It is a toddler’s favorite word: why.
Why is the sky blue? Why do pigs like mud? Are unicorns real? Why do chickens lay eggs? Why can’t I have ALL the Legos at the toy store?
Any parent will tell you that it’s a magical milestone when a child begins stringing together words and you can have *actual* conversations. Over time, those actual conversations turn to torture when they just won’t SHUT UP. (Hey, no judging until you’ve spent YEARS discussing the finer points of garbage trucks and diggers followed by YEARS discussing Star Wars!) Or, how about when the questions seem pointless? Like when my boys discuss the pros and cons of having eyes on hands and mouths on stomachs OR what if the universe got sucked into a black hole? What would happen? I’m not sure what happens if we all get sucked into a black hole (I’m a Liberal Arts and Sciences person but I’m gonna go out on a limb and say it’s not good) but I know what happens these days after about 10 minutes of these kinds of conversations….I exit the conversation. I tell them I’m busy. I direct them to go play somewhere else. I get off their rollercoaster of endless ideas and possibilities.
Eventually, kids stop asking ‘why’. My eldest will officially enter the teenage years in a couple of months. Now and then, she asks her dad and I a ‘why’ question, but not as often as before. She’s learned how to google! And, more significantly, she’s keen to gather inputs from sources other than mom and dad. I’m currently reading Untangled by Lisa Damour, in my attempt to prepare for the teenage years ahead. Lisa writes about the immense significance that teenage girls associate to being part of a tribe, to feeling like they belong.
A tribe can be a beautiful, wonderful thing. On the flip side, we hear the world ‘tribalism’ thrown around a lot these days, as folks try to unpack the reasons behind why our world seems so painfully divided. It was only lasted a moment, but a brief encounter highlighting these divisions has stuck with me. As much as I’ve wanted to erase this singular dark spot from my otherwise pleasant Christmas holiday – I can’t. Nor can I shake my strange desire to go back to that moment and tell him THE WHY.
It was our last full day in Pismo. I was taking my boys down to the tide pools at the beach just in front of our hotel. As we walked down the path to the stairs leading to the beach, I noticed three girls playing happily on the lawn. We turned the corner and began our descent down a steep staircase down the cliff to the sands below. Boys being boys, mine raced ahead. I tried to keep up, yelling to them every few seconds to SLOW DOWN and BE CAREFUL. As we made our way down the stairs a gentleman behind me said, ‘They look like healthy kids with a lot energy!’. Wanting to be polite yet eager to catch-up to my boys, I replied, ‘maybe they have too much energy!’. The man then continued with words that still haunt me.
Well, better that than to be overweight like those Hispanic girls back there. Did you see them? They must have weighed 150 lbs each. I can’t help but notice the difference between those girls and your boys.
I didn’t know how to respond. So, I ran ahead, saying nothing. Catching up to my boys, I put a smile on my face, hiding the tangled mix of thought and emotion as I processed what just happened.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve gone back to that moment over and over again. There were a thousand things I wanted to say, starting with the most important point that the girls on the lawn were beautiful and in no way deserving of such horrible insults. Period. Then, in addition to the things I’d say, there were the questions I’d ask… I’d ask him why he felt it was okay to say something like that to me? I’d question his assumption that we were somehow of the same tribe. I’d ask him whether he had considered for a second why these girls were slightly bigger than my boys?
One of the most frustrating facets of this story is that this man never stopped to consider THE WHY before opening his mouth to the stranger in front of him (me). These moments seem harmless enough, but they’re not. They are the micro-aggressions perpetuate bias and injustice.
Going back to the story…. Were the girls bigger than my boys? Yes. But, the man’s words and tone suggested that it was because of their race that they were overweight compared to my boys. They weren’t just girls….they were ‘Hispanic girls’. And, to make the comment that much more insulting, he grossly exaggerated their weight. The message was clear, though. My ‘white boys’ (as he saw them) were good. And, these Hispanic girls were not.
