I share this very personal message from a place of fear because we all know fear on some level. Women know fear from just being women. Surrounded by men in a male-centric world where “rape culture” is actually a thing. Think about that – we have something called rape culture. Men, White folks and others who hold privileged spaces are not immune to fear either. Fear is universal. Why we fear is not. That we should fear because of who we are should never be.
We were driving from Louisville, Kentucky to Destin, Florida yesterday to start our vacation and family reunion. It was me, my little brother and my daughter. Before we even got on the road my cousin sent the warning:
“if you can, try to leave very early, that way you aren’t going through AL (Alabama) at night. No lights and there are police every where so be cautious. Love you guys and big HUGS!”
That warning came before any Ferguson verdict, and would have come long before Mike Brown was murdered. It’s a warning I have heard my whole life as a Black man. And one we still tell our children and students and even strangers with whom we share a brief moment. The message is simple, and horrifying: be careful where you are, because of who you are.
We literally warn each other to not drive through certain parts of our country, (my country, my home) because we fear what might happen to us. What may seem like a general warning to “be careful” is really laced with an insidious subtext that continues…“because you are black…and they will hurt you.” When someone hates and targets you for who you are, there is not much you can do to anticipate that. It defies logic and normal precaution. If someone is robbing me because it’s dark and they want money; I give them money and they go away. What do I do if I’m targeted, judged, pulled over and they hate my skin? They hate my very being. I have no defense. No escape. Nor should I need one. I have accomplished a lot, and care about people, and have much to contribute; yet before I can even open my mouth – I’m hated by so many.
It wasn’t just my cousin’s words that were terrifying. It was the realization that I didn’t even need to be told that. I already knew. As I drove through the highways of Alabama (and be clear it could have been almost any state) I was fearful. Birmingham…Selma…Montgomery. Each invoking their own sense of history, anger, and fear. As I passed the trees that lined the highways, I thought about the strange fruit that used to hang there. And I remember it wasn’t that long ago…and they were hanged for looking like me. I am acutely aware that the kind of hate that existed then doesn’t easily die. It has a long memory, and continues today. It is everywhere. And I’m scared all over again.
Then came the verdict.
Real fear is not being hurt or murdered. It’s realizing that it can be done so easily. It’s realizing that “they” will get away with it. And that even in death and suffering my family wouldn’t see justice. I can be erased. And that’s all. That’s real fear. No one deserves that.
Back in 2008 at the University of Louisville, there was a pretty big shift about to take place within a long-standing office on campus. To complicate matters this office was steeped in tradition, and had long served the university’s African-American student population in many important ways. At the same time, there was need for a new direction and vision, one that was more inclusive of other students of color and traditionally under-represented students on campus. I was tapped to lead this important transition, and to literally rebuild a center that would both honor the traditions and work of the past, while moving boldly into the future. One need not live in Louisville, KY to understand that this was going to be a challenge.
When working within the “diversity and inclusion space” there is an analogy used that I can only imagine is borrowed from the budget and finance world. Groups of people (typically clustered around race/ethnicity) will often speak about and vigorously defend their “piece of the pie.” This piece of the pie refers to their slice of the college’s resources that are committed to “diversity and inclusion.” As you can imagine, this is problematic on so many levels, and it showed up during this important transition that I was asked to lead. The prevailing question I was faced with, very loudly from those in the community, alumni, students, and faculty, was; “what about our piece?” Underneath the surface of that questions, was this: “how are we going to get ours, if we let all those other people get theirs?” And, “we don’t have enough already, how are we going to share with them?” These are real questions, born out of real oppression and frustration, and I understand it all too well. As a Black man, raised in the southern part of the U.S., I know well how this “pie” is often doled out by some faceless entity(ies) that expect the recipient(s) to make it last. This can be in the form of public assistance, quality education, financial aid, space, or other resources. The problem is, I think we continue to ask the wrong question. Which leads us to have to ask the same questions time after time.
By way of providing a solution to this dilemma, I would like to offer advice that Dr. Marc Lamont Hill shared during his keynote. We need to reframe the questions that we ask. Instead of saying “what will happen to my piece of the pie,” let’s instead ask:
“Who made this pie?”
“Why is this pie the current size it is?”
“How do we get a bigger pie?”
“Is there different kinds of pie we can have?”
“Who else doesn’t have any pie?”
