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

Our Work Is Everywhere We Look

I have extended family who engage in rich conversations about a variety of social and political topics per e-mail. I feel so grateful for these exchanges even if I may not add my voice to the mix very often. I love the fact that at least 3 generations are involved in these dialogues in the most loving and generous atmosphere. Recently, one family member offered the video commissioned by Starbucks on the history of African-Americans in public spaces as a point of discussion.

The written conversation that followed was insightful, nuanced and wide-ranging. While watching the video, all kinds of emotions came up for me. I identified with a number of statements, particularly those of black women. But one impression that has stuck with me since viewing the video almost 2 weeks ago: It’s the white male talking about how he leaves his house, without a care, without a worry about how he will be seen or judged. As he says: “I can just do my thing.” It stuck because that sounds like my life in progress. That’s mostly what I feel like when I leave my apartment in the leafy green neighborhood of this Central European capital which claims to be the city with the highest quality of life in the world.

I have lived here for almost 30 years. Vienna is home. I speak German, my 2 sons have dual citizenship, I work in an international environment that is both financially secure and socially elevated. I have more layers of privilege and comfort than can be named in a single blog post. I am healthy, able-bodied, straight, and married. My immigration status is secure. So the white guy in the video talking about being able to do his thing  most clearly mirrors my own experience far away from the country I grew up in.

And it feels daring to write that. Like I’m not supposed to say that I’m doing alright. I am a Black woman, after all. But that’s just how internalized stereotyping works. Even if I am living the dream in many ways, a second hidden script in my head, reinforced by plenty of mainstream media, suggests that I’ve been falsely cast, I don’t deserve to be here, this scenario is not replicable. The existence of this second script should not surprise anyone. While I can usually usher these idea right back out of my head once they arrive, their steady recurrence indicates a connection to the much greater influence of anti-black and sexist bias in North American society at large. The phenomenon of internalized inferiority extends far beyond my individual experience and I need to understand that.

Meanwhile, on another front, my friend Valeria Brown raised a question on Twitter to White people that stopped many in their tracks.

My first response to the questions was “Uh oh, I wonder how this is gonna go…”  It was the kind of question that made me instinctively hold my breath. Maybe because I know that there is no good answer. One respondent called it “jarring mental exercise.” When pressed for a number, responses ranged from $0 (assumption of futility of being heard in demanding compensation) to tens of millions of dollars. Go through and read the various responses which trickled in over time. It is a sobering experience to say the least.  And Val reposted the question a few times.

I’m sure for many giving an answer felt like stepping into a trap. It could not end well. One respondent commented: “This question. It’s gonna break people.” And Val talks about that when she listed her take-aways a day later. Among them she noted:

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The whole of this experiment is still working in me so I can hardly imagine the impact it had and must be having on Val. One more observation she makes is that based on several responses, one would have the impression that to be Black must necessarily entail poverty, poor health and education outcomes, extreme violence and so on. It was hard to hear and take in and process and I say that as someone speaking from a remarkable distance in a number of ways.

So on the one hand, I get to be here in Europe living my best life (Hallelujah!) and still be deeply enmeshed in the effects of US specific anti-black racism coupled with rampant sexism. I work in a very White and international environment, where awareness of racism among students can vary greatly. As a topic of formal adult discussion, racism hardly surfaces and if so, mainly in response to a specific incident.  At graduation last night where no less than 5 black or black-presenting students in a class of about 70 received their diplomas, 4 of them mentioned their involvement in the Diversity Club (launched this year to address some racist incidents) as points of pride. (While gathering their diploma, a brief descriptive statement was read about each graduate.) Hearing that was such a necessary reminder that my work, our work, is everywhere we look.

Graduation Day 1983 with Mom

When I graduated high school, I knew all about how to conduct myself in ways that would make White people feel comfortable around me. As one young woman in the documentary video described:

“It’s not like I can mute my actual physical blackness, right? So I just assume that people can see a particular thing when they see the color of my skin, so everything else has to be, like, perfect and clean and as blended-in as possible. It’s really just an arsenal of different masks, you know?”

I know that issue of presentation as a young Black person in a predominantly White setting. Back in the early 80’s, I don’t remember putting much thought into it. I simply followed the necessary rules and codes to stay socially afloat, to be able to run with the friends I valued and it worked. My understanding of those codes and rules have afforded me all kinds of conveniences which stretch into the present. I fit in because I choose to. At every turn I display (and have displayed) those behaviors which indicate to my conspicuously White environment, “hey, I get you and it is highly unlikely that I will put your comfort on the line by talking about race and confronting you with your deeply held biases of which you may or may not be aware.” That’s a rule.

