In a blog post I wrote last year, I talked about knowing. Because I referenced the pain of losing my mother, I think what got lost is the underlying meaning of knowing the pain of racism.
In the clip above, the Black teammates, Petey and Blue, tell the white one, Sunshine, that they will be met with racism if they attempt to eat in the segregated restaurant. Undeterred, Sunshine announces confidently that because of his presence, they are safe. They enter. And inevitably, they are thrown out. While Sunshine is stunned, Petey is incensed.
Sunshine: I didn’t know, man.
Petey: I told you. Whachu mean you didn’t know?...
Blue, he don’t want to know.
On Being Welcoming
It has been over a year since I attended my first Twitter Math Camp, commonly known as TMC, and over a year when I first began thinking about what I wanted in a math conference here . I remember distinctly being among a crowd of so many who felt so affirmed in that space – the same space that I just did not. My revelation was honest, but it was widely met with surprise. It’s not that I didn’t think the conference was valuable. To be clear, I did get a lot from it, but it was different than the life-changing human experience that others felt. And that was ok. I hadn’t expected otherwise.
Yet, some very well-meaning humans really wanted TMC to be welcoming to those who did not feel welcome. Conversations about diversity were held that weekend at TMC17, and I was a part of some of them. I had one simple question: Why does TMC want to be (racially) diverse? And as many times as I ask it, the answers remain scant and not quite satisfying. (Although my initial thinking was of TMC, it extends to other math conferences and gatherings.)
My sense of belonging goes far beyond being welcomed. When you welcome someone into your home for a weekend visit, you are excited that they are coming. You prepare their sparkling clean guest room with scented soaps, reading materials, and fluffy towels. You may even prepare special delicacies to impress their palettes. And yet, it is still possible to get it wrong. Maybe they are allergic to scented soap, they don’t share your taste in reading material, or need a special diet that you have not considered.
Being a decent human being, you admonish yourself for not thinking of asking what your guest would like beforehand. Of course, this makes sense to you. To make someone comfortable, we should ask what it is that they need to feel comfortable. But as these conversations continued that TMC weekend, there was still something missing.
The answers to why we should be racially diverse often hover most around “because I know it’s the right thing to do”, which just doesn’t cut it. I wanted to ask:
Why is it the right thing to do?
Why do you want me here?
What do you miss by my absence?
All met with silence.
TMC was trying to welcome me, and other educators of color, into their space much like the person in the above example would welcome a guest into their home. As comfortable as you make the guest, it is still your house. And that is the problem.
Instead of asking what type of flowers the guest likes, how about inviting them to co-create the visit with you? Plan the activities, meals, and décor? This is easy if the imagined space always included educators of color, much more difficult if it never did. This is the renewed thinking that I crave. I don’t want to feel welcome in your conference; I want to feel that I belong in ours. I want to feel that I am creating it along with you. Why did you never think to ask me? Why didn’t it feel hollow with my absence?
If you have diversity in your life – among your friends, your neighbors - then it would feel awkward when you don’t have it. You would notice the absence and you would seek it naturally at work, around town, and yes, even at a math conference. Is there diversity in your life? Do you feel my absence in your organization? Our organization?
To co-create is to be on equal footing, to have equal power. Does math belong to all of us or just some of us? Because if it does indeed belong to all of us, then why do some of us get to decide for all of us? If math belongs to all of us, then so do math conferences and math organizations. We should all be there. And if we are not, the absences of those not represented should be felt. Painfully.
Yet, are we in pain? We are not. Pain would demand willingly relinquishing power and privilege because the loss from not experiencing the beauty and knowledge from all voices is too much to bear. Instead, we are content with temporary pain relief through actions that welcome others to our teams and conferences, but stop just short of empowering them to make real decisions. And mathematics continues to suffer.
Returning to the movie clip above, how often do we take the word of people of color when it is in direct conflict with what we know to be true? Let us move beyond saying that we don’t know what to do and move toward truly shared power, equal footing, and concrete plans to get us there. No more studying the problem and experimentation. Let us just commit to sincerely act until we reach the goal.
A space for me to be valued, seen, appreciated, yes, this is what I want. And eventually I’d like that without a special initiative, push, or intention. I want it to be natural, because if I am truly wanted, it would be. I want a space where I don’t have to explain, justify, or convince. This is what I want. It is what I deserve. In the service of children.