NATASHA THOMAS: Challenging Conversation Corners — Diversity Is Not A Destination

It’s time to talk about the “woke ladder.”

The term “woke” goes way back, originally coined in the black community and now used widely to describe an awakened state of being, an awareness of systems at work behind closed doors that the less “enlightened” may not notice or acknowledge.

In today’s call-out culture, verbal sparring between political and ideological opposites is celebrated as some sort of victory on both sides, regardless of context or actual outcome. Social media posts blast subjects with headlines like “so-and-so DESTROYS this other guy,” and people take comfort in the sense that whoever they were rooting for in the “debate” that they’re convinced they witnessed really showed said “other guy” what was what, with no care for whether anyone’s mind was ever actually changed.

The term “woke” thus emerges in liberal circles as a badge of honor, particularly among younger millennials, as if “wokeness” is some sort of status symbol for an elite club of people who “know” and “say” all the “right” things, never mind what they actually do or don’t do.

I’m sure there’s a similar term for this sort of “talking without walking” on the conservative side, but that’s never really been my world. Hell, liberalism is hardly my world anymore. I hear the word “woke” now, and I can’t help but roll my eyes.

A lot of black Americans similarly regard “woke” this way, just as other pop culture crazes that start in our community — like “eyebrows on fleek” — get co-opted by mainstream society, commodified, turned into multimillion dollar marketing schemes without an ounce of money going to the brown-skinned folks who coined the term, then mocked and tossed aside by the same elites who ate it all up in the first place.

But I digress. So buckle up liberals, cuz this post is as much for you as it is for the conservatives you like to call out.

Wokeness is no state of mind. I’m about to take down the precious ladder rung by rung, starting with the biggest lie woke-striving folks tell themselves, one that I even swallowed for a while until I knew better:

1. Diversity is not a destination

People love to celebrate “firsts”: the first black student in a previously all-white school, the first female astronaut or CEO in a world dominated by men. And don’t get me wrong, firsts feel good. When you grow up not seeing yourself represented in the anywhere, you start to believe that you must not be worthy of representation and that self-doubt can be systemically crippling. Social cognitive theory, on which I’ve based my dissertation research, tells us that we (human beings) learn and form beliefs about ourselves and others based largely on the relationships we form with those who share our world, so it stands to reason that seeing ourselves represented as equal and worthy would be valuable, thus making the first person to do something worthy of celebrating.

But here’s where it gets sticky because becoming visible does not solve all the problems inherent in a lack of representation. Take for instance the work I was doing in my North Dakota hometown to form a city commission of diverse individuals from the community. The ridicule and threats that my fellow organizers and I faced in that process were largely “because” we were visible, and the more visible we and our cause became, the more volatile individuals were who came out of the woodwork to say things like “I don’t dislike black people, but I sure don’t appreciate ’em neither” at publicly televised City Council meetings. (Seriously, you can look that one up. That actually got said on live TV in Grand Forks.) Or telling me I deserved to be set on fire via comments on social media event pages.

In fact, a large part of the reason why our connections in city leadership ultimately asked us to withdraw our proposal for the diversity and inclusion committee — believe me, that was a fun conversation — was because they didn’t want to have any more such “ugly” conversations. Nevermind that those “ugly” words were directed at the very people whose voices they said they wanted to hear. They didn’t want to hear us that badly I guess.

So representation really isn’t enough. Just being visible isn’t enough. Ultimately, it’s about power. So long as the people in power can decide who they want to listen to and who they want to ignore — or actively silence  — you could have a majority of black students in a school or a hundred female astronauts and still have white men in power who’ll decide their needs aren’t worth meeting.

So by all means, celebrate your “firsts,” pat yourself on the back for knowing who those pioneers were and are, and then put your key in the ignition to start actually driving because honestly, diversity is the bare minimum expectation we really should be having of our society. OK? Next.

2. Your faves are problematic. Yes, all of them

Your heroes, past and present, likely were/are human beings. Human beings are fallible. Therefore, your human heroes were/are fallible. Period.

America’s founding fathers owned slaves. Winston Churchill may have given our allies great hope during World War II, but he also said some really racist things about India and her people. Mahatma Ghandi may have been a pillar of nonviolent resistance, but he also sexually abused women in his movement.  Martin Luther King cheated on his wife. I’ve got more, but that’s enough glass houses shattered for one bullet point. Seriously though, you can look all of this up, I’m not going to do that work for you, but it’s readily available. People make mistakes and screw each other over all the time. Even the “good” ones.

So now that you’re in your car and ready to drive, get your road rage under control. While you’re busy honking at every single vehicle that makes you mad, flexing that knowledge you hold about the “firsts” in bullet point No. 1 all over the internet, you ain’t driving all that safe either. Acknowledge that we’re all a little bit racist, everyone is problematic and focus your attention on finding the lane that does the least amount of harm. Then commit to learning and working in said lane from a place of humility.

Since I’ve moved to New Orleans, you may have noticed I’ve been more quiet online, blogging less frequently, etc. That’s because I’m in a new community, and I’m committing to learning as much as I can, rather than trying to fashion myself as some kind of problem-solver right out of the gate. My experience is different than the experiences of someone who was born and raised in New Orleans, full stop. That does not make any of us any better or worse than the other, just more or less accountable for the outcome of our actions. Now that I’ve built some relationships and am feeling more connected to the people and causes around me, I can speak up and engage more often because I have a tangible stake in what happens around me here, but you best believe I won’t be engaging the same way as someone who was born here, or even engaging the same way I used to.  Because my lane is different now.

