Does It Matter If I’m a Racist?

This is the LEAD POST of a series based upon an anti-racism workshop I developed with a committee of United Methodist Church lay and clergy for the Northern Illinois Conference of the UMC.  It’s titled BECOMING THE BELOVED COMMUNITY (BBC).  See below for a list of articles in this series, and go Here if you’re interested in having me do a workshop based on BBC at your church, corporation, or organization.



Does it matter if I’m a racist?  Not as much as you’d think.


The VIDEO below is one I use in the anti-racism workshop Becoming the Beloved Community, and it explains how focusing too much on individual cases of racism distorts the whole picture of what racism is.  It’s individual and personal, yes, but it’s perhaps more important to become “Systemically Aware.”  One racist doesn’t keep racism going, nor do a 1,000 individual racists, or 10,000, or even a million.  Just as one landlord—or 10,000—who is racist and discriminates against a person of color doesn’t keep housing discrimination going and going.  It’s systems that mold our personal perceptions and actions, and, behind housing discrimination, it’s the banking system, the real estate system, the appraisal system that matter more.  Yet our supposed “dialog” on race looks much more like the toon above.  We’re obsessed with pointing fingers, finding individual villains, searching for persons rather than confronting systems.  It’s just easier to stay personal, so we take the easy way out, but eventually that won’t help us turn the corner on racism.

Not that the individual and personal isn’t important.  A person who’s racist, consciously or not, harms others tremendously.  More often than not, they cause pain, or trauma, or even tragedy.  And they hurt themselves, too.  And their children, to whom they pass along their racist beliefs and ways of acting—as if there weren’t already enough for children to overcome.  For a person, like a racist, who harms and hurts anyone else, who shuts anyone out and sees them as less than human, is also hindering their own ability to become fully human themselves.  It’s that old adage of reaping what you sow.  This situation is further complicated because persons who cause such harm—in order to protect themselves against the deep-down knowledge that their actions are wrong—must also lie to themselves, must develop rationalizations so evasive and bizarre that they often approach the pathological, or actually become so.  Still, these personal lies may, finally, not be as important as the systems behind these lies, systems that not only falsely divide people, but also rob those that are discriminated against from their fair shot in our society.

So the Becoming the Beloved Community workshop stresses balancing the personal and the systemic, and because the balance is so skewed towards the personal it spends more time hammering home the importance of becoming systemically aware.  The workshop title doesn’t mention race at all, and perhaps that’s bending too far.  We just don’t want people taking the easy way out—which, again, is simply calling each other racist.  At the workshop calling someone a racist is out.  This attitude, we hope, opens the door to real dialogue where everyone can not take it so personally but instead take a deep dive into systems.  We’re shaped by them, but we can gain some freedom from them, too, and in the process become more free from racism and other -isms and phobias that keep us apart.

Note: Several of these articles were written long before the Becoming the Beloved Community workshop was created. They are among the things I myself brought to the table and are ideas I have worked on for many years. The committee I led consisted of Tom Butler, Amania Drane, Rev. Matthew Krings, Lennox Iton, Donna Sagami, and Buzz Wheeler. A better group of people I could not have imagined.

  Go to the Diversity Training and Teaching main page for more on race and diversity, and to “Unpacking Racism: Noble Sentiments…,” the Lead Post in another series on race based on a 2020 UMC Lay Convocation I spoke at.

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The Neighbor Project’s 2021 Gala Fundraiser

OCTOBER 8th is just a few days away.  Click the banner at the end of this post to buy your tickets.


2020’s gala was a great success, but it was totally virtual (see highlights Here).  This year, as we hope we’re beginning to return to normal, TNP holds a hybrid gala: mostly outdoor, some indoor, some virtual—and all of it as safe as possible.  It will be a casual night full of food, fun, inspiration & motivation, and live music, just across the street from the TNP offices in The Venue’s building and  lovely outdoor plaza.