Val’s question fundamentally challenges that rule. Folks are immediately uncomfortable because the truth is so much harsher than tossing around the phrases about ‘doing the work’ on social media. Val put a big stone in our path and our job is to do more than admire it for its magnitude and rough surface. We have to move the stone. Upend it. Or chip away at it, feverishly.  But none of us will move ahead if we can’t answer Val’s question AND bring more folks in to the drive to move this stone out of our path. One way or another.

The layers of privilege which I enjoy right now are not guaranteed for generations, although I will do my best to insure that my children and grandchildren benefit from these as much as possible. Yet the more significant legacy would be for me, my children and grandchildren to go through life recognizing our own privilege and using it to deliberately open doors for others to move up, ahead and forward in their lives.

I’ve reached a stage in my life where I think about the future in terms of what I will leave behind besides environmental destruction, political instability, social unrest and mounting inequality. Realistically, words and ideas will be most of what is left. Words that nudge the stone, ideas that call people to join the struggle. That’s a legacy I dream of.

Incongruity Theory and #RaceTogether

I’ll admit: The Starbucks #RaceTogether campaign has my attention. I’ll fault Twitter which is, of course, where I caught wind of it and began noting the numerous witty retorts appearing in my feed. Above all, I was amused. Then curious, then amused, and now back to curious.

The amusement came mainly through the #NewStarbucksDrinks group of tweets which were ingenious, clever, and in some cases, piercing. Here are a few of my favorites:

You get the idea. Lot of wit out there. Lot of wit and humor in the face of exasperation at what appears to be going on. Starbucks CEO, Howard Schultz thinks it would be a good idea for the company’s “partners” or baristas to offer patrons a little race conversation outreach along with their beverage by writing “Race Together”on the cup. The concept, which appears to be full of good intentions (and simultaneously swimming in cultural and societal obliviousness), misses the mark in many ways.  Read this post by Tressie McMillan Cottom which lays out the prickly nature of this initiative in remarkable clarity and also with a modest dose of snark.

I can’t offer that kind of analysis but I can appreciate and share it. What grabs me about this topic is seeing it from its origins: in white corporate America. I watched the 6 minute video where Schultz explains the thinking and in-house community forums on race that were held in the previous 6 months.

Overflowing with good intentions. And seen as a white-to-white communication venture, it might work. There are plenty of white people who may want to engage and participate in this kind of activity and perhaps shed some guilt in the process. But the assumption on which #RaceTogether actually rests is that we all (POC included) have an equal need for the same conversation and nothing could be further from the truth.

For corporate America this initiative is novel. It’s eye-catching and bold. For the rest of us, particularly people of color, it just looks stupid and clueless. And so it becomes a source of mockery and derision because we see an outrageous incongruity. In explaining where comedy gets its fuel Kathryn Schulz says this:

As its name suggests, incongruity theory posits that comedy arises from a mismatch – specifically, a mismatch between expectation and actuality. According to this theory, funny situations begin with an attachment to a belief, whether that attachment is conscious or unconscious, fleeting or deep, sincerely held or deliberately planted by a comedian or prankster. That belief is then violated, producing surprise, confusion, and a replacement belief – and also producing, along the way, enjoyment and laughter. In other words, the structure of humor is – give or take a little pleasure – the structure of error.

Being Wrong, Portobello 2010, p. 323

That seems to be what has happened here. There’s the corporate belief: “we really need to have this conversation about race. Let’s get our partners to do the talking.” And there’s the wider response, especially on social media, which says, “LOL, are you serious? you have no clue, no preparation. Just keep your “conversation”and give me my latte.”  Incongruity and the resulting sense of “surprise, confusion”-  this can happen to white people in these situations who fail to grasp or anticipate that fundamental incongruity of belief and experience when we, people of color and whites, venture to just talk about race (not to mention racism).

