A False Sense of Individualism

I accept oppression and privilege stemming from white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist patriarchy societal pressures which means that there are invisible, unearned advantages that are bestowed upon people. These privileges are a silent form of collectivism. I have seen this to be one of the reasons people have a difficult time accepting that privilege exists. I have spoken with a few people over the last couple of years that seem to seize up when we start talking about privilege. My interpretation is that the concept of privilege is contrary to what we’ve always believed about our accomplishments. We need to believe that everything that we have accomplished has been from our own efforts and not helped by anything else. That’s what those of privilege have been told and that’s what it feels like when anyone accomplishes something.

After all, that’s part of the fabled American dream. The story goes that somebody starts from very little pulls themselves up into relevance and money. We don’t allow space in that narrative to hear about how that person was helped get to where they are. We don’t leave space for understanding how they are a part of something larger and while their individual efforts got them somewhere, it’s not everything. We don’t leave space in the story to explore how hard work isn’t everything and that there are millions of narratives of people who worked just as hard and did not see a change in their “status.”

Privilege bestows upon those who have it an unearned, unasked for, and invisible advantage of social capital. Social capital means connections. It means you have people who can do favors for you. And privilege watches out for its own. White people inadvertently believe other white people. Men believe other men. Those who are wealthy believe other wealthy people. (This is more complex than what I’m including here. Conferred dominance is a huge part of privilege and that goes beyond people with privilege believing other people of privilege.) And this also means the inverse is true. Generally, people with privilege aren’t going to hear what someone from a minoritized identity has to say or instead of listening intently they are thinking about how the story can’t be fully true.

The reality that this leads to is an invisible network of people who provide each other with some help that seems minimal but pushes some people to success. Which means that not all of our accomplishments are our own. We have to be able to understand that and move forward in order to continue to work toward social justice in our world. I recognize that accepting this is difficult (I’ve had my own journey with it). This is why I work with social justice education the way that I do. I want to be able to meet my students in their privilege and help them understand how some seemly innocent advantages can be harmful to everyone on a interpersonal level and systemic level.

Not Just Florida

I wrote a post about my home state a few days ago. I’m angry about Dunn and Zimmerman not being punished for the murders they have committed. I’m still angry about it and much of my focus and the focus of people around the country are on Florida. This is understandable. Let’s hold that focus and harness that anger to create change in Florida and while we’re doing that let’s ensure that we’re not losing sight of the fact that this is not solely a Florida problem…

This problem of racism is bigger than that. It’s systemic. It’s in the air we breathe. It’s in the lessons we learned in school. It’s in the history books. It’s spoken into being by our teachers, friends, parents, and family. It’s represented in the media we consume. There is no way to totally escape these realities of life in the U.S. We can become aware of them and bolster our critical consciousness. We can spread consciousness to others. We can challenge and we can push. Even with all of that challenge, growth, and education we will still make mistakes due to the socialization we have absorbed.

Yes, Florida needs to address it’s many problems with race, but all of us need to address racism across the country. Renisha McBride wasn’t killed in Florida. Jonathan Ferrell wasn’t killed in Florida. Jesus Huerta wasn’t killed in Florida. We need to see that our lives are interconnected and that our liberation from these problems is interdependent with one another. We need to find the organizations that are creating change and pushing the status quo.

Race ForwardDream Defenders, Color of Change are just three that I can think of right now. (There is also a petition from Race Forward that is directed to the Florida Prosecutor Angela Corey to address racial bias in the court system) There are many more. Connect with organizations. Volunteer. Stand up. Speak out. Build coalitions to create change. Work to understand the realities of the culture that we live in. When we start this process, we can continue to make a difference. Make the culture feel the “stubborn ounces of our weight.” None of us can do everything, but we can all do something. Sometimes our work can feel like nothing. It can feel like we’re going nowhere and that’s when I look to the poem by Bonaro Overstreet. We can’t do everything, but we need to throw the stubborn ounces of our weight into something because our liberation is interconnected and interdependent.

