More on Black Lives Matter

I was excited that a White guy weighed in on Black Lives Matter, but now it’s time to hear from a Black guy.

But first, an introduction.

Meet Wesley Harris.

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Wesley Harris during our interview in Bel Air, MD.  (Photo by: Tracy Smith)

Although he is only 22-years-old, Wesley is an old soul, and I say that in the most respectful way.  He is thoughtful, deliberate with his words and passionate, yet at the same time he exudes a chill vibe that immediately puts you at ease.

He’s married and has a little guy that is almost eight months old.

I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I do because he’ll be sticking around my blog for a while.

And wait until you hear his insights about bootstraps.

Yes, bootstraps.

But first – What about Black Lives Matter?

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Building a bar, building a bridge

There is no doubt that commercials have the power to influence viewers.

In some cases, it’s a total disaster, like Pepsi’s recent “Live For Now Moments Anthem” ad that trivialized real issues.  Pepsi’s “moment” only lasted a moment.  After issuing an apology, they pulled the commercial, but not before receiving a ton of backlash across social media for their insensitivity.

Kristina Monllos does a fantastic job at bringing helpful critique to the Pepsi ad in her article that can be found here.  It’s worth the read.

But not all commercials that take on big issues are a flop.

Heineken dropped a fantastic ad that coincides perfectly with the purpose of this blog.

Two things struck me.

1- Completing a task or serving others in some capacity, with a stranger, can be a powerful thing in and of itself.  Working together towards a common purpose can make it easier to connect with someone we do not know.

2- By having someone describe themselves, it gives the other person the chance to listen. There’s no debating or arguing; just learning and choosing to accept someone for who they are.

Did you wonder what you would have said or done if you were part of this experiment?

I did.

None of us may be included in an experiment like this, but we all have the same opportunity with the people we encounter every day.

The decision is still up to you:  You may go or discuss your differences over a beer.

Anyone want to grab a Heineken?

I’m game.

Meet Jessica, part 2

If you’re new here, you can read the first part of Jessica’s story here.

In part one, I left off with sharing how I had otherized Jessica.  As sobering and discouraging as it was to see this, what’s even worse is that I’m not the only one.

Jessica has been treated like “the other” by the medical community and often by well-meaning friends and family.

Here is the rest of her story.

Before Jessica was diagnosed, she was working a full-time job that she loved.  But she didn’t just love it, she was good at it.  As a patient financial services supervisor for a major hospital system, she worked with a team of 35 people to reduce outstanding insurance company payments.

“I miss my job terribly,” Jessica said.  “I miss the intellectual challenge, getting out and seeing people every day.”

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Parts of Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia are beautiful.  (Photo by: Tracy Smith)

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) doesn’t just go away.

Bipolar disorder doesn’t just go away.

There is no medication to treat DID; long-term therapy is required to learn how to manage the condition.

“Outside of some miracle, this is my new normal,” she said.  “In-patient treatment will be necessary at times.”

What is the new normal though?

While her DID symptoms don’t happen every day, they are frequent and brought on by a trigger.  Most common are episodes often referred to as losing time.

“I have large gaps of time that I can’t remember, especially from my childhood,”  Jessica said.  “I will have a conversation with someone but have no recollection of having spoken with them.”

Flashbacks, nightmares and depression are part of the new normal too.

And then there is the most frightening experience:  the voices in her head.

“They are not psychotic,” she said.  “They are parts of my personality that developed for a specific purpose to survive trauma.”

When this is your new normal, is it any wonder why statements like, “Life is tough for all of us, suck it up and do what needs to be done,” can be tough to hear?

Some people defend themselves, claiming they would never say anything so insensitive.  Well at least not to her face.  That would be cruel.

But then they post even worse statements on their Facebook page, reducing Jessica and those who are like her to a single story, reminding her that she is “the other.”

