Three Steps to Racial Healing: REVEAL| Reflect | Recalibrate

“There is no shame in not knowing; the shame lies in not finding out.”

— Russian proverb

 

In last month’s Daughters of the Dream blog, I shared my thoughts on America’s lack of readiness for racial healing. It’s not that I don’t want us to heal. I do. But I believe there are a series of stages for that healing to occur. As I said then, “Racial healing is a process, not an event.” I offer my process suggestions in three—hopefully, easily digestible—steps shared this month. Look for the posts on my blog about every 10 days. Here’s the first:

Step One: Reveal

Most of us have only seen America from the vantage point of white America (either because you are white or because our country’s educational and media experiences are dominated by the white perspective). Our knowledge of race and racial injustice is cursory.

This was revealed powerfully in an episode of the TV game show, Jeopardy when all of the categories, but one, in the double jeopardy second round had been entirely answered. Remaining on the board—untouched—was African-American History. This was a special episode of the show; the contestants were all college students. Even America’s best and brightest were not ready for this category because little in their education had adequately prepared them. And—this is important—the episode wasn’t from the 1960’s, the early days of the show. This happened in 2014.

Revealing our lack of knowledge and correcting that deficiency is the first step toward healing.

There must be a comprehensive and deep understanding of where we are and how we got here if we are to heal. IMG_4828If you are ready for a deeper understanding, I commend to you the following three books and a recent mini-series to start your learning journey:

  • Stamped from the Beginning by Dr. Ibram Kendi. Kendi is a Professor of History and International Relations at American University and the Founding Director of the University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center. The subtitle of his book is “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” Dr. Kendi comprehensively reveals the historical origins of racist beliefs in a way that most of us have never heard. Be prepared, he is thorough!
  • The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute. The subtitle of his book is “A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” When one thinks about how much is attached to where we live (see my April 2019 blog, Home) along with Rothstein’s revelations on the intentionality of the federal government in ensuring disparate living areas, we can better understand different life outcomes, by race.
  • Remembering Slavery edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven Miller. This book, subtitled “African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences with Slavery and Emancipation” presents stories told by formerly enslaved people during the 1920s and 1930s to HBCU students from Fisk University, Southern University and Kentucky State University and to researchers from the Federal Writers’ Project during the New Deal. Like Jewish people who proclaim “Never forget/never again” to implore society to never forget the atrocities that happened to their people, this book reveals slavery, through first-person remembrances, a perspective that few know today, a truth that we should never forget.
  • When They See Us is a 2019 Netflix mini-series co-written and directed by Ava DuVernay. It captures the experience of five young African-American men falsely accused of rape, their treatment when the crime occurred in 1989, how the media portrayed them, how the public reacted, their imprisonment, and their exoneration years later when the real rapist confessed. This is an age-old story grounded in the perceived purity of white women, the bestiality of black men, and their lust for white women, that unfolds within a biased and structurally racist criminal justice system.

When you read or view these resources, you may notice that they are hard to watch or to comprehend fully at first. Take time. Read and re-read. Make yourself watch the difficult parts of the mini-series. Is it hard for you to believe that someone would confess to a crime they didn’t commit? Is it hard for you to believe that a private citizen responded by spending $85,000 for an ad in a major New York City newspaper calling for the death penalty? What leads both to take the actions they did? Can you see the layering of prejudicial messages that Kendi traces over centuries that can culminate in the Central Park Five or in the segregationist policies that Rothstein unveils? Do you believe the stories that the formerly enslaved people tell or do you think they are misrepresenting or exaggerating that experience? I hope you will take the time to get in touch with your thoughts and your feelings and think about what contributes to them.

The learning, however, must go beyond a personal level if there is to be real healing for our country. A short reading and viewing list is entirely inadequate to address 400 years of the African-American experience. We must include the study of our racial history in the core curriculum of every elementary, middle, and high school in America. Research has shown that preconceptions and biases based on race emerge at very early ages. We must address those consciously, with structured, well-developed curricula, in school. Then, we must embed a more in-depth study of structural racism and implicit bias into the curriculum of colleges and universities at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. We must graduate leaders who can see where we are as a country and who know how we got here so they can lead us to a place of racial equity.

The depth, breadth and impact of racial inequity must be revealed if we are to heal as a society.

***

Check back on August 14th (or subscribe so the blogs come directly to your inbox) to learn about what I see as step two: Reflect. But, in the meantime, please add your reading and viewing recommendations in the comments section of this post. What has opened your eyes to a racial reality that was unseen?

 

Racial Healing

racial healing image
This illustration by Jennifer Luxton was created for and originally posted by Yes! Magazine and is shared with permission.

America isn’t ready for it.

Yet!

Over the last couple of years, I have heard a lot of talk about racial healing. I have the same reaction every time: How can we heal without treating the wound, and how can that be done effectively without understanding it?

I want America to recognize the depth of the racial wound and to acknowledge how that wound, that injury, that disease… spread and infected society.

Recently when talking with a black friend, she reminded me that my perspective is that of a black person. In her view, white people want this conversation to go away. When she hears ‘racial healing,’ she thinks it is code for ‘Black people need to get over it.’ Hmmm. Get over it.

I am just beginning to understand IT; the extent and impact of racial inequity and injustice were hard for even me to see. I too was duped. I understood prejudice and discrimination, but I thought those who were prejudiced were ignorant people or those whose views were ill-informed because they hadn’t gotten to know black people. And then, ignorantly, for decades, I thought discrimination had ended with the passage of critical pieces of civil rights legislation. I believed this country was a meritocracy. I believed that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you would ‘win’ by American standards. I was so very wrong. I didn’t understand the facts or the subtleties, the biases that shaped how the world was presented to me.

It wasn’t until recently that I began to fully appreciate the white lens through which many stories and ‘facts’ are told. Even when the recounting is not directly by a white person, the story is influenced by the majority culture/lore/norms. With each visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, or when reading posts on the blog, The Root, for example, I get a deeper appreciation for how much I never learned of the history, the accomplishments, the positive impact of black people on America. And it still isn’t being told in the dominant media.

It took the injustice of Trayvon Martin’s murder, coupled with the lack of consequences for his murderer to shock me out of my stupor. And it took listening to countless podcasts like ‘Uncivil,’ absorbing the wisdom and in-depth racial analyses from leaders and thinkers like john a. powell (capitalization is his preference), Robin DiAngelo, Richard Rothstein, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram Kendi for me to learn the insidiousness, intentionality, and impact of structural racism; the structures in place for decades causing black people to be disadvantaged as white people moved farther and farther ahead. My learning until 2012 had been casual, family-influenced, experiential. After the horror of Trayvon, my eyes opened to an obscured reality. I started on a conscious learning journey to understand the depth, breadth, and impact of structural racism on society and on me.

There have been decades of Band-Aids placed haphazardly with no real sense of where the wound was or the fact that the injury may present as a flesh wound — a small cut, quickly addressed, but it isn’t. IT is cancer, invasive, and all-consuming. Those Band-Aids were insufficient unless their intent was not to heal but to both mask the problem and the fact that no one was trying to cure it.

That’s how I see the rush to racial healing. Another Band-Aid.

Even though wounds can be ugly and painful to look at, they must be revealed and their cause understood. That’s my issue. I don’t think the racial wound has been fully revealed and understood. Has it been diagnosed by people with the insights, knowledge, and sensitivity to determine the problem fully, i.e., has the cadre of diagnosticians gone through the educational rigor to understand the symptoms, how the problem operates and how to treat it? Who is studying how to prevent it from returning? Who is focused beyond treatment to eradication?

Personally, I want to heal. I want America to heal. I just know that if it has taken me, a black, educated person directly affected by structural racism and implicit bias, some time to see and begin to understand it, how long will it take those who benefit from the way the country is?

