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Seeing double: Part exasperation, part inspiration

Offering empathy and respect when it’s not reciprocated is a challenge

Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said giving up after setbacks is "just not what we do."
Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said giving up after setbacks is "just not what we do." (Alex Wong/Getty Images file photo)

I lead a double life. That’s not as sinister as it sounds.

I cover the news of the day and write opinion columns on the intersection of politics, culture and race. And, if you’ve been paying attention, you know that it’s rough out there.

In my other, not-so-secret life, I spend time with thought leaders from around the country and the globe, leading a workshop called “Write to Change the World.” Through our hours together, I have the privilege of watching people of all ages, races, faiths and nationalities do just that, on issues from health equity to climate change to racial justice.

That’s inspiring!

But there is bound to be a disconnect between the real and the aspirational, between the world as it is and the world as anyone anxious to see progress would like it to be.

That disconnect is evident in the mostly encouraging feedback I receive on my work, on the columns, podcasts and TV and radio appearances, and every time someone from the workshops publishes a column or presents a TED Talk. Just knowing I played a tiny part in their successes makes it all worthwhile.

Then again, I also hear from “fans” who follow every word in order to parry with words of their own, insults directed at me in particular and Black people and other minorities in general. I had to shake my head at one recent note whose author took the time to address me formally as “Ms. Curtis” and sign off with “Regards” with a rant in between that labeled Black people and “culture” worldwide as “a culture that not only approves of violence as an end to a means but a culture that often demands violence.”

Well, at least he was polite.

But why, I thought, would someone direct so much hate toward someone he didn’t know, onto a whole race of people about whom he believes nothing but tired stereotypes?

He is not alone. I see his attitude reflected in the testimony at trials this week, midway through Black History Month, that bear witness to a problem that America has had since its founding.

In Georgia, the men already convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery are being tried on federal hate crime charges, with social media postings and more allegedly documenting that hate.

It’s indifference rather than hate at issue in Minnesota, where three police officers are in court, accused of violating the civil rights of George Floyd for standing by or assisting as former officer and convicted murderer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck and caused his death. That Chauvin was a training officer will surely be a part of the defense, though the “I was just following orders” excuse is as rancid now as it was during post-World War II trials in Germany.

Those writing classes, though, including two I led this week, offer a contrast — leaders taking responsibility and already making a difference. They are representatives of communities, countries and continents facing a host of challenges; yet they’re already changing laws, as well as hearts and minds, and they have not been deterred by pushback, whether it comes from their governments or their neighbors.

Empathy and respect are the key, I teach in these OpEd Project programs. Place yourself in the shoes of those with whom you disagree and offer them grace and the benefit of the doubt that they are moral and intelligent.

Easier said than done, I think, knowing that in my other life, politicians and citizens are denying what’s in front of their faces, questioning whether, for instance, a democratically elected American president truly earned his spot in the White House, and, across the U.S. border, if a duly elected Canadian prime minister should be tossed because a minority of truckers blocking streets and closing bridges wants it to happen.

How do you step into those shoes, offering empathy and respect when it’s not reciprocated, when you’re not just an opponent but an enemy, and a not-quite-human one at that?

That’s a tough one — but it’s not impossible, because it’s been done. You don’t have to look to the famous names trotted out each February: Dr. King, Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks.

I remember the evenings I spent as a little girl up way past my bedtime, hiding under the dining room table, listening and learning as my three eldest siblings and their civil rights group friends, of all races and ages, planned strategy. I remember how they ventured into battles, marching in peaceful protest and facing violence and the unknown because they believed in justice and equality for all, and believed, against all odds, that they could recruit others to the cause.

When asked what gives her hope, after all she has witnessed in the history of race relations in the United States, Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a CBS interview, “I don’t know of anything in the history of Black people in this country in which I’ve read some account in which it ended with, ‘and then they gave up.’ That’s just not what we do. … We don’t have any other choice.”

Her words meet the roadblock of today’s conventional wisdom, that Democrats don’t have a chance in the 2022 midterm elections, not in a country fatigued from a pandemic and inflation and ready for change, even if that means turning to apologists for an insurrection.

That scenario is certainly haunting Democratic lawmakers deciding to sit this one out.

Maybe they need to remember their own former colleagues, such as the late John Lewis, who, as an old warrior, was fighting for voting rights with the same passion as his younger self.

Or they need to look through the eyes of the activists I have the honor of connecting with in virtual rooms, people who believe in what they cannot see.

The goal doesn’t have to be power, is a lesson they teach me, proving that a double life isn’t a contradiction, but a necessity.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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