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Monday, January 20, 2014

How Many Worlds Can You Walk In? Happy Birthday Martin Luther King Jr.

My goal today was to write a focused, meaningful and substantive missive in honor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday.  I have racked my brain for a theme --  but I couldn't get my mind settled down to focus.  Too many things trouble me and too many things engage me.  I am a thinking and often distracted consumer trying to make sense of and make peace with how far we have come (or not) with race relations.  If you watch TV you might have mixed reviews.. like I do.  In any case, the difference between TV (media) and real life is reality -- we have a Black President -- Barack Hussein Obama and quite frankly his success, his style, intelligence and presence is driving some people bonkers.  I don't want this missive to be about all the things and I'm grateful for and the many shoulders of blood, sweat and tears that my existence stands upon.  I'm interested in how we can apply Dr. King's work and sacrifice in 2014 and beyond -- so my question is:  How Many Worlds Can You Walk In?  
Google is celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., today too!

I posted on Facebook this morning that I was going to re-read Taylor Branch's trilogy -- the King Era and discovered that his he has a new book:  The King Years:  Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement  in response to educators who wanted something more to use in their classrooms to discuss MLK's legacy etc.  -- but they wanted Taylor Branch's literary work as their tool.  That is pretty cool.

An Old Friend Has Questions and Concerns About Race.

Anyway, I had a long conversation the other day with an older friend and we were talking about race, diversity and inclusion etc.   My quick answers in red.

  • She admitted that certain things bothered her like inter-racial dating. 
    • Why is that? 
  • She wrestled with what race does a bi-racial child choose to call themselves? 
    • Whatever they choose.
  • Is it fair that bi-racial kids from Black and White parents have to call themselves Black -- because of the old one-drop rule?   
    • This is a socially constructed rule which has no relevance to a person's claimed identity. 
  • Why aren't young people more active in issues of race, equity etc?
    • They are very engaged and concerned; they just have a different perspective on life.  We need to make sure they understand the nation's history with race and equity so they understand the impact it has on the present.  I think young people are a generation that cares deeply about social justice.
  • Why are young people of color not actively involved in the community, church or the NAACP?  
    • Antiquated leadership that does not know how to make room for the next generation -- young people feel shut out and not welcome or mentored for future leadership.
  • Is the local NAACP diverse? Why or why not?
    • No. 
  • Is my church diverse?  
    • Not a church goer.
  • How can Obama call himself Black when he is part White?  
    • He can claim whatever race he feels most identifies him.  Race is only the color of his skin -- not the content of his character.  

She admitted that she was turned off by genealogical research that resulted in the knowledge or existence of "white ancestors."  She could never imagine being with a white man and found the the idea of giving birth to a bi-racial child repulsive. She claimed it would a child she could never personally accept.   By the end of our conversation, she admitted to learning to see things a bit differently.  I think that is exactly what Martin Luther King Jr. would challenge us to do today!  We need to keep having these conversations and get over those fences that keep us from taking pathways to other worlds and ways of thinking, being and acting.

Real Honesty -- Admitting to Bias
What I really liked about the conversation was her honesty.  Most people are not willing to admit they have any kind of prejudices or biases.    These are the same folks who say they are not racist until their son or daughter dates someone of a different race or religion.  
These are same folks who drop the “N” word – cause they think they’re you’re down and it’s OK?   For example, I've known people to  say:
“I have this one black friend…” 
"Can I touch your hair?” 
“How come the palms of your hands are white?” 
Among the best comments came from church friends:  “Well my parents would never let me be roommates with a black person."  

Your silence helps your "friend" suddenly realize that they messed up!  They try to bail themselves out with:   “Well, you are not like all other Black people!”  The answers are so rich that your mind just spins trying to reply without throwing a disco-fit (adult temper tantrum).  Check it out…Jay Smooth has the right answer.  

A Nigerian friend recently told me that a man challenged her on the spelling of her surname name.  He asked her several times “…Was she sure” about how to spell her own name and then asked if her name was Asian.   The general rule of thumb is if you don’t know – just keep quiet and try to learn.  It’s like calling Asian people orientals (also a no-no) or asking someone from Africa what kind of tribal music they listen to and the answer is Beyonce as Chimamanda Adiche described her TedTalk: The Danger of a Single Story.   

