It warrants repeating that traveling, even within your own community, is vital to developing a more caring an empathetic mindset. It allows you to appreciate what you have, how little you know, and how much good there is in the world.
As I wait to board my flight to Vienna, Austria (country #2 on my Eastern European trip, I want to focus on my own privilege as an American citizen. How fortunate I am to be able to travel across the world and still have my language spoken, and be able to read signs, order food, and even hear my language on the radio. I also see familiar companies and brands that give me some odd sense of being comfortable and at ease. It was cool to see the Securitas company handle in security at the Berlin airport. They wore the same badges my security guards did at Louisville Hall when I was a Resident Director. Despite this privilege, traveling amongst others and in places that are unfamiliar is still challenging. That is the thing about privilege – while unearned and advantageous, it doesn’t mean life is always “easy.”
Having stated that, I think about conversations about privilege I have with my colleagues, students, family, and strangers. I am usually met with the futility of the guilt that comes with these discussions, and the lack of an ability to see the both / and dynamic of privilege. I can only examine my own practices and hopefully reflect how to best use my privilege in constructive ways. At the very minimum I don’t want to abuse my privilege. This means while I’m abroad I work hard to try to learn and speak the native language. I try to be conscious of what I wear or have, knowing that I may or may not have income advantages that others do not. I try to listen, and learn, and frequent local establishments, and most importantly share what I’ve heard and seen so that people in my circle can appreciate the humanity of others.
If only we could do more of this at our local synagogues and mosques, government debates, cookouts and BBQs, or with the people with whom we have little in common. If only. Take time to a) do some work on what privilege is, b) think about the privilege(s) you have, and c) make a commitment to not abuse that privilege, and even better, to share it to uplift others.
When I was an undergraduate at NC State University, I was a counselor for the African American Symposium, a per-orientation experience welcoming new undergrads to NC State and helping them get a strong positive start as an African American scholar. I hate I didn’t attend as a freshman myself. There is a poem by Lance Jeffers (1972) that was read to the incoming freshmen, and it gave me so much strength and sense of purpose and power. It helped that it was read by a legendary faculty member and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity brother, Dr. Lawrence Clark. I had the opportunity to read this poem to a room full of students today, kicking off our African American Read-In at Rochester Community and Technical College. I am so blessed to have had people and experiences in my life to remind me of my own power. I hope this poem can remind you of yours.
I’m going to write something everyday. I’m going to try hard to do this, so I can a) reflect on what I’m learning and feeling, b) remember it, c) share it. This will likely be the longest post.
It doesn’t take long when I travel to realize why I do it. The anxiety and stress of being away from home, the packing and preparation, the uncertainty. It all melts away when I board the plane. I boarded at around 6pm Friday night at Chicago O’Hare. The flight was uneventful, though I was reminded of one of my childhood dreams of being a pilot as I was able to listen in to the flight deck from my seat. A very cool feature offered by United. The food was ok, as was the wine!
I landed 7.5 hours later at the Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. I remembered suddenly how it was the first international location I’d ever visited (other than a Caribbean cruise when I was 14), and I was filled with gratitude. Partly because I arrived safely, and partly because I remember how blessed I am to even have the opportunity. I landed here 13 years ago for different reasons, but I was confident my trip would be just as special as my first time.
After waiting way too long for my luggage, I stepped out and connected with my exchange partner Jerome Wouters. It was like seeing an old family member. He was starring and smiling at a group of playing children, completely missing me come through – which is typical of him. He was waiting for like an hour anyway, so it was ok. Plus we picked right back up where we left off when I last saw him in the states in October 2014. It was nice to be back in Holland, this time as someone who would do more than visit – but really experience what it meant to live and work in there. I knew immediately my two weeks would be amazing.
Despite the rain and malaise of the weather, it was a great drive into Leusden-Zuid (South), which apparently is the “nice side” of Leusden as Jerome joked. His neighborhood and his home are idyllic. A dutch home in all its efficiency. It is three stories, my room is on the top floor. It overlooks the patio and garden area in the back, as well as a great view of more of his neighborhood. It is a scene from a picture book. I realize its normal here, and nothing special per se, but for me it is. It represents someone else’s life, which is different than my own, and is being shared with me. I also realize that there are places like this in the states, and in Rwanda, and in the Philippines, and in Brazil. Which reminds me of how much we share as humans – and how many humans don’t have this, in any form, because of the injustice of this world. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about that later. Needless to say, the home and my room is perfect.
