Two Black women walked through a door. If that sentence sounds like a setup, it is. But it’s not a setup for a joke, nor is it the beginning of a “once upon a time” fable. It’s the prologue to the vicious and toxic reality of right now. Claudine Gay, the former president of Harvard University, walked through a door, one long barricaded by the power and privileges of wealth and race. JaMaiya Miller, an Amazon delivery driver, also walked through a door, one similarly buttressed by the powers of race and class. What happened next was made predictable by the implacable mechanisms of American white supremacy. You see, it’s not that Black women can’t make it through the door, it’s what happens to them once they get inside. It’s what happens when the masters and minions of white supremacy decide that they don’t belong inside. On the surface of things, it might appear that Dr. Gay and Ms. Miller have little in common. However, what belies the “surface of things” is the plantation ethos of racial and class supremacy upon which this nation was founded. That ethos determines the parameters of power and place: who belongs, who can have resources (in what measure, and for what purpose); who can be on the “inside”, and once there, what must they do to be safe. Any challenge to the plantation ethos is treated with suspicion at best, and at worst, a theft, an ill-gotten gain, the usurpation of divine right and might.
Dr. Gay was a “High-Value Target” in what is euphemistically called a “culture war”. (I believe a “culture” war might be about music genres or pickleball, not about the actual destruction of lives and livelihoods.) She and her colleagues (all female) were compelled to testify before a congressional cabal intent on prosecution and entrapment, not inquiry. To have defended herself and her university with high passion and incisive confutation would have been to risk entrapment in the Angry Black Woman trope. The case can be made that in such an adversarial context, it is good career practice to exercise verbal caution – to speak “legalese”. Of course, her measured responses incited further criticism. Even among her timorous supporters, her performance was described as disappointing, or more pointedly, disastrous”. JaMaiya Miller was in a similar situation. When she was accosted by two white women in a luxury apartment building, she knew that to defend herself with the same level of force exercised by her attackers would have been to risk not just her job and freedom, but her life. Her attackers called security on her, after they falsely accused her of thievery, hurled racist epithets, and physically assaulted Ms. Miller. They presumed that the mechanism of race and class supremacy operated in their favor. (According to a recent report, the police were “investigating” the incident and trying to locate the “alleged” attacker.) In any case, Ms. Miller knew that she could not fight back; her only option was to hope that the police would see her as the victim, not the aggressor. Whether one is a university president or an Amazon delivery driver, trying to do your job while Black is no easy feat.
As in any war, when one battle tactic is not completely successful, the next course of action is escalation. Checkbook warfare prompted the ouster of UPenn’s president Dr. Elizabeth Magill. Their mission accomplished, the warriors never called her academic credentials into question. However, when Dr. Gay was not completely leveled by the congressional inquisition, the next tactic was character assassination. Like JaMaiya Miller, she was accused of thievery. Folks who likely wouldn’t know academic integrity if they were baptized in it impugned her peer-reviewed research, citing instances of missing quotations or misattributions. It didn’t matter that she had publicly corrected the errors, nor that she had been cleared of any academic chicanery by the university. To the folks who secretly lobbied from their vacation homes and publicly announced that they wanted to see her “resign in disgrace”, there was no room for honest error. She was presumed to be an academic charlatan, a “diversity hire” with a “thin resume” who had managed to finagle her way into a place where she didn’t belong. Their insatiable lust for her destruction prevailed. They presumed the authority to determine whether she was deserving of trust and respect, where she belonged in the rank ordering of worth and power. As it was in the beginning and is now, the plantation ethos prevailed.
From their positions of class and racial privilege, the presumptive rulers of the plantation are now crowing about their victory. Now is the time when we must ask what exactly have they won and what do they actually want. Whose taxidermized head will they next require on their imaginable walls? As Dr. Gay wisely noted in a New York Times op-ed piece, the objective of the war is much bigger than her forced resignation. The war is against equity and justice for those whom the plantation masters deem undeserving. Elon Musk (the same one who casts aspersions against the Anti-Defamation League) said it plainly: DEI must DIE. What is wickedly ironic (and cowardly) is that Musk and his ilk try to disguise themselves as defenders of fairness and meritocracy. Isn’t it just a tiny bit interesting that since the presidential election of 2008, a fairly robust faction of race-privileged Americans were willing to declare obstruction as their only goal? In other words, they “win” when they cause the “failures” of their presumptive inferiors. I am reminded of a refrain from Nikki Giovanni’s poem “The Great Pax Whitie”: Ain’t they got no shame? Naw, they ain’t got no shame. In other words, they shamelessly strive to protect injustice by posing as justice warriors. Armed with racial animus, self-interest, and accumulated (aka “deserved”?) wealth, they claim to be fighting the battle against hatred. In fact, rather like JaMaiya Miller’s attacker, they claim for themselves the role of victim as they relentlessly persecute anyone whom they have relegated to “less than” in the rank ordering of human worth. “Naw. They ain’t got no shame.”
