I am not saddened over the death of Muhammad Ali. Quite honestly, there is no reason a man who was declared a traitor by his country, who was sentenced to jail, and grew up during the time of segregation and Jim Crow should have lived beyond 25. Many leaders of his time such as Dr. King and Malcolm X never lived to see the age of 40. Ali not only lived but he endured. He not only survived but he thrived. He fought injustice to the very end and was the definition of an UPstander, not a bystander. I was floored by the deaths of Michael Jackson and Prince because they died young, tragically, and alone after doing so much for so many. They did not deserve that. Ali fortunately died surrounded by friends of family after close to a century on earth. We should all hope to be so fortunate when our number is called.
Rather than be saddened, I am going to enjoy the fact that I lived during his time. The fact of the matter is that he is one of the few icons that literally defined the term “living legend.” He, along with Dr. King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and so many others, are people I read about in the history books or saw in documentaries like “Eyes on the Prize.” He was never really real to me until I actually saw him in real life. I’ll never forget the day when I walked into the student center as an undergrad at Georgetown University and he was literally just standing there. He was swarmed by so many people that I did not feel I would be able to even get close to him and so I just stared at the man in distant admiration and kept walking because at that time in my life, I felt like one of the best way to honor celebrities was just to leave them alone and let them have a bit of normalcy. Just standing in his presence however, I could not help but feel his energy.
There are going to be so many memorials and tributes to Muhammad Ali over the coming weeks. My hope is that as we remember him, we remember him as a man who transcended it all and brought people together. His daughter Maryum once said that they were approached by the son of klansman who said he was taught to hate black people but he just loved Ai so much. She said they all just cried in the restaurant. That is what our life is supposed to be about—teaching others that we are all equal under the sun and that there is no place for hate. That is what I will remember most about Ali along with the fact he spoke up whenever he saw an injustice, which is my goal as an UPstander. His presence will be missed but his spirit will live on in all of us forever and I am just glad that he was brought to this earth to inspire so many, including me. If you were truly inspired by him, re-commit to fighting for justice like never before no matter how small or large your sphere of influence. That’s how we can honor his presence and never forget him. Rest In Peace Mr. Ali. Rest In Power.
I was recently asked by The Atlantic Magazine to share my thoughts on what it means to black at elite public high schools given not only my work as a diversity consultant, but also as a graduate of an elite public high school—Boston Latin School. Contributing to this article allowed me to reflect on how schools can reach the most marginalized students in both our public and private schools because in many cases, the only difference in these institutions as it relates students feeling marginalized is the tuition. Therefore I would like to share 5 steps that educators and school leaders can adapt in order to be more inclusive to all students.
1. Create Free Spaces
Principals and teachers need to realize that it’s not about creating “safe spaces” but rather “free spaces” for their students. Too often, black and Latino students feel the burden of representing their entire race and have to deal with the notions that they are either at the school because of financial aid or to play sports. If principals and teachers become culturally competent then they, for example, will not have to point to the Black or Latino student when issues of race come up because the teacher will be able to provide an informed opinion on her own. So rather than saying “Jamal, what do you think about what Johnny said about the #blacklivesmatter movement?” a culturally competent teacher creating a free space would say: “There are many different perspectives on the #blacklivesmatter movement even within the black community and so we should not assume every black person agrees with your statement Johnny.” After the teacher says that, the teacher should NOT turn to Jamal for his response. Let black and Latino students be as free to participate or not participate in topics as every white student. I teach at American University and I have had several gay students who are extremely vocal on many issues but silent when we get to topics affecting the gay community. I never call on them in class because I know they are used to being the “representative” in class and it’s not fair to them. Some do speak and some do not but it is their choice.
