Category Archives: Identity

The Ephemeral Nature of “Leadership”

It is encouraging to see increasing numbers of people from previously underrepresented groups being selected as leaders of colleges and universities.

However, if they feel empowered by the title of leader, they must beware of the trap. Though it has a long history behind it, leadership is a false concept and there are no algorithms for it.

Leadership is ephemeral. It motivates on the one hand and mocks on the other. It’s like a specter. No matter how much one studies and searches for it, it will not materialize. Ghost-like, it floats in front of one’s eyes urging a chase.  

As ubiquitous and as powerful as the idea of leadership is, my wish for these new leaders is that they will experience the incredible lightness of knowing that leadership should never be an end in itself.

Who We Are

When a dear and trusted friend who has been super cautious regarding COVID said that she would risk dying to see this film, I decided that I had to see it as well.

Who We Are movie poster with Black man looking at American flag

Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in Americais a documentary written and told by Jeffrey Robinson and directed by Emily and Sarah Kunstler.

Without hyperbole, Robinson makes the case that since Africans were brought to the shores of the Americas, there have been conscious and deliberate efforts to keep people with black skin enslaved in one way or another.

The film uses a graphic to show what continues to occur. A small ball climbs slowly up one side of a curve and when it reaches the very top of the curve, instead of continuing to move forward, it slides back down the curve to where it began. Though I don’t know much about physics, I think that the climb up to the top of the curve was slow and hard, but the descent, with the force of gravity, was swift and strong.

Though disappointed that more people didn’t choose to see this documentary with the word “racism” in the title, I was glad that I was the only person in the theater, alone with my feelings. I left the theater thinking that the nature and culture of our country is the same old song. Some of the lyrics are re-arranged, but the chorus stays the same.

In Spite of It All

If you were asked to describe yourself—regardless of the circumstances or situations—as generally optimistic or pessimistic, what would be your honest assessment? Would your personal emoji be the upturned or downturned smile? When you’re shown the glass with water, is it half full or half empty?

Asked if she was an optimist, Stacey Abrams, responded, “No I’m an amelliorist which is something I made up. I believe that the glass is half full. It’s just probably poisoned. And so my job is always to be on the hunt for the antidote” (“The Story Behind Stacey Abrams’s Fiction Career,” The Atlantic, June 2021).

The idea of being an amelliorist has stuck with me. Would an amelliorist be…

  • one who, in spite of having been betrayed, dares to trust again?
  • one who has seen and experienced injustice and in spite of it continues to fight for justice?
  • one who sees that nothing has changed and in spite of it continues to hope that things will change?
  • one who exhibits a spiritual strength that inspires and unites in spite of the emotional toll?
  • one who, in spite of having one’s own hopes dashed, shares a sense of hopefulness with and for others?
  • one who finds something to learn in spite of the worst of circumstances?

Am I an amelliorist? The mnemonic FIRE that defines my life’s values begins with two words for the letter “F.” Faith and Fate.

Fate has caused me to experience situations that I would rather have avoided, and in spite of it, I have had faith that I will get to the other side of whatever uncomfortable circumstance I’m currently experiencing. Fate makes me understand that life is a crapshoot; sometimes I get the poisoned water but, through my faith, magical thinking, or divine intervention, I’m not thirsty and don’t have to drink the poisoned water. 

Or fate has found me in a situation where quenching my thirst with this particular half glass of water is my only option for survival. In spite of the threat of death, I drink the poisoned water and because of my faith, the poison has no negative effect on me.

As one calendar year ends and another begins for optimists and pessimists (and amelliorists) alike, perhaps this is the optimum time to be mindful of our individual and collective efforts to search for a synthesis of our optimistic and pessimistic selves in order to discover and maintain the equilibrium necessary for us to find meaning and purpose in our lives in spite of external circumstances over which we have no control.

All My Sisters and Me

In March 1992, my Black sisters and I were in San Antonio attending the annual conference of a professional women’s organization. Historically, the organization’s membership had been virtually all White, except for a couple of notable Black women who were the best in their field. By 1992, our coterie of Black sisters had increased to a small minority with some status.

During a free afternoon, five of my sisters and I decided to shop for pottery and jewelry while enjoying the sights along the River Walk. 

