First, way to go Missouri for trying to own your stuff and respond appropriately. This is a good read, and more evidence of problems across the academy. I don’t expect my colleagues who are part of the dominant culture (however that manifests in your space) to always understand, but you can try. This stuff is real, and has real impacts. I’m reading Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele now, pick it up – it’s a good one. It will also provide more evidence to the reality and impact of stereotype threat and how it affects us all.
It may be worth noting this line as an example: “I have to stop and think sometimes, ‘Are they being racist? Or, is that just how they act? Or, are they just not being friendly because they’re having a bad day?'” This is one of many Black/Brown taxes. It’s a tax others pay too depending on their many identities. While you’re asking that question, you’re not focusing on your studies, success, or other things we all think about and have to manage psychologically. This is why we have to do what we can, all of us, to create safe, accepting and welcoming spaces – particularly on college campuses.
I’ve commented a few times recently via social media how amazing critical colleagues are. These are people who will challenge you, call you out, help you grow and learn in very authentic ways. One such college, who works in Pennsylvania and co-facilitates with me at various leadership conferences across the country, engaged me in great reflection about the concept of Grace. He told me of his friend Tom Matson who wrote in his book, “UNFROZEN: A Father’s Reflections on a Brain Tumor Journey” who had this to say about grace:
Grace: a word and associated actions I’ve never been able to comprehend. I don’t think our minds can fully grasp grace. I know many people could define grace differently, but for me, I see it as receiving love when we don’t necessarily deserve it. It’s love when we least expect it, and it’s love when we have done nothing to receive it.
I use this word often in my work as a Chief Diversity Officer. What I realized was missing in my college, and indeed in all communities struggling with racism and other forms of oppression, is grace. As a Christian, grace and mercy, sit at the core of the love that saves our souls. If it were not for these twins, we would be lost. So I often wonder how I can give grace in my interactions, as I teach acceptance in the work I do. I call on my colleagues who are engaged in tough work around oppression, education, equity, and justice to give each other grace as we struggle through this life. Sometimes its the only thing that we have left, and its the only thing that keeps us trying despite the difficulty.
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?
In my work, discussions of privilege and power come up a lot – and actually should come up more. Talking about privilege and power is not meant for trivial coffee conversations either. It is a matter that impacts us every day of our lives, no matter your many social identities. When I find resources that help talk about privilege in a way that will be heard, I want to shout it from the rooftops. So here is my rooftop, and here is me shouting.
Read…marinate…read again…marinate…then post this everywhere you can. Much appreciation to his author for adding to this conversation in a way that many and more can get….and many and more will miss. But it’s good all the same. I humbly share this from http://www.robot-hugs.com/?attachment_id=894
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.