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Finding the Words

“No words.” I wrote when my friend Louisa shared her story on Facebook. Her heart. Her experience. My beautiful, talented, kind, vibrant friend Louisa. Who is also black.

I didn’t have the words. I still don’t. I never have. I want to find them.

I told my husband, “How can I talk about brave and stay silent? It seems wrong.” He replied, “It’s our turn to listen, not to talk.” Yes, listen. I wanted to hear. To see. To shed my whitewashed lens, to crawl into someone else’s experience and truly understand. Not a check-the-box, cursory understanding, but get a deep, change-my-life awakening.

But in that quiet space in my heart, I confess that I liked his answer because it let me stay safe. I could observe but not act. I could remain numb and comfortable in my discomfort. But it felt wrong. My insides were telling me that brave doesn’t live in silence.

“When you find the words, you will speak them,” Louisa said. After immersing myself in a world I’ve been too privileged to see unfolding before me, I seek to find my words.

I grew up in a small town in northwest Montana. It was not a “melting pot.” Skin color was something we only saw on TV. Everyone I knew, as far as I could tell, was white. The only diversity in town was represented by the one Jewish family (the dad was the town’s psychiatrist) and the foreign exchange students who I always fell in love with.

My mother had grown up in Kentucky and my father in Texas. They talked about racism in hushed tones. It was bad, they made that clear, but that’s all that was said. They were uncomfortable with the subject so the subject was rarely, if ever brought up. It was easy to live that way because everyone around us looked just like we did.

It wasn’t until I was 17 and went to college that I saw my first black person. I remember walking on the “mall” at the University of Arizona, the long grassy area on the north side of campus, and a tall, beautiful black man walked past me. I stared at him with wide eyes. I had never seen anyone like him before! It was both thrilling and uncomfortable.

I couldn’t help but remember that experience when I took my first trip overseas to Japan and the school children would stare at me and ask to touch my hair.

I was a good girl. A nice person. I cared. I wanted to get things right. What was the “right” way to talk about race? I didn’t want to hurt anyone. But since nobody actually talked about it, it was hard to know what was right. We would just pick up cues, through TV and movies. My college in Arizona was almost as white as my hometown, so, at that time, I still didn’t actually know anyone who was black. Even as I write this I can feel my own discomfort in writing the word “black.”

Somehow I got the message that saying “black” wasn’t right. “Good people” were color-blind. “African American” was the right thing to say. But I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know how to say it or think about it. Since “right” wasn’t clear, we just didn’t say anything. I didn’t mention color. Ever. I wanted to do things right.

I remember when my son was little, and by that time I had many dear African American friends (because I didn’t think I was supposed to think of them as black or call them black) and he would talk about his new friend with the “dark skin.” I remember telling him, “It’s not nice to refer to someone by their skin color,” successfully passing on my awkwardness and discomfort to the next generation.

We don’t know how to talk about it. We don’t know how to think about it. Hiding from our not knowing doesn’t make the problem go away. We become the problem.

I want to immerse myself to see what I haven’t had the courage to really see. To peek behind the curtain into the backstage of people’s pain. To find the stories that the media ignores. To listen. To learn.

I read a story of a black mother who told her athlete son to run in the backyard where it’s safe, instead of in his own neighborhood. I can’t imagine fearing for my son’s life for simply jogging down the street.

I listened to a well-educated, articulate black women’s story about being pulled over for simply having a graduation tassel hanging from her mirror. She felt she had to narrate every move she made so the officer would know she wasn’t a threat (“Officer, my hands are on the wheel…I need to get my license and registration out of my purse. My purse is on the seat next to me. It’s blue. I’m reaching into my purse…Can you see my hands?…”). When I juxtapose my own frantic pull-everything-out-of the-glove-box traffic stop that took all of 7 minutes to her 45-minute interrogation, I was incensed.

I had no idea.

