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Taking Theory to the Streets: Moving From Models to Liberation

15 Jun 2020 7:08 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Patti Digh is the author of 8 books and the founder of The School of Inclusion + Activism.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion - and Intercultural Communication - have luxuriated far too long in the abstract, academic world of models and theories. In the U.S. context, some of those models may even reflect the White supremacist culture in which many of us have been socialized.

We’ve created polite conversations that rarely touch the root causes of racism and bigotry. Now, in this Perfect Storm of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter revolution, we must find ways to take all that knowledge to the streets, to turn it into actionable wisdom and strategy that will serve the liberation of our BIPOC friends, family, colleagues, and strangers. 

But is liberation from oppression really the end goal for interculturalists? Do we even speak of liberation? Are we prepared to answer the burgeoning organizational requests for help in this current context or do our solutions stop short because our corporate clients stop short themselves? Is our work relevant enough for the current need? Are we ready to move our work into the necessary context of liberation? I don’t think so, but I hope so.

Theory and praxis are sometimes barely related. I can remember when interculturalists hesitated to include people doing corporate work on diversity, equity, and inclusion in this field, and that wasn’t too long ago. It was seen as too base. We didn’t speak of racism outright because it was felt to be too limiting a U.S. viewpoint. That has started to change; there is still work to be done, as the protests in the streets around the world are showing us.

We have an important moment to rise to, and in order to do that, I believe we need to start speaking the language of oppression and liberation more clearly. Everything else--honoring differences, providing models for understanding cultural norms--falls short at this moment. 

We need to do our own internal and external work on these issues. We need to dedicate ourselves specifically to eliminate the causes of racism and bigotry both within this field and outside it. Otherwise, the other work we do is window-dressing. 

In the past two weeks, many organizations have produced the requisite on-brand statement about supporting Black Lives Matter. But what comes next? Hard conversations about whiteness in their workplaces, among other things. I don’t see those conversations taking place in most institutions and among many interculturalists. Let’s change that.

We all know that racism is the foundation of Western society; we are socialized into a racial hierarchy. All of us are shaped by the forces of racism; no one is exempt. All white people benefit from the racial hierarchy, regardless of intentions. Racism must be continually identified, analyzed and challenged; no one is ever done. The question is not if racism is at play, but how is it at play? The racial hierarchy is invisible and taken for granted for most white people. These are some of the issues our work must center itself on to be relevant at this moment.

As individuals doing this work, we need to be able to point to our own stake in the ground relative to racism. We must hold ourselves accountable for doing our own antiracism work in ways we probably have not before.

As Robin DiAngelo has written, “Accountability within antiracist work is the understanding that what I profess to value must be demonstrated in action, and the validity of that action is determined by Black, Indigenous and Peoples of Color. Accountability requires trust, transparency, and action. As a white person seeking to be accountable, I must continually ask myself, “How do I know how I am doing?” To answer this question, I need to check in and find out. I can do this in several ways, including: by directly asking Black, Indigenous, and Peoples of Color with whom I have trusting relationships and who have agreed to offer me this feedback; talking to other white people who have an antiracist framework; reading the work of Black, Indigenous and Peoples of Color who have told us what they want and need (this work is easy to find and many racial justice educators have good resource lists on their websites) and; engaging in the exercises Black, Indigenous and Peoples of Color provide in online classes and workbooks. Ultimately it is for Black, Indigenous and Peoples of Color to decide if I am actually behaving in antiracist ways. When I find that I am out of alignment, I need to do what is necessary and try to repair the situation. And yes, the more experience and practice I have in antiracist work the more thoughtfully I will be able to use the feedback I receive.”

You and I have both seen these bubbles before. Moments in time where people get riled up about racism, and then that moment is gone. We can't let that happen now.

As I said to my Facebook community recently, if this has prompted you to read Black writers, keep reading them. If it has led you to explore your own white supremacy, keep exploring. If it has caused you to donate to organizations fighting for liberation, keep donating. If it has prompted you to speak up when you see racism in action, please keep speaking up. If it has caused you to pay attention to politicians and their platforms and voting records, keep paying attention. If it has brought you to the point where you can speak truth to power, keep on doing that. If it led you to protest in the streets, don't stop.

But the entry fee for interculturalists is higher than those actions. Pick up Erica Sherover-Marcuse’s “Liberation Theory: A Working Framework” and Ibram X. Kendi’s book, How to Be an Antiracist as starting points. In Sherover-Marcuse’s work, you will find statements such as these to ponder relative to your own work:                                       

“Biological/cultural/ethnic/sexual/religious/age differences between human beings are never the cause of oppression. The use of these differences to explain either why certain groups of people are oppressed (or) why certain groups of people behave oppressively, functions as a justification of oppression.” If your first reaction to that statement is defensiveness, that’s good feedback for you.

This moment is potent--around the world. What we can learn from it is powerful. The change that can and must occur can't and won't occur if we go back to business as usual. It's hard work, but it is joyous work, aiming for the liberation of our Black kin, our brothers and sisters and owning our part in their oppression. They keep choosing love, and we keep choosing ignorance. Let's change that.


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