Tag Archives: privilege

Addressing “isms” and Criminalization… Model, Teach, Practice, Reinforce

About three years ago I found myself having a conversation with an assistant principal at my son’s middle school. Jacob (now 17 year old junior in high school) was being suspended for a couple days for getting into a fight with another boy after reacting to the boy aggressively stating the word nigga toward Jacob after Jacob told the boy he found it offensive and had asked him to stop saying it while singing a rap song. For that incident both were suspended two days. I coached Jacob on using his words and avoiding violence while equally praising him for taking a stand for things of importance him. As much as anything, I was upset with how we give that word so much power while equally upset with how much a large swath of American society finds it acceptable to use the word or any of the derivations.

Fast forward to Friday, May 2, 2014, where I received a text from Jacob stating, “Something happened at school today I need to talk to you when you get home.” My stomach dropped. I then quickly stepped out of myself to view whatever it was from his perspective and decided he needed to know that he can trust to be honest with me and responded, “Okay” and “No matter what. I love you.” That was one of my biggest steps ever as a parent. I’m the authoritative dad who learned to lead with fear from my mom and my ancestors who largely learned from their slave roots. So I wrapped up what I was doing at the office and headed home… practicing my responses, pushing myself to ask open ended questions but not too many, seeking ways of being supportive and firm, and anything else I’ve failed in year’s past.

When I got home, Jacob was tucked away in his room as usual and made his way to my room to tell me what had happened. He told me of an incident on Thursday at lunch where a group of students opened a window/door to a room used by the Drama Club and how he and a group of friends came to see what they were doing. In the room were some cookies that could be reached of which the group goaded Jacob to take and he complied. After eating some cookies and giving some to his group of friends and the kids that opened the window, they moved on to their normal day. Apparently on Friday, there were more cookies to be taken and someone took cookies and left a note that chided the Drama Club and included the word “faggot” in reference to those involved with the work of the Drama Club.

My first two questions were, “Who wrote the note?” and “Do you know who wrote the note?” Then I think, “Oh shucks, I’m supposed to be helping him feel comfortable right now but I’m angry on so many levels, somebody help me!” He noted that the administrators think they know who wrote the note, it was not him, and the administrators insinuated that the person who is suspected actually attempted to blame the writing of the note on Jacob.

So then I shift from the note and seek to clarify if he took part in the opening of the room versus his involvement being specific to the taking of the cookies that he already admitted to. Needless to say I struggled to deal with any of the “feelings” until my mind was able to understand the facts behind what happened. So my questions continued to focus on the who, what, when, and where. He was adamant that he had nothing to do with opening the room though he failed to report seeing someone else doing it and he admits to wrongly going to the next step of removing the cookies. Anything beyond that, he says he wasn’t involved with. No letters, no visits to the room the next day, nothing. And I believed him, accompanied with several added questions to validate and triangulate.

Now I’m able to include a little of the feeling stuff. Why did you take the cookies? How did that feel? A few of those kind of questions came out and it was good to hear him talking and sharing more than stressed and responding. Some of my favorites are “how do you think I should deal with this” and “how do you feel about the consequences you’re already facing.” Essentially he thought enough consequences had been experienced and those he’s facing (five days of no school) were very fair. Pretty convenient situation from a teenager’s point of view. In the dialogue I was particularly interested to understand how he felt about being accused of writing the note, to understand the punishment levied on all involved with opening the room, and to understand the prime driver of the suspension – opening the room, taking the cookies, or the note. His belief was that his suspension was for the note and the fact that the note likely wouldn’t have occurred had he not taken the cookies. I simply failed to connect taking cookies or being an unknowing accessory to a note that he didn’t believe in to a consequence of five days of suspension. Interesting enough he noted that the administrators were also pursuing suspensions against the students who ate cookies and somehow used a guilty by association argument to justify this.

