As I teach a course in instructional design and technology on culturally inclusive instructional design, I try to model what I teach. This video was made for my grad students in having courageous conversations.
If I asked you to tell me your history, what would you tell me? Would you tell me about your family, growing up, and adventures and misadventures? Or would you go deeper?
In the picture is my great grandmother. I am the blonde-headed kid with my back to her, crying. I’m crying because I do what kids sometimes do you don’t really know the weathered and gnarled hands that hold yours. I didn’t understand then the history of my great grandmother, whose roots go back to the time of the first reconstruction and Jim Crow. Her presence in my early childhood connects my history to hers.
At times, it’s easier to query the past instead of looking at the present. I can approach the past intellectually, and with empathy, yet remain disconnected and woefully unaware of the events that have shaped me. In my activist work and education, I have been preoccupied with rushing into history looking for answers. I have neglected at the events that occurred within my own 60 years, and the lifetime of my parents, my grandparents, and my great grandmother.
I ponder now how the history of which I am connected through my great grandmother has shaped me – a history of white power and privilege, white Christianity, and American exceptionalism. I realize the oppression, kidnapping, enslavement, dehumanization, brutalization, and murder of black and indigenous persons is closer than dates convey.
The history-of-the-way-back-when of the family members new reverberates in my history-of-the-now. I am a child of the 60’s, not the flower power children most associated with that decade, but a literal child born at the beginning of the 60s. My life has been shaped, unknowingly, by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Jr., and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It has been shaped by the declarative racist acts and words of Governor George Wallace of Alabama. It has been shaped by the Black Panthers, Audre Lorde, and Malcom X. All these events have shaped me, whether I was aware of them or not.
The history of racism from beyond the history-of-the-way-back-when is important to know; that is the history of how the capital “C” church encouraged and upheld the capture, kipnapping, enslavement, and murder of black and brown people, and how colonialism supported these acts, enacting these same brutalities on the Indigenous of the land. The history of the way-back-when of my family is equally important, that is Jim Crow and Civil Rights. But if I am to call to my contemporaries to awareness and activism, it is through the history-of-my-now, and the history-of-their-now, to which I must appeal.
We must see through our collective histories – past and present – and use both to disrupt and dismantle systemic racism. We must draw both and find the courage to speak truth in the streets, in the halls of local, state, and federal governments, and in the voting booths.
Those voices of the way-back-when connect me to the first reconstruction. Those voices of my history-of-now connect me to the second reconstruction of the civil rights movement of my childhood. It is my own voice that connects me to a third and sustainable reconstruction.
In the late 60’s of my history-of-the now, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his Poor Peoples Campaign for equality. The Poor Peoples Campaign is alive and well today in a new incarnation of the same name, calling for not only equality, but equity. We can only study so much, learn so much, and talk so much, before we but feet to pavement.
I ask you again, What’s your story? What is your history-of-the-now? And, what will you do with it? How will you join me in making a difference?
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about systems lately. If you think in terms of a thermostat, you set the temperature, the AC or heat kicks on, when the temperature gets to the desired degree, the AC or heat system holds the temperature constant until you manually change (or disrupt) it again. You are external to the AC or heat system, put you participate in its output of cooling or heating. In many ways, this as a way to think about dismantling systemic racism.
Another way to think about it, are cogs in machines. You take one cog out and the system may fall apart or work less efficiently. Sometimes cogs rust, teeth break, or get stuck, and the only way to break them free is to apply some oil and a use wrench, chisel and hammer, or what ever tools you have to remove the cog.
I used to think that dismantling systems requires working within the system to change it. But that is only partially true. Sometimes it takes one person to step outside of the system to to apply the oil and disrupt the system enough so those that participate within the system can change it. In other words, it takes both internal and external work. Internal work may be examining how you see through your own positionality. As a white-skinned cisgendered male, I had to examine how my own colorblindness was itself a racist assumption. As someone who works within many systems such as academia, faith-based, and community systems, I am able to speak into them against systemic racism because others have been brave enough to step out of those systems. Externally, as a white-skinned Queer male, I try to be a visible witness against systemic racism and speak into the white-skinned male supremacist patriarchy in hopes to influence someone to think differently about systemic racism. Realizing that I alone cannot change the world, I may influence someone who has authority and power within the system to change how it operates.
How will you disrupt systemic racism today?
Levine, A. (2013, October 7). Cog [Photograph]. Flickr. (https://flic.kr/p/gt3aLn). CC BY 2.0.
Pete. (2005, June 28). Giant_cog [Photograph]. Flickr. (https://flic.kr/p/2Y7EH). CC BY-SA 2.0
Stcynine. (2008, December 4). Cogs [GIF]. Flickr. (https://flic.kr/p/5GidGv). CC BY 2.0.
