All God's Children Have Wings

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 29 2014

Leaning In

So, Thursday night I participated in a Diversity Call as part of an onboarding activity for TFA Oklahoma. In the days leading up to the call, I was voraciously trying to soak up as much of the pre-work related to the call as possible. Additionally, I was searching for outside information and references. I wanted to be on it! I continuously thought about how I might be able to add what I had previously and was currently learning about race in my classes to the conversation. At Spelman College, my soon to be alma mater (woo-hoo for the SENIORS!), conversations about race are infused into seemingly every aspect of the various curricula, so there is never a shortage of information and experiences to pull from. In one sense, I knew that my time spent at a historically black women’s college had filled me with information on issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality in America and worldwide. I knew that Spelman had cloaked me with a confidence to speak openly about these issues and being an English major provided with me a language with which to do so.

However, this was only one side of the story. Conversely, I was terrified of the call. (Prepare for a stream of consciousness :) 3…2…1…) I thought, “Darilynn, yes you are well versed on the issues and the scholarship surrounding various theories about these issues. Yes, as a Black woman, you have personal experience to add to the book knowledge you’ve gleaned. Yes, you have your peers’ experiences to pull from. And yes, you have professors who know their material like nobody’s business, many of whom also identify as black and are able to connect their personal experiences to class discussions as well. But you’re not an expert (It takes years to become one and even then, experts, if they’re smart, are always in a process of learning, growing and changing their minds). There’s so much that you don’t know and you probably don’t even know that you don’t know it. What can you learn from this call? How can you go with an open mind and be willing to receive as much or more than you’re trying to offer? Don’t be haughty Darilynn. Don’t assume that you have something to teach your fellow corps members. Be willing to teach them, but don’t assume you have the answers, or that you know it all, or that they don’t have their own knowledge to bring to the table.” At the same time, I grappled with the knowledge that there would be participants who “just didn’t get it.” There would be participants who had never openly discussed race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. I knew that there would potentially be white people on the call that were uncomfortable talking about race and, if asked to, would be sure to talk about race in the most diplomatic and politically correct manner. I knew that there would potentially be participants of various races who would want to tread softly throughout the conversation for fear of “saying the wrong thing” (understandably so).

So to say the least, I was stuck, torn between two minds and not really having a clear plan for negotiating that confusion. But really, you might say I was of four minds, because at the same time that I was having the above internal conflict, I was having a battle with myself that I’ve had since I was made aware that I was black. It was the age-old battle of my two-ness, my double consciousness, as Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois terms it. It’s the age-old battle that black Americans and, arguably, any black person who has lived alongside peers of European decent has had for centuries. In 1903 Dr. Du Bois published his sociological text, The Souls of Black Folk. In it, Dr. Du Bois discusses “the problem of the color line.”  In the first chapter, he introduces the concept and phrasing double-consciousness. This notion of double-consciousness is fundamental in discussions of black Americans and is often one of the first phrases you’ll hear in any academic course that deals with critical race theory.  According to Du Bois:

“[The] Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Now, I’m a talkative person, in written and verbal communication; I always have a lot to say. But, I actually want people to receive my thoughts and feelings in this post, so for the sake of time, I won’t put my English cap on to fully unpack Du Bois’s above statement. Still, I do want to focus on this notion of double consciousness, because while I know for a fact it is a common experience in the black community, I suspect that members of various minority groups either regularly or at some point experience this “two-ness.” Moreover, as teachers who hopefully are looking to develop a social justice approach to education, understanding this concept, regardless of your race, is pivotal, I think, to understanding, interacting with, and empathizing with your students (Excuse all of the commas. I’m writing the way I speak while still trying to maintain some semblance of correct grammar and punctuation lol).

