While I’ve thought of myself as a racial minority all my life, it is only in recent years that I’ve come to view the term “minority” negatively. I wasn’t sure why. I just knew that I didn’t like being referred to as a minority. I knew my reaction related to my growing racial justice awareness and understanding, but I couldn’t put my finger on what bothered me. Then, I heard the term “minoritized people” for the first time on a PBS special about Zora Neale Hurston, the author and anthropologist.
So, what did the term really mean? I looked it up. Minoritized – “to make (a person or group) subordinate in status to a more dominant group and its members.” Now, it was clearer. Even before knowing the actual definition, I had had a feeling/a sense of the word. It was the concept of less than that was bothering me, not just the concept, but the process of being made into something that is less than something else.
Not surprising that this term would be used in a documentary about an anthropologist, someone studying culture, language, and human behavior. Remember the first time you heard, and thought about, the distinction between a slave and an enslaved person? Now, I’m beginning to understand why the term minority had become bothersome to me.
Societally, we seem to have associated – consciously or unconsciously – a host of characteristics with the term minority. Does it automatically mean poor, disadvantaged, uneducated – less than the standard/desired quality of life? Has it become a code word like “urban” or “inner city” or the now villainized “woke?”
Language is constantly evolving. Words that were once every day acceptable have become archaic, or downright unacceptable, rude, and pejorative.
Just another reminder that in racial justice work or any effort to right a societal wrong, language is important. Listen to how people describe themselves and their circumstances. Ask about language that is different from what you are accustomed to using. Adapt as language evolves. Words matter.
Note: I see myself as Black, African American, or as a member of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community, but not as a minority.
Several weeks ago, I attended a presentation held at a private club in Washington, DC. I was looking forward to the topic, “Alleviating Poverty: The Universal Basic Income Approach.” One of the speakers was a colleague from a monthly breakfast group that I’ve been a part of for over a decade. In fact, I was so looking forward to the presentation that I hadn’t paid much attention to the location.
That changed as soon as I walked into the room. I had been to this club before, but for some reason, I saw it differently this time. I was struck immediately by its grandeur. Versailles came to mind. It was ornate, replete with goldleaf, lots of mirrors, and corner cherubs. The place settings sparkled, ready for us to enjoy dinner before the presentation.
It was breathtaking and it made me uncomfortable.
Was this where we should be discussing alleviating poverty?
My discomfort wasn’t just about the physical setting. It was the combination of the setting and the attendees.
The people in this room were members of the club, literally and figuratively, and their guests. There was lots of chatting during the cocktail hour before the event. One person commented to me that she had been married in this room. The venue was familiar and comfortable for them. They were proud of it. They repeatedly celebrated the quality of the food, the comfort of the club’s library, and the proficiency and long tenures of the staff. This was their place. They were at home.
I had expected the attendees to be older and white. I just hadn’t thought I’d be the only Black participant. I’m pretty sure that everyone was white except for three of the five presenters, a staffer accompanying one of the speakers, and me. So, was that why I was uncomfortable? Was this about race? I don’t think so. The dissonance I felt was more about class and understanding/frame of reference.
To me, these were wealthy people. Their conversation, however, suggested they thought of themselves as being in the middle class. Educated? Yes, but other than that, I think they thought of themselves as Joe and Susie Average. Frame of reference is everything, right? Had anyone in the room ever been poor or had direct familial relationships or contact via deep friendship with people who were poor? Could they understand poverty?
Several people commented that many in the club were liberals and that all were knowledge seekers. Liberals? Was this said so I’d think they were proponents of racial justice and knowledgeable about racial injustice? Was it code? Knowledge seekers? I knew that learning was one of the founding principles of the club. Was this presentation primarily an intellectual opportunity to understand the concept of universal basic income? Did they think that a universal basic income would level the racial playing field, not taking into account the depth, breadth, and impact of structural racism? Was I overthinking this? So much swirled through my head as I sat in that room. Did anyone else feel the disconnect?
For those of us who see ourselves as change agents, we are the bridge between the community that is most impacted by the problem to be addressed and the community, that, by their positions and power, hold some of the keys to addressing those problems. We must be comfortable in both places, going to both to gain and provide information, and to discuss strategy. We – the change agents – must be able to navigate very wealthy/powerful/white spaces and translate the realities of poverty to people with none, or little, experience with it (which the panel of presenters did brilliantly).
My concerns about what people did and didn’t know about race, racism, poverty, and class didn’t need to be addressed in one evening. I needed to move beyond the setting and focus on the potential. Because of the inequities of our society, the people in this room had the needed financial, social, and political resources to respond.
