Friday, June 19, 2020
Everybody Knows – a personal reflection
Everybody knows that hate is wrong. Everybody knows that it’s wrong to exclude and discriminate on the basis of race, gender, disability status, age, and a whole list of characteristics. Everybody knows that limiting another person’s education or employment or financial future shouldn’t happen. Everybody knows that people should always be given fair treatment by the law. Everybody knows. Yet these issues continue as if no one knows.
The overwhelming number of recent statements on injustice from every sector of the society are stultifying. I’ve seen corporate statements and civic statements and celebrity statements. Educational institutions all have published statements, as have sports teams and their leagues. Politicians stumble over themselves to be the loudest voice decrying hatred, racism, and inequitable policies and practices. Everybody wants to show that they’re aligned with what everybody knows. But as I scan the statements, they’re mostly pretty interchangeable. It’s like reading the results from one of those word-column exercises where you select a word from each column to form a sentence. Pick “justice” from column A, “anti-racist” from column B, “deeply committed” from column C, etc., and pretty soon you have a statement that shows that you agree with what everybody knows. The result is a cliché bomb of platitudes that end up saying very little about what will happen to change what exists.
There’s a deeply personal reason why I find these statements dissatisfying. From about the age of 10, I immersed myself in politics and current events to try and understand the world around me. The lynchings, fire hoses, and church bombings in the south that I read about then happened to people like my family and me. The targeted murder and incarceration of justice leaders of color in the north by the federal and state government happened to people like us, too. When I was harassed on the streets by White people or cops, I saw a direct line to what was happening in the news to people just like me. When I faced personal and systemic racism daily in the community of my youth, I knew that I wasn’t alone because the newspapers and TV news gave me daily examples of what others faced, too. The journalists typically didn’t filter it through my lens, but I reframed those stories from my personal experiences to decipher what was happening. I needed the picture of the larger world that the news gave me to make sense of the one I experienced every day. And I learned to believe people’s actions over their words.
As I became an adult, those lessons continued as I was denied jobs because of my brown skin, or I was relegated to less important work by people in organizations where I volunteered or had interactions with people who assumed I am incapable and needed their paternalistic guidance. Underlying all that is often a general feeling of un-safeness in public because I know that the experience doesn’t somehow end magically because someone or some organization publishes a statement of solidarity. Despite what I accomplish, what I dress like, how I talk, or what activities I undertake, I am judged daily by a society and its systems as I negotiate each day. It’s all a blanket that still covers my daily life as a brown-skinned man in American society. Today and every day.
Between what I’ve learned and what I’ve experienced, I have a mental picture of what this nation’s values are and how those values are expressed. That image transcends statements of the moment, and the image lives in the actions I see daily. That picture is not positive, and it’s seared into the neural networks that comprise my memory. So I can’t watch murder porn of another man executed on the streets by police. I can’t watch cell phone video of another privileged White woman calling 911 in attempt to create another incident that puts a man’s life in danger because he challenged her privilege. I can’t read about people who created a fictional account of being assaulted by a Black man in order to cover their own crimes. I’ve been seeing these for most of my life. I don’t need to see what they look like today to be horrified. I already have been. For a lifetime.
I understand people’s recent rage and disgust with a society that allows these events to continue. Actually, that’s a rage and disgust that I’ve held since I arrived in this country at age five and heard someone identify me by derogatory words that were intended to make me less than, or when the local all-White parochial school told my parents that my sister and I would find a better fit in the public system, or when parents in my all-White neighborhood made it clear that their children shouldn’t play with me. I’ve never surrendered those feelings and have channeled my rage and disgust into what I hope is productive action as I’ve spent a lifetime working to make things around me a little better. In my youth, I needed those pictures to remind me I wasn’t alone. Today, I need to rage and be disgusted without seeing more of the reason why in daily news clips because I already understand the ubiquity of the experience. Equally, it’s impossible for me to see manufactured platitudes of support as anything of value – no matter how well-intentioned the source.
If you read this and ask yourself why this sounds angry when you know me and think of me as even tempered and always calm, that’s because you and I may live in two different versions of the world. In my version, expressed anger often has consequences in how people perceive and interact with me. You may see my lack of outward anger as a calmness, but that’s not the case. There are stereotyped perceptions of people who look like me. In my version of the world, when I show the least bit of annoyance, I get quickly categorized and labeled as a menace either to be feared or dismissed. So, over the years, I’ve learned to sublimate anger into positive action. Maybe that’s healthy, and maybe it’s not. Armchair psychology aside, it’s how I’ve been able to navigate to the point where I can have impact, and I can create small changes in my world. I know many other professional men of color who’ve made that choice. It’s how we cope with our experiences. I’m not silent about my ideals, but I rarely show external anger as I express them or make demands for change.