If you haven't seen the teaching documentary produced by diversity guru Lee Mun Wah called: If These Halls Could Talk -- please challenge yourself. You will get some insight as to what students of color or are different in any way -- experience at campuses across the country. 

Learn About Stereotypes and Why They are Offensive?
When a knowledgeable person of color tells the leaders at a predominately white institution that giving away a sprayed painted Mrs. Butterworth bottle as an AWARD is offensive the answer shouldn’t be –“Well this Black guy told us it was ok.. besides Jessie Jackson went to his dad’s funeral.” The reality is you can be of any color, still be ignorant and full of shit.  It happens all the time. Check out the Jim Crow Museum of racist memorabilia.  Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth are the same image – the latter may have a relaxer and pearls but it’s the same.  The answer to all of these is.. No No no No -- Hell No!  A mammy award for a job well down.. please stop it! 

Generational Differences in Thoughts and Experiences
So back to my discussion with my friend who is nearly 80 and I am 49.  We are a couple of generations apart in age and thinking.   I sensed her trying to disguise her rage by remaining vigilant about equality, resilient in the face of resistance, persistent when many voices shout “you aren’t good enough, not smart and you won’t make it!”  She’s acquired several degrees and professional successes despite Jim Crow's legacy in her lifetime and the endless fights to find her "place" along the way.     

She has survived this nation's onerous separate but equal societal policy that Martin Luther King Jr., lost his life fighting to STOP.   She has survived emotionally, spiritually and physically in ways that a person who did NOT experience Jim Crow would understand or appreciate.  That said, her concerns and point of view intrigued me.   I was born in 1964, so I'm on the end of the baby boomers and the beginning of Gen-X.   I attended a workshop last year on generational diversity that re-shaped my perception of diversity that considers when and where you are born.   I had my listening ears on during our conversation and I was processing her concerns.  She had a lot to say... and it made me think.

My Translation -- Race is Social Construct -- Don't Trip on it. 
There's a lot here to translate, but I'm trying to keep it simple, but first realize that race is a social construct. Please read Ta-Nehisi Coates' Atlantic Monthly piece: What We Mean When We Say Race is a Social Construct. Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He always has very thought-provoking commentaries as does Charles Blow Jr. of the NY Times who covers race, culture and diversity particularly as it portrayed or projected in the media and bundled with politics.

Race doesn't just trip up white people -- it trips up black people -- it trips up everyone. Even Melissa Harris Perry got tripped up poking fun at Governor Mitt Romney because he now has a bi-racial grandchild. I'm happy for Gov. Romney because if he is uncomfortable with race, Blackness etc., -- if he loves that child (which I am sure he does) his learning curve will be quick. I am no fan of his political ideals -- but he's going to get schooled much sooner than he or we think about race. Americans have consumed this tainted pabulum over the ages of deploying a false social construct of making judgments about other human beings based-up about how they look. How dark or light someone's skin appears -- IS an obsession in our culture. Worse yet, we have exported to the planet that beauty is based upon the lightness of your skin and as a result skin-lightening cream is a world-wide multi million dollar business. It just makes me sad and sick.

My response to my friend was that if someone says they are part English and part Scottish -- no one says -- "You have to chose one or the other!" If you are part Russian and Irish; no one will argue (because they can't tell by your appearance) that you should ACT more Russian or more Irish. I mean it never even comes up in conversation about what your identity should be. If you have an accent; most Americans are clueless about it's origin and are enamored with English accents in a way that is quite embarrassing. But if they run into someone with an Asian or Spanish accent; they can become combative, rude and declare that if you are going to live in this country you better learn English. If I could have slapped someone every time I heard this.. I would be in jail for serial assault. But I can't slap people; I have to use my words. And that is the part that gives us people of color a headache, high-bloods and stressed out at work and other places where the social construct is always in play.

What Are You?
Traci & Steve Enjoying a Sunday Afternoon
If you are biracial you get to chose your identity just like the person whose skin is white and their ancestry is mixed but not colored. I know my biracial children get tired of being challenged by comments like: "You aren't black enough?", "You're just a light-skinned xyz (not nice words)" "You can't really be Black.. you're butt isn't big enough" or "I can't believe your mom is black and your dad is white -- you never see that."  Steve and I are frequently queried at restaurants when it's time to pay the bill: "Are you separate or together?" I am HIGHLY annoyed when servers direct the comment to Steve: "Are you paying for her?" The imagery that is imprinted in the minds of some of us says if people eating together aren't the same race -- they can't be "together."   But guess what? Lots of us mixed-race couples are together. 