I’ve written a lot on this site about this nation’s incredible (and growing) wealth gap, and of its racial wealth gap—which is even worse.  Most of that gap has to do with who’s gotten to own homes over generations and in areas where they’ll appreciate in value fairly.  Two-thirds of the average family’s wealth comes from their homes, and while the median wealth of white families is over $170,000, the median wealth of black households is only around $17,000: ten TIMES less.  As The Neighbor Project works to stabilize families financially, hopefully putting most of them on the path to home ownership, it’s working to shrink that wealth gap, which means more than just money.  As executive director Rick Guzman said in a speech at last year’s gala—which is the best place to catch a sense of TNP’s growth and vision for the future—if we empower otherwise financially vulnerable people, they can become leaders for our communities.  The whole community stabilizes, debts turn into investments, and their children’s educational achievements sky rocket.  They graduate from high school at rates 25% higher than non-homeowning families.  They’re more than 115% more likely to graduate from college!

You’ll get food, have fun, bid on auction items if you wish, be entertained.  But behind it all there’s the fight against inequity, and all that growth, stability, community investment, investment in people and families that your attendance will help bring.  We hope to see you there.

  Visit The Neighbor Project’s website to find out more, donate, volunteer, read inspiriting stories, and watch an introductory video I was privileged to narrate.  The Neighbor Project helps people get out of debt, save, and get on a path to home ownership.  It’s taking back a city’s greatest asset: the people who already live there.  Click the banner below to purchase your tickets for this year’s fundraiser.

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Island Style

The VIDEO below shows about the last 45 seconds of Vana Liya singing her song “Feelin’ Good” at the Sugar Shack live acoustic sessions.  Watch the whole, flowing, good-vibe thing HERE.

You may recognize her guitar player and backup singer, too.  It’s Dan Guzman in one of his latest gigs!

To my knowledge Vana Liya isn’t Hawai’ian—she’s of Caribbean descent and grew up just outside New York City—but she’s one of the young talents carrying on and perfecting that island vibe I associate with Hawai’i.  It’s a unique mix of pop and reggae I learned to love the two times I spent many weeks there at National Endowment for the Humanities seminars in the early 2000’s.

Back then you heard two songs in particular all the time.  Mana Kaleilani Caceres’ “Couldn’t Take the Mana”—a mid-tempo, horn-driven, reggae protest jump—that starts: “Another road built on sacred land / One more hotel up on our birth sand / Where have all our ali’i gone / Maybe they will return when they hear this song.”  It’s a call to the old nobles, who ruled by mana—a divine power derived from the spirit of ancestors—to come back and stop all this modern, touristy, build-out stuff.  The chorus begins: “They took the land, they took Aloha….”  On just about the opposite style end of this song was John Cruz’s “Island Style.”  There’s a sexy double entendre in the title, of course, but that’s damped down by the song’s ultra flowing, gentle nostalgia.  Grandma’s cooking stew on a Saturday night, and—awww!—the singer loves his Grandma “every minute, every hour.”  That’s island style, too: family, love, respect, gentleness.

In Hawai’i they don’t end concerts with a bang, but with a strong gentleness.  I mean, that gentleness doesn’t mean they go out with a whimper.  The gentleness isn’t just full of nostalgia, but a total feeling for the Islands: their beauty and spirit, their people, and a sense of what needs defending, which often tinges things with sadness.  I witnessed this several times. You’d have a six-piece rock band tearing it up, then the finale: and it would be the ever-popular Jake Shimabakuro coming out with just his ukele.

One evening I decided to go to the Waikiki Bandshell for a free concert, and when I stepped off the bus I heard what I thought had to be the finale.  I’d missed it!  A hot soul band with blaring horns was winding up to a fever pitch, but as I made my way in, none of the applauding, whistling crowd was leaving.  “And now,” the announcer said, “our headline act: Makaha Sons!” and out walked three guys, all acoustic, one on upright bass, one on guitar, one on what looked like a bass ukulele.  The crowd released a sigh, and settled in, many swaying to the some of the gentlest songs I’d ever heard all in a row.  I had found a place between two, stereotypically large Hawai’ian men.  I hoped I wouldn’t be crushed if their swaying got out of sync, but I also saw, too, that both were crying softly at the songs.

I love those songs by Mana Caceres and John Cruz—partly because of their strong Filipino connection—but I’ve grown to love Makaha Sons most of all.  The soaring harmonies in the transition between the songs “Eku’u Morning Dew” and “Ke’ala,” one of their most popular medleys, is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.  You can catch some of it Here, on an old, scratchy recording of the medley done when they started out as Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau.  Someday I’ll find a way to edit and post the version I listen to lots, the one done by the current Makaha Sons, the trio of John, Moon, and Jerome.

