Category Archives: Identity

The Excitement and Curiosity of Having “No Plans”

Retirement is one of those events that some look forward to with eager anticipation while others feel sad about the prospect.  Then there are some—like me—who don’t experience either of these thoughts or emotions.

On February 22, 2012, about a month before I officially retired from NASPA, I wrote the following in my journal:

As I get nearer to the final days at NASPA, I feel no sadness. I feel satisfaction and pray that all continues to prosper with the organization.

On March 1, 2012, I wrote:

I don’t think I’m going to miss my role. I just want to keep doing something that is meaningful to move our world forward. I want to add my part, fulfill my purpose, live up to my potential.

These were goals for my life. I had no plans for what I would do in retirement.  

Being without the responsibility of a job and having no reason to get up, to get dressed, and to leave the house would be a little like a free fall. I had to rely on my faith that without these routines and trappings of identity, I would still be able to maintain confidence in myself and optimism about my future.

As I dropped through the space of what could be a professional void, unexpected safety nets and lifelines afforded me a soft landing in the field of retirement after my last day as NASPA Executive Director on March 30, 2012. At the same time as I was consulting, facilitating workshops, and making speeches (see boxed list), I was working on writing projects with 2012 deadlines and organizing and filing a career’s worth of papers and notes at home.

What gave me the energy to follow through on the activities and experiences I had during the year that I “retired” was my excitement and curiosity about the experiment of having “no plans.”

Since this experiment, I’ve stopped making New Year’s resolutions and I’ve begun each year with optimism and “no plans.”

  • 4/15-16: Indiana State University
  • 4/18: Skype with master’s class, DePaul University
  • 4/25: in person with graduate class, University of Maryland, College Park
  • 5/21-29: China on behalf of NASPA
  • 6/4: Taylor University in Indiana
  • 6/19-23: Portland State University
  • 7/9: conference, Los Angeles
  • 7/28: conference, Manhattan
  • 7/30-8/3: University of Vermont
  • 8/16: University of Southern California
  • 8/30-9/1: Evergreen State University
  • 9/17-19: California State University, Fullerton
  • 9/18: Skype with graduate students, Colorado State University
  • 9/19-21: conference, Washington, DC
  • 9/30: Skype with graduate students, Oregon State University
  • 10/16-17: Berkeley College, New York City
  • 10/19: conference, Baltimore
  • 11/1-2: Wake Forest University
  • 11/18-19: conference, Hawaii

Campus Climate: The Significance of Thoughts and Feelings

It used to make me angry and demoralized to think that my race, gender, assumed economic position, body image, sexual identity, religion, or my divergence from commonly accepted standards of beauty could diminish the power of my contributions, whether in public speaking, writing, or being part of a group where I was the minority. These prejudices were wrong and will never be right. In hindsight, though, I am grateful for the results these challenges afforded me.

I think that these challenges and experiences have…

  • been invaluable in enhancing my desire and capacity to learn about the lives and experiences of others, especially those who are often described as “marginalized;”
  • deepened my well of empathy and compassion for others;
  • honed my skills in identifying and supporting individuals and groups who feel that they don’t belong and are not valued; and
  • fueled my resolve to be ever diligent in remaining self-aware in my interactions with others.

Recalling and reflecting on my experiences leads me to conclude that they have been instrumental in making me the person I am, for which I’m grateful. However, the intellectual analysis is only part of the reflection:

  • The feelings of pain, humiliation, and anger are easily relived when I recall how vulnerable I felt as a student. I sometimes wonder how I might have achieved at my university if I had not feared and distrusted my academic adviser, who was also one of my professors.
  • These feelings were magnified within me because I felt that assumptions were being made about my intellectual abilities leading to questions about whether or not I had the right to walk the grounds and enter the classrooms.
  • The times when I felt worse were those times when I was made to feel invisible.

Recalling my feelings and thinking as I do now, I’m encouraged that many colleges and universities are taking their role as humanist institutions seriously by taking giant steps to create a campus climate where no one—faculty, staff, student, or administrator—will feel as I often felt on college and university campuses in each of these roles.  

Happy Birthday, Ida!

Ida B Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

On this day—July 16—158 years ago, Ida Bell Wells, a tireless and formidable crusader, was born.

As an investigative journalist, Wells informed, bullied, and cajoled the readership of Black publications to fight for their schools, their rights, their dignity, and their lives against a racist and segregated Southern culture.

Writing for church publications and early editorials using the pen name, Iola, she is best known for her anti-lynching editorials and speeches, though she was a founder or prominent member of every civil rights organization of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Famous during her own lifetime and revered after her death, she fought for racial justice, women’s suffrage, and human rights with both intelligence and heart.

