Bridging the Empathy Gap

By Lester Asamoah

black-and-white-american-flag2


2016, in some ways, has been a rough year in America. Racial tensions seem to be at least as high they were in 1992 after the Los Angeles riots. Some older civil rights activists even claim that tensions are close to as bad as they were during the civil rights movement. Race relations haven’t been the only divisive issue by any means – LGBTQ+ and Muslim issues also have had major dividing points. Needless to say, 2016 is a year in particular where it’s worth discussing these issues. Even if it means repeating certain issues or points. I’ve largely abstained from writing about these issues, but I want to return to them.

On Twitter, I’ve said that when I see certain politicians talk, I feel like I live in a different America than them. To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong about having a different experience than someone else in the same country. I’m sure that someone living in San Francisco, CA has a fundamentally different experience than someone that lives in Savannah, GA. However, there seems to be major gaps in how some of the fundamental problems America faces is approached. We have different problems and perspectives. Again, not inherently bad. But some of the problems faced by certain Americans goes largely ignored. This election cycle along with other major events in the [US] country have revealed our capacities to misunderstand each other.

This isn’t the part where I say we should all get along and end the post. I wish it were that easy. This is actually the part where I try to tease out of some of what I think can help develop basic understanding between our different experiences.

Listen and Share the Load

If you’re at all interested in what people are marginalized in America are going through, you should start by listening. I say this time and time again. But, ironically enough, people don’t seem to listen. Or they need to be reminded multiple times. I also suggest listening to things from people of the particular affected group. It makes no sense to hear a congressman pontificate about how bad the shooting was in Orlando – especially if they don’t mention LGBT people (many people did not) and if they’re not LGBT themselves. This isn’t to say that people of the out-group can’t have opinions, but it seems asinine to build your opinions and advocacy from the words of those not in the marginalized group. A certain presidential candidate addressed the black community in a city and crowd that is overwhelmingly white. What good does that do?

If you’re a good listener, then you won’t have to ask the same questions over and over again. As Toni Morrison and many others point out – a part of oppression is having the marginalized consistently have to prove themselves and help others understand what they’re going through. Unless you’re asking a real simple question or are willing to start an honest conversation about a social issue, don’t keep asking basic questions. Google is a hell of an invention. Don’t waste people’s time forcing them tell you about racism, sexism, ableism, Islamophobia, homophobia, etc. when you have the resources to learn about these issues. And if you don’t have the resources, then make that clear. And make no mistake, if you’re intentional people will be receptive. But just know that when you see injustice and you keep saying “I didn’t know, I didn’t know,” it really does no good for anyone. It also does no good to call someone/group of people stupid for what they believe in. Even if you think they are, constantly sharing articles about how inferior a group of people are to you and your cadre of friends isn’t ingratiating. Oh, and let’s stop with the damn “devil’s advocate” please, unless you like patronizing people. We don’t need anymore devil’s advocates.

Changing from Within

Do you believe that people can change? Well, to some extent, people have to change for there to be less tension in the US. As alluded to previously, people have to change the way they take in information about others. But internalizing it is just as important – how many times have you sat in front of a TV or a lecture and not remembered anything that was said in the last 5 minutes?

It’s incumbent of us, as Americans, to get to know the other side. Of course, this shouldn’t be done if the other side is hateful or harmful to our health. I strongly take the stance that I shouldn’t need to empathize with the arguments behind racism, homophobia, and Islamophobia. Thinking people are inferior based on race, gender, religion, etc. isn’t okay, and we shouldn’t be interested in entertaining those beliefs. But where can we as individuals help others move on how they view the world? Can we help people move on these issues? I’ll be honest – I don’t have a great answer because I believe in spending energy on keeping oneself healthy and prosperous; battling with someone who sees you or others as less than a fully valuable human goes against that. Alternatively, what are we doing within our in-groups on these issues? The black community has pressing issues of misogyny and homophobia to deal with. As do many other communities of color. Intersectionality is something that has to be practiced by everyone.

To put this bluntly: for there to be change, the people that are in the dominant group have to change. For systemic racism to end, white people have to change. For misogyny to end, men have to change. For Islamophobia to end, people who are non-Muslim have to change. For homophobia to change, straight people have to change. You likely get the point now. This is where intersectionality is critical because a lot of us in some way belong to a dominant group. It’s not enough to say only white people or black people should change. And it’s definitely not enough, if not pretty offensive, to say that someone in the marginalized group should change – i.e. lesbians should “act straight,” blacks should “commit less crime.” Just for the record: lesbians should act however they please and we shouldn’t assume blacks are prone to committing crime. Rinse and repeat these principles.