Not too far from the hotel, we encountered an Asian American colleague who was usually in solidarity with us because the same issues and concerns Black members raised also plagued other nonmajority members. The number of Asian American and Pacific Islander women in this organization could be counted on one hand.

My sisters and I greeted our colleague warmly and we embraced all around. A fellow member of the program committee, I asked if she knew what time the meeting was that evening. Expressing dismay that I didn’t get the notice, she let me know it was to be at 7:30 p.m. After more hugs, she moved on. 

Now knowing the time of the committee meeting, I suggested to my sisters that we get something to eat while we were out during the afternoon so I could eat with them.

We continued to meander down the River Walk, stopping to look in shops along the way. In one of the shops, “Diva” expresses great admiration and interest in a lovely bracelet. I encouraged her to buy it, going so far as to ask the clerk if he would give her a discount because she really liked the bracelet. He agreed to give the discount and she bought the bracelet. I felt happy for her, and I’m sure I beamed with satisfaction.

As we continued our shopping, it seemed that Diva was determined that I also buy something, no matter what it was. Eventually, I became annoyed. My motive in encouraging her to buy came from a good place. I did not feel that her motive was the same.   

Sometime after I had suggested that we eat while we were out, a couple of my sisters began making comments such as, “Gwen is hungry, so we better get something to eat.” I was accustomed to the teasing, so their comments didn’t bother me.

We chose a Thai restaurant. During the latter part of what was an amiable dinner, Diva, who was new in the organization, apparently feeling comfortable with us, said that she felt unwelcome when she first joined, feeling that the organization was “cliquish.”

“Elegant “responded in a friendly tone, “I was friendly with you.” I followed up her comment with, “I also befriended you. Do you remember that I invited you to lunch?”

Diva responded in a less than friendly tone, “Yeah, but that was business.”

Taken aback, I mused, “I thought I was being friendly; how did you get the idea that it was business?”

Two of my sisters said nothing and just stared as “Admiral” and Elegant tried to convince Diva that things were not as she perceived them. When I sensed that Diva felt strongly about her initial feelings and seemed to want to be able to express them and be heard, I wanted us to empathize with her and give her experience the respect it deserved.

Sage that I must have thought I was, I said, “You know, Diva, you really might have felt a chilliness toward you because it’s not uncommon for people as strikingly attractive as you are to cause some people, perhaps unconsciously, to wait and see before they extend a welcome and acceptance.”

Diva’s lips turned down and her eyes seemed to float out of their sockets as she responded, “Yes! I’ve experienced this before, and I think people who put themselves up as important and as ‘sisters’ are just hypocrites because they usually do this kind of thing.”

I had apparently touched a nerve. I tried to close this box of snakes that I had opened, saying, “People are human, and this can be a natural and unconscious reaction….,” but Admiral cut me off, declaring, “This is not true in this group. Maybe when males are in the group, the competition is there but not in this group of women professionals.”

The mood definitely changed, and I could smell the stink of anger in the air. 

When we are outside the restaurant, Admiral got in my face, saying, “Gwen, I can’t believe you said that!” “How can you think that?” I’m a part of this organization and I know this is not true.”

I felt apologetic and tried to explain that I was just trying to make Diva feel better. Admiral cut her eyes away from me and walked ahead with Elegant. From their postures and movements, I gathered that they were talking about me and rejecting me for my comment.

In the meantime, Diva fell in step with me, saying, “I believe what you said, and I want to talk with you further about this.” Not wanting to keep this line of conversation going, I escaped from Diva and began walking in step with the silent sisters. Diva kept talking with anyone who came near her. My other four sisters got very interested in the pottery we passed along the way, ignoring what Diva was saying.

I deliberately walked next to Admiral and said, “I know you want to kill me for making that comment, but when you think about human behavior, what I said could be a possible motive for the chilliness that Diva felt. Jealousy and envy are real.”

“I’m not going to kill you,” responded Admiral, “but you have so much going for you—you have this nice little shape, shapely legs…. You don’t have any reason to feel as you do.”

“I’m not feeling that way!” I protested. “I’m speaking generally!”

Admiral ignored my comment and told me that I wouldn’t be late for my meeting because we’re only a couple of blocks away. I had no idea how to get back, and told her so, but she only said, “It’s easy,” and turned away. 

No one said goodbye to me. With a sigh of exasperation, I began my search for the right direction to return to the hotel for the 7:30 p.m. program committee meeting.

Mixed Emotions

Zaila Avant-garde holding national spelling bee trophy with confetti coming down

I wasn’t surprised by my mixed emotions, several weeks ago, when headline after headline and several television stations were hailing the accomplishments of Zaila Avant-garde, the first African American champion of the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee. My feelings were complicated to say the least:

  • Elation for Zaila and her family and what this means for her future.
  • Collective pride, along with other Black Americans, that her hard work was rewarded.
  • Shame that the screaming headlines that highlighted the fact that Zaila is Black may cause some to draw the illogical conclusion that what Zaila did was extraordinary because Black Americans don’t usually have the intellectual capacity for such a feat.
  • Resentment that the United States is still recognizing “the first” among Black Americans.
  • Anger because “until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Black children were routinely banned from participating in spelling bees. All winners were White until Puerto Rican Hugh Tosteson Garcia was named champion in 1975.” (Shalini Shankar, “Zaila Avant-garde’s Spelling Bee win sends exuberant message,” Opinion, CNN online, July 9, 2021)
  • Disheartened that “Indian American winners who have steadily won since 1998 have endured a litany of racism on broadcast and social media for not being ‘American’—code for not being White. Seen by many as outsiders, and as part of communities subjected to waves of anti-Asian violence, they are left to make sense of negative reactions to their success in the form of calls for ‘real Americans’ to regain control of this contest.” (Shankar, “Zaila Avant-garde’s Spelling Bee”)

Despite my mixed emotions, I’m glad that Zaila received so much attention because her success will alert other families and their children that they, too, can have the kind of success that Zaila, the scholar-athlete, has achieved.

Clothes: Uplift and Downer

Luevinia, Altoria, and Vidella were my best friends in the sixth grade at Melrose School in Memphis.

The scene was on the playground at recess after lunch. I won’t go into the pretend marriage between a boy I liked and myself, but it was on this occasion that my three friends—who were getting me ready for the pretend wedding—decided that the clothes that I was wearing were just “too ugly” for the “wedding.”

Vidella decided to lend me her pink sweater to cover up what I was wearing. I had never had such a soft lovely piece of clothing that I could remember. I felt beautiful in the sweater. The photo that resulted showed me posing as if I were a movie star, with head thrown back to highlight the grin on my face and one hand behind my head for good measure.

Another photo that reminds me of how clothes can be an uplift or a downer was taken when I was fourteen. Although I had moved to live with my mother in Chicago two years earlier, my brother had stayed with my dad. So, on the occasion of my brother’s seventh birthday, my mother and I traveled back to Memphis. 

The birthday party was something of a reunion, in that the kids I had played with when I lived in that neighborhood were there. My living in Chicago would have been something to increase my status among the kids if it had not been for what I was wearing.

Cute shorts and tops with sandals were the expected standard for the girls. Why, then, was I wearing my one-piece green gym suit from school with the elastic waist and elastic mid-thigh? I had no cute shorts and tops. The gym suit was my only option to keep cool in the heat of August in Memphis. Needless to say, I tried to stay out of sight as much as possible.

During the time when I was applying to colleges, my mother was losing jobs. She told me that there was no money to pay for my senior pictures. Understanding the situation, I told her that I would take the pictures and, if there was money when it was time to pay for the pictures, we would buy them.

The instructions for the photos was that the girls were to wear a black sweater and white pearls. My only sweater was a drab, olive-green, nubby-like sweater that looked as if it needed a clothes shaver. It was totally wrong for the picture. I didn’t have pearls either. My mother had some gold-painted beads that I paired with the ugly sweater.

When it was time to buy the pictures, my mother had the needed money. It was later that I found out that she had pawned the treasured wedding rings that my stepfather had given her in order to have the money for my senior pictures. With new eyes, I not only felt bad that she had pawned the rings; I felt even worse than bad because I had complained about not having a black sweater and white pearls.

Clothing, Confidence, and ‘ccomplishment

Clothes don’t make the person.
It’s not what you wear it’s who you are.

My mother’s parents probably used similar words and sentiments when she asked for new clothes.

