Downtown Los Angeles: May 29, 2020
Caleb: These words were playing in my head as the bus headed to the jail with me, a photographer, and 60 BLM protesters, inside.
“The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses. The press is so powerful in its image-making role, it can make the criminal look like he’s the victim and make the victim look like he’s the criminal. If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”— Malcolm X
These words were burned into my brain from an oral presentation in my 8th grade English class, if memory serves me correctly, and are from The Autobiography of Malcolm X. This was a person about whom I knew little or nothing, but his words impacted me then and pop up every time I listen to or read the news. Here it is three decades later and they have the same meaning and significance as they did the first time I read them as a 14-year-old blond, white boy from the Bay Area.
These words are in juxtaposition to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., with whom I was more familiar. After all, we had heard about this person and these words at least once a year (at least I hope we do).
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King Day began being observed on the third Monday of January (his birthday was January 15) and has been celebrated in California since President Ronald Reagan signed the bill in 1983 — the year I was nine. I, as a private school student, thought everyone was hearing these words and celebrating this day. At 14 I already thought that we were living in a world without racism. I did not know that not all 50 states observed this national holiday until 2000 when it was finally recognized by South Carolina.
At home, I was raised with the values that all people were equal, regardless of skin tone. It wasn’t until I went out into the college and business worlds that I began to recognize and face both the physical and emotional struggles that people of color were carrying. It was then I began to see the labels of racism and began to see the privileges that come with being white. This continues to be a painful reality for a man who believed that we were playing on the same field.
As I sat on the bus, I realized I am not living in a dream, but a nightmare…
It is 30 years later from that oral presentation in middle school and I am sitting handcuffed on a bus waiting to be taken to Los Angeles County jail for photographing the protests and riots (vandalism to some friends’ restaurants and businesses) that came days after George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight by a Minneapolis police officer in front of pedestrians on Tuesday the 25th of May — another senseless death. As I look around this bus with the other detainees, I am thinking we have not made any progress since King’s speech in 1963 on a hot August (28th) day in Washington DC. The people sitting around me are scared, angry, frustrated, confused, and most of all — lost! I am thinking, have I done enough? What else could I do? How do I talk about this difficult topic? Because no one is talking about it right now on this bus.
The tension and fear on that bus coming from both the police and the arrestees could not have been higher. The most recent news cycles were playing around and around in my head. I was shocked that many of our nation’s leaders could not see that what is happening every day, not just on May 25th, is wrong. Where is our empathy? A generous application of this specific emotional intelligence skill and the outcomes on the 25th and afterward could have been different.
Anabel: When my son was released from jail, he called — as I had been trying to reach him and he knew I was worried. As we debriefed this experience, we decided to do three things and then regroup and talk some more.
Here are the three things:
- Do some research.
I found the Belonging Project being done by Laura Roberts, M.D., at Stanford. Its mission is based on the information that comes from a study by Walton and Cohen, (2011). A summary of the article reveals one simple intervention — one-half of the students (African-American) were given information showing that most first-year students, regardless of race or gender, worry about whether or not they belong in college but then later begin to feel at home. Each experimental group member wrote an essay about their experiences and made a short video, which they were told would be used for incoming students next year; it was recommended that they give some advice — to provide some tips for next year’s crop.
The entire intervention took less than an hour. Yet, these randomly selected students earned higher and higher grades over the four years, while the control group maintained the same grade point average. The experimental group also reported better health and fewer trips to the doctor than did their counterpoints. Only 9% of the students even remembered the experience at graduation time.
Such a simple solution — the anxiety and worry were normalized. When students are reassured that they indeed belong, they work harder — more diligently. We all worry about fitting into a new experience — camp, college, jobs, parties, etc. When we receive affirmation that we belong and our struggles are common, we can then be convinced that indeed we can do this. We do belong in college. We do deserve this job. We are welcome in this neighborhood.
The message (from this research) is so simple — it almost appears unimportant. However, Caleb and I are willing to bet we all have stories where someone in a new environment made us feel welcome. The message is easy to deliver. Any words that send a message of caring, nurturing work. “Hi, Welcome. I am Anabel/Caleb. Please sit here and we will chat during our break. I have only been here for a couple of months.” Or, “Hi, how’s it going. May I help? Do you have any questions?” If we want people to feel they belong we must send the message.
2) Read some books.
Caleb and I have now read several books on this topic. His favorite is Crying in H Mart. He found this book impactful because of the challenging relationship between the mother and the daughter and how the tension becomes resolved as the daughter strives to learn to cook her mother’s recipes. As she cooked she began to see and understand some of her mother’s idiosyncrasies. The book reminded him that as human beings — that even in dark times, there are still emotional connections that help us to grow and learn to become a better person.
My favorite is So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo because it is so practical. It answers such questions as these: How do you tell your business partner their jokes are racist? How do you explain white privilege to a white relative who does not believe it exists? Oluo is committed to making the seemingly impossible possible — have an honest conversation about racism. I am willing to put into practice some of her suggestions.
3) Share some stories.
After Caleb shared his experience — arrest, threats by the police, his stay in jail, it stirred my own memories. I reminded him of a story I had told him years ago about one of my particularly powerful moments. I had dinner with the wife of a board member of the independent school of which I was the director. She was gorgeous; she was articulate and intelligent with two degrees; she had two beautiful gifted children, and she had money. We told stories about growing up, school, marriage, etc., and, as the evening was progressing, she confided, “Anabel, let me be specific about one of my daily challenges. Every day I get up and I look in the mirror. I say to myself, ‘Face it. You are black. Deal with it.’” It was an epiphany for me. I did not then and do not now get up every day —- and look in the mirror and say, “Anabel, you are white. Deal with it.” And, as I shared, Caleb said, “Gee, Mom, neither do I.”
Our discussion led both of us back to the first quote by Malcolm X and his statement about the power of the media. We, as a society, which includes all ages, all genders, all cultures need to be more critical thinkers. We need to look for articles that report all sides of an issue. We need to be more ethical thinkers — we need to be fact-checkers, data verifiers, and look for the hidden agendas in every article.
My son could not stop thinking about how every person on that bus had been so influenced by the media that their actions led them right to — the violence, the destruction, the voyeurism, the bus ride, the arrest, the night in jail. We must hold ourselves and our leaders more accountable for the statements (tweets, posts, videos) we put out into the world. Their lasting effect can be more powerful than we realize. The adage of “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is simply not true. Words do hurt.
Neither of us can stop thinking about this….
This article was written by Anabel and Caleb Jensen.
Caleb Jensen, Anabel Jensen’s son, is a fashion designer living in Los Angeles, California. He has a background in fine art and mixed media design from the University of Oregon. He adores his pit bull, Daphne, and has a passion for animal rescue. He believes strongly that understanding and applying the concepts of emotional intelligence is key to human connection and growth.