Mindfulness and Social Justice

I was recently reading Savor and the authors, Thich Nhat Hahn and Lillian Cheung, use the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism to relate to obesity and overeating and this led me to start thinking about how the Four Noble Truths apply to Social Justice Education. But first, a foundation…

The First Noble Truth is that all of us have suffering in our lives. None of us can escape from it. The Second Noble Truth is that we can identify the causes of our suffering. The Third Noble Truth is that we can put an end to our suffering and that healing is possible. Finally, the Fourth Noble Truth is that there are paths to free us from suffering. (Cheung & Hanh, 2010)

I believe these truths to be entirely accurate. Suffering can come in all shapes and sizes and does not have to relate to oppression, but if we use the Buddhist concept of suffering and apply it to oppression I think we learn can about how to put things into perspective. Privilege and oppression is a reality and we can’t escape it. Everyone is targeted by these systems. Certain people are provided with privilege. Others are provided with disadvantages or oppressed. If we accept that this is true then we can move along to begin to address it.

Once oppression and privilege are accepted as facts then we can begin to recognize the causes. In a US context, we live in a white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist patriarchy. All of these concepts interact and produce additional issues. For instance, some by-products of patriarchy are heterosexism (which then produces homophobia) and sexism (which then produces gender roles, misogyny, and male privilege). These causes are deeply embedded in our culture. It is difficult to conceptualize but we need to acknowledge that we can heal through critical consciousness and action. I think a lot of self work has to be done to recognize healing and it’s never done. I won’t ever be done trying to heal, but I can find ways to increase my healing by engaging with others and opening their eyes. I think this promotes self-healing and a way to heal for others.

These few thoughts came to me while reading I was Savor, but I know there are more ways to connect mindfulness and social justice work. There are more examples to highlight. We can look at divesting privilege through this lens. We can analyze internalized oppression through this lens. We can recognize interpersonal oppression as well as the more insidious systemic forms that produce the intra and interpersonal.

This post does not include the critical concepts such as being present in the moment and recognizing our emotions in a dialogue, the space we take up in conversation, or how we may be triggered by something we’ve just read or heard or experienced. These will probably be future topics in a series of posts on mindfulness and social justice education. I also recognize that there likely is work out there that has already been done combining these topics, but this will be about my own personal journey in understanding and recognizing how mindfulness and social justice overlaps.

Hanh, Thich Nhat; Cheung, Lilian (2010-02-20). Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life (Kindle Locations 257-259). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Celebrating Little Victories

A couple of weeks ago I received an award for focusing on diversity and inclusion work at George Mason University. While I’m deeply honored that I was nominated by students, peers, and friends, (and honored that my alma mater wrote a story about it) the real win for me on that night was Jorge receiving the award. The work he’s doing on this campus is astounding and I’m looking forward to calling him a colleague as he pursues work in Student Affairs. Jorge is doing great work and has been since he got here.

I’m also looking forward to learning more from him and the MasonDREAMers at the UndocuAlly training today and I’m ecstatic that this training will soon be available for all of our students, faculty, and staff as the MasonDREAMers look to create a more inclusive campus for undocumented students by increasing awareness of legislation will positively impact the experience of undocumented students. MasonDREAMers are planning a week of programming in March that will feature Jose Antonio Vargas and intersectional programming around undocumented and LGBT programs. They’re doing great work and I’m happy that I get to work alongside them.

Dear Florida

Dear Florida,

It’s one of your natives sons. There are so many beautiful things about my former home state. We’ve got natural wonders both inland and beachside. There are many people that come together to make the state a welcoming place for so many visitors. There is culture. There are excellent institutions of higher learning. There is something magical about the wind that comes off the Gulf of Mexico on a hot summer night. It’s been a long time and you should know that I miss you on some days. Today is not one of those days.

