Unlearning Oppression (Lesson 13): Stop the Labels!

Everyone likes to be called by their name. Almost no one likes their name to be mispronounced, changed or shortened by anyone other than their immediate family. And yet, so many people impose egocentric perspectives on our names. Worse, many people in our society openly express outrage, discomfort and blatant bigotry against people with Non-white names. This practice of Othering impacts most immigrants, Indigenous people and African Americans, who use naming as counter-cultural reclaiming mechanism for self-valuing: After Slavery, wherein most black people were given names by slaveholders, Black people collectively have reclaimed naming rights. Essentially, I want you to “Say my name.”

A temporary sign, labeling those allowed to walk on the street. The sign appeared for two days before disappearing again.

And still, we have even bigger problems than that: As a society, we are so comfortable with the status quo, we’ve forgotten the basic respect that begins with learning our student’s name. Labeling is pervasive in the workplaces, classrooms and interpersonal dynamic spaces like the Black Lives Matter Human Rights Movement. Even in smaller groups, like an email list, people resort to acronyms and other inventive labels to avoid saying individual names. Unfortunately, this is not a universal practice–White People are excepted. That said, large groups of us are lumped together, unnecessarily: For example the new label BIPOC. Such labels are a product of White-Anglo Saxon hegemony that dictates which names will be said aloud, and who gets a label. I don’t want to be consolidated into a convenient group. I want to be seen as I am.

Lesson 13: Practice learning and using individual names for all the people in your community. Avoid lumping people into groups when you can relate on an individual, personal level.

It’s time to drop the labels. Let the individuals in your social, neighborhood, church and work networks identify themselves. Take the necessary time to be in community with those closest to you. You’ll find it’s not as difficult as you imagined and that when you take the time, people will appreciate your authentic curiosity and willingness to learn.

“A flower grows in compost.”

“We can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired.” ~Audre Lorde

Social & Emotional Landscape: Early Childhood Education Series (Pt. 2)

As stated in Part 1 of this series on Early Childhood Education there are several core elements of development during these crucial years of a child’s life. One of those core elements is learning social skills, or in more modern academic verbiage, Social and Emotional Learning. This refers to the development of the ability to a) engage in relationships that are meaningful with both peers and adults, b) to identify, articulate, and monitor one’s own range of emotions as well as the emotions of others, c) learn and cultivate social skills as well as an understanding of their environment. 

It is crucial that during this period of rapid growth and development, the child have access to a space that offers safe and enriching opportunities of exposure to this type of learning, as this will form the foundation of their social and emotional lives on which their future relationships and emotional well-being will be built. So then the question is how is that foundation built? It is built by the interactions that they have with their environment, which includes but is not limited to, parents, family members, caregivers, teachers, childcare providers, and peers. It is because of how quickly the brain develops during this phase of their life that each interaction the child has is so impactful upon the way that child will perceive and interact with their social environment as well as their own emotional landscape for the rest of their lives. 

Indications of positive social and emotional early childhood development include learning to develop close relationships with parents or guardians, to calm themselves during times of heightened emotion, to play with and share with peers, and to follow and listen to directions. Children who are exposed to risk factors in either their environment or in their relationships, have their social and emotional development disrupted. The more prolonged or severe the disruption to their development the greater the risk of permanent damage to the psychological as well as physiological development of the child. It is important to highlight here that this invaluable time in a child’s life is not the sole responsibility of the parent. The phrase ‘it takes a village’ is common because it is true. The construction of relationship norms, social norms, language, expectations, values, beliefs and attitudes are all influenced by the family, the community and the culture. All of these important factors are required in order to encourage the healthy maturation of social and emotional development.

