Guest Post: Cody Charles on the Ten Counterproductive Behaviors of Well-Intentioned People

Ten Counterproductive Behaviors of Well-Intentioned People

by Cody Charles

This is a follow-up to my previous piece entitled, Ten Counterproductive Behaviors of Social Justice Educators. The latter was written for folks who consider equity work as their core life purpose. I wrote Ten Counterproductive Behaviors of Well-Intentioned People for the folks who consider themselves good people invested in social justice and conversations around equity, but who may show up in the ally role most often. Well-intentioned people make mistakes, lots of them. Mistakes must be expected, and being held accountable has to be expected as well. The points below outline some of the common behaviors that show up often in social justice conversations. I want to be clear that we all participate in some of the following counterproductive acts. We are not all privileged or all oppressed. We are complex people with complex identities that intersect in complex ways. Therefore, we all show up in problematic ways with our privilege. I own that my background is from the higher education setting, but I think the points below can be useful for all folks interested in creating dynamic change in the communities around them. Moreover, this piece was written in the midst of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner non-indictments (many more people could be listed), so some of it may feel specific to race. However, these rules apply beyond the identity of race; in fact these rules only exist in the dynamic of intersections. Below are ten counterproductive behaviors that people who want to do “good” commit and must actively work to correct:

  1. Quick to marginalize someone else’s experience

I was walking through a hotel lobby with colleagues. We were headed to a conference social, wearing business attire. There were quite a few conference attendees roaming around the lobby area at that time, all wearing business attire as well. It was a fairly loud, mingling setting. An older white woman walked up to me and asked if I knew where she could get fresh towels. I was puzzled for a moment, which then indicated to the woman that I probably could not help her.

After the exchange, I looked at my friend in disbelief. Not utter disbelief or shock, because it was not my first time experiencing this marginalized view on the identities that I hold, but it did catch me off guard at my professional organization’s national conference; a place where we exchange ideas on how to better serve, educate, and develop the students that we work with. I remember telling a few colleagues later at dinner and getting this response, “I’m sure she didn’t mean it like that.”

When someone shares an experience like this with you, please STOP yourself from analyzing the situation. Listen, observe, connect with the emotion and experience how real it is to the other person, which should in turn make it real to you. No questions, just listen and learn. Hold on to your questions, which are the manifestation of your wanting the world to be a kind, good-hearted place. It is because you see yourself in that older white woman. Get past that. Be there for your friend, colleague, and mentor/mentee. And maybe ask questions later.

  1. Choose not to speak up

You choosing not to speak up has either to do with the fear of your oppressed identity being pounced on or the presence of your blinding privilege. Regardless, too often, the courageous few are tasked alone with holding the integrity of inclusiveness in spaces. Too often, the oppressed have to make a dynamic choice to either speak or stay silent. To stay silent comes with making peace with your inferiority to dominate culture, self-hatred, and finding comfort in the status quo. To speak is to risk not being a team player, being identified as overly sensitive, pulling the race/gender/orientation card, to not be asked to Happy Hour, to not being considered for promotion, and to fall into a simplified caricature of your already watered-down self. Do your work! Consider perspective as you enter and claim space. Pay attention, observe, and always consider that the ideas being explored in any space you enter are based on whiteness, heteronormative, gender binary (specifically cis-male), able-bodied, middle-upper class perspective. Speak up. Do not allow your colleagues and friends to take on the sole responsibility of shifting culture from “normal” to dynamic.

  1. Respond poorly when held accountable or challenged

You are entitled to your feelings. Really, you are, and you are responsible for your self-development. Here is a secret: the oppressed often fear the response of the privileged around identity conflict. The oppressed often lose in these encounters and historically have lost their lives. You often respond without thinking critically about the information or feedback being given because of your privilege and ego. We all fall victim to this dynamic, generally around our salient identities. Acting purely out of emotion and in defense is not only dangerous to the livelihood of the oppressed, but directly conflicts with your goal of creating a more just and equitable world.

  1. Do not take the time to do your own research (Expect the oppressed to educate)

There is nothing worse than identifying as oppressed, and having to not only explain but convince people that your oppression is valid. Pick up a book! Google it. Read some Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, bell hooks, Janet Mock, Malala Yousafzai and Gloria Anzaldua. Do your work. Do not expect all of your education to come from your Hispanic friend, friend with a mental illness, or favorite trans+ personality/activist (LaVerne Cox & Janet Mock). Take a true interest in this crucial conversation, beyond when it is convenient for you. This is not to say that you can never reach out to your “oppressed” relationships, but be prepared before you approach them. Be well read and make Google your friend. It will make the world of difference to your friend that you took the time to educate yourself. In the future, when you ask your friend questions, be prepared for a “no” or “not at this time.” The oppressed are continuously asked to defend their experience, so your question may be too much in that single moment.

