After years of wondering, dreaming and longing, I recently started to take vocal jazz lessons. I love to sing and do all the time–much to my kids’ consternation–but I’d not taken formal voice lessons in over two decades. Why now? Hard to say. All the obstacles were still there–money, time, logistics, and underlying insecurity. I guess, simply put, I was ready. I was ready to finally forgive VPR host George Thomas for ending his decade-long run on his evening jazz show. I was ready to pardon my higher power for giving Dianne Reeves the voice, and Ella Fitzgerald the phrasing talents clearly intended for me. I was ready to do the work to make my own jazz.
After five weeks of lessons, I am still consciously incompetent. I need to think about so many things at once: my body position, my breathing, my mouth, my phrasing–and of course, my tone and pitch! I am working hard to breathe from the “bottom up” as I try to fill my diaphragm, push my resonance into the spot between my eyes, and allow the tone to rise up the back of my head into the crown. As I strive to create new pathways of learning and understanding, I wait impatiently for that time when it all comes together, and I don’t exhaust myself with incessant thoughts about what I am getting wrong.
In singing, as with so many other creative and athletic endeavors, practice does enable you to tap into “muscle memory”; you eventually glide into being unconsciously competent. Not so when it comes to our efforts at conquering our own biases. We wrestle with judgments and bias constantly. It is how we order our complex worlds, although certainly bias sometimes veers from harmless sorting to dangerous prejudice. When we are honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that we will dance with our bias our whole lives; it is never fully conquered. We keep some of our prejudgments in check only to find that we have bias in other areas.
It is an unfortunate aspect of the human experience; we miss the mark sometimes, and by doing so we miss out on some wonderful connections. Our biases can and do prevent us from seeing beyond our rough initial sorting of people. And the thing is, we make mistakes in our immediate judgments and assessments all the time.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied stresses this in her memorable TED talk. She stands before us in a headscarf and traditional dress that signals to the audience that she is a practicing Muslim. She invites us to size up our reactions and assumptions about her identity and her story. Then she strips off the outer layer of clothing to reveal her work clothes. Abdel-Magied is a mechanical engineer who works on oil and gas rigs off the coast of Australia. In her thought provoking and disarming talk, this young woman gives us permission to be flawed, to be human. We all have bias. No exceptions. So, how do we prevent snap judgments from becoming oppressive boxes?
Abdel-Magied acknowledges that we each seek out folks who are similar to us. There is often undeniable comfort in being with “our people”. But she implores us to sometimes resist that urge and spend time connecting with others who are different. And then, she says, take the next crucial step: actively mentor those who are culturally, racially or socioeconomically different from us. Embrace the fun and improvisation that arises from difference.
We will feel consciously incompetent at first as we learn to dance more effectively with our inherent biases. But, as jazz great John Coltrane said, “You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere.”