One other problem I have with this is the commercial piece. The initiative is a PR-thing designed to sell beverages and newspapers (USA Today is a partner in this massive effort). How clever of some people to seize this opportunity to build on the buzz and profit from the dramatic events that have pushed this agenda to the fore. Part of me resents the idea of having a corporately branded/sponsored conversation about a topic of significant importance to me. Even if more information regarding racial disparities in the US is disseminated, circulated, proclaimed from every major media outlet, it will not suddenly elicit changes in behaviors, attitudes, environments, policies and structures which perpetuate them. Again, if you are operating from a place of more or less unchallenged privilege, then talking more about race while drinking a nicely flavored warm beverage will probably sound like a good idea. A great idea.  A noble and also cool idea. Corporate America lives consistently in this space, so sure “Race Together” sounds harmony-inspiring and paradigm-busting, it must be a ‘win-win’ proposition. Who wouldn’t want to “Race Together” with their favorite barista?

If nothing else, the Starbucks example offers us a unique “comedy of errors” from which let’s hope the originators are learning. We have the #NewStarbucksDrinks hashtag to provide us comic relief throughout and an avenue to once again showcase some of the sharpest minds in the country. I am choosing to celebrate the ingenuity I have seen arise from this fraught scenario and for the time being I’ll enjoy my tea at home.

When my own words will not suffice

I’ve been fairly quiet on twitter these last few days. I’ve posted my share of retweets to the mix and have added next to nothing of my own commentary.

The bulk of the tweets in my feed are tagged #BlackLivesMatter, #Notthistime, #EricGarner, #ICantbreathe, #NotjustFerguson or #Ferguson. There is outrage, disbelief, comparative analysis, related storytelling, protest coverage. Images and video offer snapshots of the movement in progress. Real life episodes of micro and macro aggressions are shared through the hashtag #alivewhileblack. The educhatter is still going on and it feels muted, like it’s just not quite important enough to merit the same kind of attention.

So I invest in reading. I read op-eds from top journalists Charles Blow and Ta-Nehisi Coates, I study the retweet offerings of @funnymonkey, @tressiemc, @mdawriter and Jason @jybuell. I find information on everything from how Grand Juries work (or don’t work) to advice on how to address these burning topics with students to reasons why America finds itself in this pitiful state, still so deeply divided along racial lines.

At the end of the day, there is little tangible relief. The barbed comments that appear in response to a well argued opinion piece remind me that online media are not safe for everyone. The video clips of protesters clashing with police remind me that police use of force is widely understood as a means of keeping the peace. How I feel about all this is not the point. The devastation that lingers and touches every aspect of American society is.

The devastation that lingers is not of our property. The devastation that lingers is in our heads and hearts and it is painful. When we need to claim that indeed #BlackLivesMatter, the devastation is already visible and how deeply it runs becomes increasingly apparent. We keep saying it over and over, #BlackLivesMatter because the devastation that lingers is evidence to the contrary.

My spirit is so much more inclined towards optimism and thinking positively.

Yet in order to even contemplate where I will start to act and begin to counteract even a sliver of the devastation, I must see it first for what it is: pervasive, pernicious and enduring.

Connecting the Dots: Privilege, Social Justice and Choice

A few days ago  I read this opinion piece:

Author, Desmond Cole, writing in the wake of the mayoral election in Toronto,  points out: “It is crucial that we distinguish these things – white privilege and racism – and that we learn to talk better about each. ..So let us start here: white privilege is real, and it affects every single Torontian.”

He goes on to explain:

“white privilege is the flipside of racism: if those of us deemed to be “visible minorities” suffer discrimination, white privilege speaks to the corresponding people who, whether or not they realize it, gain advantage from this dynamic. Systemic racism does not just have countless victims, but beneficiaries as well…

White privilege isn’t about what is in the hearts and minds of individuals; it is a set of circumstances in the world, with which we all must contend – but which white people can ignore with impunity while the victims of racism cannot.”

He concludes with the argument that because inequities will not simply fade away, it behooves us as individuals and as a society to take actions which redress them. ” Racism is the bully who shows up at the party without being invited: almost no one wants to associate with him, but few have the courage to show him the door. Those of us affected by systemic racism don’t have the luxury of ignoring that bully.”

Read the full article to take in the weight of his nuanced analysis.

A little later  I ran across this post in pursuit of a different interest:

Here the author, Kevin Hodgson (@dogtrax), is referring to the challenge of creating connected courses under the banner of access, equity and diversity. Essentially he and his colleagues are doing their part  to insure due diligence in developing programs which actually reach and impact  underserved urban and rural communities.  The Western Massachusetts Writing Project is the organization in question and the following quote comes from their vision statement adopted some years ago:

Central to our mission is the development of programs and opportunities that are accessible and relevant to teachers, students, and their families from diverse backgrounds, paying attention to issues of race, gender, language, class and culture and how these are linked to teaching and learning.

