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Monday
Jan202014

The Continued Fight for Civil Rights and Semantics: MLK Day, 2014

I'm not a bumper sticker kind of car-owner. I'm not knocking those who proudly display them, I'm just saying that I wouldn't ever put one on my car. It's not how I operate. Instead, I would claim that I'm far more comfortable allowing people to get to know me and my beliefs and politics through their intimate knowledge of me than I am claiming something which cannot always be understood in the nuances of short catch phrases. 

It's mandatory, therefore, that when I share something of deep importance to me that I proffer my own thoughts and philosophical theories and convictions along with them. 

This morning The Cuban and I attended our local Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr Memorial Breakfast and had much to discuss on the drive back home. As soon as we arrived I made mention to him that I rarely get to see this diverse a group in my daily life of people that I've known since I started teaching in this town 20 years ago this August.

Just now, writing those words 'this town', made me reflect on where it is I live.

This town, where I pass a road called "Reconciliation Way" daily on my path to work. This town, credited with much of the beginnings of the NAACP whose history tells us was "formed partly in response to the continuing horrific practice of lynching and the 1908 race riot in Springfield, the capitol of Illinois and the resting place of President Abraham Lincoln."  This town, where as soon as I began work on the Lincoln Colored Home local politicians began slapping it with fines (again, this is a tired practice to see this work undone) because it was getting some attention and was finally recognized with a page on Wikipedia

 

There's the librarian we met downtown doing research. Remember Kathryn Harris? I want to go say hello.

Do you see that entire table full of girls? They're nearly all mine. I have to go speak to them. (Any student I have ever taught or administrated over becomes "mine" and I am fully possessive of both my role in their life and theirs in mine.)

Oh, look. There's so-and-so. I gotta go say hi.

It went on like that and he joked to a colleague of his that this is what I always do. "I'll never see her during this breakfast. She's going to be working the room."

There were moments of listening to the speakers, and there were several, that I peeked around the room again searching for folks I've known through the education system or church or missionary trips and a host of other ways that happens for people active in their community. What I discovered was that the African Diaspora is alive and well in Springfield, Illinois. It hit me so hard this morning that I began searching for them and what I saw represented were people I know. What I saw was Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana, Egypt, the Ivory Coast, South Africa, and Senegal. It was almost like a checklist when I began seeing these countries on the continental map of Africa in my mind associated with the people I know.

While I'm never a fan of pre-supposing what one would think today if they were still alive, that was the order of the day. It was repeated by several speakers and people I personally made contact with and it is an uncomfortable bumper sticker moment for me: what would Dr. King think of the state of race relations today?

I must admit, however, that there is one pressing question that often burdens me about Dr. King and it has to do with where his loyalties would be with the gay community fighting for equal, civil rights especially knowing that the great architect of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (the full title, though often referred to as The Great March on Washington) was a man named Bayard Rustin. Long erased from the history books assigned to me from my own teachers, I didn't learn about Rustin until declaring an Afro-American Studies minor degree in college.

Instantly, I was pissed. I was so angry that I was 20 before I knew his name. For me, it was the Lies My Teacher Told Me moment and I have rarely felt such visceral frustration over the issue of history.

It must have been how my first 6th grade class felt (and they told me as such) when I assigned them to read The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 which we read aloud with much background knowledge, primary source documents for historical application, and a lot of tears especially from a young Black student of mine named Reginald. He had grown up adopted by a white family but felt, as he explained to me, very disconnected from his past. My biological parents raised me so our experiences were different that way, but I still felt like the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham should have played a greater part of my own history courses. On that, Reginald and I agreed.

Reginald checked in with me last year to tell me what he's done since graduating college and, as always, it's such a bittersweet time for me to see my former students all grown up and moving on with their lives. The possession I feel for all students morphs over the years into something akin to being a godmother who knows she might have played a small part in their lives.

This being the town where the Capitol is, however, means that lots of Senators and legislators and politicians are also there. Many of them worked the room in a way that put me to shame with my own getting around, but then again I'm not there to glad-hand people who might vote me in office. I'm an educator with a very different vested interest in the education of young people. 

So, when our mayor got up for his remarks, I was still room-searching and thinking about the people I know and wanted to say 'hi' to before the breakfast ended. He commented using the phrase "systemic racism", a phrase originated by Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, though I believe he and other activists used the term "institutional racism" that materializes in educational systems, governmental bodies, and other organizations. Historically speaking, this applies to multiple cultures and races throughout the world, but we're obviously at a breakfast discussing this as it pertains to what Dr. King and many others fought against. 

The phrasing of his words struck me: "...systemic racism occasionally rears its ugly head..."

It froze me but not until after sitting up straighter, looking at The Cuban with confusion pointedly situated between my furrowed brows, and cocking my head to the side. 

Systemic racism? Occasionally rearing its head? Coming up for air once in a while?

