The Color of Fear: Friends (Diversity Series, Part II)

When friends come over for dinner, does everyone look like you? In an exploration of what it means to make room at the table, I recall the years in the late 90s when one of the most popular shows on television was Friends. From 1994-2004, as many of my coworkers rushed home to see Friends, I had to give the popular program a pass, wondering why none of the pals on Friends looked like me. I was never invited to the party. I didn’t find that not-so-subtle notion amusing. There’s nothing funny about exclusion. My circle of friends didn’t look like the cast, and I wanted more than tunnel vision from my entertainment. Fast-forward a decade and the country is contorted with the searing pain of misunderstanding, mistrust and fear. This shows me the real, everyday value of diversity. If we pick our friends, then the friends we pick matter.

Fifty years after Jim Crow officially and legally ended, there is widespread discomfort and stereotypes about people with dark and non-European phenotypes. It’s possibly a self-perpetuating cycle, wherein racism, discrimination and injustice against people leads to a deep fear of retaliation of the same brutal isolation, disenfranchisement and alienation. It’s still common to hear good people claim color-blindness, a banal lie that undermines honest communication. The commonly held theory is that by the age of 3 or 4, children can already discern racial and ethnic differences. Well, honestly, I can see why some folks continue to rely upon the failed trope of “colorblindness”: The truth requires an awareness regarding individual power, position and the ability to communicate. Only by relinquishing the myth of colorblindness can we breathe new life into our extraordinary society.

The first step is to embrace the nuances of the complex collective history of our dear nation.

Let me say that this is not academic. People are community-minded creatures. We literally need each other to survive and thrive. True, there are the odd cases of those who go it alone, but most of us are looking for our clan—it’s why people easily gravitate to people who look like them. Here’s the challenge. A clan need not solely be based on skin color, socioeconomic class or religion. In a sense, there is a false sense of safety there, when in reality, those groupings merely ensure a baseline of respect. There is the expectation that everyone in that group knows how to behave and can read the covert social cues, allowing them to understand implicit rules that outsiders may miss. But those rules shouldn’t be enough for one group to relegate another group to the margins of acceptability as if they were numbers in some neat binary system.


Moving toward the middle requires opening to not knowing. Shifting our perspectives into curiosity mode may be the very salvation our society needs.

The answer to some of woes is to make diversity a priority. Visible, discernable differences are part of the natural world. The human species’ varied spectrum of shapes, hues and sizes are spread thinly over virtually identical biological matter, with only small variations of genetic coding to give us our unique external appearance. We are all mammals, capable of sophisticated language and superior intelligence; it’s up to us to end the artifices of separation.

If you want to make a difference, start by acknowledging the realities of whatever is in front of you. Instead of holding on to prefabricated fantasies about people, ask questions. Make a new friend. See the beauty in someone, anyone, who isn’t just like you. So maybe a little discomfort is required, a little awkwardness and just enough vulnerability to invite humility and authenticity, but not so much as to create anxiety. From this opening there can be a dialogue, the invitation to not know and to welcome the time investment needed for the knowledge and friendship to grow. Be willing to possibly feel a little silly to get to know a colleague. Ask about hobbies and favorite foods, and listen. Start small and build on the currency of your good will. Empathy and connection bring people together in friendship. We can solve the crisis of fear by laughing or crying together. Firing off mirror neurons in the company of new acquaintances will humanize both parties. Take the risk. You could just find yourself with a whole new group of friends.


Belonging and Its Twin Welcome! Diversity Series: Part 1


The nation is once again focused on the topic of diversity, specifically inclusion and its counterpart, exclusion. Political rhetoric is high, as imaginary lines are drawn between people of different ethnic groups with solutions to class and socioeconomic problems being reduced to ejecting immigrants to their nations of origin. After some two million deportations, this doesn’t seem to be the fix. And in more stable quarters, Chris Rock has criticized the Academy of Motion Pictures for its pervasive “color blindness,” which translates to excluding anyone with visible skin pigmentation from the possible list of award recipients. Naming the issue is secondary to impact when we account for the people who suffer from the practices of separation.


Cultivating an atmosphere of spaciousness in our society is vital. America is nothing without its broad spectrum of people. This spaciousness is as necessary in our personal lives as it is in our places of work and government. Close relationships are good for us, and so is a general proximity to people who are not exactly like us. It’s why we read books and educate ourselves: We understand ourselves, and each other, better when we use a wide lens to take in the human experience.


