"If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."
- Lila Watson, Indigenous Australian Artist, Activist and Academic
After I graduated college, one of my first jobs was in an administrative office at a state university. As I was a new employee, I was confused when I observed my boss acting in ways that seemed to be dishonest. She went shopping during work hours (and bragged about it), elaborately decorated her office using office funds, and determined employee's salaries based on her personal favorites.
Over time, I became increasingly troubled by her behavior, and decided that the only reasonable course of action was to tell the employees who were being unfairly underpaid what she was doing. (You can imagine, it didn't go very well when she found out.)
At the time, I wasn't very self-aware about the fact that my instincts consistently urge me to speak out whenever I think something is unfair or unjust. It is, and has always been, a struggle for me to try to keep quiet, and follow the path of least resistance - even when again and again, opening my mouth causes me to suffer the consequences of my good intentions.
I am constantly battling this inner turmoil as to whether I should stay silent (and tacitly accept the status quo) or if I should speak out (and risk the displeasure and condemnation of others).
Writer and activist Sarah Schulman helped me better understand this endless cycle of unease when I heard her say, “When you refuse to accept an unjust situation and you resist it, you’re then repositioned as the negative force or the threat."
With that one sentence, Schulman clarified the exact reason why I continuously second-guess my actions and reactions. I want to intervene just enough to reduce the harm being done, but then I also want to quietly exit without any backlash. Yet sadly, Schulman is right; it generally doesn't work this way.
It often helps me to come back to Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel's words from his 1986 Nobel acceptance speech, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must - at that moment - become the center of the universe”. I've long felt that these sentiments are true, and I believe them now more than ever.
I've been reading and thinking a lot about spheres of influence - that we should (and can) seek to effect change with the people we know and in communities that we belong. Yet even this advice is not always easy. Although I do feel like I have a positive impact on my children, and the students with whom I work, it becomes much more complicated with family and acquaintances who do not share (and often actively resist) many of my views.
I think it's safe to say that I'm both doing a good job in my sphere of influence, and also not doing well at all. This, I guess, is the burden of being human.
With this blog, perhaps, I am expanding my sphere of influence. And yet if no one reads it, I'm really not. Regardless, I have something to say, and part of that is sharing the voices of others who have and are continuing to change me. In particular, I'm reading and listening to other people's stories - which include stories of emotional trauma, racism, and oppression. And in writing about what I learn, it's helping me more deeply understand other people's experiences, as well as contemplate how we can use this knowledge towards justice and liberation.
And we need to learn from other people's stories because as instructional coach, Elena Aguilar (2020) writes, "“[We live] in a society in which systems of oppression. . . are embedded in our mindsets, behaviors, and institutions. We don’t often recognize the prevalence of systemic oppression because that’s precisely how it works - by becoming invisible, by seeming to be 'normal' and by being just a part of how things are, how we think, and how we feel.” (p. 10) We can make these oppressive forces visible through reading and listening to stories from people who have been impacted the most.
Dr. Beverly Tatum, (1999) author of Why Are All the Black Children Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? states it this way - that racism "is like smog in the air. . .if we live in a smoggy place, how can we avoid breathing in the air? (p. 6)
Similarly, David Foster Wallace offers an analogy in his 2005 commencement speech that although is not specifically about racism, also provides a helpful framing. He describes a young fish who doesn't know what water is even though he spends his whole life swimming in the water. Wallace says, "The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about."
I offer these anecdotes to illustrate that I understand that I am similarly bound by these limitations and blind spots of invisibility, smog, and the world we live in. Yet the urgency of injustice (as it always has) compels me to share what I learn, even if it’s emerging and imperfect. Maybe my discoveries will spark insight in others, or even better, lead them to read or listen, and draw conclusions for themselves.
With great humility, I ask that if my writing about my emerging understandings inadvertently causes harm, that you will reach out and let me know. It is my great hope to do better and be better - for all of our sakes.
Aguilar, Elena. (2020). Coaching for Equity: Conversations that Change Practice. Jossey Bass.
Tatum, B. (1999). Why Are All the Black Children Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race (Vol. 6). New York NY: Basic Books.
Wallace, David Foster. (2009). This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion About Living a Passionate Life. Hatchette Book Group