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Some Thoughts on Responsibility in 2021

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

Manifestations of bias surround us, whether noticed or unnoticed. This blog space will capture what is on my mind – what I’m observing and hope to put more front and center in the reader’s mind - and will be encouragements and examples for interrogating more and a little deeper.

I’m putting this website and these thoughts into the atmosphere at a time in which many feel the ground shaking, while I'm focused on the voices who remind us that we’ve been in this earthquake for a long time. President(-elect) Biden and other political leaders rushed to declare that the insurrection at the Capitol is not America; but, sadly, it is America.

The Chronicle of Higher Education published two articles on January 8 pointing to how universities have not done enough in the last four years to combat what culminated in the Capitol Building on January 6. While they make statements that denounce, some scholars argue that statements, removal of statues, and changing the names of buildings are only examples of symbolic change. It’s not that symbolic change isn’t important; it’s that our systems must undergo more radically transformative structural change if we are to ever unmake all of the ways in which racism and inequity continue to disrupt real progress.

A particular pet peeve I have about the plethora of statements corporations, universities, and other types of organizations make in response to racism and white violence is the way in which they tend to “denounce” it all as external to themselves. This is often without enough of a pause to consider how we are each responsible for unlearning, unmaking, and taking action steps toward undoing the effects of white supremacy. In my ruminations, I’m drawn to an argument between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead.

In 1970, Baldwin and Mead had a seven-and-a-half hours long conversation about race, which was recorded, transcribed, and made into an LP. During this conversation, they discussed the difference between guilt and responsibility. I’ve been considering my own responsibility as well as the responsibilities of communities, institutions, parents, educators, and society in confronting the forms of hatred and misplaced resentment that led to the violence that unfolded on January 6.

Mead argued with Baldwin that she was not responsible nor was he for any violence he himself did not commit. Baldwin, Mead reminded him, was working with civil rights leaders in the 1960s, so how could he be responsible for the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama where four little girls – Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair – lost their lives? Baldwin insisted that because he didn’t stop it he was responsible and so was Mead. He reminded her that this bombing was the Republic’s response to the “I Have a Dream” speech that Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered only a few weeks prior. Mead continued to maintain, through her own white liberal exceptionalism, that she was a good person and would not take responsibility for any bad things happening anywhere in the world. The conversation continued with each scholar standing their ground. I remain haunted and moved by Baldwin’s convictions and Mead’s inability to absorb the philosophical and civic weight of what Baldwin was trying to convey.

During a pre-pandemic visit last year to Central High School, where in 1957 nine Black students were the first to integrate schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, I found myself drawn to a book by David Margolick. Much of the book focused on the attempted reconciliation between Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock 9, and Hazel Massery, a white teenager who, through photographs of her yelling horrible things at Elizabeth that day, became symbolic of the racism that stood in the way of full integration in the South.

According to Margolick’s book, the continued harassment and threats Elizabeth experienced that school year traumatized her for the rest of her life. Hazel, on the other hand, felt remorse upon seeing the photo but didn’t apologize to Elizabeth until a few years later. At different points in her life, Hazel worked to unlearn the racism and white supremacist ideologies that were part of the air she breathed growing up in her nearly all white, segregated community, which is not unlike the ways in which we remain segregated today. While the photo follows Hazel in an obvious negative light, she was not as impacted by the events of that day and subsequent days.

I’ve been meditating on these women’s lives the last several weeks – much like I’ve been meditating on Baldwin’s notions of responsibility. Did Hazel’s educators, parents, school, or church see themselves in this photo and take responsibility for what happened in September 1957 as well as the trajectory of these two women’s lives? Or did they decide that because they were good people they needed to denounce and distance themselves from Hazel? Did they neglect to understand the violence and inequities that Elizabeth would continue to face?

As I face a new year filled with old and new challenges, I reckon with the ways I can help myself and others accept our collective responsibility toward racial, ancestral, and community healing. Responsibility for racial and additional, intersecting forms of inequality is a heavy yet critical thing to consider. But I won’t do it with guilt; I will sit with it and continuously remind myself that the violence of January 6 was not a singular, unprecedented act nor was it something that more of us can’t work to prevent in the future.

Taking responsibility is a positive step toward progress that I can commit to each day. Will you?

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