Whiteness and Me

In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine Section, Emily Bazelon argues that “White people are noticing something new: their own Whiteness.” “The Trump era,” she says, “has compelled an unprecedented acknowledgement of whiteness as a real and alarming force.”  For over a century, Black Americans like WEB Dubois, James Weldon, James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, have been alerting us to this ‘force.’  At the risk of great over simplification, let me summarize their argument:  Racism has not only damaged people of color; it has also served the purpose for White Americans of externalizing and disguising our own racial self-loathing.

As far as anyone can tell, I am a White Man, a member of the dominant group in our society.  In that “role” I have participated in and, therefore, perpetuated an oppressive and racist society.  Yet I am equally clear that I don’t identify as a White Man. Where, then, do I stand and what is my responsibility?  And what is yours?

These are hard and possibly harsh questions, and you may ask: Why now?  Why would a 76 year old man be asking them?  Haven’t I done what I can do in the political world?  Haven’t I come to terms with my legion of failures and insufficiencies?

Here’s why: I think that old age is a time of reckoning, a time to put my life into perspective—including a moral perspective—in order to live peacefully, to get right with myself for this last phase.

For me, few aspects of life remain painfully up in the air and demanding of intense scrutiny.  I ask myself, for instance, “Have I been a decent and trustworthy person?  Have I been kind and generous enough?  Have I been a good enough husband and father?”  While I readily acknowledge that  I am deeply flawed and I could spend hours enumerate my shortcomings, I have mostly come to terms with them. I can say, in a way that is internally comfortable: “I have limitations, but I have been good enough.”

There are areas where I am less certain but still not tormented.  For instance, in the age of Me Too, I need to determine whether I’ve been respectful and loving enough to women and girls—my wife, my daughter, my daughter-in-law, my friends, my students, my patients. I think I have but I know that I have also fallen down along the way.  My conclusion?  I have done as well as I could, but thankfully I am still learning.  I can change.  I think this experience of learning saves me from coming up against an implacable moral wall.  As a result, I am generally comfortable with the incompleteness.

Political engagement is an arena in which I have come up short.  I think right, talk right, but act too little.  I don’t see myself changing much.  My reckoning in this arena has required me to find ways to forgive myself for my limitations.

Now back to race and racism.  The first premise of Whiteness Studies that Bazelon features seems to be the inescapability of our skin color.  I get this idea and I partly yield to it.  But I also object in much the same way that people of color object.  They have been grouped as Black by others — by Whites — despite the great variety of origins, cultures, personalities, and, yes, skin colors.  What could be worse than other people defining who you are, no less defining you as lesser beings?  Whites have been able to do this because of their economic and cultural dominance.  As the dominant group, they see themselves as the norm and as the arbiter of what is normal and good.  White people suffer far, far less by being defined by others but I still object to both “White” (“Critical Studies” theorists) and “Black” people telling me I am White, with all the dark connotations that Whiteness now implies.

Yes, I have been ‘privileged’ because my skin color lets me pass as a member of the dominant race. As a result, I have gone to good schools and found professional success; all along, I have believed that my success was purely my own, without a cultural boost.  As an adult, I have lived in prosperous communities with excellent schools that virtually guaranteed that my children would find success, and they have.  Though I am aware of their privilege, too, I couldn’t help believe that they succeeded on their merits.

I have never believed that people of color have equal opportunity, and I have voted for every politician and every policy that seeks to change the social and economic status quo.  In that limited sense, I have given voice to these values, but I have neither refused the fruits of Whiteness nor devoted enough of my life to fighting inequality and racism.  In that sense, I have participated in and therefore supported, an unjust and racist society.

This support has been particularly hard to swallow because the values of equality and diversity were at the center of my upbringing.  I was raised to fight them in myself and others.  When my parents described people, they would begin by noting that they were either “Left” or “Right,” long before they would get to whether they were kind or interesting or good looking.  Left was good and emphasized diversity.  Many of the books I read and records I listened to as a child were little more than sermons about the virtues of diversity.  Paul Robeson’s Ballad for Americans still brings me to tears when it insists that all people, Black and White, Italian, Irish, and Jewish, must gather in common cause.  There is hardly a personal or political theme that moves me like this one does.

