Last night was a long one as I sat and watched with the world as the decision whether to indict Officer Wilson was handed down by the Saint Louis County Prosecutor. I watched with fear and hurt inside me as protests were upended by pointless violence and looting by people not from the community. While I watched these events unfold in a community that I was just in not even a month ago with student activists, it affected me deeply, because I saw my new found friends in Ferguson hurting badly and for good reason. I had wanted to go back for the decision with students, but decided that the uncertainty of safety was more than I could put onto students, who as passionate as they are, are also new and relatively inexperienced. Instead I sat back and watched, feeling helpless to do much more than take to social media to voice my rage. I went to my virtual community for support, answers, and resolve. I expected to see an entire community of Whites and Blacks angry, hurt, and rallying around Ferguson during this tough time. I expected to hear awkward statements from well-intentioned Whites, who like myself wasn’t sure what to say or do at the moment. While we can express our disgust, we can not internalize the events in Ferguson at the deeper level that many African-Americans do. We can try to relate, but we really can’t fully understand the deep rooted hurt and anger felt by the greater African-American community over Ferguson.
As I engaged in social media and watched CNN news, I saw a great many comments made by Blacks and Whites. Even as I watched CNN news, I couldn’t help but see some difference coming to the surface among various reporters of color and their White colleagues. Yes, it is the news and they are their to cover the events as objectively as possible, but framing, back story, and interpretation is everything with the media. If we haven’t learned by now that the media is a tool of the privileged white male masses, it’s no wonder that race relations in America are in the toilette. Want a sense of race relations in the U.S. today, look at social media posts, Tweets, and blogs from your friends, colleagues, family, and the greater society and you will see a stark contrast in how Whites and Blacks experienced the decision not to indict Officer Wilson. Whites generally framed the decision as unfortunate, but just given the evidence. Blacks were quicker to call into question the entire forensic process, police investigation, and grand jury process for determining the decision. Whites were more likely to blame Ferguson community members and call them out for the fires and looting, whereas Blacks pointed out that most of these individuals were likely not even from the community and simply taking advantage of the tragedy. I saw more silence from African-American colleagues and friends than from Whites, mainly because of the trauma, pain, and frustration that they experienced at a deeper level than Whites. I have no doubt that there are awkward silences across many places of work, schools, and social media communities today as all of us are absorbing what happened, not just in Ferguson, but all across social media and traditional media. I can’t imagine being a Black person, especially a Black man in America today, looking back at what your colleagues and friends posted or didn’t post about Ferguson, not to mention the media coverage and social media discourses. This is why when White people claim racism, I scoff, because in order to experience racism, one must be in a historical and current state of lesser power than another group, compounded by discrimination and prejudice across major social institutions, and face historical legacies of oppression at the hands of another group or groups. Today, not only do Black people have to deal with the trauma of the Ferguson decision and subsequent events, but also the further trauma induced by media and social media coverage, micro aggressions and ignorance from White colleagues, friends, and people, and the realization that America for all it’s rhetoric and talk has came a disheartening little ways in addressing racism, improving race relations, or in changing the culture and systems that continue to oppress and traumatize African-Americans since before the civil rights movements. This is not to discredit or discount the lives lived and lost in the fight for freedom and equality or to imply that strides have not been made, only that Whites and those with privilege tend to think we have came further than we really have, and both Blacks and Whites need to realize that we need to continue the fight within our own families, networks, places of work, communities, and society, if we are to progress and improve race relations in America. Although sleep eluded me last night as I lay with a heavy heart, it is nothing compared to the nights that my sisters and brothers experienced in Ferguson or the night that African-American’s had last night and on far too many nights.
As the grand jury verdict about whether to indict the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown looms over the community of Ferguson, MO, I have noticed less and less dialogue from white social workers, academics, and people in general. I sense that the discomfort is so thick in some schools, offices, and communities that you could cut it with a knife. Why are whites so uncomfortable with the events occurring in Ferguson and why has support for addressing racial injustice in Ferguson diminished in recent weeks, especially among privileged whites?