In any event, what Du Bois references is the pervasive notion that black Americans haven’t been fully integrated into the American consciousness—into the idea of being American. America as an institution often offers limited or sensationalized images of black women and men in the media. Black Americans appear in significantly smaller numbers in Corporate America, are underrepresented or caricatured on many college campuses (I, Too, Am Harvard), or are missing from media and advertisement, except to meet a quota or to stereotype for entertainment purposes. What Du Bois is referencing is the feeling I have even as I type this post. I’m aware that, for my community, it is important that I speak up about these issues. I’m comfortable when I think about the people who will get it—who know what I’m talking about without me having to explain. I’m comfortable thinking about black men and women who will know because they live with double-consciousness everyday. At the same time, I worry about how white Americans (especially white corps members) will perceive what I’m saying. I’m not just concerned about differing opinions or about offending people to the point that they shut me out. Those are real concerns but I’m speaking about concerns much deeper than that. I’m worried that I will sound like an Angry Black Woman (Dr. Carolyn West explains Sapphire begin reading at paragraph 2 of the “Sapphire” section if you’re short on time, although the whole document will give you more to pull from when in the classroom in my opinion).  I don’t want to be viewed as a caricature. I don’t want to be tuned out because “I’m too sensitive.” I don’t want to hear “Why are you so angry?” I’m paying careful attention not to use too many colloquialisms or too much of the black vernacular language structure so that I’m not perceived as sounding uneducated and, as a result, unworthy of being heard (Not that the black vernacular necessarily indicates lack education, a person’s class position, their intellectual value, or simply the validity of their humanity. Linguists have determined that black vernacular has as many complexities as any other language structure. My point is that BV is often falsely characterized as being synonymous with ignorance, naïveté, poverty, etc. I love BV and use it all the time in the presence of family and friends.). These thoughts aren’t uncommon and aren’t limited to me as one black individual. Can you imagine this slew of thoughts coloring a large portion of your life, dictating many of your public expressions and behaviors, living (like a sentient being) at the back of your mind? If you can’t, let me tell you it can be exhausting! I’d liken it to a muted version of that feeling you get in your chest and throat when you’re crying and trying desperately to stop yourself and hold it in. Don’t you hate that feeling? Yea, so do I.

After processing your thoughts and feelings about the aforementioned information, you may be thinking, “How does all of that connect to the diversity call? What made you bring all this up?” Good questions! Well, after having this myriad of thoughts tumble around in my head, the day of the call arrived. We logged on, exchanged greetings, talked about tips for expressing our opinions, were told to stay open minded and then…asked to share out thoughts or ask questions about Paul Kivel’s book Uprooting Racism. Admittedly, I haven’t gotten through the entire book, but I’m slowly plugging away and what I have read, for the most part, I like. What I like most about Kivel’s book is the honest and straightforward approach he has to talking about racism (cue the happy music!). At the beginning of the call, someone made a comment to the effect that they had never openly talked about race until they either got to college or began working for TFA (I can’t remember which at the moment). Either way, that’s at least 17 years without a conversation about race. I immediately thought about my life and the lives of so many other black and minority children who had in some way talked about or had heard conversations about race and/or ethnicity since they were small children. But I can’t say that I was surprised.

Throughout my life I’ve seen people, especially white people, tense up during conversations about race. I’ve seen peers and adults struggle to ensure that they use politically correct phrases (this is not necessarily a bad thing, please don’t misunderstand me). I’ve seen adults tell children that a question about race or even a racist remark is “not nice” and leave it at that. I’ve seen teachers attempt to grapple with race by saying, “I doubt so and so meant to (insert intention here).” Or, “So and so, please apologize.” Or, “So and so, how would you feel if Darilynn said or did X, Y, or Z?” I’ve heard on numerous occasions white people reference the oppression, prejudice, or racism they feel at the hands of non-white peoples. “White people experience racism too!” I’ve heard, “I have (insert racial/ethnic minority here) friends,” “I don’t see color,” “I agree racism still exists, but it’s not so bad now,” “I don’t care what color you are,” “My ancestors were oppressed too,” “Why are you so upset about this?” “It was just a joke,” “Well, my (insert racial/ethnic minority here) friend lets me say this or thinks it’s funny. So why can’t I say it/make this joke too?” (I was going to give a response to each of these quotes but I’m already pushing it with length. But, I have to say something about this particular phrase and way of thinking. Basically my response to that would be, “Who died and made your friend of whatever racial/ethnic minority the expert or authority on that races issues? Who determined them as the voice or the spokesperson of all things (insert racial/ethnic minority here)? And finally, what makes you think that all people of said minority think that way? How do you know that your friend doesn’t feel comfortable to make those jokes or use those words because their mindset is of the minority in said racial/ethnic group?) I hear, “You know I didn’t mean it like that,” “You’re reading too much into it,” “Relax, chill, calm down (hence my concern about Angry Black Woman trope),” “That stuff happened in the past” etc, etc, etc. Admittedly, the first thing I want to do when I hear any of the above statements is reply with a pointed black face -__-, followed by a direct, “Really?” or “Are you serious?!” or “You’re joking right?” But what would that solve? Although my feelings of anger, frustration, and weariness are justified and natural, the above expressions of those feelings do nothing to teach or explain to my offenders. These emotions, if I can’t transcend and translate them into productive action have little impact.