  1. See themselves as either good or bad…

We often will not fess up to marginalizing someone else’s identity or creating a space that is exclusive in nature. For some reason, we have in our minds that if we take responsibility for this exclusion, then we are admitting to being a bad person. Instead, we must see ourselves as good people who will make mistakes. Good people create spaces of exclusion all the time. That is reality. Even if the intent was good-hearted, the impact is what matters most. Often, when challenged on their privilege, people love to default to their marginalized identities in hopes of subconsciously (or consciously) garnering sympathy. Stop giving yourself limited choices once a mistake is made. Let go of not wanting to be seen as a “bad person.” Take responsibility, apologize, learn, and do better in the future.

  1. Execute initiatives of change without the oppressed people at the table

In the wake of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Renisha McBride, and countless other deaths of black youth, we are seeing more and more rallies, protest, panels, online activism by white people. This is mostly done by well-intentioned white folks that are not inviting or trying hard enough to get black people at the planning table. Generally, what we end up with is a poorly planned event that is offensive or excluding the people it was meant to serve. I chose the recent scenarios as examples, since they are on the forefront of everyone’s mind. This dynamic plays out with all other oppressed identities, which means that more of us than we would like to admit participate in poorly planned initiatives created from our privileged lens.

  1. Create “mystical negro” dynamics (insert any oppressed group)…

This is similar to number four, “expect the oppressed to educate.” However, for the well-intentioned and somewhat in the know group, this idea morphs into something a bit more intense. You utilize your one friend as the absolute expert on the said oppressed identity in addition to having them serve as your educator and moral compass. The conversation around said identity becomes less about making systemic change or a space of support for the oppressed; instead it moves towards helping the privileged figure out their lives around said identity. In turn, the oppressed friend becomes mystical in nature, where their only purpose is to be there to help move you along in a morally correct life. These folks have to carry your education and deal with their pain simultaneously. See number four as a way to improve this one-sided dangerous relationship.

  1. Crying

Your tears take up too much space. They very quickly turn the issue into an exchange about your feelings, your education, and making you feel comfortable in your privilege. Politely tell your tears to have a seat—several seats, a plethora really.

When your eye glands start to well up, STOP or get the hell up and excuse yourself. This point is not saying that your tears or your hurt feelings do not matter; they just do not have space here. Tears rarely worked for the oppressed in stopping the oppressor from beating them, selling them, lynching them, hanging them on a fence, dragging them behind their pick-up truck, shooting them outside their front doors in front of their families, publicly shaming them, and draining every ounce of worth from their souls…so it does not serve any use here!

  1. Giving advice from your place of privilege

I heard Melissa Harris-Perry speak about this point at a keynote and it stuck with me. I began to analyze the truth of it as it applies to me. I found that I indeed offer advice and solutions through my privileged lens. I moved with ease from conversation to conversation with friends, family, and students through my place of privilege. This is something that we all do, mostly without being cognizant of the person and identities that sit in front of us. Now we all can agree that the horrific abuse of Jenay Rice was unacceptable and Ray Rice deserved to be held accountable for his actions. However, we cannot make the leap that Jenay’s only choice in this situation is to leave Ray. Her decision and our decision can be drastically different pending the intersecting identities that we hold. To impose expectations on people through your experiences is to create exclusive and hostile environments that are potentially unsafe. It also places the people you are trying to help in a position to make decisions that are harmful to their interest.

When our privilege is involved, it is quite difficult to name it. I work at a university in support services with a multitude of students and this scenario plays out all the time. I am often not conscious to the inappropriate and sometimes destructive advice I am giving. We must interrogate our privilege to appropriately support the people in our lives.

  1. Believing that being loving and kind is enough…

No matter how kind you are or how much of your heart you share with others, systematic oppression will still exist. You cannot rest on being kind, encouraging, and loving. You have to commit yourself to learning more, becoming conscious of the system, and continually fighting for the cause of equity and justice—while allowing the oppressed to take the lead. Stay away from comments and sentiments that ask for passiveness and harmony, we are more concerned with equity and justice. It is easy to retweet or repost a social justice article on social media and stop there, but that does not mean you are doing anything to end systematic oppression. We have to move away from the niceties and do work.

Let’s break down “do work.” It has already been explored beautifully by Franchesca Ramsey (@chescaleigh), so there is no need for me to find a creative way of saying the exact same thing. I am asking well-intentioned people to do work, such as understand your privilege, listen and do your homework, speak up but not over, apologize when you make mistakes, and remember that being an ally is a verb. Additionally, I have added a sixth point, courtesy of a good friend, which is you do not have to be an expert. While all points are crucial, below are two points I want to explore further.

You do not have to be an expert

Do not allow yourself to be immobilized by your lack of knowledge. You can still do something if you are willing to risk making mistakes. In fact, you will never know it all. How could you? Your privilege will not allow you to take in the full experience of the oppressed. Move past your fear and engage other privileged folk around you and listen to the voices of the oppressed.

Ally is a verb

You actually have to do something! Being an ally is not silently agreeing with the oppressed. You must constantly figure out ways to use your privilege to push forward the voice of the oppressed. The work of an ally should not be an easy journey. You no longer have the luxury of silence. You should feel pain, uncertainty, fear, frustration, and exhaustion. It takes risking yourself, transparency with the oppressed, and calculated action to be an effective ally.

