When I sat down to write a blog post today, I was going to write about this encounter I had with a hummingbird last week. I was going to tell you how I had just stepped outside after dealing with some issues with our health insurance policy, issues that made me feel uncomfortable and required a phone call to sort them, and how I was reminded of the bigger picture of what’s truly important by watching a tiny bird flit around the wildflowers that cover the hillside behind my house. I was going to tell you how the hummingbird eventually flew up to where I was standing with my coffee and hovered directly in front of my face, just inches from my nose as we looked each other in the eye, one creature to another. It was going to be an illustration of finding the beauty that hovers even in the midst of dealing with undesirable things, like health insurance.
And as I started to think about what to write, all I could think about was my privilege as a white person in this country. I could have opted to simply describe my encounter with that hummingbird, keep my focus on the beauty of nature around my home, and move through my days giving thanks for what I have. And there’s nothing wrong with doing those things. But that’s the definition of privilege: to opt out of thinking or talking about something because you can. There IS something wrong with not talking about what needs to be talked about. Hummingbirds, nature, and gratitude are important. So are basic human rights, peace, and changing our cultural story.
If you haven’t seen the news lately, white supremacists held a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend, people were hurt, lives were lost, and the continued ugliness of what is still happening in the world in regards to race and equality has been slammed back into focus yet again.
Brene Brown was just live on Facebook to talk about what happened. She pointed out that her job is not to make sure everyone is satisfied and comfortable and that it’s important to use relevant words (without sugar coating anything to avoid triggering someone). And she spoke of the “three Ps” when it comes to talking about this subject of white supremacy and racism.
The first is privilege, which is a ‘triggering’ word for many white folks. “But I have worked hard all my life, I’ve never had it easy, money was always tight…” When it comes to race, privilege is about unearned rights. I have the privilege of writing about whatever I want to write about from the comfort and safety of my home in an area with low crime and ample resources. Sure, I work hard to support myself and my family. And I benefit daily from systemic racism and our country’s white supremacist history. You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps and change how some people respond to you based on the color of your skin — privilege is not about how hard you work. Step one: recognize privilege and own it if you find it in yourself.
The second is perspective. We all have a lens that we look through when we live our lives. We can’t take that lens off – it’s permanent and has been shaped by every experience we’ve ever had. We have to believe others when they share what things look like through THEIR lens. Just because we don’t see it the same way doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It might make us uncomfortable. We who were born with the first P, privilege, are going to have to learn how to sit with those feelings. I don’t know what it’s like to not have this privilege, and I am 100% confident that the feelings of discomfort that I may experience by talking about race issues and truly listening to the stories of someone who has a very different lens than I is going to hurt a lot less than the pain experienced by those who live faced with daily discrimination and hate because of something that is physically impossible to change. Step two: learn to live with the discomfort of seeing things from a different perspective.
The third P named was power. Brown reminded us of Martin Luther King Jr’s statement that “power is the ability to effect change” and that feelings of powerlessness are dangerous and tend to lie at the root of violence, hate, and discord. And she noted the difference between power shared and power over. “Power over” others is finite and from where many of our problems arise. But “power shared” is infinite – more for you doesn’t mean less for me when we are working together for the common good. Brown thinks that what we are seeing now is “power over’s” last stand and the fear that lies underneath that realization. Step three: use the power that you have for good. Name what you see, hold those doing harm accountable in a way that doesn’t cause more harm, and continue to ask the question, “what is it like to be you?” When we can share power, it grows in a way that works for more than just one group.
Hummingbirds deserve to be noticed and recognized. So do the stories of all the people on the earth, even when those stories aren’t what we want to hear. As Brown has said many times, “We have to own our stories.” The story of America is hard to listen to if you let yourself hear whole thing. But we have to hear all the chapters if we want it to turn the page into something more beautiful for all.
Because everyone has the right to enjoy the sort of life that allows noticing hummingbirds.
*hummingbird photo by Bill Wiliams