The problem with prejudice is that it usually steals just enough partial truth to perpetuate a total lie. You see, Hispanic children ARE more likely to be obese than white children. According to a SPECIAL REPORT on RACIAL AND ETHNIC DISPARITIES IN OBESITY, 22.4 percent of Latino children ages 2 to 19 are obese, compared with 14.3 percent of White children.5 More than 38.9 percent of Latino children are overweight or obese, compared with 28.5 percent of White children. This is the truth. But, this is not the whole story.
The Hispanic Kids
The reason why Hispanic children are a greater risk is due to the following:
- Poverty, lack of access to affordable healthy food
- Barriers due to language, culture or immigration status
- Higher exposure to marketing of less nutritious foods
- Limited access to safe spaces to be physically active
Being a policy wonk, I could go on and on with statistics on implications of these statistics or the strategies for change. But, I won’t. That’s not the point. The point is that if we want to have a conversation about weight then we should talk be talking about broken systems, racism and privilege.
So many of the problems facing us today persist – not because we don’t have answers. It’s because we lack the compassion and/or curiosity to ask the questions.
And, it’s not just the man on the stairs.
Women of Color
Evidence of bias and injustice abounds. Another heartbreaking example is that of women of color who die in childbirth at an alarming rate. Researchers have finally begun to ask WHY. The answer isn’t as simple as poverty or lack of access to care. Serena Williams, one of the most famous tennis stars on the globe (and surely one of the most fit people on the planet!) recently made news with news of how she nearly died after childbirth. She’s not alone.
A recent ProPublica investigation chronicles the story of another mother, Shalon, who died tragically at the age of 36, due to complications following childbirth. Shalon was an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, holding two masters degrees and a dual subject PhD. When she, a healthy, well-educated black woman died unexpectedly after childbirth, her colleagues were compelled to dig deeper into THE WHY.
WHY is it that African-American mothers die in New York City at a rate 12 times that of Caucasian mothers? This trend continues, even for more well-off African American mothers, with one study showing that black, college educated mothers were more likely to suffer from severe complications of pregnancy or childbirth than white women who never graduated from high school. The answers are complicated, but the underlying theme is racism. It’s not just the individual encounters with our health care system. It is the cumulative byproduct of a lifetime of injustice that manifests in the most tragic of physiological ways. As Fleda Mask Johnson, an Atlanta researcher who studies this explains:
It’s chronic stress that just happens all the time — there is never a period where there’s rest from it. It’s everywhere; it’s in the air; it’s just affecting everything.
And, that everything includes childbirth. Michael Lu, a longtime disparities researcher and former head of the Maternal and Child Health Bureau of the Health Resources and Services Administration compares the chronic stress of being a black woman in America to gunning the engine of a car…..perpetually. As he puts it, “sooner or later you’re going to wear out the engine.”
There are plenty of other examples of injustice towards African-American women, such as the wage gap (where they suffer from a double whammy of both racial and gender discrimination). But, the story….the WHY…. behind black women dying at alarming rates – regardless of education, geography, income, health, you name it…..is the very real pain and harm caused by racism and injustice that persists in both people and systems.
For many, education is viewed as the great equalizer. Get an education and you can do anything! With this mindset, it then becomes easy to judge others. If only they’d applied themselves more in school….then, they could have gotten a good job, blah, blah, blah. Sure, we’ll admit that some schools are better than others (that’s why we work so hard to get our own kids into certain districts!). But, we cling to this vague notion of the American Dream that assumes most folks have access to decent schools. This is where the WHY is again useful. If it’s really so simple, WHY don’t more people just follow that recipe?
Just a few days ago, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, released a 150-page report, titled “Public Education Funding Inequity: In An Era Of Increasing Concentration Of Poverty and Resegregation.” I’ll save you the trouble of reading all 150 pages. The main message is that America’s education system is failing its most vulnerable students due to:
- Neighborhood schools that remain deeply segregated
- Too many students lacking access to skilled teachers, rigorous courses, and
- Inequitable school funding.
One particularly scathing line reads:
American public schooling is, and has been, profoundly unequal in the opportunity delivered to students, the dollars spent to educate students, and the determinations of which students are educated together.
