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Be the Change #37 – Examine your prejudices

I live in what I would consider a nice middle-class neighborhood.  The houses are older, but well-kept, and the residents are small business owners and a mix of blue and white-collar workers.  Most of our kids go to college, and crime is almost unheard of. 

Many years ago, when I was a young mother, I learned that not everyone saw us the way we see ourselves, and the experience started me on a journey to examine my own prejudices.

My daughter was a member of a Camp Fire Girls troop in our community, and we were spending an overnight in a cabin with another troop from a more upper-middle class community.  I didn’t see myself as different from them in any significant way.  They doubtless had bigger houses and more expensive cars than mine, but in terms of values, morals and education, I felt myself to be their equal.

Late in the evening, as we were cleaning up, I was looking for the bag that a dish of candy had come from, with the idea of dumping the candy back in the bag.  I walked the perimeter of the room, glancing into totes, looking for the candy bag. 

“Are you looking for YOUR bag?” someone said from behind me. 

“Oh, no,” I replied, at first not even turning around to look at her, “I’m looking for where this candy belongs.”

Then, something in the emphasis on the word “YOUR” caught my attention and I turned to see the very suspicious face of a Camp Fire mom from the better neighborhood.  In the same instant, I remembered noticing an expensive-looking camera in the most recent tote I’d glanced into. 

It was one of those moments of instantaneous, wordless communication.  All in a fraction of a second, I realized with horror that she’d thought I was poking around the bags looking for something to steal, and that she thought it because we came from a neighborhood where she thought people did that.  And in the same second, she registered the shock on my face and realized that she’d made a wrong assumption. 

I don’t remember how we disengaged, but I remember not being able to sleep that night.  I felt so humiliated that anyone would assume that I was a thief, and that they would make that assumption based on my living in a neighborhood that I thought was perfectly respectable.  What’s more, even though I’d done nothing wrong, I FELT wrong: dirty and unworthy in some way.  And, for some reason, it hit me:  the way that woman treated me is the way white people treat black people.  

Admit it:  if you’re sitting in traffic and a couple of African-American boys saunters down the street, you lock your car doors.  If you work retail, you watch your black browsers more carefully than your white browsers.  It’s certainly well-known that black drivers are stopped by the police more than white drivers.  White people make negative assumptions about black people all the time, often unconsciously. 

Do you think they don’t know this?

How do you think it feels?

The experience that I had on that sleepover started me on a journey to acknowledge my own biases.  Before that, I wouldn’t have called myself prejudiced.  I didn’t think African-Americans were inherently  inferior to European-Americans in any way.  I felt that we were all entitled to the same rights. I would no sooner have used the N-word than the F-word.  But, like many white people, I thought we lived in a society where we all had the same opportunities and everyone had the same chance to get ahead in life as long as they worked hard and stayed out of trouble.  The epiphany that I had that night didn’t change me by the next morning.  But it opened my eyes,  and I started paying more attention to big issues like unequal treatment under that law – and small issues like the hurtful impact of my own preconceived notions. 

The first step to getting along better is to acknowledge our biases.  It took being on the wrong end of a bias to inspire me to do that. 

This week, think about some negative assumptions that you have about a gender , ethnic or economic group different from your own, and how hurtful they might be to the objects of your prejudices. 


Be the Change #36 – Green Energy for the Miser

I am what is politely called “careful with money.”  I live by the old Depression-era maxim “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.”  I love keeping our cost of living down.  So, even though I am very concerned about climate change, and I could easily afford to put my money where my mouth is, we still drive gasoline-powered cars and I kept postponing signing up for the green energy provider.  I kept telling myself I wanted to research it, and understand how much our bill would go up.  But I never did anything about it until a couple of Sundays ago. 

Al and I are members of the Phipps.  We never miss a flower show and, being who I am, I ran the numbers and realized that we would spend less on an annual membership than we were spending on individual flower show admissions.  During our visit to the fall flower show a couple of weeks ago, they were running a promotion with Green Mountain Energy: 6-month membership extension for anyone who signed up for Green Mountain.  We talked to the young man at the Green Mountain table, and I started to say (again), “We’ll think about it.”  Then, I had a moment of honesty with myself.  I’d been thinking about it for years.  We can afford a higher electric bill.  What more is there to think about?  And then, of course, there’s the 6-month membership extension.  That $45 appeal to my thrifty little heart finally sold me.  We signed up for the 100% wind plan. 

Then I went home and ran the numbers.

We just reduced our carbon footprint by 20,000 pounds per year.

And here’s the joke on me:  By not doing that research that I always promised myself I would do, I was throwing money away.  Turns out Duquesne Light had us signed up with a high-cost carbon-based fuel provider.  By switching to wind, we’ll SAVE about $17 a month!

The moral of the story is this:  Don’t put off looking into green energy.  It could end up saving you money.  And even if the dollars don’t work out for you the way they did for us, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you’re helping to save the planet. 


Be the Change #35 – The D+ Tax Bill

Sorry, but this one is pretty political  It’s a plea to call your member of Congress to ask for a better tax reform bill than the one they just introduced.

That postcard some Republican congress members are waving around is the best thing about the tax bill.  It’s true that, by raising the standard deduction, most taxpayers should be able to file their taxes on a single page, maybe even a post card.

