by Maria Martin Thacker
At the Fall 2017 SIETAR-US conference in San Diego, one of the keynote speakers was Carlos Cortés, who had recently published a book of poetry, The Fourth Quarter. The lighthearted talk subtly urged all to find purpose in their lives. As I sat in the audience, it was as though he was speaking just to me. I was on the cusp of my life’s fourth quarter and had recently retired from teaching intercultural communication/anthropology, a career that had followed years of international academic/corporate diversity consulting and teaching. I had decided I was not going on the road again, given the constant hassle to keep an intercultural practice profitable. With my new status, my audience was drying up. Reflecting the country, the major elements of the “marketplace” also were quickly changing. There was an ever-expanding definition of inclusion as well as diversity, an emphasis on systems instead of only individual actions, and the awareness of the underlying role of White supremacy in issues of justice.
While I was enjoying my newfound discretionary freedom from the demands of curriculum and institutional intrigue, I was casting about for a purpose, which had to be of value to myself and society, engage my mind, and build on my love of culture. I knew I wanted to stay somehow connected to the field that I had loved and embraced my whole professional life. But I needed a way to connect with the drivers of the new waves of national cultural change.
Then I was struck by an offer I couldn’t refuse!
I was asked to join a local interracial book club. The commitment required time, reflection, and stamina. Although I had never wanted to be part of a book club, this one was different: the members held each other accountable. Also, in this club the amount of reading required and the racial and social justice topics covered made it a serious endeavor. But membership came with a caveat. I sometimes felt pain and nausea as the book club experience challenged my family, educational, religious, and professional foundational values as a White person. As a result of the ideas read and exchanged with club members, I found a need to scrap parts of my identity and start over, rather than rest on my laurels from my previous three-quarters.
The America that formed my understanding growing up first called itself the melting pot, with immigrants joining indigenous peoples who were always here and others brought here under duress. But that analogy assumes that all citizens wanted to become one simmering soup stirred by a white spoon. The soup gave way to the salad where all the parts were free to be themselves with a white dressing poured over to bind the parts together. But that analogy hasn’t worked either, as we see the bowl cracking apart and the parts spilling all over the table. We need to take a look under the container at the table which is wobbly and badly in need of reconstruction, and not just a new veneer. We need new materials, designs, and craftspeople. With an even closer look, we might see that the abused wood is riddled with systemic forces that are silently eating away at the strength and integrity of the structure. Our new table needs to be level and stable and fit for the challenges ahead as more and more people wish a seat at it.
I acknowledge that my own table needs major repairs and strengthening. It is not easy to understand the structural elements as I don’t have much practice, but there is an urgency, so I am learning on the go.
We, as intercultural practitioners, most of whom live in the United States and European Union, and are White, have always stressed the importance of embracing change. But are we willing to examine the ethnocentric educational foundation that has well served us professionally and provided a privileged, comfortable, middle-class lifestyle?
The roots of one foundational narrative began with John Winthrop in 1630 on the Mayflower sailing into what is now Boston Harbor to announce he was there ordained by God to “build a city on the hill with eyes upon it”. As he and those who were like him understood (because of their perceived inherent superiority), they were entitled to take all the resources arrayed before them. Often overlooked when we think about the loss of indigenous lands was his role in enslaving other human beings. In 1641 Winthrop, as the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, helped to pass a law that made chattel slavery legal in North America.
As James Baldwin professed and the book club reinforced, history is not something you only read but is lived and carried within us. As he wrote, “we owe our frame of references, identities and aspirations to it”. Over the years this revered American creation story of the Mayflower and all that came after it left out the contributions of Blacks, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian--and, frankly, all other oppressed people. The predominant Anglo upper class built their wealth on marginalized backs, creating the country we see today. America in an effort to fulfill its manifest destiny, needed to control the space no matter who was occupying it. Then private ownership of the land and the insuring exploitation could be used to benefit those who were deemed worthy by the dominant culture. The broad complex of unexamined narratives supports the government and the institutions that are held together by ropes of systemic racism. It has a cumulative effect. This has created an America where some, relative to others, are rich and others poor . . . some very rich and some very poor.
In the 1960s a young lawyer, Dr. Derrick Bell Jr with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund won many desegregation cases in court but later in the 1970s came to question their practical impact. This led to a highly acclaimed academic legal career in the 1980s during which he convincingly argued that American racism is indelible and is tightly controlled by entwined systems based on the social construct of race. One of his many mentored students was Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, who in 1989 wrote that the many identities of the marginalized intersect to create “blind spots” in the written law as well as the historical narratives and ongoing economic systems. The genie was out of the law school bottle and became known as “critical race theory.” If Dr. Bell were alive today he would not be surprised to see portions of our White population very threatened by what this exposure of truth might mean to the White status quo. Many contemporary historians are challenging the neutrality of the law and exposing the negative impact it has on people of marginalized identities.
I soon realized that I needed to attend to my table reconstruction. With the help of the book club, religious resources, and other antiracist groups I began to create my personal “c r t” core to make up for deficits in my education and the paucity of engagement with people different from myself. These circumstances had hampered my critical analysis of “reality.”
It is a long process but if you want to begin such a journey, you need to start somewhere. Here is what I had to consider and the steps that I took:
- Do I realistically want to take a deep dive into the role of racism and my role as a beneficiary of it? It was a huge commitment: not particularly pleasant, time consuming, and uncertain where it would lead.
- Since the above was affirmative, I needed to find an organized intentionally inclusive group that holds its members accountable
- I began where I had the most curiosity about how this process of imbedded and systemic racism began and continues. Traditionally the study was a Black/White binary, but racism is everywhere and can be discovered through a geographic, ethnic, institutional or identity lens. After a while, the categories don’t matter. I allowed myself time to reflect on what I was learning.
- Gradually as my awareness increased, I found that I wanted to be part of an ever-enlarging array of social events where I would meet an ever-expanding circle of community members, attracted by the same interests I have. When I did this my relationships multiplied. Slowly I became more responsive and committed to social justice issues and organizations.
If you are committed to and accept the above steps, do not let this be at the expense of your continued genuine awareness and authentic new relationships. Stay small but be effective. Each piece is important in its own way and together they build a lifechanging paradigm—a new and stronger table. Ask yourself: Is your table working for you? Is it long enough to allow a place for everyone who wants to eat there: stable enough to hold all the groups without pushing some off; level enough to withstand the objections to its integrity surely coming in the future? You and I need to not only build it for now and the challenges we face but also build it forward for the generations to come.