The Elephant in the Headlights
By Mark Harris.
Originally conceived for the Community College Moment theme of the Changing Classroom, but repurposed for the Cultural Competency Conversation. Before I was employed at Lane in 1990, I collaborated with some faculty of color at Lane, to attempt to have mandatory cultural competency training for all Lane Employees. Though the construct that ended up in the Diversity Plan was created by a professional of color, Terry Cross, of PSU, Cultural Competency is not about being “politically correct” with Brown People, but more about competently serving White People from a Medical Perspective of optimal client / student outcomes. While there are a good many systems of discrimination in operation, when the Elephant in the room is Race, do you react to the sighting of the elephant as if its Dumbo, Jumbo, or Ganesha? That is to say, the choice between myopic “Kumbaya” sentimentality, fear-tinged paralytic xenophobic fascination, or skill based responses to the opportunities, we face?
“The changing classroom, where building skill for dealing with difficult realities, transgresses the traditional mainstream notion of what is polite conversation. In recent developments, Lane’s students in the face of continued sexual orientation and racial harassment from some faculty, are continuing to push for mandatory cultural competency training. While the initiatives are supported by organized faculty, classified, and management, of color and their allies, they are opposed by faculty leadership, who seem by default, to be siding with the perpetrators of such violence. With the glare of scrutiny, they find themselves like deer in the headlights, reacting with fear and ignorance, when they are supposed to be modeling knowledge, wisdom, and skill.”
“You don’t seem racist to me”, he said. We were in an exam room in Student Health. He was there because he was seeking help with his fifth of vodka a day habit. “Um, why do you think I’m racist?” After all, I’m one of the one’s trying to talk you into living, teaching you how to live in a different way. Mona is even trying to make arrangements to take care of your dog. “Actually, it’s my roommate who thinks you’re racist”.
His drinking buddy, who drinks a 30 beer case a day. Clearly an objective judge of character, but often when you bring up difficult subjects, when the usual social default is silence, then you are often accused of the very thing you’re pointing out.
“It’s something you said on TV, what was once, what was once…” he trailed off.
“Ah, It was in my African-American Experience class. The reason white people should study Black History, is because Black History is American History, and what was once done to us because of race, is now being done to you for the money, so you best to be hip to the game that is being run on you.”
“Yeah, that’s it!”
“So what’s racist about that? “That’s just being real.”
“Yeah, you’re right”.
A racist, would simply let you die, I thought. After all, we were strangers, except you saw me on TV, which is not really knowing me. Now I’m sitting next to you arguing for your life, because you are killing yourself. Or as I’m fond of observing, addiction is slavery, and you are fully and willfully enslaved. In effect committing autogenocide, as I call it. You’re drowning in drink and willfully letting go of the lifeline I threw you. On a macro level I know, as many African-American addictions professionals believe, an addicted population, is a controlled population. You get traumatized, and the only coping skills you are presented with, render you incapable of acting to change the conditions that traumatized you. There is a precept that came out of African-American women’t treatment: “It’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what happened to you.” A diagnosis, is a description, not an answer, or solution. What happened to you to think that a fifth a day was normal behavior? I cannot treat it as simply a lapse in personal responsibility, if A. You were never taught coping skills to deal with common life traumas, and B. Substances were made available to you as the normal solution to coping. Someone is making money from your misery.
I moved to Lane from a situation as a consultant in the employ of governments, where my classrooms were hotel conference rooms outside academe. The goal was to train a workforce in a quasi-medical field, i.e. addictions treatment. It’s a field which goes through rapid evolutionary changes over a period of months. I found it a slight transition, moving my skill set to Lane Community College, where instruction goes on in many faculty’s view, only in their classroom, or their offices. Such is the priesthood of the ivory tower, which believes it exclusively mints and confers legitimate knowledge, for the civilized domestication of the unwashed and unlettered masses. Yeah, in their dreams.
The reality outside the ivory tower, where students have learned from a rougher and more unforgiving tutelage, is vastly different.
The school of hard knocks confers and mints its own legitimated knowledge, the street has its reasons whereof the ivory tower knows not.