I’m Christian. I go to Church. But I do not trust the Christian Church. I’ve got over 40 years of reasons why. The psychological condemnation by the Christian Church I received as a gay man has caused a deep-seated distrust of the institution. But I go to church to worship, not to worry. How does my distrust of an institution relate to the topic of antiracist activism?
It is similar to the reason Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Immigrant persons do not trust the institution of law enforcement. Law enforcement is an institution has publicly and sometimes egregiously harmed, wounded, and killed, persons of color. I have students of color who write about their internal conflict they have experienced when even driving or walking by a police officer. We have seen the brutal killing of black men and women through unreasonable acts of restraint. The institution is rooted in selectively reacting based upon race, we have seen the tepid action of law enforcement in applying disproportionate restraint tactics of the white mob of protestors at our nation’s Capitol. Had the crowd been black, I can almost guarantee the reaction of law enforcement would have been swift, aggressive, and forceful.
This prejudicial and preferential treatment of white community over Black, Brown, and Indigenous community is not new to our nation’s history. It is in our history we find the very reason of this institutional bias that treats light skin better than dark skin. The modern-day police departments, at least the Southern departments, have their beginnings in the slave patrols of the Civil War and during reconstruction (Potter, 2013). It would be easy to dismiss with an “in the past” argument and “not relevant to today”, but the field of epigenetics would suggest otherwise.
The field of epigenetics suggests that generational trauma is passed down up to 14 generations (Singh, 2020).
If we consider a generation to be 35-40 years based on a Google search, then that means that generational, racialized trauma that we are experiencing today may be a result of acts committed against the body Black from 1461. How ironically close that is to the “discovery” of America made permissible by the Church’s Doctrine of Discovery. The doctrine which ultimately led to the institutions of white supremacy through our euro-descended ancestors first, then the enslavement of our African brothers and sisters second, and ultimately to the law enforcement institutions today. Not to say racism is encoded in our DNA, but to say that systemic racism has affected our bodies’ chemistry in a way that is passed down from generation to generation. Black and white trauma at both ends of the racist/antiracist spectrum is the result. The past is not in the past, but is in the present.
Before trust can be placed into the hands of law enforcement, law enforcement must address the truth of their past, admit its failings, and become an institution of change. Police lives do matter, but police are not blue, the institution is blue. Blue lives matter places the institution above the person, an institution founded in racism and that continues to support racial profiling and the arrest and murder non-white persons.
Potter, G. (2013, June 25). The history of policing in the United States, part I. Eastern Kentucky University Police Studies Online. Retrieved January 9, 2021 from https://plsonline.eku.edu/insidelook/history-policing-united-states-part-1
Singh, A. (2020). Building a counseling psychology of liberation: The path behind us, under us, and before us. The Counseling Psychologist 48(8), 1109 – 1130.
wiredforlego. (2020, August 20). No justice, no peace by notsik [Photograph]. Flickr. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/wiredforsound23/50282335652/in/photostream/). CC BY-NC 2.0.
Announcing the Brett H. Cook-Snell Endowed Scholarship Fund, a recognized IRS Tax Exempt 501(c)(3) Public Charity 509(a)(2).
The power of protest and the power of words help in making white people aware of our role in keeping the status quo of systemic racism firmly in place. But you and I know that nothing will change until we back our voices beyond advocacy and into action. Action may be in the form of petitioning school boards to include accurate histories of the experiences of enslaved African Americans, it may be in the form of removing the boundaries of redlining that keep BIPOC individuals entrapped due to systemic racism in politics, and it may be in making educational access more available to persons impacted due to a history that they did not make but have suffered because of white privilege..
This is not my normal post. This is to announce the official formation of The Brett H. Cook Endowed Scholarship Fund as a recognized IRS Tax Exempt 501(c)(3) Public Charity 509(a)(2), and acceptance of the above service mark approved by the U.S Trademark and Patent Office for purposes of fundraising through sale of T-Shirts and Dress-Shirts to fund the scholarship.
Until the endowed scholarship is fully funded and can provide scholarships through accrued interest off the principal, I am making a personal commitment to award a $500.00 Fall Semester Scholarship and a $500.00 Spring Semester Scholarship for applicants who meet the requirements you may read about on the scholarship pages on this site.
I ask you to share this post as widely as possible in order that you may help in funding the education of black, brown, indigenous, and minoritized men and women, and reaching those donors who are able to make this vision happen. It’s time for reparations. Be part of the change. Thank you.
