Celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy were barely winding down on Monday when we were slammed with reminders of work unfinished.
Arizona State University has suspended fraternity Tau Kappa Epsilon, after Instagram photos circulated of members and guests at an MLK party posing with gang signs and drinking from watermelon cups.
In Duluth, a contrite store owner was trying to explain her "25-percent off everything black!" sign in the window of Global Village, which sells clothes and handcrafted items from around the world.
On the equally dismal receiving end, a Shakopee High School student from Saudi Arabia used a one-act play to share her frustration about being stereotyped. And a "microaggression" photo show, inspired by a fed-up student of color at Fordham University in New York, comes to the University of St. Thomas in February.
While many of us are shaking our heads in disbelief — this is 2014! — Anita Patel sees all of these examples as opportunities to take action.
"It would be my hope that these stories never occur," said Patel, vice president of racial justice and public policy at the <URL destination="">YWCA<PARAGRAPH style="$ID/[No paragraph style]">cq
"The reality, unfortunately, is that they come across all the time, although maybe they get more attention in a week like this.
"It's so important to pause and have a reflective conversation. Too often, we yell at each other. We shut each other down. There has to be time to reflect."
So, no yelling? No shaming?
Not if we want to see real change on personal and systemic levels.
While Minnesota's racial disparities remain among the worst in the country, Patel has seen heartening shifts in attitudes and policies among people willing to be less reactive and more reflective.
A dozen years ago, the YWCA created "It's Time to Talk" forums, inviting people from the corporate and nonprofit worlds, as well as professional athletes, students and others to talk about race. That the forum has grown from a few hundred people to 1,300 in 2013 demonstrates, she said, "how hungry people are to have honest conversations, in a safe environment."
Patel was happy to see ASU leadership take quick action, emphasizing, in part, "that the university will not tolerate this kind of behavior." But she hopes they don't stop there.
To affect change in the students requires bringing them into the conversation. And often, she said, the best conversations begin with a question:
Why did you choose to do that? What motivated you? What was the thinking behind it?
"If the frat members said, 'We thought we were being funny,' I could link to history and say, 'Please try to understand the impact of the symbolism of what you were doing,' " Patel said. "I'd ask, 'What do you want to stand for? Does this reflect that?' "
In Duluth, Global Village owner Rachel Mock posted a pained apology on Facebook, in which she voiced "a deep commitment to Martin Luther King," Patel noted.
Shaming might only shut her down, Patel said. "Instead, she might be directed to workshops and learning to give her tools to help her live in a way that reflects her intentions."
It's a goal for all of us this year. We likely don't see ourselves in these stories. We need to be more honest about that, and identify our own "missing bricks," as Patel calls them, particularly as our community becomes more diverse.
Patel offers a great example from a discussion circle where two participants, one white, one black, shared childhood stories. "There were light bulbs going off on both sides," she said. "One was saying, 'Oh, you really do cross the street when you see me?' and the other was saying, 'There's no reason for it. It was socialized into me.' "
Sometimes, those beliefs are socialized into our children, too. Photographer John Noltner spent the past two months at Shakopee High School, helping students create a one-act play around peace. One student was a girl from Saudi Arabia who wears a hijab, or head-covering.
Feeling anxious at school for real, she wrote fictionalized dialogue where a fellow student leans toward her and says, "tic, tic, boom."
"She has really struggled after moving to Shakopee," said Noltner, creator of a multimedia art project called apeaceofmymind.net. "She really felt that she was viewed as someone other than who she was."
A similarly enlightening effort launches in mid-February when the St. Thomas youth journalism program, ThreeSixty Journalism, (www.threesixtyjournalism.org) presents a "microaggression" photo project with 20 Twin Cities teens holding up signs. The project is modeled after a successful project at Fordham, created by sophomore Kiyun Kim.
The term microaggression, coined in the 1970s, refers to off-handed comments not meant to hurt, which hurt plenty anyway.
"You don't act like a normal black person."
"What ARE you?"
"You don't speak Spanish?"
"Sometimes, it's the subtle things that happen every day," Patel said. "It's important for everyone to think about how they form their views on race. Once you notice the stereotype or bias or assumption, you might decide to dig a little deeper.
"That takes a lot of work," she said, "but no one needs to do this alone."
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum