The Ruse, the Governor, and Critical Race Theory

The latest reminder of the centrality and primacy of the white worldview happened for me on January 15, 2022, the day Glenn Youngkin was inaugurated as the 74th governor of Virginia. While I haven’t lived in Virginia for a long time, it is my home state. I wanted to hear what the new governor had to say.

Not far into his inaugural address, he said, “We will remove politics from the classroom.” Attendees jumped to their feet. It was the sentiment that parents, not the government, should control what is taught in schools – particularly regarding racial history — that pushed this never-elected-to-any-office candidate into the Virginia Governor’s Mansion. Then he continued, “We will teach all of our history, the good (here he paused) … and the bad.” The crowd sat, seemingly deflated.

Stop. Rewind. Had he actually said that? Yes, those were his words. I wrote them down; I was so surprised. Was there some chance that he had thought about it and decided to do the right thing? In his inaugural address, was he ready to signal, no, actually state, that Virginia was not only going to take down Confederate statues, Virginia would also teach the completeness of its history and that of the country?

No, of course not. Upon reflection, how could I be so naïve? Hopeful, I guess that he had thought deeply about his earlier position, understood another side, and decided to make a major turnaround in his first public address as governor.  Yes, I was naively hopeful.

Youngkin’s remarks were simply political theater.  He said those words just before issuing Executive Order Number One (2022):

“Inherently divisive concepts, like Critical Race Theory and its progeny, instruct students to only view life through the lens of race and presumes that some students are consciously or unconsciously racist, sexist, or oppressive, and that other students are victims.”

It goes on to read,

“The Superintendent of Public Instruction shall review all policies within the Department of Education to identify those that promote inherently divisive concepts. Such policies shall be ended.”

And, he knew he had the right person to carry out this directive. I checked. As Superintendent of Public Instruction, he had named the former Wyoming State Superintendent of Schools, a person who had been very public in her opposition to teaching Critical Race Theory.

Race is the lens through which life is viewed by many, including Glenn Youngkin. It energized his campaign and was his out-of-the-gate issue as governor.

Race used to sit quietly in the corner, but not anymore. Now, many, including Youngkin, want to put it back in its place – invisible, not discussed, unaddressed.

For our country to truly achieve its founding promise, we must understand and address our history. It is that history that has made America what it is today. History has been taught from the perspective of white people who control textbooks and decisions about curricula. Our country’s history has been whitewashed, sanitized to glorify whites, while denigrating or completely ignoring other races.

Just think about the number of people who had never heard of the Tulsa massacre until Watchmen streamed on HBO in 2019 or the number who’d never heard of the Tuskegee syphilis study until the use of Black men as research subjects was revealed in 2020 as the root of some African Americans’ concern about COVID vaccinations, or others learning — this year — about Emmett Till through the recent ABC series Women of the Movement. I am glad that racial history is being revealed through art and the news, but it should be taught in the classroom, not something one can choose to watch, but in-school subject matter required to be learned.

The claim by Youngkin, and others, that they want to avoid the divisiveness caused by teaching what they refer to as Critical Race Theory is simply a smokescreen. In fact, the current approach to teaching our country’s history, focused on the individual exceptionalism of a few, but not on the racially motivated actions of many or on the racist federal, state and local policies and societal practices that have shaped this country, contributes to ignorance, an ignorance that feeds racial hostility and separation.

Speak up when your government is doing the wrong thing.

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.

— Martin Luther King, Jr., December, 1959

Don’t say that! Huh?

One of the things I know for sure is that common sense or common knowledge isn’t common. We each see the world through a lens shaped by family and family values, life experiences, and acquired knowledge.

I was reminded of this when a white friend commented that she’d never again say that a person’s hair looked like a rat’s nest, having been chastised, strongly and simultaneously, by several Black friends who heard the comment. She continued, noting that while she wouldn’t say it again, she really didn’t know what was wrong with it. She had been describing a person, not actually saying it to someone.

Without an explanation, this friend may have thought that her comment was perceived simply as rude, but there was so much more.

Nuances, history, and connections would never be understood by her, or by other white people, solely by reading books about the Black experience, racial injustice, or Black culture. That academic knowledge must be woven together. The dots must be connected to reveal why that combination of words – describing a Black person’s hair as a rat’s nest – evoked a visceral, negative response by the Black people in that room. Months later, Black friend-to-white friend, the following information was shared.

Rats as a sign of filth.

Neighborhood filth.

