Privilege: Or An Understanding of Hands and Fish

I moved to a small town in northern Illinois in 2010. Having a background and educational training in sociology, with an emphasis on race, class, gender and the intersections of marginalization, I was convinced that I was prepared to provide educational training for undergraduate students on those topics. I quickly realized that while I was prepared from an academic and technical perspective, I was woefully unprepared on a very practical and a personal level. I quickly began to receive a very practical education on the ways in which privilege operates.

I was raised in a very middle class Black community. And while I went to very ethnically and racially diverse primary and secondary schools, the racial socialization experienced in my household was one that taught self-esteem and self-efficacy. Harris-Britt, Valrie,  Kurtz-Costes, and Rowley suggested in their 2007 study on black youth that racial socialization is a protective feature for black youth, providing protection from the drastic dip in self-esteem and academic achievement particularly for black girls in adolescence.  Other researchers had found similar results, including Witherspoon,  Speight, and Jones Thomas in 1997. Because of this positive racial socialization and positive perceptions of blackness, my own academic achievement remained high and my self-perception and peer esteem and regard were also high. I therefore felt very comfortable as I studied and received degrees in Psychology and African American Studies as an undergraduate and focusing on race in the discipline of Sociology in graduate school.

Therefore, having always been aware of my blackness I felt comfortable in my performance of black womanhood. What I did not consider, however, was that my performance of black womanhood was rooted in a class system that offered me class privilege as well. My first few years in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin was filled with culture shock as I was daily reminded of my blackness and the lack of privilege associated with race. In fact, some of my experiences went beyond a lack of privilege associated with race and was more in line with a reminder of constant marginalization associated with my race. In one such instance, I remember recoiling at assumptions made of me related to race. I recall immediately thinking,  “I should not be treated this way because of my social class and social standing in the community.” My education, occupation, my family and family of origin had afforded me some protections from individual racism. Although structural and ideological racism were a constant, the very confrontational individual racism was not felt. However, in that moment, the thought of surprise and disdain quickly passed as I recognized that my response to racism was one that was rooted in middle class privilege. This recognition of my own biases and my own privilege forced me to think about a privilege on a macro level differently. This confrontation of myself forced me to think about the ways in which I taught whiteness differently, the ways in which I taught gender differently, and the ways in which I taught privilege and marginalization differently.

I have found that when speaking of privilege, particularly as it relates to white supremacy, people become very defensive sometimes angry and expressed extreme discomfort. However one way that I have found to start the conversation is to begin with the rather innocuous  example of handedness. I was born right handed into a world that caters to right handedness. I never had to consider what it meant to not be right handed, as there is nothing in this culture that marginalizes right handedness. That is, until I had my first child. She was born left handed; a fact that I still didn’t pay attention to until she was school aged. When she started kindergarten, I was excited. I bought all of her supplies with joy. All of the scissors, pencils, notebooks, necessary items and unnecessary items. However, I quickly discovered that it was challenging for me to teach her to write and cut. I realized that what my child needed was not scissors, but instead, hyphenated scissors. She needed left-handed scissors. Additionally, when she used a pencil, the residue of the lead was on her hand, and she had no representation at home for how to write. I began to pay attention to other ways in which she experienced a disadvantage. One such way was something as simple as opening the refrigerator. When I give trainings, I reenact her opening the refrigerator. While right handed people open the refrigerator and look inside, she opens the refrigerator and literally has to shift her body to look inside. In this, and many other ways, there is a literal shifting of the body to fit into a right handed world that that we don’t hyphenate. Additionally, we must consider that for much of the history of education in the United States, left-handed children were forced to accommodate those who were not left handed. Punitive measures like tying hands behind their backs, hitting the hands of children as they wrote with their left hands, and facing stigmatization further marginalized children who were not right handed. In other words, the groups that are most likely to be marginalized happen to be the most likely to be hyphenated, and are most likely to be punished and devalued.  

Consider how this might work on a more societal level. Which groups experience hyphenation? How are hyphenated lives devalued, stigmatized, and further marginalized? In what ways are people who experience hyphenation constantly shifting their bodies to fit into a world that does not accommodate them? Specifically, in the US, we have a system of white supremacy that privileges “people” while marginalizing “hyphenated people.” Therefore, when considering the way in which privilege operates, White Privilege maintains White Supremacy in a way that forces People of Color to constantly shift their literal bodies in public, in educational spaces, in shopping malls, in language, in work environments. The very literal shifting of bodies is also evident on highways, leading to the term DWB, or “driving while black.” In what other ways do people who are marginalized by the social structures literally shift to fit into the society? How is this maintained by privilege?

It is important, however, to acknowledge that, in the words of Kimmel, “privilege is invisible to those who have it; this invisibility is political…” (2003).  McIntosh wrote, “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks” (1988). Another way to envision this invisibility is this: fish are born into water, they are surrounded by water,  and need it for survival. As such, fish will never recognize the existence of water because it is a constant. When water ceases to be a constant, this is when fish can recognize it’s existence. In a similar way, white supremacy and white privilege are invisible simply because they are constant. White Americans are born into a system and society of white supremacy, which affords them some benefits – the “invisible knapsack,” in the words of Peggy McIntosh, or White Privilege.

