Several months ago the title for this post came to me, The Myth of the Single Hand. I didn’t know what it would be about but I knew it was the title for something I needed to say. I’m sure if any of us take a few moments to think about those words, “single hand”, cultural images abound, old westerns with a gunslinger hero taking down a man with one arm tied behind his back; Frodo who alone has the power to destroy the One Ring; or as recently as the Presidential election when one candidate proclaimed that “I, alone can fix it.”
There is an allure, a strength seen in being able to go it alone, do it myself, to not need, want, nor ask for help. To be honest there IS a sense of empowerment and strength that comes from being able to support ourselves, to not have to rely on others, to know that we can take care of ourselves but there is also a less recognized and acknowledged sense of isolation and vulnerability.
As I was thinking about this post I was reminded of a boy from grade school, Blessed Sacrament K-8 in Gary, Indiana. I’ve forgotten his name but not him. We were in the same grade together maybe 10 or 11 at the time. I was fairly popular, got along with most of the girls, was friends or friendly with a good number of the boys but was never into sports, especially the Catholic schoolyard rite of passage- “kickball” which put me on the outside of most boy circles. The other boy was decidedly not popular, bright fire red hair with freckles in a school that was 90% black and latinx- he stood out to be sure. He played sports so he got more face time with the boys but also in more fights with them and was nervous and uncomfortable around the girls. We could have been friends but we weren’t and at some point, we got into a conflict and in that stand-off- it happened. Back and forth arguing until words seemed to lose their effect and stronger measures were needed to prove our “rightness” he looked me up and down and told me we were going to fight.
I froze. I’m sure he immediately saw the fear in my eyes. I had been in one fight in my life, back in preschool when I bloodied a little boy's nose for making fun of me and then I started crying and apologizing to him because I felt so bad. I didn’t want to fight and he could tell. He said loudly, much louder than before so everyone on the playground could hear, “I’m gonna whoop your butt. You’re going to be so easy to beat up I’ll do it with one hand.” He said this as he placed one arm behind his back and started swishing around me suddenly taking on hyper feminized behaviors and limp-wristed attempts at punches. He was making a joke out of my gentleness, weaponizing my vulnerability.
The kids around us started to laugh. They didn’t form a circle around us to ensure the nuns couldn’t see, they didn’t egg us on and shout Fight! Fight! Fight! As would normally happen on the playground when a fight was going to break out. They just laughed. He had won without throwing a punch. He had made it clear I was weak, he was strong. He could beat me with a single hand.
The Myth of the Single Hand was reinforced that day but looking back I realize the pain and isolation that boy felt by being teased for his red hair didn’t change. He didn’t suddenly find himself more popular or more loved. He didn’t fight less with the other boys or become more comfortable with the girls. I wonder what would have happened if instead of living in the shell of individual strength he and I had been able to connect, be friends, and maybe share in our collective understanding of being outside, but now not alone.
That story from my childhood makes me wonder how much in the world is really different from the playground. What if our obsession with the individual, the hero, the super mom or man is a similar desire to prove our strength when inside we really feel alone, isolated, and vulnerable. The social work researcher and TedTalk celebrity Brene Brown says:
“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don't function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.” We threaten nelly little boys on the school yard.
She continues “Vulnerability is the birthplace of connection and the path to the feeling of worthiness.”
In John Metta’s sermon “I, Racist” he talks about how white people see themselves as individuals while people of color see themselves collectively. He says:
“White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals. You are 'you,' I am 'one of them.' … They have no need, nor often any real desire, to think in terms of a group. They are supported by the system, and so are mostly unaffected by it. “
Mr. Metta wrote this reflecting on why it was so hard to talk about race with his family which is half Black and half white. His white, northern aunt held a decade long grudge at his Black sister, her niece, for saying that the difference between white folks in the south and white folks in the north was at least southern whites were honest about being racist. The aunt was so offended and hurt by the statement that she stopped talking to her niece. She couldn’t engage in a discussion of systemic racism and white people as racist without seeing herself as personally racist. She demanded to be treated as an individual so she wasn’t part of that group of racists- who are bad and morally wrong.