Rats are often associated with filth/dirtiness. Rat infestation is seen as an indicator of accumulated filth and a problem unique to some communities. The cleanliness of Black neighborhoods has often been questioned, giving many white people an “acceptable” reason not to want Black neighbors. But few know what Richard Rothstein revealed in his book, The Color of Law. In some cities, in the early through mid-20th century, trash was not picked up with the same frequency in Black neighborhoods as it was in white neighborhoods. It wasn’t the lack of cleanliness by the residents, but the racist practices of the cities that contributed to the rat problem. Is it possible that those practices continue in some places today?

Personal dirtiness

Also built on the connection between rats and filth, a Black person would immediately think of all the myths regarding personal hygiene. The dirtiness – real in some cases, imagined in others — of Black people relates back to enslavement and their inability to have access to soap and water to bathe and, of course, the time to do so. The sentiment of Black skin as a sign of dirtiness continued in the 1800s and early 1900s with Black children depicted as being  washed with a certain brand of soap to become white. Black skin as a sign of dirtiness was seen as recently as 2017 with a Black model in a brown shirt becoming a white model in a white shirt after using Dove soap.  The subliminal message is there: dirty, ignorant, lowly.

Natural hair

Hair is a person’s crowning glory. The connection between hair and your sense of beauty is inextricable. Sadly, until recently, natural hair has often been described as unkempt.  It wasn’t until the Black Pride/Black is Beautiful movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s that many Black people recognized the internalized racism that made them not see the beauty of their natural hair. Until then, many wanted the texture of white hair, using chemicals and applied heat to get it. But even after Blacks embraced their natural hair and natural styles like dreadlocks or braiding, many whites continued to view those styles as inappropriate for the workplace. As recently as 2019, California and New York saw the need for legislation making it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on their hairstyle or hair texture.

All of this information, and probably much more, went through the minds of the Black people listening to their white friend. All of it. In the blink of an eye.  What they had heard was a statement mired in years of subliminal racist messages. But all they said was “Don’t say that.”

Months later, one of the Black people in that room, no longer able to let the comment stand, reached out to the white friend. After hearing the full explanation of why saying that a Black person’s hair looked like a rat’s nest was an awful comment, the white person shared that she had been describing another white person. She thought she had said that, but in hindsight, she wasn’t sure. Wow, had the Black folks simply assumed that she was speaking about a Black person based on their life’s experience? Maybe an in-the-moment conversation would have been clarifying, but not speaking immediately allowed for the more thoughtful, and possibly less emotional, later exploration of the topic. The white person acknowledged a bit of initial defensiveness about what was interpreted from her comment, but also had three important reflections: she wants to learn more about race and culture; she appreciates those who pull her aside and educate her; and she recognizes her privilege to move in and out of discussions about race because she is not living it (hmmm … a topic ripe for a future conversation?).

Bottom line: Friendships are built on trust. Have those conversations that need to be had if not in the moment, have them when you can. We’ll all be better off. Here’s to a more racially just 2022.

Happy New Year!



DEI Meant Numbers to Me. I Wanted More.

Recently, while co-facilitating the Onion Dialogues, a white participant asked a pointed question: “What is the goal?” He continued by asking if employers should mirror the percentage of specific groups of people of color in the American population or what. I could hear frustration, or maybe exasperation, in his voice. He worked for a business that had mandated its entire team go through this training. He wanted to finish the training and come away with specific direction. A third of the way through, he didn’t see the session leading to that kind of direction and he was right.

This was a significant aha moment for me.

That Onion Dialogue participant wanted a road map. What was the quickest way for him to get from point A to point B?

Instead, I was giving him a complex route with multiple, interconnected roads. On top of that, the goal was racial justice, something he may have seen as an amorphous reality, not his tangible point B.

The Onion Dialogues, like many racial justice trainings, was designed to open the thinking of the participants. They are intended to leave knowing that Black Lives Matter is more than a slogan. It is a reality, with evidence of why we haven’t mattered for centuries. I want participants to understand the microaggressions and oppression Black people and other people of color face every day.  The goal is for them to become an ally or advocate for racial justice, with the skills to use a newly acquired lens to see, interact in, and transform the world.

He wanted to know how many Black people needed to work in his business to be compliant/woke/racially just.

That moment was a juxtaposition of black and white… and gray. To me, he was in a black and white business world of DEI:  hard numbers, measurable goals, and specific, time-driven outcomes. Done! I was in a gray, nuanced world of understanding racial history and racial reality on the way to working for racial justice. Ongoing, forever.

I have been challenged by the concept of DEI for some time. I think of it as minimizing. This participant again elevated my discomfort while also prompting my thinking.