2. Diversify Your Curriculum
It is important to diversify staff (see point 4) but it is equally important to diversify curriculum. Take Black History Month for example. It is so sad that many schools have not learned to go beyond basic black history: Slavery, fast forward (maybe) to Harriet Tubman, then on to Dr. King and now President Obama (for those schools whose leadership is not biased against him*). Some schools of course may put up posters during their particular heritage month. This again makes students of color feel like they are being tolerated with boxes to check off regarding the curriculum rather than celebrated. The history of black and Latino culture has to be woven into the curriculum. It is indeed OK to talk about Fredrick Douglass in March, Dr. King in November, and Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor in April. Beyond the curriculum, school staff need to look at their library books and the pictures they have on the walls. I went and spoke at a very elite, majority white private school in Connecticut called Pomfret and was pleasantly surprised to see posters of leaders like JFK next to posters of Malcolm X and Che Guevara in a classroom. The discussions that must go on in those classes are likely to be more holistic. At Sidwell Friends in Washington DC where I have also done work, there are elective classes such as Black Liberation and issues facing the African continent. The Black Liberation class is taught by 2 women, one black and one white and there are several non-black students in the class. Even if black and Latino students decide not to get heavily engaged in classes like this, it can be comforting for them to see that these options do exist and having a white teacher shows that it’s not just a “Black thing.”
3. Invest in authentic professional development.
School leaders have to actively offer professional development opportunities and at the very least, diversify the literature their teachers read. If authors like Gloria Ladson Billings, Linda Darling Hammond, Alfred Tatum, Geneva Gay, Glenn Singleton, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and others are not on their bookshelves (and assigned), then schools are only offering lip service on diversity & inclusion.
4. Staff has to represent the student body.
I do not care what the politics are of teachers of color. What matters is that students of all races see teachers and leaders of color in their schools. A black or Latino student needs to be able to see that science teacher who looks like them and say “If she can do it, I can do it.” The white student also needs to see that so he can see it as normal for blacks and Latinos to have higher education. Part of the reason why many schools I go to have no diversity in staff or leadership is because the leaders never saw that diversity when they were students so they resort to only have Black and Latino staff who are building services or athletic coaches because that is all they knew.
5. Have a solid and publicized diversity mission statement
When I walk into some schools, I am often impressed by those school that have their statement on diversity front and center for all to see. Doing this shows that the school is committed to being held accountable for its actions on diversity. This instantly makes the school more welcoming to the black and Latino student as well as the parents. I have spoken to so many parents of color who feel completely disengaged from their school and do not feel empowered to voice their thoughts on issues so they resolve to stay silent as long as their children get that coveted diploma. Schools thus lose out by not having these parents engaged. Some (I repeat some) black and Latino students may have parents or guardians working multiple jobs who are not able to be as engaged as the parents with nannies or a stay at home parent so the schools need to do more outreach to keep those parents engaged.
Adopting these five steps may not be easy but taking these steps are indeed worth it if school leaders and teachers want to truly create a climate where everyone believes that they belong. A parent once told me that her school could always get another black “kid from the ‘hood” to fill its quota so she never felt her school really cared about them. Is this what we want? I do not think so. If schools really believe that they are creating students with a global perspective, it is necessary that the student body and staff represent the globe not just in body, but in curriculum and commitment to ensuring that every student has the ability to reach the highest potential possible. That can only happen not from tolerating diversity, but leveraging it.
I want to talk about the importance of showing up. Have you shown up for your life or have you lived in fear of showing up? It has been said that 50% of life is showing up. How many opportunities have you missed out on because of fear of showing up? Have you lost opportunities at love or a potential career or something else?
At the end of the day, you showed up on earth and that means that you have something to do here. There is something that you need to accomplish. I encourage you to stop being scared and show up in your life and be fearless! As Ziglar said, fear is nothing but F.E.A.R.-False Evidence Appearing Real. Most of what you worry about will never happen so just show up, grow up, and GO UP!
I haven’t felt as embarrassed as an African American as I did when I heard comedian Larry Wilmore call President Barack Obama “my nigga” at The White House Correspondence Dinner. Don’t get me wrong. There have been many moments that I have considered low points for our culture but this was the lowest. The only thing that is more offensive to Wilmore’s ignorance is the response by people who have no problem with the use of the word because it’s just “Keepin’ it 100” or “Keepin’ it real.” Yes, Wilmore kept it real—real stupid. For anyone who says that this is just a natural term for us to use and that we’re used to it,” let me explain the three reasons why they’re wrong.