I think that as time goes on more and more information is being disseminated across blogs, television, and social media, and it is becoming more and more difficult to discern fact from fiction. I think that the newly leaked forensic evidence makes privileged whites who once rallied in outrage with the African-American community in Ferguson, take a gigantic step back from it. The reason being is that the once accepted scenario that a young innocent African-American youth, Michael Brown, was unjustly killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, while putting is hands up in the air from a safe distance away, is likely quite inaccurate. From the great many leaks it is becoming more and more likely that Michael Brown in fact did rob a convenience store, pushed a store clerk to the ground, and attempted to charger become aggressive towards a police officer. Now, this is all still heresy until the facts come out and like any other facts, the interpretation of facts can be quite different depending on who is perceiving them. Many privileged whites are thus thinking deep down inside, that all of the protests, demonstrations, and violence occurring over the incident of the perceived unjust killing of Michael Brown is for nothing, because the shooting may have been justified and at worse, that Mr. Brown played a bigger role in the event than was first put forth by friends, family, the media, and by some in Ferguson. What whites don’t realize is that regardless of whether or not the forensics demonstrate that the “hands-up” story was false, it still does not mean that the police officer was justified in his shooting of Mr. Brown, who was unarmed at the time. It also does not mean that the events that have taken place in the wake of the shooting and subsequent months including; leaving Mr. Brown’s body lying in the street for countless hours, a lack of transparency by police, numerous violations of citizen rights, and the potential for people to raise issues about evidence tampering due to the screw-ups by investigators and high profile nature of the case, are not justification for outrage by the community of Ferguson. What whites and outsiders also don’t understand is the killing of Mr. Brown was simply a precipitating event that set off a fire of racial difference and injustice that has been ready to spark for a long time coming. One of the worse parts is that privileged whites, when they feel uncomfortable, generally clam up and just stop talking about their feelings and thinking because they are too uncomfortable to talk about race and difference. Privileged whites are polite, we keep our most intimate thoughts about racial tensions and difference somewhere deep inside, and are careful to not approach the topic in the workplace, classroom, place of worship, or community.
What whites must also understand is that much of the violence seen on television is not reflective of how community members in Ferguson feel about the issue or what should be the appropriate course of action. Have you not heard the family’s many pleas for peaceful protest? Most of the agitators and those looting stores are not from Ferguson. Let’s give our neighbors more credit than that, the average African-American in Ferguson is not going to destroy a local business, harm a neighbor (white, brown, or black), or blame or hate all white people. Whites, even well intentioned and educated ones, are so uncomfortable still in 2014 when it comes to discussing race and difference, so many whites make the choice to say nothing. Well, saying nothing is not an option for us, especially those in education, social work, and helping professions. We have a responsibility as people with white privilege to not clam up, to raise issues, open dialogue, challenge irrational thinking, and continue to fight injustices within the systems that are behind the inequality in Ferguson and around our country. In the words of Desmond Tutu –If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. I challenge other whites to confront their own privilege and discomfort over Ferguson and other issues of race and difference by speaking about them, struggling with them, opening up dialogues in your spaces, and learning to accept that being in a constant place of discomfort is a good think when it comes to addressing injustice of any kind.
One of things about working elections and campaigns is that you have little time to process the results and impact of the broader election picture until a bit later. It looks like the apathy of younger voters is being blamed for the lost seats. I am a proponent of voting, but this is not a fair critique.
Firstly, from what I have read and come to know, the younger generation in more informed and in many ways participatory than previous generations, including my own. They just chose to exercise their social participation in other ways besides voting. After all, according to a the oligarchy study published out of Princeton this year, along with some work by the bright folks at the Pew Institute, lobbying is by far more influential on shaping public policy than voting. Younger generations are on social media and part of how they define their own social participation is through online social media, but they also contribute their time and money. Look at protests at Berkley, USC, Ann Arbor, and many other places and tell me that young people don’t care about their nation; it simply isn’t true. They just chose to participate differently than others do.
Another issue with blaming young people for election losses is that while statistics say that 50% of voters turned out, this is by far not half the population. An estimated 25% of the U.S. population eligible to vote is not registered. This doesn’t include the high rates of incarcerated persons, many people f color, who are not allowed to vote, and in many states those on parole, probation, or with felonies also cannot vote. In many states restrictive and discriminatory laws are allowed to be passed that marginalize already marginalized voices. This means that a much smaller percentage of the nation is voting period. We must make voting laws completely regulated by the federal government to take away the power of states to use the polls as a way to oppress the voice of voters. Additionally, while allowing inmates to vote may be too radical for most, any person incarcerated awaiting court or released after serving their term should be allowed to vote. In fact, part of re-entry should be making sure folks know their voting rights.