Infographic for Social and Emotional Learning in Elementary Schools

There are specific long term benefits to emphasizing healthy development in social and emotional learning. Along with physical and mental health, the ability to forge relationships with others, to learn, to memorize and to focus attention, all stem from our emotions and our ability to employ them in the manner in which we act and in the way that we think. All of this is even more important in the mind of the developing child. Studies show that children with stronger emotional intelligence foundations tend to perform better in school, govern their own behavior better, are better at displaying empathy, more easily create positive relationships, engage in school more meaningfully, and are more able to focus their attention.  There are five essential skills that can be taught in order to foster emotional intelligence, some of which have been talked about above, but I want to name them explicitly. 1) Identifying the emotions of oneself as well as others. 2) Connecting the source of an emotion with the consequence of that emotion. 3) Correctly naming emotions. 4) The expression of emotions in the proper time, place, and culture. 5) Governing emotions. Using these five skills to model emotional intelligence and teach children the skill of emotional intelligence will be the topic of Part 3 of this ongoing series next week.

Racism is Bad for White People, Too

Events in the last month or so have helped a whole new bunch of white folks understand the systemic and structural nature of racism in our society. I hear this in the conversations I’m having with other white folks, like me. I also see it in social media and op-eds and commentaries. Less and less do white folks attribute racism to “a few bad apples”; more and more we recognize the ways we benefit and black people and other people of color are penalized by the policies, practices, and procedures in all our institutions. All our systems — justice, education, health care, politics, just to name a few – were set up to benefit white people at the expense of people of color.

This understanding is an important step in dismantling these structures, but it is not enough. Another crucial step is for white people to recognize the often unacknowledged ways that we, too, suffer from the disease of racism.

Here’s an example:

You may have seen lists of ways that white people benefit from white privilege and by contrast the ways that people of color do not. One of the most famous was written by Peggy McIntosh. I want to call attention to #25 in her list: “If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.”

This is something I’ve heard many people of color talk about. For example, if they don’t get a job, they ask themselves, “Did I not get it because I’m a person of color?” If a cop pulls them over, or if a store security guard asks to see the contents of their bag, or if a host at a restaurant seats them at an undesirable table, or if a person on the street doesn’t greet them, or if someone gives them the side-eye, or if people in a waiting room who appear to have arrived after them get called before them – the list goes on and on for insults large and small. Some of these actions profoundly affect people’s lives and livelihoods, while others are microaggressions that contribute to an overall environment of hostility. Each leaves a question in their minds about whether or not racism played a role.

This constant questioning constitutes an undermining of people’s confidence. It adds stress to their lives, a continuous undertone of ambiguity and uncertainty about why negative interactions occur – was it random or was it intentional or was it unintended, but still ultimately motivated by implicit racism?

White people do not have to ask this question in the same way. Instead of the uncertainty of a negative episode or situation, white people suffer the uncertainty of a positive episode or situation.

This means that, as a white person, I have to now turn the question on myself in positive situations. Every time I was hired or not pulled over or smiled at or greeted or given a prime table at a restaurant or anything else positive, I have to ask, “Did I earn that, or was that just because I am white?”

For white people this question pulls at the mythology of American meritocracy, which says we are a nation of boot strap pullers and hard workers who deserve everything we get because we earned every bit. Racism calls all that into question. Maybe I have my job and house and reputation and everything else, not because I worked for them, but because I was simply born white.

In this way, racism insidiously causes a similar insecurity in all of us. None of us know if we are treated the way we are because of our character and qualities, or because of our skin tone. The difference, of course, is that white people with that insecurity have the option of putting people of color “in their place” as a way of saying, “Even if deep down I’m not sure why I have what I have, at least I’m better than them.” In other words, racism reinforces itself in a cycle of oppression that gives white people a false sense of our superiority – and we have to prove and protect it, again and again, in a fight with our own psyche that we can never win.

Racism is a societal and structural disease that we all suffer from, and we are all less for it. When white people recognize the ways that racism hurts us, too, we can begin to let go of the power and the privilege in the knowledge that we, and everyone else, will be better off. We can find the will and the ways to stop the cycle and end racism.

IMG_0563

Art by Godfried VanMoorsel for Living Artist Project

Tone Deaf: On Not Silencing Black Women

For this week’s post, I had planned to talk about the discussion between the rappers J.Cole and NoName, and share some insights I had on the whole dynamic. As I began to write, I began to think that the endeavor was incomplete and unfair. It was so because J. Cole is but one man, and this is an obstacle for the whole Black community.

