Life experiences and the lens through which we view the world

Anxiety, frustration, sadness, anger and fear were just a handful of emotions shared.  On Monday, a group of more than 150 locals from all walks of life, came together to participate in The Defamation Experience, hosted by the Workforce Diversity Network. During the experience, six actors and actresses acted out a defamation case in a fictitious courtroom.  The goal of the experience, shared with more than 75,000 people across the country, is to close the gap among races, classes, religion and gender through civil discourse.  We need to increase the number of people participating in the experience from 75,000 to 750,000,000!

The case involves Regina Wade, a struggling black woman who is suing Mr. Golden, an affluent, Jewish white male for defamation.  In order to win her case, Regina must prove that both a false statement was made about her to a third party and that she was damaged financially as a direct result of that false statement.  Following the 90-minute mock trial, the “jury” (the audience) decides who wins the case.  From there an open, interactive and respectful dialogue ensued. While all 150 jurors witnessed the same 90-minute mock trial, our diverse life experiences influenced the lens through which we heard and processed the information.  As I listened to others share, some of the perspectives were similar to my own, while others were perspectives I was unable to see because of my lens. Many of the comments were around the various characters and how a change in their gender, race, religion or class may have influenced our point of view.

Many black women shared their experiences with “the look” they get when someone expects a white woman to show up to a meeting and instead a black woman walks in the room.  One black woman shared a story from a white man who didn’t believe “the look” was real until his visit to a third world country when he experienced it for himself; people watching him, judging him, fearing him.  Our inability to understand something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  It just means it’s not part of our life experience and the lens through which we view the world.

A few of the Jewish attendees talked about interfaith marriage and whether or not their desire to preserve the Jewish faith was preference or prejudice.  One person shared that anyone can convert to Judaism and that in doing so they will be viewed as having always been a part of the faith.

A white man shared a story about a conversation he’d had at one point with a group of white men.  One of the men had asked “if I am privileged and have power as a result of that privilege, why would I give that up?”  A white woman took the microphone and made the point that it’s not about giving anything up, but rather acknowledging that power should only be used for good, to help level the playing field.

Since I have come to acknowledge my own privilege, I am much more aware of it when I see it.  A few months back, I was alone on an elevator when a black man walked up and asked me if there was room for one more.  There was obviously room for one more, and he joined me on the elevator.  One individual I shared my experience with said that no man should get on an elevator alone with a woman.  It wasn’t until later that I thought about why he had asked and not until my participation in this week’s event, that I reflected on how the scene may have been different with different characters.  Would a white man have asked before joining me on the elevator?  Would a Jew or a Muslim have asked?  What about the scenario where the woman on the elevator is a white supremacist? It’s a thought-provoking exercise to think about our lens and how it shapes our individual biases.

The program moderator shared that while many groups lean into the conversation, our diverse group of 150 dove into the conversation and truly embraced the opportunity to share, listen, learn and seek to understand the perspectives of others.  Perhaps it was the timing, following the tragic events at the Tree of Life Synagogue over the weekend and the desperation felt by so many.  One person asked the simple question, “When will things get better?”  It’s the question on many people’s minds after yet another senseless loss of life.  The simple answer is, change starts with each and every one of us.

Towards the end of the program we talked about how to keep the conversation going.  It’s easy to avoid potentially uncomfortable conversations for fear of saying the wrong thing and offending someone.  The Defamation Experience created a safe space to have an open and respectful conversation that otherwise would have been difficult in mixed company.  Here are a few simple ways that were shared during the event that can give each and every one of us, the power to be the change;

Expose yourself to new perspectives
Whether it be the people we work, learn, pray or socialize with, we tend to run in circles with like-minded people with similar backgrounds.  Step outside of your usual circle and meet new people. The Workforce Diversity Network aims to broaden and apply the concepts of diversity and inclusion in Rochester, NY and beyond and is a great place to start.

Use your voice
Tuesday, November 6th is Election Day so take some time to learn about the candidates who are running for office and head to the polls.  In your day-to-day life, if there is a conversation taking place that makes you uncomfortable and you’re not sure what to do, at the very least, excuse yourself and remove the platform for negative dialogue.

Increase your Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
The core of EQ is about recognizing emotions in yourself and others and exercising empathy.  How often do we see or hear something and ask ourselves “Why did that person respond that way?” or “How can they possibly be so angry?”  While it’s impossible to view the world through another person’s lens, increasing our EQ will help us increase our emotional literacy, ability to exercise empathy and to understand and accept perspectives that differ from ours.  Six Seconds is a great resource for learning about EQ.

Whether we are talking about sexual harassment, micro-aggressions or hate crimes, it all boils down to respect for humanity.  Change starts with the person in the mirror.  If we each choose to take ownership for being the change, we will see a change.