Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Listening, Learning & Extending Grace

I'm a bit of a voyeur. Not the creepy kind that gets arrested outside your house. The kind that's (legally) fascinated by people. I'm a Communication professor at the University of Cincinnati, and when asked why I chose that field, my answer is always the same. Originally, I wanted to be an anchor on SportsCenter, but after taking a few classes, I realized Communication was a field in which I could be a non-incarcerated voyeur for the rest of my life. I love studying people—their behaviors, word choices, relationships, nonverbal communication. It's probably why I obsessed over reality television way back when Survivor first aired. (What year was that? 1962? Feels like it.) And why I still watch shows like The Bachelor, Big Brother, and Food Network Star even though they can be ridiculous at times. They're "real" people reacting to "real" circumstances. (Don't worry, I know a lot of it is scripted and staged; there's a reason I put real in quotation marks.)

This brings me to Wednesday night, February 18. An arctic front blasted Cincinnati that week, resulting in lots of snow, frigid temperatures, and a full week of school closings and delays. The University of Cincinnati's president is very active on social media (he's tweeted almost 35,000 times; for perspective, I feel like I tweet a lot, and I'm just over 9,000 tweets). Students love his engagement, but it also opens him up to thousands of Millennials (the name for this generation of students) demanding snow days (even when it's not snowing). They tweet their pleas, and because I'm a voyeur who finds most of them funny, I often read through President Ono's timeline on Snowmageddon Eve.

That's exactly what I was doing Wednesday, February 18 when a theme began to emerge. But it had nothing to do with the Snowpocalypse. Many students were tweeting President Ono about a photograph he re-posted on Facebook.

The Cincinnati Bearcats played the Xavier Musketeers that Wednesday night in our intercity basketball rivalry known as the Crosstown Shootout. Our school colors at UC are red and black. For the game, one of our students painted his face red and black. Specifically, his face was painted black and his beard was painted red. President Ono re-posted a photograph of that student on Facebook to celebrate school pride. That's when the backlash began. Many students criticized Ono for promoting a student dressed up in blackface for the game. They claimed it was racially insensitive.

In case you don't know what blackface is, feel free to Google images, but to sum up, it's when white people painted their faces black to portray African Americans in the theater. And almost always, the character would depict African Americans as insensitive stereotypes. A truly awful and insulting form of "art" no matter what century you're living in.

I'm going to be honest here. My first reaction to the backlash was, "This is ridiculous. The kid is just showing school pride. Everyone needs to relax. Red and black are our school colors. What are students supposed to do? Why does everyone have to overreact about everything these days?"

Being the voyeur Communication scholar I am, I was hooked. I read every tweet. I studied the profiles of everyone tweeting. I wanted to know more.

And then the debates began. Others (mostly white students and alums) found these tweets, and they began to tweet back. Some of them were saying the exact things I was thinking (some of them weren't). Then the replies to the replies came. And so it went for hours. The next day, President Ono released a well-written apology, and my guess is that a meaningful dialogue will result from the incident.

Since then, I've spent a lot time thinking about what happened. And here's where I've landed: We all need to spend more time listening and learning.

I'm not trying to earn a gold star here, but I'm socially liberal (which would earn me a detention from some of you). I spend a lot of time speaking out for the oppressed. I've done it in my classrooms. I've done it online. I've done it behind closed doors. I know I've experienced white privilege my entire life. That doesn't mean I haven't worked hard to get where I am, it just means that I'm reaping the benefits of a system that has been rigged in my favor for hundreds of years. I get frustrated with old, rich, white, straight men who believe the only way to stay on top of the mountain is to knock everyone else off.

And, with all of that said, I have a lot to learn.

Instead of taking time to understand, I immediately jumped to conclusions. Instead of listening, I wanted to talk. Give my opinion. Tell everyone else how they're wrong and I'm right (I have that urge a lot).

I wasn't all wrong, of course. Neither side of an issue ever is (unless you eat ham instead of turkey on Thanksgiving; that's 100% wrong). And every side of every issue is filled with flawed human beings who are almost always a mixed bag of motives. Some people just want attention. Or retweets. Or website hits. The reality is that I'm a mixed bag of motives too, and writing this post is evidence of that.

But part of my mixed bag is the desire to help create a better world where all people are loved and respected. And, frankly, for me, that means fighting for and with people who have been oppressed for a very long time. Oppressed by people who look just like me. Not everyone shares that desire. But everyone has a responsibility to listen and learn. So that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to keep my ears and mind open about issues I don't fully understand because education is our only hope.

But, here's what I would like to say to the people currently fighting for equality. I realize I have no right to ask for this, but I'm going to ask anyway because I think it could help. Please have patience with me. Please have patience with the people who want to do the right thing, but aren't always sure how.

When I was in my early 20's, I probably made a lot of insensitive gay jokes. Because that's the world I grew up in. But then I opened my ears and mind, and I changed. As many of you know, I've spoken up about gay rights for almost a decade now. Even when that stance cost me. Because it was right. And it still is, so I'll keep speaking up.

But 22-year-old Steve wouldn't have said a peep. He might have even been part of the problem.

I bet this time last year I made insensitive jokes about transgender people. Because I didn't understand. I'm not saying ignorance is a good excuse, but it was my reality at the time. And then a transgender woman began writing for Rebel Storytellers, the organization that hosted my podcast. I met Paula. I got to know her. And everything changed.

The world is changing very quickly, and unfortunately, some of us are having a hard time keeping up. There's language I've used my whole life that was never considered insensitive that I can no longer use. Jokes that were perfectly fine five years ago that could probably get me fired today. Ultimately, these cultural changes are for the best because we're learning to value all people. But people like me need a shred of grace. Not because we deserve it, because we don't. That's not how grace works. No one deserves it; I just know that grace changes lives. The more that everyone on this planet is willing to extend just a little bit of grace, the faster change will happen. I'm convinced of that.

No one is perfect. We're all going to make mistakes. If a person is moving in the direction of hatred, insensitivity, and judgement, I say, fine, have at 'em. I have very little patience for people who want to make the world worse for others. But if an imperfect person is moving in the direction of love, compassion, kindness, and goodwill for all, let's treat one another as allies, because it will take a diverse group of passionate, like-minded activists to change the world.

Or maybe I'm wrong about everything I've written. If I am, please extend me that shred of grace. If you do, I promise to keep my ears and mind open.

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