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.