Superheroes 👊

You don't have to wear a cape to be a superhero. These days, sometimes all that's needed is a classroom full of kids to be protected or a police uniform on a crowded street or the representation of someone with the same skin color as you, finally, in mainstream pop culture. 

I had planned to start this newsletter with a note about the Black Panther movie, on the opening weekend of a film that bridges the conversations between superhero adventures and "what it means to be black in both America and Africa — and, more broadly, in the world."

The significance of the movie should not be understated, but the reverberations from the Valentine's Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School also still echo. In my hometown, the reverberations from a shooting that killed a leader in the Chicago Police Department, turning his wedding anniversary into the day before his funeral the same day as he attended mass shooter training and planned to meet with alderman to discuss crime-stopping strategies, still echo.

When events like these happen, it can sow confusion, frustration, and fear, perhaps even homesickness and distancing ourselves from others in our emotional responses. Not understanding others' viewpoints can keep us from building relationships with our friends and, simply, being there for each other. I asked Ashley Kirsner, who previously spoke with me for Sown, to share her thoughts on how we can approach this. In this week's Q&A, Liz Adetiba shares her perspective as a black woman living and making friends in places where she has predominantly been in the minority. And in this week's challenge, I hope we can seize opportunities to turn frustration and misunderstandings into empathy and action, so that we can all live a little more heroically.

How are you, really?

This is not just a you problem.

For the sake of this newsletter's length, let's jump into Ashley's framework. She previously spoke with me about skipping the small talk and how her psychology research and real-life experiments in what some might consider oversharing has encouraged others to develop deeper emotional connections with others. Part of her message has been changing the way you ask "how are you?" to improve at sharing our feelings and emotions. Here are some ways she suggests asking ourselves "how are you":

  • What feelings about this have I not let myself feel yet?
  • How can I express or release those feelings? (Some ideas: journaling, going for a run, talking to a friend, letting yourself cry, etc.)
  • What's one action I can take that I'd find meaningful? (Some ideas: Donating $10 to a relevant organization; calling or writing a congressperson; encouraging others to join you in any of those actions).

Here's her broader explanation of those: 

"Here is the permission to feel whatever you haven't felt yet. Your frustration with the systems that make school shootings commonplace; your anger at politicians; your annoyance at everyone who has not done enough, maybe even including yourself; your grief of this senseless loss; your overwhelm at there being too much work for you to do that will make any difference; and anything else that might come up that doesn't quite make sense to you yet. Give yourself room for all of it.

Here is the permission to give yourself a real chunk of time to sit with whatever you're feeling instead of scrolling down your newsfeed and absorbing the way that other people are attempting to make sense of it. Let yourself actually sit in a quiet place without distractions and write about it, or talk about it with someone, or just take a few deep breaths. Give yourself what you can-- a minute, five minutes, half an hour. Let it be quiet. Let it be yours.

Here is the permission to do one thing that helps. You don't have to fix this problem by yourself. You *cannot* fix this problem by yourself. But you can do one thing. You can make one phone call. You can write one letter. You can donate $10 to one organization. Maybe you'll want to do more once you realize how satisfying it feels, but promise yourself at least one action.

Posting and consuming memes about a shared tragedy is helpful for getting a conversation going, but nothing tangible happens unless we come up with a Step 2. Do what you need to in order to get to your Step 2. Let yourself feel first, and then do."

I think Liz, who I've known for five years now, embodies Ashley's suggestions for action well. Liz and I met in college as residents of the same dorm, and she puts her fiery determination behind many of her passions, from Zumba to investigating the societal impacts of sexual violence worldwide. With roots in Texas, Liz moved to Chicago for college and subsequently moved to D.C., Austria, New York City, and now New Zealand where she is conducting more research as a Fulbright recipient — and made friends along the way. She's another kind of superhero, and here are her thoughts.

You have (temporarily) moved to several places where you are part of the racial minority. Why did you move to these places and were you concerned about encountering racism or life in the racial minority before you went?