This shift is beyond mere semantics. As Dr. Hill said in his keynote, this change literally requires an epistemological shift. Asking “what will happen to my piece of the pie” is a deficit way of seeing the world. It assumes limited resources, perpetuates siloism in our lives, and necessitates competition in and amongst communities that are intersectional and oftentimes similarly marginalized. Furthermore it ignores, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that “injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere.” Even if the injustice is being committed to someone different from you. And as if that isn’t enough, this deficit thinking ignores the fact that people are, by design, interesectional beings. I am Black AND (Christian, male, cisgendered, able-bodied, etc.). We force people being oppressed already, to oppress other parts of themselves and pick a “side” to defend. This is the worst kind of torture.
The latter questions, however, redirects the solutions and places the onus of those solutions on the institutions and systems wherein the real power and privilege lies. These questions allow us to own, defend, and advocate for the multiple and intersectional identities that we all have. It also helps us to build allies in our struggle, and deconstruct the real privilege and power systems that create the pie in the first place.
I will incorporate this reframing into every meeting I attend, and every conversation I have. Whether it be in the realm of the personal or professional aspects of my life. I will encourage (and push) those in power to do the same. What questions have you been faced with that need to be re-framed? Where in your life are you asking the wrong questions, and how can you make a change?
During the 2001-2002 school year, I was the President of the Student Senate (and Vice President of the Student Body) at North Carolina State University. I attended the Conference on Student Government Associations (COSGA) at Texas A&M University with a group of fellow student government leaders. One night was a thematic night where we were to “dress up” in Texas attire for that night’s festivities. Being a “city-boy,” I only had a vague idea of what that meant. Yet, I had no problem with taking a great deal of liberty “dressing up” like a cowboy, or what I thought looked like a cowboy. It was bad. Think of me, in overalls, a belt around said overalls, Timberland boots, a straw hat, and a plaid shirt. Again, it was bad. I wasn’t the only one, a few others with me were also dressed up in their cowboy best and we all looked a mess. We then proceeded to walk into a local establishment, where many a’real cowboy sat, and walk through as if we would blend in. We did not. In fact, we looked like fools. But that’s OK right? We were, after all, just playing dress up, and knew that we looked a bit foolish anyway – so that didn’t matter much.
What did matter to me was the obvious disgust, hurt, and offense that I saw on the faces that we passed. In that moment, all at once, I realized just how dangerous and hurtful playing dress up can be. We felt so ashamed that we left immediately, and changed clothes. I was embarrassed and hurt that I took what was essentially the everyday experience and culture of another group of people, and knowingly mocked it for my own enjoyment. My people and my culture for centuries have had this very same thing done to them. I knew better, and yet I didn’t do better.
I share this story now after reading an amazing article written byJarune Uwujarenin Everyday Feminism, on the website Good Men Project. It was written with such care, balance, pace, action-orientation, and tone that I had to write about it and share. The article, What’s the Difference Between Cultural Exchange and Cultural Appropriation?, and its tenets are something that should be talked about in homes, work places, and schools across this country. In particular during this season, when at the end of the month many across the U.S. will celebrate Halloween. College campuses are notorious for hosting parties where people go beyond just dressing up as fictional characters for fun. They take the extra step to make the people with whom they interact with everyday, caricatures for their night of fun and revelry.
This has happened at colleges and universities where I have attended, and worked. I was happy to see students at Ohio University create an amazing campaign a few years ago, where they declared “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume.”This campaign beautifully captures the damage that can be done by thoughtless celebration. Check it out, and share it with others. More important, do something about it. Whether you are a student, employer, employee, or volunteer, read the article above, do your own work to gain wisdom and understanding. And please, share this with those who need to see it.
As we move past yet another 9/11, I am reminded of the relevance of this quote in both my life and in my work.
Much has changed since my last post. I have been blessed to have my family move up with me finally, we have found an amazing condo in Rogers Park in Chicago, I am affirmed daily in the work I do at my new job, and we have began to find a new spiritual home on the South end of Chicago. I wanted to quickly post this as a reminder that despite all the horrible despair that we face day to day (crime, death, genocide, hunger, poverty, discrimination, fear, depression, etc.) that these things can only be overcome through our commitment to shine light in the darkest corners of our existence. What is really cool is that we don’t have to do it alone. I was reminded by a friend yesterday who was in a dark place, that the universe has a way of conspiring to support and lift us up when we most need it. That’s really a fancy way of saying “we” as individuals decided to take a moment to shine light in the lives of others. What is the light? It’s a smile, a phone call, a flower left on a desk, a perfectly timed joke when you’re not in a joking mood. Lights’ natural inclination is not to hide, but to shine. Only when we prevent it from doing so, do we find ourselves surrounded by darkness. Dark thoughts, dark people, and dark situations.