So I regret not doing more to further the cause, and I won’t feel right with myself unless or until I have come to terms with my position on racism and, of course slavery —  the worst offense ever perpetuated by this country.  As a country, we have never come close to making amends for it.  And I don’t know how we could fully come to terms.

I have tried, on my own, in a number of ways.  The first and most consistent is to reject my assignment to both the historical, and current, category of The Oppressor.  I do not identify as White, and in fact, I never have.  I have always felt myself an outsider to mainstream American culture.  Bazelon dismisses this way of thinking, saying that people like me prefer to identify ethnically, as Irish, Italian, or Jewish.  But Jewish is not the same.  We have long been a despised tribe.  From earliest memory, I have identified more with people of color than I do with White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPs), or the newly romanticized working class Whites of West Virginia.  Jews, even atheistic Jews like me, are always at least a little on edge, waiting for the next pogrom, the next murderous attacks, literal or figural.  I have great White friends but, when I hear the word White to describe a people, I do not think of friends.

At 15, I tried to organize my community to charter a bus to Washington, DC to march for Civil Rights.  Not a single person joined me and many simply accused me of being a Communist, which, during their youth, my parents had been.  It was still the McCarthy period.  Red baiting was alive. I was isolated.  So I traveled with the Hempstead kids, on an all Black bus (except for me). I was nervous and exhilarated.  I did not belong but I was in the right place.

It’s not so easy to describe what made that the right place, but let me try.  I stayed true to my values.  It felt risky.  I was learning.  I was appreciated and teased, which felt both good—like I belonged—and bad—like I was an outsider.  Of course, I was both.  I was mostly pleased to be in that complicated place.

During college and graduate school, I continued as an outsider at Harvard, protesting,  sometimes speaking out, but often receding into the background and feeling mostly like I didn’t belong to a culture that still contained about 45% prep school students wearing their perfect tweed jackets, chinos, blue shirts, and rep ties.

In my early 30s, I realized that I was neither an insider nor an outsider.  Yes, I was a White professional, making a decent living, an intellectual, who still played basketball and avidly followed the Celtics and the Red Sox.  But I was also a divorced father and living in a commune with my four year old daughter. I still held political views to the Left of most of the people I knew. I was neither far out nor way in. I was a marginal man.  This realization upset me at first.  The term sounded Kafkaesque.  Then I realized that virtually all of my friends were marginal in similar ways.  And I relaxed. I had found a home.

That realization saved me from a life of discomfort.  I didn’t have to change dramatically.  I didn’t have to torment myself.  Marginality wasn’t the absence of place in our society.  It was a definite place, a place populated by like-minded people, Black, White, and Tan, and a place I wanted to be.  I still do.

In 2006, at the age of 64, I started the Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership (INML).  Its mission is to train nonprofit managers to be effective leaders in the service of diversity and social justice.  The majority of its students and faculty are people of color. For the last 10 years of my work life I had the privilege of constantly speaking the language of diversity and justice and urging them into existence.  I was inside the cause, not pushing from the outside.  It felt better than all my successful years of being a psychotherapist and organizational consultant.  At the end of that period, I passed on the INML’s leadership to an immensely talented woman of color and stepped back.

I know how to belittle my work at the INML.  Wasn’t it patronizing, my leading an effort to expand diversity among nonprofit senior staff?  Wasn’t my success rooted in layers of White privilege, including my Harvard pedigree? Although I believe deeply that my colleagues and my students experienced my commitment to them and to this issue as authentic and deeply felt, sometimes I was nudged, slightly, lovingly away from the center of the action. I was called an “ally,” that is, “for” but not entirely “of” the cause.

At the height of my involvement with what is now called the Institute for Nonprofit Practice, I struggled just a little with my self-doubts (“do I belong here?”) and the muted doubts of others—almost all White people.  But by the time I left, I had accepted my status as an ally, my marginality, even within an organization I had founded and built. It told me that I was acceptable, even appreciated, as a marginal man.  Which I am.