The last and least popular issue among most of my friends and colleagues for why younger people aren’t to blame for the loss of elections is that the Democratic Party deserves some responsibility and accountability for the losses and apathy of voters. Sorry, republicans are not to blame for all of America’s ills. I am not one to pile on President Obama either, but he has made some ill advised decisions and lost some of the organizing focus that helped make him popular to begin with, meaning voters are not only pissed, but disconnected from him and party politics. It is so easy for people to tell others to just vote for the lesser of two evils often times and to call someone’s vote for a third party candidate a waste, but you are further alienating them. They are exercising their conscious and participation, sorry you don’t agree with their candidate. I have always secretly thought straight party ticketing, when and where legal, was a terrible exercise of civic responsibility.
Finally, the governance system must change for many younger people to feel like voting matters again. Lobbying must be completely regulated through policy reform, voting must be regulated at a federal level, and enforced as well. Campaign spending must be seriously reformed to allow for the potential for a third party to be a threat. Mark-ups must also be stopped, as laws and policy should not come down to blackmail. Despite the low turnout this election and the overall frustration of democrats and liberals across the country, there is blame to go around in many directions. But before you take out all of your frustration on the younger generation of voters, think about the many other issues impacting democracy in American first, before you cast that stone.
Today, I read yet another article about injustices occurring in Ferguson. Community members are still fighting for justice, still organizing, and still encountering systemic injustice at every corner. I realize that Ferguson coverage on mainstream media has begun to decrease in recent weeks, but Ferguson community members are still facing great injustices that transcend the death of Michael Brown or any one incident of racial injustice. Protesters are having their constitutional rights violated every day by law enforcement forcing protesters to a small isolated area of the city and being quick to arrest anyone who deviates from the rules set by law enforcement and city officials. Not only are protesters who are demonstrating outside the “assigned area for protesting” being arrested, they are receiving unfair and unusually high bails from judges and magistrates. I have gone back and forth as a community organizer and social worker as to what I or anyone with privilege on the outside of Ferguson do to be helpful to the community and issues at hand? I have friends who have visited Ferguson and demonstrated with community members. The problem for me is that I wondered if folks, especially privileged whites, were doing this for Ferguson or to alleviate white guilt about institutional racism? I rejected the idea of just going to a community where persons of color were already actively organized with strong local leadership because while I value social justice and consider myself an ally to those struggling for racial justice, I am a white man with privilege, and I am not always needed or welcomed in spaces where African-Americans and others are struggling for liberation. At the very least, I cannot assume that I am welcomed. The reverse challenge to this way of thinking is that far too often, privileged whites wait too long to take action against racism and injustice. It’s like we need an invitation to put our privilege to good use to address what we more than anyone have a responsibility to challenge and change.
Since the onset of the events and injustices in Ferguson, I have challenged the profession of social work and its organizations, schools, and institutions to do something to support Ferguson and to take action. What I struggled most with though is what action did I expect them to take? Who am I as a white man to even begin to think that I know what action is needed? And what action would be most beneficial to the people of Ferguson? As much as I was pissed off at my profession for not taking more concrete actions in relation to the events of Ferguson, I was just as much at fault and unsure of what to do as anyone else.
As I was reflecting on all of these thoughts and feelings today, my mind wondered back to a conversation that I had with a former SNCC member in MS, in the summer of 2008. I asked this well known leader what about the civil rights movement was most imperative or what about the movement stood out most to him? His response somewhat surprised me as he indicated that while many African-Americans were involved in the civil rights efforts out of necessity, it was also important to point out that many others were too fearful (and for good reason) for the safety of themselves and their families to become active in the movement, which is why it was so important to the success of the movement for whites with privilege, many of them young people from the north, to travel down to the south to become actively involved. He remarked that while the news of the time could be very selective in the coverage and framing of civil rights activities in the south during the 60s, when young white men and women were being jailed, beaten, and killed alongside African-Americans, it was impossible for the media or general public to ignore the injustices of the time. His words seemed important to me today as I contemplated what could or should be done by those of us with privilege in relation to Ferguson.