This letter started on positive notes and that was very hard for me to do because today was a reminder of the sickening lapse of justice that is ever-present in the Florida judicial system. Jordan Davis was shot and killed by a man who intended for him to die. I’m not here to debate whether Michael Dunn should have been charged with 2nd degree murder or 1st degree murder because the facts are that he killed Jordan Davis in broad daylight with witnesses. He fired his weapon into a car with four young men inside of it. He made that decision because he didn’t like their “thug music.” He has been found guilty for attempted murder of Tevin Thompson, Leland Brunson, and Tommie Stornes. Dunn wrote letters while in jail that display the lack of value he places on non-white human life. While Dunn will be going to prison for a long sentence he won’t be going for murder and that’s what should happen when you take someone’s life intentionally.

Today’s miscarriage of justice reminds me of a couple of other recent stories where the law of the land does not seem to apply the same way to every person. Marissa Alexander fired a warning shot into the ceiling of her home during a fight with her abusive husband who she had a restraining order against. Marissa was not allowed to use Florida’s Stand Your Ground law in her defense because the judge said that she had other options. The case also slightly reminds me of the case against George Zimmerman in which he was able to walk away free from any repercussions for taking the life of Trayvon Martin.

The clear message that I’m hearing is that we do not value the lives of all Floridians. We do not use the law appropriately to hold all Floridians accountable to the lives they have taken. We do not protect survivors of domestic violence; we use existing laws against them. Stand your ground is not equally applied. Murder convictions are not equally applied.

I’m a Floridian and I’m angry about this. I don’t have a vote in the state any more but I still care. I can’t propose constitutional amendments through voter initiative but I can promote them. The state government doesn’t have to listen to me or take me seriously since I’m not a constituent but I will speak out. I’ll speak because the judicial system is clearly broken and I know Florida can be a better home than that. Florida needs to be the same home to all Floridians that it was to me.

I will speak out until the opportunities offered to me are offered to everyone, everywhere. I will speak out until the way that until we don’t have to fear for the lives of young people when they want a snack or need to buy gas. I can wear a hoodie without being considered suspicious. I know that I can go get a snack without being afraid for my life. I know that I can gas up my car with whatever music I want without fearing for my life. If justice is love in public; I’ve always been loved. I’ve always been welcomed. I have always had my privilege to protect me and lean back on. I will speak until things change because this is ridiculous.

Sincerely from one of your privileged sons,

Aaron

Microaggressions

During our recent student staff training, some of my colleagues and I hosted a panel session on understanding and navigating racial micro aggressions. I thought it was a powerful conversation to start discussing with undergraduate student staff because so much of our language reflects a variety of histories (and herstories) of oppression and we don’t even realize it because the language is so prevalent. Starting to become aware of how our language can subjugate and ostracize people is crucial to starting to change how we interact with one another in the world.

We witness small instances of oppression in every day conversation. It’s in the words, tone, body language, and emotions we use and express at almost every minute. What do we do to confront them? How do we talk about them with peers? With our student staff, we started with a foundation on an article about racial microaggressions in the context a counseling relationship. After laying the foundation for the conversation with definitions of microaggressions, we asked our students what they had witnessed before. While some stories were deflections based on privilege, many of the stories reflected the reality of what our language and subtle actions do to people many times a day.

The primary reason why I wanted to be on the panel was to be able to put the privileges I have as a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle-class, male into contrast with the topic. As someone who holds the identities that I do, I rarely experience a microaggression (and when I do the underlying meaning is one that’s pointed at a subordinated identity). Rather than experience microaggressions, I witness them. I participate in them. I communicate them. Part of my privilege is not having to experience these small ways that the majoritized others the minoritized. The way that I started to think more critically about my role in oppression was through activities like this and they made a huge difference for me.

At the core of this panel is helping our students create a more inclusive environment for everyone on our campus. Starting to recognize microaggressions will help our students gain a critical consciousness of the environments around them. This consciousness is one of the first tools in helping our students recognize when there are environmental problems that favor one group of people over another. This consciousness can help our students realize when they’re participating in oppression whether actively or passively. These tools can be a first step in recognizing that oppression is more than just interpersonal bigotry. These tools can help someone start to recognize the systemic issues that create oppression for some and privilege for other. It’s important to provide these tools because none of us can do everything but all of us can do something.