There is also the fact that we need physical and emotional support and comfort to thrive. We are meant for one another. I’m no expert here. In truth, retreat comes easy to me, especially when things get complicated. It is my go-to when avoiding and preempting rejection. How do I stay close in the midst of discomfort? It’s hard work. Yet, connection and community, belonging and acceptance are deeply important to all people. A baby must be held and given physical nurturance in order to survive and grow. As adults, we continue to need those things as well. Even proper brain development is contingent upon the quality of relationships. According to Robert Waldinger, a researcher in the longest ever study on happiness, “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.” (Learn more about the Harvard study here: Even without a doctor and a study to say so, it holds true.


Love and connection are universal driving forces, motivating people to do almost anything to feel a part of some larger community. Gangs often capitalize on the deep yearning of desperate people, bringing out the worst aspects of human character as they work to forge bonds at a high cost to individuals and society. In contrast, feelings of belonging can lead to joy, nourishment, and overall good health. Acceptance, love and the ensuing elevated self-esteem release agents into the body that heal and revitalize the physical and spiritual self, reducing pain and distress and activating the body’s natural mood-lifting chemicals. Belonging is the essential and vital source of wellness that promotes authentic happiness, which benefits people in all spheres of life and reverberates to all who are fortunate enough to come into contact with these human resources.


One way I have found of maintaining impactful connection is opening my home. I have really come to appreciate hospitality more and more. An invitation is an opening for compassion and time together. In an age when emails, Facebook and text messages form large portions of private and work times, where social-media sites dominate in the arena of communication, sitting together at the table is balm for the soul. As humans, we need intimacy, which cannot be replicated via electronic mediums though arguably Skype and FaceTime platforms do seem to offer at least visual reinforcement for times when the distance is too great to easily surmount.


The question of when we reach for each other is also important. I’m reminded of an African proverb that counsels, “Build your well before you’re thirsty.” Contemplating this adage, the message yields its lesson. It is very hard to build something sound in a short period of time while under duress. Great need heaped onto a weak support will not hold. We cannot wait until we are in crisis to make a friend. Like a garden, the seeds must be sown well in advance of the harvest.


This metaphorical thirst can be translated into a literal earthquake or other emergency, or a death or a loss of position, such as a job change or breakup. When these events happen, and somehow no human being of any color or financial status can escape such pain, people need someone solid to count on and turn toward. This is the power of proximity. If you are fortunate enough to be surrounded by family in the town where your previous generations have grown intertwined, then the turning toward one another may be easier. However, if like many urban dwellers, you come from afar, and your roots yet skim the surface of the earth, you will need your neighbor. I remember when all the phone lines into New York City were down after 9/11 and I could not reach my family members for many days. I sat in the university with my peers. We were all crying and reacting to the events, staying close to each other though we were strangers. Whether or not we had family in New York did not matter. We held on to each other like survivors in a raft.


There has to be balance in inclusion; we can’t always reside in the inner circle, nor can anyone dwell in the outer circle for extended periods without suffering. Lack of connection creates great vulnerability. This includes a common form of relational aggression: exclusion. Like all forms of violence, aggression stems from a deep fear of insufficiency. Competition is sparked as people engage in toxic struggles for power or resources or, sadly, love. Equally dangerous whether consciously enacted and recognized or not, such competition has no real value in human society. In the animal kingdom these struggles serve as a means of assuring access to the gene pool by establishing dominance and hierarchy of mating rights. In both realms, the results of aggression on the victim are always the same: a shorter life span, poor health and isolation. Human or not, the impact is measurable; the costs, high.


We have to create the spaciousness in our lives for all the members of the community to feel a part of the whole—this is the belonging that people long for. In the human world we inhabit, we permit the exclusion of enormous groups of people for all sorts of carefully justified reasons, even as we see that people are willing to die and kill to belong. So how does this situation get ameliorated? One heart, one mind, one person at a time we look for ways to make room, to invite, to welcome.


There’s hope in awareness. There are things we can do to improve life on earth. We get to share our time, our food and our energy; we get to be in community through service and activities. This is our joy and beautiful fellowship gift. We have each other—belong to one another—in a profound way, the longing in us reconciled with sharing the cycles of life as we witness one another. The physical, emotional and spiritual nourishment is complete in the act of companionship, sitting through the difficult and the beautiful, alike. A culture shift needs to happen in our society, where too many people are made to feel as if there’s simple not enough room for them. At home, it may mean taking time to listen—even family members get caught up in roles and stop being present, stop inviting, stop welcoming. In the office, fear manages the hiring process. In the movie industry, it’s stereotyping. There’s always a reason why someone is excluded.


At times I have resisted welcoming and belonging, my own receptivity challenged by feeling disconnected and unworthy. That’s work that needs to be done in community as well. In reality, we all need to belong; we all need to feel welcome. We need those affirmations repeated throughout our lives, because belonging never gets old.