One of the concerns in conversations of White Privilege is the fear that those who experience privilege should willingly recognize their privilege and shoulder the blame. However, it is my belief that blaming paralyzes. Those feelings of guilt lead to frustration, which then lead to immobility. Therefore, it is my belief that the way in which we could talk about privilege should be liberating. The ways in which we could talk about privilege and marginalization should allow for those who experience privilege to have agency to reject their privilege, or at the very least, to use their privilege to dismantle systems of oppression that seemingly benefits them. Rather than excusing or removing those with privilege from the conversation, this approach could engage those who benefit from the waters of white supremacy in conversation and hold them responsible for the  systems. After all, who but those with power can change their own systems? The trick is allowing for the fish who are immersed in that water to be able to see the water they were born into. The trick is also to allow those fish to see that the water is not always safe for them as well. Finally, the trick is to allow those fish who are immersed in the dangerous waters of privilege to see that sometimes that water leads to dangers that they themselves are harmed and exploited by.

Nevertheless, the challenge of making the fish aware of the dangers in the water is ongoing. Often, when people hear the phrases White Privilege and White Supremacy, they protest as, of course, race does not always guarantee economic benefits. Frequently, I hear people deny the existence of privilege by saying that they worked hard and they deserve what they have. This argument suggests that privilege should grant people things without hard work, and if they don’t have those things, they cannot have privilege. And while for some, it is most certainly the case that there are tangible rewards related to privilege, it is also the case that others have worked hard for what they have attained. Specifically, when we talk about material objects and credentials it is difficult to say that people are not working hard with their achievements. However, what is missing from that argument is that while people are working hard to achieve, others experience real barriers in the same types of achievement. Therefore, a lack of privilege means that people experience barriers; legal barriers, housing barriers, educational barriers, and so forth. A lack of privilege equals barriers. Having privilege then, means a lack of real tangible barriers as well as assumptions of worthiness and hard work. One example of this would be the way in which social welfare policy has provided equality for White Americans while simultaneously constructing real tangible and legal barriers for Black Americans. Therefore, even if we think about social welfare policies, affirmative action policies for example, as an attempt at leveling of the playing field we have to also consider the ways in which Black Americans were removed from the ability to even begin at the same level. In this way, privilege affords White Americans things that seem natural, while denying People of Color things that should be inalienable rights. The difference is, for White Americans, privilege remains invisible while for People of Color, the denial of access is very visible and visceral.  

Related to the discussion of economic benefits, however, is the denial of privilege using such claims as “slavery is over,” “I was not alive then,” “I can’t undo what my ancestors did.” Of course, a glaring issue with these and similar claims is that it assumes that race is binary (literally black and white), and that racism and privilege are an issue of blackness. And while, as I suggested before, discussing race, racism and privilege using guilt has the effect of paralyzing and inaction, these are topics that must be addressed to move individuals to action. The argument of, “it’s not my fault,” is also an argument that can only exist with privilege. In other words, privilege is the ability to take advantage of present benefits while distancing oneself from the history that created those benefits. To be able to say, “those were the actions of my forefathers,” while recognizing the inequities, without a subsequent responsibility to tear down the structures of inequity built by those forefathers is an embodiment of privilege. Adding to the definitions of privilege, I would suggest to you, simply put, that it is being able to simultaneously distance oneself from history while still reaping the benefits.

And so what does privilege look like? Particularly white privilege? While we can discuss ad nauseam the ways in which privilege denies access, I think it is also worthwhile to consider the way in which privilege impacts identity. In 2015, Rachel Dolezal received national attention as a white woman performing blackness. When asked about her race and racial background she stated that she identified as a black woman, acknowledging that her parents were white but claiming to have had a spiritual connection with black women her entire life. She used her “blackness” to gain social positions that came with some monetary benefit, teaching about black hair and black art. These positions could have been taught as a white woman; however, her “blackness” afforded her some perceived legitimacy. Additionally, she served as a leader for her local NAACP chapter, which also could have been done as a white woman, but again offered her more perceived validity. What is fascinating about this case of identity is that she demonstrates that race is a social constrict and social performance, but also this case embodies privilege. By having the ability to wear blackness as a costume, and having the choice of racial categories, she demonstrates how privilege operates. In other words, White Privilege afforded her the ability to choose. And while the reactions to her performance of race fell on a continuum of those finding it comical and others suggesting that she had some form of mental illness, her claims were not blamed on her being white, nor her racial group membership. In fact, some suggested that it was a perverse compliment – after all, who would want to be a black woman in this society with all of the discrimination faced by black women? However, to be clear, her ability to perform blackness and receive perceived rewards can only be a product of White Privilege and an ability to choose. Now, this is an extreme example of the intersection of identity and privilege. However, when we consider performances of race and who is rewarded for what behaviors, we can see how those rewards and punishments either serve as normalcy or barriers to achievement.