Case in point: There was a recent gathering here of individuals from a group called “Take ‘Em Down NOLA,” committed to encouraging the city of New Orleans to take down all symbols of white supremacy in the community. The gathering I attended was promoted as a “Second Line and March to end White Supremacy.” A Second Line is a type of parade famous in New Orleans, traditionally led by a brass band. Almost 700 of us marched behind one such band from Louis Armstrong Park in the French Quarter downtown to Lee Circle, where a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was once standing, but stands no more (he was taken down a week later).

The organizers of the march were very clear that they knew the pro-Confederacy movement was going to be meeting us at our final destination, but our goal was not to engage with them. “We don’t need to prove anything to them,” one leader said into a megaphone before the march began. “We already know these monuments are coming down. We know because we’ve been talking to and working with the people who are going to do it. So we don’t need to talk to the people who oppose it.” And so it was.

Our march was more about celebration than changing hearts and minds. We gathered together so we could honor the people already doing the work and carry that joy to a place that had symbolized great suffering for so many. And lemme tell ya, it was a powerful afternoon.

There are lanes for everyone in this work. Some people are policy people. I used to fancy myself as one. These are the people who work within existing government structures to make the case for improving civil and human rights. That’s not my lane anymore. Right now, my lane is in my research, using what I find out about Social Cognitive Theory, partnered with the amplified voices of the marginalized populations with whom I work, to create more grass-roots change that can be felt more instantly, rather than gradually.

You may find yet other lanes that are best suited to your strengths. And as strengths and perspectives change, you might change lanes a few times in your life. But I can almost guarantee you that yelling at people on the internet is not gonna be one of them, or at least it won’t be the whole of the work (cuz let’s face it, I’m ranting on the internet right now. But that’s not “all” I’m doing with myself).

So find your lane. Don’t waste time yelling at all the “bad” drivers in other lanes.  maybe just focus on the few pressing issues you can address at a time. Make each one count. Commit to the work. Then we can really get somewhere.

Now, here’s the last tip I’ll share for today.  Once you’ve discarded the idea that diversity is a destination and come to terms with the problematic-ness of your faves, recognize there is no “promised land.” At least not on planet earth.

This one’s a tough one to swallow. Believe me. I want to believe that there is in fact a mountaintop where all men will be judged,” not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” I really do. But so long as there is such a thing as isolation, there will be segregation.

If you don’t believe segregation is still happening, look up “Redlining.” Look up “White Flight.” Look up what happened to the schools of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, when veteran teachers, most of whom were black, got told they were all fired and had to reapply for their jobs, only to be replaced by predominantly white staff.

People find all sorts of ways to keep people they don’t want in their neighborhoods. And as long as segregation continues to exist, other inequalities will too.

So, just as we have to commit to our lanes and doing the work we can from said lanes, we have to come to terms with the fact that it’s a big world out there, and getting everyone to believe the same things about the world just isn’t realistic.

But there’s something empowering in that, too. Because it means that in working where and how I can, that I can build connections with other like-minded people who can bear the load with me, and together we can create networks of strength that are truly by us, for us. If the system won’t bend to our aid, we’ll create more equitable means of meeting our needs.  But it won’t come from just knowing all the “right” things, and it won’t come from yelling at every person who disagrees with us on the internet. It comes from the WORK.  And the work don’t come easy. That’s why they call it work.

I want to stress that everything I’ve detailed here is an oversimplification. This stuff is truly so very complicated, and we’ve barely scratched the surface here. There’s still conversations about things like intersectionality and how someone who is a minority in one area is not necessarily an expert on all others (not even me), or how speaking up for and speaking “over” someone are two different things. These are all topics that can — and do, believe me —  fill books of their own.

But my point is that it’s a surface worth scratching, and it’s high time some of my liberal friends started scratching it. I want to see more than posts about how some celebrity “blasted” another on my Facebook feed. I want to see more photos of people going out and engaging in their communities, finding and sharing ways to get connected and make a difference.

I recently created an online continuing education course for Music Therapists on Human Rights Ethics, and as part of that course the company that contracted me to teach it created a Facebook group for course participants to share resources they were finding in their communities and discuss the course materials in an informal, but investigative way. And believe me when I say I look forward to checking in with that forum every night.

It’s not a perfect world, but it’s the closest thing I can think to an online utopia right now, so I’m grateful to the team that invited me to be part of it, and I’ll fight to keep it alive. Similarly, I’ll keep doing the research and work that I do on the ground, learning and stumbling as I go, accountable to all the people who matter to me on this journey, which is pretty much everybody.

That’s my lane. It’s not a ladder. But at least I know there’s room for more than just me and my ego. If humanity is to get even close to some semblance of a promise land, we need each other.

So find your pit crew.  And get to work.

One thought on “NATASHA THOMAS: Challenging Conversation Corners — Diversity Is Not A Destination”

  • Dorothy Keyser June 7, 2017 at 7:36 pm

    And the bottom line is, life is work, rather like marriages. You are so smart and SO articulate, I still think you should go into politics.


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