For his part, Jacob was pretty distraught about any connection to the note because he has a great deal of respect for the Drama Club. Actually as part of his leadership role on the school’s Media Club he frequently worked with the Drama Club. Coincidentally, he spent Wednesday night watching the production of Shrek because he was supposed to film the show on Friday night. Equally so, he was disappointed about giving in to peer pressure and how that manifested in demeaning the efforts and hard work of the Drama Club. I was hoping to hear more remorse about taking the cookies. After having a chance to marinate on this over the weekend, I’m also unsettled around the failure of action to use this as a teaching opportunity regarding the demeaning of others and the insensitive if not damaging words and intent of the note. Jacob doesn’t own that specific action individually, but we as a society do regardless of who the perpetrator was. Silence or lack of effective action is acceptance.

Towards the end of my and Jacob’s conversation, he gave me the letter from the school which took me back to a recent post I made regarding the criminalization of children. Sarcastically, I ponder if I should celebrate that this criminalization occurred in a mostly upper class neighborhood with virtually no socio-economic diversity and very few Blacks or Hispanics versus the usual scenario. After listing the Education Code, which seemingly has no relevance to Jacob’s actions, the letter goes on to state that “Student was involved with other students in the breaking and entering of a locked facility on campus of 5/1/14. Students also took part in leaving an inflammatory note with the word “faggot” written in it as well as taking and eating cookies…” Seeing the words “breaking and entering” in the letter were very frustrating as they directly reference criminal activity and the remainder of the note reminded me that I’m only hearing one side of the story from Jacob. With clear suggestion that he had more awareness and/or involvement with opening of the room and writing of the letter I had to find an approach of confirming his story in a non-threatening manner. Regardless of how low of a threshold it may be, I’m glad I avoided raising my voice, accusations, or any form of threat in the process of confirming his story yet again. My reality is that I was hoping to protect myself from being made a fool when questioning the school and their choice of discipline. I called the school to speak with the assistant principal, but she was gone for the day and this will linger at least until Monday.

In the meantime, I had Jacob call three men whom I love and respect so he could share the experience with them and hear their counsel. From that he heard that 1. They too were kids at one point in their lives and this too shall pass, and 2. Versus just saying sorry within an apology it is much more meaningful to spend time writing an apology to connect with his feelings and equally demonstrate the importance of the apology by investing time in communicating via written word. I like what he heard. I also thought back to my high school days and the incident that happened with Jacob in middle school. When I compare this to what I did in high school and even the fact that just a few years ago he got in a physical fight or assault for those whom choose to criminalize behaving like a child, I find it quite ridiculous for a five day suspension to be the consequence for taking some cookies and being an unknowing and un-supportive accessory to the writing of an unacceptable letter.

In fairness to the situation, I’m still operating with only Jacob’s perspective on the events mentioned. After a low-key Saturday so Jacob could study for an AP test this coming Monday, I had him call all the friends whose names he gave to the administration and I called all their parents to forewarn of potential action the school might also take for those who ate a cookie. If possible, I also wanted Jacob to be able to speak with the person that allegedly accused him of writing the letter as well as to the Media Club sponsor since Jacob was a no-show to film the Drama Club perform Shrek. In both cases, the goal was to gain understanding and to seek or extend forgiveness. I should add, aside from the phone calls to peers, Jacob also made calls to find means to earn money via manual labor with the money to be donated to the Drama Club. It’s these type of actions that I believe bring the necessary understanding, respect, and learning in such a situation versus criminalizing children and suspending them from school. I pray for our school administrators and teachers as the ask of them is high and I pray that my dealings with them tomorrow don’t reflect my current disappointment.

To the LGBT friends that I know and have yet to meet, I apologize for my past history in condoning the hate and ignorance within the note that some ill-informed child left associated with this incident. Unlike the “N” word, I’m not familiar with the usage being pervasive and normal in today’s music or society so there’s no excuse there. And in my case, I can honestly say that I used the “F” word frequent and without relent in my childhood and on to my time in the military. I didn’t begin to gain respect until building a friendship with lesbians in the US Air Force at the time and later to have a great friendship with a co-worker in Northern Colorado. It was in Greeley and Fort Collins that my exposure would grow to understand that my position of “at least gay people have the choice to choose to be gay or not” was at best rude and easily a pilfering of one’s soul. This was only stamped further being that I lived in Fort Collins when Matthew Shepard died there in October 1998. I realize my part in his death. Most important was reciprocating friendship to my good friend Jackie and the many other amazing people who accepted me as a human first.

