Doing Our Own Work (February 2014 #2)

What work do we need to do by ourselves and with our own people in the name of racial justice?

Happy Black Heritage Month… well “happy” may be a relative term in this case.  While I hope that many, many of our brothers and sisters who identify as black and African American are experiencing happiness, I am reminded regularly that we have days and months of remembrance not only to remind ourselves of and to allow healing for our history but also to educate and advance ourselves continuously so as not to repeat it.

Last week, a school in Concord CA (the largest city in the same county as Oakland, CA), chose to commemorate effort to Black History Month with a menu of Fried Chicken, Corn Bread and Watermelon.

Yes. They did.

For any of you asking yourselves, “What is wrong with that?” (some have asked), it is with minimal judgment (see last week’s Monday Musing) that I offer this direct feedback: do some work.  Do some homework and research and read on your own – or with your own – as to why this is a problem.  Furthermore, do some self-work; reflect on why it is that you may not know what is wrong with this situation – today.

This story was tweeted last Thursday; I actually questioned whether or not to give it attention in this blog.  On Friday, I got a call from a distraught community member and remembered – once again – why it is so important to point out the countless subtle and not-so-subtle racist occurrences, as they serve as steppingstones to the very overt and harmful.  This community member, an African American woman called seeking critical friendship for how to handle a matter that involved one of her children, a middle school student.  The child was in class being taught by a white male teacher.  As is frequently the case, the conversation moved to a tangential topic – this time it was about differently-abled people.  In one of her statements, the child referred to the specific disability being discussed using politically incorrect terminology that was used 20 years ago, but no longer.  The student was not trying to be funny or insulting; the student also did not know that one of the teacher’s parents was within the demographic of the discussed disability.

As it was reported to me, the teacher brought the student to the hall where he asked her, “How would you like it if I called your mother a **gg**?”  I want to be clear, the man did not say, quote – the n-word – unquote.  He said the word.

After the girl returned home and shared this information with her mother, it is not a surprise that a call was made to the school.

Sadly, as it turns out, the administrator who followed up with the man also was a Black female.  In their conversation, the man felt the need to use the same word – four times – in order to share his side of the story.

Pause – anyone who is trying to rationalize how this chain of events might have occurred reasonably, please see paragraph four above.

As I listened to the story, so much came up for me.  I felt tremendous anger at the misuse of power (multiple times) and the potential long-term harm that a moment may make.  I felt sadness for the loss of a teachable moment to help a young person learn about a disability and why certain language matters.  I felt my own challenge to approach every situation with love – while, in no way excusing the situation itself.  But most of all, I felt the recurring urgent need for my people – people who look like me – white people – to do a lot of work together and on our own, and how this work we must do should start with few, if any, assumptions of what is or is not shared understanding.

Given that, I want to share something that I wish was shared understanding – and for my colleagues of color, I apologize in advance. This message is not for you as I have heard from many colleagues across difference that they are tired of being in the presence of white people doing work at their expense.  Thus, if you choose not to continue reading, I fully understand.

To my people, the message actually is quite simple:

Never – ever use the N-word.  Never.  That simple.  Right now, if you are asking, “But what if…” or, “But what about when…” or, “”But why can…” – then stop.  The answer is simple: Never.  Ever.  If you don’t know why, that is ok (actually not completely) – but it is ok because you don’t need to remain in ignorance.  You can and should read writings from or talk to other white people who have begun this work for themselves (it never is finished).  You also should read about the experiences of those not from dominant culture (it is a great way to get other perspectives without having to involve people who may not wish to engage in this conversation – yet again); there is a litany of work out there.  If you don’t know where to start – consider a google search on “The N-Word”.

Most of all, it also is ok if you don’t understand why it is NEVER appropriate to use the N-word because you now know the rule: Just Don’t Do It. Ever.

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