The Problem(s) with Diversity Workshops

On Monday, I attended a series of mini-workshops on diversity and inclusion. In the span of a few hours, I was ready to call it quits. I was tired and irritated. Diversity talks are becoming increasingly popular and sometimes required by employers. However, I’ve concluded that these talks are merely emblematic of the bigger problem in our society- we talk a good game, but lack true action.

In these workshops, we were given handouts over the definition of diversity and why diversity is important. Honestly, most people will never say that diversity isn’t important. However, society often shows how inclusion is a tough pill to swallow. In these small, one-hour workshops, we nodded our heads to the reasons behind striving for social-equity in our classes, places of work, and etc. But we never discussed the need for diversity. We simply started the conversation on how we can become diverse and inclusive in our practices.

These workshops were relatively easy to sit through and didn’t require much critical thinking.

In efforts to appease the predominately White audience, Whiteness was never a part of the bigger picture. The concept of Whiteness was never on the table to be deconstructed. It was completely ignored. Out of sight. Out of mind.

As being a Black woman, I couldn’t ignore this huge elephant in the room. I was bewildered that this wasn’t the first point of discussion in our conversation on diversity and inclusion.

The speakers would speak about ‘the other,’ ‘voice,’ ‘cultural-relevancy,’ and etc. However, there was no mention of Whiteness and how it perpetuates the inequities that plague the lives of Black and Brown people. In order to have a true conversation over this issue, we have to contextualize the issue. There wasn’t any contextualization. The conversation continued as if there wasn’t a reason for why these social inequities persist in our society. I guess, these social inequities are just inherent.

As I shuffled between the mini-workshops, I only saw a handful of people that looked like me. Why? In a place that parades the necessity of ‘diversity’, where was this diversity?

In arriving at the rooms in which these workshops were held, I wanted to scream and pull out my own hair. I was being told the necessity of diversity by a White person in a room full of White people. I was being told that there were external organizations available that could facilitate an easier existence in the space I would occupy for work.

In the numerous diversity workshops I’ve attended in the past and present, I believe they play to lip-service and have no real impact on changing the climate of a space. If the issue of Whiteness isn’t deconstructed then the cause is lost. The content in these workshops are very sanitized and lack real depth. Inequity may be used, but the concept is very much misunderstood. In most cases, structural changes are usually not a part of the conversation.

In being a Black woman, I am deeply enraged by these workshops. I find them extremely nonsensical and unhelpful in the fight for creating equitable conditions for underrepresented and historically oppressed groups.

Diversity and inclusion are two separate concepts.

In my opinion, we must aim for both. We must aim to create, sustain and enforce new ways of including those that are continuously silence and marginalized in our society. There’s no benefit of having diversity if people are being structurally excluded.

If tokenism is the aim, diversity may be the route for you. But if you’re aiming to be inclusive, you’re digging deep to change the structures in place to create space for all voices to exist and maneuver.

 

 

Advertisements

My First Debate: Lessons Learned

social justice

In 2007, I learned about Debate and Forensics from my younger brother. I didn’t know much about the class, but he never could stop talking about it. So, I thought I should add that course to my schedule since he was raving about it all the time. Now, my brother isn’t a huge fan of school but there was something about this class.

In having the benefit of a doubt, I had my counselor add the class to my schedule. Was I freaking out? Yes. Why? Because my brother is a bit more experimental with his choices than I am. However, I trusted him on this one. It’s a class at school. What’s the worst that can happen, right? Actually, a lot did happen.

The following semester I walked into a classroom with peers I had known and others I didn’t know. In walking into the class, I looked away in awe and was trying to find the teacher. Believe me, I started to believe there wasn’t a teacher. However, I saw a man rise from an overrun desk by students. Heck, I didn’t even know a teacher was under them. Honestly, I had never seen students gravitate towards a teacher like this. I was absolutely freaked out! What was this place? I wanted to talk to management. Haha.

So, as the teacher had arisen from his desk, I simmered down. I was very close to walking out of that class and getting it dropped. However, that wasn’t the case. As he walked to the front of the room with a slouch, I knew this would be an interesting class. He introduced himself and introduced the students that had overrun his desk. They were debaters. For me, I wanted to be one. I don’t know why, but I wanted to debate.

In being taught different LD (Lincoln-Douglas), Policy (a year-long topic), Public Forum, and individual events, I was extremely excited to participate. I’m not sure if my brother debated at a tournament, but I wanted to. So, I went to my teacher and asked him if I could join the debate team. Of course, he was a bit sarcastic, but he was willing to teach me about my specific event- Lincoln-Douglas debate.

So, I would listen to the elders (accomplished students) and the other debate coach to gain insight on the logistics of debating. As you would think, I was ready to take on my first tournament.

