Let’s Get Uncomfortable
Marinating in the art of unlearning.
Today’s Scripture—A dialogue between Julius Lester and James Baldwin for The New York Times in 1984:
JL: What do you see as the task facing black writers today, regardless of age or generation?
JB: This may sound strange, but I would say to make the question of color obsolete.
JL: And how would a black writer do that?
JB: Well, you ask me a reckless question, I’ll give you a reckless answer — by realizing first of all that the world is not white. And by realizing that the real terror that engulfs the white world now is a visceral terror. I can’t prove this, but I know it. It’s the terror of being described by those they’ve been describing for so long. And that will make the concept of color obsolete. Do you see what I mean?
At the very best I hope to pass on skills for future media makers/writers for people oft neglected to foster a more democratic, accurate dialogue about all the fucked up shit that goes on in Chicago (the world is a bit much). At the very worst, I hope that people who can identify ignorances within my work—unknown to me—are angry enough to make that dialogue better. And I hope you will break that anger down to my face (If you have time—these discussions are unpaid gigs and sometimes you just gotta pick and choose your battles.) But know that I’ll listen and never once utter the phrase “I feel bad.” Because I’ve been on the receiving end of that and choked back screaming “who fucking cares? don’t put your guilt on me,” enough times to know that ain’t right.
I operate daily—navigating a spectrum of spaces—under the assumption that what I don’t know will always outweigh what I do. I know that my whiteness has afforded me the assumption that I have the right to be in aforementioned spaces. I know that having been poor (I escaped, but I cannot say the same for the rest of my family) and the (mostly) blessing that is my crazy mother have instilled in me a critical eye ready to deconstruct, call you out on bullshit and fight for what’s fair (subtly or not-so-subtly).
Understanding how elements of my identity intersect, how I am perceived and how I’ve been trained to respond have been necessary in my process of unlearning (not the business jargon utilized by entrepreneurs but the painful process of trying to be a better human). My youth and I collectively participate in unlearning while deconstructing news and creating our own media. I want the youth I teach to be masters of digital storytelling so that they infiltrate mainstream media to creatively disrupt (there’s the fighting side) these orgs at every step from the production process (what questions are you asking, what sources are you using) to how that media is shared (why not bring user-generated-content into the fold?).
We are in an era of “conditioning ourselves out of listening,” as Ta Nehisi Coates has pointed out, time and again, when it comes to discussing race (as well as gender and class). Truth is, we never quite learned how to talk about these things. That being said, REALIZE, what strength it takes for a person to call you on your racist, or sexist, or classist statement/action. Don’t be defensive. Don’t walk away. Bathe in this uncomfortable moment. This is the unlearning process.
My youth and I regularly engage in this process. We understand that we have to retrain ourselves in the art of listening. We do this by establishing that experience dictates credibility of sources not so much dialect (dressing up what your saying doesn’t mean you’ve walked the walk). And when it comes to interviews—we don’t fear the basic question because we don’t assume things to be true, or more importantly, fair. The goal: we use these basic questions to understand unjust systemic processes. For example, when a youth attempted to facilitate discussion on our Facebook page by asking if a 17-year-old should’ve been charged as an adult in a case that was reported in the Red Eye, she was essentially asking for transparency from the justice system and critical dialogue amongst readers. Once those processes are understood we translate how they play out by humanizing these issues.
All of the above is done within a hyperlocal model (reporting on/from neighborhoods) in order for us to understand how deep discrimination extends within the United States’ most segregated city. At the same time, being hyperlocal allows youth to get checked and, in turn, check officials more authentically. Because like my man Ivan Illich spit in 1968 with such visceral beauty when chiding middle class Americans for exporting our ignorance by doing volunteer work abroad, “It is incredibly unfair for you to impose yourselves on a village where you are so linguistically deaf and dumb that you don’t even understand what you are doing, or what people think of you.”
And I open my youth to check me. To make sure the media we’re making is on point—not a re-entrenchment of unfairness they already know all too well.
So when I sit across from a mid-twenties, white male, who teaches in a neighborhood not far from Englewood as he’s criticizing Chief Keef for perpetuating the stereotype of Chicago as a violent city, I’ve got a lot of questions. “Well he is a teenager, how do your students act?” “What is the responsibility of people who keep giving him money?” “But hasn’t the gun violence been going on for a while?” “What celebrity is truly a good role model?” “Don’t you see him as a rags to riches story?”
And when I’m done asking—scout’s honor I kept my tone in check— he walks away saying he doesn’t want to talk about it. I make no assumptions, unlike he did Keef, as to why he steps out of the room.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”