HORIZONTAL (August 19, 2017)
the only way to do math,
talk about race relations,
or solve anything
It’s Thursday, August 17, 2017. I’m sitting in a little coffee shop in Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s a day for Give Ear to release a blog post… Every Thursday; that’s our plan. But I’m a little tongue-tied this week. I have had some words ready for months, some posts about unity and listening to others. That safe space we’ve been talking about, the platform to hear voices and perspectives other than our own. Other experiences to validate, uniqueness to embrace. Everyone. EVERYONE. I wrote a post called “I Need You” months ago that doesn’t quite feel ready today. Doesn’t feel appropriate. It feels more necessary to backtrack, reflect, and offer what I hope may be a unique take on the events in Charlottesville that took place last week. I hope it’s more than just that, though. A deeper look at the whole way of thinking and relating to one another. I think it’s time now… more than ever. The next step. Which takes me back to last February. The 23rd. A Thursday, I think.
I’m a 2nd grade special education teacher. Every once in a while my co-workers and I have professional development days. We get together and have our literacy coach and other experts speak to us about effective strategies for teaching, catch up on how the year is going, and share stories about what’s working and what’s not. On this particular day, my mind was spun upside down about 17 different times. We were talking about teaching math to elementary school kids. I felt like I learned more that day than maybe any other day in my entire life. We talked about horizontal math vs. vertical math. Hang with me.
Remember in elementary school when you learned to solve math problems? Multiplication specifically. Look at the image on the right: 37x22. Write the 22 below the 37 and solve. First, 7x2, write the 4 below then carry the 1. So on and so on. Remember? You get the answer, 814, relatively quickly. But you actually miss the process. We skip the whole journey of unpacking the numbers. Who cares if you get the answer if you can’t explain how? Or what the numbers mean? Or what led you to the answer? Or if you even understand what you’re doing or why? Now look at the image on the left. Maybe you learned math this way and this is not an earth-shaking, come-to-Jesus concept like it was for me. This process of solving horizontally, like you see on the left, takes longer. It requires more of a deeper understanding of the numbers in the equation. It actually picks them apart completely and teaches the problem-solver more about how they got to their conclusion. It teaches the entire mathematical process and not just a shortcut to getting to the answer. Did you catch that? The entire process.
This was a jaw-dropping moment of discovery for me. When I first saw this I reflected instantly on my entire educational journey, kindergarten to college graduation. Had I been taking shortcuts just to arrive at my destination sooner? Sure, maybe we all do sometimes. Taking this a step further, I wondered if learning math this way contributed to some of the others way I learned to think, relate to people, and solve problems. I’m talking beyond the math problem, beyond the classroom walls even… I’m talking about race relations. Now I’m back to present day.
We created Give Ear under the inspiration of a new way of relating to one another, leading with listening, a greater desire to validate experiences, understand new perspectives, and love anyone and everyone. Regardless of position, category, belief system, race, socioeconomic status, etc. Love with no prerequisites, conversations with nothing to lose, and listening with the sole intent to hear and understand. And in the wake of what happened in Virginia the other day, I concede to the fact that I’ve spent the past several days scratching my head quite a bit.
I have read some quite colorful words and ideas about what happened. There have been many valid and understandable reactions. White supremacy: we ought to condemn, pray, talk, deny, denounce, stop, etc. Yes, sure. Of course. And more than that, too. That’s where I’m headed with this. Because as much as I would like to think yours and my words on Facebook and Twitter hold power, I think we’re approaching this vertically and maybe it’s time to re-think it, maybe even start over. Maybe it’s time to actually engage further, ask more questions, show some more grit… focusing less on answers and more on the process. The process. The horizontal process.
A horizontal approach to talking about repairing race relations in the United States will undoubtedly extend beyond the years you and I live on this earth.
A horizontal approach to repairing race relations may require way fewer “Fuck you’s” and a lot more question-asking.
A horizontal approach may require a deeper look into the history of our country and current events, revisited with your family member who may see it differently… without de-friending and subtly jabbing at him or her at Thanksgiving. Sure, it may require a Thanksgiving dinner conversation, but I can promise it’s all a loss if you first tell them they don’t belong in your family anymore.
Our lengthy, well-thought statements about eliminating all hatred, bigotry and violence are so well-intentioned and I join you in saying them, but I am hard-pressed to think shouting the answer changes a heart. I think we need to start at the beginning. If we can’t do it with a level head, we’ll continue to draw a further divide.