“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of… We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.” – Blaise Pascal”
We know the truth, not only through the ivory tower, but through the street.
That particular instance I mentioned above, was a time where the classroom moved out of the studio, (“Your that TV guy”) into the health clinic. The curriculum was being co-taught by the nurse practitioner, the doctor, the medical office assistant, and the treatment center at the other end of the telephone line. It was to move from the health clinic, to the back of a marked Public Safety patrol car, and going to Buckley House for detox.
I rode in the back with him, even though he said he was no stranger to the back of a police car, and I hadn’t been in the back of one since just after high school.
But the lesson continued, into the classroom of the real world.
I’m used to a pedagogy where the boundaries of instruction move outside of a classroom, into the world, and back. Who is the teacher, and who is the taught? What is the lesson, and what is the world that the lesson has wrought? There is a reciprocal and intersectional relationship between the knowledge of the student, the experience of the teacher and the material we both learn.
In teaching Addiction Studies and Ethnic Studies, and being a maroon (African-Native genetic and cultural hybrid), there is no way the hidden hand of history, doesn’t get into the material, nor the influence of Intersectional patterned systems of discrimination imported to this continent from Europe in 1492. In the changing classroom of the 21st Century, ancient topics must mix with contemporary understanding. Old school book smarts, with street-smart technology. There is an adage about old age and treachery will beat youth and skill. When that meets the brick and mortar, ivy league, ivory tower classroom, bastion and mint of legitimated knowledge. We see knowledge whose intent is effectively designed to keeps treacherous old white men and their heirs of any description ascendant. That ivory tower is being shaken up by other bodies of knowledge, changing laws and social norms, as well as technologies, which may be new to the old dogs, but are not in fact new tricks, just new to those particular types of dogs.
Twenty-one years ago I was two years into my tenure at Lane. In that year bell hooks published her book Teaching To Transgress. In it she wrote of what I would call The Way of the Southern Black Educator: Education as Social Service Uplift. It always required you be grounded in the community, and that your classroom might move to a kitchen table, or a church basement, to the polls. Education was a Civil Rights Issue, and often involved Civil Rights Struggle. This made you a target. Steeped in a culture of resistance within the segregated South, it expresses an urbane erudite response to White Supremacy. Or the Columbus-Discovered-America-White-People-Civilized-the-Brown-People-Slavery Uplifted Black People from a Condition of Savagery-Women are Weak and Inferior curriculum which supports settler colonialism, over indigineity, not to mention other forms of discrimination. While we were steeped in that curriculum, we gave ourselves the mission of cultivating Black leaders out of the poorest of the poor. Make a Way out of No Way. Build pyramids out of the rejected social stones that mainstream society rejected. Well, still rejects, no matter what their credentialing or demonstrated skill. (Yea, verily, even at Lane). We were expected to do this, with decreasing, little, or no resources, yet we still had to produce results, and be accountable to our community and changing times.
Indeed, I had to adapt this code to be able to succeed and transforming 4th Generation White Racist Biker Meth Cooks, with 4th grade educations, into addictions professionals.
We were raised with a code. Its adherents were taught to internally cultivate the Al-Gebraic expression 2x + y = x/2. Where x is what Peggy Macintosh would call White Male Privilege. Her invisible knapsack of maps, code books, pass words, passed memetically from generation to generation. What bell hooks refers to as White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy, or Allan Johnson, The Matrix of Domination. Then the expression is jidrashically interpreted to read: “You have to be twice as good as a white man to be considered equal and then hard as you work, you will only get half as much, progress half as far. Half x, you’ll never measure up, if (As Dubois said in the Souls of Black Folk) you measure your Soul Self, by their tape. Al-Gebra in Arabic means The Mending. The image is of a broken stick, with the equal sign of Justice in between. What you do to one side, you do to the other, what you do above, you do below. I didn’t learn that in Math class, I had to learn it from a Palestinian born in Jerusalem, now a prominent restauranteur and peace activist. In Arabic, the term jidrash, like the word in its sister language Hebrew, midrash, means to freely and personally improvise an interpretation from scripture. In math its simply taught as a calculation method, but in its culture of origin it’s a spiritual problem solving discipline. To reinforce that you have all the answers inside of you already, to any problem. Do the hardest thing first. Go to the center of the greatest pain, attack the greatest fear. Order of Operations (PEMDAS in Math, PLFDAS in Afrocentric Optimal Psychology) directs you to do the hardest thing first, and follow logically until you reach an answer. One of the answers, is, in the face of continuing oppression, the response is to become more Human, than the Oppressor. In Optimal Psychology you move through Pain, Loss, Fear, Depression, Anger, to Serenity. This is Al-Gebra as a Spiritual problem solving memetic discipline. Not simply Mathematical computation, as its taught outside of the cultural context in which it was born. To heal, to mend from oppression, go to the center of the greatest Pain, the greatest Loss, the thing you Fear the most. Go to the center of the coldest Depression, Warm it. The hottest Anger, cool it. Float on the Ocean of Serenity, gather your Breath, your Spirit, your Axe, your power to make things happen, your Joy. Dive Deep, Breach Tall.
