OPINION: Please Crack the Foundation by Dr. Ferial Pearson

bias discrimination ferial pearson january 2021 necessity newsletter oppression pyramid of aggression speak out speak up stereotypes Jan 15, 2021

In January of 2020, the parents and students of a community near my home bombarded me with messages of hatred and bigotry after I gave a presentation to their high school. Fueled by lies and misinformation from their school principal and superintendent in an attempt to cover what they themselves had done, these messages quickly escalated to emails to my dean and chancellor, threats to sue, and finally death threats. I was forced to uproot my family from our home of fifteen years and quickly find a new place to live. I learned a great deal about how the cycle of systemic oppression is powered by micro and macro aggressions in the guise of respectability and the upkeep of powerful relationships.  

In the fall of 2019, a principal emailed me for help saying that their high school was struggling with bullying stemming from racism and other bigotry. I spent two hours going over my interactive presentation on Power and Privilege with their school counselor, and gave her a handout for students to work on with their teachers after my presentation was over. I would walk them through ageism, faithism, appearanceism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and racism. I would guide them through who had the power and privilege in each of those identities, and talk about how awareness of privilege is not about feeling guilt, rather about using that power for good as a friend and ally. She asserted that this work was badly needed in their almost completely white district. 

At the school, the principal said that the students were in a “bubble” and needed some “shock value.” As the students filed in, the counselor said that parents had gone to the principal and superintendent with objections about my presentation. I asked what the objections were and what communication had gone out about my presentation. She didn’t know. Within two minutes of beginning my presentation, students jeered and booed, yelling “bullshit” as I spoke about the pink tax or the fact that women are paid less than men. Their answers to my questions were mocking, sexist, Islamophobic, and rude. This continued for the entire time; no one stopped any of them. I was rushed out of the building at the end. Within an hour, I had emails from two girls thanking me for coming and apologizing profusely for their schoolmates’ behavior. I also had one email from a teacher telling me that my work was sorely needed and thanking me for coming. Sometime during that day, the principal sent a letter to parents that said I had been invited to talk about kindness, that had gone off script and instead talked about the “isms” and that, in the future, all speakers would be required to submit their presentations for approval. Thus began the hate mail, death threats, calls and emails to my dean, chancellor with threats to sue and asking for me to be fired. I was called a danger to children because I was reposting the messages I was getting on my social media for my friends and family. My dean met with me and my chair and told me the school district was asking for an apology from me. She said “they are good people and they are hurting. People’s jobs are at stake; you don’t want anyone to lose their jobs, do you? This is getting in the way of children learning.” I refused to apologize. I sent her my documentation. Students had recorded the presentation and put it on YouTube and she and the senior vice chancellor heard it and agreed I had not said anything inappropriate and that it was in fact a good presentation. She went back to them. Her next message was that they no longer were asking for an apology; rather, that I stop posting about them on social media. I had already shut down my social media due to the threats. I told her that my Secret Kindness Agents had sent a Starbucks gift card for every teacher and a bouquet of yellow roses for the front office; the superintendent told her that this was annoying and a disruption to the school. 

Oppression and discrimination are messy, complicated, and nuanced. Perhaps this is why so much of it goes unaddressed. People love to find a scapegoat; someone to blame when things go wrong so that they can be punished, and there can be retribution and closure. Maybe we can even prevent such a thing from happening again when we figure out what or who the problem is. Sometimes that is easy, but unfortunately it is often a much more complex and nuanced issue that has multiple sources of wrongdoing; some big and some small. Even more confusing, the harm done might be intentional or unintentional, or both, muddying the waters of good and bad. What my family and I went through was just such a bucket of fish hooks; when I pulled out one piece of bigotry and hate, a bunch of others came with it. When I pulled out a microaggression, it was accompanied by more. Being in a segregated bubble, students were allowed to develop stereotypes and biased attitudes about who people like me are. When microaggressions such as the jeers and bigoted shouts at the assembly went unaddressed, it gave the students and their parents permission to commit macroaggressions by sending more damaging messages, threatening my livelihood, and finally it led to actual death threats. The Anti-Defamation League has a Pyramid of Oppression that shows biased behaviors, growing in complexity from the bottom to the top. While the behaviors at each level are harmful, as you move up each layer, they get more dangerous. The top layers are supported by the foundational layers below, thus, as the smaller microaggressions and attitudes become normalized and accepted, so too do the behaviors higher up. This is why it is crucial to speak up as soon as hatred makes itself known, even as microaggressions. With a cracked foundation, the rest cannot stand.

Dr. Ferial Pearson - aka Mama Beast - is a mother, activist, author, educator, speaker, poet, comedienne, cook, sourdough artist, and citizen of the world. She founded the Secret Kindness Agents Project and is an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.