One of the benefits of sitting through high quality racial equity sessions/trainings is hearing new perspectives on race. At a training my colleague Melia shared this quote: “People are trapped in our history, and our history is trapped in us.” James Baldwin. This quote resonated with her and invited us to reflect on what it means to each of us. As we shared what the quote meant to us, it was interesting to hear different perspectives. I thought about a project Heidi and I collaborated on. We pulled historical documents around race and education in Seattle and used it to frame a conversation around race relations and educational equity today. We asked attendees to caucus by race and to analyze the past. The conversation showed we are having the same conversations around education and race, except with different language, no longer Orientals or Negros, now Asians and African Americans, University of Washington “Minority Students Feel Alienated from Campus,” and so on.
Our Histories Inform How we See the World
How we see the world is informed by our personal histories, our community’s history, and the historical narratives we listen to. This means our biases, our networks, our comforts and discomforts are shaped by our histories. As an example, I grew up in Hawaii and one of the reasons I am unable, or maybe I should fess up and say unwilling, to commit to vegetarianism is my love of “local-kine” food, especially SPAM. I grew up eating SPAM and to this day think of it as a treat. My history of SPAM eating, is already passed down to my kids who love a good SPAM musubi. For me expressing my culture and history are interlaced with food, and my taste buds seem to have a bias for SPAM triggering the reward center of my brain.
These histories and legacies inform how we see and think about our work. We all have biases and preferences, in many ways these biases and preferences keep us alive–they help us form communities, keep us away from danger, and keep our brains from becoming overwhelmed with data and inputs. But as we grow in our racial equity work we need to acknowledge our biases and consciously work to change. Biases don’t make us good or bad people, we all have biases. When we are aware of them we can work harder to see past our natural tendencies and be more open to receiving new information.
A Table of Leaders — Diverse but Not Diverse
Not too long ago Heidi and I went to a racial equity conference. Heidi noticed how many of the speakers, especially the ethnic commissioners are all men. I noticed how few times Pacific Islanders, Native Americans, and Asians were included in the panel and stage conversations. All of the speakers are leaders and deserved to be heard, but when we don’t unpack our biases we fail to challenge ourselves to think differently and purposefully reprogram ourselves and our work to be more inclusive. This is how history repeats itself and why we stay stuck.
Our work around racial equity is about shaking up the status quo and challenging ourselves to think differently, then working to change systems. We can’t just say “well, that sucks,” and leave it at that. We need to say “that really sucks for [fill in the blank – important to personalize the work], and this is what I’m going to do.” Before we do something or try to fix a problem we need to pause and acknowledge the histories and viewpoints contributing to the problems at hand. I know some are going to say “dude, we spend soooooo much time re-hashing histories, can we move on?” The answer is yes, but we still need to acknowledge how we got here and not let it paralyze us. We need to pay attention to the past so we can create new solutions and hopefully screw up less for the next generation of leaders.
How Do We Change?
Change is a conscious decision. We need to want to change. If you like where you are at and comfortable and don’t want to change, then don’t even attempt to do racial equity work. Seriously, do us all a favor and skip the ‘mandatory’ equity trainings hosted by your organization, stay in your bubble and be content. Change and moving away from what we know is hard and takes a lot of energy. The benefits of changing can be received if you want to, but it means moving past being content and comfortable.
Changing means letting go, like KonMaring your house (the en vogue Japanese way of cleaning and tidying). In the KonMari method you hold each object and ask yourself “does this bring me joy?” If yes you may keep it, if no then it is time to release it. In the KonMari method Marie Kondo (the creator and genesis behind this cult-like cleaning method) says we must honor the spirit of an item, in this case we should acknowledge how our histories and the past have anchored us, shaped our thinking, and now it is time to KonMari a thought/practice/or way of being to make room for new ways. In Japan and in the KonMari method she sprinkles salt on old socks as a way to release the spirit and essence. You may sprinkle salt to release the spirit of an old object or thought holding you back. Go ahead and find an old survey where you only got 2% return rate from people of color and say “thank you for trying survey, it wasn’t your fault for the crappy return rate we had some inequitable practices we are letting go of now,” sprinkle salt and delete. Don’t really sprinkle salt on your keyboard, maybe have a margarita on the side as you KonMari and put the salt there, or in my case a SPAM musubi full-sodium.
Bonus Reading and Viewing
TED Talk: How to overcome your biases, walk boldly toward them, by Vernā Myers
TED Talk: Why I love a country that once betrayed me, by George Takei
Kissing Your Socks Goodbye, Home Organization Advice from Marie Kondo, NY Times