Privilege and the EZ Pass

During a workshop this morning about microagressions, privilege, and oppression I had a thought about the concept of the EZ Pass and how it relates to oppression especially when reflecting on this video:

Unequal Opportunity Race from Kimberle Crenshaw on Vimeo.

I thought about how another metaphor that’s related to the inequities presented in race is the EZ Pass on highways. People with privilege are in an express lane that gets them to their destination quickly, but to access the road they have to be charged a toll and there is no concept of how much it costs to travel on that road because it’s quick and automatic. Much in the same way that people with privilege aren’t aware that they’re benefiting from their privilege as it is designed to feel natural.

The people who don’t have EZ Passes don’t get to fly through the gates. They have to be stopped and pay money. They know exactly how much they’re getting charged because they deal with paying the toll manually. They don’t get to their destination as quickly and they’re charged more in their tolls because discounts are offered to those in the express lane. There are traffic jams that slow down progress at the toll booths.

Not ground breaking stuff; just something that I thought up.

Flash Lecture Reflection

Last month I participated in George Mason University’s Turn Off the Violence week by giving a flash lecture about masculinity and men’s role in ending sexual violence, domestic violence, and the patriarchal influence that’s found throughout our society. I spent a lot of time framing the lecture (which lasted about 10 minutes) and making sure that the flow made sense from introducing the subject to concluding by outlining what actions we can take. I used a lot of the basis from my workshop, Man in a Box, to frame the lecture which borrows heavily (and credits!) some thoughtful activists, educators, and authors such as bell hooks, Allan Johnson, and Keith Edwards. During the conversation I made some sweeping statement in what patriarchy teaches men about behavior and referred to the implicit and underlying violence that men often mix with affection and talked about we need to revisit those concepts from early on in life and go through challenging self-critique (as I learned from bell hooks in The Will to Change).

Overall the lecture went well and one of the students who had come out to the lecture stayed after to ask me a few questions. While I was excited to engage with a student directly, I was taken aback by his question which was “who taught you to be violent to your loved ones?” I was not sure how to respond as I had been confident that I was clear in stating that was a condition and expectation brought to me through patriarchal concepts and society. I said everyone had taught me that without thinking about where he had been coming from with his question. He did not understand, due to a fault in my lecture, that it wasn’t that someone sat me down and told me how to be a man in a certain way, but that it was thousands of little messages consistently received throughout my life through family, friends, teachers, tv shows, movies, etc. The student and I continued our conversation and I feel as though it ended with him no less confused than when we started the conversation and that really made me think…

I reflected on the content of the lecture and realized that I had not written it for people who were just being introduced to the concepts of patriarchy. I wrote it for an audience whom I assumed would have a basic understanding of what I was saying before even attending the lecture. This assumption failed me and it failed the student who asked me questions afterward. He wasn’t able to gain more clarity around the issue because I was not able to grasp his perspective and understanding in that moment. I did him a disservice and did not fully achieve my goal. I’ll carry that lesson with me as I continue to engage and facilitate social justice education. We can’t create change without knowing our audience and where they may be in their understanding of their own place within privilege and oppression. If we know our audience we can engage with them and walk with them through their new learning and that’s the kind of support that social justice education needs to be effective.

Averse to Needs

I was recently reading a chapter from Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach called The Trance of Unworthiness. Within the chapter Dr. Brach writes about the inherent value in our culture to be autonomous, self-reliant, and independent (very patriarchal). She includes a story about these values and how we internalize them. This internalization can mean that if we do have needs we immediately feel “unappealing, undesirable, even bad.” This small quote caused me to think about how much we talk about “needs” in student affairs without acknowledging this culturally implanted aversion to being perceived as needy.