The situation that Jacob is experiencing is a stark reminder of a step show that some friends and I did at our high school when I was in tenth grade. We reenacted the step show scene from the movie School Daze and aside from the reference of that word, we inserted “Drama” to replace “Gamma” since there were no fraternities in our high school. I’m smart enough to know there’s no connection to Jacob’s situation and my actions over 25 years ago, but I believe the same forces of hate and ignorance that struck us to think that step show was okay back then are still prevalent to allow some child to write the note at Granite Bay High School this past week. It’s also reminder of how disappointed I am that in choosing a place to live that is conveniently locate to my job and resources that are preferred for my family, I also am in a place where all too often “difference” is not discussable. Whether it be broad conversation along the lines of those needed by the young man that thought it was okay to aggressively say the “N” word in my son’s face because it was in a rap song, for the student to scribble the “F” word in reference to the Drama Club, or for my generation who still use both of those words and are probably too fearful to admit how they’ve used them, we need to be able to talk about it and be honest about it. And “we” means that there needs to be more people in the authoritative “majority” opening up and being an honest.

Jacob’s going to be okay and will learn from this- I’ll see to it. I fear those that need it most will not get the needed lessons and very likely be leading our companies of the future potentially without the lessons that were here to learn.  Stop criminalizing children and focus on setting examples, teaching lessons, and reinforcing their learning of critical life lessons that will build them to be great leaders of our future.

The Privilege of Not having to Cut Ties

It would take something connected to privilege to pull me out of a long run of not posting anything on my blog.  That could be a discussion in itself.

Not being able to sleep after going to my own bed following bedtime with my sons, I took a look at my Twitter feed to see what was being chatted about.  There I found a conversation my favorite sports columnists, Joe Davidson @SacBee_JoeD was having with a few others.  Ashamed how disconnected I am to sports nowadays but seemingly Desean Jackson previously of the Philadelphia Eagles was recently cut by the team and there’s speculation and/or conflict as to whether that occurred because of his “ties” to gang affiliation.  Below is the bulk of that conversation.
Twitter Conversation

In reading the conversation, the quotes “Needs to cut ties…, associate carefully…, and careful who you associate” stood out the most for me.  They harken me to my personal situation and a reality that I know is common amongst most I grew up with.  Some background.  I was reared with two siblings by a single mom in subsidized housing projects in Columbia, SC which was frequented by crime, drugs, and violence more than police.  Just as the latter two quotes from Joe are good things to consider in life and I use as guides for my children, those quotes were also frequently used during my childhood by adults and teachers as a reminder of how we as young Black children were perceived and the likelihood of being considered guilty by association had very serious consequences.  Getting any form of a “record” with the police usually meant that they had the right to interrogate, stop, visit, etc. you and your family whenever they chose regardless whether there was any known connection you might have to what they wanted.

What stands out for me is using those words in connection with an adult who was just “fired.”  To be clear, I do not know the full circumstance of why Desean Jackson was cut and after doing some reading it appears most are speculating on the “final” reason for him being cut as there are claims of locker room issues, relationship with coach among other things.  Lots of allegations that aren’t really important to me as all professional athletes (except for those in college carrying a fake “amateur” tag) are overpaid anyway.  Yes I said it.  I also believe those upset about athletes getting overpaid should do something like turn off the TV, don’t go to games, don’t buy jerseys, don’t read the Sports section, etc. and the pay of athletes will change really fast.  I digress and I’m not upset about them getting overpaid- I think it’s great.