Can we get to the why before we’ve already shouted someone down? Do we even want to get to the why or just be the loudest condemning voice? If we care enough, let’s try to get to the next step, to the why. Because I think the why may actually get us moving the right direction. Forward… together.
There has to be a better way.
I think the better way needs to be shown more and shouted less.
I think the better way will come out of the mouths of people willing to have long, painful conversations with people at a very diverse and even divided table.
We can’t fit a square peg into a circular hole.
We can’t fix a horizontal problem with a vertical approach.
Can I take a guess, that someone who identifies as a Nazi… wasn’t sold into it through an honest and sobering trek through a history book? Or over a beer with a level-headed friend? So to think we can shout condemnation at someone very convinced of their worldview and not engage with the why behind it… is starting to feel like a hopeless cycle.
Can I be bold enough to say this conversation will require grit and patience, and will probably be a long process? Do we have the stamina to actually take it on? Do we want to? I worry that we have a growing number of keyboard warriors and social media heroes… and simultaneously a growing fire being fueled “on the other side” by a lack of engagement but an ocean of condemning statements in 140 characters or less.
Christian Picciolini is a former white nationalist who became the leader of the Chicago Area Skinsheads (CASH) when he was just 16 years old in 1989, two years after joining the movement. He has been speaking about the events in Charlottesville and said this the other day:
“I think ultimately people become extremists not necessarily because of the ideology. I think that the ideology is simply a vehicle to be violent. I believe that people become radicalized, or extremist, because they're searching for three very fundamental human needs: identity, community and a sense of purpose.
If underneath that fundamental search is something that's broken — I call them potholes — is there abuse or trauma or mental illness or addiction? In my case, many years ago, it was abandonment. I felt abandoned, and that led me to this community. But what happens is, because there are so many marginalized young people, so many disenfranchised young people today with not a lot to believe in, with not a lot of hope, they tend to search for very simple black-and-white answers.”
I keep reading the very end of that, over and over. “They tend to search for very simple black-and-white answers.” Why? Because, like he said earlier, there are so many young and marginalized people searching for hope, dying to be seen, heard, and loved. Black-and-white solutions. Vertical thinking, vertical reasoning, vertical living. Who will have the courage to start from the beginning with them and show them the better way?
There has to be a way out, a better way.
We have to start at the beginning.
And it has to be horizontal.
I think we can condemn the values of white supremacy and engage in the healing from them at the same time. I think we would all be way more capable of helping reshape someone’s ideas if we knew where they came from. I’m worried we won’t try. I’m worried we’ll actually see more of what we saw in Virginia. I’m worried we’ll see an increase in violence, hate, and everything we’re desperate to see less of. I’m worried we may see people become the very same thing they despise.
What if we knew what THAT PERSON or THAT SIDE was seeing? How they grew up? What they were afraid of? Maybe we’d get closer to the illness, rather than screaming “Go to hell!” to the symptoms.
And what if I’m wrong, too? What if I get to the end of the horizontal “equation,” so to speak, and the answer still seems wrong. We’re still not getting along or seeing eye-to-eye. There’s still hate and racism. There’s still confusion. We can go back and look. We can check our work. Where do we trail off? Where are we seeing things differently? What’s at the beginning of this, the root? That’s where seeds of change get planted.
I was struck by some statements by author and speaker Mike McHargue:
“If you can listen, and respond in a non-reactive way, you can help people who want justice, but are fragile. And this task MUST fall to white people. We’re the ones who have to talk to our families. Every one of those torch-wilding white nationalists is one degree away from a white person who cares about justice. If you feel like you don’t know enough, keep reading. And don’t be afraid to say, ‘I’m just learning about this too.’ That can make people feel disarmed because you display solidarity.”
If I am missing it, show me where. If I am side-stepping any of it, help me jump right in. My hope is for a collective strength willing to take this head-on with disruptive and loud love. If you have more ideas, please share. I am willing to be wrong. I’m just learning about this too.
Are we willing to have the conversations where we listen, and respond in a non-reactive way? Do we have the courage to say, “I’m just learning about this too? What are you seeing? Here’s what I’m seeing. Are you seeing something different?”
“People feel disarmed because you display solidarity.”
Because I would much rather hear someone explain the reasoning behind their worldviews than I would see their anger grow as they get publicly shamed. I would rather try to get behind the eyes of someone with convictions different than me so they actually have a space to encounter a better way. Isn’t that what we want? Let’s begin the conversation again. Let’s do it the hard way. Let’s try to get to the bottom of it, horizontally.
I think that’s when we’ll start to see the world change.