I hear ya, “Darilynnnnnn, get to the point alreadyyyyy!!!” Okay, so what this has to do with the Diversity Call is a sentiment expressed by one of my fellow corps members and shared by some of the other participants on the call. In his book, Paul Kivel talks about responding when someone makes a racist joke. He also talks about the ways an offender may attempt to defend their joke and how to respond. My fellow corps member took issue with the response in this scenario:

Is this some kind of thought patrol? “No, people can think whatever they want to. But we are responsible for what we say in public. A verbal attack is like any other kind of attack; it hurts the person attacked. Unless you intentionally want to hurt someone, you should not tell jokes or stories like this.”

Although she believed that something should be said in the moment when racist jokes are made, my colleague felt that Kivel’s suggested approach was too harsh. I spoke up in opposition to the idea that Kivel’s phrasing was too harsh. But as I heard myself speak, I realized I wasn’t articulating my point well. I heard myself stumble over words. I heard myself grapple with how to fit an array of theories into a few simple sentences so that I didn’t dominate the conversation. I heard myself talking in circles. I heard the verbal manifestation of my internal conflict with my double-consciousness. In short, I knew that the whole of my point wasn’t made, hence, this post. She then asked for suggestions about other ways to go about calling someone on a bad joke. I like her, she’s persistent and I could tell that she was trying to work through this. A few suggestions were made. One person suggested asking if the joker thought that all people of the particular group exhibited traits or behaviors of which they were using for their joke. Another suggestion (I think…two days later and things get fuzzy) was made to make a joke in return that pointed out the person’s fault (I’m assuming the use of sarcasm). Another person suggested that the offender be pulled to the side and addressed about their remarks.

Now, I understand some of what may be troubling my peers in this sense. It is not easy to be the person who potentially disrupts the light mood. It’s not easy to put yourself in the position to be received as a person who doesn’t like or defend the members of his or her own race. It’s not easy to speak up when you don’t feel something is right but don’t have the exact words to articulate why. It’s not easy to put yourself in the position to be attacked. It is not easy to choose to be vulnerable, to be a victim. I get that. But believe me when I tell you, if you’re feeling all those feelings, black people can certainly identify and empathize with those fears. We often don’t have a choice about being a victim. I like Kivel’s response to these very valid fears: “…remember that no matter how unsafe it is for you, it’s even more unsafe for people of color.” I understand not wanting to take such a direct approach to addressing racist jokes and comments, but my fear of not doing so is that someone can misunderstand your point if you don’t speak in clear and direct terms. There is nothing light hearted about racism in any form, especially for the victim, so in your response, don’t make light of it. There’s nothing funny about racism, so don’t attempt to combat it with other forms of humor. Racism doesn’t tread lightly; it leaves clear and damaging footprints. So don’t tread lightly in your response to it. You don’t have to meet people with aggression or insults, but it is important to meet racism head on because racism, not matter what covert form it comes in, doesn’t gently offend, harm, or traumatize. For me, Kivel’s comments weren’t harsh. They were direct. His comments eliminated, or at least minimized, a person’s potential to craft a valid defense for themselves. His approach acknowledge a person’s right to feel and speak as they please. But, it also demanded, respectfully, that the person take responsibility for their comment and consider the consequences of their words. His approach acknowledged the impact of those harmful comments and asked the offender to do the same. Kivel’s approach ensures that the offender and everyone present will think before speaking the next time they prepare to tell an inappropriate joke. His approach modeled for others present how to handle similar situations. Most importantly, his approach unmistakably offered some assistance for the victims of the joke.

Not dealing with issues of race head on perpetuates the silence around racism and the pain and frustration felt by victims. It prevents all of us, regardless of race, from leading full human lives because we all have to grapple with that discomfort instead of working through it and dispelling it. The work of being an ally against racism isn’t easy. I think I can safely speak for many black people when I say, we don’t expect it be because we know that being a victim against racism isn’t easy. But being an effective ally is not about being fearless it’s about being brave. As an ally, I want you all to be afraid, then you can better empathize with the fear I feel every time I open my mouth in resistance. You can better empathize with the fear I feel with each word I currently type. I want you to work through that fear, to transcend it and transform it into useful action. As we were instructed, lean in to that discomfort and know that if you keep doing so, our students, our world will continuously be better for it.

One Response

  1. Leaning In | Genius Pioneer linked to this post.

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