I am blessed to have many remarkable people in my life, who are also black. Many Latino friends. Friends who are Muslim. Asian. From India. Friends who are very different from me but are just as American and friends from across the globe. Sometimes I feel ashamed of my whiteness.

I still don’t have the words. I wish I did, but I don’t. I don’t feel brave. But I do believe that our path to brave begins with truly wanting to understand. We have to come out from behind our discomfort and awkwardness that forces a blind eye to see.

We must deal with what is real for all of us. Envision a future that allows everyone to win which includes everyone at the table. It is time to rebuild a society in which all people feel safe and free. Now.

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Kimberly Davis
Kimberly Davishttps://www.braveleadershipbook.com/
An expert on authentic leadership, Kimberly Davis shares her inspirational message of personal power, responsibility, and impact with organizations across the country and teaches leadership programs world-wide; most notably, her program “OnStage Leadership” which runs in NYC and Dallas, TX. Additionally, Kimberly teaches for Southern Methodist University’s (SMU) Cox School of Business’s Executive Education Program's Transformational Leadership Program and their Latino Leadership Initiative. She is also privileged to teach for the Bush Institute’s WE Lead Program (empowering female leaders from the Middle East). Kimberly is a TEDx speaker and her book, Brave Leadership: Unleash Your Most Confident, Authentic, and Powerful Self to Get the Results You Need, is the 2019 winner of the Benjamin Franklin Silver Award for Business and Career; an Amazon Bestseller in Business Leadership, Business Motivation, and Self-Improvement, and Motivational Business Management; and was named as the number one book to read in Inc. Magazine’s “The 12 Most Impactful Books to Read in 2018,” with a cover-endorsement by best-selling author Daniel Pink.

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25 CONVERSATIONS

  1. Well said Kimberly and one thing I strive and did while working the streets as a cop, that truth with compassion goes a long way. Under the definition of “Racist”, I and many of my white and black brothers and sisters in Law Enforcement understand the true meaning of that word. I can’t put people in catagories of black, white, black or brown, unless it deals with their culture and how I need to respect their ways. To me, All Lives Matter, and just like the babies aborted from the womb, black , brown, Asian, white; they are are equal in life. What changes is once they come into life. I found that speaking the truth and not being afraid to speak the truth with compassion, while tentively listening served many of us well. I am so saddened over what has happened with the lives taken recently as a result of bad apples, and my dear friends who are black are hurting deeply. They hate to see what is going on because of the cloud of racisim that has rested on the majority. Thank you for this article.

    • Your perspective is so important to this conversation, Lynn. Thank you for taking the time to so thoughtfully engage in this conversation. We need your voice at the table.

  2. Dear Kimberley
    I am passionate about the future being a space of #worldharmony – my dream is that we lean into circle of sacred spaces – of magical conversation without judgement, anger of coercion – where we can listen and learn about each person’s experience and still forgive and release the past as we create a future together with our imagination. I know there are major issues on so many different agendas… this is why we are all here on this path as we flow together to a brighter horizon. Like bursting a diseased blister, we are feeling the pain of the past, yet this blister has to be pierced or we keep the venom with us. What I do hope is we can come to value our differences as fabulous jewels in a tapestry of life designed to keep humanity rich in wisdom and creativity. I am British 64 years there, living in America 3 years, lived in Malaysia, 4 years, travelled and observed many races, religions, ethnicities, I study differences in men and women, and across all generations and the one thing I know is we are each unique and naturally given life at birth. If we truly value the gift of life, the pandemic pause gives us a space to create anew… thank you for being brave and I would love us all to be more brave and feed our dreams for a better future for all.

    • I so love your vision, Pauline! Absolutely breathtaking! You have painted such a beautiful picture of the future we can create collectively. Also, what a powerful metaphor – the blister – you’ll have me marinating on that for quite some time! Thank you!

