“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”
– Audre Lorde
What keeps me from writing about racial justice? What stands in the way of articulating both the inequities in higher education and a vision for building structures of inclusion? While the fear of getting it wrong looms large, looking foolish worries me far less than doing harm. What I write could galvanize those who prefer white campuses and the insidious myths of individualism and meritocracy.
Back in November, an Admissions officer at the university where I work shared his reactions to the election on his personal Facebook page. His harsh post went viral, prompting conservatives across the blogosphere to point to his words as evidence of “liberal intolerance” propped up by the higher education system. This one employee’s private views became fodder for efforts across the country to gut inclusion initiatives. This is not hyperbole. Remember when the Tennessee legislature voted in April to cut all funds for the university’s diversity office?
At my Unitarian Universalist church, we’ve been grappling with a similar constellation of concerns. A polarized national climate has illuminated the deep and widening fractures in our communities. The choices we make matter. Each time we come together, we have a new opportunity to understand and undo the structures of white supremacy in our traditions and in our congregation.
Indeed, every setting in which we find ourselves offers up avenues for taking steps on racial justice.
Silence is the absence of sound. That is where we start. Then we hear what’s left when a bow lifts from its string, the reverberation humming across window glass and skimming over curved iron rails. Even after it dissipates, sound remains. We cross a bridge from memory to the note that arrives next, if any. This is not a certainty.
The lift carries us. The resonance in our own blood rides over when the bow releases it from its string. The arm lifting belongs to the song. Muscles move the arm. Breath fuels muscle. Pulse syncopates with breath.
Player, instrument, audience, the hollow belly of night. Nothing is silent. Inside the ear, a river rushes. Even in the dark, even alone, we sleep on its roaring banks.
9pm, heading home from pub trivia at a busy spot near my office. Down on the metro platform, the orange line train pulls in. Only six stops to my station. I’ll be walking the dog by 9:30.
The doors slide open onto a car bubbling with chatter. Summer in DC, the weekend lasts all week. Between nuzzling couples and clusters of young people, a few wilted office drones slouch and sleep. I take one of the few unoccupied seats. Bar hoppers stream out around me.
He takes up a row. Briefcase on its side next to the window, legs splayed, foot halfway into the aisle. As I settle into a corner perpendicular across the car, he catches my eye. I ignore him, pull out my journal and start writing.
The sensation a prickle, a tiny persistent sting against scalp and skin.
Eyes like a growling. Eyes like a treasure box. Storefront reflection, candid photograph, inverted glint on spectacle glass.
Eyes tethering me to corporeality.
They write their stories on my body. Make their confessions on my body. Cast the runes and decode the signs and plan their fortune on my body. Ink the map of their nightmares on my body. X the spot of their rescue on my body.
Her endeavor was misguided and wrong and maybe plain crazy, akin to someone waking up one day and deciding he’s going to scale Kilamanjaro because he can’t stop imagining the view from the top, the picture so arresting and beautiful that it too soon delivers him to a precarious ledge, where he can no longer turn back. And while it’s easy to say this is a situation to be avoided, isn’t this what we also fear and crave simultaneously, that some internal force which defies understanding might remake us into the people we dream we are?
Having hit all the deadlines for Phase 1, I steered eagerly into Phase 2. Blocks of writing time for the season ahead peppered my calendar. Accountability buddies jumped on board. To celebrate the milestone as well as the momentum, My Mister dipped into the Treat Jar and agreed to host a game night.
Then on the second-to-last day of the first month, my project ran aground.
The professor wears plaid clogs. She strides into the conference room, bold black and gray swimming around feet sheathed in silver-threaded socks. I tell her I like her style. She tells me that every time she hits a professional milestone, she buys herself shoes. She can stand in her closet and scan the trajectory of her career: her first publication shoes, her first edited volume shoes. The plaid clogs? Tenure-track shoes.
“What’s next?” I ask.
“Full professor, going up next year.”
“Have you scoped out the shoes?”
She shakes her head. “Oh no, that would jinx it.” Then she grins. “Which is a total lie. There are these boots,” she sort of moans. “Boots and a whole new outfit to go with them.”
This concept mystifies me. One friend picks out a fancy purse for every promotion or raise. Coach, Kate Spade, Louis Vuitton. Another takes herself on a cruise. I clap along but something rankles. We’re dogs now? We get cookies for every well-timed wiggle?