In microbiology, a culture is the environment, albeit artificial, humans construct to enable the growth of bacteria. A child of a microbiologist, stacks of agar plates lined the walls of my youth. The incubator in the laboratory was its own microbiome — home to species of e.coli, staphylococcus, and streptococcus. I recall the smell of the lab vividly — a pungent infusion of a sallow, occasionally sweet, staleness backlit by vacant fluorescent hospital lights, always perfumed with my mom’s Giorgio Beverly Hills Red. (It was the 90s.)
The process of bacterial growth provides useful analogs for developing a deeper understanding of how our own culture has come to be and continues to evolve. First, bacterial cultures require certain media. Staphylococcus is differentiated in a salt agar. Haemophilus sp thrives in chocolate agar. Different nutrients are used to promote and promulgate the growth of particular species. Second, the environmental conditions must be optimized for peak growth. Temperature, pH, humidity, and oxygen levels are all levers microbiologists pull to create the ideal growth conditions for each species. Simulations at heart, these environments are controlled, bounded, and designed for a certain outcome — to optimize for the growth of a particular species of bacteria.
This makes me wonder then, what is our medium?
Our medium — what feeds our culture and encourages it growth — are ideas. These ideas are not the offspring of spontaneous generation. They are the progeny of history. They act as governors on our relationships. These ideas manifest in our work and in our being. These ideas give us explicit and implicit directions on the very connections that define our humanity.
It also makes me wonder then, what are the environmental levers we can pull? And what outcome those levers are designed to produce?
To optimize the environment for each of the 100,000 different species of bacteria we need to adjust key variables — changing things like the temperature, pH, and oxygen levels. As humans, we think this is also true for us. It is not. While there are close to 7 billion humans, we are just one species, and we need the same core elements to thrive. Yet, we continue to work to separate ourselves from each other. We can use our language, our practices, and our relationships with each other to create a universal sense of belonging.
Unfortunately, the ideas that we scaled the best and optimized for growth are the very ideas that damage our relationships with each other. They design our geospatial relationships — our cities, neighborhoods, and enclaves. Constructors of our most intimate friendships, they arbitrate marital fitness — meting and doling out who is fit and unfit for human relationship and connection. They till the soils of isolation creating the fuel and the rhetoric to justify the inclusion of some and the exclusion of others. Their lethal power lies in their ability to judge wholeness and humanity through relationships of subjugation and hierarchy. These ideas normalize emotional, physical, and spiritual distance. Oppression, the mistreatment of other people at scale, then, is the outcome these ideas are designed to produce.
This oppression is often hard to see and name for two reasons. First, the engagement of these ideas often generates feelings of deep hurt, vulnerability, and humiliation. These feelings silence us. Second, these ideas are often disregarded or denied by those who hold significant power, privilege, and position.
We believe that it is important to name the these ideas to denature their catalytic power.
These are 10 ideas that fuel oppression:
Idea 1: lighter skinned people deserve more love, power, affection, wealth, grace, and dignity than darker skinned people
Idea 2: males are smarter, more trustworthy, better leaders, more responsible, stronger, and more honest than females
Idea 3: richer people are smarter, more trustworthy, more responsible, and deserve more aspiration and grace than poorer people
Idea 4: christians are more trustworthy, righteous, and more justified in their violence than non-christians
Idea 5: heterosexuals are more natural and deserving of love, dignity, humanity, and companionship than lesbians, gays, and bisexuals
Idea 6: cisgender people are more natural, deserving of love, companionship, dignity, and humanity than transgender people
Idea 7: english speakers with dominant culture accents are more intelligent than non english speakers or those with different accents
Idea 8:people who are differently abled (physically and mentally) are less intelligent than able bodied people
Idea 9:young adults are seen as smarter, more creative, more energetic, and more employable than older adults, teens, and children
Idea 10: adults with college degrees are smarter than adults without college degrees
These ideas fuel oppression by making it easy for us to create physical, emotional, and spiritual distance from each other. The magnitude of this mistreatment is evident in the experiences of the most marginalized — those who when positioned in the hierarchies of our social relationships always assume a bottomed, subjugated position. Consider the life chances of a non Christian, differently abled, dark skin transgender woman of color without a college degree who does not speak English. With 2017 being a record breaking year for deadliest violence against transgender women, it is no wonder why we have to scream black lives matter. We have to cry out that trans lives matter.
The +1 Stability Clause
The stability clause is perhaps the most dangerous of these ideas. It asserts that these ideas will not change and will continue to govern our relationships in the present and for future generations. The stability clause is guilty of the most imperfect crime — the theft of power, agency, and hope.
Humans have a symbiotic relationship with bacteria. An ever-evolving symbiosis, millions of the digestive bacteria of our ancestors were first unemployed and then extinct. Shifts in our diet reduce the need for some species to exist. We changed our behavior. Bacteria became extinct.
Our cultural media bounds our current relationships with other people. We must develop the courage to expand our imagination to envision a world where these ideas, like the bacteria, become extinct. We must change our behavior. How do we name the ideas when we see them? How do we create a space for repair and reconciliation? How do we move towards true liberation from these ideas? When we imagine and work towards the state of their extinction, we will have transcended the need for social constructs. We will be humanity unbound.
Caroline Hill is a lover of all things lit, righteous, and good. She is co-author of the equityXdesign framework and leads school creation and transformation work in Washington, D.C.
The equityXdesign process is a labor of love created by Caroline Hill from 228 Accelerator, Michelle Molitor from The Equity Lab, & Christine Ortiz from Equity Meets Design. If you like this piece, please hit the heart below so others can see it as well.
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