No. Semantics are too important to me. Education of the young children in that room, nearly 30 past and present students, is too important to me. 

But I didn't have a microphone nor stage on which to say such things. I have this space. This and my office and the work I do with children. That is my platform and I have to correct that error right now.

Systemic racism isn't just accidentally dropping the N-word in front of your friends. It isn't making generalized statements to your family about a race of people. It isn't telling a "3 people walked in a bar" joke that stereotypes different cultures. 

It is redlining, restrictive covenants, and it's the Southern Strategy, a calculated political move for disenfranchisement. To wit, a quote from Lee Atwater:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Systemic racism is policies and political structures put in place. It's de jure segregation. It's Brown v. Board of Education. It's Stop and Frisk laws. It's what Homer Plessy fought against in Plessy v. Ferguson. It's Jim Crow laws. It's Separate But Equal. It is why there was a Voting Rights Act in 1965

These are things brought before government, voted on, and put into place as practice until challenged for dismantling. 

As much as I feel the work, our work, for civil rights is still devastatingly crucial today is because an elected official governing my own city doesn't understand this very political term and used it in front of my students. Sure, this wasn't a breakfast just for kids, but they were there and heard it and I deeply want to clarify what it really was. 

We had to leave right after the keynote speaker finished and the room, approximately 600 people by my estimations, began singing "We Shall Overcome" as our group left the room. 

I sang while walking, moving between chairs and saying my "Excuse me's" to the people around me, trying not to snag my coat on a chair or trip over my heels. I sang, thinking about my parents and how much they pushed me to question authority and to seek truth. I sang, knowing that I had work to undo with regard to using the phrase 'systemic racism' so nonchalantly, so casually, and so very very incorrectly at a breakfast honoring the work that Dr. King and countless others fought against. 

I sang, thinking of my elementary music teacher making her mouth wide and flailing her hands about her asking us to punctuate the words "overcome" with 2 syllables on the "over" part and hanging on for 3 beats for the "come" part. We shall over coooo-oo-oom.

I sang, understanding that this day, frought with so much history and fresh pain and apathetic disdain, would lead me to writing about how paramount it is that we get our words right when it matters most. I couldn't put all that on a bumper sticker for my car anyway.

Words matter, semantics is important, and history gets completely sideswiped with the cursory use of phrases like "systemic racism". Either you understand it, or you don't. If you're of the latter, don't use it like a bumper sticker or catchphrase while hoping to make a greater point. 

I just need all my students in that room today to understand it better than it was used today.

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Reader Comments (7)

You're right, and I'm glad you're paying attention, because I'll bet 97% of the people in the audience didn't even notice. Your post made me think back on that This American Life piece on housing discrimination, which describes systemic racism very clearly and in a way I didn't know about before.

The fact that it is a system means it is all tied together, underpinning everything, not a whackamole that pops its little head up here and there.

January 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSuebob

'systemic racism' and "rear its ugly head" ... it's a dangerous oxymoron. Systemic means it *isn't* occasional; it's pervasive and part of the system and accepted. Methinks this fellow thinks "racism" is getting *caught* making a mistake in how you are applying racism so that it's too obvious.

January 20, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergeonz

Thank you for this. There are so many blinders I'm still trying to remove, and once you begin to see it's hard to think of how you didn't notice these massive obstructions before...but they are so very cleverly hidden, aren't they? But thank you for speaking out, for making these clarifications, I owe a lot to people like you who've helped me see this stuff.

January 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarcy

SueBob, I listened to that NPR piece about housing discrimination, too, and was struck by how many people today would assume that kind of racism, built into the system, doesn't exist. We see it all the time in ignorant internet comments about "playing the race card," and "I've experienced racism too because this one time I was the only white person in the room."

I believe many people have good intentions. They want to say the right thing. Do the right thing. But they underestimate how hard and complicated the right thing is. And how deep they will have to dig into their own prejudices to make that right thing happen.

Thank you for sharing your perspective, Kelly. I always value your opinion and feel I learn so much from what you have to say.

January 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

I spent some time yesterday talking with my kids about white privilege, explaining a few examples of the systemic nature of preference, helping them see a few ways in which skin color confers unfair advantages and disadvantages. It's an ongoing conversation, and my reasons mirror yours in writing this post: Discrimination is not simply a part of history or an act which occurs "occasionally"; it continues to surround us.

Thank you for everything you do to educate kids and your friends and readers.

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJulie Marsh

Yes, this. All of it. I am grateful to you, Kelly, for speaking truth.

And for Julie Marsh, here's a classic place to start when discussing white privilege: http://www.isr.umich.edu/home/diversity/resources/white-privilege.pdf

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKjir

I love reading your posts-the level of thinking plus your passion/compassion for the world make them so satisfying-its like a good meal for the brain,

January 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

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