Free Expression

So if a problem is that we’re bad at listening and internalizing important things about those different than us, we should expect people to get mad sometimes. Of course, it does no good to endlessly scream at someone about an issue. But anger is a legitimate response to being called rapist by a certain political candidate based on arriving from a certain country, or seeing people that look like you getting shot down in a Florida nightclub or in the streets of Milwaukee. For some reason we just have a hard time in America with understanding the emotional responses of others. We need to get over that. We need to understand the varying expressions of those around us. White working class people in Indiana who feel betrayed by the economy have a right to feel mad. Black students who are tokenised for 3 years of school at a predominately white institution [PWI] have a right to be reserved. LGBTQ+ people have a right to be annoyed at straight people constantly disregarding their rights (we do it way too often, fellow straight people).

Expression is an important point because when you press people in some way, they will eventually express how they feel. The inability to listen and learn means we have routinely misunderstood these expressions. And make no mistake, we as a nation will continue to misunderstand these issues if we don’t listen and learn.

…Is that all?

I promise I’m not trying to insult your intelligence and be elementary by suggesting we should simply “listen and learn.” However, that is that solution and we are bad at it. Quite frankly, it’s much easier to put off the problem for a number of reasons: we have our own things going on, we have a friend of a marginalized group that doing well so things are fine, or we just worry that we’ll never know enough to do anything. Those are things that I’ve faced, and things that I imagine most readers face. We have to be honest with ourselves. It’s easy to write Facebook statues and call it a day. It’s easy to let that guy we know say the n-word. It’s easy to let a sexist joke slide. But it’s difficult to confront ourselves and these small battles. And sometimes these battles are more harmful than good. Sometimes we lose friends. Sometimes we need breaks. But if we’re concerned about bridging the gaps that have made America feel so divided, we have to do the work and that’s where the work is. Don’t say I never warned you.

Lester Asamoah is a graduate student at American University.

Advertisements

Rethinking Peace and Violence in America

By Lester Asamoah

Peace


After the Charleston tragedy, among other tragedies foreign and domestic, the common notion is to call or pray for peace. But, in our universal desire for peace, do we recognize what peace is? Generally, peace is understood as an absence of violence. That is not a wrong definition. But, to fathom the nature of peace, we must discern the dimensions of violence.

The founder of the Peace Studies discipline, Dr. Johan Galtung, tackles this in his article Violence, Peace, and Peace Studies. (The idea of the Six Dimensions of Violence are all from Dr. Galtung, I attribute all of these ideas to him) My primary aims are to summarize a small portion of his analysis of violence in a digestible way, then apply them to contemporary situations.

The Six Dimensions of Violence

Taking the general idea that peace is the absence of violence is the starting point; if we can understand the dimensions of violence, we can prevent the obstruction of peace. Violence is usually thought of as physical and emotional violence. Again, that is not wrong, but a richer explanation of violence is critical to understand varying levels of violence occurring.

Before analyzing what Galtung refers to as the six dimensions of violence, he makes an important point about violence by explaining the potential versus the actual. Acts of violence are avoidable, and they minimize human potential. I will list the dimensions of violence and apply them to contemporary situations below:

  • Physical and Emotional violence: Physical violence includes the obvious physical harm of a person, however, it also includes restricting mobility. By keeping someone in chains, or keeping them from traveling far distances is a form of physical violence because one is being physically restricted from their potential realization.

Physical and emotional violence, as I stated before, is pretty well understood. So I want to focus on the restriction of mobility. A strong and tragic example of violence by restricting mobility is the story of Kalief Browder. Browder was held at Rikers Island for three years without a trial and eventually committed suicide once freed. The detention of Browder is tragic, but not entirely uncommon. Many people are held without trial or are held for disproportionate times to their crimes. This is violent. The act of detention, especially against the innocent is violent.

  • Negative and Positive Influence: (Influence always assumed as negative towards the subject’s potential) Whenever an influencer inflicts punishment for what they think is wrong OR rewards their subject for what they believe is right.