Privilege and white supremacy are multifaceted concepts. And as we demand accountability, it is important that we acknowledge that we can hold people accountable for what they did and what they have. Holding people accountable for who they are is much more challenging. Linking privilege to personhood can lead to feelings of guilt, denial, and anger. However, if we move the discussion toward responsibility and have a working understanding of these concepts, we can begin to then we can begin to dismantle systems of oppression. Using language that demands responsibility removes paralyzing reactions and allows for systemic change.

Shifting the Language of Diveristy and Inclusion

Shifting the Language of

Diversity and Inclusion  

 A few months ago, I was involved in a conversation to review the goals and vision of an institution. As we reviewed, I was struck by what was so obviously missing. I was not surprised by what was listed, of course; values of respect, excellence, learning, integrity, and collaboration all seem to fit as reasonable expectations for any successful institution. However, as a space that seemed to consistently struggle with creating an inclusive climate, I was surprised that neither diversity or inclusion were explicitly listed as a value or goal to attain. I suppose I should not have been surprised, given that it was fairly obvious that these ideas did not seem to be valued on an institutional level.  And so, I inquired, arguing that when it comes to creating an inclusive environment, it must be intentional and explicitly stated. There can be no intentionality and measurement if the aim is not explicit. Otherwise, the institution behaves in a colorblind fashion, maintaining the status quo. How do we measure what we do not name? How do we hold institutions and the people within those institutions accountable for things we don't make explicit? 

Of course, language is extremely important and powerful for creating social change. The Sapir Whorf Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis suggests that as we think in language, language has the ability to limit us. If we only have one word for snow, when we see snow, we cannot distinguish between fluffy snow, rain-like snow, snow that falls straight down, or that falls on an angle. We have only snow. If we only have one word for blue, teal, aquamarine, and navy all merge into blue. Unfortunately, if we only use the colorblind language of respect and do not explicitly state and acknowledge the power of racial, gendered, and cis hierarchies, when we see an injustice or experience micro aggressions, we will not see it as an institutional issue, but a personal respect issue. In this way, language is powerful and shifts the responsibility from the personal to the institution. It is therefore the duty of the institution to name the institutional inequities that exist. 

On both the macro (societal) and micro (individual) levels, language determines and defines what we hope to obtain. Our visions for ourselves and humanity are defined through language. When we say what our visions and values are, this becomes our focus and aim. Unfortunately, there are those who claim to be working toward social justice, but their goals and values are defined in ways that protect privilege and the status quo. In some ways, the language used reflect values that are paternalistic and protect power structures and hierarchies that exist.  

One of the most commonly used examples and descriptions used within Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) work is the use of the dance example to explain the difference between diversity and inclusion. The teacher/trainer explains it this way, "Diversity means being invited to the dance and inclusion means being asked to dance while there." I have admittedly used this example before, even as I am aware of the problematic nature or this example. When using this example, in both diversity and inclusion, there is a power structure that is maintained. In other words, in this example, inclusion implies that the marginalized groups must still wait for permission from those with the power to "ask." I tend to supplement this example with my own; "diversity is being visible in the room where decisions are made. Inclusion means being seated at the table where the decisions are made and the ideas, values, concerns, and perspectives are heard and valued. Diversity implies presence; inclusion implies and demands agency and ownership. Indeed, when we think about how this relates to institutions and organizations, it is clear to see why the distinction is a necessary one to make. Simply advocating for diversity does very little at creating a safe and inclusive environment. It is to the benefit of all within the institution to actually work toward inclusion rather than diversity.  

Moving from an institutional level to the societal, the same critique may be extended to the distinction between assimilation and pluralism. And while assimilation has historically been praised and encouraged, it is similar to being asked to dance while there. This does not create an equitable society, only visibility of continually marginalized, and in some cases silenced groups.   

So, what does pluralism and inclusion look like? To discuss this, we must consider who has power. Indeed, in every society, people who experience marginalization lack power and access to recourses, and in many cases lack power and agency in many important aspects of their own lives. Consider this – public schooling is in theory free to all in this society. However, what happens in schools depends in large part on the social class of the surrounding community. Therefore, for those who lack access to resources, the agency to direct their educational experiences is lacking. The hidden curriculum and the formal curriculum both deny those who lack economic resources to determine their own lives and experiences, having long term effects. Can we call this inclusion? Is this full access to the dance? It is most certainly not a valued seat at the table of decision making. In this regard, we expect that students assimilate into the school culture and provide diversity. This does not, however imply pluralism and inclusion.  

This example is a fairly simple one. School districts and institutions of higher education recognize this pattern. One method of combatting this lack of inclusive climate has been discussions of equality. If we can guarantee equality, then we can have full inclusion. However, this logic is similarly flawed. Again, discussions of equality encourage and implicitly acknowledge a power relationship. By definition, equality is the state of being equal in status, rights, and opportunities. Equality is symbolic. However, the way in which equality has been applied is this – everyone receives an equal share. For those with privilege and access, it is frequently argued that advocating for equality is fair and just. After all, equality does not disrupt the status quo and does not require that the society change. Equality is blind. However, if one group is marginalized, does not equality also maintain the existing power structure?  