According to Jessica, even relatives that are part of the medical community will regularly post jokes on Facebook that make fun of those suffering with mental illness.  Facebook is full of comments, lies, jokes and myths that paint those with mental disabilities as “other.”

“Facebook ‘friends’ like, comment, share and post things that they would never say to me and these are very hurtful, ” she said.  “In the few instances that I’ve pointed it out, the response is always, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean you.’ ”

Some Facebook “friends” have even posted comments that suggest that dealing with gun control is best accomplished through locking up people who are mentally ill.

Rather than always remembering that every person is a complex bundle of emotions, ideas, motivations, reflexes, priorities, and many other subtle aspects, it’s sometimes easier to dismiss them as being in some way less human, and less worthy of respect and dignity, than we are.

Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, Jessica believes that you can’t begin to accept an individual without first rejecting that stigma.

But rejecting a stigma requires taking the time to get to know someone who struggles with mental illness.   Dismissing others is far easier to do.

“Acceptance is being honest enough to voice concerns instead of hiding them, acknowledging that you don’t understand but want to try,” Jessica said.

Although she considers herself “pretty open,” she’s convinced that most people don’t actually ask questions because it’s either too awkward for them or they are afraid of the answers they may get.  As a result, people just stick with the stereotype or label.

“Acceptance means understanding our differences, because trying to deny them makes matters worse,” she said.  “It’s finding our similarities and not avoiding me, or worse, my kids.”

We are more alike my friends…

I have not forgotten about Jessica.  The second part of her story is coming, not to worry.

Sometimes detours are necessary.

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Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial in Gloucester, Massachusetts (Photo by: Tracy Smith)

Yesterday, I spent a good part of my day sitting in a booth at Panera with a gay woman.  I was looking forward to listening to Jess share how it feels to be otherized by people in society because of her sexuality.

This is something I know nothing about and I was eager to learn.  With my list of questions typed out, notebook open and pen in hand, I mentally shifted into journalist mode.

What I quickly realized was that woven between the questions and answers, we found ourselves laughing hysterically at one another’s jokes.  I talked about how my husband used to have a mullet and she shared how gorgeous her wife is.

We talked about our dreams and fears and our faith.  We covered politics and women’s issues.  And we both found ourselves tearing up when we discussed sensitive matters.

Although we were meeting to talk about the one difference between us – her sexuality – I found that we are more alike than different.

But isn’t it these singular differences that sometimes become hurdles that prevent us from actually getting to know other people?

Which reminds me of one of my favorite commercials.

https://www.ispot.tv/share/AR5R

Meet me, the otherizer

It can be painful when you realize that you’ve otherized someone, especially when that someone is a friend.  And it’s humbling when you come clean to them about how you’ve otherized them.

I felt sad for Jess and the way that I hurt her.  And I felt exposed and ashamed of myself.  After all, I should know better.  I’m listening to people’s stories and writing about otherizing and I’m otherizing someone at the same time.

As a friend kindly pointed out, this is hypocrisy.  Yet it’s nearly impossible to avoid. Viewing someone as “the other” comes naturally if you are part of “the norm.”

While this blog is in part to help nudge you, as a reader, it’s also for me.

Because I need nudging too.

I’m not content leaving individuals and groups in the boxes I’ve put them in.  The only way to combat this is to make the effort to get to know someone that is different than ourselves.

This is not about making someone you view as an “other” your personal project or charity case for self-improvement.

It’s caring enough about another person that you want to listen and learn from them because they matter.  It’s being willing to ask questions without feeling the need to insert your opinion in response to what they share.  And it’s about accepting and loving them – even if you don’t agree.  {Is there anyone you agree with 100%?}

One of my favorite authors says it this way:  “Tolerance that tolerates only people who think like us is not tolerance.  It is covert prejudice, scorn with a mask of niceness.”  

Any real change is often gradual.  We can’t rush this.  People are complicated and relationships are messy.

And that’s OK.