So I am always woefully befuddled when Black women — in all of our intelligence, wit, and tenacity — are silenced. There are some men and women that police our tones, cross our boundaries, and dismiss our concerns.

Dismissal of Concerns

I was an avid hip-hop fan for many years. As a young woman, I was aware of the charged lyrics, and like many female fans, struggled to grapple with what those messages meant for my self-esteem, self-image. In maturity, I was lucky enough to meet some of the faces that I idolized, and on the whole, they were not what their personas projected at all. Some of them had families; many of them were thoughtful and well-spoken.

I’d had an acquaintance who was a promoter. He had worked in the industry, and one day I’d had an idea that was bubbling within for many months at that point — a hip hop benefit concert. At the time, that idea was quite popular, but in this case, there was one problem.

The concert was for rape victims, primarily women.

I watched his face morph from excitement to reluctance in about ten seconds flat. The lesson I’d learned at that moment is that women, particularly Black women, are expected to offer others support, but we are not allowed to ask for or demand reciprocity. This was before the MeToo movement, but the same inability to honor and respond to the concerns of Black women persists.

Those who we petition often demand that we do so in a docile, even sexual manner to “soften the blow.” Often it makes me want to ask these individuals if they think that our rapists, killers, and oppressors try to soften the blow. This is why tone policing comes across as ludicrous, at best. If your house is on fire, you are going to scream for everyone to evacuate. It wouldn’t matter who was comfortable with your message. It would be truth. You would not “wait your turn.”

Waiting Your Turn

Another challenge with waiting our turn as Black women are that it is rarely ever our turn to speak. As the world rightfully became incensed over George Floyd’s death, other names are mentioned less like Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, and Renisha McBride, although they are no less important. When Black women build momentum around the causes that are dearest to them, the language, mannerisms, strategy, and execution are often co-opted by others, most often without credit, for movements exclusive of Black women.

Black women need to continue to speak up on a day-to-day basis on matters like disparities in pharmaceutical treatments of cancer and other illnesses that plague the Black community. We require tutoring assistance for us or our children in school, live in food deserts, have restricted access to potable water in addition to other needs, and we can’t turn the volume down.

However, we need every voice — especially those of Black men — to join ours, just as we have lent our voices for their concerns.

Every time a Black woman dies in labor, it is our turn to speak up.

The Importance of Early Learning: Early Childhood Education Series (Pt. 1)

Society is vastly different today than it was a mere six months ago. Many of the habits and creature comforts, the structures and routines that constituted the lifestyles of a large percentage of Americans have been altered or done away with completely, if not indefinitely, then at least temporarily. These changes have caused disruptions to everyday life, and services that have been taken for granted or overlooked in the past must now be reassessed and refocused on, for the health and well being of individuals in our community but for society as a whole. One such service is early childhood education.

The most crucial time in the development of a human being is this section of life between birth and the first years of public school. However I would extend this as far back as the first trimester of pregnancy. It is in the womb where early childhood education truly begins. The importance of prenatal care cannot be stressed enough in the early development of a child. This includes but is not limited to: seeing a healthcare professional as early on in the process as possible, eating a healthy diet which includes iron and protein, taking prenatal vitamins with folic acids,  maintaining regular exercise, staying away from drugs and alcohol, and drinking plenty of water. Also if possible, having a tranquil and calm environment in which the baby is growing can go a long way in the cognitive and emotional development of the child. Activities such as meditation, soothing music, and reading to the baby can all help to provide stability and bring the baby smoothly into a world that is unstable.

Once the baby is born, the early childhood education begins in earnest. This is the period where the child will undergo the most accelerated stage of physical maturation and cognitive evolution. In the life of a human being these years mark the most accelerated phase in the growth of the brain and so it is crucial that these years be effective in shaping the development and quality of the child’s future as an adolescent and beyond. There are key categories and milestones that serve as the foundation of a successful early childhood education that this ongoing series will highlight and focus on. The categories are: Social Skills, Self-Esteem, Perception of the World, Moral Outlook, and Cognitive Skills. The milestones are greater in number so I will highlight those as they come up.

