The James Webb telescope recently transmitted profound images that allowed us to see our universe with precise and incredible detail. In the past, we gazed into the night sky and saw twinkling stars floating among a black space of emptiness. Now, through this powerful new tool, we have the capacity to see the beauty and complexity of our universe, with new insights that reveal story upon story upon story.
I have found the flood of Webb images to be incredibly moving. In fact, I reflected on them as I rode the ferry across San Francisco Bay. I sat among some 40 people in the stern of the boat. Surround by the expanse of the Bay, I allowed myself to daydream, imagining that the people around me were the celestial bodies in my particular universe. I wondered to myself what it might be like if I could see into my fellow human beings with the depth and detail analogous to a powerful telescope.
I slipped on my sunglasses and engaged in some exploring.
Right away, I found myself building stories of the people around me. For example, I observed three young women celebrating — perhaps an engagement, a job promotion, or simply TGIF. To their left sat an older couple. The woman leaned into the man and together they gazed at the water. Was it their anniversary? Behind me, a half dozen tourists sat perplexed by the boat’s ticketing system. To my right, a young man’s eyes widened as he turned the pages of a book.
The stories came on with an innocent start, but as the minutes progressed, I noticed the imperfections of my own internal telescope dropping filters of race, age, and class into my observations. In the span of our 20-minute crossing, without benefit of conversation or even the knowledge of a single name, I had created imaginary narratives full of assumptions that reflected more about me than the people I had observed.
My experience reaffirmed what I already knew; people are inclined to form stories about one another in a context bereft of fact. It is within this context that biases take hold and a phantom universe, ripe with microaggressions, can unfold.
Dr. Chester Pierce defined microaggressions as “the chief vehicle for pro-racist behaviors.” Subtle and stealthy at the outset, they evolve into words and deeds that can cause deep harm.
I reflected on the fact that a phantom galaxy as rich as the one that the Webb images revealed, also exists within us. What we lack is the capacity to see that galaxy, and it is this blindness that leads to unconscious, and sometimes hurtful, actions. An example of this set of circumstances is the embattled San Francisco School Board.
In February, residents voted to recall three school board commissioners by an overwhelming margin. One of the commissioners, Alison Collins (who identifies as Black), tweeted anti-Asian sentiments, referring to Asian Americans as “tiger moms” and “house n — — rs.” In the ensuing backlash, over fifty community leaders, including the Mayor and the President of the Board of Supervisors (both of whom are Black), called for Ms. Collins to resign. She refused, and this refusal led to a recall initiative. Ms. Collins (and others) were recalled, and the mayor replaced the ousted school board members with three organizers of the recall campaign. Among them is Ann Hsu, who identifies as Chinese-American.
Then, last week, newly appointed Commissioner Hsu made anti-Black comments on a candidate questionnaire form. She wrote -
“From my very limited exposure in the past four months to the challenges of educating marginalized students especially in the black and brown community, I see one of the biggest challenges as being the lack of family support for those students. Unstable family environments caused by housing and food insecurity along with lack of parental encouragement to focus on learning cause children to not be able to focus on or value learning.”
Community leaders (with the exception of the mayor) have called for Commissioner Hsu’s resignation. While she subsequently apologized, she has not resigned.
The microaggressions expressed by Ms. Collins and Ms. Hsu arose, as they always do, from the unexamined universe where all implicit biases reside. Alone, they may seem isolated and treated with words such as “that wasn’t my intent”, or “it’s not that big of a deal”. But these occurrences, when repeated, frustrate and harm communities who would likely prefer to stay focused on matters such as a $100 million deficit, teacher shortages, declining student enrollment, and onboarding a new superintendent. Instead, the cycle of reprisal and removal repeated itself within months, dominating their agenda, and perpetuating tensions between the Black and Asian communities.
Someone recently asked me if I had any referrals to organizational policies that effectively address microaggressions, and I could not provide any. Absent the tools or capacities to foster a much deeper awareness akin to the insights that the Webb Telescope brought, cycles like this one fall back on a humble safety net of policies and procedures that react to — but fail to correct for — this type of dysfunction.
The best way to disrupt microaggressions and biases is through the use of tools and practices that allow us to see ourselves and others in fuller, and more compassionate ways. This happens not through policies — which tend to be formal, reactive, top-down, and punitive — but through guidelines, norms, and healing-centered practices — which tend to be informal, proactive, collaborative, and restorative.
Just as a powerful telescope can change our view of the universe, gathering in circles can create pathways toward deep and lasting change through the weaving of our stories. Commissioner Hsu said herself that she had “very limited exposure…to the challenges of educating marginalized students especially in the black and brown community.” I wonder what might have happened if, before she filled out that survey, Ms. Hsu took the opportunity to gather in circles with the Black and Brown community and share their stories.
I wonder how the school board might work differently if they had an opportunity to gather with each other in circles to build a community of trust with each other before engaging in their important work. (The latter, however, would be impossible to implement given the Sunshine Laws, a policy that requires certain proceedings of government agencies to be open or available to the public.)
Several years ago, I supported a public commission in the midst of recovering from a similar situation as the San Francisco School Board. To adhere to Sunshine Laws, we split the nine commissioners into three circles of three people, thereby averting a quorum, and the need for the process to be open to the public. This structure allowed the process to proceed in confidential spaces where commissioners could privately share their stories and build community.
I am unsure if the San Francisco School Board has the capacity or the will to engage in such practices. The community seems too divided and committed to maintaining those divisions. But Mayor London Breed provided some hope when she said,
“I’m hopeful we don’t just dismiss this and say, ‘Oh she (Commissioner Hsu) needs to resign. It’s like, ‘How do we come together and make this a teaching moment? How do we prevent this from becoming politically divisive?’ Because she does, in fact, represent a constituency … who feel that they want a representative on this Board of Education. So, I think that it’s important for her to be a better leader and to be a better bridge-builder.”
My wish is that the people of my beloved city of San Francisco, along with the rest of us, acquire both the courage and the tools to see our own internal universes with the same curiosity that we use to gaze at the stars above. Bringing awareness to the spaces, biases and phantom narratives, may prove to be the key to navigating our way to a higher, and more wonderous place.
Questions for Reflection and Consideration
- Think about a recent time when you stood up to a false narrative about yourself or your community. What conditions caused you to step forward? How did you feel? What was the outcome?
- Think about a recent time when someone called you in on a microaggression that you expressed about them or their community. How did you feel? What was the outcome?