After Ahmaud Arbery’s death, I used Facebook’s cyber pulpit to make a bold declaration that we needed to reach across racial lines to stop the murders of innocent Black people. I suggested people from all sides (inclusive of nationalists, patriots, liberals, and conservatives) convene to address the unhinged societal racism and bigotry. I have a few friends who are bona fide activists that remain ready and willing to fight inequity battles. One of those friends, Bhavani, whose name means dispenser of justice, responded with a fevered affirmation, asking, “What are we going to do?” A few days later, Bhavani and I designed a plan to bring a diverse group of people together to discuss racism, using a shortlist of questions to help them analyze their position in society. In honor of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, we named the conversation series “A Seat at the Table: ConnecTeach Conversation Series.”
A Seat at the Table: ConnecTeach Conversation Series
The outcome of the initial group meeting was mind-blowing. Talking and hearing about racism gave participants a voyeuristic view into how other ethnic groups perceived their connection to discrimination. Fourteen participants of varying ethnic backgrounds played nice at first; however, the world watched the police murder George Floyd in cold blood between the first and second meetings. Mr. Floyd’s murder created a shift in the conversation. Emotions that erupted from discussing Mr. Floyd’s death spurred a real-time demonstration of the group’s connectedness. Indeed, this tragedy was a turning point, as it was the first time most group members grieved with people of other races and ethnicity.
In subsequent meetings, participants moved from discussing individual associations with racism to analyzing structural and institutional racism in society. As co-facilitators, Bhavani and I learned several key things:
1. We knew that many people genuinely do not have the mental acuity or the contextual fluency to discuss racism.
2. Many times an individual’s knowledge of racism is limited to his/her experiences.
3. We realized other topics related to racism in America desperately needed exploring.
As we embarked upon multiple rounds of the conversation series with different groups of people, the revised questions list included the following topics, in addition to the initial: the separate and unequal America, confirmation biases, cognitive dissonance, the weaponization of white womanhood, allyship, and activism. Ultimately, the series ended with a discussion of the Ubuntu philosophy.
Over the last couple of months, we have hosted more than 25 virtual groups, and people from coast to coast have joined the conversation series to discuss racism. For an hour and 20 minutes over several weeks, people convene in an online space to engage in challenging conversations with complete strangers. Initially, people come to the group with myriad feelings of apprehension, anxiety, and mistrust, and I am so curious as to why they continually return each week. I’ve concluded that meeting virtually provides physical safeguards needed for individuals to engage in the content’s discomfort. Moreover, the theory of connectivism seems to speak to why people participate in our groups.
Connectivism Trumps Racism
Connectivism is a digital learning theory developed by George Siemens and Stephen Downs. (Goldie, 2016; Duke, Harper, & Johnston, 2013). According to connectivism theorist Siemens (2016), learning is a dynamic process shaped by context. Siemens states that learning is a network phenomenon influenced by both technology and socialization (Goldie, 2016). Rooted in chaos, network, complexity, and self-organization theories, according to Siemens (2005), the connectivism principles are as follows:
- Learning is a networked phenomenon influenced by technology and socialization (Siemens, 2005)
- Learning and knowledge rest in diversity of opinion.
- Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
- People engage in information in informal settings to make sense of it (Siemens, 2005).
- Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
- The capacity to know is more critical than what is currently known.
- Social media users create learning communities by the connections they make in digital spaces (Goldie, 2016).
Connectivism theorists suggest that the conceptualization of learning occurs when learners connect to and participate with other learners in a “clustering of similar areas of interests that allows for interaction, sharing, dialogue, and thinking together” (Siemens, 2005). Every group that convenes further convinces me that the tenets of connectivism provide a clear rationale for understanding why some people overwhelmingly will risk opening up to complete strangers about their experiences with racism. Our desire to learn can trump anything that gets in our way. As excited as I am to see people of all ethnic groups and ages participate in the discussions, I know that the talks are only the first step in a personal discovery journey.
Racism and the Reflexive Brain
Understanding our paradigms is dually connected to our desire to learn and how our brains actually work. The reflexive brain system readily judges individuals we encounter. The judgments come from the schema built from years of digesting messages about particular groups of people from various sources in our environment. Our parents, social circles, churches, school experiences, and media all serve as informants for the reflexive brain. From a very young age, we absorb messages that people from ethnic groups other than our own are a threat.
We learn to make assumptions about people based on our perception of them; often, discrediting the experiences and contextual circumstances that informed the individual’s outcome. We subconsciously impose our experiences on individuals who are different and rape their experiences with our arrogance. This imposition is evident when hearing the broken record stating that ‘people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ or ‘that racism is more about economics’. One of the most common suffocating expressions of arrogance is ‘America needs a wall' to protect it from the imagined Mexican infidels.
The reflexive brain system also overpowers our logical brain system. It drowns the actions we know are right in the sea of the racist schema that has grown deeper with every additional negative message. The mental sparring that is continually happening between the two neurological networks explains why a person could proudly place a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign in their front yard but exclude their black co-worker from emails, projects, and lunch invitations. The two neuro networks also explain why a black person can willingly treat a white stranger rudely. We can not dismantle racism unless we learn to identify and challenge our racist schemas.
Ubuntu: I Am Because We Are
Dismantling racism is a personal, cognitive journey. It is one that requires time, attention, focus, and discipline. Truthfully, the average person can not sustain the attention needed to challenge themselves in the cognitive domains connected to racism. It is easier to remain underdeveloped than it is to undergo the process of maturation. If this were not the case, there would be fewer racists and ignorant individuals in the world. However, the people who fail to push themselves to cognitive maturation related to race do not understand one of humanity’s most profound truths: We are inextricably connected. There is an African philosophy called Ubuntu that defines the interconnectedness of humanity. Ubuntu is a philosophical abstraction that amplifies the universal bond that intimately connects all human race members. However, we live unfulfilled lives because we reject our natural connections with humanity simply because of melanin’s magic.
Through the ConnecTeach groups, I’ve witnessed what happens when a person decides to act on the ubuntu principle. Over and over, in every group we host, I have seen white women connect with long lost black brothers, and black women open up to accept the love and care from Southeast Asian women and LatinX men. I get to see genuine admiration develop between individuals who, society would suggest, have nothing in common. However, it takes work and a full rejection of everything we think we know about others to get to this point of acceptance.
This work is more than a yard sign, a protest, and reading a book. Dismantling racism starts at a profoundly individual level. The “doing” begins with each person’s commitment to holding every negative thought about another race captive. The “doing” is deeply connected to one’s willingness to exercise the atrophied muscles of community and connectivity. Lastly, the “doing” is upholding the universal truth espoused in the African philosophy of Ubuntu. Trust me; it is so much easier to stay the way we are, hiding behind our hatred and blissful ignorance. Unfortunately, in doing so, each of us becomes an accomplice in the race-related murders taking place in society. We are each responsible for every drop of blood that cries out to us from the concrete on which it lands. Each person is accountable for every light, which is wrongly snuffed out, for every broken heart, and for every community ravaged by the pain of losing a daughter or son. President Nelson Mandela, one of the most prolific leaders of our times, shared a perspective that I use to govern my actions and attitude as a school leader, “There can be no keener revelation of society’s soul than how it treats its children.”
If we apply this perspective’s logic to American society, we could assume that America’s soul is in a state of extreme peril. As we allow the killing of black and brown men and women, we commit this great nation’s ethical and moral suicide.
The yard signs, books, and protest alone can not save us from the blood covering our hands. I don’t know about you, but I can not have the innocent’s blood on my hands or heart. I am willing to do the work. I accept you as apart of who I am. What work must you do to embrace me?