So where does this leave me in my moral reckoning on race and racism?  To be honest, I’m not sure.  In a way, I may have returned to that 1956 bus ride to Washington, where I felt equal measures of uneasiness and exhilaration.  I was and am still learning.  I’m OK with my limitations and my status as an Ally. I won’t be excluded.  And I’ll live well enough with the uneasiness that remains.

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Science Says: Our Aging Brains are Active, Agile, and Resourceful

  • Primary references are at the end

 

Each morning, I wake up feeling good: clear-headed, energetic, eager to learn, eager to think.  I may not be poised to break new scientific or artistic ground—I never was—but my thinking seems as good as ever.  Right?

It’s likely enough that I’m deceiving myself.  Supposedly my brain is in the midst of a long, steady decline.  The clues are obvious.  My capacity to retrieve names is abysmal.  Sometimes words escape me, at least for a while or until I fire up Google to trigger my retrieval system.  I say trigger because, as often as not, I remember the word or name before Google has rescued me.

Conversations with friends are filled with anecdotes about mental lapses.  Absentmindedness often heads the list.  You walk into a room at a determined pace only to find that you’ve forgotten why you’re there.  Then, as you leave, you generally remember.  It’s hard not to speculate about the meaning of the lapse, hard not to think that you’ve lost a mental step or three.  Any effort to ignore or minimize the lapses seems like denial.  And there are lots of people to remind you of this weakness, some with amusement and some with worried faces.

Conversations with peers are filled with both humor and empathy about our decline.   They provide a sense of relief in the sharing and a place to hide together.  But even the humor reinforces the narrative of decline.  The narrative is ever-present, popping up like some Skinnerian behavioral stimuli.  I am declining.  I am declining.  Eventually you believe it—or you yield to a stark reality, a better way to put it.

Our adult children notice the lapses, too.  Usually they are patient and sympathetic, as well-raised children should be.  But that’s a mixed blessing, since most of us both appreciate and resist their kindness.  Who wants them to focus on our weaknesses? I, for one, would prefer a keen focus on the stupendous and miraculous accomplishments and adventures that have marked my life.  I wouldn’t even mind an emphasis on my bold and romantic spirit, my heroic nature.  Instead, they take control of our narrative by telling our story through the sympathy in their eyes.

Beyond friends and family, there is the general culture.  You’d have to travel to Antarctica to escape the media-driven warnings about dementia.  If you don’t have it now, they say, it’s probably just around the corner.  Here are the signs.  Here is how you should eat, exercise, socialize to minimize dementia’s impending grip. It’s a plague and you are unlikely to escape—soon or eventually.

But, as I say, I feel mentally alert almost all the time.  What does that tell me?  For one thing, it tells me that I am an individual person, neither a trend nor a statistical marker.  My developmental course is my own.  The later in life that I am clear-headed, for example, the more likely I am to keep my senses for a long time.

Current research debunks the idea that our brains grow duller and less able to learn as we age.  For instance, the flexibility and growth potential of our minds (neuroplasticity)—our ability to learn and change–continues throughout our lives. This is accomplished by using different regions of the brain in old age.

Late in life, “unique new circuits and ways of thinking are produced using more connections to and from the advanced frontal lobes.”  By continuously using our brains in different ways, new neurons are created through new learning.  New connections and synapses keep on developing.  In addition, both sides of the brain are utilized, whereas only one is primarily used in the younger adult.  In other words, we literally create new ways of thinking through new brain structures.

OK. We have more and more sustained brain power than we have been led to think. But what about those lapses that are completely real?  Are there ways to compensate?  Yes.  Simply put, we need external reminders in our life to trigger what we know.

Research shows that “…when the hints come from the environment, the difference in memory vanishes.”  As a matter of fact,  “In tasks that rely on external information, elderly do better. They are better in such     perception and learning. While reliance on external cues becomes a pattern in the elderly, this doesn’t mean they are impaired when they don’t have these cues. Using the environment saves brain energy as a strategy in old age.”

One of the main reasons that the aging brain continues to function well is that it changes in a fundamental way by recruiting other parts of the brain.  Unlike younger people, the elderly use both of their frontal lobes.  By Using both sides of the brain gives us greater resources and greater connectivity between all of the brains “modules.”  We then become better internal networkers, encouraging communication within the vast knowledge stores of our brains.