Before that I would like to discuss some numbers. These numbers come from a variety of sources including, the CDC, the Learning Policy Institute, the National Center for Education Statistics, UNICEF, the National Institute for Early Education Research and the U.S. Department of Education. According to the numbers, about 28% or 1.4 Million four-year-olds were enrolled in a state funded preschool program last year. 54% of pre-kindergarten aged African-American children were enrolled in some kind of state funded preschool program. This is important because children who are enrolled in a pre-kindergarten program for at least one year are more equipped with the tools necessary to develop critical skills needed to succeed in school and have lower percentages of grade repeats or drop outs. 

Source: nces.ed.gov

The other half of the story is that in the fall of their kindergarten year, children who received either no pre-kindergarten care or home based pre-kindergarten care scored lower on assessments of reading, mathematics, and cognitive flexibility than those children who received pre-kindergarten program based care. Early childhood education is a tool whose core goal is to enhance the quality of access and relationship to academic and social behavioral outcomes, but this is only a first step in the process of developing healthier people in the hopes of improving our communities and society at large. Due to the shifting societal reality much of this work must take place in our communities and on a grassroots level and we must work together to educate one another on best practices for the development of our children and a healthy and safe environment for us all. This discussion will continue in Part 2 of this ongoing series.

Unlearning Oppression (Lesson 12): Give Us the Ballot!

Amiri Baraka teaches in his writing that “Each of us sees a thing or event according to our own experiences and interests and ideological stance.” It’s no wonder, then, that as Americans we are polarized by our viewpoints. And yet, within this complicated binary, lies the blatant practice of intentionally limiting the participation of working-class people, especially people of color, in the electoral process through Voter Suppression. The United States historically and actively excludes Indigenous, Black and Latinx Americans from the voting, and subsequently, from influencing national policy. To add injury to insult, Citizens must vote on a Tuesday, a workday.

Many youth in America want to participate in the political process, as their lives have been disrupted by Covid-19; many youth even risk their lives in solidarity with us. To dismantle oppression in our society, we must work multi-cultural, cross-generational teams to achieve win-able local results through research, writing, and data analysis–skills necessary for civic engagement. The context of our upcoming General Election during Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter Human and Civil Rights Movement warrants concern and action. Our young people need to feel their autonomy, strength and agency. Developmentally and otherwise, youth need to exercise their beautiful young minds.

Only we can prevent another Covid-19 disaster at the polls.

Lesson 12: First, read A Quick History Lesson on Voter Disenfranchisement by Carl Amritt. Next, organize under the direction of local youth how to give all residents in a 100 mile radius of your home access to VOTE. Use a concentric circle that ignores district, city or state boundaries in the consideration of the proposal. As a group, draft policies for a successful Nov. 3rd General Election, and send the proposals directly to government officials, social-media channels and community members.

Recognizing that all of our voices matter, we must ensure that we can all cast a ballot and participate in improving our society for all members. At this point, the Federal Government knows exactly who is an American Citizen, as they sent us Stimulus Checks, and I haven’t heard any complaining.

The Federal Government, the Courts, Governors, Mayors, Senators, Congressional Representatives and Donald Trump must ensure all American Citizens receive a VOTE-BY-MAIL ballot in their mailboxes for Election Day, Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020.

Artwork by Theodore A. Harris, 2008

Unlearning Oppression (Lesson 11): Intercession

Like many of us, I have witnessed the transformative energy of prayer. I know, that if I ask my mother to pray for or with me, God will respond. My mother’s faith is powerful; therefor, her petitions are heard. Mostly, she doesn’t stop praying until the job is done. I have learned to ask for what I need from others, from family, friends and God. I ask in prayer, so that I experience breakthrough, and also understand that the power of collective intention and dedicated prayer is effective. My mother and I know that if we “Ask, and it shall be given; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened” (Luke 11:9).

Prayer, meditation, intercession are ways that humans have devised to harness the energy of our minds. Without focus, discipline and intention, we are apt to flounder and lose our way. That is why church communities pray together, as well as many families and religious groups. Prayer, meditation and intercession represent the moment when thought turns into action. This is when leadership is crucial, because, What is the prayer?