As my department refreshed our community development model, we embracing the concept of needs based programming and investigated how to help our resident advisers understand how to assess the needs of their residents so they can effectively program based on our learning outcomes. A chunk of that conversation was about helping RAs learn to interpret and respond to a wide variety of data points that they may not consider data (vandalism issues, increased documentation for behavioral issues, lack of attendance at programs, visible signs of stress with their residents at mid-terms, etc.) Another part was talking about this cultural aversion to being needy.

We didn’t spend much time on that conversation but we did consider the language that we used to frame the needs-based programming concept for our RAs. We settled on purposeful programming as that is specifically what our RAs are doing. They are finding their purpose for their programming through assessing what is happening in their community. The community/resident needs drive the purpose of the program and we really want our RAs to focus on the purpose of the program and how it addresses. We thought this would help prevent RAs from getting stuck on what may be considered problems and focus on programming interventions (solutions).

We “re-launched” our community development model about two weeks ago during RA training and it seems as though our RAs are grasping the concept of purposeful programming and thinking outside of the chart that we used to program within that had 3 different types of programs they had to facilitate each month. Overall, I think the refreshed model is a good place for the new year despite my hesitation to the language around “needs”

Social Media and Activism

Social media has had a huge impact on how we communicate with one another. This impact has affected traditional news media in several ways from a decline in the sales of newspapers to how the cable news networks report on breaking stories. This has caused several newspapers to make the decision to close down. This has caused formerly reliable news networks such as CNN to report “breaking” news based on tweets that appear to be from the scene of whatever breaking news but when these tweets turn out to be inaccurate the public is misled. The biggest issue that happened recently is related to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Social media has also influenced how we define our relationships, share our memories or what we’re doing, how we take pictures, and many other aspects that have just become part of our daily lives and routines. With such wide ranging influence social media would obviously influence how we protest policies and make our voices heard when they need to be heard. Online activism has popped up recently with many different forms.

One of the forms is the traditional petition with a crowd-sourced twist. Change.org has been a major leader in providing people with opportunities to voice their concerns to governments, corporations, and individuals. Some successful campaigns include making sure that the Florida State Attorney’s office filed murder charges against George Zimmerman and having Bank of America reverse their decision to charge their customers a monthly fee for having debit cards. Change.org has increased my knowledge of several issues that have been going on around the world and helped me, in small ways, contribute to making a difference.

Another method has just been asking people to tweet on a hashtag, change their profile picture, or donate money to a crowdfunding site (i.e. GoFundMe, Kickstarter, and indiegogo). These methods have also been useful in helping me learn more about what is happening in regards to issues around the world. Social media has also provided an outlet for some news to reach a larger audience when the traditional news media isn’t reporting it. The latest example of this is the protest in Gezi Park in Turkey.


And despite all of these larger examples, people question whether social media makes a difference. My thought that it does. Regardless of how small your contribution appears, making a contribution is making a difference. When the Supreme Court of the United States was hearing arguments for Proposition 8 the Human Rights Campaign released a modified version of their logo for people to use as their Facebook profile pictures and suddenly my Facebook feed was seemingly stuffed full of people who agree with marriage equality.

Now this may seem very trivial, but if my feed was awash in symbols of marriage Human Rights Campaign Marriage Equality Symbolequality, I’m willing to bet that many other people had the same experience as I did. Some of those people probably did not (or still do not) believe that marriage should be open to everyone. Now, they may not have changed their mind just by seeing a ton of red equal signs, but they certainly became aware of the prevalence of the support for marriage equality. And sometimes this little awareness can push someone to change. That little change can open up a larger door and challenge thinking more than we know especially when this online activism is tied to more meaningful and educational  conversations or campaigns.

I’m clearly not saying that all we need to do to create change is tweet, change our Facebook profile picture, blog, pay $25 to a crowd funded cause, or sign a petition but these little things help. These little things help contribute to a larger push for change. We need to keep the momentum going and remember that we can always be doing more. We can always be looking for ways to engage our community in service and education. We can be looking for ways to make change to the institutionalized systems of oppression that run throughout our societies. Working for change from our keyboards is still working for change. But we can always find ways to do more.