Negative influence happens all of the time. When individuals are punished for their religious or political views, this is violent. Especially when it results in a loss of employment. Also, when someone is positively influenced to become less they can be, that is violent. Here is an excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, when Malcolm’s junior high teacher tries to guide him, illustrating positive influence:

“’Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. Don’t misunderstand me, now. We all here like you, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic as a n—-r. A lawyer—that’s no thing you can be. You need to think about something you can be. You’re good with your hands—making things. Everybody admires your carpentry shop work….’”

Note the teacher is trying to reward Malcolm’s work, and is generally being positive for the time, but is clearly obstructing Malcolm’s potential.

  • Objects: In response to the question, “when biological objects aren’t hurt, is there violence?” Galtung notes that violence can occur when the destruction of a non-human object forebodes the destruction of a physical or biological object.

Galtung makes an example in saying that nuclear tests are violent because they are used to forebode the destruction of biological objects (and often the tests destroy biological objects). Another example, many would argue, is the Israeli policy of destroying homes in Palestine. While nobody (usually) dies from the policy of destroying homes, it is usually used as a deterrent to terrorism.

  • Subjects: When there is no human subject that acts, can violence occur? Yes. Systemic violence occurs when people are restricted from obtaining resources needed for their potential. This situation, of course, assumes that this restriction is avoidable.

Systemic violence is growing into a larger discussion. There are many ways systemic violence is increasingly being unearthed. Of course, the quick example is the ethic-name resume. A National Bureau for Economic Research [NBER] study proves that people with ethnic names on their resumes get significantly less callbacks. However, the examples I prefer to look at are racist housing policies and the disenfranchisement of voters.

  • Intent: Violence can take place even with no conscious intent by the actor. Any act, intentional or unintentional, that robs potential in any avoidable situation, is a violent act.

Drunk driving is a simple way to understand intent. When someone is driving while drinking, their intent isn’t to hit another car. Yet… it still happens. Accidents will always happen in today’s world, but that does not mean they are exempt from being violent acts. The previous sentence is important because many times accidents and “unintentional” acts are deemed non-violent.

  • Manifest/Latent: Violence, as most are familiar with, is manifest, or obvious and physically visible acts of violence. However, Galtung is also concerned with the latent, or an unstable situation where any small act can trigger a manifest act of violence. I.E. daily acts that destabilize a situation leading to when a small act that can trigger a large act of violence.

Manifest violence is something visible like someone getting shot. But latent violence is most easily explained by the phenomena of microaggressions. Small, even as the name suggests, micro levels of day-to-day violence and disenfranchisement can build up and become largely violent acts. Rutgers student Tyler Clementi committed suicide in 2012 after discovering his sexual acts were secretly recorded by his roommate. The recording was the act that triggered the self-violent response of suicide.

Moving Forward

Now that we have a better understanding of the dimensions of violence, we can move toward a more peaceful America. Of course, the examples were highly limited and just designed to give a basic understanding. But putting this knowledge to use will explain many phenomena of violence against Native Americans, African-Americans, impoverished and homeless Americans, and even violence occurring against other cultures overseas. In the 21st century, we have to realize that violence is far beyond emotional and physical violence. And we can overcome this violence if we make genuine efforts to do so.

Lester is a Graduate Student at American University’s School of International Service.

The Problem with the ‘Black on Black Crime’ Argument

By Ernest Ezeugo

Photo by Scott Olsen/Getty Images


In recent months, several tragic instances of police practicing excessive (sometimes fatal) force against black men and women have awakened a nationwide discussion about police brutality and how the justice system impacts the black community. This discussion has made a lot of people angry and defensive, and those emotions have led to some virulent responses and justifications.

Of all the empathy-void, compassion-less rebuttals to higher rates of police brutality against black men and women I’ve seen, “oh yeah? well what about black-on-black crime” is my favorite perhaps the most egregious. I have a few ideas on why people who can’t/don’t want to understand the plight of communities concerned by recent events turn to this defense, but below are my thoughts on why citing black-on-black crime is not an acceptable counterargument for police brutality.

Black on black crime and police brutality against black people are not mutually exclusive.
It is entirely reasonable to care about black on black crime and talk about how police brutality and the black community are related. It’s similar to how you can be a fan of waffles and still want pizza for dinner: black-on-black crime and police brutality are two entirely different conversations that don’t need to happen at the same time.

