When the System Fails Us, Let’s Not Fail Each Other

Evelyn Carter, PhD
Dr. Evelyn Carter
Articles

Have you ever had that experience where a book, movie, or television show completely changed your perspective or unlocked something you didn’t know? I certainly have. And so, it seems, did writer Chris Hicks, who recently shared that he learned about the Tulsa massacre on Black Wall Street from the series Watchmen, and of Partition — the 1947 division of India — from the new show Ms. Marvel. Hicks noted, “It’s sad and a little embarrassing that television had to fill in for the shortcomings of my history textbooks.” Despite that admission, many replies were unforgiving: people seemed divided on whether it was more egregious that he hadn’t learned about Tulsa or about Partition, and suggested that “a critical person” who is “an adult who writes for a living” should have read more books. 

As someone who’s often marveled at how little I learned in my formal education, I regularly celebrate the increased diversity of stories told through entertainment. Indeed, I also didn’t know about the Tulsa massacre until watching Watchmen, and I have my niece to thank for recently introducing me to Ms. Marvel and Partition. I’m hard-pressed to believe that all those piling on Chris Hicks have that much more robust historical knowledge than he does. We are all undereducated when it comes to history, because history is often sugar-coated in favor of the victors. When we’re young, U.S. history is a White-washed “hero story” of how the early settlers left Britain behind and forged a home in a new land: the decimation of the Indigneous tribes already here, or how the nation was built on the backs of enslaved Africans, are a footnote many don’t learn about until high school (if at all). The lack of knowledge that many adults have about history, and history’s connection to the present, is a feature, not a bug, of our society. And, if the spate of anti-Critical Race Theory bills like Florida’s Stop WOKE act are successful, that ignorance will remain.

Admitting to what you don’t know is hard. In fact, it goes against our fundamental human desires  to be liked and to be accurate. Which is why when people share their learning moments, it’s important to resist the urge to shame or ridicule them. Instead, see it as an opportunity to create community. To say “I once was in your shoes, I get it. Keep learning!” I had an opportunity to extend this grace recently. During the first day of improv class, my instructor asked all the students to introduce themselves with their names, pronouns, and how long they’ve been practicing improv. One of my classmates, an older woman, became kind of flustered when she introduced herself. She didn’t understand what sharing your pronouns meant, and after hearing the explanation she said “Oh! Well…can’t you tell?” I started to roll my eyes until I paused and remembered my first introduction to pronouns. In 2016, I was working with a group of undergraduates, and did a similar round-robin of introductions. I asked folks to share their name, year in school, and major. One of the students asked if everyone could share pronouns as well. This was new to me, and I was embarrassed to admit it. After all, I’m a DEI practitioner. A Ph.D. who studies bias! How did I not know what everyone else in the room seemed to understand as a default expectation? I wish I could say that I executed pronoun intros flawlessly after that, but it actually took a while to really make it a default practice.

In the DEI space, we often talk about this work as a journey. Yet it’s easy to forget what that means in the everyday sense. The journey means that you will encounter people who don’t know what you may think is basic information, whether that’s the dynamics that led to Partition, sharing pronouns, or that women couldn’t get credit cards in the United States until the 1970s. It means that you have to stay humble as you recognize your own awareness gaps (a phrase I’m working on using instead of “blind spots”). It means remembering to get angry at the system that’s keeping everyone undereducated and misinformed, not the individual in front of you who is a product of that system. Above all, the journey means that we all have to be committed to sharing our knowledge with each other, especially when we encounter people who are earnestly trying to do better. Admonishments to simply “read a book” or “get out of your social media bubble” ring hollow in a world where information is vast and algorithms are literally working against us. So get specific. And, if you don’t have the time or energy to help someone on that journey, consider pointing them in the direction of a professional (like me!) who might be able to help.

P.S. In case you’re looking for some good places to start:

  • A book I will always recommend is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi as a fictional, yet very real, representation of what it means to be a descendant of slavery
  • Blair Imani (@blairimani) is a great follow on Instagram. Her “Smarter in Seconds” videos give simple insights into a range of topics.
  • I also recommend following @Imani_Barbarin on Twitter for intersectional perspectives on disability
  • Anil Dash (@anildash on Twitter) shared this resource on South Asians and Desis for those curious about those dynamics

July 21, 2022

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