  3. Kimberly I read this when you first wrote it and I was and still am in the same place. When you hear the stories there is no word. We also know it is not about our pain but theirs that needs a lot more focus on. We at least see more hear more and want to DO MORE and we cannot stop. Thanks for sharing your feelings so eloquently my friend. Love you and your heart and your bravery.

    • Yes. DO. MORE. Absolutely, friend. I also believe it’s important that we generate powerful conversations that allow people to think more deeply about this topic, reflect on their own histories and learn about how that’s shaped their reality. We cannot DO if we don’t better understand our part in it all. How we choose to forge our future requires ownership from all of us.

  4. Kimberly, Strong Ink. I think all of us struggle to understand. Growing up playing music I was yell at, shot at and even beat on , yet in the end it all ended when I stopped playing music and got a hair cut, yet to have lived my whole life like that would have been more that I could understand.

    • I’m sure that was painful, Larry, and I hope it didn’t take away your love for playing music and sharing your gifts. As hard as that was, what a wonderful school for empathy!

  5. Kimberly, indeed we are all at a loss for words right now. It warms my heart to read your words and better understand your world view. Your acknowledgement for who you are and where you are with “all of this” is the beginning of the healing that we must all do together.

    Yes we must be brave and speak up. Thank you for being part of the solution

    • I absolutely agree, Cordelia, that this is something that calls on all of us to heal together. I think, for far too long, we’ve not, collectively, taken ownership of the pain that so many people are experiencing. This is our world and we must treat it as such. We’re in this together. Thank you.

  6. Well written Kimberly.
    I think it’s very brave to want to understand. It’s in our nature.
    We have to ask the questions no one answers. And keep asking. Sometimes the answers are right there staring at us when they are not responding to our questions.
    In the face of fear bravery is born…the little things and the big.
    When we do not communicate division is created.
    People of all differences need to be celebrated in such a way as when we meet for the first time we should not have to fear eachother. For us to call ourselves modern, advanced, intelligent? We’re missing the basics really. It seems we have to be brave in the face of truth …that is the difficult questions for many who ignore.
    Just my thoughts here.
    Your article made me think and I like that. Fantastic piece Kimberly!
    Brave to me just expanded.
    Have a great week!
    Paula

  7. Your empathy is inspiring and humbling, Kimberly. But I have to say this: please don’t feel ashamed of your whiteness. Skin color is an accident of birth. Believing that it makes some people better than others is a product of ignorance, arrogance, and fear. I’m as white as you are; I also come from the most oppressed and persecuted people in the history of mankind. My whiteness doesn’t make me a perpetrator, any more than my Jewishness makes me a victim. We aren’t responsible for the actions of our forebears, only for the choices we make going forward. Your commitment to right the injustices of the past gives you no reason to feel shame.

    • Thank you, Yonason, for approaching this with such thoughtfulness. I absolutely recognize that, logically, and certainly understand logically that shame is debilitating and serves no constructive purpose, but I confess, the struggle is real. But my struggle is nothing in comparison to what others are experiencing. I think our gifts are often our Achilles heel – my empathy both serves me and, by its very nature, elicits pain. But in this situation, there is learning to be found in the pain.

  8. Thanks muchly, Kimberly.

    The replacement of truth with convenience isn’t free. The history of this country includes genocide and slavery. It’s part of our national character. Some of us acknowledge that and look toward healing, some toward shame, some toward blame – and these morph depending on our circumstance.
    Our age, race, gender, size, hair color, country of birth are all accidents – what we are is a coincidence; who we are is a choice. I’m not proud to be white or proud to be American. I’m not ashamed to be white or ashamed to be American. They’re accidents.

    I’m not suggesting we deny or escape, and I believe we can move forward more honestly if we take on what we own, are honest about our coincidences, and listen equally for difference and congruence. The words will abide where rigorous honesty grows.

