Confronting bias: We are perfectly imperfect


Shana tova, friends, a happy new year:
to our JCOGS members and Jewish visitors,
and again to our guests from across the community—
local clergy, leaders, and community members.
Thank you to every one of you
for being here together to celebrate Rosh Hashanah.

Before I begin, I’d like to warn
all of the perfectionists here, myself included,
to hold onto your hats.
As humans, we are chasing a myth.
The only perfection is our imperfection.
This is especially true of the biases and stereotypes
we hold of other people.

Has anyone seen the skit from
the Avenue Q Broadway play:
Everyone’s a little bit racist”?

Picture these actors holding miming puppets on stage
in front of hundreds of people in the audience.
By the end of the skit,
they are lining up for a can-can dance and singing:

“Everyone’s a little bit
Racist, it’s true.
But everyone is just about
As racist as you!
If we all could just admit
That we are racist a little bit,
And everyone
Stopped being so P.C.,
Maybe we could
Live in — harmony!”

The folks who wrote this play are saying:
None of us are perfect.
All of us have unconscious biases and habits—
within us and our greater society—
that we cannot escape.
No one wants to be called out this way,
but it’s true.
This is the same for you as it is for me.

Case in point:
Let me share a story with you all,
not one I am proud of,
but a story I share out of my own vulnerability,
a story of imperfection and learning and bias.

As many of you know,
this past year, I have been working on
the steering committee for the Morrisville-Stowe Coalition.
It’s vision is “a community
that embodies inclusion, equity and justice
as values central to our identity.
We are committed to building a safe community
where all people experience dignity and respect,
and all are welcome with kindness and belonging.”

These are words that all of us in this room can get behind. Right?
Yet, if it were so easy to achieve,
we would have already done so as a society.

Over the summer, the steering committee of the coalition met
without anyone to facilitate
because our recent facilitator’s contract had just ended.
I had my own personal ideas for where we should take the agena
so I took the reins.
Yet there were others
who had other points they wished discussed
that were not attended to at this impassioned meeting.

After the meeting,
one of the members of the committee
held me accountable for having driven the agenda
in a meeting where all others were women—
calling me out as a man with influence and power in the community.

As a self-described feminist myself,
this was not what I wanted to hear.
It surely can be unsettling to be critiqued,
by others or even oneself.
And there were other nuanced factors, for sure,
that played a part in that flawed meeting.
But let us face the truth:
It doesn’t matter how self-aware each of us are,
the work of undoing biases leaves each of us open to critique.
And for good reason.

This work is not simple.
Our work, individually and as a community and society,
is to undo the systemic and inherent
and often unconscious biases within us.
We are talking about generations in North America and beyond
of societal privileges and biases towards
being any or all of the above:
white, able-bodied, heterosexual, upper-class, Christian, and male.
This has led and continues to lead to profound consequences.
Change won’t happen overnight.
And all of us are responsible to heal this history of bias.

As a coalition, by saying we “envision a community
that embodies inclusion, equity, and justice
as values central to our identity
we prepare to change our own selves, our own identities,
as individuals and as communities,
to better embody and orient ourselves towards
dignity and respect for all.

This work opens us to the clumsy conversations of bias.
We need to move ourselves away from being right,
and instead embrace our own vulnerability and imperfection.

In his poem “The Place Where We Are Right”
renowned Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai beautifully reflects:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a…plow.”

This is the message of Rosh haShanah.
In the Jewish calendar,
to re-grow our garden in the spring,
we must dig up the earth
of doubt and love
in the fall.

Tonight begins 10 days of self-reflection.
We are tasked with contemplating
where we have missed the mark,
what biases need undoing,
where we need to right our wrongs,
and also when, at times, we have been too right.

Known as the Day of Judgment, Yom haDin,
on Rosh haShanah
each of us stands before G-d, imperfect and vulnerable,
judged for our actions over this past year.
Yet, we are not judged by a vengeful G-d.
We are judged by a loving, compassionate G-d.
Not a G-d that punishes or reprimands,
but a G-d that lovingly embraces us, warts, biases, and all.

Adonai, Adonai, El Rachum v’Chanoon.
G-d, so compassionate and gracious,
the G-d who created us as we are,
who knows we are perfectly imperfect,
who demands of us to see our own limitations,
who wants us to do our best to uproot our biases,
yet always lovingly accepting us for who we are.

As G-d sees our imperfections and forgives us compassionately,
we too must see ourselves as imperfect,
yet also whole and beautiful.
We are meant to take our biases seriously enough
that we not repeat them,
but not so seriously that if we do repeat them,
we sink into guilt or shame.
We must learn from our mistakes and move on by making a change,
one step at a time.

To quote a Franciscan teacher, Richard Rohr:
“The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”
We know that big change takes time,
and so we must be committed to the bumpy long-haul road ahead.
And at the same time,
small acts of kindness and bits of learning
can make a huge difference.
We need not be right or perfect all of the time.
We must dig up our doubts and loves,
but leave time and energy for planting and re-growing.

This is as true for each of us individually as it is for the collective.
Our prayers over the course of Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur
are equally as inward and soul-searching
as they are outward and society-probing.
We must undo the biases within our families,
our institutions, and the systems around us,
that we are responsible for.
We have this capacity.

But how do we do it?
How do we, imperfect and biased people,
undo the very biases within us and our surroundings?
Easier said than done, right?

We each have a different path,
based on our life experience, our orientations,
our privileges, our temperaments.

This past January, I was asked to teach a class on bias
at the Stowe Middle school.
One of the most important impulses that teens have
is to feel they fit in with their classmates,
not wanting to stand out.
When it comes to calling out bias,
in this society, in any school—
that makes you stand out.
I asked the teens to reverse that trend, to not be By-standers
when they see an act of bullying,
racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, ableism, etc.
I asked them to be Up-standers and to make that the norm.

We adults have the same impulses to fit in—
perhaps even stronger than teens—
because we have more to lose.
The work can be overwhelming.
But to do the work means to call it out,
whether a small act of injustice, or micro-aggression,
or calling out the systems that perpetuate them.
We can all notice and name bias when we see it,
increasing our actions and practices,
while searching for and digging up implicit biases
when they are not on the surface.

This can be terrifying.
But it can also be deeply empowering and rewarding.

The work becomes much easier
when we remind each other that we are loved.
The work becomes much easier
when we remind each other that we need not be perfect.
The work becomes much easier
when we remind each other that we are in this together,
that no one person is culpable,
but that we are all responsible,
and we all must care for one another.

And if, at times, we feel we can do it like
the Avenue Q “Everyone’s a little bit racist” skit,
we might have some fun along the way too.
Once we embrace the idea of being
open to critique and self-reflective,
acknowledge where we missed the mark
and take action toward change—
we are free to feel and be ourselves.

I’ll end with these words received
in a Rosh haShanah greeting
from two of our JCOGS founding members:
Wishing you (all) a New Year of good health and good cheer,
amidst a kinder, more compassionate society,
in a world committed to unity and peace.”
May we all be so blessed.
Shana tova, a happy new year to all.