Jidrash in Arabic, Midrash, in Hebrew, both can lead to radical reformation because of the free and personally adapted multiple meanings in a single word. Thus they could easily develop cultures of covert transgression against overt systemic oppression. A Hidden Curriculum of Liberation if you will.
It was this curriculum that forms a great deal of my work at Lane, in spite of the resistance to such work one encounters at Lane. I can control whatever content I deliver with the caveat that I source the material, and clearly delineate when its my personal belief, or opinion, and why I hold them. It seems like often the resistance comes in the form of disrespecting the messenger, even when the message is of benefit of all. In the case of the student whose best friend is vodka, even if he thought I was a racist, he still displayed more respect than some of my colleagues, but then again I was working to save his life.
I teach in a transgressive classroom, mindful of the elephant in the room. Thinking on the layered ironies of an elephant in a room, in the ivory tower, and playing with that image. Some are content with merely feeding peanuts, to the elephant in the room. In other words, acknowledge that it exists, briefly and move on, leaving the elephant in place.
Not questioning its continued presence, how long it has been there, or how it got there, or even whether it should be there, or be let free. My transgression, is not simply feeding snacks to metaphorical pachyderms, but developing skill in the identification of the species of ivory bearing lifeforms, and training it for freedom. In order to build an ivory tower, many lifeforms, of which Elephant, hippopotami, walrus, pig, sperm whale, and narwhal ivory have been historically used. Elephants have been the principle species, and being intelligent enough to mourn their dead, one wonders what they would make of being imprisoned inside a tower made of the body parts of their relatives. Would that, like the captive orcas in the documentary Blackfish, drive the elephant into insane homicidal rages. Should the elephant be righteously angry, and be allowed to express that anger?
There are states in this country, which incarcerate thousands of juveniles, with developmental or mental health issues, transfer them to adult prison, put them in solitary confinement for decades, and release them, untreated, unsupervised, into their communities. Untreated Mental Health issues, Rage, and PTSD. Throw in a little Meth, Alcohol…. That’s always good for community health, particularly in our community where similar individuals reside and come to Lane. Where we are their primary health care provider. Actually they have been coming to Lane for my entire tenure here, a fact, many would like to ignore.
That would be another type of elephant in the room.
Where the elephant in the room is race, some people approach the subject as if they were deer in the headlights. With fear, and they freeze up. Even if the subject is unvoiced, but still extant in the form of the feared “other”, a person’s fears can be projected onto that other. If an elephant, were transfixed in the headlights of an on coming car, and the car stops, the elephant is quite capable of destroying the vehicle. A raging elephant, cannot be calmed by feeding it peanuts. Particularly if it is in a building build on the unforgettable suffering of its fellows. This is the danger of being a transgressor in the ivory tower. You remember the stories of suffering in the very walls around you. You are not angry yourself, but the stories you tell of others suffering, naming and giving voice to that suffering, then what you do ignites outrage in others.
If you name the elephant in the room Jumbo, the image is of a big mad, raging elephant. If the elephant in the room is Dumbo, then all intelligence flees, and a person stands transfixed, unable to progress, only able to discuss and fixate on their fears. And not focusing much on courageously moving on from their fears. Then the elephant is reduced to a cartoon. It’s as if a diversity historical narrative gets reduced to a Columbus glorification, where the glories of western civilization are bestowed on a native populace, with all the attendant pain and suffering, glossed over.