For my first tournament, my parents came to root me on! Not only did they come to root me on, but they spoke to my debate coach after my first round of LD. I couldn’t be more embarrassed. Understandably, you want to make sure that your child is on the right path. However, I knew that I did horrible in my first round. I didn’t know how to synthesize my information and I didn’t know how to connect my philosophical framework to my argument. It was a bit messy. Nonetheless, I didn’t allow that to stop me from going on to round two.

In undergoing this exciting, but frightening experience, I learned many things about myself:

  1. You must never be afraid to try new things.
  2. You must never get comfortable.
  3. You must never be afraid to get messy or to go through messy situations.
  4. You will only grow through difficulty.

As a Black woman, educator, and student, I am learning that life is very much layered for me. In working in a space as a multi-layered individual with various identity-markers, I have to honor myself in any place I may go. It is much more frightening to stay stagnant than to progress in uncertainty.

What They Don’t Teach You In School!

whitesupreee

It’s been a long time since I written a blog post, but I’m back in full-bloom! As some of you may know, I just started an exciting new adventure in academe. Did I have all of this planned out from the onset? No. Heck, I didn’t even think I would graduate high-school.

In being accepted into my doctoral program, I am beyond ecstatic about the possibilities in front of me. Why? I hope to gain a deep understanding of race and gender equity in education. As a Black woman, the issue of equity has always been an issue for my own existence. I could give a laundry-list of reasons for why I am interested in equity beyond my own life, but that isn’t going to be necessary.

In growing up in a Black working-class family that struggled in many ways, I saw and experienced the inequities that so many others are and have experienced. In school, I didn’t get the chance to think critically about the systems at play and how they correlate with one another. I didn’t understand the nature of White Supremacy and its hands throughout the world. Yes, I understood racism, but I didn’t understand that White Supremacy is a system that functions on multiple levels throughout societies all around the world.

In being ignorant of the language, frameworks, theories, and theorists that center their work on cultural production, I was in the dark. For this reason, I believe schooling and education are two different things. Yes, education is great because you are able to learn and to develop as an individual and citizen of the world. However, schooling comes with a set of behaviors and expectations that are rewarded and punished, accordingly. In school, we are taught certain values and we are told how to carry ourselves in a way that is culturally acceptable in school. For non-White students, it is extremely challenging to adjust to the value-system of many schools because they aren’t representative of home-life and our communities. However, we are expected to simply accept the rules to avoid punishment.

Rule #1 of White Supremacy: Whiteness will ALWAYS be rewarded.

In seeking to move beyond my own socialization through schooling, I am working to decolonize myself daily through the way I view myself, the world and others. Yes, it is extremely hard because you’re countering everything you’ve been taught about yourself. In moving towards liberation, I’ve found myself loving myself even more. How? When you’re no longer subjugated to the ideals of the dominant culture, you become more at peace with your own truth(s). You are no longer looking to appease others, but you’re seeking your own ultimate truth or reality.

Rule #2 of White Supremacy: Your OTHERNESS is only rewarded through capitalism (entertainment) whilst your existence is constantly up for debate (police brutality, lynchings, housing discrimination, New Jim Crow Era, lack of access to health-care, lack of access to quality education, etc).

In school, you are limited to what is taught. You are truly subjected to the bare minimum. You have to reach beyond the classroom and take full ownership of your education. Remember, schooling and education are two different things. It wasn’t until I reached college that I understood the significance of taking ownership of my own education. But isn’t that too late? Yes. For some students, college may not be an option. So, we have to prepare students now to understand that there are a plethora of resources out here in the world to learn from when it comes to educating oneself. You should never restrict yourself.

Rule #3 of White Supremacy: Schooling is meant to socialize the masses to accept dominant culture’s values.

Ultimately, schools are entities that represent dominant society and they work to propel values and belief-systems that are prevalent. How do I know this? Schools are not isolated from the outside world. On the contrary, they work in conjunction with the political system and become influenced by stakeholders (politicians, lobbyists, private sector, federal government, and etc). Furthermore, teachers are usually the last group of individuals at the table when it comes to educational revolutions.

Did they tell you that at school? Probably not. Are teachers cognizant of this? Maybe.

So, what is the meaning behind all of this? You have to think beyond what you’ve been taught. You must take full ownership over what you’re accepting and start the process of decolonization.

Did anyone at school tell you to decolonize yourself? Probably not.

To decolonize is to re-educate yourself and to re-socialize yourself on the world and your relation to it outside of Whiteness.

But why is that important? It’s important in order to seek true liberation and true community based in love and not domination.

