Accept Reality, Then Change It.

A friend made an interesting post on Facebook last week. She was responding to the tone-deaf Pepsi ad that offended millions of people. First she wrote “I thought the Pepsi commercial was good and sent a message of unity.” She then asked for people’s help in understanding why the commercial “was met with such disdain.”

After people responded, explaining the many problems with the ad, my friend posted: “I now understand the disdain,” adding, “Hoping beyond imagination that I'm not an insensitive white woman – that would break my spirit completely.”

Her posts got me thinking about white privilege and the journey of denial, resistance, acceptance and understanding facing many of us, especially since the word “resist” has recently become such an icon in the American English lexicon.

This friend is a good, kind, caring, loving person. She is certainly sensitive to the needs and feelings of her family, her friends and her community.

She also grew up a child of white privilege: she attended a private high school that was 99% white (the same high school I attended). She attended a similarly lilly-white private liberal arts college. As an adult, her home is a town with a racial makeup of 85.4% White, 2% African American, 7.2% Asian, and 5.4% "other." Her town is surrounded by five of the ten most affluent towns in her state. She, like most of us, is very much a product of her environment.

Is she an “insensitive white woman?” I’m not a big fan of absolutes, and to to say that she is totally insensitive would be a disservice to her and the many hundreds of thousands of caring people like her. But is she insensitive to the reality of blacks and other minorities in this country? Was she initially insensitive to why minorities would object to Pepsi’s blatant copying of serious social protest images for commercial gain? Unfortunately, the answer would have to be yes. Just like the marketing executives at Pepsi who thought their ad would be well-received. (And most of whom I’m guessing are the product of white privilege. I used to work in marketing in New York, and rarely were any minorities sitting around the conference table.)

Is she totally insensitive? No. The very fact that she is asking difficult questions, looking for answers and willing to learn shows that she is beginning to be sensitive to the issues of race, exclusion, prejudice and white cluelessness that still exist in American society.

I have good news for my friend: there is hope for you yet, and the rest of us victims of white privilege.

Asking difficult questions and being open to difficult answers is a good first step. The next step is much, much harder: accepting that perhaps our view of ourselves needs to change. This is where denial and resistance comes into play. It can be a huge blow to our egos to be confronted with the fact that we are not who we think we are. We resist and deny with all our psychological might. As a friend who is a psychologist told me, “denial can be a really good coping mechanism for a lot of people.” Accepting that we have an insensitive—and even harmful—world view can be devastating. It can pull the rug out from under our comfortable world. Yet sometimes that is exactly what we need.

As devastating as it can be to go through such a catharsis, the good news is what happens next: transformation. Watching someone change for the better can be beautiful to watch. Transformation is possible in even the most difficult circumstances. I once worked as a spiritual advisor to a prison inmate in a maximum security prison. He was in for life with no chance of parole. He had been a serial child molester and had caused tremendous pain for many victims and families. Like most child molesters, he spent years denying he had done anything wrong, blaming the victims. But after years of Zen meditation and spiritual guidance, he woke up to the damage he had caused—the agony he had inflicted on so many innocent people—and it devastated him and nearly broke his spirit. I suggested that perhaps the next step was to meditate on atoning for what he had done, which gave him something to work towards, and a modicum of hope. His transformation was well under way.

One of my favorite historical transformation stories involves the 18th century Anglican clergyman John Newton, a man who was a captain in the horrific Atlantic slave trade, but who had an epiphany about his actions, then became a minister and wrote the beautiful and haunting spiritual standard, “Amazing Grace,” which so eloquently captures personal transformation from sin to redemption.

How does one achieve radical personal transformation? How does one deal with a situation when you suddenly realize you are a serial child molester? Or a seller and killer of men, women and children? Or much less damaging but still difficult: an insensitive white person of privilege?

If step one is waking up to reality, step two is acceptance. Trying to resist reality will only lead to a raft of negative emotions: self-recrimination, anxiety, anger, despair, etc. We must give ourselves a big metaphorical hug and accept who we have been, who we are, and ask ourselves, “who do we want to be?”

Step three is being kind to ourselves. Most of us have heard the phrase “Charity begins at home.” I used to think “home” referred to one’s physical residence, the house we live in with our family. While that is true, I have come to realize that in its more profound sense, “home” refers to our inner selves, the home we carry with us wherever we go. If step one is waking up to our failings and step two is acceptance, then step three is being charitable to ourselves so that we don’t fall into a crushing pit of despair, a situation that would “break our spirit completely.” Forgiveness.

If we let ourselves be broken, then we are no good to ourselves, our family, our community and our nation. We need the strength to work toward positive change in both our inner and outer worlds. How do we build that strength? Though acceptance, charity, forgiveness and atonement.

And after we build that strength, how do we keep ourselves strong in the face of so many forces trying to convince us to go back to our old selves? How do we “fight” those forces: the old habits of thinking, the pressures exerted on us by society. How do we “resist” without being crushed by much larger, more powerful forces?

We can learn much about resistance and change from people such as the great Japanese Aikido master Morihei Ueshiba (Aikido is a form of martial arts). Ueshiba developed Aikido as a way of using an opponents aggressive energy to defeat them without harming them. We can learn to deflect, to redirect attacks, to not waste precious energy and resources standing up to an attacker in full frontal resistance. Whether that attacker is our own mind, or the minds of others.

We all carry prejudices and insensitivities inside us. Better to admit, accept and change ourselves, than to waste time and energy resisting the difficult but profound reality that we are not always who we think we are.

Charles Carlson writes weekly about words, language and Discovering What Matters™ in his blog “The Language Log.” He is former journalist, editor and copywriter. He is also the author of "Passage to Nirvana" and the soon-to-be published "A Single Excellent Night".


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