Which brings me back to Vana Liya.  I know her music connects maybe more to her Caribbean roots, but because she does play lots of ukelele she reminded me of my Hawai’i experiences right away.  More than the instrument and music though, you sense she’s a strong gentle, too.  It makes me feel that the island vibe and all the good things it means are in good hands.

  For a different aspect of my time in Hawai’i go to “IZ…A Poem for the Uighurs,” and also go to the Teaching Diversity main page.

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Chet Baker: When Not Caring Becomes Caring

The Video below plays about 1:24 of Chet Baker’s “Moon and Sand.”  Most people consider “My Funny Valentine” his essential classic—and it is—but I return to “Moon and Sand” more than anything he ever recorded.  For one thing—though I know this is strange and probably silly, too—it helped me understand something spiritual, which I’ll return to briefly later.

There’s sometimes a great gulf between an artist’s work and life, the work being beautiful, the life being reprobate.  Phil Johnson’s review of James Gavin’s biography of Chet Baker begins: “Rock’n’roll reprobates from Keef to Kurt and beyond pale into pasty-faced insignificance when compared with the James Dean of jazz, the trumpeter Chet Baker.”  It’s clear, says Johnson, that Gavin disliked Baker, who died at 58 when he fell from an Amsterdam window.  Or, as many believe, was pushed through it over a drug deal gone bad.  In Gavin’s book, Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker, we learn (as Johnson summarizes it) that “…the trumpeter was on 6g of heroin a day by the time he died. And that’s not counting the cocaine, codeine, barbiturates, alcohol and hash Baker used as a regular top-up; he injected the former every five minutes or so if he was taking it on its own, less often if mixed with heroin in his favourite cocktail, the speedball.”  This, among many other things, caused Baker’s infamous unreliability.  He shows up right on time for a recording session with the great Herbie Hancock, but he’s right on time four days late.  He goes to the bathroom during a session with Van Morrison…and never comes back. Etc.

He started with James Dean good looks, becoming perhaps the most legendary white trumpeter since Bix Beiderbecke, but ends up an ultra-wrinkled mess.  And, really, as a trumpeter won’t ever be ranked with the greatest, or even close to it.  Ethan Hawke, who plays Baker in the bio-pic Born to Be Blue, relishes the story of Baker’s response to Wynton Marsalis dissing his musicianship.  “If I could play like Wynton…I wouldn’t,” he replied.

As a person, then, and perhaps as a musician, too, he was pretty iffy, though his last wife, Carol, says: “Chet was a very shy, very generous person.  And very honest, though there are people who would dispute that, but that depends on who they are and what their story is. But to me, painfully honest, sometimes too honest because that made him vulnerable too.”

“Vulnerable,” I suppose, though that may be because his music is so laid back it barely seems to have any spine at all. He out-cooled the coolest of West Coast cool jazz, at least in seeming so lackadaisical. He started with what some have described as an “emotionally deadened, high tenor voice,” which others have read as a foreshadowing of the pain that would follow, even if most of it was self-inflicted and felt by others.  “Chet Baker may have been abject,” writes Johnson, “but he liked it that way.”

The emotionally deadened high tenor gave way to a raspy mid-tenor, sometimes seeming so tired that I’ve often thought he’s barely got the energy to care at all.  It’s more haunting, though, and beauty breaks through the deadened emotions enough to transform the not-caring surface of the sound into its opposite: a strange kind of caring, still detached but strong, even committed.  “Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still,” writes T.S. Eliot in his poem “Ash Wednesday.”  And in Buddhism there’s a strong current of thought about how being detached from caring leads to a caring more true than when you’re attached to what you care about.  It’s strange, I know—and perhaps silly, as I said—to think about Chet Baker’s music this way, though it has often embodied for me how not caring can transform into a strange strength of real care…whatever that means.

You’ll catch a glimpse of all this in the excerpt below.  Though the lively piano and great sliding bass line might fool you for a second into thinking that Baker himself is more lively, that non- or barely-caring voice floats above it, detached, and around the one-minute mark his trumpet takes a slow dive so lazy it’s like he’s just giving up.  That’s when it becomes beautiful, though, and a strange caring shows up.

Go to more Reviews on this site.

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