When My “Be Best” Means “Be Black”

When I wake up itching to write, that means something. My blogging can feel like the steam escaping a pressure cooker – forceful and insistent. In the process, the contents of the pot are transformed. When I write this way there is a distinct before and after. I change and am changed.

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Striving is a feature, not a bug.

Did you know I am Black? Once upon a time I tweeted that I don’t generally tell people this, I let them figure it out. I say that as someone who has spent the majority of of her school and professional life embedded in predominately white institutions (PWIs) which is to say I have always been aware of difference. Of my difference. But at the same time I have also developed a host of means and methods to negotiate the ways I demonstrate, downplay or highlight that particular difference. It’s a skill. It’s a necessity.

When I was a girl I tagged along with my mother to various meetings of civic and community organizations. I was great at stuffing envelopes and placing stamps. The women (it was almost always only women) talked and I listened, relieved to be busy rather than bored. My mother was an activist but I could not register her that way when I was growing up. She engaged in and also led organizations that advocated for all forms of social justice, many of those connected in one way or another to the Lutheran Church. At the time, I could not see these things as I see them now. I could not see her as I see her now.

In my 50’s I see my mother in myself more clearly than at any other time. It’s ironic. It was when she was in her 50’s that I was perhaps the most captive audience to her movements (in every sense of the word), aged 8 to 18.

I hardly remember her speaking directly about her Blackness or being Black in those very white Midwestern Lutheran spaces. But I remember how well loved she seemed, how warmly we were welcomed to the summer institutes in Valpraiso, Indiana. And I felt like I fit right in with all those justice-loving offspring of so many church families from Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Iowa. I suppose that’s where I got my workshop start.

It’s funny to me that I would tell you about my mother when I thought I wanted to talk about something else. I’ve been struck in the last several days by Black folks writing about being Black in white spaces. This recent essay by in Harper’s speaks about the dilemma of the Black public intellectual under the influence of the white gaze.

The white audience does not seek out black public intellectuals to challenge their worldview; instead they are meant to serve as tour guides through a foreign experience that the white audience wishes to keep at a comfortable distance. White people desire a representative of the community who can provide them with a crash course.

While two recent tweets reiterate and amplify this idea as it plays out in the academy:

Although I make no claim to being a public intellectual, I am a Black woman who writes publicly and shares distinct opinions. I recently had an experience that was somehow an ironic twist on this whole conversation.

I am scheduled to offer a workshop of the National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference (#NAISPoCC) in Nashville this week. The title is “Be The Power And The Point – Why You Need To Present At Your Next Conference” and the goal is encourage more educators of color at all stages of their careers to consider presenting at education conferences or join organizations to help plan them. It’s a workshop because participants will be doing the work of examining their areas of expertise and developing an intention going forward. My role is that of facilitator. In order to prepare I opted to offer a test run of my session at my school and shared an invitation only a day in advance.

My international school has only very few faculty and staff of color. And my session is geared specifically to that demographic. Nevertheless I did my level best to deliver the session as intended and I had a remarkable turnout which included the Director, all 3 principals, the Director of Technology, IB Coordinator and 3 faculty members. Of those attending 3 identify as people of color. I was thrilled at the show of support and interest. I have never had that kind of attendance for past workshops. In the end, it was a good choice. I received some useful feedback and lots of praise. I counted it as a very big win.

There was a moment during the session, however, where a question came up about how the message would be different for an audience of color. On the spot, I struggled to generate a satisfactory response. I mentioned a bit about the dimensions of the conference itself and the emotional experience of, for once, being in the beautiful and varied majority. But I couldn’t get to the crux of my purpose. When I read Smith’s essay about Black intellectual labor under the white gaze, my frontal cortex was lighting up with all sorts of recognition. In a later conversation with my colleague I was able to articulate the differences more clearly explaining for instance that as white male with role authority he is accustomed to being given the floor. This is not the case for me as a Black woman. People will not naturally defer to me or my supposed expertise in a racially and/or gender mixed group. I think he got it but it also reminded me of how possible it is to go through the world white, male and clueless about the visible and invisible differences of experience that play out in our daily lives.

My ethical survival revolves on not begrudging my colleague his question. In respecting his curiosity while at the same time granting myself the possibility of offering incomplete and imperfect responses I rebuild my capacity to continue engaging. I am under no obligation to take on the role of ‘race whisperer’ in any context. Yet as a fellow human with a different experience and outlook I aim to listen in pursuit of insight. For both of us.

To resist all this ‘race talk’ would seem a comfortable antidote for me and those like me in similar contexts. The option to try to simply “blend in” is always there, as unrealistic and impossible as ever. Deciding that my version of “Be Best” means “Be Black” and vocal and unapologetic is a renewable after-effect of writing publicly. My journey has been a long and highly circuitous one. I did not follow my mother’s path immediately or fervently. All my recent ‘race talk’ is a late stage development at best. My readings keep bringing me back to history which I at once resent and grudgingly accept.

Near the end of his generous book on how to have race conversations in the classroom, Science Leadership Academy educator, Matt Kay, tells us

Colonialism and antebellum slavery were buoyed by the most intractable ignorance; it took centuries of disruptive conversations to destabilize racism’s most basic tenets. History remembers Douglass, but not the countless teachers, parents, and mentors, both enslaved and free, who kept the toughest conversations alive under the bleakest circumstances. These people had scant encouragement. They could more readily count on cynicism, apathy, or threats from power structures that benefited from their silence. (p. 261, Not Light But Fire, 2018)

Here we are and all of this sounds sounds so familiar, so immediate, so right now. You and I belong to those countless teachers, parents, mentors who in 2018 and beyond must keep those very tough conversations alive and present. I have a platform. If I am not using it to bring others into the spotlight, to draw attention to disparities in experience, to grow our collective understanding of ways forward, then what am I doing?

 

 

*(My 11 y-o came out of his room while I was writing this and I said “Guess what. I’m writing about being Black! Again.” To which he responded: “huh, that’s a surprise.” And yes, he has a firm understanding of sarcasm.)

 

Kay, Matthew R., Not Light, But Fire – How To Lead Meaningful Race Conversations In The Classroom. Stenhouse Publishers, Portsmouth, NH. 2018.

image ©Spelic

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