His aunt needed deeply to be seen as an individual to not be made part of a group, like racists, because to do so would mean accepting some ownership and role in systemic oppression. Instead, she chose to not attack the system of oppression but the person in front of her, her niece. She couldn’t allow herself to be vulnerable and accept that her niece saw white people as racist. She shutdown the possibility of a deeper, loving connection with her niece, that witnessing and accepting her pain could have created, for the certainty of being a morally correct individual.
This inability to hold two conflicting perspectives at the same time and allow them to co-exist, a skill called “multidimensionality” prevented his aunt from hearing one person's truth- “I experience racism by people who look like you” while still holding the truth “this is true people who look like me are racist, and people may think I'm racist and I am still a morally correct person.” By not being able to hold both realities at once, the only option is to deny one of the truths present. There is only a single hand, it isn’t connected to anything else.
So if a desire to hide our vulnerability and our weakness leads us to seek certainty and project false strength, elevating the Myth of the Single hand over the truth of vulnerability and fear than this reliance on individualism can be seen at the root of a lack of connection and belonging. If vulnerability is the birthplace of connection and the path to worthiness we should be highlighting and elevating our stories of failure, our moments of shame, our imperfections. We should highlight them to find others who can empathize and support us. This doesn’t happen though. This is seen as weak and sloppy. Needy or broken.
But being needy, broken, weak, sloppy are all a part of being human along with being generous, whole, strong, and accomplished. We can’t separate out our humanity into neat packages. It all comes together. So together let's break the Myth of the Single Hand right here, right now. Go find a tennis ball or something else you can easily squeeze. Got it? Don’t worry, I’ll wait (I’m serious…go get something!). I want you to close your eyes and center your attention on your hand. Pay attention to your muscles and bones, ligaments, and sinew as you squeeze only using your single hand. Nothing else. Squeeze.
Try again. Squeeze. Is any other part of your body engaged, try to relax it. Don’t use your wrist. Don’t use your forearm. Don’t use your bicep, tricep, or shoulder. Try again. Squeeze.
Every time you squeeze your hand no matter how much you try not to engage any other part of the body you are using 10 different muscles. 7 in your hand and 3 in your wrists and forearms. Squeeze again. The tension you feel in your wrist is the flexor digitorum superficialis muscle. The tension running up your arm are the Flexor Pollicis Longus and Flexor Digitorum Profundus muscles. The nerves, that maybe you can’t feel but are required for you to sense the ball in your hand and communicate between your brain, arm, and hand that we are squeezing, run up the arm and connect to the spinal column at the T1 and C5, C6, C7, and C8 vertebras. And, of course, the blood allowing the tissue around your hand to survive coarses through your whole body, pumped by the heart and circulated until eventually filtered by the kidneys.
Campus Compact of Oregon has been working to break down this Myth of a Single Hand to build up the hope and possibility of a future of connection and belonging. This is vital to us seeing true progress on helping all students succeed. We must see ourselves as connected and bound to each other’s success. And to be clear that is not where we are right now.
This fall I had the privilege of teaching at Portland State, a sophomore level course, Intro to Social Change. When I took over the curriculum, which given the title was about the process of creating social change, there wasn’t one reading featuring an author of color. There was one lesson during the term that focused on race, power, and privilege. I don’t say that as a critique of Portland State. Tania Mitchell, a scholar on community-engaged learning at the University of Minnesota, did a pilot study of fifty four-year institutions and reviewed the syllabi from dozens of service-learning courses and found only 17% had even the most cursory discussions of race and racism.