Was this private club in Washington, DC the right setting for a conversation on universal basic income? I think it was one of many “right” venues. The club’s program committee had recommended the topic. The attendees were a ready, willing, and able group; so, let the education begin. Plus, the right people are always the ones in the room, right? Still, what a room …
Walking in my neighborhood a few years ago, I saw a tiny art installation. The piece was called “Stepping into His Shoes” and featured President Obama rising into Abraham Lincoln’s shoes. I loved it. What a great use of a 19th century fixture — a fire department call box — for a 21st century message. Again, my neighborhood came through with quirkiness and public art.
Then a few days ago, I saw something disturbing. Obama was gone, forcibly removed from the art installation. I immediately thought, “Why do people deface art?” That thought was followed by an important memory. I recalled my reaction to what I called embellishments to — not defacement of — the pedestal of the Robert E. Lee statue in my hometown.
For over a century, that statue, unveiled in 1890, towered on its pristine white marble base over Richmond’s Monument Avenue. When George Floyd was murdered, I was supportive as graffiti grew on the pedestal in response. For me, the addition of those thoughts not only contextualized the statue, but they also took away any power it may once have held.
So, when the public art removal/change/embellishment aligns with my world view, it’s okay, but when it doesn’t, it’s defacement. Wow. I need to think about this.
The Lee statue was offensive to me because it celebrated the leadership of someone who chose to denigrate and subjugate my people.
I celebrated the Obama-Lincoln statue because it recognized the leadership of someone I admired. Obama was removed by someone who I suspect felt as much distaste for Obama as I felt for Lee.
Now what? Who becomes the arbiter of public art? What is built? What stays? What goes?
The same people as always. Those in power.
My understanding is that public art, art paid for with tax dollars, is typically approved by a panel of reviewers chosen by an appointed, or perhaps, elected official. Some group that is supposed to be representative of the sensibilities of the community makes the decision.
In the late 1800s, in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy, there was significant support for the erection of the Lee statue. His nephew was then Virginia’s governor and many wanted to celebrate Lee, the South, and Southern sentiments. It is reported that 100,000 people attended the unveiling of this 60-foot-tall statue.
I guess the lesson here is to ensure that the people in power in your community, share your values. Those values will be reflected in big issues, like how they vote on policies with deep and long-lasting impact and in the somewhat lesser decisions, like who is celebrated in public art.
And, when your values are not shared by those in power, it’s vital to remember your own power – the power to vote out those office holders and the power to organize a public outcry against what doesn’t align with your values and those of others in your community. That’s what happened in Richmond. The Lee statue was removed amid major public support, nationally and locally, for racial justice in public policy and in public art.
Now, here’s the kicker. Unlike what I thought, “Stepping into his Shoes” is not public art, at least not as I described public art above.
A little research revealed that while some call box art in DC was approved by the DC Commission for the Arts and Humanities, a public agency, that was not the case with the art piece in my neighborhood. No public dollars were used to create it nor was public input sought. No? No, but it’s located on a public street — East Capitol — in a structure owned by the District — the vintage call box. Does that make it a form of public art?
I now know that “Stepping into His Shoes” is another example of protest art, not public art as I had thought. When I saw the Obama-Lincoln statue originally, I only recognized their coupling as philosophical kindred. The art was saying much more, but I didn’t see that initially.
So, when a protestor removed Obama from the small art installation, I noticed. That person’s act caused me to look more closely. Not just kindred spirits, the statue had also been an artistic plea by a group called Fearless Girls 2020 to replace “Emancipation,” a statue of Lincoln located a few blocks away with a statue of Obama.
Did the removal of Obama deface the art, enrich it, or both? You decide.
“The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been concealed by the answers.” — James Baldwin
A few days ago, I learned of the passing of Randall Robinson. I learned about it, not from a major media outlet, but from a colleague who posted on Facebook. I immediately checked the news outlets, but nothing was posted – that I could find – until yesterday, two days after his death.
I kept looking for the coverage and was surprised that someone of his stature would not be lauded by the national media. Then it struck me. Do I know Randall Robinson because he was from Richmond, my hometown? Do most white people, and younger Black people, not know who he was? Why isn’t the passing of this remarkable man being announced and his work recognized and celebrated?
I don’t know why his passing isn’t being widely announced. I do know that I want to recognize someone who I felt had lived his life with passion and purpose.
Randall Robinson founded TransAfrica in 1977, an organization committed to influencing American foreign policy in relation to African and Caribbean countries.
Randall Robinson organized and led the protests, beginning in 1984, in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, DC focused on freeing Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners. His voice and his actions were critical in elevating Mandela’s plight and leading to the multiple interventions instrumental in his release.
In 2000, Randall Robinson’s book, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks was published. This was the first book I read that fully explored the concept of reparations.
Randall Robinson left America in 2001 and moved to the Caribbean Island of St. Kitts noting that he was looking for a place that was more welcoming to Black people.
I hope you will reflect on this life well-lived, why his life isn’t getting the deserved recognition, and then look at his work as another example of how to make a difference in the fight for racial justice.