As we approach a new era of understanding in our society, we must look to our collective healing. While some Americans continue to prosper, many more Americans in communities of color are suffering hardships of food and economic insecurity, historic discrimination, as well as traumatic, violent deaths of family members and the associated costs of death. It is my conviction that our collective, national focus on the plight of Black Fathers is one of the most powerful and best ways to honor and celebrate Father’s Day and begin to change the injustice we see all around us by opening our hearts and minds.

If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a Father, will he give him a stone?” (Luke 11:11).

Lesson 11: On Father’s Day 2020, join us in compassionate action: With your community of worship, Sangha, family and friends, pray for Black Fathers and the Fathers of Black Children.

The loss of lives in Black communities owing to violence, oppression and Covid-19 is overwhelming. Black families across our nation are bereaved and mourning recent and ongoing loss and violence and threats of violence from the highest office in the land. We need what Dr. Eric Lewis Williams calls Radical Solidarity to transform this moment and heal our society through supplication.

Secrets to Another Perception: How to Decenter in Difficult Times

One of the keys to effective decentering is cultivating mindfulness. Mindfulness is important because it allows us to become aware of the events, emotions, and thoughts that are occurring within and around us. Often, when one speaks of mindfulness, one can conjure visions of a Buddhist master, but the truth is anyone can achieve satisfying, powerful clarity through this practice.

The Self

The idea of The Self is an important one. It helps us to navigate a world where it is sometimes difficult to understand the place your dreams, desires, motivations, worries, and worldview start and end. If you are not aware of the nuances of this, you may need or demand too much or too little support from others, or they may ask too much or too little of you. 

The sense of The Self also harbors fear. Fear can be a good thing — evolutionarily, fear has kept us from being attacked by predators. However, too much anxiety can interfere with our emotional and psychological growth. It also fosters rash decision making and inability to establish long-lasting and trusting relationships with others. 

One example of this is the police officer that allows fear to cloud their judgment and ascribe far more danger to a citizen than necessary. When a person has this mindset supported by others that look like them, either by race or wearing a uniform, there is little incentive to stop and examine the circumstances through another lens. However, this support can prove to hinder your growth. When you are most comfortable and feel most supported is when you should decenter.

How to Decenter

One of the quickest ways of maintaining a decentered state is a routine meditation practice. Studies show that meditation reroutes pathways in the brain and reduces stress. Stress can aggravate and prolong feelings of fear, aggression, and unworthiness. While there are many books and videos on meditation, meditation does not have to be a process in sitting still and breathing.

The reason breathing is crucial is that, apart from the physiological changes when more oxygen enters the brain, breath is a repetitive movement. 

Meditation is a process of cultivating what psychologists call “flow.” Flow characterizes what laypeople call being in the zone. Any athlete, artist, or another person that relies on the repetition of their skill can report a sense of peace when they “get in their zone.” Getting in the zone provides an acute sense of clarity seldom found in other activities. 

Some activities to get in the zone are:

Visual art

Breath

Daydreaming

Dance

Music

Discussions and lecture

Writing

Reading

Why This Is Important

As a law enforcement officer, your job is dangerous. You probably work strange hours and have seen the worst of the human spirit. Because of this, you can end up overworked and fearful. However, there are other professions and life experiences that cause others to be overworked, stressed, and afraid too. 

If the police apprehend a woman, search her, and she physically retaliates, the police report says she was resisting arrest. The account may be accurate, but if you decentered yourself and listened to her story, you may find out that the way you gripped her arm was the same way her abusive ex-lover did two years ago. She suffers PTSD, and reacted the way she did because she was unable to decenter as well.

Decentering allows the public servant to detach and offer more effective service. It also allows the officer to see that decentering is part of his or her job. The “resist to arrest” no longer becomes about “degenerate citizens” but more about understanding how to diffuse a contentious situation.

