Friday, July 25, 2014

Race on Race: a reflection of my error in using the African American experience...

Race relations are complicated even
between groups of color.
Talking about race, let alone presenting on it at a higher education conference, is a complicated and perpetual learning process. I don’t believe there is ever really a solid outcome to the journey. I think it continues throughout the entirety of our lives as our consciousness of it becomes more prevalent. I wanted to preface this piece with the understanding of such intricacy, yet it doesn’t excuse what I’m about to say. I made a mistake. I assumed, and I was not prepared.

A White former co-worker/friend and I presented on a theoretical framework I had been developing on the disruption of the normalizing tendency of Whiteness in traditional spaces of student leadership; in other words, a framework that could be applied to leadership offices in universities and colleges that would promote and sustain the desire for diversity and implement policy and practices to install it. Every presentation in Utah was a success with counselors being motivated to follow the framework according to their context and apply it with local educational institutions. In other words, it was a success!
Here we are in Chicago where the diversity of higher ed professionals is nothing like Utah. NOTHING! We are surrounded by Black, Asian, and Latino professionals everywhere. Our session was packed, over-packed! We began our presentation and followed it smoothly. People laughed, people took notes, they nodded, they smiled…etc. We broke our audience up into groups and had them dialogue using the worksheet we gave them and that too was a success. Afterwards, a number of people, Black, Brown, and White, came up to us and congratulated and thanked us for the presentation. It was awesome, and our heads were in the clouds…but like all powerful moments, a humbling is in order to bring balance—opposition in all things is some real shit.
A lady came afterwards later on and asked to speak with us for a minute. And being the already lofty sprits we were, we decided to welcome yet another round of compliments. Her demeanor was gentle but authoritative and she asked us, “I wanted to know why you used that clip in the beginning?”
This is where it hit me…
The clip was from the beginning scenes of The Butler. A film about a young African-American who served as a butler in the White House from the early years of Jim Crow to the election of Barack Obama. The film tracks the journey of the racial discourse through each era of race relations. The beginning scenes are set in a sharecropping farm with a cruel White master and his slaves working. The master grabs the  mother of the child-version of the butler and rapes her in a wooden shed where only the noise is heard. He then walks out amongst his slaves where the father of the butler protests and is shot in the head. No blood is shown, but the scene is still a disturbing one—I get it, why would I show such a thing in a professional conference?
Our intention was to magnify the power of context and experiential learning in the process of how one carries out their lives. The butler had always been hesitant of the civil rights and Black power movements, but at the end—which we showed as well—it depicted him joining his son at a protest for Nelson Mandela, something quite powerful as the butler engaged a new form of resistance and came to a much broader and radical consciousness. I shared with this woman—who was also Black—and she said she understood, but did not appreciate the clip and was upset that we showed it.
The romantic idealization of me as an awesome trainer on diversity in education, was broken…and my pride laid there in shambles—that’s what too much praise will do to you—and with a humbled heart, I began to listen.
Sometimes I think this phrase is
appropriate and other times
I don't. It's problematic, that's for
She said that we could not understand her feelings because we were not Black ourselves, nor of the African American experience. She is completely right. She mentioned that those kinds of images, that kind of tone and feeling that the film presented, shares a dark moment in history, something not to be exploited for a training on diversity where it will most likely not be truly understood or talked about; it needed deconstruction and a libratory dialogue where emotions could be dealt with and history contemplated, not overlooked. It’s horror is sometimes too much, because in some places things like this have not stopped. Nor has it’s racist attitude diminished, it has simply transformed into another vehicle—i.e. the prison system.
She ended her words with, “I hope you take this in the way that I’m telling this to you,” which was an incredibly gentle and soft manner, not angry just disappointed and somewhat sad. “Completely,” I responded, “and thank you, thank you so much for saying this, for having the courage to approach us and offer your words, thank you so much. I am learning, I think we all are, and your words will never be forgotten.” She smiled and I could only be disgusted with myself. Yes it was only her opinion, but I began to remember how a few of the older Black audience members also left after the clip and I could only regret showing the clip in the first place, regardless of my intention.