But the pursuit of social justice demands equity. Equity is not blind but sees both disadvantage and privilege and provides accordingly. Equity is defined as the state of being fair. In other words, while equality demands that people receive the same recourses or opportunities, equity is need based. The way I think of it is this – equality is about the power holder, divvying up resources equally. Equity is about the need. This distinction shifts the power relationship from those who have to those who need.  

As a society, as social justice workers, those of us concerned with social justice, have to decide what type of world we desire to live in. Do we want a world of equality, assimilation, and diversity? Or would we rather have a world of equity, pluralism, and inclusion? If we want the latter, we have an obligation to name it. It will admittedly require a greater level of work and commitment as we will then be charged with holding institutions and societies accountable. But this is the work and it is revolutionary.  

Atop A Looming Elephant

An Elephant in the Room: idiom: an obvious problem or difficult situation that people do not want to talk about.

On June 7, 1998 James Byrd Jr. accepted a ride from three men, Shawn Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer, and John King, in Jasper Texas. One of the men, Shawn Berry, was familiar to Mr. Byrd, as they knew each other from town. It is likely that Mr. Byrd knew the other men as well, or had, at the very least, seen them, as the population of Jasper, Texas was far less than 10,000 persons. Brewer and King, however, were known “white supremacists.” Byrd accepted a ride from the three men, although it is unknown to where or for what purpose. The three men drove Mr. Byrd to a remote road, beat him, and subsequently chained his ankles to the back of a pickup truck, dragging him along an asphalt road for three miles. He was conscious for the entire ordeal until his head and arm were severed. The murderers continued to drive his headless body for an additional mile until they dumped his body as a segregated African American cemetery in town. His only offence was being black and accepting a ride from these men that night. The murderers, either knowingly or unknowingly, left evidence of the murder along the road; a lighter with a name on it, a wrench with initials on it, and a few other items. They were unmoved, driving to a barbeque after murdering a man who’d done no wrong, committed no crime, had caused no offense save being black in Texas.

This terrible occurrence was a reminder to some of most horrific public lynchings in the United States, including one that occurred in October 1934 in Greenwood, Florida. On October 18, 1934, Claude Neal was tortured, castrated, and hung after being accused of the rape and murder of a young white girl in Greenwood. Whether or not he committed the crime is unknown. And while heinous, Neal was not alone in his victimization. Years later, fourteen-year-old Emmitt Till was accused of speaking to and “disrespecting” Carolyn Bryant, a white woman in Mississippi. Till was mutilated, shot, and dumped in a river in 1955. Sadly, Bryant admitted in 2008 that her accusation was fabricated. Nevertheless, the men who murdered Till, Bryant’s abusive husband included, were acquitted of murder in September of 1955. These three examples do not serve as outliers, but instead are exemplars. It must be noted that more than 4,000 African Americans were lynched between 1877 and 1950. And while we rarely use those terms to describe the current model of racialized violence the feelings and purpose is still the same. The constant loop of the murders of people like Oscar Grant (2009), Trayvon Martin (2012), Eric Garner (2014), Philando Castille (2016), Laquan McDonald (2014), Rekia Boyd (2012), Sandra Bland (2015), and too many others to name since the end of reconstruction, all serve as modern examples of racialized violence. The role of lynching and racial violence cannot be ignored nor denied in the American consciousness, as they were used, and arguably are still used, to instill fear and maintain a sense of stability of the racial order. They were not used as a means of obtaining some sort of justice as much as they were used to remind individuals of their place. The racial violence that African Americans have always endured in the United States has rooted in the ideology of and is weaved into the very fabric of the nation.

And while our collective consciousness become focused on these events when they happen and gain national attention, and maybe for a few weeks beyond, we seemingly have a short national attention span. The ability to see how all of this is linked from century to century and generation to generation seems to be missed. And when these occurrences happen, the conversation centers around, “how can this happen? Why are things getting worse?”  rather than, “What are the similarities?” and “how does this continue to happen?” Indeed, I’ve frequently asked myself, “How is Emmitt different than Trayvon?” However, the questions of similarities and legacy is washed away as something else catches our attention and we go back through the same cycle. The similarities and legacy looms like the elephant in the room.

We sometimes make mention of discrimination, racism, murder as though it is the elephant in the room. However, it goes far beyond that. And while it may indeed be true that racism, discrimination, and systemic oppression operates like the elephant, these are simply the outcomes and not the vehicle through which the society maintains homeostasis. These outcomes are not what keeps the society and the systems of oppression afloat. Which means that much of our attention is focused on the outcome and symptoms rather than the root cause. How silly would it be to hear the squeaky brakes in our cars and complain that the sound only happens because the volume on our stereo does not go high enough? In the same way, how silly is it to see these events and complain that it is only because “the white supremist” has been given a voice, as though they are not simply a symptom of a larger machine.   

