Voices of #PhysEd: Common Ground
I’ve always told my college students the most profound divider of people is gender, then comes religion, then social class, and finally race. The greatest source of conflict between my husband and me comes from the fact that he is a man and I am a woman, not because he’s white and I’m black. Race is simply the most obvious divider between us. In spite of the difference in our races, we’ve found enough similarities to sustain a relationship. Now consider this: When a black male and a white male approach each other on the street, their difference is obvious. But after one of them draws a gun, it’s too late to explore their similarities. This is one of the sources of our nation’s racial divide–the unwillingness to consider our similarities when our differences are so obvious.
How often do you approach a person of another race and immediately begin thinking of all the things you have in common: hometown, educational background, number of siblings, favorite restaurant, favorite TV show. How often do you think of your differences (perceived or real) first, and then say or do something that makes your difference even more obvious? I’m a black American in a predominantly white school, church, neighborhood, city, state, and nation. I’m constantly reminded of the differences between me and the people around me. For example:
Some people think I speak a different language: A young woman I’ve known for years insists on greeting me with, “What up, girl?” even though I’ve never used that vernacular.
Some assume they know my tastes and interests: A dear colleague insists I should see the movie 42 about Jackie Robinson because he knows I’ll love it. I don’t even like baseball.
Some make assumptions about my lineage: “Are you related to Martin Luther King?” Or consider my former landlord who kept asking me questions about my origins (my home country? my parents’ home country?) presumably because I was different from the black Americans he knew.
Because I’m black and they’re not, some think that I’m an expert on all things black—“C’mon Susan, what’s that singer’s name with the high voice? He’s black. You know his name.”
No one would ever consider this behavior as racism. A more appropriate label is microaggression, a term coined by Dr. Chester Pierce in 1970. Microaggressions are totally dysconscious, meaning that there is no malicious intent by the perpetrator. Still, they can have the same effect as conscious racism. These little annoyances take place almost daily, and it’s bad enough when it comes from people you know and respect. It’s worse when it comes from a stranger. Witness the elderly woman who clutches her handbag and moves to the opposite edge of the sidewalk as she passes my friends and me (in our parochial school uniforms) waiting for the bus. Sit by me on the way to school or work because the last empty seat on the bus or train is always next to me. Jog along with me as I go to a nearby park for track practice and hear the occupant of a passing car greet me with, “Hey nigga!” My husband doesn’t understand how I can deal with it. I tell him, this is what it’s like to be me–I’m black in America.
Because I have always been, and will always be black in America, I have a choice. Am I going to focus on the differences between me and the people around me, or am I going to do the work of discovering our similarities, finding common ground, and building bridges? I must confess that microaggressions have taken their toll on me. I notice I often look on white people with suspicion, just waiting for them to say something annoying or racist. Over 20 years ago, I wrote an article (King, 1994) in which I illustrated overt, institutional, and dysconscious racism with current examples of behaviors that unfortunately still exist today. I have served on task force after committee after focus group after commission, all charged with generating recommendations for increasing diversity in my school or community. It would be so easy for me to throw up my hands and disengage from these fruitless processes. I could so easily let anger and utter frustration overtake me and become part of the problem. But if I want to be part of the solution, my task is to avoid quick judgment of non-African Americans and seek out our similarities, not focus on our differences. I should think before I speak and hold my tongue when necessary. I must approach others with curiosity and not suspicion. I will engage with a smile and an eye toward a common future, informed by a difficult past, but not burdened by it.
What are you willing to do to find common ground between you and a student or colleague of another race? Before you form an opinion, will you pause and consider the possibility that you share the same spiritual beliefs, the same level of education, the same respect for authority, the same love of family, the same dreams and aspirations? There! Look down at your feet. You are now standing on the edge of common ground. Take a step, start the conversation, and explore your similarities together.
King, S. (1994). Winning the race against racism. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, 65(9), 69-74.