Meet Jessica, part 1

As I approached Jessica’s home, I was excited for our interview, but also for the breakfast she was preparing for us.  I’m used to grabbing something quick in the morning, so this was a treat:  Greek omelet (no olives, thank you very much), French toast with maple syrup and bacon.  Oh, and the perfect cup of coffee.

When she opened the door to invite me in, the first thing that came to my mind was this:  Jessica does not look like someone who struggles with mental illness.

Later, I would regret what I thought was a harmless and even positive observation.

Here is her story.

A good day is a day without nightmares and flashbacks.  On a good day she’s not consumed by guilt or by feelings of worthlessness and failure.  On a good day she doesn’t have suicidal thoughts or urges to harm herself.  On days like these, she can enjoy time with her family and friends.

“On the worst days, I feel nothing or I’m bombarded by the voices in my head accusing me of failing as a wife and mother,” Jessica said.  “I want to die and I can’t even find the energy to make that happen.”

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Jessica, outside her home.   (Photo taken by her daughter, Lauren)

Meet Jessica:  a wife and mother of two teenagers, who resides in Harford County, Maryland.

After enduring seven years of both inpatient and outpatient treatment from multiple sources, and a string of diagnoses, a psychiatrist finally recognized symptoms indicating that she has dissociative identity disorder (DID).

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, DID typically develops as a response to a traumatic event, such as abuse or military combat, to keep those memories under control.

In addition to DID, Jessica also has bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

As if living with a mental illness isn’t difficult enough, the media constantly reinforces false and unhelpful stereotypes.  This makes it difficult for people in society to see the mentally ill as individuals first.  It reduces them to a single story.

According to Jessica, it’s common to be labeled as lazy, selfish and weak, although the exact opposite is true.

“If you’ve never suffered a clinical depression or related disorder, you have no idea the amount of energy it steals or how much more energy a simple task requires,” Jessica said.  “There are days that brushing your teeth is your biggest accomplishment and there are days you can’t even do that.”

Another misconception is that those with mental illness are crazy and dangerous.

“There are far more suicides among the mentally ill than murders or other violent crimes,” Jessica said.  “The reality just doesn’t make for good headlines and doesn’t sell many movie tickets.”

But stereotypes do sell and they sell big.

M. Night Shyamalan‘s recent film, Splitgrossed over $40 million in just three days, quickly surpassing its $9 million budget.  Although it entertained audience members, over half of whom were under 25-years-old, its unrealistic depiction of DID reinforces the negative stigma that these individuals are crazy, sadistic serial killers.

“It’s hard to get people past the stigma presented in the media because it’s easier to just believe what you see,” Jessica said.  “And TV shows and movies always portray a negative view that only reinforces stereotypes.”

Stereotyping is the gateway to otherizing.

And Jessica is no stranger to being otherized by the medical community and sometimes even by well-meaning friends and family.

“Once a mental illness diagnosis is made, it colors everything about you, even if it has nothing to do with mental health,” Jessica said.  “You become a psych patient and psych patients aren’t generally treated well.”

Among friends and family, she often perceives what she calls the “snap out of it” mentality.  It’s not uncommon to hear statements like, “Why can’t you just get it together and do what you need to do for your kids?”

“Wow, I wish I thought of that,” Jessica said.  “If only it were so easy.”

Then there are comments made like the very one I thought on the morning she opened her door and invited me into her home for breakfast.

“On more than one occasion I’ve been told that I don’t look like I have a mental illness,” Jessica said.  “I’ve seen a lot of mentally ill people and except in a few extreme cases, I wouldn’t be able to point any of them out on the street.”

Although Jessica may wonder exactly what a mentally ill person looks like, I clearly had a picture in my mind.  The picture was formed by a stereotype and in that moment, I did the very thing that I didn’t want to do.

I otherized Jessica.

To jump to part 2 of Jessica’s story, click here.