Back to the point.  Aside from the connotation of the word “ties” which is also bothering, why should I as an adult have to “associate carefully” or be “careful who I associate with” in context of childhood friends whom I remain in contact with and support in their legal pursuits?  Being Black the statistics show that I am VERY likely to be associated with family members and friends who have a “record” with the criminal justice system.  I don’t like it, but it’s the case.  Please note that I did not say these individuals are criminals of which I’m glad to discuss or debate as I believe criminals are equally common amongst all races and unfortunately some behaviors are criminalized within our society and justice system that make it more likely for racial minorities to have a “record.”  I respect the perception of association and understand the potential negative connotation that comes with who you associate with.  I equally hold adults responsible for the assumptions they make based on the filters they use when viewing others.  In summary, the realities of our justice system make it quite privileged to not be Black if you want to maintain life-long close friendships with childhood friends who don’t have any legal issues.  I don’t blame me or Desean Jackson for that.

So what does cutting ties mean for an adult in this situation?  Don’t talk to those “bad” friends anymore?  Don’t visit friends in jail?  Don’t give money to help with personal situations of your “questionable” friends?  Don’t let them be a part of your “entourage” when you’re taken across the country as a professional athlete to live amongst people you don’t know and trust?  I don’t know what Joe means by when he says “needs to cut ties.”  What I do know, is that we supposedly live in a place where innocent until proven guilty is the law of the land.  I also respect the right of an employer (Eagles or anyone else) to make staffing decisions based on whatever they feel is in their best interest and within the legal rights they have.

And whatever those legal rights are, I don’t think it’s appropriate for Joe or anyone else to suggest that one cut ties with people they’ve spent much of their life being closest to.  Cutting ties seems more appropriate for people 1. in a popularity contest (Obama and the minister, Republicans and the Tea Party, etc.)  2. who are seeking to overcome some past public issue (banks and Bernie Madoff or Allen Stafford, campaign donors and Rick Renzi, Tom Delay or Rod Blagojevich) or 3. with groups that counter your political or religious beliefs.  For me, many of the ties cut with my childhood friends that were running around the projects with me were because of distance (me moving away for college, military, and to work) and inability to communicate as they were hard to reach while in the military or struggling in the criminal justice system.  And if those friends struggling with the justice system reached out today, I would love to hear from them, spend time with them, and want to know how I can truly help them (legally).  And that’s not the business of my employer or anyone else.

So, I’d much rather be a positive nudge in the lives of my childhood friends and receive the reality and humility that they can bring to me unlike anyone else.  They know all the embarrassing moments, most of the firsts, the close calls, etc. that I had to learn from to be who I am today.  In my community, I saw them more than I saw my mom who was doing the best she could which left her frequently unavailable (physically and emotionally).  Don’t get it twisted- I have the greatest mom in the world!  And her commitment to her children proved that for me.  In the same, my mom set the agenda for rearing and my community mostly handled the task.  I’m far from perfect and very appreciative of what I’ve been able to accomplish in helping others in our beautiful world and there’s no way that I would “cut ties” with any family member or childhood friend who’s doing what they can and know how without expecting me to contribute toward anything illegal.  To suggest that Desean Jackson or any other athlete seems misguided.

Build friends, love them, and keep them.

Dongles and forking and privilege… Oh my

For those who’ve yet to hear of the events at and following PyCon last week, I’ll leave you to research Adria Richards, PyCon, and dongles and forking to gain as you may from what you find. After spending time reading articles, blogs, etc. I have something to say. Funny enough, the comment that incited the greatest reaction from me was vaguely within context of the incident but in my opinion had more to do with the incident than anything.

In response to a blog, a commenter wrote “…disgusted by….overwhelming privilege exhibited…” and the blogger responded, “I’m not sure how any of my words are a result of privilege. What privilege?…”

This all reminded of a personal situation about 15 years ago where I had a public disagreement (Opinion response in newspaper) with a college professor which led to an email exchange, brief phone discussion and then a face-to-face discussion about our viewpoints and eventually a friendship, regular discussions, and spending time with his beautiful family. The core of the initial disagreement and many of the ongoing discussions and perspective were borne in perspective on and appreciation of privilege.