Unlearning Oppression (Lesson 9): End Academic Gatekeeping

If you are black, Indigenous, Latinx, or a recent immigrant from any place other than Europe, you like have personally encountered Gatekeeping in multiple educational institutions. Gatekeeping is often used to describe the unfortunate discrimination of Disabled students. I myself am guilty of this oppressive practice in my early career as a teacher. Fear, misunderstanding and lack of training prevented me from acting appropriately. Ableism is a form of internalized oppression. Soon after my own low point, I took it upon myself to learn what I was never taught in a course titled “Ableism,” so that I will not repeat my mistake. Because oppression is rampant in our society, we have to learn and unlearn the explicit and implicit messages and lessons taught in every circle of society, starting from infancy.

Throughout my career as an educator, I’ve witnessed many teachers using and upholding barriers to education as a weapon: Low expectations, punitive classroom measures and hostile-racial climates in classrooms, schools and campuses. I have experienced all of this as a student and teacher, and as a witness of White Americans enacting violence in the classroom against black and brown students. I also have spoken out, with consequences, while White community-college teachers applauded each other for failing 80% of their students in precollegiate courses. Little effort is made by these otherwise good White people to unlearn their internalized oppression, nor do they attempt to grow and change.

Needless to say, students in those classes were often people of color. This is another example of the toxic othering rampant in our society. I have seen these same teacher who hold people like me back, elated over a success of the most privileged white students. These White teachers actively erect effective obstacles for young first-generation college students that happen to be non-white. These practices are often couched under the mantle of rigor, while perpetuating and enforcing discrimination, White Supremacy and White Privilege. Such behavior actively prevents equal opportunity and academic success of hardworking young people.

Lesson 9: Look at the demographic of your child’s school. If you don’t have a child, look at your own schooling. What do you notice about the population of the school children, teachers and staff? Reflect on whether the school accurately represents your community and city and what policies could be improved. Write, call or attend a school board meeting to advocate for better education for all children.

White Teachers gather in the school to mock a symbol of racism and oppression by displaying a noose, posing for a photo for Principal Linda Brandt and sharing the photo openly.

Consider a how a Indigenous, Black or Latinx child in the school where these white women work must experience racism, oppression and disenfranchisement. Do your part to end systemic racism in K-12 schools, colleges, universities and government policy. Imagine how this picture would differ if there was a black teacher or staff member present.

Unlearning Oppression (Lesson 10): Radical Solidarity

What are you most afraid of? The path of the Spiritual Warrior is often solitary yet abundant in community connections and roots. Connectivity to her community empowers her to navigate personal, interpersonal and intrapersonal communication. A Spiritual Warrior’s roots are long, because me may have to move and keep access to the knowledge of her people. She carries their names and stories far, knowing she may not return. Therefore, a Spiritual Warrior’s strength lies in her ability to build community and connection quickly, as she relies on her integrity, skills and humility to move easily within different spheres as the Spirit guides.

Spiritual warriors exhibit Radical Solidarity, what author Eyal Press calls, “Beautiful Souls” in his book Beautiful Souls: The Courage and Conscience of Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times. When Sie is on fire for Justice, the Holy Spirit is upon them and Sie moves with the special light of a seasoned, honorable and stalwart paladin. Sie lives sie’s own training, adapting, studying, working in a state of meditative evolution and constant growth, self-care and wellness. These many skills embody the preparation to stand in the light and be known in word and deed as One. This is difficult. That is why Spiritual Warriors searches sie’s soul, contemplating which seeds to sow.

https://www.history.com/topics/abolitionist-movement/john-brown

A Spiritual Warrior is a powerful ally in a time of need. His Radical Solidarity is demonstrated in his actions, words and intentions. He must know himself well enough to know when there is lack of alignment and try to correct his course. He must do his best to keep his promises, show empathy and make amends when necessary. A Spiritual Warrior is a human being with fears, doubt, needs, dreams and all the rest, just like any of us.

Lesson 10: Practice Radical Solidarity with someone in your community who is in need of kindness or community in the next week. Call, Zoom, yard visit or FaceTime with someone who is disconnected, alone or far away, and listen. Radical Solidarity may require you to change plans, make room for people of color and grieve with us.

Many people in our society are hurting right now. We are in mourning, grieving and distraught over the violence we see all around. I grow more uneasy daily by my own meat consumption, and yet I trust in my ability to release the unnecessary and make sacrifices for a better tomorrow. Live your convictions.