Nigga is not a term of endearment
Let’s really “keep it 100.” I am a rapper. I also have been “hip-hop” since birth so I am no newcomer to hip-hop culture. It’s the soundtrack of my life and so I will always love hip-hop. Anyone who listens to hip-hop knows full well that in our music, the term “nigga” is used more negatively than positively. Even Tupac who stated that “NIGGA” meant “Never Ignorant Getting’ Goals Accomplished” rarely used the term “nigga” in an endearing way. Sure there are verses where rappers talk about rollin’ with “my niggas” or bringing their “niggas” through the door once they became successful. In reality however, the overwhelming use of the term “nigga” is negative as in “niggas hatin’” on each other or “killin’ niggas” as well as their kids and other family members. Whenever I hear a term like “brother” being used in rap, it is indeed use positively as it should be. We cannot believe the terms “brother” and “nigga” to be synonymous and anyone who says “nigga” is used as a term of endearment particularly in our mainstream hip-hop music is just wrong. Don’t believe the hype.
Acceptance of the term nigga is not generational
A few years ago, rapper and mogul Jay Z appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and they had an honest debate about the word “nigga.” Jay Z made the argument that many users of the word use. He said that it’s generational and that the overuse of the word has taken the power out of the word. He also said that the intent behind the word is important, a point to which I agree. The fact of the matter however is that many black people younger than Jay Z do not use the term “nigga” and find it deplorable. I am younger than Jay Z and Nas and many rappers who rose to prominence in the 1990s and the 2000s. I work with youth across the country and run into students from kindergarten to college who deplore use of the word. It is also clear by Wilmore’s use of “nigga” that there are people of Oprah’s generation and older who are quite comfortable with the word. To accept, however, that people of my generation and younger have just accepted the term is flat out wrong. I am a Jay Z fan and even wrote my doctoral dissertation on Jay Z but on this point, I couldn’t disagree more with him.
White people still own the word “nigga”
There is always a debate about whether white people can use the word but we cannot reclaim a word we never owned. The argument is a waste of time. Not only can white people use the word, they still own the word. Some believe that Kendrick Lamar’s explanation of “nigga” coming from “negus” in ancient Africa. Please. I doubt Master John was thinking about ancient Africa while whipping his slaves. White people still use the word on a regular basis. I am a professor of cross cultural communication at American University. When I discussed hip-hop and the term “nigga” to my 70 plus majority white students (many wealthy) I asked them if they repeat the word “nigga” when singing their favorite rap songs. They all honestly raised their hands. I was not mad because they were just being honest but it revealed to me that an endless debate over use of the word is pointless because we live in a society where historical context doesn’t matter and all students on college campuses hear the word every day in music or from their black classmates.
At the end of the day, we as black people have lost the ability to make a case for the termination of “nigga.” I’ve heard some gay people refer to each other as “faggot.” I believe that there are Jewish people who may refer to each other as “kikes”, Latinos who refer to each other as “spics” and maybe even some Chinese people who use term “chink.” The difference with these groups is that they have not mainstreamed the most derogatory terms into global lexicon. Rapper Drake is half Jewish but you would never hear him utter the word “kike” in his music. Michael Jackson, probably the most not-racist person in history had his album pulled and was roundly condemned by his “friends” like Steven Spielberg because he used the word “kike” in his anti-racist song “They don’t care about us.” That should have made the message very clear to black people: degrade yourselves all day but as soon as you go beyond the plantation, expect to be whipped back into form.
As KRS-ONE so eloquently put it, “That mic you speak through/goes from here to Mogadishu/and how you represent us is the issue.” Across the globe, from Japan to Israel, we have made it acceptable to use the term “nigga” without providing any context because too many of us don’t know the context. I’ve been called “nigga” in Senegal and South Africa by people who thought they were being cool. I’ve watched Japanese sitcoms where they call each other “nigga.” At the same time the word becomes globalized, the #blacklivesmatter movement and the overall fight for black dignity has not. People want to dress in “our” clothes and play “our” music but take it all off when they go home. They want everything but the burden. All Larry Wilmore did was make the word acceptable for an entire new generation of black and non-black people to get comfortable with the word by referring the first black President in that way. There is nothing funny about that and as Joe Madison said, he tainted the legacy of the first black president and, as Reverend Al Sharpton said, it was at best tasteless. We can and need to do better.