I am still not sure what do do for certain and I am certain that there is no right answer. I am certain though that by doing nothing, we as social workers, whites with privilege, and advocates for social justice are doing more harm than if we tried to something. I think we need more than blogs like this or town hall meetings or educational forums about racism. What if we reached out to some local leaders in Ferguson with the idea of quickly organizing a large scale March on Ferguson? What if social workers, advocates, allies, students, young people, older adults, and all of us who stand with community members of Ferguson in the background, actually came together to stand with them over the course of a weekend? What if we then used our social networks to keep a steady stream of allies, especially those with privilege, in Ferguson, until community members receive the answers and outcomes that they are demanding and that they deserve? I look back on events like the Million Man March, the recent Environmental Justice protest, and Occupy Wall Street as recent evidence to what is possible in terms of organizing masses around common issues. Social workers, whites with privilege, academics, and allies around the country, let’s organize together around racial justice with our sisters and brothers in Ferguson, MO.
I have long enjoyed and embraced the responsibility for mentoring students. I also am not sure I like the term mentoring, sounds too much like a one way relationship, when in reality, I learn as much or more from the students that I work with, than they will ever learn from me. I am also a proponent of social media technology in social work practice and education. I believe in the power of digital communities and spaces. I have researched and written about this area often over the past year, and yet have never really thought about whether or not these innovations have limits for usefulness in social work or if they can or should be restricted at all moving forward.
Over the past year, I have been getting more and more emails and social media interactions with students from far and wide, seeking support, guidance, and mentorship, because they haven’t found it in their programs, or need support in another way (substantive area, paradigm, etc.), or are engaged in an online program. What do folks think is the future of social work in the age of technology? Will more and more social work programs turn to the hybrid model or even to an entirely online model? Will the brick and mortar institution be a relic in another 50 years or just look very different than it does today? Is online social work education good for the profession? What challenges does the increase in online formed courses, programs, degrees, etc. create for future practitioners, given the importance of human relationships and interaction in social work? And, regardless of viewpoints, is there anyway to stop online education and entirely online social work programs from becoming more and more prolific within social work education, or is this an innovation to be embraced?
How does a brick and mortar program compete with a solid online program from an accredited and well known school, that provides internship placement help, provides virtual supervision and support that is consistent or better than what many students are finding in traditional programs, and provides students with the flexibility of taking classes that better fit their increasingly nontraditional lifestyles? I hear the critiques against going entirely online with social work education, but I see this becoming more and more of a reality. Social media and technology has the potential to create dialogue and participatory environments in digital spaces that while some may not understand them, agree with them, or know how to create and maximize them, is already shaping and changing the landscape of education. Social work is traditionally slower with innovation, but it is here, and it will likely grow in leaps and bound in the upcoming years. What does this mean for faculty members? Could I eventually be able to be a member of a faculty in a school and state that I do not even live, via the virtual nature of higher education and eventually social work education? Already, meetings are often held virtually in places with different campuses separated by distance, PhD candidates in many places are receiving advising and mentoring from afar, and some places are doing dissertation defenses virtually.
Today, as I look around at many schools that I have been part of, many faculty are locked in their offices doing research most of the day as it is, spend most of their teaching prep putting together blackboard sites, and interact with colleagues physically, less and less with each passing year. Many faculty researchers have funding and support to send students or paid professionals out into the field if face to face data collection is needed. Email and social media are already how we often view proposals, provide critique, ask questions, and keep one another up to speed at many schools and programs, what is there to say that schools won’t have primarily virtual faculty at some point in the near future to work with virtual students in a virtual university or school environment? In social work practice, we are already turning more and more to technology, will online therapy, supervision, and support groups continue to grow and expand? Will social workers in the year 2050 have a virtual caseload of clients that they meet in a digital space? I and others have already written about how this is all playing out in the area of macro practice and community organization. More folks are meeting virtually, advocating and fundraising using social media, and disseminating information through online postings and podcasts.
I am not certain what the proliferation of technology, social media, and digital spaces entirely means for social work practice, education, and academia, but I do not see it becoming less over time, only growing in frequency and scope. What does this all mean for a profession like social work build upon and ethically bound by the importance of human relationships? Are we simply changing the context for which we have come to understand how human relationships are forged and built? or Are we potentially jeopardizing this professional value by becoming too reliant and bound to technology and digital spaces?