As far as I am concerned, Obama will always be seen as "Black" because that is the  box our society has constructed for him and those who look like him to fill. If you've read his books, Dreams From My Father or The Audacity of Hope -- his thoughts and experiences about race are hardly simplistic. If it's ok to be Irish and English and not have to chose; then he can be both Black and/or White. He (and all biracial people) have the right to chose their identity just like folks who have no pigment in their skin.

Embracing the Next Generation -- Their Opinion Counts too.
In my opinion -- we can't put young people in boxes either. Not only do they care about issues of equity and diversity; but they don't buy the social construct nonsense. I think where people (not just the young ones) have a disconnect is understanding this country's history with race and how that history continues to plague the present. When a person not of color tells me Black people need to just get over it... that's when my white privilege radar goes off. Many people get uncomfortable with that terminology and think it is "throwing the race card" when in actually it is the exact opposite.  Millennials -- that's what my kids are -- continue to school me about my own transgressions with social boxes (we all commit them); and chide me accordingly. published a great piece yesterday:  Millennials! Let’s battle the boomers and Gen Xers — who had it easy compared to us!

Millennial Artist Ian August Kleekamp (my son)

In the end, if we want young people to be engaged in equity issues where they worship,  or with whatever community organization they chose to belong -- we have to groom them to be leaders in equity and inclusion policy. They need personal tools that allow them to get out of their personal comfort zone and walk in worlds that are not their own -- comfortably and with grace.  They also need tools to deal with people who resist diversity.  But that's conversation is for another missive. 

How do we impart these tools? My opinion is that we must continue to teach the next generation young and old --  the truth about our nation's history with race, class, gender and sexuality orientation/identity. It means watching your words and checking your own personal biases and assumptions. It could mean that you need to make an assessment of your personal toolbox and honestly ask yourself: "How many worlds can I walk in?" Here's a terrific reality. The demographics of this country are changing rapidly. Companies and organizations are realizing that the BEST recruits have the ability to walk in more than one world.  This means, no matter what the situation is -- they can communicate, listen and collaborate with those who may have a completely different set of tools to solving a problem. 

Even Republican policy analysts such as the Resurgent Republic see the challenges of the changing demographic landscape. Right now, every month for the next 20 years, 50,000 U.S. born Hispanics turn 18 and eligible to vote. The think-tank advice is essentially this: Hey fellas (yeah -- directed at the fellas) if we wanna capture these voters --we need to be able to walk in THEIR world and a few others while we're at it.  

What is mentoring? It's what apprenticeship used to be for learning a skilled trade.  A professional took great pride in grooming a young person to be confident, qualified, persistent and most of all successful   I sometimes think the world of apprenticeship need to be re-engineered to fit our changing work landscape.  Not everyone can go to college and I think we should offer more robust training opportunities for jobs that don’t require a college degree. But I digress by saying I feel our society is too focused saying everyone needs to go to college; and less focused on building a diverse workforce not with just human capital but job venues. It’s a mantra’s that has good intentions --  but in my view --  also unintentionally exclusive. I know I am expressing an overly general sentiment. You can follow-up and school me with responses.

Clueless Folks.. They are everywhere...
I could be attracted to the local NAACP organization if it were more inclusive in terms of leadership and worked year-round on issues of equity and inclusion in partnership with other community groups, neighborhood associations -- but most of all young people. For example, if they collaborated with MU, Lincoln University and Harris-Stowe (HBCs) they could compete for grants to build a pipeline to get minority, poor and first generation students into professional schools at PhD, MD and law degrees programs across the state of Missouri. They could share the workload by becoming inclusive. That would mean conducting targeted outreach to those who walk in other worlds in order to build a more sustainable and agile (not to mention well-funded) organization. In my opinion, this would make the group a lot more attractive. Ditto for churches and the all the organizations who pride themselves in having a diverse membership (in the name of community service) and don't realize their group lacks folks who don't look like them.