It’s a cartoon Dumbo, who believes he can fly, holding a feather in his trunk, with crows to egg him on. Cartoon Diversity. Fear of flight dispelled by a feather, black crows to encourage you to flight. It’s this notion that systemic inequities can be dispelled by training alone, that can be part of the problem. Which doesn’t mean training shouldn’t happen. Our skill with bicycles often came with training wheels, until we developed skills of Inner Balance. Dumbo, can move through the stages of Jumbo, to become Ganesha.
Most of my classes are televised on educational cable, then You Tubed. So in effect, for me the classroom extends beyond credit students, into the larger world
There was this white dude, out of the blue, emails me. Two different names on the email, so I’m inclined to think somebody known, or encountered before, channel surfing late at night. Saying, I need to change my schtick, like I play the race card too much, which for some white folks, means mentioning systemic oppression exists at all, is saying too much. Saying I’m playing the race card. Yawn, so tired of that metaphor. I don’t play poker, this ain’t no card game. If anything it’s combat basketball, played by Black streetball rules, No Blood, No Foul. You don’t expect to be unscathed taking it to the hole. Don’t expect me to avoid contact with you. If you don’t like my answers, you should stop asking scary questions, or find a true answer that works.
I was making the point in that particular class about epigentics, and addictions being induced in certain populations, by mass murder, genocide, famine, war. Conquest of the Irish, Russians, and Germans, by the English, Genghis, and the Romans, leading to heavy drinking patterns among them. Particularly when the cultural moderating influences (i.e. the wise women) are burned at the stake, raped, and enslaved. Native Americans and whisky-firewater, when their chiefs, medicine people who advocate abstinence and not trading land for firewater, are imprisoned or killed. American White women, being mass diagnosed as hysterical, and prescribed heroin as the cure. This from the same group, college trained white men, the precursors and mentees of the founders of the American Medical, and the American Psychological Associations, that defined African-American slaves as mentally ill, for escaping slavery. And to this day, APA. refuses to acknowledge any psychological or emotional pain or trauma from 700 years of racism.
In class, I thought I was simply spreading the pain around, allowing white people the same understanding that we people of color are allowed to have, a healing culture of resistance. Particularly when its other white people you are aiming your resistance to. To take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them. An essential praxis.
What some people call a schtick, others call an essential practice of genius. It takes courage. What Maya Angelou calls the one essential virtue. Courage is the greatest virtue because without it you cannot use any of the others consistently. You can employ the others sporadically, or as she says erratically, but to employ them consistently you need courage first. To speak up, and not be silent, even if it isn’t popular. To be grateful you have the vision and the courage to bring it, to fruition, or take it to the hole, or breaking the plane of the goal, whatever motivates you. Even if you fail, you tried, and you be grateful fo’ de lesson.
Lest we forget, Einstein once gave the following answer to a rabbi’s question about how to talk to his daughter about racism:
“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the ‘universe’ limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a prison, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons close to us.
Our task must be to free ourselves from our prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all humanity and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security. “ – Albert Einstein. (Quoted in H Eves Mathematical Circles Adieu (Boston 1977)
I emailed that back to “schtick” man. I’m not sure he got it. Because he misquotes Hamlet… Methinks the lady doth protest too much.
A part of me is thinking ghetto, Oh so you callin’ me a teary bitch now. So I came back with Othello…,
I fetch my life and being
From men of royal siege, and my demerits
May speak unbonneted to as proud a fortune
As this that I have reach’d: for know, Iago,
But that I love the gentle Desdemona,
I would not my unhoused free condition
Put into circumscription and confine
For the sea’s worth.
Shakespeare, identifies Othello as a Moor, by which the Greeks, and Romans referred to Black Africans. Africans, not being savages in grass skirts, were no strangers to military adventures in European theaters. From Memnon and the Honorable Ethiopians at Troy, the two conquests of the Iberian Peninsula, 1150 B.C, and the period between 711 – 1492 A.D., where millions of European war captives were enslaved in North Africa, whether in harems, or stables.