As a kid, I remember going to Value Village and the Salvation Army clothes shopping with my mom. In better times she would take me to Kmart school shopping. I used to hate all of those places, but none more than the thrift shops. I would hide my face as we walked in and prayed that I wouldn’t run into someone from school. One of the dynamics at my school was the well to do white kids and black kids stuck together and likewise with the poorer kids, more so than by racial lines. The funny thing is that all kids, white, black, middle class, and poor would pretty much give you hell if they saw you shopping for clothes at a thrift shop, even if their own mom had just taken them to one the day before. Poverty makes no sense, the most powerless folks often fight more to exert and oppress others in poverty than they do to get out of the poverty that consumes them.
This weekend I strolled into a “Vintage Clothing” store in OKC, that pretty much looked like a thrift shop to me. It was filled with younger well dressed white women and some men, most of whom drove up in pretty nice vehicles. They were looking for the current trends at bargain prices, yet as they jumped for joy over their 6.00 bellbottoms, it was impossible to not notice their designed jeans and tops as well as their salon hair and nails. The men were no better with salon haircuts and shaves meant to make them look rugged and shaggy. When I was a kid, I got two haircuts a year, and my mom or aunt usually were the one’s cutting it. I would look shaggy without wanting to look shaggy, but also not wanting a mom bowl haircut to give the kids another reason to poke fun.
When I was in Ann Arbor as well as Richmond, I took notice of the vintage is in counter culture as well as the nonconsumerism counter culture. While some wealthier folks simply shop at thrift stores for those vintage finds to wear with their expensive mall goods, others are honestly shopping at thrift stores as a means to rebel against the consumerism that has been a feature of U.S. culture of 30 plus years now. The problem is that whether you are thrift store shopping to be cool or as a social statement, your privilege is showing, and it doesn’t mean that you should feel defensive or bad about it, but think about it. Anyone who has grown up poor or struggling knows that clothes are a status symbol for young people and adults. While it was embarrassing to go thrift store shopping with my mom when I was a kid, I remember getting so excited when we could find something Levi, or CK, or Nike; a true treasure among the items that no one would even know came from the thrift store. While it may feel cool to find that vintage item, remember that their are many folks who go vintage clothes shopping out of true need, and would love not to have to trip over preppy white hipsters as they humbly attempt to go through racks of clothes to find something that fits and maybe won’t make them standout. I am privileged that I have come a long ways since my thrift shop sprees, and I can now comfortably buy clothes when I need them. I try to not buy in excess, find stuff on sale, etc. If you enjoy vintage clothes shopping, cool, but just remember that their are folks out there who shop vintage to stay warm.
Today, I received the third rejection out of four potential campus visits that I thought I would certainly get extended, based on inside information, my stronger than average CV, extremely high teaching evaluations, and practice experience. I realize that most of us have over inflated views of ourselves when we hit the academic job market. I went through this last year and quickly saw that I was merely an average candidate in a sea of many overachievers. The thing is that I worked hard over summer and this past year to publish articles, build my CV up, contribute to the schools that I was teaching part-time at, and engage in organizing and advocacy. I now have six publications in strong journals, more publications under review, accepted presentations to the two most prestigious social work conferences, six successful classes taught between two universities, and strong service at both universities that I currently work at. So, now as I am being denied visits after strong interviews, I am beginning to wonder what is wrong with me?
After I missed out on a position last year that I thought I was a shoo in for after an awesome campus visit, I was told by one of the faculty that my CV, interviewing skills, experience, and promise were not why I did not have an offer extended to me; it was because my values were too radical for the conservative nature of the school. I was a bit floored when I heard this, because despite being a bit of a critical theorist and conflict oriented, I honestly thought that if you had the qualifications and worked hard enough to be better than the next person, the best person would get the position.
This past year I was involved in very outward advocacy against major policies and practices of CSWE and SSWR; two of the major players in academic social work. The board members and leaders of these organizations are the deans and directors of many schools around the country. My advocacy called into question the elitism, transparency, ethics, and social responsibility of both organizations. I was taught as a student of social work that advocacy inside and outside the profession was a responsibility of social workers; however, they did not prepare me for the politics and consequences of advocacy.
