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, or things that we know because it's always been a certain way, knowledge based on authority. Or based on what someone told us, and finally, knowledge that is fact based and based on empirical evidence. The example that I always give is this:

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 on institutional discrimination, institutional racism, 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 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 benefitted from centuries 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 hambone because we will be enjoying the richness of our company.