Where Othello’s from, Royal Worth is the ability to bring many people together in wisdom and p(i)e(a)ce them together, utilizing their differences as if they were parts of an orchestra, like Prince, or Dizzy Gillespie, The Duke of Ellington, The Count of Basie, King Sunny Ade, Queen Latifah, or Sir Quincy Jones, not to mention the Honorable Herbie Hancock. Africa is the source of our strength, America is the test of our strength. America made jazz, blues, gospel, rock and roll, as necessary, as erudition and numeracy.
Shakespeare recognized that racism exists, but as Odetta sang…”You don’t know my mind, and if you see me laughin’, I’m laughin’ just to keep from cryin’ “.
When you transgress in speaking about serious subjects, it is often of use to use a bit of humor.
Basically, when the elephant in the room is Dumbo, mistakes are made for lack of intelligence, in all senses of that word, but principally emotional intelligence. More specifically, empathy. Unless you are by nature xenophilic, you fear the alien other. When the elephant in the room is Jumbo, then reactions from fear, rule the day. You are like a deer in the headlights, frozen in place in fear of, for example, the imagined or real “Angry Black Man”. The fear of a calm, erudite, and educated Black Man, trumps, imagined angry ghetto ignorant Black Man. The reactions to either, reacting from rightful concern or anger, causes those who other, to be frozen, repulsed, in fear and awe, or fear and oh no!
Pessimistically, the difference between a liberal and a conservative at a lynching, is neither will act to stop it. The liberal will wring their hands and eulogize the dead, the conservative will think the lynched person had it coming, and defend the lyncher’s free speech rights.
The clear and simple solution is action, not talking. A radical might take action immediately to stop the lynching using any means necessary. Not just lynching, but any hate crime. Act to prevent, act to succor the targets, act to bring restorative justice to the targets and the perpetrator.
Optimally, I like to think of the elephant in the room as Ganesha, remover of obstacles.
“But a bird that stalks down his narrow cage,
can seldom see through his bars of rage, his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied, so he opens his throat to sing.”
“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill,
of things unknown, but longed for still,
and its tune is heard on the distant hill, for the caged bird sings of freedom.”
“The free bird thinks of another breeze, an the trade winds soft through the sighing trees, and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn,
and he names the sky his own.”
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing”. – excerpted from the original, Maya Angelou
In order to remove the obstacle, as Angelou writes, to free the caged bird, the caged bird must understand the structure of the cage its in. Preferably, from birds like itself, but alternatively, from free birds. Not to just simply sing of freedom, but the actual practice of freedom.
When the elephant in the room is Ganesha, (Remover of obstacles and ensurer of success among human endeavors, patron of arts and sciences, writing and letters, and the deva of intellect and wisdom), then a realm of possibilities opens up beyond the rage of Jumbo, and the ignorance of Dumbo. In the Matrix of Domination, (Settler-Colonialist Hetero-Patriarchy, White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy, the System, the Man, among other names and guises), Oppressor and Oppressed alike are caught within that Matrix, both caged birds. To successfully extricate us caged birds, we might listen to the songs of free birds.
Who knows white male privilege, better than its first target, white women?
And who to write the seminal or at least widely used paper, on White Privilege, than Peg Macintosh, and use it to teach white people about white privilege.
The danger or the challenge in the racial realpolitik, is if you are a person of color, instructionally using Macintosh, you are accused of reverse racism. If you are a white person using Macintosh, all of a sudden depending on your gender, you are accepted, or rejected. Macintosh’s delineation of up to 46 separate privileges of whiteness, reveals uncomfortable truths on their own. The references to other works, for example the Combahee River Collective Statement, presages her further work beyond that 1988 paper. That is, there are other worldviews, non-white worldviews, to which her work is like the differences between pre-school ABC’s, and a post doctorate fellowship. This illustrates some issues around cultural competency, where that early scholarship on how to negotiate issues of race, predates Macintosh by a good eight and a half decades to a century. This canon generally remains invisible, even though it is written in the English language. But Dubois, Delaney, Fanon, Baldwin, Davis, Karenga, Walker, Pierce, Poussaint, Myers, to name a few who span that time period to the present. Three of them Harvard trained, or Harvard faculty.
