I also finished reading Carter Godwin Woodson’s The Mis-education of the Negro (here’s part one), and I’ve probably got two big takeaways: (1) I’m constantly struck by how little seems to have changed in the past 80 years, both in terms of the ways in which individual, structural, and institutional racism all persist, and in terms of the arguments and ways in which people talk about race relations; and (2) I’m wondering about where the burden of change really lies.
Woodson presents the argument, for example, that talking/teaching about race will only make things worse; this sounds to me an awful lot like the colorblind or post-racial perspectives that plague the liberal (maybe mainstream is a better word, because I see this on both sides, but it strikes me as particularly pervasive and particularly unwise on the liberal side) media. Woodson deconstructs this argument using a critique I’ve also read more recently (and more recently grounded in “science,” such as with the Bronsons’ reporting): even babies and very young children learn about race through their daily lives, regardless of whether we as adults talk about it or not. I do wonder, though, why we (well, nobody I’ve read, although I’m sure this perspective exists and is written about) aren’t as outraged by the absence of race teaching/conversations in predominantly white schools as we are in schools with predominantly students of color—it seems they need it just as much, if not more, although perhaps for slightly different reasons, no?
Perhaps my broader question is about where the responsibility lies to change the societal, structural, systemic, and sometimes individual issues that Woodson raises. There's a refrain, throughout the book, urging people of color (Blacks, specifically) to rise above the trifling, and Woodson even lays it out bluntly: "the exploiters of the race are not so much at fault as the race itself... the matter is one which rests largely with the Negroes themselves. The race will free itself from exploiters just as soon as it decides to do so. No one else can accomplish this task for the race. It must plan and do for itself."
On the one hand, Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, "this, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors... cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both... Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift." On the other, what the two are talking about feel a bit different to me-- Woodson's language throughout the book calls to mind a bit more bootstrapping than I can agree with (although I haven't read anything else of his yet, so please let me know if I'm misinterpreting), and Freire seems to be talking more about moral right/strength than tactical strategy. Woodson seems to clearly acknowledge that individuals have not risen above because they've been miseducated through no fault of their own, but then, is the burden of responsibility really theirs?
I'm thinking of a recent email conversation I had with colleagues about designing a learning experience around power, and whether (after an analysis of ways in which people with/without power engage to create power dynamics) it's fair to ask those who identify as being in target groups to take an action step similar to the action step requested of those who identify as being powerful. One colleague suggested that if not, then we're essentially continuing to marginalize the marginalized by telling them there's nothing they can do. Here's what I had to say about that:
...It strikes me that we might be talking about two different things: agency vs. power. Both parties absolutely have the agency to disrupt the pattern or to change the situation; the person in a position of power has the agency to acknowledge his behavior, recognize that his preferred patterns are damaging, and change the way he is operating. The “powerless” or marginalized person has the agency to acknowledge her behavior, ways in which he may be triggering her to act in ways she doesn’t want to act, or ways in which she may be triggering him to act in ways that are unproductive, and to change her own behavior. She even has the agency to call him out on what he’s doing and demand that he act differently. She may not always feel safe doing so, however—because she’s not the one with power in the dyad—or she may simply not have the energy to do so in a particular situation given that she fights this battle every day. And it shouldn’t be her responsibility or burden to fight it in every single situation. In terms of agency, both people have it, and both can exercise it to create change.
I don’t think, however, we can say or imply that both parties have the same amount of power to change things. If both parties had the same amount of power, there wouldn’t be a power dynamic, and one party wouldn’t be dominant and the other marginalized; that’s the nature of power. The person from the dominant group has the power in that pair, and it is his responsibility and his moral obligation to notice his behavior and change it. There is no responsibility or moral obligation on the part of the marginalized person, even though she has the agency to act if she chooses to. The dominant person MUST be willing to change, which was the language [originally suggested in the action step]; the marginalized person CAN, but doesn’t HAVE to.
The reason this distinction matters to me is because I worry that if we frame up a situation where marginalized people have to act—to disrupt the pattern, shift the dynamic, whatever—to live up to their empowerment, we a) nudge ourselves towards the philosophical territory where it becomes okay to blame the marginalized for their marginalization—after all, you were empowered to do something, and nothing’s changed, so it must be in some way your fault that you’re still marginalized—and b) ignore the fact that resistance happens in many other ways—not always in directly confronting the oppressor and not in every single situation.
This feels tricky; by and large, I don't think people with power (whether we're talking societally, big picture, or just micro, daily interactions within an office or relationship) are particularly apt to voluntarily give up power just because, and even if they do, I'm not sure that cessation out of charity is actually going to level the playing field. So, people without can't simply sit around and wait (nor are they particularly inclined to, I think), but without power there are limits to what they can (and should have to) take personal responsibility for. Right?