It’s a practice in the politics of changing the subject.
Ta-Nehisi Coates does a lot of writing about the politics of changing the subject that is very much worth taking a look at. Simply put, the black on black crime defense–kin to the “don’t wear seductive clothing” defense and the “don’t dress like a thug” defense–is a form of respectability politics that irrationally turns the blame for the death and mistreatment of black men and women at the hands of the law back onto the community. At its most general, it transforms a necessary conversation about race and justice into a condescending, often blithering discourse on the state of the black community. This is a problem for many reasons that I’ll get into, but essentially at the top of those: it’s a scapegoat that prevents us from taking part in the tough but restorative conversations about race that America has needed to engage in since the Civil War.

It’s a false equivalency.
As this interview with David Rudovsky explains, an inherent conflict of interest arises when an officer takes a life while on duty, immediately disqualifying the notion that police brutality can even be considered in the same league as any level of citizen crime, black-on-black crime in particular. Police officers serve as defenders of the people, so when a police officer is responsible for the death of any civilian, several cogs move into place to assure that trust is maintained between law enforcement and the community. This phenomenon is the reason why we know how many officers were killed in the line of duty this year, but have no accurate measurement of how many civilians were killed at the hands of police. And, begrudgingly, I understand the intent behind it. It isn’t so much shadiness as it is a means of securing trust, and therefore peace, in a society. …But at the end of the day, it doesn’t make it right. And it means that black-on-black crime and police brutality against black people, by their very definitions, are an equivalency that has no merit.

Put succinctly: Black people who kill black people go to jail. Policemen that kill people often do not.

It implicitly suggests that black people are not a part of the State.
In perhaps the most atrocious attempt to relate black on black crime to police brutality of the year, former mayor Rudy Giuliani made some disparaging comments about the state of the black community in an interview with Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson. Chief among them was this thoughtless epitaph: “White police officers wouldn’t be (in your community) if you weren’t killing each other.”

Of the several things wrong with this comment, the most concerning is its implication. We know that police officers are meant to serve and protect all citizens. But when Giuliani asks Dyson what he is doing to heal his community, he proposes two dangerous and incorrect assumptions that many who conjure up the black-on-black crime defense similarly imply: that crime as it occurs in black communities occurs at the fault of the community rather than at the fault of the individual, and that black communities can do more to stop crime than they currently are, and for some reason choosing not to.

In the same way that crime in any other form of community is born, crime involving members of the black community is the product of an individual’s thoughts and desires. It’s for that reason that Giuliani’s assertion is so absurd. There is no superhuman connectivity between black people or paranormal mental Facebook that black people can log onto that allows us to control how often other black people commit crimes. And it’s not like black communities like crime, or aren’t working hard to stop it. We can only expect communities to do what they’ve already been doing.

All of this to say, it is not solely the black community’s responsibility to control crime among its people, just like it is not solely any other communities’ responsibility, because there is nothing that makes the black community different. Remember the police? It’s their responsibility. And consequently, it is their policies and procedures that have to be the first to called to question when the black community is jailed, sentenced, and killed at exponentially higher rates than any other community in the nation.

Talking about race is not easy. If it were, the discussion about race, justice, and law enforcement would have happened after Emmett Till, not at the end of 2014. If we’re going to get to the bottom of what it means to talk about and eventually resolve these issues, we have to be honest with ourselves about what a proper conversation looks like. It’s time to stop pretending that black-on-black crime has a place in the conversation.

—–

Ernest is  the founder of Thirty Eight Minutes.

Fixing the Ladder: You, Me, and Inequality

By Lester Asamoah

Income Equality, Changing Inequality, Political Systems, Inequality in the US


The United States is undoubtedly richer and more prosperous than it was twenty years ago. Technology is quickly advancing, and Americans have access to knowledge like never before. It’s a great picture to paint, right? The Americans with access to capital are prospering, and even the middle class citizens are experiencing microcosms of great prosperity. The sunny skies of happiness and growth, however, are deluded by clouds of concern for those with no access to capital. Aka, those that are in the lowest socio-economic classes.

Setting the Gini Free

One would think post World War II innovations would mean a decreasing gap in inequality. While many have prospered, few have suffered. The Gini Coefficient is a measure of income inequality where 0.00 represents complete equality (everyone making the exact same wages, etc) and 1.00 represents complete inequality (one person earning 99.9% of all wages, etc). Basically, the closer the Gini coefficient gets to 1, the more stratified the inequality. A study from the US Department of Commerce illustrates how the United States’ Gini has risen since the 1940s:

Gini

(taken from CBS’ News Article, How Do We Know Income Inequality is Getting Worse?)