The author acknowledges costs in the process of taking this stance which is more clearly grounded in social justice: the loss of some issue-weary members who worry that the primary aim of helping students and teachers with writing has been pushed to the back burner. The author points to the steps they are taking to keep access, equity and diversity near the top of the agenda – an upcoming symposium, past gains in mobilizing membership around advocacy against teacher evaluation based solely on standardized test results. Nevertheless, the tension remains: “when many discussions come filtered through the social justice lens, it can feel as if the “writing” and “teaching” elements get lost in the shuffle, replaced by a political action lens.”

I hear his struggle and applaud his and his organization’s efforts to work against or perhaps through the tide. It certainly isn’t easy.  This is where these two pieces come together for me. The privilege lies in being able to choose to address, redress or ignore the uncomfortable topics of equity and access. Sticking around to put up a fight time and time again on behalf of those who are excluded from this privilege may strike some as tedious, as a lost cause. For those who belong to marginalized groups, there simply is no choice.

Let’s recognize that there is good work being done and that there is much more to do. It is upon all of us to do the work we are able to do wherever we find ourselves – in our families, schools and communities – breaking down barriers, acknowledging privilege here,  dismantling the structures of systemic and institutional bias there.  We all can afford to get better at connecting the necessary dots.

It’s Not Only White People Who Need to Learn about Race

I started to write a post about how much I still have to learn about race in the United States and quickly realized that I could not tackle that in under 700 words, nor would I like to try. For me as an African-American woman there are all kinds of assumptions out there about what I should know about race and racism. There is less talk about what I may need to learn.

That said, some recent readings have opened my eyes to the ways in which race plays such a significant role in American society still, even though much of the rhetoric around racial socialization (color-blind, post-racial) would have us believe otherwise.  My encounter with each new text revealed layers of my own misconceptions, false beliefs and fuzzy comprehension.

The first read proved to be a conceptual game-changer:

Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage, by Daria Roithmayr, NYU Press 2014. This book blew me away with its sobriety and clarity in describing how current racial disparities in American society may be locked in even if all forms of discrimination were to cease today. Roithmayr’s case is well argued and draws on current research in law, sociology and economics. She writes in the introduction:

Where conventional models focus on intentional discrimination, the lock-in model focuses on self-reinforcing structural processes like social networks and family wealth distribution. The lock-in model emphasizes both the unfairness of early anticompetitive conduct and the need for significant government “antitrust” intervention to dismantle white monopoly on advantage.

Reading this book felt like an odd form of cleansing. At last I understood much more about the world I grew up in and how my family’s history is reflected in her descriptions of the early consolidation of white advantage. Roithmayr explains not just how white advantage became the norm in such areas as political participation, housing, education, and employment, but also how it perpetuates itself even when steps are taken to break the cycle. This text is essential reading for anyone who struggles to understand white privilege and every form of racial gap we can identify in current American society.

Shortly after completing the Lock-In book, this link to Black Women in the United States, 2014,  arrived in my inbox.  The report was published by the Black Women’s Roundtable of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. Just reading the executive summary, I got chills while recognizing how many significant  struggles remain, particularly in the areas of health care and economic advancement.  And these disparities despite remarkable increases in educational attainment.  Although there are points to celebrate, I was struck by how much ground must still be covered by black women in the US.

Finally, I ran across an article on the National Association of Independent Schools’ website: What White Children Need to Know about Race. At this juncture I had to recognize that in spite of my efforts to make sense of my own racial experiences through targeted reading, reflection and substantial dialogue, I still have much to learn about facilitating and initiating dialogue regarding race with my students, colleagues and even within my family.  This article by Ali Michael and Elenora Bartoli details the reasons why white families are likely to avoid talking explicitly about race with their children, the implications this tends to have for white children’s understanding of race and racism and then outlines specific steps that schools can take to actively support the development of positive racial identities. What I appreciated so much about this article was the authors’ capacity to show what can be done without shaming the reader for not knowing. They conclude with this:  “If we want a racially just world, we need racially aware schools.”

Here’s my lesson: it’s not just white people who need to learn about the dynamics and realities of race in America. It’s me, too. These readings alert me to the fact  that each of us has the opportunity to change and influence racial dynamics for the better, now and in the future. And before I can make a difference, I have to understand difference in many more ways than one. The buck starts here.

And I’m about to go read Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations.”