So, WHY isn’t education a simple solution for those that are struggling? Because America’s most vulnerable kids don’t get to go to the same schools I went to or my kids go to….not anything close. Just to add one more layer to this…. Let’s just say for a minute that there’s a girl or a boy out there determined to overcome all the obstacles, regardless of where the live or the quality of their school. How easy is it *really* to get out of poverty? MIT economist Peter Temin’s research shows that escaping poverty requires almost 20 years with nearly NOTHING going wrong.
The Shithole Places
I could write for days and days of my disgust in seeing Trump’s vile characterization of entire continents and countries. It’s not wrong on so many levels. But, here’s another inconvenient truth: many Americans (most of whom would never admit it) are shocked by the vulgarity but not by the comparison itself. Admit it. We easily and often think of Haiti and/or Africa as places plagued by poverty, corruption, etc. At a certain level, this is true. But, again, one must ask WHY. For anyone willing to merely scratch the surface of history, the answer becomes painfully and abundantly clear.
Haiti was long a French colony that helped fuel the French Empire/Europe, providing 2/3 of the sugar and coffee consumed. When Haiti pursued its own path to independence, it spent nearly all of the 19th century trying to pay the $150 million gold francs French landowners demanded for freedom, in addition to being punished by American and European powers that refused to trade with them. While we didn’t do trade with them, we did loan them money (to pay the $150M in French debt), though in 1914 President Wilson had the US Marines empty the Haitian gold reserve. This led to years of occupation and unrest across Central American and the Caribbean. You get the picture…. This history isn’t new, though I owe this more succinct account to the January 11th tweets by author and journalist Jonathan Katz, who has spent time living and reporting from Haiti.
He concluded his thoughts on Haiti this way, as he speculated how anyone could justify such comparisons between Norway and Africa or Haiti.
You could write a similar story about Africa and the devastating impact of colonial rule combined with the slave trade. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots between the theft of people and land over many centuries with the challenges today. But, it does take a curiosity to learn and a heart of compassion to act.
The Bold and Humble
Confession: I’m still have a lot to learn on my Micah 6:8 Journey. You’d think that after 18 months of studying racism and privilege, I’d have had a reply for the man walking behind me down to beach. These everyday encounters are just one of the places where we may begin dismantling the many layers of bias, ignorance and indifference…. No matter how awkward or hard, it is time to call it what it is and sit with the discomfort. As Roxanne Gay wrote in yesterday’s New York Times,
This is a painful, uncomfortable moment. Instead of trying to get past this moment, we should sit with it, wrap ourselves in the sorrow, distress and humiliation of it.
And then, rather than resign to despair, we must let our holy discontent fuel our fight. Bit by bit we must call racism out and destroy it. It is not easy, but we stand in a moment where we must be both bold and humble. We must step-out of our silos and tribes, stand-up to injustice and fight for what’s right. At the same time, we must never stop asking questions and humbly listening to answers. THE WHY matters because people matter.
On Monday, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. If we are to truly honor his legacy, we cannot be silent, or, as he put it, remain “neutral in times of great moral conflict”. Fast forward to today – you cannot endorse or even ignore Trump’s ‘shithole’ comments on Thursday and then try to be an ally to the cause of justice and equality the following Monday. Speaking further to the dangers of neutrality, holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “neutrality ALWAYS favors the oppressor.” Intuitively, we all know that oppression and injustice is wrong. Let’s have the curiosity and compassion to actually do something about it. Echoing the brave women in the #MeToo fight, TIME’S UP! NOW is the time to do that something.
NOW is the time to get back on the rollercoaster of endless possibilities. NOW is the time to ask WHY and understand better. NOW is the time to seek what Oprah called the ‘absolute truth’ rejecting partial truths or fabrications. NOW is the time to listen to our kids (who will one day stop asking), as well as those with completely different perspectives, be they across town or around the globe. NOW is the time for faith leaders to categorically condemn bigotry and racism, as well as the perpetrators of it. NOW is the time to dream for, what my grandmother called, ‘Nobler Heights’. We do this primarily because it is the right thing to do. And, we do this so that when we are old and our grandchildren are asking us unending questions, they will never ask us why we said or did nothing in moments like these.