In other words, older people are much better at integrating their knowledge and mental abilities.  This gives us perspective, an ability to see the big picture.  Alert elderly people “understand many different patterns that appear in their sensory input—circumstances, ideas, and experiences. The older person’s superior ability to size up situations are then coupled with better social and emotional regulation–hallmarks of wisdom.”

The bottom line here is that I may not be deceiving myself too much.  America’s youth-oriented culture has created a kind of panic in the elderly and the soon-to-be elderly.  But Neurological evidence tells us that, for most of us, our brains keep renewing themselves.  They are, therefore, active, agile, and resourceful—and will be for years to come.  So why don’t we relax and enjoy the play of our minds?

When we think that we are clear-headed, we probably are.  All those neurons and synapses are clicking away, making sure of the continued neuroplasticity in our brains.  We don’t have to worry so much about the missing names and even the missing words because they are less of an omen than they are a simple condition that we can usually overcome by using environmental supports, like Google.  When we think we have lots of perspective to share, we probably do.

And, with these conclusions, I may find myself not only clear-headed in the morning but also in good spirits.

 

 

I roamed pretty freely in the popularized literature of brain research, but the best references I found and the ones from which I quote throughout my paper are:

https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/how-memory-and-thinking-ability-change-with-age

https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/how-aging-brain-affects-thinking

https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Know-Your-Brain

 

Reining in a Father’s Pride

Pride is strange.  The good side is obvious. With our children, for instance, our heart swells with love, admiration, belonging.  The bad side concerns ownership and a lack of humility. Who are we proud of?  Sometimes it’s ourselves, even when we say it’s about others.

A few months ago, my daughter, Jessie, invited me to join her on a trip to Florence and Rome, where she’d be giving some talks at international conferences on infant mental health, her specialty.  I have been a fan of my daughter for as long as she’s been alive and was being granted a place of honor during her march towards professional prominence.  Who wouldn’t be proud? …proud of her; proud that she trusts and enjoys me enough to share this part of her life.

What I liked best, though, was the opportunity to see her in her element.  Like other parents, I know Jessie, one to one.  I know her as a family member,—as a daughter, of course, and, through observation, as a mother and wife.  I would even say I know her as a friend.  I haven’t really known her as a professional, except at a distance, through reports and stories.  Yet she does spend 50 hours a week (I’m exaggerating downwardly here) at her work and it occupies a huge share of her mind, as well as her sense of self and fulfillment.  So there has been a missing piece.

There were 1,700 participants at the Ergife Palace Hotel in Rome, just about every one of them eagerly networking with colleagues and potential colleagues, catching up with old friends, whirling around in a wild and perpetual motion.  At the same time, I was invisible.  Of the hundred or so people to whom Jessie introduced me—“This is my Dad”—not a single person asked: “What do you do?”  Or, granting them the excuse that I looked old: “What did you do?”

But the invisibility provided me with an advantage: I could observe as an outsider; I could learn about my daughter without interjecting my own interests and, ordinarily strong—some might say, intrusive—personality.  As a result, I got a pretty good look at how Jessie spoke to audiences, how she worked a room, how she collaborated with colleagues, how she listened and learned.  Everyone seemed to like and respect her.

An easy admission: Before the trip, I was already a very proud father.  Jess had clearly grown into a highly competent, confident pro, working hard in the service of traumatized children, standing for values we shared.  So even if I struggled towards some kind of scientific objectivity in viewing Jess, I was bound to at least a little proud of her after sitting in on her world.

Sitting in the observer’s seat also gave me time to observe myself and to wonder:  What does it mean that I’m proud of my daughter?  Returning to where this essay began, there’s the good side of pride: Your heart swells.  The feeling is partly physical.  You feel enlarged.  Whatever you are observing has enhanced you, too.  And, of course, there’s something generous in being enhanced by the achievements of another.

But pride has connotations that cut the other way.  There is something narcissistic about it.  Sometimes we are proud of another because they make us feel good about ourselves.  Their achievements are partly our own.  We think that we have made our children into the people they are today.  In other words, we are, at least in part, proud of ourselves.  Not a terrible thing but maybe a little less generous than we might like.