Black Panther: Envisioning Our Future

IMG_0748.JPG

After watching Black Panther over the weekend, I knew that there would be writers pouring out their thoughts on the movie’s politics. In the days following, I started to see an ongoing flow of think-pieces by major media-outlets to local bloggers in my city. In consuming these articles and positioning them next to my own thoughts regarding the Marvel film, I knew that I wanted to write my own piece.

As I sat through the movie, I began to see the diverse representation of Africans/Americans. In Wakanda, a country that is isolated from outside interference, it is technologically advanced and culturally intact from invaders. Wakanda is intentionally isolationist and seeks to keep itself from colonialism. In preserving oneself, Wakanda is sustained through vibranium, a metal that is used for its technology.  In this techno-savvy country, Shuri, a young woman is in complete control of technology. Shuri is only one of many women in Wakanda that keeps the country going daily.

However, Wakanda’s politics of keeping out outsiders, including those Wakandans that were taken to America through family-members, has an incredible spin on the story. As an audience-member, I saw myself as Michael B. Jackson’s character. As African-Americans, America is home. However, American hasn’t always been home due to the slave-trade and the forced migration of enslaved Africans from Africa to the Americas. Nonetheless, Wakanda is not a real place and the forced migration of millions of Africans to America has been an issue for centuries.

What is home? Do we have a home to go back to? If there isn’t a Wakanda, what does the future look like?

Wakanda may be seen as an ideal place to go, but it doesn’t exist. Throughout the African Diaspora, how do envision a new future for us? What does it look like?

Some people say that we must move beyond tactics used by the oppressor while others say that we must be armed in resistance. However, what makes us different from our oppressors if we are using their tactics to achieve liberation?

In a recent Facebook post, a woman asked the question of why T’Challa didn’t go to the AU or the African Union when seeking to share resources? Why the United Nations? Furthermore, many movie-goers asked the question about the CIA agent and his role in Black liberation. In seeking out liberation, do we become isolationists, form alliances with others or create a new paradigm for liberation?

In envisioning this new future, will there be space made for all people within the African Diaspora- poor, LGBT, Muslim, etc? One of the concerns from women across the diaspora was concerns about Black female representation. For others, it was the representation of BOKO Haram at the beginning of the movie and the representation of Muslims. In going forward, how do we make sure that liberation is loving and inclusive for all within the African Diaspora?

Learning Self-Care In The Basement

dad

At a young age, I could remember my dad being in the basement and having the house plagued with the tunes of Kenny G, David Bowie, Prince, Michael Jackson,  Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force, Parliament, Herbie Hancock and others. The smell of his cigarettes would creep up from his cave and stain the walls of the house. Down below, he was at peace. His cave, the basement, became a place that I didn’t understand. His CDs, tapes, albums and DJ equipment would be scattered across a wooden countertop in the corner of the basement. Occasionally, my brother and I would go down there to play in the cardboard boxes as if they were tunnels to another world. My dad didn’t mind. As we played, he would keep an eye on us while switching between different tracks. In replaying these memories like a broken record, I have finally come to realize that my dad was sending us a message.

In our lives, we may find ourselves in the midst of hardship, trials, and chaos, but you must find peace. You have to mentally disconnect and engage in a space that is solely yours. Self-care? Of course. My mom would get frustrated at times because of the volume, but we realized that the basement was his space to attain equilibrium. To us, we didn’t understand why he would venture down to the cave and sit among endless albums in a cold basement. I never asked. I never did research to figure out the psychological reasoning behind it. However, I get it now. We have to keep a part of ourselves to ourselves to keep our sanity in a world that is continuously engaged in issues that can drive you to become drained.

When looking back on the students that I have worked with in the past, I can remember times in which some students would shut down. Why? Stress. Irritation. Internal and external conflicts. In helping the student, I would often talk to them, offer time to themselves, take them for a walk or just let them take a break from classwork. However, I never taught them self-care. I never told them about this concept that I had recently learned and what my father had practiced in my years of adolescence.

We all need to find ways to gather all of our parts and make peace with them. We don’t have to stay in the chaos. We don’t have to succumb to mental and physical drainage. We can find a place to just be alone. We can pull out that notebook and write. We can pull out that crayon and color. We can put on that song and listen. We can simply sit and look at the sky.  This is self-care. This is self-love.

As I grew older, we moved and so did the cave. My father would no longer find solace in the basement of our home and my brother and I wouldn’t find happiness in our cardboard boxes. However, my dad did teach me a lesson from a young age- never let go of that which brings you joy.

In the years to come, I hope to practice this self-care that my father taught me. More importantly, I hope to share the power of self-care with others. Self-care is no easy task, but its possible.

