A man photographing street art in Manhattan

If there's one thing I've learned, it's that no time ever feels right to make a change. There really is no time like the present. Street art in Soho, New York City, June 2020. Photo by the author.

One of the questions that keeps coming up in conversations with friends lately is, “What can I do?” When I’ve tried to answer that question, for myself and for others, I’ve felt stuck. I’m certain that I can and should do something, but it’s not obvious what or where to start. The world is changing very quickly, and it’s difficult to keep up.

What’s more, saying or doing the wrong thing feels quite dangerous these days, since it might be misunderstood, misinterpreted, or taken out of context, and held against you. As a result it sometimes seems safer to say and do nothing. But that’s clearly not a solution to anything, and it’s not right. To remain silent is to be a part of the problem.

I’ve been pondering all of this for a few days, and while I don’t claim to have answers to the difficult questions we face as a society and as a nation, I do feel that I’ve found some answer to the question of what I can and should do today as a starting point. I want to share this list in case anyone else finds it helpful.

  1. Pause and reflect. We all grow up and live in a political, social, economic context. Most of the time, we don’t pay attention to the context because it fades into the background: it becomes the ground upon which we live the figure of our lives.[1] A good starting point is to pause and consider, what has been the context of your upbringing, and of your adult life? And what is the context for other people around you? The context of race and power structures may not be immediately visible, but trust me, it’s there, and if you look hard enough, it becomes apparent. Blind spots such as these are especially difficult, but also especially important to pay attention to, which is why it often helps to start by admitting one’s own ignorance. I feel especially ignorant about the experience and context of other people, even those that were close to me, growing up.

    If, like me, you’ve had a relatively stable, comfortable life, then reflect on the fact that not everyone has been so fortunate, and that not having to think hard about this context as you go about your daily life is a privilege. How has this context benefited or frustrated you? As I’ve reflected on the context of my own upbringing and career, I’ve begun to think about things that I never thought about before. For instance, having a relatively stable home environment.[2] Having access to lots of books, and the Internet, from a young age. Attending decent schools. Never having to live in fear of the people around me, of the police, or of anyone else. Being told from a young age that if I study and work hard, things will work out for me. Having access to mentors and role models throughout my career. This has led me to consider, what might life be like for someone who hasn’t had these things? What might it be like for someone who hasn’t had access to the benefits and advantages that you or I might have had access to?

  2. Listen. We live in a very vocal society, an era of social media megaphones used in service of demagoguery. Our society values and emphasizes self-expression: making noise, rather than listening. I sometimes fear that, as a society, we’re losing the ability to listen—and, more importantly, to hear one another amidst all the noise. And I think this might be one of the root causes for the predicament we find ourselves in. There is no better time than now to listen, and listening is more important than it’s ever been before. Listen to the voices of those who have had a different life experience than you’ve had. I can’t tell you what, or whom, to listen to—that’s something you’ll have to figure out for yourself—but here’s a great starting point. I don’t agree with everything the folks on this list have said, but to me that’s precisely the point: to challenge myself and expose myself to other perspectives. Considering their perspectives has changed how I think. It’s also essential to expose ourselves to multiple viewpoints. I found this rational, dispassionate, evidence-based examination of the facts by Sam Harris to be helpful as well.

  3. Educate yourself. Hopefully, in the process of reflecting and listening, you will have generated a few questions. Now is the time to educate yourself and to seek answers to those questions. Listening is one great way to educate yourself, but so is reading, studying, digesting the material, reflecting on it, and sharing it (see next point). Again, you’ll have to figure out for yourself what to study, but these lists are two great starting points: one and two. I haven’t read most of the material on these lists yet, but I’ve read some of it, and it’s been insightful and it, too, has changed the way I think. As you read, I encourage you to consider not just what you’re reading, but also the broader context: When, and where, was it written? Who is its author? Why, and for whom, was it written? Engaging in this sort of critical reading—asking myself these questions, and attempting to answer them in short reviews that I write for myself—has helped me get a lot more out of the things I read.

  4. Discuss. Reflection, listening, and educating ourselves is a great start, but in order to really contextualize the things we’re learning, hearing, and thinking about, and to test our understanding, it’s important that we also talk about them with other people. Ideally, if we really want to challenge ourselves and our perspectives, we should have these conversations with people who have a different set of experiences and perspectives than our own. Having said that, I also feel like it’s hard to engage in open, honest conversation these days—the kind that challenges your beliefs in a constructive way. It’s not something you’ll find on social media, or on any media channel, really. Given the overall climate of mistrust and extremism, these conversations tend to happen only among close friends, when they happen at all. I’ve been trying to facilitate more open, honest, constructive dialogue around points 1-3 above, as well as around questions such as, “How can we do better?” If you’re interested in joining one of these upcoming conversations, let me know by leaving a comment. While it can sometimes be okay to skip points 1-3 and jump right into dialogue, taking the time to reflect, listen, and educate ourselves before jumping in allows us to bring a lot more to the table, to contribute more constructively, and to have more to offer to the people we’re talking to

  5. Take action. After you’ve spent time on the above points, you may feel ready, and called, to do more. This might include things like joining or organizing a protest, calling your representative, speaking up when you encounter racism, confronting friends and family, donating to the cause, etc. Or it may include something else entirely, like writing. Most attempts to answer the question, “What can I do?” that I’ve seen recently focus on the “take action” step and tend to skip steps 1-4. If you ask me, the first steps are actually more important. If everyone took the time to reflect, listen, educate themselves, and discuss, there might not be need for more action.

I recognize that I can do a lot better than I have done in the past. As a starting point, I’m reflecting on the social context of my life and my career, and how it’s benefited me and frustrated others. I’m making an effort to listen actively to others who have had a different set of experiences. I’m working on educating myself about history, and about this context and the experiences of other groups. I’m trying to join, and to foster, constructive, honest conversation on these topics. And, as I spend time writing every day, I’m exploring my own thoughts and feelings about topics like racism through the process of writing.

What sort of things are you doing? What ideas, and what resources, have you found the most helpful? How can I do better? Leave a comment and let me know.

  1. I think this is best captured by a cute aphorism from David Foster Wallace: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” 

  2. In fact, I never thought of my childhood as stable. My mother was an alcoholic. We moved around a lot. Etc. But these things are relative. I always had a safe, comfortable place to live, with access to things like clean water, electricity, and plenty of food—more than many people have.