? 


I'm walking away from the fact that Shelly should go around the country and talk to more people about realizing their privilege and how to understand it and live it. If more people could have that base understanding, it would create a lot more. My big word is dialogue. I'm a talker. I like to talk things through, see what you're thinking, and blow it out. Shelly, you need to get out there and get more people like you.


Thank you, Jae. The truth is I did not show up to this conversation to do a promotion but I could because I do have a couple of books where I've written out some of this stuff. If you want me to show it to you, I will. I'm proud of this one and it's the third edition, Witnessing Whiteness. The first one came out over a decade ago. After the killing of George Floyd, everybody ran to buy all the books. After all of the fancy ones got off the shelves, some people came back to mine. I realized “This needed a refresh.” I'm excited about that.


People can go to my website, I got all kinds of stuff. I've even done a couple of blog posts about conversations with my dad. It was written a little bit about there. Jae, with all of that, I'm trying it with love because I appreciate the way you're doing your work, Valerie. There's room for all sorts of different people to show up in all sorts of different ways. The way I like to show up is, “Come over here. Let's talk. I know you're trying to be a good person in the world and there's this stuff that we're socializing into. It's not going well for any of us. Let's try to work together to fix it.”


That is the way I approach things in the work that I do. To answer your question, what I'm walking away with is Jae, you're a breath of fresh air. Valerie, I love talking to you. It's lovely to be able to talk to both of you and hear how you react to the things I'm saying too. The fact of the matter is I've been doing this work for a long time with White folks so I'm talking way more to White folks.


You need to add some chocolate flavor to your work. Jae, are you still with the EJI?


Yes, I am still here.


I'm going to be getting together on a Zoom call with all of the women, the multiracial group, that came to EJI. We're going to do a get-back together. I will be sure to share that after because all those same women, Valerie, that you met, and there are eleven of us, are all going to get together on Zoom and do a debrief. I will tell them all about these conversations we've been having.


Please, do. You went to many other places. The EJI was not the only place you went to. How many places did you visit?


I was only part of four days' worth but we were in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. It's a little bit neat but so impactful. We could do part three because I will be in my house in Montgomery and it shifted in the years since it opened up. “What have you seen? How do people act differently or not?” It's the whole thing. Thank you for this experience, Valerie.


Start your podcast, Shelly, and talk about all this stuff too. With the conversation around socialization, it’s important to acknowledge how we're socialized to think about other people and see ourselves. Also, how we compare contrast with other people. That's an important piece to continue to question. Have exposure not only to being different in other places but being in other places that enable us to have conversations that we wouldn't have otherwise.


To have a friend who's Muslim is a different conversation to have about watching a show like Homeland than it is with other fans of Homeland who happen to notice the same thing perhaps. Let’s put ourselves in a position where we're different than the people who are there and then have meaningful conversations around that. This is what I hope to do in this show. It’s my small contribution to that exposure. Thank you so much again for the part two and for sharing your thoughts. Anything you'd like for the audience to take away or do as a result of our conversation?


At least try to put yourself in someone's perspective when you're having a conversation no matter if it's about race, differences, or anything. Most importantly, just don't hear them but listen to them. Take what you can from it.


Put yourself in someone's shoes when you're having a conversation, no matter what. Don't hear them. Listen to them and take what you can from that conversation.

If we can't put ourselves in another perspective, be curious about their perspective. Sometimes, it's hard for us to put ourselves there. We haven't seen it. We don't know. We have some blocks but be curious about it. Shelly, what about you? 


Often, people don't have much experience talking about race. We're supposed to be able to show up, have a good one, and magically know all of the minefields that we're walking. More practice makes better. There are so many things in the world where we know we have to practice to be good at something but White folks don't realize we have to practice to be good at race issues. We need to do more practice. It gets better, easier, and more fun.

Not Quite Strangers | Microaggressions
Microaggressions: We have to practice to be good at racial issues.


Thank you both so much for joining us again. For those of you who read this episode, I appreciate you. Please make sure that you love, recommend, or rate us on your favorite platform so that way you don't miss a single episode. You can also subscribe. Thank you all so much for joining us. Have a wonderful rest of the day. 


Important Links

Strangers: Meet Julius Mayer & Shelly Tochluk (PART 2)

From: Alabama, USA & California, USA

Talk About: Empathy, microaggressions, and the media


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