During an interview with a prominent school this year, I was told that one of my articles on the negative consequences of neoliberalism on community organizing was not really scholarship. I was told by another search committee that community organizing was not an area of research, but a method of practice. Another dean asked me why on earth I would do a qualitative dissertation in today’s day and age, when quantitative research was the dominant paradigm. I was told in so many words by two schools that they were looking for a person of color to fill their positions; one off the record, and another indirectly, when the search committee member exclaimed how happy they were to have such a strong person of color with community experience interviewing for the position. When I told her that I was not a person of color, the entire rest of the interview became very uncomfortable. Finally, this week I was told that the position required five years of post MSW practice, and I did not meet the requirement. When I pulled out my CV and showed them nearly six years, they said that I was fluffing it and stretching it by trying to count grass roots organizing, unpaid community organizing, and anything related to macro practice within higher education. I was essentially told that only clinical practice and a small narrow lens of macro practice counts in academia. Despite that in the six years since I received my MSW, I created domestic violence curriculum and training that was disseminated across an entire state, completed over six community based program evaluations, successfully started a community block club and citizen led child care program, helped advocate for two different communities of people experiencing homelessness, helped lead up efforts to relocate the SSWR conference in the name of worker’s rights, successfully developed a mentorship program from scratch, and am currently working in a task group to address community violence. This is simply a snapshot of my practice experience, which also included paid clinical and macro practice within the context of community mental health, outreach, clinical supervision, and supportive housing. My point is not to brag on myself, but to raise some serious questions about what is valued and not valued in the current academic landscape.
What I learned this year is multifaceted and bleak for my professional future in academia. First, my research and scholarship is not being looked at as seriously as that of others, because my scholarship is primarily qualitative research and critical scholarship. The fact that search committee members are down playing the publications, despite the fact that they are in highly regarded or acceptable academic journals. Social work academia highly favors clinical social work, evident by my many rejection letters from clinical focused schools and by lack of understanding by search committees about macro practice. Search committees are narrowly defining macro practice as only consisting of work done in government, top down community development, and executive management. Grass roots organizing, evaluation, and policy advocacy is not considered as highly important to schools nor is anything unpaid considered practice. What they do not understand is most of grass roots empowerment based community organizing and policy advocacy work is done for free or nearly free. What is happening is that the historical legacy of citizen led organizing and grass roots advocacy is being de-legitimatized professionally by schools because it won’t bring in the big funding that schools desire from new faculty members. Another problem is schools with clinical faculty interviewing macro practitioners is that they do not understand how empowerment based CO works. They only want to know what my research area is, and when I say it’s community organizing, and the issues are defined by each community in a specific context, they either do not understand me or do not approve of my process.
Lastly, schools that on paper I should be a perfect fit for what they are seeking are not even giving me interviews. When I look at the schools and committees, I have learned that many of them include power players from CSWE or SSWR, which leads me to believe that their is more to the rejections than my CV. When I didn’t get a position last year that I should have gotten, I was left wondering what on earth they thought was radical about me from the visit? I was told that my CV screams radical as does my teaching and research statements. The fact that I allow students to propose alternative assignments, create classroom rules, and encourage them to advocate against the schools and universities that they reside in is considered radical. My views that universities should not be run as corporations was also not heavily popular and the fact that I believe social action should be taught as an appropriate intervention in community organizing was also seen as going against the status quo.
What I have realized most is that politics are everywhere, but people in academia continue to believe that at “their school” the processes and decisions are objective. I and others are made to feel like the problem, we are inferior, don’t have enough pubs, have too high of expectations, are just not a good fit, etc. Additionally, I learned more about difference in social work academia. Quantitative is always valued more than qualitative regardless of what people say on the record. Clinical practice dominates schools of social work in a time when people want to try and minimize the dichotomy between macro/micro practice. By saying you want to lessen the dichotomy, you are essentially closing the door on macro practice in favor of clinical and expert driven macro practice. Finally, radicals are not to be hired onto faculty at most schools. While we are admired from afar, we are far too dangerous to the status quo of schools that are seeking to further perpetuate the business model, let fund development trump teaching excellence, and allow students, adjuncts, and junior faculty voices to be marginalized as standard practice.