I was apprised by an African-American applicant for a faculty position, of an odd experience he had during a job interview, simulation. The simulation involved a white male faculty member, playing a white male student, who had issues with the assignment: Macintosh’s White Male Privilege.
The applicant told me, “Look Macintosh is old, there are more daring writings on the subject, it was a safe choice on their part. I felt confident, and I’d had that conversation many times with white male students. White females, and minorities of either gender, get it immediately. So I’d done it before, because a lot of predominately white organizations use it. So I was used to having to defend it in my institution.” “After all, our job is to teach new concepts, and expression in writing, which means the student has to stretch a little. It’s not like I gave out bell hooks….” He said.
“The title chapter of Killing Rage?” I asked.
“I use that too.” “But if Macintosh is salt and pepper, bell is jalapeno. Killing Rage is habanero, most run of the mill white dudes can’t hang with dat flava. Too Real.” I said.
“True dat” he said. “I didn’t get the gig. I was really into the simulation, I felt I gave a brilliant defense of Macintosh, I mean I’ve met her, and studied her later work. Trippy thing about those continents, mountains, rivers thing.”
He was referring to Macintosh positing culture, like a continent with differing values symbolized by mountains, rivers that flow from them, and other natural features. The French derived English word salient, refers to mountains seen in profile from a plain. Different peaks, different heights, different cultures place greater importance on different things. White Male culture, values different things, places different salience, than White Female culture, or other cultural characteristics.
“Ultimately, I didn’t get the gig. I think they were threatened by my passion for the material. I think the white people interpreted it as anger. I wasn’t feeling angry, didn’t raise my voice, kept an even tone, was patient, after all it was a job interview, and I have a doctorate. An educated black man is threatening to some people.” He shrugged. “Of course I checked the place out before hand with my contacts. Other black professors warned me against applying, there, the place has a reputation about being hostile to black people in particular.”
It was reminiscent of my own experiences teaching at Lane, using Macintosh
with white students, and the objections you often get from white male students. They feel, they don’t have any privilege, and feel that they are discriminated against, and passed over for jobs via affirmative action etc. So, they want another assignment. And I refuse, because understanding the assignment is a prerequisite to going further into other material. You wouldn’t skip times tables, fractions, negative integers, in becoming numerate. You can’t skip White Male Privilege in understanding Intersectionality, which is essentially what the student is describing. Macintosh cites Combahee River, which is a collective of Black Lesbians, who write about a system of interlocking systems of discrimination, I teach as C2 R2A3 S H (C lassism /militarism Racism spirituality Addiction Ability Age Sexism, Heterosexism.)
Therefore, when Ganesha is the elephant in the room, you show how the system that normalizes racism and calls me nigger, calls you poor white trash, and her a ball cutting bitch, because we assert our equality, confers privilege and dominance on you, so that even if I’m a PhD, you can still consider me an uppity nigger, her a bitch, and feel superior.
So the culturally appropriate principle among Ganesha devotees, is that you don’t back down when the subject is racism. You have an adult skill building conversation based on the available literature, and modified by experience. You don’t avoid the subject, you approach it with reverence and skill. You don’t feed peanuts to Ganesha. But over come your fear, and offer laddu / prasad. Recognize recognize the laddus often depicted at Ganesha’s feet, requires humility and knowledge to prepare. The changing classroom, where building skill for dealing with difficult realities, transgresses the traditional mainstream notion of what is polite conversation. In recent developments, Lane’s students in the face of continued sexual orientation and racial harassment from some faculty, are continuing to push for mandatory cultural competency training. While the initiatives are supported by organized faculty of color and their allies, they are opposed by faculty leadership, who seem by default, to be siding with the perpetrators of such violence. With the glare of scrutiny, they find themselves like deer in the headlights, reacting with fear and ignorance, when they are supposed to be modeling knowledge, wisdom, and skill. If they would look through that glare, with third eye glasses, they would see Ganesha in the headlights, proffering his tray of wisdom conferring laddus, bidding us, eat.