The Power of One. I’m used to hearing this phrase and it is always uplifting and full of spirit and joy. Yet, it never seems complete or whole. It’s like a fairytale we all buy into because it provides a sense of security and sometimes an unreal amount of courage. It requires individuals to stand up and act against a system typically by themselves. It is quite scary. Many of us have seen the The Power of One video on YouTube, where it illustrates several historical examples of people doing amazing things, generally alone. A man standing in front of a tractor to protect his home located in the Amazon, Mother Teresa traveling the world caring for the forgotten and invisible people, and a young woman protecting the African Mountain Gorilla from poaching. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that it is a courageous way to live your life, however, we very rarely speak on the challenges of being the only one. Just how difficult is it to speak up in a group of peers when you have a differing opinion? How challenging it can be to confront a racist remark or sexist joke amongst friends and in public? If we are going to ask our students to think critically, let’s do the same in regards to this emotionally charged phrase. The Power of One, speak up, confront what is right, often becomes the expectation we set for the students we help develop. Colleagues, we have work to do as well.
I was sitting in a public forum in which a candidate was interviewing for an upper level position at my institution. The candidate spoke about the undergraduate experience, but never mentioned students of color, first generation students, or students from low socio-economic backgrounds. I was puzzled, but not surprised. I looked around the room to observe body language or any physical or emotional reactions to the presentation; I saw none. When we reached the question and answer portion, I wanted to ask a question, but I fought it. Here is what the inner battles sounded like in my head:
Cody: Ask the question!
Cody: What is the question to be asked?
Cody: I’m not sure; perhaps tell him about the program you oversee; an academic retention based program specifically geared to students of color, first generation, and students from small towns. Any student that would have issues transitioning into a large predominantly white institution. Ask him how this program fits into the undergraduate experience.
Cody: No, no. Don’t do that. The question does not need to be leading. You’ll get more information if you ask a broader question and let him explore and give you the details.
Cody: Well go on, ask the question!
Cody: Hold on, I’m waiting for the right time.
Cody: The time is now….
Cody: What does it look like that I’m asking the question? A man, a black man, a black gay man, a black gay man working in the Office of Multicultural Affairs? Why should I have to ask this question? Aren’t my colleagues thinking about this?
Cody: You’re being too sensitive. It’s not that serious, but how about you wait a little and see if the question is asked.
Cody: That’s a good idea. I’ll wait a little.
Cody: Only 2 more minutes of question asking. Now is the time if it’s going to happen.
Cody: Dang, am I going to be that guy to the rest of my colleagues? Always thinking about race and class issues?
Cody: Last shot!
I had sweaty palms and my heart began to beat faster and faster. I then asked the question, uncertain of what would come out of my mouth until I started to speak.
Cody: How do you plan on collaborating or creating an effective partnership with the Office of Diversity and Equity?
I blanked out for a bit as he answered the question. I know that he mentioned something about connecting students to their ancestry. Generally, I associate that word with slavery and oppression, so I stopped listening attentively. It was obvious that this was not a question that he planned for or did any institutional research to answer. I was disappointed and self talk crept in again.
Cody: Oh geesh, am I now THAT guy? Can I be disappointed that none of my colleagues spoke up or even knew that this was a question that needed to be asked? Smh….
I am happy that I spoke up, but what were the costs? Fear of not being heard, fear of how I would be received by the candidate and colleagues in the room, frustrated that I was the only one thinking that parts of this presentation illustrated exclusive thinking, feeling like the only one that felt compelled to speak, upset that the question had to be asked in the first place. This is the power of one, truly being the only one. I would like to emphasize that this is not exclusive to my institution. This scenario is playing out at the grocery store, the weekly book club, conversations with friends and family, and most institutions across the nation. Often, we choose not to speak up. Speaking up is taking a risk of being an outlier and being judge for it. Or having someone treat us differently or unfairly because of a position that we took on an issue. Perhaps it means not being asked to be on a search committee or invited to after hour cocktails. This backlash can show up in many ways. However, I believe that we mostly do not use our voice because we lack awareness that something needs to be said. We are blinded by our privilege. Our whiteness, faith, gender, ability, and age allow us not to see the exclusive communities that we create and collude in. It allows the situation above to occur. Moments when people of color are feeling isolated, invisible, and alone in a room created for institutional whiteness. Moments where students that identify as non-majority are not being advocated for in settings full of well-intentioned people.
Let’s explore. How often are we sitting in our own privilege? Not recognizing when our white dominance is taking over? When our maleness decides to rear its big head. Or, how we consistently ignore our abled-bodied privilege? Are we leading our organizations through these privileged lenses? Who are we leaving out? How many people feel as if they do not matter within our organizations? How often are we creating this Power of One scenario? We have to do better. We have to do our self-work. Self-work is exploring all of your identities and understanding how they allow you to engage the world. Self-work is critiquing those identities and acknowledging which ones provides you privilege and an easier journey through life. For some of us we have yet to recognize that self-work is actually needed. This self work plus action is social justice.
Well-intentioned people, you are making the lives of students and colleagues more difficult by refusing to experience the world outside of your privilege. We have to be able to enter career counseling and academic advising conversations recognizing that most of the unspoken is rooted in issues of gender, class, and race [and other identities]. We have to know that if the oppressed groups are the only people speaking up that it is not without fear or frustration. We have to know that sometimes, the message falls on indifferent ears. Your privileged voice matters, however you have to embrace the oppressed realities of others to know that your voice is necessary. Often times, the privileged voice is the only voice that is heard.
- Even before we get to the privilege piece, connect with the fear of being the only one to speak up
- Become more aware of your privileged self by challenging your privileged identities
- Use your voice in conjunction with acknowledging your privilege
- Help to create more inclusive atmospheres that allow differing thoughts and experiences to be shared
Become aware, create space for the oppressed identities, and continue to do your own self-work.
Facebook: Cody Charles