But don’t think that raising the standard deduction means your taxes are going down.  In the current version of the plan, the $4000 personal exemption is going away, which nets it out for most families.   This bill offers almost nothing to the middle class. Some of us will see our taxes go down a bit.  For some, they will go up a bit. In aggregate, we are getting crumbs.

I was glad to see that the top tax rate isn’t being reduced.  With rising income inequality, the last thing this country needs is lower tax rates for rich people.  But the rich still gain from the bill in two ways.  First, the federal inheritance tax is being repealed.  The tax currently only applies to estates larger than about $6 million (for a single person) or about $11 million (for a couple).  So, repeal doesn’t help family farms and small business, as purported.  Only the super-rich benefit from it.

The Alternative Minimum Tax is also being phased out.  The AMT  is a brake on high-earners being able to reduce their tax bill with numerous large deductions.  So, only the well-to-do benefit from this as well.

Finally, the bill fails to do away with the carried-interest loophole, which benefits only hedge-fund managers.  Literally, hedge-fund managers will continue to pay a lower tax rate than teachers, nurses and policemen.  During the 2016 campaign, President Trump promised to do away with this outrage. He should make good on his promise by signaling to Congress that he will not sign a bill that does not repeal the carried-interest loophole.

Now let’s talk business taxes.  I’m not against lowering taxes on business, but this bill lowers taxes on big corporations, while doing almost nothing for small business.  It should do exactly the reverse.  I work for a big corporation, and it’s my bet that corporate tax breaks will mostly fund stock buy-backs and bigger executive bonuses. Small businesses are the big job creators.  They’re the ones who should get the tax breaks. 

But my biggest objection to this tax plan is that it will add $1.5 trillion to the deficit over the next ten years.    Now, while times are good, we should be paying down our debt, not running up more, against the day when another significant war or serious recession make deficit spending a necessity.  If we keep running up debt, we will eventually be face with horrific choices.  Cuts to defense (including Veterans Benefits), Medicare and Social Security will be inevitable.  Decades into the future, our grandchildren will be paying for tax cuts for the Mercers, the Kochs and the Trumps of the world. 

The tax bill is a D+ at best.  Send Congress back to the drawing board on this.  Call your representative and your senators, and insist that they come back with a bill that is deficit-neutral, and is targeted at the middle-class, not the rich.  Here’s a LINK to help you find contact information for your members of Congress.


Be the Change #34 – More Random Acts of Kindness

 

 

 

 

 

Pick at least one this week…

  1. Donate blood
  2. Give up your set on public transportation to an older person, a pregnant woman, a parent with small children, or someone who is carrying a lot of stuff
  3. Participate in a fund-raiser
  4. Don’t honk at the person who cut you off in traffic
  5. Sign up as a mentor at work
  6. Write a letter to someone who did something kind for you or made a difference in your life
  7. Pay the toll for the person behind you.
  8. Just for a day, share eye contact, a “thank you” and a few words with everyone you come into contact with: the bank teller, the barrista, the unfriendly person at the office
  9. Surprise your co-workers with fresh-baked muffins

And my favorite today….

10. Give your spouse, child or elderly parent your undivided attention when they are talking.

Have a great week!


Be the Change #34: Be a Citizen of the World

I’m back to my blog.  Thanks for your patience during my long break. 

During part of my break, Al and I travelled to Canada for two weeks.  We saw eye-popping fall foliage, heard some toe-tapping music at the Celtic Colours festival – and made new friends from all over the US and the world.  New York, Ohio, Arizona, Canada, Germany, Australia, Iran.  In Quebec City, I helped a Chinese family find the Chateau Frontenac.  Our waitress at the Bay of Fundy was headed for the Dominican Republic and then Thailand as soon as the tourist season ended.  This is one of the things I love the most about travel: meeting people from “away” as they say in Nova Scotia. 

I especially loved seeing people from every corner of the globe at Niagara Falls.  Niagara Falls is one of those places like the Eiffel Tower or the Trevi Fountain.  It is not just a national treasure.  It belongs to the world.  People of every nationality take delight in it, delight that is the same on any face.  Language doesn’t matter, and isn’t even necessary.  The awe and joy are the same on a brown face, a black one or a white one. 

This is how travel makes you a better person.  It teaches you how much people are alike.  It opens your heart to people who are different from you.  I’m always urging people to travel abroad, for this very reason.

But, if you can’t travel, you can still open your heart and expand your mind just by spending time with people who are different from you.  There’s even some scientific evidence for this. 

In a 2015 TED talk, Dr. Jeff Mogil described an experiment where  people were asked to do something physically painful: plunge their hand into a bucket of ice-cold water.  Subjects were asked to do it under 3 different circumstances:  alone, with a friend, or with a stranger.  Then they were asked to rate how much pain they experienced.  When the experiment was conducted along with a friend, the subjects reported MORE pain, because they empathized with their friend who was experiencing the same thing, and felt his pain, too.  When the experiment was conducted along with a stranger, the perception of pain was the same as if they were alone.  The empathy effect didn’t happen.

But here’s where it gets really interesting….When they tried the experiment the same way, except the subjects played a video game with the stranger for 15 minutes before the experiment, the empathy effect DID happen.  15 minutes of playing a game together was all it took to feel a stranger’s pain just as they felt a friend’s.  15 minutes.

So, my plea to you, if you can’t travel, is to find some other way to spend time with people who are different from you; a different race, different religion, different country or ethnic group.  It will change how you think.  More important, it will open your heart. 


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