    Be good. and well.
    Mac

    And a plug for the podcast, back2different:

    https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/aza-podcast/back2different

    • What a wonderful reflection, Mac! I so appreciate this – especially, “The replacement of truth with convenience isn’t free” and “The words will abide where rigorous honesty grows.” Thank you for investing yourself in this conversation.

  9. Kimberly: “Sometimes I feel ashamed of my whiteness.” I know what you mean, and because we have been “here” before SO many times in our history, I’ll take it a step further: Sometimes I feel ashamed of being an American. Systemic intolerance – racial, religious, gender, sexual preference, immigration – is an ugly, pervasive thread that runs through our historical cloth. There are those that will clutch the flag and righteously proclaim that many have died on the battlefield to protect the freedom it represents. True. But countless others have died or been marginalized without its protection. I deeply respect that this moment is about “Black Lives Matter,” and like you and so many others, I’m using this time to educate myself. As a student of history, though, our national disgrace has other chapters.

    • I so appreciate your heart, Jeff. I have felt the same way and struggle with those feelings. I don’t feel like the divisiveness and ugliness that has become our country represents me and, at the same time, I know that it doesn’t represent the majority of people, it’s just what’s getting the most attention. I do believe that most people are good and kind and caring but one has to really seek it to find it right now. As I type this, I realize that this is another reason that so many of us need to seek our words is that, if the loudest voices are those that don’t represent us and we’re feeling alienated from the very country we so desperately want to love, maybe our quiet observation is fueling the estrangement we feel.

    • I waited a while before responding, Jeff, reflecting whether this is the right time or place to offer my thoughts. It pains me to hear that you are ashamed of being American. It also pains me to hear the word “systemic” being freely used and, in my opinion, misused.

      I’m reminded of Roger Rosenblatt’s observation that “We’re learning that democracy can kill democracy. For one thing, excessive freedoms have made it almost impossible for an ethical conscience to assert itself. People have been free to ignore social obligations, to abuse one another, to kill themselves.”

      This is not a systemic problem. It is a reflection of our collective immaturity and our failure to develop the discipline to benefit ourselves by utilizing the most extraordinary political society ever conceived and implemented by human beings. It is the dark side of our humanity that has overshadowed our better nature, and there is plenty of blame to spread around.

      But there is so much to be proud of. A systemically racist society would never have elected a black president, not once but twice. We would not have gone to war against our brethren who rejected the ideals of our founding fathers in favor of a culture of enslavement. We would not be spending a fortune of public funds — however imperfectly — to correct social inequities. We would not have African American police chiefs and captains and military generals and secretaries of state.

      Martin Luther King and JFK were both notorious womanizers. Teddy Roosevelt supported eugenics. Harry Truman wrote anti-Semitic remarks in his private diaries. Their imperfections do not detract from their idealism or from their accomplishments. Nor do their accomplishments erase their imperfections. Human beings are complicated. Few of us are either saints or demons. We have to learn from our mistakes and failures. We have to strive to do better. But we also have to understand history in the context of history, not through the filtered telescope of hindsight and changing values.

      We have to celebrate all that is good, even as we try to improve what is lacking. It’s a difficult dance, but it’s essential to the preservation of our society.

    • Okay gentlemen, THIS is the reason that this platform is so beautiful! I love how the conversation just keeps getting richer and richer. Such powerful insightful and thoughtful expressions of this complicated, human experience we share. Thank you both for enriching my thinking, Jeff and Yonason. The challenge, I believe, is in reconciling our feelings with our understandings. I feel so much of what Jeff has shared and recognize the wisdom in all you’ve had to say today, Yonason. I don’t think there is a point where anyone one of us will arrive with this conversation and find peace. The struggle is integral to the quest for better.

  10. Thank you for this honest piece. I too believe “brave begins with truly wanting to understand “otherwise we are simply in reaction mode to our own narrative rather than responding from having listened and learned. My wish too is for all beings to have freedom and ease. Your heart pops from the page as always. Thank you.

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