In my work as an educator and diversity advocate, I find it very easy to be consumed by the darkest actions and thoughts of others. It is during that time I seek the darkness to fight back – thinking its the only way to combat such persistent ugliness that surrounds us. In fact, that is the worst possible action I could take. Darkness is only permitted to exist in the absence of light, not the other way around. So I remember that, as I start each day, trying to bring light and love into the work I do. From the smallest conversation, to the biggest cultural shifts we need to make – I will be positive, and try to use my light to chase away the darkness.
Happy New Year to all, and I hope your holidays were safe and fulfilling. I’m happy to get back to blogging and hopefully helping whoever reads this have an “ah-ha” moment that will get them through the day, week, month, or year. I believe we reap what we sow, so this continues to be my attempt to sow good seeds of positive change.
I don’t do resolutions, not anymore at least; but what about a “proclamation?” I laughed when my brother JD said this to me, because proclamation sounds a lot like resolution to me, but hey, I figured I’ll play along. So as we went around the room talking about our proclamations – my partner said something so profound and so “her,” which was that she hopes 2012 brings more blessings and growth in all aspects of our life. She wasn’t knocking 2011, it was a great year in many ways for our family, in fact. I’ll count some of those blessings in a second, but let’s think about my partner’s proclamation for a minute…it’s beautifully simplistic, and a great way to approach your new year! You are proclaiming (meaning it is going to happen) that your year will be better than the last! And how cool is it that you can purpose that in a way that it will come true. So first let me rattle off some of my many blessings (not in order of importance) to model what you need to do right now (and I literally mean you should WRITE THEM OUT):
Appointed to my permanent position
Expanded my business
My father-in-law is still here! (he wasn’t expected to make it to Thanksgiving 2010 due to cancer – alas, he is here!)
My daughter turned 2 and my partner, me, mom, dad and a whole lot of others are a year older!
Both of my brothers got new positions and moved up in their jobs
I led TWO LeaderShape sessions and had two amazing co-leads
We had another great Wilson family reunion (and won the Bid Whist Tourny – BOOM)
The list goes on and on…
Throughout this year I will take time to encourage you all to count your blessings, not for bragging sake, but because it can reaffirm the good work that you are doing in your life, and maybe remind you of what gaps you have yet to fill. Now for 2012…if you need help proclaiming what you will do this year, maybe I can help. Its a fair assumption that people may not know what they want from the year, or they dare not say it because it seems so out of reach. In a leadership class I used to teach, in our class about sustaining relationships, I would tell students that they needed to GO PLACES AND DO THINGS. Wow! How important is that! Not only for sustaining relationships, but for building new ones, appreciating your own existence, learning about others, feeling connected to the world that is so vast and wonderful. So your first proclamation is to GO PLACES AND DO THINGS. Whether you are a seasoned traveler or a first time flyer/traveler, it is good for the soul, trust me. Here are some tips to get started and get the most out of your “going and doing”:
Locate a place that is “culturally” different from you (e.g., another part of town, another city/state/country, place of worship where no one talks or looks like you, etc.). Notice these don’t require an expense account to do this.
Before you go, read something (objective/academic) about where you are going. This will help you a great deal in appreciating the “going and doing.”
Tell people about it! You never know who may want to help you get there, go with you, or have experience in that culture.
Meet someone while there and exchange information with them. Follow up with them on a regular basis. Wanna know how to lead and follow in diverse environments? Build relationships with people different from yourself – you’ll be forever changed:)
Write about it. Don’t let the feelings, the ah-ha’s, the anxieties escape you. John Maxwell said that reflection is like the crock-pot of the mind – let the thoughts simmer until they are ready. You have to capture those moments if you are ever to make meaning of them.
So there you have it, your first proclamation for 2012. Now share this with people you care about, and set out to do it. Look at that, you’ve already made 2012 a better year than 2011!