Seems to me that there are two parts to the creation of equity. There’s the awareness part where everyone needs to understand the histories that led to inequities; they need to see the biases that drive inequities; they need to understand who benefits from and who is limited by inequity; they need to understand how inequity shapes the experiences and perceptions of people like me. Whether people are Brown, Black, or White, they need a formal awareness of what all that looks like. However, that seems to be where things end in many groups that are seeking to address inequity. Their thinking appears to be that if people get educated on the issues, they’ll take that knowledge and change the world around them.
That intention to create change through education hasn’t worked for a lot of reasons. Most critical is that change in groups, in communities, in long-standing practices, isn’t easy. A nation that’s held racist and other exclusionary beliefs for 400 years isn’t going to become inclusive because of what it learns – even by watching a horrific murder on television. And a police officer, teacher, doctor, or crossing guard isn’t going to change a lifetime of practices because that person attended a seminar on White privilege. I’ve been an educator for 41 years, and I’ve learned some truths about the work I’ve done. At the top of the list of those truths is that people and systems don’t change solely because of what they learn.
So the second part of addressing equity is about actions. It has to happen concurrently with the first part because the reason for action needs to be built on what we know. However, actions aren’t the result of what we know as much as they are a corollary to what we know. In other words, the knowledge part of addressing equity doesn’t lead to the other. What we know and what we do need to occur together. The Christian Bible describes what this looks like in the Book of James 2:14-17 when it demands correlation between belief and action. Even though this isn’t my faith, truth is truth, and this one is worth citing:
(14) What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? (15) If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? (17) Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
The writer then offers an example from the Old Testament story of Abraham who merged his beliefs and actions. In other words, beliefs and actions have to happen together. “Everybody knows,” but from my life’s perch that knowledge isn’t enough to counter a nation’s values that are expressed in how it has acted to establish explicit and implicit systems and rules which intend to diminish people like me.
So what are people saying when they claim that everybody knows? When someone says, “everybody knows,” that person may not understand that what each person knows gets filtered through the experiences that give us each different perspectives on what we each know. That phrase, as you might guess from what you read here, has little meaning to me. I have a similar reaction when I hear, “we’re all alike.” It’s true that we all have a common physiology, but how we see the world gets shaped by our unique experiences. If you understand that very important idea, then you seek to listen and to understand my experience to see what I know. That’s very different than believing that “everybody knows.”
Because of my experiences, I have a different outlook than many of the people I know from my professional life where there aren’t a lot of folks of color who’ve shared similar experiences. In contrast, many other people of color will see my story as typical; but that’s because we’ve had to live in what Dr. DuBois called the “double consciousness” of understanding both the larger world and our own experience. People in the dominant society haven’t needed to understand our experience for their survival while we need to understand that society’s rules and norms – especially when those rules and norms threaten our existence. As the nation has become more racially and ethnically diverse, and as more of us demand to be seen and heard, the dominant society has now had to start learning about our experiences in order for it to survive. And it has to change its actions, not just its words.
So if you want to respond to me or the events around us, start by asking yourself what you’re going to do besides being angry. Not what you’re going to think or say or write, but what you’re going to do. That’s what I’ll be doing – planning what I’ll do next. If you want to tell me how you decided to act on your anger, contact me personally, and you and I can start a discussion that focuses on our actions. Maybe we can work together on those actions. As you might infer from what I’ve written, I’m only interested in those discussions that are about actions right now. It’s really not enough that everybody knows. If you really know, you act.
But please don’t contact me with questions about what you should do. That’s not my responsibility. If you don’t know what to do, make your first action about educating yourself about who’s doing the work that makes a difference. If you’ve read this essay this far, you clearly care enough to know the experience of one Black man. But there’s more to know beyond just my experience. Learn the history that got us to this point. Learn about power and privilege and the impacts of race. But most importantly, learn about the actions you must concurrently take to generate change. As you learn, you can synchronously engage yourself humbly in that work. Make your action your work as I have made it mine. The most powerful statement that I read recently came in a note from a former student who’s focusing her actions as a real estate professional to promote justice. It’s that commitment to actions in our daily lives that will move us beyond what “everybody knows” and into changes that counter the systemic oppression that now governs our daily interactions.
And if you’re interested in what I’ll be doing about current events, know that there isn’t a new action I’ll be taking because the killing of a Black man by police or the hunting down of another by self-deputized night riders isn’t new to me. Actually, I needed to write these paragraphs partly so that I can internally reaffirm the choices I’ve made in my life – to those actions I’ve already taken and plan to take. In retiring from the educational work that I did in service to justice, I didn’t and can’t retire from my obligations to channel my rage against the oppression I’ve seen and experienced. So I continue to work toward a just world; I continue to support people who need that support; I continue to help build those systems, organizations and institutions that counter oppression; and, yes, I continue to speak and write – but about action built on ideas instead of just the ideas. Consequently, I continue to live a life forged by injustice in ways that build justice. How about you?