“Not all wars have casualties, Vee. Some struggles between old and new ideas, some battles between ways of seeing have only victors. Not all dying is the physical self.”
—Sophie Heywood

Transformative Education: Effective Teaching Strategies in Urban Education

thinkoutsidethebox

Transformative education is a term that I often use when describing my personal pedagogy for teaching. In being an advocate for social-justice, I believe that education should engage students. A personal teacher of mine, Dr. Bell Hooks from Kentucky, often speaks about transformative education in her research. Hooks (1994) described education as being “the practice of freedom, students are not the only ones who are asked to share, to confess. Engaged pedagogy does not seek simply to empower students. Any classroom that employs a holistic model of learning will be a place where teachers grow…” (Hooks, p. 21). In seeking to change the world, the teacher can spark change within the classroom. The classroom setting is the most radical space for possibility… (Hooks, 1994, p. 12)

As an educator that believes in the importance of social-justice as being the lens through which I see the world, I understand that the classroom must be a radical place for transformation. In being an African-American woman and educator to predominantly African-American students, it is mandatory and not a luxury to have our narratives centered within the American-framework.  Black feminist and lesbian poet, Audre Lorde (1984), tells us in her work Sister Outsider that we are never whole when we are silent about the issues we are fighting internally, and we must speak about these issues for the sake of our sanity (p. 42).

Transformative education forces educators to look critically at their curriculum and to unpack the hidden or imposed values within material. To have classrooms as radical spaces, it is incumbent upon the teacher to address biases and stereotypes. Why is this important? Before any effective teaching can take place, the curriculum must should be analyzed for any disparities that would prevent students from learning or wanting to learn. Ineffective curriculum can marginalize and oppress students. In being in resistance to a society that lacks the humanization of all of its members, it becomes the responsibility of educators to teach with equity. All teachers should teach with social-equity as being the pedagogy for instruction. In “Equity Pedagogy: An Essential Component of Multicultural Education” in Theory Into Practice by Cherry McGee Banks and James A. Banks (1995), pedagogy of social equity is:

Teaching strategies and classroom environments that help students from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural groups attain the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to function effectively within, and help create and perpetuate, a just, humane and democratic society. (p.152)

On one occasion, a teacher within my school asked if I could substitute for her split-level class (second and third grade). For her lesson, she wanted the students to work out of a workbook that was used to teach principles from a new implemented school-wide program on leadership by Stephen Covey. As the students began to work, a Muslim-student raised his hand and said that he didn’t celebrate any of the holidays in his workbook. I grabbed one of the workbooks and noticed that the list of holidays were all Judeo-Christian. So, I asked the student if he wanted to tell his peers about the holidays that he celebrates. He declined. So, I began to tell the students that Muslims celebrate Eid, a celebration of community, family, and prayer. The student began to smile and add to my statement. As the student began to explain Eid, I decided to show the students a visual representation of Eid through YouTube. In having an open conversation about this multicultural issue, it allowed students to learn about another religion and to think critically about texts. In “Pedagogical Approaches to Diversity in the English Classroom: A Case Study of Global Feminist Literature” by Julie M. Barst (2013), she explained that “we study diversity not just for the sake of diversity or to benefit our future careers but to learn to identify those wo lack power or voice within our communities…” (p. 151). In going through curriculum, it is important to interrupt and interrogate the material and to speak openly with students about these discrepancies. Education isn’t going to be simple. It will be messy and multicultural issues will make everyone in the classroom vulnerable. However, it is unjust to ignore the voices of those without power in our communities as Barst stated in her research.

In advocating for a radical form of education that is transformative and based in social-justice, it is imperative to decolonize and break away from conventional ways of thinking that are stifling to the mission of social-justice. In Teachers as Intellectuals: Toward a Critical Pedagogy by Henry Giroux, he stated that “…schools are inextricably linked to a larger set of political and cultural processes and they not only reflect the antagonisms embodied in such processes but also embody and reproduce them” (p.98). By recognizing that the classroom is a place of endless possibilities for students (and teachers), we must make risks propelling communities forward that are historically marginalized and oppressed. The culture of a school is important because it becomes the embodiment of certain values. If these embodied values are integrated within the school, it could potentially liberate or oppress students. In transformative education, various approaches to education in and outside of the classroom may need to be utilized to interrupt inequities. In one example, Barst (2013) encourages teachers to take a feminist approach to curriculum to confront historical and societal injustices against women and girls by looking at the historical and cultural context to the political and feminist issues in a text (p. 152). In this specific approach, the teacher is centering the conversation around a population that has encountered gendered violence, silencing and socio-economic oppression. By looking specifically at the historical and cultural context to a text, it teaches students to analyze a text and to draw connections to the world. In relating the text to the world, students will be more apt to listen and to enter dialogue among each other. Hooks (1994) argued that it is vital that we have conversations to find solutions and to heal. She stated that