I believe privilege has everything to do with the situation. Before writing any further, I’d like to provide a few examples of how I’m privileged as a man working in the technology industry. I will also note that in the computing and technology industry is a huge amount of logical thinking that I believe misses or overlooks the realities of privilege which is frequently not spoken nor overtly done, but simply accepted or enjoyed.

1. Amongst most of my peers, I can make an edgy joke about men or women without my gender being called into question. (Sorry fellas, women don’t get this privilege and I did nothing to earn it.)

2. When presenting publicly to a group of powerful men, I’m not concerned about whether any member of the group feels I belong based on my gender. (It’s up to the woman whether to be concerned or not, but not paying attention could very well hurt her- not me.)

3. In working across most technical companies or companies in general, there’s a high likelihood that when I’m escalated to the “boss” that person will be another man. (Just a reality and it’s typically more comfortable to speak with someone you relate a little more to in these situations, but most women would get another man to deal with.)

4. If I were to weigh in as an “outsider” on a situation in determining whether gender was at play or not, it is likely that my position will be seen as more valuable than a woman’s opinion. (If a man is in situation with woman “A” that she feels is sexist and I along with woman “B” witness it. Assuming all things equal other than gender, 9 times out of 10 my opinion on whether it was sexist or not would carry more credibility than woman “B.”)

5. I can mostly speak about gender diversity without being seen as someone who hates men or seeking to promote oneself. (A woman likely needs to weigh the consequences of speaking on this topic and to whom it’s shared and the setting. I can speak fairly freely about the need for greater gender diversity in technology and not worry.)

Funny enough as I’m preparing to type these next examples, I can feel anxiety rising from the possible pushback for sharing these real examples. And in my head I’m laughing with the thought that when I challenged the professor 15+ years ago, I hadn’t earned much. But now there’s stuff (career, perception, opportunity, etc.) at stake that if taken “wrongly” could hurt me personally and professionally. With that, it’s a worth-while risk to write about something we all should be more comfortable talking about. Now I’d like to provide a few examples of things I’ve earned and accompanying examples of how I do not leverage certain privilege.

1. If I need to relocate for work or most any other reason, I’m not likely to have an issue affording the necessary rent or getting a mortgage in most places. (However, in choosing those places I do have to consider the “welcoming” of neighbors, community, schools, etc. based on race, potential consequences if we’re the first or only Black family in the neighborhood, the perception and representation delivered in local media, ability to access a barber that’s experienced cutting hair like mine, representation of music and arts of my liking, etc.)

2. If I should need specific clothing, I can be pretty sure of affording the needed items immediately without financial strain. (However, before going to shop at an upscale store I have to consciously consider potential consequences for how I will be treated in the store based on race and then whether my appearance (clothes, grooming, etc.) will be considered a negative reflection on the race or just a choice I made.)

3. I can be sure that my children will attend a K-12 school that is highly regarded for its academic, athletic, and extra-curricular offerings. (However, that’s accompanied with added work of exposing them to professionals that look like them, encouraging self-love to overcome that lack of seeing self in community and school, coaching to address negative or demeaning terms from peers which are race based such as Oreo, N-word, “good one,” etc., ensuring cultural and religious preferences of others are acknowledged and respected)

4. I am likely to be called on by executives to complete challenging tasks that typically are not trusted with others. (However, I am still prepared to continue responding to whether I believe I first got my job because of affirmative action. I am very conscious of how in past situations my grooming, appearance, and presentation were assigned to the race and not just me. I am limited in finding executives who have common professional experiences impacted by race to discuss professional progression. Still face doing well in a challenging situation as being considered a credit to my race.)