What is this beast? And how is it so invisible? The beast is White Supremacy. It is time that we acknowledge that we do indeed ride on its back and that it is not a fringe movement. White supremacy is embedded into the very fabric of the nation; indeed, it is a tie that binds, that allows for social solidarity. But we rarely discuss white supremacy in this way because it has, in large part, been rendered invisible; not ignored, like the elephant in the room, but rendered invisible. It reminds me of a take on the popular Febreeze commercial, “America has a gotten used to the smell of racism and White Supremacy. Yep. America has gone nose blind. Social scientists need to stage an intervention.”  To be fair, it isn’t invisible, it isn’t without odor, but rather, again, we ride on the back of the beast. The beast of White Supremacy is the vehicle for educational disparities, academic gatekeeping, economic and occupational injustice, environmental injustice, political injustice, and gendered violence. We ride atop the looming beast, the elephant that fits in no room. It has carried us from century to century, from generation to generation. We are only subconsciously aware of the beast, acknowledging the beast only when it defecates, and the stench makes us take notice. Once we no longer smell it, we continue to ride. The march that occurred in Charlottesville in 2017 was such a dump. As was James Byrd, Jr. As were Freddie Grey and Trayvon Martin. Then and only then do we mention the beast upon which we ride. We do not, however, climb from its back; but instead become habituated and nose blind to the stench, and the beast continues to march on.

In the fall of 2017, a march was held in Charlottesville, North Carolina. It was billed as the “Unite the Right” rally, with the stated goal of protesting the removal of the statue of Robert E. Lee in a public park. Protesters included self-identified and self-proclaimed white supremacists, white nationalists, Neo-Nazis, and Neo Confederate and white militia groups. The marchers carried with them both political signs ins support of Donald Trump, as well as other nativist signs. They also carried rifles and confederate battle flags. The response by those in media as well as lay people, was to suggest that these were “white supremist groups” and individuals, emboldened by the perceived shift in the political climate.

This labeling was not a new phenomenon. In fact, this tends to be the trend; public displays of white supremacy are met with shock and surprise, as members of the groups who wear these labels proudly do so publicly. What is missing, however, in these discussions is how frequently these discussions happen. We act as though these are isolated events, individual occurrences, and not woven into the very fabric of the nation. These public displays of white supremacy are so much a part of the history of the United States that we cannot pinpoint a period of time in which these occurrences, this physical and legal violence against Black Americans, did not occur.

I remember just as the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally was happening, individuals who I follow on social media began to say things such as, “this is not America.” Given what I know of history, I was surprised by the incredibly ahistorical nature of such statements. This WAS and IS America. Denying that history and present offers a color-blind approach that is only possible BECAUSE we ride atop the looming beast; meaning, there is no elephant in the room that we ignore. This ahistorical analysis is only possible because we ride atop it’s back. In other words, it is not that we are ignoring the DISCOMFORT, avoiding a difficult conversation, crowded out by the elephant in the room. It is that we are comfortable within the vehicle, until it reminds us that the vehicle is a wild beast.  

As we become aware of this beast, it is imperative that we decide as a society to change vehicles. It is imperative that we climb down from its back. It is imperative that when modern lynchings and public displays of racialized violence occurs that we call it by its name – not an isolated fringe group of white supremacists, but rather examples of how present White Supremacy is an institution within the society. We will only have racial equity and parity when THAT conversation happens. Otherwise, will be forever discussion the symptoms and not the cause.

Please Don't Tolerate Me

I'm dating now and it's a great relationship. He tolerates me. Well, tolerates me about as much as I tolerate my children. I sure hope they are grateful.

 

What feelings might be invoked while reading the above statement? Pity? Disgust? “What-kind-of-parent-tolerates-their-kid” feelings? Are you wondering what kind of parent simply tolerates their children, or what kind of person would remain in a relationship in which they are tolerated and not valued? Are you thinking, "Wow. You and your children deserve better." I think about how it sounds to change the scenario every time I hear people advancing an argument for tolerance for members of our society who experience marginalization.

When I speak, in general, my audience tends to be people who describe themselves as progressive. However, sometimes in these conversations with self-described Progressives, the conversation turns to hopes of tolerance. I’ll be honest. It sometimes catches me off guard. Language always matters, and I, within my world of privilege sometimes and a lack of privilege at other times, never want to be “tolerated.”

There has historically been an emphasis of tolerance with the word often being used as a tag line, something to be taught. But when we consider what it means and personalize it to ourselves and personal relationships, it is clear that “tolerance” simply does not go far enough with creating a just world.

Another way of thinking about this is to consider tolerating pain. Indeed, the experiences of marginalization and disadvantage are painful, as debilitating as physical pain. One statement that I frequently make in trainings is, "we tolerate a toothache. Maybe. But, I tell you, if I have a toothache, I am committed to getting rid of it." In the same vein, I don't expect my partner to tolerate me but to be committed to me. If I only tolerated my children, they would have far fewer tools at their disposal. I am committed to ensuring that they have access to all the social, economic, and emotional capital that I have at my disposal. That’s not tolerance. That is commitment.