Stumbling into a sports bar

Before you hear Jessica’s story, I need to introduce you to Mark.  In fact, meeting Mark will help you to better understand Jessica.

Remember how I mentioned taking a Mass Media and Society class that first exposed me to the concept of otherizing?  Well the professor of that class was Mark; Mark Sullivan.

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Stephen Smith and Mark Sullivan, pretending to look natural as I take a still shot.

Mark teaches courses in mass media and popular culture at both Towson University and Walden University.  His doctoral dissertation, Dangerous Music: The Eternal Refrain (I’m almost done reading it and it’s fascinating), explored the battles over popular music throughout the 20th century.  Additionally, he has taught various courses on the history of popular music at the Smithsonian Institution.  He regularly posts about popular music on his blog, Societe Anonyme Inc,  and he is also an editor and contributor for the site Sit Down/Listen Up, devoted to sitting down and listening to single albums without distractions.

That’s sort of his official bio.

But Mark is also an avid reader, a gifted writer, an art-enthusiast and an engaging communicator with a great sense of humor.

So how is Mark going to help us understand Jessica better?  And where does stumbling into a sports bar fit into all of this?

Watch and find out.

Otherizing through a single story

A few months ago, I found myself sitting in front of my MacBook, mesmerized by Chimamanda Adichie‘s inspiring TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story.  I’m not even sure how I stumbled upon it, but her message landed on me at just the right time.

Like I mentioned in an earlier post, recognizing that I otherize people was like waking up.  The first realization felt as if someone grabbed my shoulders and said, “Open your eyes, Trace.  You do this!”  But understanding who I otherize, and how I otherize has been a gradual process.

And I am still learning.

One clear indication that we otherize is when we find ourselves using the phrase “those people” in reference to a certain group.  And I don’t just mean saying the words “those people” out loud.  Mentally categorizing a group as “them” or “those” or “they” is still otherizing.

I believe we’re all guilty on some level.  Maybe it’s a leader or political party or religious group.  Maybe you refer to those in the LGBTQ community as “those” people.  Or maybe it’s a particular social class or ethnic group.

In a few days, you will meet Jessica.  Battling mental illness for many years has left her feeling otherized, often by well-meaning people.  Yes, she struggles with deep depression, but that is not the sum of her life.  Her mental illness alone does not define her as a human being.  Jess is far more than that – she is not just a single story.

One of my favorite quotes from Adichie’s Ted talk is this:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

Pour yourself a drink, sit back, and listen to this amazing woman’s message.

Definition time

You won’t find the word otherize in the dictionary that’s been sitting on your bookshelf for the last two decades.  You won’t even find it among the 1,000 new words that Merriam-Webster added to their 2017 edition.  However, you will find words like mumblecore, truther and binge-watch. <–don’t get distracted now.

English Oxford Living dictionary to the rescue!

otherize: verb View or treat (a person or group of people) as intrinsically different from and alien to oneself.  ‘Referring to them in these terms strips them of their identity and otherizes them as foreigners.’

But the most helpful definition I’ve found is from the blog, There Are No Others.

By “othering,” we mean any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody’s mind as “not one of us.” Rather than always remembering that every person is a complex bundle of emotions, ideas, motivations, reflexes, priorities, and many other subtle aspects, it’s sometimes easier to dismiss them as being in some way less human, and less worthy of respect and dignity, than we are.

Dr. Mark Sullivan, Mass Media and Society professor at Towson University, highlights an important factor that is often neglected when defining otherizing.

“It’s not about me against him/her, or even me against them.  It’s us against them.  Otherizing is not just about separating self from other, but also about renewing personal membership with us.”

So when we otherize, two things are happening.  We are alienating an individual or group and at the same time, reinforcing our bond with people that are like us, making ourselves the standard.

“The other,” then, is anyone different than this standard we’ve created.

Still not sure if you otherize?

I’ll leave you with this.  It might not answer the question, but it will give you something to think about.