We are experiencing an extreme crisis of leadership on the part of our politicians. My hope is that all of you who are leaders will realize that we need your skills now more than ever. Our politicians are failing us by the day. Whenever we turn on the news, we see bickering people choosing to become bitter and not better. Stirring up anger and hatred among your base of supporters is not leadership. Never apologizing for mistakes you make is not leadership. Demonstrating an inability to take higher ground when you believe you have been insulted is not leadership. The question is very simple: are you going to be a leader who works to find common ground or a leader who seeks to destroy others on your way to the top? By the way, you should know that only one of these scenarios is actual leadership.
As President Obama once said, our focus should not be griping over how imperfect our nation is, but rather what it means every day to work on perfecting it. In every corner of influence that you occupy, you have the ability to strike up courageous conversations on pressing issues we face. You have an opportunity each day to challenge bigotry, ignorance, and hate either vocally or even silently by choosing to not be present when ignorance is caught within your earshot. Don’t be a bystander, be an UPstander now and always. This country has only made progress when we all (or most of us) realize that we have more things in common than we do that separate us as human beings. Now is the time find that commonality among us all if we truly believe in uniting this country.
Let’s talk about that money! That’s right: mula, dinero, feza, duckets, loot, greenbacks, chedda, whateva! As Rita Davenport said, money isn’t the most important thing, but it’s right there next to oxygen on the “gotta have it” scale. and as the great philosopher Yeezus said, “Having money isn’t everything. Not having it is.” OK this may be true and it’s nice to have the things money can buy but what about the things money can’t buy? Ziglar reminded us of this when he said money can buy you a house, but it can’t buy you a home. It can buy you a mate, but it can buy you a friend. It can buy you a bed, but it can’t buy you a good night’s sleep.
Are you so caught up in the riches you don’t (and may never) have that you are forgetting about the priceless fortune right in front of you? Your spouse? Your children? Your family members? Your business? Your job? Your global perspective? All of these things are more important than money and so remember in pursuit of those added zeros in your bank account, don’t forget to celebrate the things that money can’t buy…like self love!
I entered my senior year at Boston Latin School (BLS) with a spirit of triumph. I felt like I finally made it. In earnest, I was on the extended plan, having repeated my seventh grade year. BLS was every bit the challenge I was told it would be by then Headmaster Michael Contompasis who said on our first day of school: “Look to your left, look to your right. By graduation time, many of you won’t be here.” I spent most of my years at BLS barely passing most classes. In fact, the end of my sophomore year was the first summer that I did not have to attend summer school. I came back my junior and senior year focused and ready to be a leader at BLS…and that’s when my real education started.
Junior year was when I really began to question my role and experiences being black at BLS. I realized how the complexion of my classes got lighter the more advanced courses I enrolled in such as English Honors. I recalled times where I was disciplined more harshly than white students for the same offenses—an issue plaguing many school districts today. I started to realize that in my entire 7-year experience at BLS, I read one book by a black author—ironically Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I remembered how I would only see pictures of black leaders on the wall during Black History Month. The more frustrated I became with my experiences, the more opportunities I sought to be a leader. By my senior year, I was president of the Afrikan Kulture Society, and I ran for senior class president and student council president. My experience running for senior class president was my final wake up call.
On election day, I entered school and found a great deal of frustration on the part of many black students. I was told that several white students wore white sheets on their heads to protest my candidacy. Many students skipped class that morning to go to the office in protest. I, maybe out of fearlessness or stupidity, went about my day. I had not experienced physical bullying at BLS since the 7th grade and by my senior year, I felt very comfortable defending myself if I needed to. What I remember more about that day than seeing students crying was the inaction on the part of my teachers and administration. As Dr. King said, at the end of the day, we’ll remember the silences of our friends than the words of our enemies. In fact, it was not until maybe second period where one of our European teachers, Mr. Berger, told students to take their hoods off when we they showed up for our French class. I remember asking myself how these students made it through part of the day with those sheets on and today, I ask myself why they were never disciplined and this is at the heart of what I see with the #blackatbls controversy today.