Why do we care about this Gini that won’t grant our wishes? Because it means that the poorest Americans are increasingly reeling – income inequality is far beyond the simplicity of working hard and not working hard. It is the difference between access to capital, opportunity, education, and safety. The people at the very top are accumulating more and more access to these things, while the people at the very bottom are simultaneously losing access to these things.

A Broken Ladder

We know that inequality exists and is highly persistent in United States. Movements like Occupy Wall Street are ways Americans express frustration at the growing Gini. Now, this isn’t the point where I scream “socialism” and demand that the government purge the accounts of the 0.01%. In fact, I agree with The Economist’s article Inequality and the American Dream when they say “Inequality is not inherently wrong—as long as three conditions are met: first, society as a whole is getting richer; second, there is a safety net for the very poor; and third, everybody, regardless of class, race, creed or sex, has an opportunity to climb up through the system.” America actually seems to be doing well until we reach the third condition. But not meeting that third condition is grave for many opportunity-seeking Americans. In a previous post, The Mirage of Opportunity, I write about inequality on a racial level. Beyond that, however, we still have heated debate over opportunities for women (Equal Pay Bill in the US Senate) and impoverished Americans (Colleges perpetuating class divides) to climb the ladder. There’s no need to cry Socialism, but there is a need to scream equality of opportunity. If the American dream means climbing the ladder, we first must fix the ladder – it’s missing almost all of its rungs near the bottom.

Repairing a Ladder, Breaking Oppressive Systems

Repairing the ladder means fighting for equality of opportunity. Women must be paid the same wages, public education must make a strong comeback, and minorities must be given equal opportunity in the workplace, classroom, and society. Returning to the heart of Thirty-Eight Minutes and my previous posts, we must fight the corrupt and unequal systems in place now. Demanding equal rights for women, minorities, and the impoverished is critical. And doing so not just to be trendy, but because people’s lives are on the line. As the famous economist Dr. Joseph Stiglitz points out in his New York Times opinion article, Inequality is not Inevitable, Americans do not have to idly stand by and watch inequality grow. First and foremost, we must get the money out of politics. A daunting, but necessary task. Large farming receives subsidies while the impoverished suffer nutritionally, and big pharma is raking in billions but not everyone can get access to health care. These are only two of many instances where lobbying efforts are steering politics. I don’t have the precise knowledge on how to suck the money out of politics, but I do know awareness and speaking out is the first step in the journey. Next, we must fight for justice. The stratification of wealth also means the price tag for justice is rising – the wealthy can afford lawyers and steep bails, while the lower-income Americans have little judicial resources and no recourse against injustices. White-collar crime continues (and the victims are often blamed), while increasingly privatized jails fill up with lower-income, often minority, people.

We have to repair the American Dream and pursue a reasonable level of equality of opportunity. The American Dream is certainly not dead, but it is unreachable for many. Our nation’s mantra is “justice and liberty for all”. When will we stop pretending justice and liberty exists for all, and start securing justice and liberty for those that do not have it?

Lester Asamoah is an International Security Studies Senior at the University of Oklahoma.

8 Reasons Teachers Are The Worst

By David Postic

teachers are the worst


Teachers are the worst…

 

1. Teachers don’t have that hard of a job. 

They basically just babysit kids for seven hours a day. Anyone could do that. Never mind that, if we paid them like babysitters, we should be paying them $250,000 per year rather than $44,000.

2. Teachers don’t take care of their classrooms. 

The books are just falling apart, the desks are old and broken, and I have to contribute classroom supplies for my kid every year. Never mind that funding for common education has been cut dramatically over the past decade, and never mind the fact that teachers make do with substandard classroom resources, often using their own money to give their kids a quality educational experience.

3. Teachers indoctrinate my kids with anti-religious nonsense.

If I don’t want my kid learning about evolution, the teacher shouldn’t be allowed to teach evolution. Never mind that teachers are charged with opening minds, exposing children to new worlds of ideas, all the while putting up with hell from parents and special interest groups for teaching a curriculum over which they have little to no control.

4. Teachers complain too much about not getting enough money for their schools.

I don’t even have kids–why should I have to pay my hard earned dollars for someone else’s kids? Never mind the fact that education funding has decreased across the board since the Great Recession; that good school districts often result in greater benefits to everyone living there; and that “kids are the future” and all that jazz.