Please know that being active in equity work takes stamina, humility, courage, tough love, a strategic mind, and a forgiving heart.

Cody Charles currently serves as an Associate Director of Multicultural Affairs at the University of Kansas. During his time at KU, he has led diversity and social justice trainings for much of the campus community, including student athletes, student executive boards, staff, faculty, and high school students. Cody was recognized by the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) as the Outstanding New Professional in Residence Life in 2008.

Note: there is no need to contact Cody Charles for permission to use this content. Feel free to email it, share it, tweet it, Facebook it, pin it, and reprint it with credit. Visit www.consultcody.com for more information about him.

This piece was printed previously at The Body is not an Apology.

What to do about George Zimmerman…

Where do I begin?

When my collaborator and I began planning this semester, we were not sure what we wanted to teach about per se, but we knew we had to discuss Trayvon Martin. We could not ignore him — his murder was plastered all over the internet, his name came up in most conversations; his iconic, hoodied picture was immortalized on our students’ T-shirts — Trayvon’s story had to be discussed, if for nothing else but to understand tragedies that happen not only in the literature we read, but also in the world around us.

Fast forward to Zimmerman’s verdict and the chaos that followed (more on lesson plans later):

We watched this video as a class. I remember the portion of his speech that stood out most to me:

You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it’s important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.

There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

Whether you agree or disagree with our president’s political agenda, there is incredible honesty in these words. They cracked open my heart and touched me in a way I thought impossible — in a way that allowed me to see the situation of a person whom I cannot relate to on a literal scale no matter how hard I try because of the privilege I was born with — a privilege of fitting naturally into the normative societal scale of acceptance because of the color of my skin.

I began to understand this concept more after reading Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. What struck me most is that, before I began to consciously think of these ideas, I never thought about them. Sure, the sentiment is simple, but no matter how obvious it is to me now, I still never consciously paid attention to my situation in life before I was told to, so, I guess that is why I am sharing my revelations with you now.

So, back to George Zimmerman: Zimmerman is Charged with Aggravated Assault. No matter how hard we try to close the wounds that have been opened by the Trayvon Martin trial, they becomes continuously reopened. After the most recent news broke on Zimmerman, I began seeing this picture circulating the internet:

Image

While my initial reaction is to roll my eyes, as this meme is making light of a heavy situation, there is truth here. According to Malco (2013), “race matters in this country are the paralysis of the American people.”  In other words: when issues regarding race come up, we either 1. talk ourselves in circles, going nowhere or 2. ignore matters of race altogether. Sure, this is a silly meme which is not meant to be taken seriously, but the sentiment here is very serious, and something which should not be silenced further.

So, to answer my original question: what do we do with George Zimmerman? My answer is: I don’t know, but we cannot ignore him — to do so would be like slapping Trayvon in the face. However, we also cannot give into the media’s ploys to make money off of his demise. 

JJW

Hip Hop-spiration

Before embarking on my “journey for social justice,” I read an article by Tina Love (shown above) called I See Trayvon Martin”: What Teachers Can Learn from the Tragic Death of a Young Black Male. This article acts as the foundation to the lesson plans I have made this year — so much of Love’s (2013) discussion relates directly to my classes. Here are some of my notes/responses to the text itself:

  • Love makes known the stereotypes that are deeply rooted in American society, and therefore, in our schools. One misconception of young Black males is their “attitude.” I, too, was very ignorant when I first began teaching, to the Black culture, as I grew up in a mostly white area (Northeast Georgia). However, college quickly opened my eyes to multiculturalism, and teaching in a very diverse school has changed my attitude toward the misconceptions of Black culture altogether.
  • According to Love, “Hip Hop swag serves as the perfect example. It is more than just a way of body movement and projections of coolness, it is an epistemological aim to engage others with confidence, likability, charm, cleverness, and resolve. Hip Hop swag is standing one’s ground” (p. 3). What a beautiful way to describe many of my students! While some may see Hip Hop swag as being “cocky,” or “apathetic,” this definition really gets to the heart of the matter: it’s a way of life, a way of being.
  • I agree with Love that “Too often, teachers make judgments concerning Black male students having nothing to do with their intellectual ability and everything to do with stereotypes, assumptions, and fear” (p. 3-4). I have fallen victim to this way of thinking in the past, but there are ways to battle normative ideas, and Love discusses a few of these in her article. One of the ways is through education and constantly educating yourself and your students. I am trying to do this through my critical pedagogy project (this website and my lesson plans), and I feel I am learning every bit as much as my students are. I only hope I am battling racial stereotypes and never perpetuating them (J. Whitley, Scholarly Notes, November 12, 2013).

I am currently reading Love’s book, Hip Hop’s Li’l Sistas Speak: Negotiating Hip Hop Identities and Politics in the New South. While I am not finished with it, yet, I am already inspired by Love’s work with these six middle and high school girls. There is a cool interview about this book on YouTube, and Dr. Love’s discussion begins at 16:00. Here is Dr. Love’s YouTube stream about her work last year at a local elementary school.

As you can see, I have been inspired by Tina Love’s work, and I feel like it would be selfish not to share it.