Conversation is the central location of pedagogy for the democratic educator. Talking to share information, to exchange ideas is the practice both inside and outside academic settings that affirms to listeners that learning can take place in varied time frames and that knowledge can be shared in diverse models of speech. (p. 44)

Hooks challenges the classroom teacher to hold more conversations to allow for information to be shared, challenged and heard. In this mutual exchange, participants are given the opportunity to hear various forms of speech and to appreciate linguistic diversity. As previously stated, transformative education is radical and unconventional- it centers marginalized and oppressed populations and seeks social-justice. In the classroom, students should feel empowered and accepted. In The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African-American Children, Dr. Gloria Billings Ladson (1994) argued that “cultural hegemony is the established view of things- a commonsense view of what is and why things happen that serves the interests of those people already privileged in a society” (p. 46).  The route to social-justice is one deeply rooted in providing all students access to an educational-model that doesn’t silence their narratives. In the classroom, educators must confront and resist White hegemony. However, this resistance is often fought against and upheld because of the power structure in place within many schools. Nonetheless, this resistance is vital in confronting the social-inequities present within curricula and systems of education. In tackling this issue, Billings-Ladson (1994) encourages educators to

approach curriculum through culturally-relevant teaching because it is a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes. These cultural referents are not merely vehicles for bridging or explaining the dominant culture; they are aspects of the curriculum in their own right. (p. 18)

Educators that are student-centered and approaches curriculum through culturally-relevant teaching exposes students to a radical form of education that discusses multicultural issues and how they are connected and affects the world around them. In this approach to education, students and teachers become reflective and starts to see systems and their importance within the world.

In reflecting on this paper, I felt a rage overcome me because of the continuous work that is needed to fight against social-inequities within communities of color. In being an African-American woman that grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, I was often confronted with the social-inequities that many students of color contend with on the daily basis. My working-class parents would often shuffle my brother and I throughout school-districts within the state of Missouri due to financial-strains. In this shuffling, we attended overcrowded schools, racist teachers, tracking systems, a lack of money for resources, unqualified teachers and curriculum steeped in racism, sexism, and homophobia. I was never taught how to deal with these issues because they were accepted as normal and a part of the educational-system. I came from a home in which my father was addicted to crack and unemployed with a mother that was forced to work multiple jobs to  provide for the family. In my own narrative, my parents constantly reinforced the importance of education and becoming better than them. My parents had their own issues, but they pushed us to exceed and to make an impact in the world. In reflecting on my parents and my own experiences, I hope to make an impact within this field and provide quality education that is just and humane. In “Pedagogy for Liberation: Spoken Word Poetry in Urban Schools” by Mia Fiore (2015), she argued that “teachers who understand their students and recognize the importance of their students’ culture and interests are likely to create a genuine learning community in which students are actively engaged” (p. 828). In concurring with Fiore, I want to invite students to a mutual exchange of knowledge sharing and construction that allows for them to center their experiences and to draw connections to the world around them. As an African-American woman that grew up in urban Kansas-City, I know that I was supposed to be a statistic according to research. However, I am still here. I am still pushing to construct a new way of seeing curriculum and instruction within this field.

References

Banks, C. A., & Banks, J. A. (1995). Equity pedagogy: An essential component of multicultural education. Theory Into Practice, (3).

Barst, J. M. (2013). Pedagogical Approaches to Diversity in the English Classroom: A Case Study of Global Feminist Literature. Pedagogy Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature Language Composition and Culture, (1).

Fiore, M. (2013). Pedagogy for Liberation. Education and Urban Society, (7).

Giroux, H. A., Freire, P., & McLaren, P. (1988). Teachers as intellectuals: Toward a critical pedagogy of learning. Granby, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Trumansberg, NY: Crossing Press.

“Back home, people are dying to learn…”

mexican.jpg

Over the course of three years, I have met peers and friends from countries near and far. In the meeting these individuals, I’ve learned of the struggles that one may encounter in seeking to get an education. As being an American, I’ve never thought twice about getting an education. Yes, college is and can be very expensive, but I never questioned the accessibility of college. As a working-class Black American, I know how expensive higher-education can be if your parents or family doesn’t have money to pay for it. Nonetheless, financial aid would be an option. However, is this the case for everyone? Is education truly accessible for every individual that we may encounter in our classes or in our personal lives?

If you hold American citizenship, you are afforded privilege. Yes, that is a huge statement to make. Yes, it is a political statement too. However, I know the layered reality of being American and how it is very nuanced. Nonetheless, American citizenship entitles an individual with a lifestyle that is free from many of the struggles of those that do not hold citizenship and those that aren’t documented. Now, how do I know about these struggles as an American with privileges due to her citizenship? Well, keep reading.

