As I’ve mentioned, this is my third PoCC, but the last two previous years, I attended as the sole faculty member. The first year in Boston I was entirely alone, and Gene is right–you do remember your first. I distinctly remember being overwhelmed–and tear up more than I’d like to admit. I knew, just knew I had to get students involved somehow. When I returned to school I started a Hip Hop Club (we are a relatively small school without a Diversity Coordinator, without Affinity groups, without much public opportunity for discussion about inclusivity). I was energized. The club attracted one of our very soft-spoken, yet outwardly appearing Afrocentric young male students. When he entered the room the first day, I took a deep breath and thought to myself, “I hope I can do this thing justice.” Luckily, after that first day, I didn’t really have to do much because he completely stepped up to the plate and willingly led almost all subsequent meetings. Unfortunately, he was a senior, and when he left, the club quickly disseminated.
Last year in New Orleans I took two students with me. It was a triumph. I was so excited–even more so because one of those students was my sophomore daughter, and just as I had suspected, the kids were blown away and both felt the experience life-changing.
This year, partly because of the location of the conference, I succeeded just that much further, and I invited my Head of School to present with me. So, for the first time, I am sharing this experience with a colleague from my own school. Words cannot adequately convey the hope I feel in getting him here, yet truth be told, as a White man he was a little hesitant. He repeatedly shared his worry that he might say something wrong.
For anyone who attended our presentation, you’ll recall the story he courageously shared about not being in contact with people of color during his school years. He grew up in New Orleans which apparently has a great deal of segregation in terms of living communities. He grew up in an affluent, all-white neighborhood, attended private school, and was really unaware of the richness of diversity within his own city. The only memory he has of African-American/Black interaction was with his nanny. When he first shared that story with me, I was incredulous. How can you grow up in New Orleans and not be 100% comfortable with diversity? I think it was difficult for him to share with me the fact that he was nervous about saying the “wrong thing.”
I think that we, as people of color who have experienced discrimination, prejudice, ignorance, apathy, and marginalization, tend to forget that our experience has afforded us the opportunity to develop a vocabulary for expressing our feelings related to culture, race, and identity. If we truly want to engage in courageous conversations with our white colleagues, however, I believe we need to reach out to them with sensitivity. I imagine my words might anger of few of my fellow persons of color, but it seems to me while the PoCC allows us to put down the masks we sometimes live behind in order to survive day-to-day which is comforting, affirming, liberating . . . we don’t have to “convince” one another of the importance of inclusivity. It is the dominant culture within our schools we need to convince, and when members of that community are willing to come into this unique space that defines the People of Color Conference, we must exercise inclusive behavior toward them–even when their cultural vocabularies are sometimes less developed.
At this point you may be wondering what in the heck I am talking about, getting to–John Quinones. His charge.
I sat in on a session yesterday that evolved into a public admonishing of a white attendee who pushed the wrong button with many others in the room. Her vocabulary was just a little more clumsy perhaps, but she was genuinely attempting to act, as she herself labeled, our “ally.” Without taking into consideration her intentions, she was chastised by other audience members for her misuse of language and her inability to fully understand ours.
I am a quiet soul. I hate speaking in group settings. At the front of the room as an educator or presenter, I can pull down a kind of curtain, and I am fine, but just existing in a room full of others is often excruciatingly difficult for me despite my knowledge of how important it might be. Yesterday, I heard Quinones’s charge run through my head, “What would you do?” I felt as though what was happening in that room was counter-productive to the conference mission, and I had to speak up. I slowly, almost unwillingly raised my hand.
I wasn’t called on, however, and luckily, two others spoke up in ways similar to the way in which I would have, but I walked back to the Grand Hyatt in the freezing cold last night with the heaviness of conflicting emotions wrapped around me like a winter cloak.
I don’t believe everyone will read this post and come away with a good feeling, or even a similar reaction to my recollection, and I seriously hesitated posting it because I value the conference and don’t want to in any way “hurt” its mission by revealing the sensitive and often confidential experiences that take place here–but if we don’t examine ourselves, the facets positive and empowering as well as those difficult and not-so-pretty we are not really taking home the mission.
Smooth sailing is refreshing, but it is only in the waves of turbulence that we recall the reason for knowing how to swim. Courageous conversations. Let’s continue having them.