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Optimism with a Twist

I am a die-hard optimist. I am not only a “glass half full” kind of gal, I am a “glass is half full with half the calories OR I’m already partially hydrated”. I have always had a sunny outlook on life – to the point of being referred to as Pollyanna during a Fellowship interview (which felt insulting but hey I landed a spot). For many years I thought this positive attitude was genetic. In our family on my dad’s side there is the “happy” gene that can be traced across the generations. My grandmother Ethel had it as does my Aunt Mary, my cousin Marla and I, and Elaina in the newest cohort. This is the Monty Pythonesque “my arm is cut off but not the one holding my sword…how lucky” gene. This has been my truth for many years.

More recently in a conversation with my colleagues, a new layer has been added with the thought that social workers in general have a relatively hopeful outlook on life. After all, if WE don’t believe things can get better for the people we serve who will? So perhaps my optimistic attitude is a professional trait – proving that I made the right choice when I signed away fame and fortune to help save the world for a living.

A little more digging would quickly identify that I was extremely fortunate to have been raised by very loving parents who, along with my grandparents, aunts and uncles, modeled healthy relationships and unconditional love. We were not rich – not by a long shot – but we had what we needed. This firm foundation allowed me the chance to quickly get on with the business of being myself.

And all of this is my truth. And yet it isn’t the whole story.

At least half of my optimism is the result of my privilege – of being a person who is seen in the US as white. I grew up believing truly that I could make a difference.I grew up feeling at home in my skin. I generally (adolescence aside) am not afraid to be my authentic self – to speak the truth as I see it. I haven’t had to contort my face, my body, my words to conform with expectations based on the color of my skin. I didn’t grow up afraid of police officers or teachers or store clerks. The world was my oyster. I walk with a light spirit of ownership…coupled with responsibility…but ownership none-the-less. A line from TaNehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, recently stopped me short. He, a black man, wrote to his black son, “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.” My optimism is part ignorance.

This is hard to swallow and yet essential. I’ve recently come to understand that optimism can be dangerous and hurtful if deployed without thought. While I may be completely hopeful that this time we can fix racism, that feeling undermines the reality of my colleagues who after years of oppression have a really hard time generating a belief that things will change. My cheery – “it’s ok, we can make it happen” attitude probably makes some people want to pop me one. So while it is quite impossible and not necessary for me to turn the glass upside down, there is no excuse for not acknowledging that my generational optimism was the result of generational pain and that I have a deep, moral responsibility to wake up.


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