About a year ago, I encountered students that were unable to travel on a trip with their classmates because of their immigration status. Due to their lack of documentation, this group of students stayed behind at school and had to miss their end-of-year trip. As I spoke to these students, I began to understand how privilege doesn’t come without its responsibilities. In the case of these students, some could argue that they were being punished for their immigration status. While others may simply state that they were out of luck. For me, I asked the question, “how are we making education accessible to those that aren’t documented, without citizenship or aren’t financially able?”.  Now, this is just one scenario to think about as we travel down this journey of accessibility and privilege.

In my college experience, I’ve met undocumented and international students that have forced me to check my own privilege. For some international students, working isn’t optional. Why? Families are unable to fund their child’s education and housing while in American. Also, the dollar can be valued at a higher rate than their country’s currency. In putting this in perspective, if you are an international student that is taking undergraduate courses at a full-time status (12 credit hours or more) at the international rate at a currency-rate that is much higher than where you are from, your family can go into poverty in trying to sponsor you. Now, I’ve met students from several countries and their parents are able to sponsor their student’s housing and education. However, this isn’t true for some international students. In the case of those students that are coming from poor families, working doubles or triples and going to school full-time becomes mandatory. Not only is this mandatory for students without a choice, but many of these same students are working extremely hard to send money back home to family that has sacrificed savings to send them here to study.

Over this past summer, I observed at a local Kansas City, Missouri high-school within two ESL (English as a second language) classes and some of the students would tell me how they would come from school and work full-shifts afterwards and during the night to help their families since they knew more English than their parents. For one older student from Tanzania, he shared with me that he wanted to join the military like his older brother in order to acquire American citizenship to make his life easier. In conversing with these students, I knew that their narratives and those from my college-classes had to become centered. I never knew about the struggles of undocumented or international students. Honestly, I thought education was extremely accessible because of financial-aid.  However, this is simply a fantasy and a realization of unchecked privilege.

Yesterday, I went on my usual coffee-break and saw a good friend of mine. As usual, we engaged in small-talk and eventually changed the topic to education. As a Sudanese-American, my friend began to tell me of the trials of those in her country and how the youth are dying to get the chance to come to America to become educated. In her life, she told me of the struggles of her parents and how they have sacrificed for her to be in America. As she spoke of the struggles of her parents and those back in her country, tears began to roll from her eyes. She told me that I would never understand and only those with her experience could know the hardship(s) associated with trying to get an American education.

As I reflect on my own position in this world, I know that there’s no space for unchecked privilege when people are “dying” to have the thing(s) that I have or take for granted. Quickly I am reminded that I need to take back-seat and allow others to take charge of their narratives. As a person of privilege, I can’t control the narratives of others. As a Black American, I understand oppression well, but I understand my position as being an American. For many, it is easy to complain about the cost of education and how it would be nice to simply go to school without working, but for those that aren’t financially-able and for those that aren’t given the privilege to simply go to school without work, please stop and check your privilege. As someone once said, “the world doesn’t revolve around you”.

 

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: The Fight for Life

20171121_201355 (1).jpg

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer and professor of Literature, prides himself in writing in his native-tongue of Gikuyu to articulate social issues in Africa, specifically during the time of British-rule in Kenya. In his own quest of seeking truth and asking important questions, he knew that revolution could only come through his right of using the language he grew up speaking with those within his own community.

Thiong’o grew up in a large peasant family and saw the British settle throughout his country. As he experienced the changes that would come with the settlers, he started to write in opposition to the issues within Kenya and within Africa. His writings would eventually have him exiled and imprisoned.

As a student of literature, I became quickly attached to the story of Thiong’o. For me, his story is the story of many Black and Brown individuals across the world. In the search for truth, important questions must be asked. In the asking of these questions, we have to look at ourselves and center our narratives. In the case of Thiong’o, his writings became a weapon for disrupting social-norms. In using his weapon of choice, he began to question his use of English as being the vehicle for his message. He understood the importance of Afro-European Literature and why many African writers wrote in the language of their colonizers (French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, etc). However, he knew that his message had to be delivered with a purely African language. He didn’t want to fight through the double-consciousness that accompanied his writing through the English language. He wanted to use his native-tongue to connect with other Africans that spoke Gikuyu.

For Thiong’o, language is life. Language is an embodiment of a culture that is specific to a people. If a people are stripped of their language, they are stripped of their culture. In being stripped of one’s culture, you are without the very thing that gives you community- a sense of belonging. In using his native tongue, he can preserve his community.

In writing Gikuyu, he knew his writings or his messages could be heard and read by those within his community. In revolting against a system that dehumanizes a people, he wanted to reach the very community that nurtured his very life as a boy and as a man.

