Friday, August 9, 2013

The Choice of Belief

A few weeks before I attended NCORE, I saw Lee Mun Wah’s film, The Color of Fear. The film is set in small town/rural California – at Wah’s house, I think. He invites a group of men – Mexican, Black, Chinese, Japanese and White to spend the weekend in a retreat where they have intense discussions about race and racism. I later learned that the men were activists, teachers, psychologists, lawyers with careers rooted in anti-racism and justice work. All except one – David, a White local businessman. There were parts of the film which highlighted work the different Men of Color participated in, which addressed their intraracial prejudices. The majority of the film, however, was spent working with David to move from a place of believing that the U.S. is ok in terms of race and that any remaining tensions are issues of People of Color who can’t let go of their anger. Throughout the first part of the film as he listens to the stories and experiences of the Men of Color, he seems incredulous that these things could have really happened to any of them.

An example: several of the men describe fear and anxiety in their travels to the remote location for the filming. They had to drive on small highways with little traffic but they see White men driving pickup trucks which contain gun racks and this really frightens them. David is surprised that seeing something like that would strike fear in anyone. He says that these things don’t frighten him and he seems puzzled that anyone would perceive his everyday surroundings this way.

Closer to the middle/end of the film, there are a couple points when one of the men says something that seems to hit David hard and by watching his facial expressions and body language you can see the change that is growing within him. There is one part I remember, probably because it was a moment of clarity for me, too: after hearing the experiences of many of the men in the group, David is still holding out on accepting their stories as truth, and Wah asks him, “What if what they said were true? What would it mean?” (paraphrased)

David hesitates a moment and then, with obvious emotion, explains that if their stories are true then that means the world is a terrible place and that people suffer in terrible ways. He is clearly distraught – his voice trembles and tears come to his eyes. During the rest of the film, David is seen to accept more and more of what is told to him and in the end claims to have been changed forever.

Here’s what struck me about this moment in the film: I don’t think I had ever consciously thought about believing or not believing the stories of racism I’d heard, either. That is not to say that I did not believe what I heard – I did. But my belief wasn’t born of a conscious decision. I didn’t hear a story and decide to trust the storyteller just because they were sharing their authentic experience with me. My belief has grown out of years of hearing the stories, seeing them play out right in front of me and especially hearing the stories of people I know and love.

For me this has been a gradual process and one I was unable to see while it was happening. When I think back to my life as a child, a teen, a college student – those were the years when I was drawn to stories of racism and injustice, but I still hesitated to believe much of what I heard. Yesterday’s post about my experience in the career development session at NCORE highlighted a mild example of experiencing disbelief and eventually (within a minute or two) deciding to believe what I’d heard. In my early years I had much more resistance. My resistance came from not wanting to believe the world was that bad a place, just like David expressed. It is likely that there were also elements of not believing because I thought the storyteller was trying to “get over” – making their story sound worse than it really was so they could get something out of it. I don’t remember specifically having these thoughts or feelings but considering the environment in which I grew up, that was likely at least a part of it. I do remember moving on quickly past terrible stories of injustice because it simply hurt too much to dwell there for long.

During my early adulthood I began believing more and more. This is most likely because I developed more and more deep relationships with People of Color during these years. I still was not making a conscious decision to believe, I just . . . did. More and more, the stories I read or heard in the news sounded like the stories I was told by people I knew and trusted. It became easier and easier to believe without holding out and requiring proof.

It didn’t occur to me, until seeing The Color of Fear, that we all make choices about who to believe, what to believe . . . and what not to believe. Sometimes those choices are consciously made but often they are not. What causes us to automatically believe the stories and experiences of some people but not others? What have we been taught about who is trustworthy and who is trying to “get over” on us, to hoodwink us? What does someone have to gain by convincing others that an entire group of people are not to be trusted when they claim they are treated badly, oppressed, abused?

Although I was already at a place where I quickly extended the benefit of the doubt to People of Color when they shared their stories, after watching The Color of Fear I decided to choose to believe, from now on. It is their lived experience, not mine – just who am I to tell them what happened to them is a lie, a misperception, blown out of proportion? When I share my experiences with others, do I want them to believe me or do I think it’s ok for them – who have not lived my life – to tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about?

Just a few weeks after seeing the film I found myself in the career development session at NCORE, catching myself in disbelief. It surprised me, not only because my default response for so long has been to believe, but also because I had *just* had that revelation about the conscious choice of belief.

This work, these changes in ourselves, do not happen overnight. For almost 30 years I have been drawn to stories of oppression and have had the desire to make a difference somehow. For 15 years I’ve shared my life with a Black man. For 14 years I’ve been a parent to biracial children. For 7-10 years I’ve been on a gradual journey of slow but committed  and intentional work to become informed and then to act as an anti-racist. For at least 5 years I’ve developed relationships with people who have been formally educated in justice work and who do this work professionally and I’ve learned so much from them. After all that, it has only recently occurred to me to decide to believe someone when they tell me their story. After all that, it still doesn’t come completely naturally to me.

This is work.

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