The walls of my house, together, are a Crayola box. No room looks the same, or has a consistent theme; one room doesn't necessarily 'blend' with another room. Reality, authenticity, is sometimes shockingly multifaceted. White walls and khaki pants give me a headache. They make me uncomfortable. I become a shell of myself when I am forced into a generic setting and dragged into a conversation about the weather. I want to KNOW you. I need to see the world as it truly is. It eases me not at all to live in denial about these things.
Being without affirmative action in Michigan has already been heart breaking. The Supreme Court, today, Tuesday, April 22, 2014 upheld a Michigan voter initiative that banned affirmative action at Michigan's public universities.
Half of everything I have come to value I owe to Brown v. Board of Education. I could simplify its effect on my life by saying I grew up with diversity in Kalamazoo, Michigan public schools and it made me more interesting. But diversity's impact isn't simple -- it is mind-blowing. I had the option, as we all do, to self-segregate. But thanks to integration I also had the option not to. Because I embraced diversity and had access to integrated schools and neighborhoods, I grew up having frank conversations with my black friends about race and inequality. Long before the intellectual debates, and much earlier still than I had the tools to dissect socio-historical impacts of inequality on a community, I had experiences that allowed me to see disparity and inequality -- and in turn to know the world as it is and as it needs to be.
I was loud, and boisterous, a tomboy always proving herself. I was also, and remain, what I like to call five different shades of whiteness. My friend Nia and I would spend bus rides to school and home doing stand up comedy routines from the back of the bus and singing satirical songs. I knew when I was the loud kid begging for discipline well enough to know when I should have been the child ordered to the front of the bus, to the principal's office, or to put my name on the board. Yet, the adult with the authority to put me in my place rarely chose me. They instead chose my friend, the quieter, more respectful, browner, element in the acts of not-so-civil disobedience. So I started to send myself to the office, put my own name on the board, or, as in one instance, to call the adult a racist and lose bus privileges. I was a terror on a mission. My friend Shannon and I developed a system to announce when there was racism occurring in our orchestra class. We would start to yell racial slurs at each other from across the room. Shannon called me the "N" word and I called her the "H" word. Permissible, somehow, because they were opposite of the actual derogatory designations for our actual skin tones. We were flagging the absurd with the absurd. It was unconventional. It was an effective.
When I called my dad from the principal's office I would explain why I was there and he would just say something to the effect of, "Well, if you think it is right and you will accept the punishment, I support you." My eyes were opened to social justice and not because I was loud or just because there were inequalities to see, but because I knew the value of my friends of color to be true and equal to my own. I knew that value because I knew them. Because they were accessible to me to get to know and love. Seeing that value, knowing them, made it hard to shut up. An advocate was born of diversity. Occasionally, I wanted to slip into the comforts of my privilege. Sometimes I would get uncomfortable and defensive in response to threats to my privilege, but the environment I was in forced me to question the accuracy of my perception and to examine whether I was afraid of losing power or actually at a position of weakness. I found it was almost always the former.
In 8th grade, my science teacher, Mr. Foster, a brilliant kufi-wearing black man that would indulge me by exchanging books on genetic engineering with me and discussing the ethics and science behind it during lunch hour, sat me next to an African-American boy who hated my faux alternative image and teased me for my creepy necklace. Aaron, soon to become my best friend, and I started debating. The debates bled into after school phone calls. On the calls he would read me lyrics off of the back of his dad's Last Poets records and laugh as I would get angry, defensive, and self-righteous. I started to research black power, Afrocentrism, civil rights and I fell in love with social justice with a depth I still feel every day. I suddenly understood the power of history, and the power of power, and the lack thereof, when it was compounded over generations.
From junior high on I knew my purpose. I had embraced race-relations but saw the necessity of not prioritizing one injustice over another, and while spread too thin, I began the attempted balance of fights I maintain to this day for communities of color, women, the gay and transgender communities, kids, and against HIV/AIDS. In college I helped to facilitate a race-relations residential student organization that encouraged blunt open dialogue and hashing out differences and I helped to start the first LGBT residential caucus. I soaked up everything social justice, thirsting for theory and methods of change.
I stumbled into my love hate relationship with Lyndon Johnson v. Civil Rights Progress. I read the speech he gave at Howard University (1965) when he said, "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair." I still, to this day, explain inequality and disparity to students by placing them (or asking them to imagine themselves) at a starting line and then asking one to hop and letting another run toward the finish line. I explain that the hopping symbolized centuries of identities and histories erased, languages banned, the supportive structure of the family shattered as family members were split and shipped in different direction, individuals being robbed of personal property and land ownership, and a lack of access to wealth and education that builds on itself and translates into power and upward mobility with each generation. I ask them if this is fair. I ask if just allowing minorities to join the race is empowering them with what everyone else has had all along.
And THEN we talk about the white privilege that still exists. The studies that show continued discrimination. I ask them to add this to the runner's challenges and advantages.
We are far from the shameful years when white scientists were forcing marbles to fit into the skull of a white cadaver to demonstrate that the (forced) greater capacity meant a larger brain, which (they assumed at the time) meant intellectual superiority. We know that brain size is not alone a determinant of intellect, and we also are way beyond any support for grasping at trying to justify discrimination by claiming existence of a biological supremacy hierarchy. We have established that we are all starting with the same aptitude and capacity for learning but it is hard to deny that we all, even at this point in history, do not have the same access to opportunity and tools. Affirmative action is what WE HAD at this point to address that inequality until we could come up with a less fallible plan. Operating without a corrective system cannot be considered an option.
Now, I'll need to go back to trying to insert the topic of privilege into conversations of power and representation in defense of affirmative action. I need to go back to telling college students how affirmative action came to be, why I miss it, and what they are missing out on in its absence. I can't stop making the case, just so we remember that all of us need this. All of us need diversity because it is right, it is fair, it enriches our days and our lives, it broadens our perspectives and it allows us to see ourselves, each other, and our world -- in truth, in reality. And truth and reality are the only approaches that allow us to have the full experience. To taste, see, sing, absorb, and dance every moment of our lives.
Affirmative action has helped to provide the diversity that provided truth, even if not perfectly. Until we had a more perfect route to telling the truth of who we are and who we could be as a nation we needed to have something else in place. It was essential, to avoid the widening of disparities caused by hundreds of years of injustice, that something be in place before removing this tool that was access and opportunity. In all too many cases, in this world still plagued with bias, affirmative action has also been hope.
Today, the loss is not just for those who are in and of communities of color but for those of us who are not and who are that much more likely to remain sadly without exposure to all those we should know and love who would be, WITH us, a better and more accurate vision of our world. The fight for equality and liberation is not over for our communities of color, and until those resource and opportunity gaps are closed it is, indeed, OUR problem and we must mourn the fact that our government has opted out while also realizing that we must now make that much more of a deliberate step forward -- together.