She mentioned the age difference, because a lot of the younger, not all, just some, Black professionals talked with us afterwards and applauded our presentation. Sometimes generational experiences differ, and sometimes they don’t, but that really isn’t important because I’m sure there were younger Black audience members that felt the same way.
The perfect example of the contradiction and tension of
race within the Latino umbrella. The young man is holding
a sign that says "I am Dominican too" in protest of the D.R.'s
new immigration policy on the deportation and stripping
of citizenship of anyone with Haitian ancestry. Global critique
has looked at this as a race-based issue against Black people
in the Dominican Republic.
She also said that we COULDN’T show such a scene in this context because we weren’t Black. Some people might get offended at this or become really defensive. I am not one of those people and I didn’t feel that way at all. I agreed with her. It is insanely problematic to show such images and continue with my presentation as if it did not affect me. OF COURSE IT AFFECTED HER! THIS HAPPENED TO HER PEOPLE FOR HUNDREDS OF YEARS! She wasn’t just seeing a fake scene of a Black actor get shot in the head, she was RELIVING that same oppression and violence!   
I cannot speak to the African-American experience and because of that I do not have a racialized knowledge about how to approach these things, and I typically do not have the right (the Black experience in my opinion is different than the African American experience because the term Black would include the Diaspora at large which includes many Afro descended identities and the many contexts that accompany them; the African American experience is a tragically unique experience in the history of race relations, Dominicans and Afro Brazilians may not be able to relate exactly but can adopt their racial politics). Because I cannot speak to the Black or African American experience—and this is important now so read carefully—I have to notice their racial realities are practically unknown to me and that I can pass through society without ever acknowledging their truths, and be perfectly fine.
Another moment of tension. Many Latinos offered
their voting power to President Obama in
support of immigration reform that supported
undocumented immigrants. Instead, his administration
is accused of record-high deportations, the
highest in decades.
In some ways, I can pass for White—an Eastern European White, Italian or Greek…etc. This helps me and grants me a certain level of privilege in society—not a lot but enough to get by. That privilege allows me to ignore any Black reality and still get ahead in society; like completely disregard it, and be just fine in the end. That’s the problem. I’ll go so far as to say that a lot of us Mesti@ Latinos ought to follow caution in this regard. We as a group, stand in danger of homogenizing the hybrid in our racial nature and having that become a dominant narrative, alienating both the Black and Indigenous experience—Rosa Clemente’s One-Third argument.  If you don’t believe it? Look at how many college campuses would rather focus on engaging the “Latino” population versus any of the other groups of color. This silences the narratives of too many of our brothers and sisters of color; these are narratives that may not have the population numbers to back them up in a board room discussing outreach and cost effectiveness. But we are not an investment, especially for or by any institution! This kind of discourse takes away from any attempt at solidarity, coalition or decolonization. They pit us against each other; divide us and leave the scraps for us to fight over them. These are distractions, and they are deadly ones if we are ever to be honest with each other about race relations in the U.S..  
What many people don't realize is that
there are many moments in U.S. history
 where Black and Brown communities
resisted together in solidarity. As early
as European contact, African and
Indigenous peoples set up rebellions
and even created their own communities.
During the Black and Brown Power
Movements, Brown Berets and Black
Panthers often worked together.
I will never forget her words. They made me reflect my privilege in a very profound way. I never like to say which group has it harder, but I think it’s important for us to check and challenge the way EACH of us thinks about each other. If she showed a film clip about violence perpetuated on a Latin American immigrant, I would get upset as well. There are certain things that we ought to think about before we act, and every process we encounter ought to be cognizant of the many oppressed realities that exist within our context. To avoid or discount them, is to participate in the erasure and exploitation of a group narrative. Talking about race and ethnicity is a difficult and complex process. It is a world filled with intersections across race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. There is no easy way. It wasn’t meant to be. It was meant to act as a dividing force and to unlearn our colonization is hard, but doable. So continue challenging yourself. Continue learning and unlearning. Continue to listen, and take criticism when it’s given with love and with the intent to teach and share knowledge. Continue to resist mainstream ways of thinking; they will enslave you. Continue to make mistakes and continue to endure. The path to peace is a complex one as well as ongoing, but it is truly worthwhile and beautiful in the end.  
Always Learning Truths,

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