The term DEI – diversity, equity, and inclusion – seems to me, most often, to be translated into numbers. Those numbers are critically important. I know that.  I just want so much more than the right numbers.  A person/business/organization can do all the right things, under the DEI approach, and still not reckon with how race has shaped their own life or experience at work, how they may be complicit in racial injustices, or see how their company or organization perpetuates racial inequities or benefits from historical injustices.

I want participants’ understanding of racial injustice to evolve through the training. I want them to be exposed to a more complete history of our country, one that, for example, discusses the injustice of not getting forty acres and a mule and how redlining and decades of prejudice and discrimination have left Black families with one-tenth the wealth of white families in America. I want participants who go through racial justice training to understand that, perhaps, just maybe, they have, consciously or unconsciously, been blaming the victim. Do most DEI programs do that?

For some reason, I heard that participant with new ears. I reflected on his question and his viewpoint, realizing that I needed to open my thinking. I needed to align my view of an organizational or business focus on DEI with my commitment to what I perceive as a more comprehensive examination of race and racism. One is not right and one wrong. They’re different strategies, complementary, both necessary and both incomplete. We need to see more racially diverse employees in every sector, at every level. And, we must go beyond solely a DEI compliant workplace, to get to a racially just America.

DEI and racial justice seminars/trainings like the Onion Dialogues are all part of a necessary, multifaceted tool kit for social change. Various strategies, many interventions, layers of action from thousands of voices are needed to birth a racially just America. So, to my DEI-focused colleagues, I say you’re doing important work, keep looking at the numbers, but also take that macro view, learn about all that has gotten us to where we are as a racially unjust country and then go well beyond the workplace to make it right.


Intentional conversations among friends

It was my first trip following COVID vaccinations.  I went to the Outer Banks in North Carolina with a group of friends I’ve known for almost 20 years. We met through a local leadership program, Leadership Greater Washington. And over several years of restaurant dinners, happy hours, traveling together domestically and internationally, and staying in each other’s homes, we’ve bonded. We are friends.

LGW group –the Outer Banks, 2021

On the Outer Banks trip, only six of the nine of us could travel. For the first time, I focused on our racial composition: Cuban American (1), Black Asian American (1), Caucasian (4), and African American (3). And that led me to think about  how this diverse friendship group discusses—or doesn’t—issues of race.

That we are real friends is essential to this conversation. Two decades ago, my neighbor, Jim Myers, who is white, wrote Afraid of the Dark: What Whites and Blacks Need to Know About Each Other. In his book, Jim commented on the rarity of genuine friendships between people of different races. Postulating that if you don’t spend time in someone’s home, you really aren’t friends. I think he’s right. I have many colleagues and associates with whom I have casual connections, but my true friends are those with whom I spend quality time. We play together, eat together, vacation together, and talk about our personal challenges.

Often friendships go back to our early years or to college. We developed personal connections on the playground, through scouting programs, church, or in the college dorm. Or they develop through friendships with the parents of your children’s classmates or at work.  All of those connections are actually driven by proximity—where you live, work or play. And, where we live seems to be critically important.

That’s part of the challenge for cross-racial friendships; we don’t live in the same community.

According to a report released last year by the Brookings Institution, even though our country is more racially diverse than it has ever been, our neighborhoods are not.  How can we become friends who have deep, meaningful, sometimes uncomfortable discussions about the impact of Confederate statues in the main square of a small town or the importance of having a comprehensive—factual—examination of our country’s history for example? Where will those conversations happen? How will they start?

My Leadership Greater Washington (LGW) group doesn’t live in the same neighborhood. In fact, we live all over the tri-state area of the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia.  None of us worked together when we originally convened. We often comment that we may never have met each other without LGW and its firm commitment to developing deep and lasting connections. And even within this group, the small group of nine, conversations about race rarely happen. Why is that?

Even for friends, there seem to be boundaries we don’t cross. We’ve been told, either directly or indirectly, that discussing issues of race in racially mixed groups is taboo. Everyone is afraid to say the wrong thing. Everyone is uncomfortable. Race and racial discord aren’t a happy, carefree topic that promotes laughter and camaraderie at that neighborhood cookout or office outing.

So, here’s my question: How do we elevate racial issues, learn different perspectives, challenge thinking, and arrive at heightened understanding if we don’t even talk about race with our friends?

I can think of several times on the Outer Banks when my LGW group might have had a rich conversation about an issue with a racial element. We all would have learned something from the conversation, and I know we could/would have done it respectfully and earnestly.  Here’s my lesson:  We have to seize the moment when it occurs. The teachable moment.

I’m committing to making these conversations happen (or at least trying to make them happen). Not every time, but occasionally, truthfully, and fully. If we all did that, we might make more substantial progress  toward a racially just America. So, let’s talk… really talk. And listen.