Consider this: how do we feel when we know that we are being tolerated? Indeed, we can FEEL when we are tolerated and not valued - when there is no commitment. It has an impact on our esteem, an impact on our ability to use our voice, even an impact on our posture. When we are valued and held in high regard, it literally effects the way we hold our bodies. Take for example research on implicit bias and stereotype threat. Stereotype threat is the “immediate and situational predicament” in which people are, or feel themselves to be, at risk of conforming to stereotypes about their social group (Steele and Aronson, 1995). The impact of the stereotype threat on learning and performance is visceral and powerful, as stereotype threats and stereotype vulnerability have been shown to drive down performance on standardized tests and other tasks when students perceive negative stereotypes to be present. The original explanation was this: when experiencing the stress of present negative stereotypes, students become anxious. That anxiety then has an impact on and decreases the performance of the working memory (Steele and Aronson, 1995). The working memory, or the part of the memory that is concerned with immediate conscious perceptual and linguistic processing, is a necessary part of the learning process. Stress can diminish the capacity of the working memory, as attention is focused on the stressor. In this context, the stressor is the awareness of an existing prejudgment. It is necessary for information to be held temporarily in the working, or short-term memory. If the short term and working memories are impaired, it never moves over to the long-term memory, where learned material is retained. Therefore, regardless of the ability of the student, performance is tied to the social context. Additionally, if students perceive discrimination of a marginalized group of which they are a member, their ability to perform declines. Reminding students of their marginalized status within the social context compounds the issue and drives down the performances even more. 

Even as this is the case, it is not likely that teachers are intentionally responding to students in a way to demonstrate (purposely) their biases. A good number of the teachers are practicing tolerance and see themselves as good, kind hearted, saviors of some sort. Nevertheless, they are not committed to ensuring the success of these students, who are well aware of the institutional biases that exist within the classroom. And even as they are aware, an emphasis on tolerance denies those same students a voice in that systemically marginalizing space. Implicit biases are unaffected by tolerance and students are well aware. This is a clear demonstration of how “tolerance” can impact performance.

When we advocate for tolerance we absolve those with privilege of doing the work to ensure equity. When we advocate for tolerance we say that we tolerate difference rather than see value in it. This maintains a structure of inequity as those with the privilege and power to make systemic changes are absolved of any responsibility to DO anything. At the same time, we know from extensive research that celebrating and acknowledging difference in the classroom and in the workplace leads to more productivity, creativity, and increased performance, as all voices are heard. In our communities, recognizing and acknowledging difference decreases fear of “the other” rather than increasing it.  

To be fair, I myself am not exempt. I recognize that I have privilege - I am able bodied, I am cisgendered, I identify as heterosexual. With these privileges, I have a responsibility to advocate WITH and work alongside those who are marginalized by these demographic categories. I don't simply tolerate. I work to learn. I listen. I acknowledge that I do not know and that I have not arrived at the end of my journey in Allyship, or the Good Ship Ally, as I like to call it. And with every opportunity, I work.

We don’t tolerate our loved ones. We are committed to their success and their survival. Tolerance of our loved one denotes annoyance, a feeling of "if I must..." Similarly, we don't tolerate toothaches... we could, but that's painful. The pain of disadvantage and marginalization is not a malady of those who are marginalized, but it is a malady affecting the entire society. We have several toothaches in need of repair. Why tolerate a toothache when we can be committed to getting rid of it? And not with bandaid solution. But instead. Let's get to the root of it. 

Please don’t tolerate me. Be committed to building a more equitable world for us all.

The Impact of Stereotype Threat, Implicit Bias, and Microaggressions on Student Outcomes

"The learning process is an active one. As an active process, what happens in the classroom, or rather, the social context, shapes what is learned, retained, as well as performances on academic tasks. If learning is impacted by the social context, then prejudgments, stereotypes, and behaviors of the instructor, whether conscious or unconscious, implicit or explicit, will have an impact on the student outcomes."

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Unpacking Boxes

One task that I find simultaneously exciting and dreadful is moving. In full disclosure, I intend to engage in this activity fairly soon, and while I look forward to being in a new space with great anticipation, the process is a grueling one that I do not anticipate. The idea of being surrounded by clutter is not appealing, the process of unpacking is quite literally a painful one, and yet the idea of progress is necessary and exhilarating. And so, we move. We unpack. We hurt our backs with the heavy lifting. We stretch ourselves beyond what is usually comfortable. Once unpacked, treasures are found, things are in its rightful place, and there is comfort. There is also a feeling of accomplishment and awe at the beauty and clarity to be found. We stand in a once packed and cluttered space, where there was barely any room to move around without bumping a shin or a hip or stubbing a toe, now in a room that is clear and well put together.

As a sociologist and public speaker, I frequently use language that illustrates movement toward equality. One phrase that I frequently use is, “Let’s unpack this.” Most often, what I mean when I say this is, “Let’s consider the deeper meaning here. Let’s make the invisible visible.” Indeed, when things are in boxes, while we have an awareness that they are there, they are invisible. Unpacking makes those treasures (and sometimes the rubbish) visible and we are able to do with it what we will.

A few months ago, I was in a training discussing equity and diversity and some individuals were visibly and audibly uncomfortable. There were groans and eye rolls, and one individual said to me that talking about such issues was divisive, as he leaned back, arms folded with a scowl on his face. There was resistance, and avoidance of eye contact, and anger. It occurred to me that these faces, these sighs, these groans are the same reactions to moving and unpacking. It occurred to me that this is exactly what literal moving and progress looks like in the early stages. I was reminded of how powerful this connection was for me. The use of that language, unpacking, had real significance in this context of social justice and equity. What I wanted to do in my training was encourage participants to change or, at the very least, consider their address, and acknowledge the existence of the boxes. It was their choice to either unpack the boxes that they had piled in their current address, or move to a more comfortable space, unpacked and with freedom of movement. In that moment, I was legitimately reminded of the relationship between the discomfort and moving and the discomfort of moving forward, both happening on a psychological and physical level. Progress is never comfortable.