America doesn’t seem ready – as a country — even to admit that racism exists, much less to learn how it occurred, and how it continues. And there is no quick, easy fix. It will take years of work. Racial healing is a process, not an event. We must unspin the web that created and now perpetuates racism. Then, systematically, we must replace it with a new societal reality. Only then do I think we can heal.

“It takes a deep commitment to change and an even deeper commitment to grow.”

– Ralph Ellison

Note: Look to the August Daughters of the Dream blog for my thoughts on how I think the racial healing process might begin. Continue reading “Racial Healing”

See Me/Know Me

“If you can’t see past my name, you can’t see me.”

― DaShanne Stokes, noted author, thought leader and sociologist

 

June is often the month for graduations. A hallmark of these events is the reading of the graduates’ names. A friend, who this year has that responsibility, has been practicing pronouncing names. At her school, each graduate records his/her name so those charged with announcing them can hear the correct pronunciation. Good.

Many of us have names that may be outside of what someone perceives as ordinary, i.e., white, Eurocentric, names. Our names may be common in our country of origin or cultural homeland or names created by parents wanting to celebrate a child’s specialness or names that are just… different.

My name is one of them: Tamara. It doesn’t look all that hard, but the options for how to name tagsay it may be more than you think. TA-Mar-a is correct, not TA-mare-a or Tam-A-Ra or TA-Mere-A. My name is TA-mar-a. From birth through high school, my name was almost always pronounced correctly, maybe with just a one-time correction. That was true even though it wasn’t commonplace. I didn’t meet another person with the same name (or spelling) until I was an adult.

So, why did I become Tammy in college?

Well, I didn’t at first. When fellow students mispronounced my name or tried to give me a nickname, I would correct them. Eventually, however, I thought their fear of mispronouncing my name prevented them from saying hello or engaging with me in any meaningful way; so, for four years, I responded to ‘Tammy.’ Only in hindsight did I recognize that the black students at my primarily white institution had no problem pronouncing my name. In fact, one of my black college classmates laughed out loud when I recently mentioned being called ‘Tammy.’

“Tammy,” he howled. “Where did that come from? You’re definitely not a Tammy.”

“Definitely not a Tammy,” well what did that mean? I guess more often than not, “Tammy” is perceived of as a white girl’s name. So, were the white students being intentionally disrespectful by giving me that nickname? I don’t think so. I think they were trying to be friendly. Upon reflection, however, I wonder if, consciously or unconsciously, they were trying to make me more like them.

If you watch the ABC network show, Blackish, you may recall the episode when the African-American parents struggled over the name DeVonte for their new son. The father wanted this name. The mother said it was too ‘unconventional,’ i.e., too black-sounding. The show proceeded to highlight what research shows: DeVonte will be less likely to get a call back on a job interview than say Chris or Jack or Nick.

Just as Tammy may be a racialized name, DeVonte probably is as well, but why does research show that ‘DeVonte,’ an African-American sounding name, produces thoughts of an entire, full-blown, imagined life story—usually negative—based solely on the name? Does ‘Nick’ bring forth a story on its own? What about ‘Tammy?’

So what is a name?  It’s a label, of sorts, that often provides a shorthand of information.  Almost immediately you believe that Reverend Nick Bright will know a lot about religion. Dr. Nick Bright might be a PhD well steeped in a particular subject matter or an MD skilled in medical diagnosis and treatment. Those titles reveal something about their education/their knowledge, but nothing about them as people. Another layer of assumptions is probably added if the name changes to Reverend/Dr. Jamal Bright. Again, we know something based on the title—and maybe based on his first name—but our ‘knowledge’ doesn’t get close to the critical level of character.