In the first case, the “privileges” denoted are unspoken burdens that women face that I don’t have to deal with. However, it is not I that created that burden or am doing anything to intentionally limit women. The privilege is a consequence of our social structure which essentially provides me the luxury of not being directly challenged by those burdens as a man. Much the same, my Caucasian peers are far less likely to be burdened with the race-specific challenges that I noted for me and it would be a disservice to any of my Caucasian peers to suggest that they are responsible for or to blame for such challenges. And though racism and sexism are likely at the genesis of the societal norms that lead to the privileges I described, I believe (with the privileges I’m carrying) that most people are NOT intentionally perpetuating sexism or racism by enjoying the freedoms and advantages of those privileges. However, I believe the biggest problem with privilege is the ignorance or denial of having such privilege. Followed closely behind that is the willingness of individuals to discuss it with the goal of understanding the person not in their shoes. Though the examples only touch on race and gender, privilege extends to nationality, first language, age, class, sexual orientation, and beyond.

Thus, I’m inclined to believe that the gentlemen making the joke regarding dongles and forking were well immersed in their privilege (being men at tech conference) and their comfort led to inappropriate behavior (freely making sexual joke or innuendo). If you eliminate all women from the conference and these behaviors likely would be minimized or ignored by all others within earshot, right? Because most men are very unlikely to react, be angered, address the bad behavior, etc. especially since it was associated with an object and not directly a woman. That’s our privilege. But the reality is that women were at the conference, the very fact that we have so few women at the conference or in the tech industry in general is directly related to the privilege that we receive as men.

However, for Ms. Richards to then become scorn by so many men and women is disappointing and understood. There’s the myriad of things she could have done upon being offended and she clearly had options. However, minus breaking the law, it was those who went overboard exhibiting their male privilege that opened themselves up for whichever she chose. And the one she chose (tweet picture with comment) exposed their choices in a way that resulted in them having to explain those choices to others. There are clearly a range of responses and consequences. And to each of those are an even greater range of opinions on what should’ve been done and why. But only the person living with the burden of having to make a choice in such an unfortunate situation gets to choose what that response will be.

For me, this is not much different from me dealing with a normal dose of-
1. whether I was hired because of Affirmative Action or
2. being congratulated on being a credit to my race, or
3. being asked “why do Black people…” or
4. responding to comments based on assumption of my political position

I’ve never gone to HR to report such questions or conversations. If I did, does that make me wrong for choosing not to personally deal with this burden coming to me through the voice of others’ ignorance or lack of consideration for me? Would it be wrong to take their picture along with what they said and tweet it? What if I just loudly repeated their question/statement and my response to it so that at least everyone within the range of my voice would know “that’s not cool?” I don’t have the answer. I repeat… I don’t have the answer and don’t know what’s right. To date, I’ve addressed the situation one and one and then make others aware of what happened by keeping the person anonymous. In taking that route, no scene is made, jobs are relatively secure, and others aren’t feeling the need to to take a side. That also means that I absorb all of the work of others’ ignorance and educating others in the workforce with full knowledge that someone else will come along to be educated. But whatever legal route I choose, it is not me that’s doing something to anyone. And I’m really laughing now because I can see people wondering if they should talk to me about anything related to race. The answer is “absolutely yes” and to first apply those questions to yourself and the group you belong to determine if you think you’re in a position to answer that or if asking that would be demeaning to what you’ve earned via hard work.

I beg that those of us in a place of privilege whether it be based on gender, religion, race, class, parent, sexual orientation, authority figure, and anything I missed to invest in doing some of the hard work along with those who aren’t in the position of privilege. This typically starts with having open and honest discussions about how others might not enjoy the benefits that we do with the understanding that we are not limiting them from enjoying those benefits. However, our willingness to come to a point of understanding about the situation will very likely trigger meaningful conversations with more people and hopefully transform our work environments, our neighborhoods, our schools, our nations, and our appreciation for each other.

Many if not most of our words as Americans and those working in America are a result of privilege. Let’s avoid victimization, blame, anger, labeling, denial, and paranoia and before the next bad joke about dongles and forking comes up, let’s do more talking and gain more understanding so that either the joke isn’t said or is worded in a way that’s inclusive and funny.