In reflecting on Thiong’o, it is vital that we preserve our language(s) in the face of imperialism. We must not be afraid to speak our tongues. In speaking and clinging to our cultures, we are centering our own narratives. In centering our narratives, we are creating and sustaining visibility.

For Thiong’o, revolution must be fought on the front lines. Revolution starts with our own conviction to seeking truth and liberation.

Will you be bold enough to stand alone? Will you be bold enough to center your narrative? Will you be bold enough to go against the grain and persist in your truth?

In the words of Thiong’o, “A writer who tries to communicate the message of revolutionary unity and hope in the languages of the people becomes a subversive character…A democratic participation of the people in the shaping of their own lives or in discussing their own lives in languages that allow for mutual comprehension is seen as being dangerous to the good government of a country and its institutions”

You must not be afraid to be subversive.

You must disrupt.

You must stand up to social injustices.

Reference:

Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (London, Nairobi, Portsmouth, 1986), pp.26-30

 

She Told Me…

13SUMMERSCHOOL1-master768

I was a sophomore in high-school when I was told that I did a ‘great and professional job as an African-American’ after I performed my poetry for the talent show. As I heard this compliment or microaggression, I curled up my lips into a smile and walked away. As a student, how could I respond to this? What was I to do?

Who was this person? It was my Health and Sex Education teacher.

The comment has never left me. If anything, I keep it as a reminder for the work that is required of all of us in this fight for equitable conditions for underrepresented and marginalized students. In my high-school, I was a part of the 10% of minority students. I was a part of the 10% that was absent from the curriculum. I was a part of the 10% that was seen as trouble-makers in the school. I was a part of the 10% that was suffering in silence.

As being a Black girl in a school that left me voiceless and invisible, I faded into the background until I fought my way into the center. At a certain point in high-school, I couldn’t take it. I just couldn’t allow my narrative to be wiped off the face of the Earth. I couldn’t sit in class and allow peers and my teachers to say things that weren’t true about me. It felt as if a war was being waged against me.

In the same year, I was told by a peer sitting behind me in English class that I couldn’t be a terrorist because of the floral pink scarf that I was wearing on my head.

Say what?

As things became worst, I remember going to lunch late one day because I wanted to check the status of my admission at a local university. As I checked the status and saw that I was admitted into my top pick, I flew down the hallway and towards the cafeteria. As I was running, I was stopped by a staff member. As she stopped me, I explained to her the good news and she chuckled and said, “you’re running as if it’s been a terrorist attack”.

Come again.

In reflecting on the experiences of being a Black Muslim student, I cringe. I cry. I hurt. Why? Because the pain runs deep.

As a marginalized student, where do you go when there’s nowhere to go? So, I ask you this question as you engage in this world as a consumer. How do we create safe spaces for all people? How do we make sure that narratives aren’t being erased? How do we make sure that we aren’t creating spaces that leave people voiceless?

For me, I’ve realized that fighting and working towards social-equality is a mandate for all of us. We must work for freedom. We must work to create a global community that is pluralistic.

 

Choosing the Children, Choosing the Community

33461476294_f14553e94d_z

It was a hard night for me. One of those nights that consisted of cups of coffee, deep reflection and late-night conversation. Yes, it was that kind of night. Why? In a series of unexpected and unplanned events, I was told some concerning information with the onslaught of grimacing questions to follow.

Snapchat buzzed me. I had a notification. One of my beloved Somali friends sent me a video of a well-known Black speaker discussing the Black-community and the need for deep-reflection and action. In talking to her about the issues of Black struggle throughout the African Diaspora, another beloved friend sent me a text telling me that her young four-years old, Black son wanted to be White.

In being a product of urban and suburban education, I know the plight of Black children. I understand it very well. In the early years of my identity-development, I wanted to be White. It became so bad that I took actual steps in making this happen. I remember making a conscious decision in seventh grade to look White and to be desirable like my White counterparts. So, I decided to buy some blonde hair-dye and skin lightening creme. I tried not eating for a period of time to lose my curves and to look similar to the White girls in my school. I wanted blonde-hair with highlights, a thin body, and White-skin. I didn’t care how I would achieve this goal. I didn’t. I wanted it. I needed it. It was my path to acceptance, love and upward mobility in my environment.

In an attempt to become White, I felt like Pecola in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I was deeply moved by Whiteness and the elevation it was given in the classroom, on the streets, and within my own family. In being deeply confused on how to feel about myself, I didn’t know who to confide in. Growing up, I remembered watching Good Times, Parenthood, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, The Bernie Mac Show and etc. I remember watching these various Black shows and connecting deeply with them, but I still didn’t know where to fit within the Black community. Even when watching these shows, I saw how complex the Black identity is. You will see Black characters that would elevate Whiteness while others wouldn’t. And in these shows, the White gaze was ever-present.