Imagine being in a new room in your new, spacious home. This room is filled to the brim with boxes. After all, you have just removed everything from one home to another, and so our room is filled to the brim of all of the things that we have had for years. In a literal sense, we might have trinkets, or gifts from our mothers, or books from our educational experiences, or things that we have collected as we have experienced life. But these are the same items in our figurative boxes; things like knowledge and belief systems gained from our families, ideas from our educational experiences, personal experiences that we may sometimes generalize and hold on to for sentimental value and safe keeping.  But, whether we mean this in a literal sense or figurative sense, the room is filled to the brim with boxes, and the boxes are labeled; “kitchen,” “living room,” “bedroom 1,” “bedroom 2”… or boxes labeled, “race,” “gender,” “sexuality,” “religion,” “social class,” “ability/disability,” – just a room full of boxes. Unpacking these boxes is not fun, but I must assure you that it is necessary. Can you imagine moving into a new home and never unpacking the boxes labeled, “kitchen”? No plates, no glasses, no cutlery, no dish rags, no cooking utensils, no pots or pans. Just a box in a room that we refuse to touch.

Sadly, a good many of us have learned to move within and navigate our spaces without ever unpacking the boxes. We sometimes never even acknowledge that they are there. Meanwhile, we have the tools available to handle real life situations if we would simply unpack the box. In a figurative sense, we might even suggest, “Yes, these are my boxes filled with my beliefs, stereotypes, experiences, and things I just ‘know.’ Yes, I know I probably could unpack them, but this is just the way my home is set up. I don’t WANT to unpack them, because that would make me uncomfortable temporarily. So, no. Leave me and my boxes alone.”

For some of us, however, we are afraid of opening our boxes for fear of what belongs to us. Some of our belongings are painful to look at. We fear that if exposed, we must admit that some things that we hold on to is rubbish or not socially acceptable. So rather than opening the box, rather than discussing, we keep the boxes tightly sealed; sometimes for the fear of embarrassment of socially unacceptable beliefs, or sometimes because those things are so painful to admit that we even attempt to hide them from ourselves.

Indeed, we must feel safe to open our boxes. There is a need for self-preservation that sometimes prevents us from progress; as stated, progress is painful. We need to be sure that the people that we share the contents of our boxes with will be allies and will hold our belongings gently, with care, and safekeeping. When in trainings and classes, I recognize that often people will share with tablemates or in private rather than unpacking before an entire group. That version of unpacking is valid, and it is valuable, and is in keeping with the theme of self-preservation. We don’t want people to mock our belongings, from the old, tattered things that we’ve carried with us all our lives, to the random knick knacks that we have picked up along the way, to the newer things that we just grab on impulse without considering the implications. All of these things are in boxes and we must feel safe to unpack them.

Nevertheless, progress demands that we push through the discomfort of unpacking. Undeniably, moving from one space to another comes with some reservation (“Maybe I shouldn’t unpack this…”), regret (“I should have just stayed in my old, cramped, studio apartment…I should have just left these things in boxes because now, look at all of the work I need to do…”), some guilt (“Why do I do such things to myself? I really don’t need this much space…”). And yet, we have moved and cannot be fully comfortable, nor fulfilled while the boxes are packed. We cannot navigate our homes freely with literal boxes stacked, nor can we navigate the world freely with our figurative boxes packed. We either tiptoe around gingerly while still bumping things, or we must remain in one place to avoid being bruised.

But imagine the freedom of having things in their appropriate place. The freedom that comes with having cutlery and pans in the kitchen at our disposal, and the freedom of getting rid of long held stereotypes to have a larger and useful social network, personal relationships, and workplace productivity. Imagine unpacking the figurative boxes to become allies to members of marginalized groups and changing our world. Simply imagine the freedom.

To be quite clear, however, this is not to say that once we are unpacked that we will be completely comfortable. We have not yet arrived. There may be times that we must readjust or move things around. There may be times when we need to shine things up, and dust, and clean pots and pans that we have dirtied. We may have to acknowledge that some of the things that we brought with us into our new space is rubbish, it doesn't fit the decor, and is better left in the dumpster. Some ideas and stereotypes, some of our belongings, we simply must do away with. Others items might need to be replaced, or at the very least, re-tuned, to fit. And unfortunately, sometimes we may even need to move again to a brighter, even more spacious space.

But that’s just it. We cannot work with the things we own until we unpack them. What this means in a figurative sense is that we cannot confront the -isms until we “unpack them” and make them visible. Then, we can be free to navigate the world without consistent bumps and bruises. It is freeing. It is equity. It is allyship.

Now, in the words of the great John Lennon, “You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday that you will join us. And the world will be as one.”

Let’s unpack. I’m ready to help.