My mother and a boy named Wesley Lee were the only students in the school that the teachers thought were ready to take the exams required to graduate from the eighth grade. The exams were given at the Sunflower County Seat in Mississippi (M-i-crooked letter-crooked letter-i-crooked letter-crooked letter-i-humpback-humpback-i) rather than at the school.

This trip was a very special occasion and a testament to the accomplishments of these students.   My mother’s Aunt Alma (by way of marriage to my mother’s daddy’s brother) promised to get her the white dress and shoes that girl graduates were required to wear. Instead of buying new clothes and shoes, Aunt Alma gave my mother one of her old white dresses that she often wore to church and a pair of her white, old-lady, blocky-heeled shoes. The shoes were so much larger than my mother’s feet that she had to wear them with socks instead of nylons.

My mother was so embarrassed about how she looked in Aunt Alma’s clothes that, for the first time that she could remember, she was nervous and scared. Thinking about how awful she looked caused her baking soda deodorant to stop working. She could smell her sweaty underarms and was sure everyone else could too. Although she passed the exams, the memory of the shame about how she looked and felt in those clothes lasted.

Words and sentiments thought to teach and appease get passed down through generations when parents can’t afford or won’t buy their children the clothes they need and want.

I was living with my dad; my mother was living in Chicago. When my dad didn’t buy me clothes, I would write to my mother to ask her to buy me what I wanted or needed.

When all the other kids in fourth and fifth grades were wearing penny loafers, I was still wearing the scuffed white and black Oxford shoes that had been popular in previous years. The really cool kids put a nickel or dime in the slot where the penny was supposed to go. I really wanted penny loafers! I even sent my mother a picture of the shoes in case she didn’t know what they were. I never did wear penny loafers. I didn’t feel that I belonged.

When it was time for school pictures, I wrote my mother to ask her to please send me a new coat. I told her that when I took school pictures the year before, the sleeves on my coat were too short and kids laughed at how I looked. My sleeves were even shorter in the next pictures since I was wearing the same coat. I was ashamed and felt ugly.

Clothes may or may not make the person. Clothes may or may not cause others to prejudge based on what one is wearing. Clothes may or may not have an effect on one’s behavior and level of confidence. However, from my personal experience, how I think about myself in particular clothes impacts my feelings of self-confidence and ultimately how I perform the task at hand. 

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“Old-School Selfie”

“Old-school selfie” one month before the wedding…

If Only She Had Someone To Talk To…

Work and paperwork brought home from the office meant she didn’t get to bed until around midnight most nights. Reeling from exhaustion, she would fall into bed only to have her sleep disturbed by strange dreams. There were only a handful of days in a month that she didn’t wake up with a headache, nausea, backache, and/or stomach pain. Yet, she pushed through the sick feelings to do what was expected at home and at work. During an entire year, she missed only one day of work because of sickness, and she used this as an “opportunity” to catch up on paperwork. If only she had someone to talk to.

She drove herself to do more than required on her job and in her volunteer work. She was like a robot doing what she was programmed to do. But she was not a robot, and her body kept telling her that. If only she had someone to talk to.

Why the struggle? She was a mid-level administrator. From her perspective, being mid-level in the hierarchy of administrators explained the purgatory in which she lived. If only she had someone to talk to.

Though she could see the positive results of her efforts, she was denied a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction because, before the good feelings could register, someone would do or say something that would cause her to push back in anger or retreat into a lonely shell of self-doubt. If only she had someone to talk to.

She could not understand why people resisted doing their jobs. Her attention to this would bring on accusations that she was micromanaging, and that she was managing rather than leading. If only she had someone to talk to.

Whatever staff needed for resources, she fought to get. If they had ideas about how to improve support to students, she was all in. She encouraged innovations and saw more than a few of them become successful. No one could give more to the job than she did. If only she had someone to talk to.

When particularly antagonistic staff began to misquote her and tell her that she had said things that she had not said or—even more mystifying—that they, themselves, had said, she felt incensed. If only she had someone to talk to.

When her mind seemed to be becoming a mess of tangled ends, she began to ruminate on the Joseph Heller quote from Catch 22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” She thought, if only I had someone to talk to, someone who could see in me what I can’t see for myself.

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