The race factor is harder for me to digest as someone who supports diversity and equality, I find it hard to be against it. The problem is that faculties have been comprised of whites for so long that now many are shuffling to fill what feels like are quotas, guided more by appearances and politics than by the needs of the school and qualifications of the candidates. What else is happening is many schools are hiring the most conservative of faculty of color, which helps them meet the look test, but does little to change or advance issues of race, gender, class, etc. within the school of university, and ignores other criteria for diversity that may not always be easily seen. I will continue to support diversity and fairness in academia and any profession, but I do question some of the processes for attaining it.
While I am still applying to positions and hoping to land somewhere, I have realized that the politics and difference in academia and social work are not in my favor. There is a strong possibility that I will not land an academic position for next year and could be froze out of the market, essentially exiled to the ranks of being a lecturer because I am seen as damaged goods. Some people will see this as my own fault and a result of my values, stubbornness, and high expectations. Some will say that I will be irrelevant without an academic home. Maybe they are all right, but for now, I will beg to disagree with them all, because if I always listened to everyone who claimed to be giving me advice for my own good or even if I listened to them most of the time, I would never have gotten or achieved this much in my life. The problem is, I didn’t do any of this for a job, I did it for power and access. I did it because I was tired of others trying to show me to the door or keep me at the kids table. I was the one that was never supposed to be here, and now I scare as much as I excite people. I will be relevant for as long as I choose to be, in however I choose to be, and I alone have the power over my own relevancy. What I did not expect is that the very profession and societal institute of higher education that helped be to find my way here, has done everything to push me out the door before it has even opened. If I decide to walk away, it will be because I feel like I can make a bigger difference elsewhere, and I just may not have the stomach for the politics of difference in academia.
As many of you know, I am a first generation college student, who one year ago, graduated with my PhD in social work. Most people know that I grew up in poverty, had a hard road through college, and small bits and pieces about the rest of my life, varying greatly based upon how you know me. One of the things that I hope to do one day is publish an autobiography of my life. In preparation for writing it, I have started to write about influential events in my life; some positive and others not so much so, but all of them helped shape and define me. I warn you that what you will read from me is untamed and uncensored, some of you may be appalled by the language and content. This is called real talk from a time in my life before I knew anything about privilege or diversity; from a time in my life when my decision making process was very different. I am not ashamed of any of it, because it is a part of who I am, even today.
When I was 21 years old, I lived in a single wide trailer with my best friend. We had bought it together for 3000 dollars by making payments over a three year time period. It was the typical bachelor pad, complete with 70’s pimp shit furniture and a 30 pack of High Life in the fridge at all times. We had no heat or hot water, just a kerosene heater and ice cold water. We hadn’t cleaned in over a year, so we just piled up trash into the corners and slept on dirty mattresses that were given to us. The entire year is a blur to me because of the alcohol and week long drug binges. Ecstasy is one hell of a good way to forget about life for awhile, and the only drug that ever made me feel happiness; the only drug that I will never do again. We lived in one of those stereotypical trailer parks that make up the tagline for every white trash joke that has ever been written. It was a small community where like it or not, everyone was either friend or foe, and sometimes it depended on the day or the week. One night we were up all night partying, getting loud, and pissing off the neighbors. One of the older residents came down a bit pissed off and told us to cut it out. Me, being in a drunken and drugged out state, essentially told him to go fuck himself, not knowing who the hell he was, not that I cared much in those days. The next day his son came to the trailer quite pissed off, because evidently the pissed off grandpa from the night before was his dad. Being sober at this time, I was quick to apologize to my friend, partially because I was embarrassed, and partially because the guy was a few screws short and quick to use violence as a problem solving approach. The more I apologized the more pissed the guy got until finally I told him to leave and shut the door in his face; his parting words were, you better watch your back.