I moved to Vienna, Austria in 2016 to complete my human rights minor in a top-level program, and Wellington, New Zealand just a few weeks ago on a Fulbright research grant. And though I definitely knew I would be in the racial minority in both of these countries, I felt that the academic opportunities offered to me were worth whatever feelings of alienation I might experience. But it’s not like I came in blind—I did my research on both countries. I had to do a cost-benefit analysis of some sorts, and I came to the conclusion (based on a lot of hope) that the benefits would outweigh the emotional and psychological costs. I don’t think non-Black people have to think that way when considering pursuing selective, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. But I definitely did.

What has been your experience so far?

In Vienna, my experience was practically a nightmare. I don’t necessarily want to rehash those detailed memories but just to give you an idea, I got piercing stares everywhere I went, store associates would follow me through the aisles, and on a class trip to Krakow, Poland, I was denied service at a popular bar. So not exactly the time of my life.

Did you encounter any particular challenges or, on the flip side, opportunities?

Everywhere I went in Austria throughout Central Europe, I felt my presence was seriously unwanted. And I’m a tall, dark-skinned woman with big kinky-curly hair, so I could never go unnoticed. After a few weeks, I made it a point to only leave my apartment if I could get a classmate or two to accompany me. I guess I felt like having them with me would make others view me as less of a threat, or whatever they perceived me as. At the very least, I could ignore the stares if I had someone to talk to. But interestingly enough, that strategy yielded in a wonderful friendship with two of the other students on the program. If I hadn’t needed to rely on them so much for mental and emotional support, I would never have gotten to know just how phenomenal they are, so I guess something beautiful did come from that painful experience.

What do you wish people understood — or did to prepare — for living in a place that may be racially different from you?

I wish people understood that the experiences people write about in travel blogs, or on sites like TripAdvisor, are mostly coming from the perspective of a white person, or a person of color who is not Black. And if you’re deciding where to visit or move based on their experiences, you might easily find yourself feeling like you’ve been duped. For example, someone could say “hospitality at this restaurant was superb,” but then when you dine there, your server is barely paying attention to you, barely treating you with respect. Doesn’t mean that the blogger lied per se, it just means that, as a non-Black person, they were perceived, and therefore treated differently than you. It’s a sad, sad reality to confront.

Further, I’d emphasize that traveling somewhere on vacation is not the same as living there. You have to understand that most people, when visiting a country, tend to hang out in tourist spots, and do tourist things. You can expect a certain level hospitality in those areas. In fact, you might walk away from your time there feeling as though you were treated better than you would be in the U.S. But actually living in a place—taking public transportation or driving to work/school everyday, hunting for an apartment, paying bills, grocery shopping, etc.—is a whole different experience. You don’t have tourist hospitality to shield you from certain experiences, so I’d encourage people to be aware of that.

Overall, how have you tackled making friends in new places?

Making new friends in a foreign country is NOT a piece of cake! I’m going through this right now. In Vienna, I pretty much just stuck with the classmates in my program and, as mentioned above, came away with two really fantastic friendships. In New Zealand, it’s a little different: I’m no longer a student so I can’t rely on meeting people on campus. The advice given to me by a good friend was to attend lectures or public events concerning topics that interest me, and mingle with the people there, and I definitely plan on doing that. At this stage, though, I’m more interested in meeting people who would be helpful resources to have here in relation to my research project. Of course, I’d love it if these connections bloomed into friendship, but I think as a “professional” in a foreign country, it’s a bit easier to start from there and go forward.

And I'll add that it helps SO MUCH to debrief with your friends back home ever so often. It’s definitely helped keep my anxiety at bay during the first few weeks of living halfway across the world!

Go sow: Challenge for the week. 

“My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”  — Mr. Rogers

Feeling + thinking + acting: How can we better understand our friends and those around us (who could become our friends)?

How can we better understand different perspectives?

How can we demonstrate that we do?
Suggestions welcome. (And let me know if you go see Black Panther!) Add these to your friendship toolkit:

Grow the Sow.

Zoom into the full map here.

What problem could Sown help you tackle? Ask the 400 of us!
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