Here’s another irony: the “diversity agendas” that they claim are causing the downfall of American industry and education (like they would know) rarely create meaningful change. More often than not, such initiatives are palliative in nature; they are rarely designed to spark deep cultural healing. They tend to survive only so long as they remain placatory and provide good institutional optics. They tend to survive so long as the rulers feel “comfortable” that the inequitable power structures will remain in place. Let me be very clear: I am not suggesting that these programs are totally ineffective. They often introduce just enough cognitive dissonance to spur reframed perspectives. Sometimes, they help people to have completely new thoughts. But with dissonance comes discomfort. And there’s the rub. The “rulers” (i.e. those who embody privileged cultural status) fiercely protect their comfort. In fact, the potential “discomfort” of the rulers has been deemed sufficient cause to dismantle or criminalize diversity programs. For that reason, many such initiatives are designed as little more than “soup-to-beggars” performances. Both Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara and Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. spoke to this power dynamic:
Per Camara: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
Per King: “We are still called upon to give aid to the beggar… But one day, we must ask the question of whether an edifice which produces beggars must not be restructured and refurbished.”
A quick example: Most often “diversity” proposals begin with questions like: “What might we do to be more inclusive?” Nice question, but a necessary follow-on must be “who is the we”. How did “we” become the “we”? What do we currently do (even unintentionally) to ensure the exclusion of “non-we’s”? Our language is useful in that it functions to signal virtue; however even the word “inclusion” signifies that “we” don’t need to change. “We need to only assimilate a few “non-we’s” who can carry on with business as usual. Again, let me be very clear: many people are doing noble and courageous under the aegis of DEI functions. May they continue to do so, but not with the illusion that DEI activities will banish the demons of racial and class privilege that indwell the soul of this nation.
I do believe that real healing is possible, but more as a path than a destination. Even under the most idyllic circumstances, our human wiring seems to be that we are primed to scan for threat and danger in people who are “not like us”. Perhaps it is self-interest turned toxic that accounts for the power hoarding among the masters and minions of white supremacy, their feral exploitation of our human vulnerabilities. Toxic self-interest impels the rank ordering of human worth, the justification for the exclusion, and if necessary, the annihilation of “lesser beings”. After all, isn’t the “Great Replacement Theory” driven by fear of reversal of an unjust paradigm? Under those terms, who would opt to be “done unto” as they have done to others?
In an illuminating article published in the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Laura Morgan Roberts (now a tenured professor at Darden-UVA) identified “four freedoms” necessary to spur deep cultural and institutional healing. Among the four freedoms are “freedom to fade” and “freedom to fail”. Both freedoms disrupt the unremitting scrutiny borne by people who must constantly prove their worth, their intelligence, their diligence, and their deservingness to belong. Again, the language that we use with the best of intentions is often fraught. Take, for example, “representation”. Yes, “representation” matters, but might that language imply functionality more than personhood? Might that language activate stereotype reactance, or what Professor William Cross has termed “spotlight anxiety”? In other words, if I “fade or fail” might that moment signify not only my non-deservingness, but also the non-deservingness of people who look like me? The freedom to “fade and fail” is the freedom to be a whole person, an actual human being rather than a symbol of institutional virtue. The freedom to be a whole person is essential to deep growth and healing. As a clinical practitioner I have witnessed the impact of that scrutiny; the effects of psychological unsafety when BIPOC students in elite Previously (and still) White Institutions struggle to overcome damning disbelief that hovers over them daily. As a mother, I was blessed to have a courageous daughter who could tell her peers that she was at Georgetown to learn the law – not to convince them that she deserved a place beside them in the classroom. For so many others, the mandate to be “twice as good to get half as far” had been so deeply inculcated that they failed due to fear of failure.
I am also heartened by my foremothers, among them Anna Julia Cooper. Born into slavery, Ms. Cooper became an educator and wrote: “When and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood…then and there, the whole Negro race enters with me.” It is this sense of collectivity, this inextricable bond of shared humanity that we must all cultivate and nurture to navigate a path toward deep cultural healing. Of course, the plantation ethos reifies hyper-individualism among the culturally privileged. It is the collective nepotism that justifies unjust power arrangements. Those who have been collectively subjugated know that hyper-individualism is a toxic lie in both principle and practice. It is a lie endemic to supremacist practice, and it thwarts movement toward healing. I recently watched a speech by Nikki Giovanni. (Yes, she is still radical and funny as an octogenarian.) Speaking to a predominantly white and friendly audience, she told them she often wondered what kind of slave she would have been. As expected, her musings garnered a few giggles. Then she asked: “What kind of slaveholder might you have been?” There were no giggles, mostly stunned faces. The easy dodge might be an indignant claim on poverty: “Neither I nor anybody in my family ever owned slaves!” But here’s the thing: the plantation ethos eclipsed any philosophical decrees about “liberty and justice for all”. Of course, it is true that an individual white and/or poor person might not have been the CEO of Chattel Slavery, Incorporated; however, that person likely played a role in the multi-faceted system, even if it was delivering a Sunday sermon or an Amazon package. Giovanni’s question pushes us all to think of our personhood as embedded in and shaped by the cultural collective. It is from this standpoint that we can name more of our truths. From this standpoint we can name the subterranean anxieties and racialized unease that tinges the friendliest, even loving relationships. Without such truth-telling, we are in no position to dispute the lies and resist the injustices perpetrated by those who believe in their divine right to dominate and destroy those whom they have deemed inferior and unworthy. From a position of ardent and authentic truth telling we claim our inextricably bonded humanity. Then we can say: “When two Black women walk through a door, then and there, we all enter with them.”