In addition to her pamphlets and editorials, she excelled as a speaker at home and abroad, exposing the shame of racism in America, particularly as concretized and illustrated by the brutal lynchings and mass murderings of Black people. This diamond of a woman had many precious facets, and if she were pressed to identify any flaw, it might be that she had human feelings and could be hurt by the slights and betrayals of people who should have been some of her strongest supporters. Despite the hurt and sensitivity, she soldiered on, standing in the front lines of the cause even as she faithfully carried out her duties as a wife and mother.

Reflecting on the extraordinary life and monumental achievements of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, I see her as a beacon that shines the way and a staff that supports all of us who want to gain the right to call ourselves the sons and daughters of Ida.

Ode to Gwen B.

I still perspire when I think about how anxious I was as I sat waiting for my first interview after graduating from college. While I waited for the principal to see me, I tried to push back thoughts about not belonging at this predominantly white suburban high school. I tried not to think about how different my background probably was from everyone else who worked here. Who else was black and from the west side of Chicago whose only qualification for the job beyond the college degree was a traumatic student teaching experience at an all-white high school in southern Illinois?

I was sweating out my interview clothes as I sat in a chair with my back to a glass wall separating this office from the hallway. I was facing a long counter behind which at least half a dozen efficient-looking white women were engaged in various activities—at the counter responding to all entrants, typing on typewriters, or working in file cabinets.

I had been in the building for about half an hour and had not seen another black person. As I contemplated this fact—as if on cue—a tall, beautiful, black woman with short red hair cut and shaped beautifully breezed into the area smiling as if she had just heard a joke. She greeted everyone by their first name and inquired about their well-being. Everyone and the entire space seemed to brighten to match this woman’s mood. As a chorus of greetings were returned, I thought I heard my name. This startled me, and then I realized they were addressing “the other Gwen,” a descriptor that would be heard frequently once I was hired. How random that both of us would teach in the English Department. Not only that, but we both married men named Charles.

Gwen B. and I were among the very few black teachers and administrators in this predominantly white suburban high school in the late 1960s that was transitioning to become more racially diverse. There were tensions at every level as the community was adjusting to the change. Lucky for me, Gwen B. was “my person” during these first years of my career. She was friend, counselor, mentor, and coach. She immediately took me under her wing to do what we now call “onboarding.” She helped me understand the context in which we were working as competent teachers whose first responsibility was to our students. She modeled for me that we could be proud that we were black and also get to know and accept people who wanted to be allies. Most of all, she stressed that we didn’t get paid enough not to have fun.

I still marvel at my luck in being “adopted” by Gwen B. because everyone loved her and wanted to be in her presence. Light from her orbit enveloped me and made me feel and be regarded as someone who belonged. The teachers’ lounge was a fun place to be when Gwen B. was there. She loved to tell funny stories and make people laugh at themselves. She would always crack herself up at her own pithy one-liners. She was the party.

Because she was my confidante, I shared embarrassing moments with her, sometimes to my regret since she always found them to be funnier than I thought they should be. One day at school I fell and slid all the way down the stairs on my back. Luckily, there were no witnesses. I proceeded to my classroom and began writing on the board, Hearing some muffled giggling. I turned and asked the students what they were finding so funny. Laughing so hard he could hardly get the words out, a student asked, “Miss Jordan, who’s been walking on your back?” It was funny and I had to laugh. I told Gwen B. about falling, getting dirt on my back, and what happened in the classroom. I lived to regret telling her because she never missed an opportunity to ask me, “Miss Jordan, who’s been walking on your back?”

Gwen D and Gwen B smiling while sitting on couch togetherGwen B. was not only my mentor, coach, and counselor regarding my job, she was also the kind of friend who kept my spirits up as I planned a wedding. She coerced her husband, Charles, into taking our wedding photos. She persuaded her retired babysitter to take care of one more baby, so I could return to work. There were no major events during the first years of my career in which Gwen B. was not there as a confidante and supporter. I like to think that the supportive friendship was mutual, which is why after many years and much geographical separation, we never lost contact.

Lest someone think that Gwen B. is a natural nurturer offering sweet words of comfort and wisdom, I must correct that image. I always found it fascinating that this woman, laughing all the while, could turn any conversation into a litany of expletives that flowed like a river. I seldom used profanity except after a conversation with Gwen B., and then I could not help myself. Her big personality was infectious, and I wanted to catch some of her joy.

Gwen B. is a rare gemstone, the depths of which are yet to be discovered. Her defining traits that had the greatest imprint on me as a professional are courage and humor. To me, no amount of education and training could have been as effective in supporting my success as having “my person” with whom I could share anything and expect that she would help me discover within myself the strength and courage I needed to help me move forward.

Thank you, Gwen B., for being “my person” when I needed you most.

Race in the United States, as Reflected in the U.S. Census – A Glacial Rate of Change

Some say that demography is destiny. In the United States, race is destiny.

Clearly evidence of a racist social construct, “race” depends on who you are in the politics of government. From the time of the Constitutional Convention, the matter of race has been central to the decennial census practice. The census was put into place to assure proper representation and is today connected with the distribution of nearly $1 trillion in federal funding for myriad programs.

