How to make the shift from indulging problems to creating possibilities
Take for instance my own training as a sociologist. My entire training generally focused on understanding the deep and often hidden social forces at work that maintain, reinforce, and reproduce social problems. My own particular expertise of problem loving is in education. I learned just about every possible way to explain why students of color from low-wealth neighborhoods performed poorly in school compared to their white counterparts. I have studied theories about why students of color perform worse in school, and I’ve even created my own theories and have tested them. For years I attended conferences to present my findings about educational problems without much consideration about ways to actually solve them.
I recall conducting a training with school principals about the racial differences in academic outcomes among their students. I had prepared my PowerPoint with slide after slide of evidence that proved there were dramatic differences in performance across the racial groups in their schools. I had them break out in small groups to discuss the tons of data that I had proudly presented. When they returned to the large group, one of the principals asked me a simple question. “Can you provide us with some solutions to these racial disparities in academic outcomes?” I had convinced myself that my job was simply to illustrate the problem they had in the district; I hadn’t considered the possibility of providing solutions. So the question puzzled me, because my assumption was that once they understood how significant the racial disparities were in their schools, the principals and teachers would come up with solutions on their own. I was wrong.
Oppression Is the Root of Problem Loving
The problem with problem loving is that we become satisfied with discussing the problem and uncomfortable with imagining solutions. This is of course by design, and it’s how oppression works! The conditions of oppression and the challenges of everyday life force us into daily survival mode and ongoing crisis management.
Survival caused by oppressive conditions renders our imagination inert. We are all in an abusive relationship with oppression, and rather than leaving the relationship altogether, we choose to fight it. Oppression says to us, “All you can do is resist and fight me. But you will never leave me altogether,” and this is precisely what we unconsciously do, unaware of our abusive relationship with oppression.
Oppression has forced us to only solve problems, locking us into a way of thinking that keeps us in the same predicament. No fundamental change has ever come from problem fixing. We only reform and repair systems, institutions, and social relationships. There is no radical transformation.
During one of my graduate seminars years ago, I highlighted this point to my students. I wanted to push them away from problem loving and into possibility creating. Many of them were organizers or community activists who were working on important issues in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some were advocates for affordable housing, others were organizing homeless families, still others were helping to build stronger police accountability with mothers whose children had been killed by the police. As I explained to them the problem with problems, some of them pushed back, as I always encourage my students to do. They argued that if they didn’t fight for people’s rights and build power, there wouldn’t be any significant change. Fighting and resisting oppression for them was the only tool to bring the changes that they wanted to see. So I asked them to write a short one-page paper describing the problem they were addressing and how they were attempting to address it. Here is a sample of what they said:
- Fighting for police accountability in San Francisco’s police department
- Resisting racist housing policies that force Black families from the city
- Confronting homophobia in schools
- Demanding anti-racist classrooms
- Struggling for environmental justice
I explained that our language sometimes holds clues to our problem loving. I noticed a pattern in the terms they used to describe their work. Most of their terms directly responded to the condition they wanted to change. Terms like fight, resist, struggle, confront, defend are connected to oppression, and they predefine the outcome of work in ways that fail to affirm what the students wanted to create or imagine. Next I asked them to rewrite the one-page description of their work, but they could not use any of the following words in the left-hand column, only the terms in the right-hand column:
The assignment was designed to push them into their imagination and use the language that affirmed it. They told me it was one of the most difficult assignments they had ever had because they had to really imagine what they wanted to see rather than articulate what they wanted to eliminate. They weren’t used to using their imagination to address injustice, oppression, and inequality. In fact, the historian Robin Kelley reminds us in his book Freedom Dreams that imagination may be one of “the most revolutionary ideas available to us, and yet… we have failed miserably to grapple with [its] political and analytical importance.” This is why we need to be very careful in the terms we use to describe our work. If we are not thoughtful about our words, our work is confined and prescribed and fails to use our human condition to dream and imagine beyond oppression.
I think it was Dr. Cornel West who said that there is no affirmation through negation. We can never achieve what we want simply by pointing out what we don’t. This is why I’m cautious about the term anti-racist. We should be mindful and avoid defining the world we want by articulating what we don’t want. The absence of violence doesn’t constitute peace, nor does the absence of illness constitute health. Peace is something entirely different from anti-violence; health and well-being cannot be adequately described as anti-illness. Light is not anti-dark, nor is water anti-land. These are important things in and of themselves.
That’s why anti-racist is akin to saying, “I anti-hate you so much, would you marry me?” rather than, “I love you, let’s get married.” Love is not simply anti-hate, and no one would enter a relationship defined in this way! In the same way, the term anti-racist simply falls short of naming precisely and affirmatively what we really want. The term anti-racist does a good job of articulating an active and engaged stance against racism (as opposed to the passive term non-racist) but fails to articulate a vision of what comes after that. Being non-racist and anti-racist are two sides of the “not” coin, which never gets us to what we really need and want, which is belonging.
Belonging perhaps comes closest to what comes after anti-racism. john a. powell, director of the University of California’s Othering & Belonging Institute and professor of law and African American studies and ethnic studies, calls belonging “the circle of human concern,” which is the expressive and institutionalized act of inclusion and mattering. More importantly, the word belonging is a term of affirmation and a statement of a potential desired future. Belonging and inclusion more adequately describe the world we want to create than the one we want to destroy. Now, of course an important prerequisite for belonging is anti-racism. We need folks to engage in an ongoing active stance to eliminate the attitudes, institutional structures, and privilege that come with whiteness. But belonging requires yet another step after we tear down the thick walls of racism. We need to build new bright and brilliant bridges of mattering and belonging where finally we can enjoy the profound and wonderful space of beloved community.
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