5. Teachers get off work at 3pm.

Never mind the countless hours they spend grading papers, preparing lesson plans, tutoring students, or pulling all-nighters to get ready for class.

6. Teachers get a three month summer vacation.

Never mind the professional development seminars they attend, the workshops they travel to, the classroom workdays they set aside, the lessons they plan, or even the second jobs they have to work to make ends meet.

7. Teachers complain too much about standardized tests.

Never mind the fact that such tests measure only “low level” thinking processes, take education out of the hands of educators, allow pass-fail rates to be manipulated for political purposes, and radically limit the ability of teachers to adapt to learner differences.

8. Worst of all, though, teachers try too damn hard.

Never mind that they come to work every day not for the meager pay but for a chance to make a kid smile because they understand the world a little bit better than they did before. Never mind that they try to have an impact and make a difference. Never mind that they try to change lives. Never mind that a lot of people don’t support them, don’t listen to them, don’t understand them, and don’t respect them.   …Never mind that teachers try anyway. Because that’s just who teachers are.

Yeah. Teachers are the worst. And we should all want to be like them.

—–

See this post on Thought Catalog.

David Postic is a second-year law student at the University of Oklahoma.

Africa, the Single Story, and Self-Demoralization in Black Culture

By Ernest Ezuego

In the summer of 2012, I became a mentor in a program called Sooner Upward Bound (SUB). An installation of the U.S. Department of Education’s TRiO program, SUB serves low-income students from the Oklahoma City area by providing them with resources that help make pursuing a higher education an achievable reality.

I went into that summer with one main goal: Do everything I can to show these kids their value where their schools had not. To that end, I encouraged my students to be open and honest concerning any doubts or fears they had about getting into college so that we could tackle them together. The majority of SUB students during the summer of 2012 were minorities, and naturally a lot of their doubts and fears were race-based. After a lot of talks about how to fit into the higher ed scene, one of my students asked a question that framed the remainder of our summer: “Mr. E, you had to learn how to talk white to fit in here, huh?”

“…Huh?” I responded, not really knowing what else to say.

“You know… full words and stuff, all properly, uppity… you know, white.”

I didn’t know where to begin. The question was an affront to my identity. I spent the majority of my life growing up in the lower-income neighborhoods of the Twin Cities, but my mom moved us to Allen, Texas (arguably best known as the city that wasted $60 million on a high school football stadium… and these) to give us the chance of a great public school education. So being accused of “talking white” aggravated insecurities over my identity.

But then I stopped to think. Why was I so upset about being accused of “talking white”? Was I mad because I saw it as an affront to my identity, or did it have more to do with the subtle assertion that a man couldn’t be both black and well-spoken? Furthermore, what was the source of that assertion? What gave the notion merit?

It has now been two years since my SUB kids challenged me to think deeper about the self-demoralization that is all too common in the black community, specifically among the youth. In those two years, I’ve developed something of a theory for the source of the “white is intelligent, black is ghetto” mentality, and why this mentality persists. This is my attempt to break it down.

Africa is a Continent, not a Country

If we’re going to try and tackle the source of the demoralization of black youth, we really have to make sure that we can get down with the basics, and this is the most basic basic of them all:

africa4
I’ve noticed that something very odd happens whenever someone comes upon the opportunity to talk about a place in Africa. Rarely is a specific city, region, or country mentioned by name. For some reason, there is an affinity for using the word “Africa” as a blanket term to generalize every aspect of this multifaceted, billion-person-strong landmass of 47 contiguous countries and six islands.

(Brilliant satire on how to write about Africa.)

This phenomenon can be found everywhere Africa is discussed, from journalism to pop culture. A quick glance at social media during what I’m convinced has somewhere, somehow been coined “mission trip season” will show you that Africa, more often than any specific country or region in Africa, is a common destination for service. Even corporate PR executives mess it up.

The act itself is more often than not an honest mistake or misconception, but the reality of its implications are much more severe.

The Danger of the Single Story

Even those who know and understand that Africa is not a country have a hard time seeing the continent as anything other the labels that it is too often prescribed: helpless, poverty-stricken, AIDS and malaria-infested, violence-plagued. I would argue that the West has a perception problem; we generalize Africa in a way that is demoralizing more often than it is positive, and the way we see Africans in America (important distinction) is often affected as a result.

This phenomenon is known widely as the “Single Story mentality,” and there are few people in the world that explain it better than Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie did in her talk at TEDGlobal 2009 (which I strongly suggest you watch before continuing).