At the inception of the practice of taking the census, there was shameful, self-serving political debate about whether or not enslaved people would be counted as persons or property for the sake of levying taxes and determining representation. The compromise that stood for nearly a century was to count those who were enslaved as three-fifths of a person. Without a doubt, in the minds of these leaders all men are not created equal.

While enslaved persons were not counted as full persons for the sake of the census, indigenous persons were not counted at all. In fact, according to data collected by census-takers, the United States consisted of only white and black people for its first 100 years.

This was in part because census-takers determined race rather than allowing individuals to self-identify. In so doing, white people were recorded as homogeneous in their whiteness, while black people were recorded as free or enslaved. Additionally, black people could be recorded as mixed, with crude terms used to attempt to determine just how many drops of black blood a light-skinned black person might have. As late as 1930, the “one-drop rule” was included in instructions to ensure that interracial persons were determined to be black, “no matter how small the percentage of [black] blood.”

While the questions and language have slowly evolved since the first U.S. Census was taken in 1790, they always seem to lag behind the times, never fully reflecting the current reality and individual preferences of the people. It was not until 1960 that individuals could identify their own race, and it was not until the year 2000 – more than 200 years after the first census – that the questionnaire included a “multiple-race” option by which one could better reflect one’s identity by selecting more than one race. If the census is the marker, this America evolves century by century.

As part of this glacial evolution, for the 2020 U.S. Census, respondents are asked to identify not only their race but their “racial origins.” Thinking positively about this change, disaggregating the data collected on race and ethnicity theoretically has the potential to create a picture of the multiple diversities that make up this complex nation. Understanding the history of the political ends served by census questions, however, raises some understandable concerns.

censusThe question about “racial origins” (whatever that means) would seem easier on the surface to respond to for some groups than it is for others. For example, respondents who identify as “white” are given the following examples to choose from for racial origins: German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, Egyptian, etc. (Despite this seeming simplicity, however, one does wonder whether the homogeneity with which the census has treated “whiteness” to date, might still give people in this category pause in being asked to identify origins of which they may not be aware or ever given much thought to.)

Asian or Pacific Islanders are given specific checkboxes instead of being asked to write in choices from examples, unless selecting “Other Asian (Pakistani Cambodian, Hmong, etc.)” or “Other Pacific Islander (Tongan, Fijian, Marshallese; etc.).”

It starts getting more complicated with those who indicate that they are “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish.” While the first part of being able to further identify as Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano; Puerto Rican; Cuban; or another origin {Salvadoran, Dominican, Colombian, Guatemalan, Spaniard, Ecuadoran, etc.) is easy, then comes the question about race. The U.S. Census Bureau argues that Hispanic origin is not a race and that those of Hispanic origin must also be specific about their race. It’s expected that indignation and confusion will abound.

I empathize with those who affirm “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin,” and then face a question about race. If I affirm “Black or African American” for my identity and then see these sample choices for origin—African American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, Somali, etc.—I am inclined to write “not applicable.” It makes no sense for me to indicate “African American” as my racial origin because I’ve already checked that box for race. Also, specifying the entire continent of Africa as an origin is not in alignment with others from the continent who can select from specific countries within the continent as their origin. For my racial origin, it makes sense to me that I would write in “Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama,” because, as I discovered in exploring census data from the 19th and 20th centuries, my family’s known history goes back no further than these three Southern states.

Twist, turn, bob, and weave as it may, America’s shameful history keeps showing up. This time it surfaces when there is an attempt by the federal government to tease out the diversity among people who live in the United States. What’s more, the ever-changing demographic questions for all the racial categories except “white” raise important questions related to data meant to be used as a comparator over time. Sadly, evolution from racism is, indeed, a slow process in this America.

 

 

Recontextualizing the story of women

Women have inherited a context in which race, class, and gender enter with them, treating them as if they’re guests in the house of opportunity that women before them paid for and left for them to build upon and expand. Some enter the house and find that they are prevented from going to the upper levels of the house because they couldn’t break through the glass ceiling. Others realize that they could not even stand up to their full height in the house because the ceiling of expectations was so low.

Although traveling different roads to get there, all women who enter the house have a story to tell. Women’s History Month 2020 is a good time for women to share these stories and to recontextualize the barriers that have prevented them from realizing their full potential. When women recontextualize the conditions and circumstances of their existence, race and gender can become strengths that stimulate a collective vigor to support and help each other succeed in all the houses they enter.

Women who came before cracked opened doors through which women who followed could squeeze. Because of the work of those who have come before, women today are obliged to ensure that there is no turning back, but a continuous reaching back to move the next woman forward. Will women of today accept their role in the story of women? When women recontextualize the story of women, the house is on the high ground and all the rooms have a favorable view.