Yesterday was a day of firsts. My second day in Holland took us into the city of Utrecht, a beautiful city. Much of the architecture is similar to Amsterdam and other parts of Holland, but it is much more laid back and less touristy. I wanted to tour the canals, and so we did, quite literally. There are these electric boats right, that you can have remotely activated. They hold about 8 people, and you simply unplug it and go…so of course I drove because – why not.
Mind you I can’t swim, so there’s that. But let it be known that I really do like being on the water, just not in the water. It was amazing to go out with my host family and tour the canals. It was exciting, beautiful and again something out of a story book. We traveled through the canals, drank wine, ate cheese, crackers, and fruit, and even “parked” to get out and see some of the city. It was amazing. I had a taste of the Caribbean while looking around the city. Jerome and I had a Johnny Cake, which was….beyond words good. I also grabbed some souvenirs for some folks back at my college. We fed ducks, waived at passers-by, listened to Nickelodeon and Disney songs louder than we should have, and even fixed our boat when it got stuck…by a prison. I hope to visit that prison in a couple of days – we will see.
An even more magical time was getting back home last night and chatting over a light dinner and tea with Jerome and Sandra, both of whom work in higher education. I realized that there were more similarities in “diversity work” than I once thought. Which was encouraging. There is good work being done by people like Sandra and others to help people understand, value, and work with other cultures. The populations are different, but the challenges and work is very similar. We talked about the “oppressed” in Holland, and who were the disadvantaged in this country. We shared thoughts and ideas and knowledge about how higher education is funded in our countries, the philosophy of our systems, how they are lead, and what the challenges are. The hours rolled on by as we shared each other’s company, and learned from our collective experience. These convos present the best teaching and learning opportunities. Today was the first full “work day” but I will write a day after my experiences to give my thoughts time to marinate. John Maxwell said that “reflective thinking is like the crock pot of the mind. It encourages your thoughts to simmer until they’re done.” I’m going to let them simmer and write more tomorrow.
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 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