In her talk, Adichie shares with us her epiphany that demonstrates just how “Single Story thought” can affect the way we talk to and even see others:

“What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

The Miseducation of the Black Child

And you know what does little to nothing to combat the dangerous of a Single Story mentality when it comes to Africa? Our classrooms. Care to guess what is the first event in history discussing black people (African, African-American) en masse that most students learn about?

Here’s a hint: it has nothing to do with Timbuktu being the center of learning from the 13th to 17th centuries or the rich histories of several African empires.

Here’s another hint: it’s slavery.

We are literally teaching our young black boys and girls that slavery is the first time they are significant enough to come into the broader picture of history.

I don’t have statistics or data concerning the impact of this charge, but I don’t need it. I have personal experiences to support my claim. I have the experiences of the many young black students I have mentored since I got into the game, and with those experiences, I can tell you this:

When little black boys and girls are taught that the history of their people began with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, they are taught that their people have a history of being less than adequate. No amount of “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” or “now we are equal” can change that. (I will admit that Civil Rights is a prominent topic in the teaching of history that does empower people to believe that they can take steps towards overcoming oppression, but fast forward to the world that we live in today, and most people will prove that the struggle is still not over.)

When black students learn that our founding fathers omitted the denunciation of slavery (not passed on or never discussed, but included and then took out for the sake of making agreement/ratification easier) in not one but two of the nation’s most influential, most celebrated governing documents, they are coerced into being proud of our country’s “commitment to liberty” that institutionalized the demoralization of colored people.

Something isn’t right, here.

(Further reading for another time: The Miseducation of the Negro: History is a Weapon by Carter G. Woodson)

Connecting the Dots

It’s important to note that this isn’t about assigning blame or making excuses. At the end of the day, there are many more factors that contribute to the epidemic of self-demoralization in black culture. Not unlike most problems we face, this, too, is multifaceted, and I understand that. But quite frankly, this is real. Negative self-association is real. And it deserves to get the pedestal treatment so that we may begin looking at ways to tackle its catalysts.

The truth is that the generalization of Africa hurts far more than it helps. When something bad happens (say, Sudanese conflict, or the LRA), generalization causes all of Africa to be painted with the same brush. The same thing happens when, for example, your friend (bless his/her heart) tells you that he/she is going on a mission trip to “Africa.” The implication–that they are going somewhere that needs their help–is extended over an entire continent, whether or not you realize it.

The generalization of Africa helps perpetuate a Single Story. It feeds the tendency we have to generalize for the sake of making things simpler. Unfortunately, it enables us to generalize Africans (and in some cases, even all black people) as if they have less and mean less. It persuades us to look at the statistics (e.g. disproportionately high incarceration rates, ghettoes created in the aftermath of housing discrimination, etc.) instead of the individual people and their stories. Worst of all, it reinforces what our education shows us: a disproportionately large history of the black community enduring failure, suffering, and struggle rather than progress.

All of this makes it easier to self-associate with being unintelligent, while seeing white people as generally better off and more intelligent. It advances the theory that we have to “talk white to fit in.” And when our youth believe that it’s okay, that it’s the norm to find being well-spoken or intelligent as extraordinary rather than average, the prophecy fulfills itself.

It’s up to all of us to pay attention to how we generalize people, cultures, and ideas. To recognize the danger of a Single Story for any group, and work from there to make sure that our communities don’t perpetuate anything that might make another person feel comfortable with being less than.

—–

Ernest is a Political Science senior at The University of Oklahoma and the founder of Thirty Eight Minutes.

Education Links We Love (June 19th, 2014)

Best education links of the week

Each week (usually Friday, but Thursday this week), we here at Thirty-Eight Minutes post our five favorite education-themed articles from around the web this week. Alas, we are but five guys with limited time to surf the furthest reaches of the Internet. So, as always, we would love any additional articles worth reading. If you find any, please post them below and share your discoveries with us.

Calling Visionary Philanthropists (Inside Higher Ed)

Starbucks to Provide Free College Education (NYT)

The Way to Always Have “Ineffective” Teachers (HuffPost)

4 Ways the Internet is Making Kids Smarter (Edudemic)

An Awkward Public-Private Partnership That’s Actually Working (The Atlantic)

Local Bonus: Inappropriate Appropriations and a Broken Promise (OK Policy Blog)