His wife Sandra, and their two children are just perfect. Sandra is highly educated, and clearly a loving mother and partner to Jerome. Immediately we click. We talked and joked over lunch, all of us that is, and did so again the next morning at breakfast. It’s nice to note the consistency of the meals – bread (brood), juice (sap), cheese, ham, salami, butter, some greenery, and this curry paste that is really good. Everything is fresh, and really good. Bread and cheese are a major staple, fortunately it is in Black southern US households too! Though admittedly not as healthy as this. Hearing the family talk in Dutch to each other reminds me of how privileged I am to speak English. To be understood is a powerful human need, and I have never traveled anywhere where people didn’t speak my language. I thought about my students at Oakton, some of whom don’t speak English as their first language, and their families who may not speak it at all. How can I make them feel understood? How can I support them better? I downloaded an app called Duolingo – which I learned about from their 10 year old daughter. It’s amazing – and I’m learning Dutch from it – like legit learning it – which I should have done a year ago when I knew I was coming!
Jerome is a big softball player here, and it’s a big deal here in Holland. He invited me to a game and BBQ, which I wasn’t about to pass up. I’m glad I didn’t. Not only did I get to see him in action, but I got to meet people – that’s my thing. I got to meet an airmen who came to Holland 30 years ago and stayed. He’s from Oregon. I met his teammates. And I met other fans who were hanging out. At the BBQ a younger guy, teenager, overheard me talking and asked where I was from. I told him Chicago, and he said his dad is from North Carolina. Ah, the way I lit up. I said, “me too!” And he went on to say you should meet my dad, he is from Lenoir, NC, which is very close to Charlotte. So I met his dad, and his mother. The farther I go from home, the closer I get. He invited me to his son’s American football game, which would have happened this morning. My jet lag forced me to sleep longer than I expected, so we committed to hanging out later this week, hopefully more than once. His son is quite the athlete apparently, and wants to go to school in the states. Another opportunity to empower a young person to create change in their world – and all from the Netherlands. Another highlight of going to the game – we rode bikes there. Me, on a bike, after some 15 years it feels like. But I didn’t miss a lick! It’s true – once you learn, you got it. It was exhilarating riding again – as crazy as it sounds. I look forward to getting back on bikes all this week and next, and then when I get back to Chicago. I had to come 4,000 miles away to remember how much I enjoyed it.
So last night at about 8pm local time I was wiped out. I went to bed, woke up and said a word of thanks to the Lord, and saw this beautiful view.
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 don’t pretend to know everything about everything…well I kinda do, but I am willing to talk about why I believe what I believe. And I’m not so intellectually arrogant as to think that everything I say or think or believe is the “gospel” truth (forgive the pun). This story was pure disheartening, as I work everyday to try and build acceptance, positive dialogue, and compassion across differences. In one statement, David Williams has reminded me of why my work remains relevant. For those who don’t know reading this, David Williams is the Presidentof the Kentucky State Senate, and currently the republican candidate for Governor of Kentucky.
Without giving the whole God is love argument, or Jesus said to love each other above all else argument (because many Christians already know that and don’t care about that part). Let me just ask a simple question to Mr. Williams and others who may align with his thinking…why? Why do you think its a good idea to publicly say something as off-putting as this? Why do you feel it necessary to offend a company, people, and religion that is bringing jobs and revenue to your state? Why did you feel this was appropriate in any context, as a public government official to say the things you said? Why are you so insecure in your faith that you can’t even allow someone else to be a part of a prayer service from a different faith?
I’m done being PC about calling out ignorance. I have no patience for this type of top down foolishness and pure insensitivity from our so called leaders. You are a small minded, inconsiderate, thoughtless individual who would benefit from thinking before he speaks. Is that fair to say about someone I don’t even know, not at all, but fairness or justice isn’t what motivated this post. It’s ignorance – so allow me to be ignorant too. You won’t make me embarrassed to be a Christian, you’re not big enough for that. But you make me disgusted to be affiliated with the Commonwealth that you represent. Gov. Beshear makes me proud. You will lose the gubernatorial race. Period. Your recent actions only prove how desperate and futile your efforts will ultimately be. I’ll ask my Hindu brothers and sisters to say a prayer of thanksgiving with my Christian brothers and sisters when you fall on election day. #overit.