Dr. Brett H. Cook-Snell
I was in line at the grocery store this week and chatting with the cashier. She was a young Black female. She asked about my kilt. I told her I wear a kilt so people would ask me exactly that question and it gave me the opportunity to talk about my antiracist work.
“I am an antiracist, too,” she commented, “I’m against racism”.
To which I replied, “I’m trying to educate white people about their own biases and blinders to issues of race and white privilege. I do antiracist education and facilitation”.
She nodded her approval and then added, “I don’t think Trump is the problem, he didn’t cause racism”.
I must admit, this was the first time I had heard a Black person say something non-negative about Trump. I responded, “Well he didn’t cause racism because its been around for years, but he certainly has contributed to bringing the issue to the forefront because of his racist remarks”.
She changed the topic back to my kilt. Jokingly, I said I had the heritage to wear it because I’m primarily Scottish, Irish, and Welsh descended. To which she replied, “Are you from this country?”
This was the first time I’ve ever been asked this question, too. It made me reflect about all the times I’ve asked Black Americans with accents where they were from or Asian Americans with choppy English the same. It is a practice I no longer do and have refrained from doing ever since I started doing antiracist work. But the fact that someone asked me where I was from based upon appearances was extremely was eye opening.
The question appears harmless at face value, but in fact, it is a microaggression. “Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group” (Sue et al., 2007, p. 273). It is a statement that reflects white privilege by establishing whiteness as the norm, even though, in this case, it was asked by a young Black female. The fact she asked the question may have been due to conversation, age, or many other non-race related issues, but it also reflects how she has been indoctrinated into the system of racist thought that is a product of the imperialism and colonialism of my European descended ancestors. Examples of this microaggression and others along with suggestions on how to ask or not ask a question are presented in an article by Ward and Premack (2020). The link is in the references.
I wonder how my cashier friend would have responded if I told her my full heritage of not only Irish, Welsh, and Scottish, but also German and African … funny, but you don’t look Black.
Cook-Snell, B. (2020). Dr. Cook-Snell wearing a kilt [Photograph] [Previously unpublished].
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.62.4.271
Ward, M., & Premack, R. (2020, July 24). What is a microaggression? 14 things people think are fine to say at work – but are actually racist, sexist, or offensive. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/microaggression-unconscious-bias-at-work-2018-6#where-are-you-actually-from-6
“What do Black People need saving from?”
(asked by a Black seminary professor during a white fragility discussion group that I co-facilitate)
We were talking about DiAngelo’s (2018) analysis of the movie, The Blind Side (Hancock, 2009), in response to a question on white people’s motives when helping Black people. Often, even though white people think our motives are noble and pure, we may actually be operating from a posture of systemic racism. There was much discussion on how can we help Black people and not be seen as racists? It was an honest question from a church group who wanted to act in the way of Christ, and didn’t want that action to be viewed from a position of white beneficence. They did not want to be perceived as trying to “save” a Black or Brown person from racism.
That question rattled around in my brain. “Saving” Black people from themselves is a white supremacist, colonialist and imperialistic concept (García, 2017), directly rooted in chattel slavery. While García (2017) does not support the black/white paradigm of racism because he argues it excludes Mexican American’s [(García’s self-labeling)] and brown skinned persons, the question of the seminary professor hit home, as did García’s comment with regards to “saving”. It struck a chord of truth within my psyche.
Had I been doing antiracist work to save Black people from the effects of racism, or had I been doing this work to expose white people to their systemic racists biases?
I realized I had been doing this from the position of the former, and not the latter. While consciously trying not to be a white messiah of Black deliverance from white racism, I was subconsciously acting as one. This experience continues to remind me how deeply racism is embedded within white culture. It reminds me that even as an antiracist educator, I need to be called out when my racism rears its ugly head.
Since then, I have been grappling with the question of what it means to be an antiracist white person and an antiracist educator. While my answer is not quite congealed into a philosophy of antiracist education, it’s a start.
My antiracist educator role is to expose white minds to the truth of the systemic racism embedded deep within white culture. It is to challenge the status quo of white conservative and liberal minds and transform them into a mindset of active liberation. It is to advocate for change in the policies and practices white culture continues to use to keep Black and BIPOC bodies and minds oppressed. And it is to stand up, stand out, and stand with, all persons fighting for equality.
DiAngelo, R. (2018) White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Beacon Press.
García, R. (2017). Unmaking gringo-centers. The Writing Center Journal 36(1), 29-60.
Hancock, J. L. (Director). (2009). The blind side [Film]. Warner Bros. Pictures.
iStockPhoto.com/kgtoh. (2015). Racial profiling word cloud [Photograph]. © iStock by Getty Images. Used by standard licensing purchase agreement.