 

 

Traditional Knowledge as a Barrier to Advocacy; Moving beyond the barriers to address the Color Line

I teach courses in the social sciences. In these courses we spend the first few sessions discussing how we conduct scientific research and how we come by that thing that we call "knowledge." There are a few basis of knowledge:

·         traditional knowledge - things that we know because it's always been a certain way

·         knowledge based on authority – things that we know based on what someone told us

·         fact based knowledge – things that we know because it is fact based and based on empirical evidence.

To explain the difference, I frequently offer up this example:

A young man was cooking Sunday dinner. His mother had recently passed and it was her tradition and her mother's before her to cook a meal for her family every Sunday. This young man wanted to keep the tradition alive. He invited his siblings, and aunts, and uncles, and nieces and nephews to enjoy this soul food dinner made from scratch - and love. So he went to work; Cornish hens, dressing, sweet potatoes, baked macaroni and cheese, cornbread, speckled butter beans and crowder peas had the entire home smelling like a southern heaven. As he cooked, however, one of his older relatives walked into the kitchen and observed him sawing off exactly one inch of a ham bone. As he struggled, she scoffed, "why are you doing that, son?" He proudly looked up, "well, auntie! I'm making big mama's recipe for these beans. Didn't you know? She'd always cut off one inch of the ham bone. One inch. That way, the juices from the bone flows right in and flavors these beans just right! Just you wait, Auntie!" His aunt chuckled, "boy! Who taught you that?" He replied proudly, "this is how mama did it! And big mama taught her!" His aunt shook her head, "son! Big Mama did it that way because she only has one pot! She cut the bone because it would not otherwise fit into the pot. The juice is flowing no differently!"

All this while, for two generations, family members were engaging in an action based on traditional knowledge, when the action was actually rooted in a historical need. How much of our actions around race, genders, sexualities and orientations, religions, age, and other such classifiers rooted in traditional and authority rather than on fact based evidence? How does that shape our relationships with power? How does it inform our agency and ability to act in a fair, objective manner?

In this work I spend a great deal of time thinking about, researching, and discussing forms of institutional discrimination, institutional racism, and institutional sexism. All of these discussions are rooted in history and a legacy of discrimination. In one class, several years ago, as I discussed gender, a young student became visibly agitated. Unable to hold it anymore, he blurted out, "But why change it? It’s been like this forever! Sure, it’s not perfect, but what is?!" My challenge to him was this, "but don’t we have a responsibility to make something better once we recognize the imperfections?"

 It's just that simple really. What if we move beyond traditional knowledge and traditional ways of doing things? What if we move beyond traditional ways of treating others? What if we start acknowledging that we recognize differences in race, ethnicity, class, gender? What if we stop saying I don’t see race, but instead say, "I see you and recognize a difference in lived experience, but can still value that experience." In truth, once we can acknowledge that we recognize difference, what would it look like if we began to discuss institutional inclusion? Institutional commitment to having all voices heard? Institutional commitment to engaging in conversation? Institutional commitment to agency? I'm a fan of flipping it- a fan of speaking from a strength based, agency centered approach. This is empowerment.

In 1903 Dubois wrote about the problem of the color line – America’s race problem. In his writings, he suggested that racial problems in America did not belong to the powerless, but instead rested with those who have power. For DuBois then, the problem of the color line belonged to white Americans who benefited from centuries of legal and ideological separation and the servitude of people of color.  Frequently, when we speak of institutional discrimination, we suggest that those with power lack agency to change institutions. In other words, we suggest that the problem of the color line belongs to people of color, and that white Americans cannot fully engage in the conversation of change. That is false. It is not that people with power cannot change the institutions that foster oppression. Instead, we absolve those with power of the responsibility to change oppressive institutions. It is my belief that those with power begin to see themselves as powerless to change systems that have been rooted in traditional oppression for centuries when we hold discussions of power and privilege that do not provide for a path forward – a path to advocacy and allyship. I hear it often as I discuss privilege. Students, whose race happen to be white, voice such objections as, “But it’s not my fault,” or “discussions of race make me feel guilty,” or, “but we can’t change history, so let’s just move past it!” Systems of oppression can make those on both sides of the color line feel powerless even as the function of oppressive institutions is to create a power imbalance in favor of one group over another. However, the focus and approach of discussions about oppression and power should be strength and empowerment based, recognizing that:

1.  While racial categories are social, the consequences of the color line are real;

2.  Relying on historical divisions as a base of knowledge is misleading, and frequently renders members of the society powerless;

3.  This approach absolves those who have benefited from systems of oppression of any responsibly to act as advocates and allies in the present;

4.  Shifting the conversation would empower those who experience guilt of the past to move beyond it to an action phase.

For me, that is the ultimate goal. How do we use knowledge to move beyond the current space? What is clear is that the current approach to addressing discrimination does not seem to be effective. Therefore, my challenge is that we change the approach. I urge that we have conversations about the ways in which history brought us to where we are today, the ways in which history and tradition built systems of oppression, and the ways in which research, science, and dialogue can help us to improve and see the color line differently. Maybe then, we won’t spend so much time sawing at the ham-bone because we will be enjoying the richness of our company.