It isn’t a coincidence that there isn’t a long history of teaching, as central to every course, how race and racism impacts our understanding of the world. The blindness to racism is a function of higher education which was created in this country to educate the children of wealthy colonial industrialists to become leaders of the economy, an economy at the time based on and driven by the ownership, exploitation, and abuse of black and indigenous people (for a much deeper dive into this topic a highly recommend Ebony & Ivy by Craig Steven Wilder). Higher education was not created to teach us to think critically about race and racism in fact just the opposite it was born out of a need to justify and perpetuate racism by creating new knowledge that shifted our consciousness so we could see our fellow brothers and sisters as nothing more than raw resources to fuel our industrial machine. With this history, we should expect to need to rethink higher education and its role in helping students think critically about race and the role that systemic racism plays in all areas of scholarship.
In my class, what that looked like was I rewrote that curriculum and we grounded the course in personal identity, the history of whiteness and oppression in our country as well as the writings and stories of organizers who were black, latinx, indigenous, Asian pacific islander, queer and feminist. We incorporated meditation, we set community agreements, and every class session worked in small teams at some point.
Our class was on Tuesday and Thursday so I saw them the day of the election and two days after. We engaged in dialogue on Thursday after the election about what this meant for them. One young woman, bright and motivated but generally quiet in class spoke up already almost in tears. She moved here from the South as a black woman hoping to escape the racism she experienced. Wednesday morning after the election, on campus- in downtown Portland, walking to class, a young white man rode past her on a bike and shouted “go back to Africa” The immediate shock, pain, and fear she felt is understandable and also something no student should ever have to feel. I am sure no one here agrees with the young man on the bike. What he said is repugnant AND as educators, administrators, students, and community members we allow that to happen when we don’t come together and demand that we directly address the racial inequities we see. Multi-dimensionality. We must be able to hold these both together otherwise Our silence is complicity. We have to practice multi-dimensionality- know that we are good people AND allow bad things to happen; we hate racism AND are complicit in systemic oppression. We don’t need to hold these competing truths to give us a pass on working to end racism but to build up our capacity to sit in difficult conversations about race. To not react to critical feedback about oppressive actions on campus with a demand to present the feedback in more appropriate ways. We need to be able to hear hard feedback and say yes I see your truth even if it isn’t mine and mean it when we say let's work on it together. We need to hold both in order to connect the single hand to the rest of the body. We hold both to foster belonging.
My student isn't alone. Campus climate surveys, student protests, social media and our own experiences show us that many students (and faculty and staff) feel isolated on campus. They feel targeted and lack a sense of belonging.
Over the past 3 years 12 institutions have joined us in the Executive Learning Series on Equity & Empowerment. Co-facilitated by myself and my dearest colleague and sister Sonali Sangeeta Balajee, this year-long monthly series has helped 84 higher education professionals, including 11 Presidents to learn more deeply about racial justice, equity and how to change practice on campus to improve outcomes for students of color. It’s a good start. It has made great conference presentations at regional and national conferences. I could stop here and pat ourselves on the back, but we aren’t going to train our way out of this problem. It’s a good beginning, but for it to grow it needs continued care. There needs to be action.
So in the 2017-2018 school year we plan to expand ELSEE into our REACH initiative. I am excited to announce that we plan to support the creation of up to four Equity Action Teams- made up of faculty, staff, administrators, students, and community members from 2-yr, 4-yr, public and private institutions, committed to creating change on a specific focus area related to educational inequity. We hope these teams will work to develop specific recommendations both policy and practice which we can promote and advocate for. You actually get to participate right now. Click here and highlight your top 3 choices for topic areas and if you are willing to participate on the action team share your contact information. We will be holding orientation trainings, primers on the equity lens we use, in September and October around the State hosted in Eastern and Southern Oregon, the Mid-Willamette Valley and Portland. Members of the past ELSEE cohorts and anyone attending the orientation trainings will be welcome to join the Equity Action Teams. Next year at our REACH Luncheon we commit to reporting on the efforts of the action teams as well as the 3rd cohort of the ELSEE (currently accepting applications).
You see we can’t do this alone. Just as there is no such thing as a Single Hand there is no Campus Compact without our campuses and our compact- our agreement to work together for the public good. It is an honor to do this work with you to achieve Racial Equity Across College & High School!