In my own household, I didn’t receive any special-education on Black History (African or African-American). If I learned anything, I learned it from the snippets I would see on television or at school. Of course, these were unreliable sources in most instances. As a Black girl, I was fascinated by television, magazines, books and the outside world. As a teenager, I would often read Seventeen, Teen Vogue and Cosmopolitan. At the time, these magazines would show White bodies with the exception of a few light-skin or biracial Black girls. Most of the beauty suggestions were tailored to White-skin and those with straight or curly hair. Of course, I became lost in all of this. In asking my parents about Black History, they would laugh and tell me that we are Americans. We aren’t Africans. We aren’t from Africa. It was hard to swallow these words because I really wanted to know about myself. In school and within social-circles, I felt as if I was dying a slow-death. Nobody was giving me what I needed as a Black girl-child.

In the latter years of my education, I went off to the university and thirsted for Black-History.  I knew that a Black Studies’ class would quench this thirst. Dr. Clovis Semmes, professor, and director of the Black Studies’ program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City became a lifeline for me. I would ask questions, send emails and visit him in his office because I wanted to know myself. I wanted to know about my heritage. I wanted to learn what I wasn’t given in my previous years of schooling. In searching my university for this kind of education, I was turned away from numerous departments- Religious Studies, Women and Gender Studies, English Literature and Language and the History department. I was told to go to the Black Studies’ program. Out of an entire urban-based university, I was told to go to a place that isn’t even considered a department. In finally finding my way in the right direction, Dr. Semmes told me, “You have to study on your own. You have to seek out the answers for yourself. You have to supplement your education with Black-education. You can’t depend on this university”. I will never forget those words. In being told these words over four years ago, I have done exactly that. I have challenged myself to learn about the Black-experience throughout the African Diaspora.

In going through all of this, I know I am not yet done. The fight to love me in a world that doesn’t love Black or Brown people is hard. However, I can’t give up. In working with Black and Brown children for the last three years, I made a commitment to them. I made a commitment to making an impact on Black and Brown communities. In stepping outside of academia for the first time, I went to work

In stepping outside of academia for the first time, I went to work in the Center Public School District within Kansas City, Missouri at an elementary school. In working with kindergarten through fifth-grade students, I saw that many things had not changed from when I was growing up as a young Black child. In giving students the option of drawing a self-portrait, basketball or board-games, some chose to draw themselves. In checking on the students and making my rounds, I saw that many of the young, Black girls were drawing themselves with blonde-hair and peach-skin. I asked some of them why they chose to draw this version of themselves and they told me, “she is beautiful”.  In remembering the words of Dr. Ominata Okpokodu, “whenever you see an injustice of an issue, you must interrupt. You must disrupt. You can’t allow the cycle to be ignored. You have a duty to change what isn’t right,” I told the young girls that their skin, hair, and bodies were beautiful and didn’t need to be changed. Of course, this may not be the ultimate solution, but I believe that this is necessary. In an urban-school in which most of the teachers and staff members are White, I knew that the children were searching for themselves in what appeared to them daily.

In a scene on Good Times, the young-son Michael placed a Black Jesus on the wall as an attempt to resist and counter the White Jesus on the wall. In walking in on this change, his mother, Florida Evans became dismissive of this swap. She told her son that this particular phenotype of Jesus was wrong. Not only was it wrong, but she wasn’t raised with this Jesus. She argued that her White Jesus was an heirloom and she wouldn’t replace it with anything else. In seeing this back and forth argument between a Black mother and her son, I was puzzled. Why? I knew that Michael was looking for the same thing as me. Michael was looking for his Black self in a world of Whiteness. He wanted to see his image somewhere. But like most images, Whiteness would be the only acceptable image and representation to look to.

In 2014, the young, Black girls at the table drawing themselves were only drawing the image that they had seen through their Black eyes. Their image wasn’t elevated. Their image wasn’t on the wall. Their image was shunned and denied space to exist. And like those Black little girls and like Pecola, I wanted to be White so that I could be loved and accepted.

However, this must change. It has to change. Children are the future. And tomorrow will be their world. As I think about Black America, I cry because the struggle continues with the children in our households, in our classrooms, in our places of worship and within our communities. We have to teach them to love themselves. We have to teach them to resist. We have to teach them to create their own narratives. We have to teach them to create and build. We have to give them the space to be Black and proud.

We have to create communities of young, Black leaders, entrepreneurs, teachers, writers, film-makers, activists, lawyers, painters and etc. We have to love them. We have to love them.

We have to love them because this world sure doesn’t.

When we choose the children, we choose the community.