It’s positive that the fictional, upper-middle class, black, Johnson family in that TV show named their infant son DeVonte, knowing he would be assumed to be black and celebrating that. It’s positive that academic institutions are taking the time to learn how to pronounce ‘unconventional’ names as graduates walk across the stage. At the same time, the notion of conventional names is changing. While ‘Barack’ hasn’t made it – yet — to the  U.S. Social Security Administration’s list of the top 1000 American names, i.e, the so-called conventional ones, the name is rising in usage and no one today, except maybe very, very old friends, would ever think of calling Barack Obama by the nickname he once accepted, Barry. And, I can’t imagine a moment now when I would accept being called Tammy.

It seems that slowly, but increasingly, we do not expect names to conform to a dated sense of convention. We’re not there yet, but we do see growing acceptance and celebration of diversity, including in names.  So, today, I ask that you listen carefully when being introduced to someone, respect the person’s name, and try to pronounce that name correctly. And be mindful of any stereotypes that may race through your head based on that name. Clear your mind to fully meet the person.

 

 

Beyond Data We Find Humanity

“I know few significant questions of public policy which can safely be confided to computers. In the end, the hard decisions inescapably involve imponderables of intuition, prudence, and judgment.”

—John F. Kennedy

 

I just finished my second year co-teaching a course on philanthropy and racial equity. Here’s the remarkable part: the students—all graduate students in public policy—reported that they had never had a course on racial equity. They were required to learn about economic practices, statistical procedures and, broadly, about ethics, public management and creating public policy. My course, like others on racial equity, is an elective at this university. It took me a while to figure out why I was bothered by this. Finally, I got it. Where is the balance between empirical data and experience? Where does humanity enter? How is the data about disproportionate outcomes, by race, revealed?

When I pointed this out, a colleague cautioned that it is the research-base that appeals to Georgetown (3)students. The students drawn to this campus want to create policies that are driven by data. I agree data is invaluable in creating sound public policies. But I believe there is a large realm of facts that isn’t being considered. A full exploration will occur only by consciously including an examination of what has contributed to racially inequitable public policies. For that to occur, racial equity education must be in the public policy curriculum, not as an elective, but as a requirement.

Last year, I heard noted author and academic Robin DiAngelo talk about white privilege. Midway in her remarks, she commented that one aspect of white privilege is never having to understand racial inequity. She noted that most people will go through college, many graduate programs, law school or medical school without ever taking a course on race, racial equity or racial justice. She continued by noting that even though few are taught this topic, many continue to believe they understand the issues. How can they? Her question and mine is how is that knowledge acquired? Why is it that so many people believe they understand racial equity without ever having been taught this? It seems they think of it as a lesson in politeness. As long as they treat people with respect, there will be no inequity. That’s not true. In fact, the most detrimental inequities are those embedded in public policy. This has to be academically taught, not casually learned.

It is incumbent upon public policy analysts and practitioners to delve beyond merely presenting, aggregated data. We must ask questions to find answers (and solutions). Why are there more people of color incarcerated than white people? Why are the educational outcomes for black and brown people worse than those for white people? What are the zoning policies that have disproportionately placed more halfway houses in communities of color? What are the policies and incentives that enable more economic growth in certain communities than in others? How is the schedule of actions as basic as street cleaning or bulb replacement in street lights determined from community to community?

If you’re not thinking about racial equity, your analysis will stop before it reaches the crux. You’re unlikely to discern disproportionate impact based on race unless you look. And without being primed to the possibility, you are unlikely to look. A policy might appear race neutral when it’s not.

It’s noteworthy that I’m co-teaching this course at Georgetown University. I only mention that because Georgetown has been in the news lately both for acknowledging its role in perpetuating the sale of enslaved Africans and for the recent vote by the student body to charge an additional attendance fee to create a reparations fund for the descendants of those enslaved people. It’s  commendable that institutions of higher learning, like Georgetown and my alma mater, the College of William and Mary, are addressing historical, racially-driven, wrongs.

That lens on past actions is important, but without intentionality and probing, we might miss the wrongs of the present. It took me a minute to see the potential impact right in my academic backyard. Not requiring public policy students to learn about racial inequity just doesn’t seem like good policy.

I’m still working to become fully woke!

What are you missing in your backyard?