I will admit that the interaction with the neighbor had left me a bit scared and pissed all at the same time. The more I sat there, the more I stewed about it, and thought to myself, what nerve this bitch has coming to my house to lecture me about pissing people off, when more people than I could count wanted to fuck him up. As I got madder, I went and loaded my 9mm semi automatic that back then I had gotten into the habit of illegally carrying around. I had gotten it from a Coke dealer as part of an exchange for vehicles among other things. Now, I was never really a hard ass or violent person, but I had grown tired of being scared and getting fucked with from my childhood, so I acted the role of crazy white boy, and I had the fire power to back it up, and everyone knew it. I also had a blazing hot temper back then when I felt threatened, which in hindsight didn’t mix well with having an accessible firearm. Over the next day, I would hear my neighbor talking shit in his yard, purposely to intimidate me or get a rise from me. Finally, my boy was over at the house, and I heard the same neighbor yell over, “your boy better not burn out of here either or else.” So, me never being someone who liked threats or ultimatums, you can guess how this shook out. My friend burned the biggest tire print of all all the way down in front of my neighbor’s trailer. Shortly after that, I see my neighbor coming down to my trailer with a tire iron in hand. I looked at my roomie, who was my boy for life, but not much of a fighter, and I told him to stand back. Before I could say anything the neighbor was kicking down my door or trying to. I felt trapped and grabbed my 9mm, popped a full clip in and opened the door as he tried to cop back with the tire iron He froze and dropped it. He tried to play hard despite the fear in his eyes and walk towards me. I felt caught between a rock and a hard place, if I back down, he would likely beat me and fuck with me indefinitely, or shoot him. I pointed the gun at his forehead and took the safety off. As I was about to make a decision that undoubtedly would have led to an entirely different narrative for my life, his girlfriend and dad pulled him away from my trailer. I will never entirely know what I would have done if they hadn’t came, but I know me back then and how scared I was at the time; I think I would have blown him away.
After they left I jumped in my car and just drove to clear my mind and process what had happened. I was scared and anxious. When I pulled back up to my trailer, my mom (who lived a few trailers down), neighbor, and roomie were outside saying the police were out looking for me and my mom was pleading with me to turn myself in. I took my friend aside and told him to give the police a bb gun replica of a 9 mm that we always took with us camping. I took the actual 9 and tore out of the trailer park. I will never say what I did with it, but not even 2 minutes after I was on my way back from disposing of it, I was surrounded by four cop cars, guns drawn, telling me to slowly step out of my car and lay on my stomach. I was arrested, processed, and left in a jail cell. In hindsight I should have not even spoken with the police without a lawyer, but I told them everything that had happened, and how I was fearful that my neighbor was going to break in with a tire iron, and so I grabbed a bb gun to scare him away. I was so emotional and scared that they bought my story, after they sent a detective to my trailer and were given a very real looking bb gun. When they asked my neighbor, who by that point had also calmed down and was more scared of being arrested for warrants, about it, he said, “yea, that looks like the gun.” Now, the held me over night to scare me and all I could do was think about my life, about what it would be like to kill someone, or to spend the remainder of my life in prison. I called my uncle during the evening, who was my ex-step father’s brother and also working for the FBI at that time. He always told me that I had one freebie from him, no more and no less. He told me to not say anything more. The next morning he came to the police station and I was released for lack of evidence and at the prosecutor’s discretion.
I replay that day in my mind over and over again. I still have a temper and most people never really see it. I avoid conflict because of my anger and rage. I watch police shows and see cops see right through people’s lies, yet they believed me, and while I hadn’t actually shot or killed anyone, possession of an unlicensed firearm, along with the use of a firearm in an assault case would not have bode well for my future plans. I never carried a gun after that day and not long after got rid of all of my firearms. I am not a true pacifist as I believe that if the life of me and mine are in jeopardy, I would kill someone. I do not believe in turning the other cheek in the strictest sense. Anyone who has grown up in the hood or in a dangerous place knows that turning the other cheek will get you hurt, killed, and bullied over and over again. Pacifism where I come from is seen as weakness, like blood in the water, and people will swarm on you. I did however move away from the trailer park soon after this event as I was fearful that the environment brought out the worst traits in me. When I have worked with young people, many who don’t process or think about the potential consequences for their actions, I have often thought back to this event. I feel like while it is nothing to brag about, it helps me to relate and understand the anger, fear, and rage that some young people feel. I also understand how to cope with it, how to diffuse it, and how to transform it into something more positive. It only took me ten seconds to calm down after the neighbor’s dad and girlfriend took him away, ten seconds to realize how much I could screw up his life and mine. Ten seconds was all it took to think more clearly and rationally. I have shared this story to very few people, but I have shared it with a few hard to reach youth in my time, and I always tell them after relaying my story, “Just think, what a difference 10 seconds can make in your life.”