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Ben's Bells board member: Kindness requires that we confront and talk about racism

Ben's Bells board member: Kindness requires that we confront and talk about racism

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The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

If you saw the green “Be Kind” flowers painted on boarded-up windows downtown and felt uneasy about it or even angry, good. If you then had a conversation with someone about why you felt that way, even better. If you loved seeing the message and don’t understand what the fuss is about, keep reading. The work of creating anti-racist communities lies in the work of creating kind communities.

A group of citizens and the Downtown Tucson Partnership came together last weekend to help businesses clean up the damage that had been done. They wanted to do something. As part of their efforts, they adorned the plywood with the green Be Kind flower.

Some people loved it. Some hated it. Some thought it was condescending.

But then, something else happened. Other Tucsonans amended the messages to read “Be Kind — Listen.” “Be Kind — Hold Authority Accountable.” “Be Kind — Stand Up for Justice.”

Community building is about wrestling with injustice. It is about struggling with inequity and exclusion and then doing something to create change. It requires delving deeply into what kindness is and how it manifests in all levels of our society.

Kind and nice are not the same thing. Many of us were taught to be nice, to keep things comfortable, to sweep problems under the rug. Niceness taught us to avoid “difficult” conversations about subjects like politics, religion and racism. Kindness requires that we engage in them.

I’ve been involved with Ben’s Bells for 15 years, as a volunteer, a board member, staff, and now a board member again. Kindness is the lens through which I view life and I am fully committed to it.

As a black man, the world has not always been kind to me. Like most black Americans, I have experienced racism in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. In high school, my counselor was shocked and confused by my high GPA. I didn’t ‘look’ smart. In college, I dated a girl who broke up with me because her family threatened to disown her for dating a black man. I have been pulled over by police more times than I can count.

The list of injustices is too long to include and you’ve heard it all before. But have you ever thought about how racism prevents black men like me from participating in the everyday ways that strangers are kind to each other?

Think about this. Even with my perpetual smile, a surprising number of people have told me that they were “scared of me” before they got to know me. If my blackness makes me scary then I am cheated out of the opportunity to connect with people. I lose, they lose.

We need to do better. At Ben’s Bells we talk a lot about how kindness is defined by the receiver. Intent is important, but it is not enough. Kindness isn’t kind unless it eases the suffering of the recipient. I see a lot of good intent being wasted because people don’t do the learning they need to do before they engage.

I believe that when a white person says “I don’t see color” that their intention is kind. But what I hear, as a black person, is that you don’t acknowledge my struggle, that you don’t see me.

“It’s the thought that counts” isn’t good enough. It’s the impact that counts and that intent/impact match takes some work. This is what the practice of kindness is all about. Listening, and learning, and then having the courage to act.

I’m asking you to practice kindness right now. Doing kindness in response to injustice is not comfortable.

I’m asking you to feel that discomfort and to not let it scare you away. What would you paint on the plywood downtown? What will you do? Please engage with these ideas and keep adding to the list.

Be kind – listen. Be kind – learn. Be kind – get comfortable being uncomfortable. Be kind – have tough conversations with your family, friends and colleagues. Be kind – donate to organizations committed to social justice. Be kind – seek out black-owned businesses. Be kind – understand privilege and power. Be kind – vote.

Be kind – be an anti-racist. Every. Single. Day.

Forest Melton sits on the board of the Tucson nonprofit Ben’s Bells.

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