There is something controlling about pride too.  The implication is that, at least partially, we own the success, the beauty, or the sweet personality of the people who make us proud.  If then, something in them changes, we might find ourselves embarrassed and even rejecting.  “That’s not us,” we might think.  “What made them stray?” In order to retain our pride, the other person might have to keep acting in a way that we approve.

And as many cultural and religious traditions tells us, pride touches on arrogance.  A proud person might well have an exaggerated sense of her own capabilities or act as though she were better than others.  In which case, the very act of pride is dangerous.  Thus the saying:  “Pride goeth before the fall.”  Why?  Because it reflects a self-centered attitude.

This said, I think that pride, in the best sense, is a good thing.  This kind of pride is beautifully portrayed in an article Michael Chabon wrote for GQ in 2016.  He had watched his son, Abe, grow into a teenager consumed by fashion, which confused and, in part, put his father off.  As a bar-mitzvah present, Chabon brought Abe to Men’s Fashion Week in Paris.  Instantly, Abe was in his element, gravitating to designers he idolized and attracting mature designers by his own stylish dress.  Chabon, the father, was soon bored with the shows but held on for his son.

As he prepared to leave, Abe resisted.  At first, Chabon, who would like to get home, was taken aback.  It’s not the fashions, themselves, that have provided such joy, Abe told him.  It’s the sense of being with people who ‘get’ him.  He loved being with the designers, who made him feel at home, totally engaged, affirmed.  The environment helped Abe to see himself clearly,  and, by the end of the week, Chabon saw his son clearly as well..simply and deeply. At a certain level, he’d just met Abe; and he was very proud of his son.

Chabon’s article helped me see Jessie more distinctly.  For a whole week, I watch her closely.  Sometimes I had the normal array of feelings: that I love her; that my early and regular endorsement—and occasional push—had supported her confidence and drive.

But the stronger feeling I had was how different she is from me.  How distinct, how separate.  To state the obvious, she is a researcher, who loves data and policy and changing the ways that programs interact with and support children and families.  She sometimes even deals in…RCT’s…randomized controlled trials, for those in the know.  During conference sessions, Jess was rapt when people discussed statistical measures and techniques, while my eyes glazed over, from lack of interest and total ignorance.  She thrives in building an international network of like-minded colleagues.  I’m more of a local guy.  I generally feel lost in conferences and reach my fill of people in small and large doses pretty quickly.  She’s at home with social media.  I’m a dinosaur who wished Facebook and Snapchat had never come to be.  Her laugh is hearty, mine restrained.  She’s funny; no one has ever accused me of being a comedian.  I like broad, sweeping ideas, common to philosophers and historians in the 19th century.  Jessie is more practical and deeply knowledgeable about her field, which is plenty broad itself..

One particular exchange was telling.  I mentioned that I had participated in a similar professional revolution, shifting clinical emphasis from children to whole families.  “I respect, even admire, what you and your colleagues did, Dad,” said Jessie, “but there might have been more flash than science.  No one in your day proved that their approach was effective.”  What can I say?  The truth is that I would have been impatient with the need for proof through what I would have considered boring research activities.

She wasn’t being harsh or confrontational.  Just stating her case and, for some reason, I didn’t take offense.  As the days passed and our differences were highlighted, my love and respect for this very distinct person began to supersede my feelings of pride.

As pride slipped away, a maturing sense of intimacy moved in.  I know this is a curious statement, so let me try to explain.  When you step aside, take yourself out of the equation, you begin to see that even this very close person is neither you nor not you—but her own self.  The conference experience was like being admitted to secret society, speaking an unfamiliar language. I observed her through her own eyes and through the many, varied eyes of colleagues.  I could see the 47-year old, mature, working woman. I could see the full mix of confidence and uncertainty, assertiveness and reticence.  The quirks, the intelligence, and the pure energy she gives off shone brightly.

Even as I write that sentence, I’m tempted to say (proudly) “And she’s my daughter.”  And I’d be incapable of distancing myself completely from that feeling.  But she’s not just my daughter, which is what permits me to know her and love her as she is.