In my own professional experience I have seen women and minorities in particular have difficulty obtaining engaged and supportive mentors. They also need to be in environments designed to help EVERYONE thrive and graduate to the next level. I have seen more than enough mean-spirited colleagues so focused on promoting themselves, controlling their own turf and funds that the idea of collaboration is literally a sin worthy of retaliation if you try to work across the fence. This corrosive mindset is the opposite of inclusion and without leadership, it creates a workplace where only a few can thrive and everyone else is relegated to the sidelines. It is well documented that it is very difficult for women, minorities and LBGTQ folks to thrive in environment led and staffed by predominately middle-aged white men who are wealthy, comfortable, straight, married, and Christian. It's an environment where inclusion is an elusive illusion. To change these types of environments in every sector of our country -- we need to apprentice the next generation with diversity and inclusion tools for their mind, spirit and professional agility.

How do we pass on these inclusion tools? Well, if we want the younger generation to aspire to these leadership roles then the people at the top spots not only need to mentor to those trying to climb the ladder but also those learning how to navigate the organization.   They also need to make room in their organization for differences of opinion (without retribution), ideas and creative solutions to problems that create great outcomes for the general public . It would also be welcoming to embrace openly and publicly the celebrations of other cultures and ideas. This takes effort that goes beyond putting posters on bulletin boards,  attending annual diversity meetings or participating on a diversity committee so it can be listed as a cv/resume item.

I could be attracted to the local NAACP organization if it were more inclusive in terms of leadership and worked year-round on issues of equity and inclusion in partnership with other community groups, neighborhood associations -- but most of all young people. For example, if they collaborated with MU. Lincoln University and Harris-Stowe (HBCs) they could compete for grants to build a pipeline to get minority, poor and first generation students into professional schools at PhD, MD and law degrees programs across the state of Missouri. They could share the workload by becoming inclusive. That would mean conducting targeted outreach to those who walk in other worlds in order to build a more sustainable and agile (not to mention well-funded) organization. In my opinion, this would make the group a lot more attractive. Ditto for churches and the all the organizations who pride themselves in having a diverse membership (in the name of community service) and don't realize their group lacks folks who don't look like them.

One of the main reasons I don't personally participate in our local NAACP is this:  The current president has been in office too long, she's unsophisticated, mercurial and quite frankly is way past her prime as a leader.  If she IS connected to public-policy that impacts people of color, the poor and under-served -- I haven't heard or seen it beyond the MLK holiday.   Recounting my experiences with the NAACP  (calling for information etc.) is too embarrassing to explain.  However, I am a national member (if my dues are current) and I thoroughly enjoy The CRISIS magazine which is worth the cost of the annual membership.   I could prattle on about the NAACP but that's enough for now.  

Do I think the local NAACP and most churches in town are diverse?  Do I think most social service agencies have diverse staffing?  Do I think the University of Missouri is diverse.  Nope. I don't.   I think there is a lot window-dressing, hand-shaking and pretending among the nearly all white male leadership in Columbia.  They care a lot (in my opinion) about making sure that gents who look like them succeed because that is a lot easier.   They say action speaks louder than words -- and I hear a good deal of double-talk, gaggle and fluff. It's annoying. 

Walking in Other Worlds... Martin Luther King Jr. and President Obama 
Ok.. so let me wrap up. What Dr. King and President Obama have in common is this: They demonstrate a sophisticated ability to walk in other worlds besides their own. Dr. King stood against in many tents -- he challenged policy about poverty, discrimination, war, sexism, etc., and urged people to get out of their comfort boxes to make change.    More importantly Dr. King was able to do this with a very sophisticated team of advisers like Bayard Rustin, Clarence B. Jones and Rep. John Lewis, and Fannie Lou Hamer to name a few.

President Obama's youthful journey in Kansas and Hawaii, his Southeast Asian cultural experiences living abroad, graduating from law school, editing a law journal, community activism, running for office, Chicago politics -- both of these men brought their diversity tool kit of experiences to bear to make America a better place. 

The reason I am going to re-read the Taylor Branch series is that I just want to revisit Dr. King's work and ability to walk in other worlds. He was able to organize people of all race, religion and political affiliations across the nation to make a national policy change so we could be an INCLUSIVE country. We still have some serious work to do on that front. The next generation will benefit from our ability to be inclusive, collaborate and build partnerships with people who come from different cultures and races. We benefit from learning from those who see the world differently, practice a non-Christian religion and good grief might also be bi-sexual, bi-racial, gay, agnostic, or questioning... 

So ask yourself, how many worlds can you walk in? 
Is your diversity more than skin deep?
Do you live in a big tent or a camper shell?
Traci Wilson-Kleekamp

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