My experiences at BLS are why I have become a diversity educator today, working with schools nationwide including Boston Public Schools on how to create more culturally competent schools. While I am not directly involved in the current issue at BLS, I know what it feels like to be marginalized there. But even with my challenges at BLS, my time there was not all doom and gloom. I lost the senior class president race but won the student council presidency. The senior class presidential team was multiracial, and I definitely graduated BLS college-ready so I can speak to BLS’ great potential to create strong students. I also had some great teachers who were instrumental to my development. I just can’t help but think, however, of all of the other students like me who never felt truly welcomed at BLS and either left the school or just became less engaged.
In full disclosure, I have not stepped foot in BLS in several years and I do not know the current headmaster Dr. Lynne Mooney Teta so I cannot comment on what the school has or has not done recently to promote respect for diversity. What I do know is that I represent many black alumni who, rightly or wrongly, have not fully engaged BLS at the level we should have beyond graduation because we felt as though the school did not care much for us, so like many graduates of color from many majority white high schools, colleges and universities, we left and never looked back. My hope is that the #blackatbls moment can serve as an opportunity for all of us in the BLS community past and present to deepen our commitment to respecting diverse cultures and having courageous conversations so that there will never be a need for a #blackatbls moment in the first place.
The end of the year is upon us and what do you know? You’re still here. Despite all of the many tragedies we see in the world today, you still woke up today, blessed to breathe a new day. Have you ever stopped to really ponder what that means? What better time than now to do just that. Even though your day may not be going great, are you still grate-ful?
I am learning more and more how to appreciate each day, each moment with my family, and each moment with you. This holiday season, I really suggest you make an effort to do the same because each year that passes is one you will never see again. Oprah once said that when her time is done on earth she wants to look down and say “I knocked that earth thing out!” You can’t accomplish that if you do not focus on being present and enjoying each moment while you have it to enjoy. Don’t let anyone take your peace and potential happiness away…not even YOU! Happy holidays to you and yours!
It is beyond an understatement to say that we are living in very dangerous times. It seems as though every time we turn on the television, there is another story on some hot button issue from mass shootings to police/civilian interactions. From racism, anti-Semitism, and islamophobia, to immigration, education, and terrorism, it is very easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face today. In my work as a youth speaker and an UPstander, I encounter leaders like you every single day who may not be sure on how to respond to these challenges from a leadership perspective.
It is easy for any of your peers who are not leaders to say whatever is on their mind with no concern for the ramifications but as a leader, you took an oath to work towards bringing people together, be it in your school community or beyond, depending on the issue. But how can you honestly speak about an issue like #blacklivesmatter or a tragic mass shooting if it is far removed from your daily experience? Here are 3 steps you can take to become a more effective leader on hot button issues.
- Educate yourself on the issue
We live in the information age. There is simply no excuse to not be able to educate yourself on an issue. The challenge, however is whether you will diversify your sources of information. For example, if you are reading about the tragic shootings in San Bernardino or the killing of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, you should not only consult one media source, as most people do. Remember, you are a leader! Don’t only watch CNN, MSNBC, or FOX for example. Watch all three plus additional sources like NPR and other reputable websites and journals that can educate you. Require that your team do the same thing and then make an informed decision on how to move forward.
- Survey your community
It is very easy to not address an issue because you do not believe it affects you directly but chances are that there is someone in your community that is affected. Is the Muslim student in your school being looked at differently after the San Bernardino killings? Is the police officer in your school or neighborhood being looked at more suspiciously after videos that surface showing police officers on the other side of the country shooting unarmed individuals? Is the Spanish speaking student more on edge over the immigration debate? You have to survey your community to find out who is feeling isolated and engage them. One of the mistakes I made as a high school student council leader was not listening as often as I should have to the people who did not speak up. Remember, silence can speak just as loudly as the loudest megaphone.
- Actively reach out to the affected community
The word “active” is extremely important here. Your entire school community needs to see that you are making efforts to be an inclusive community. Yes it’s cliché but you have to lead by example. Be the person to sit at a different table in the cafeteria, which is still one of the most segregated area in many schools today. Create speakout events where opinions can be expressed or have a unity rally. There is no shortage of things you can do once you are committed to be an UPstander and not a bystander. Once people know that they are still accepted in the community they share with you, they may be more likely to open up to you and also less likely to resort to some form of negative behavior due to the isolation or mistrust they may be experiencing.
Leadership is an easy job if you only preach to your choir but here is the problem, preaching to the choir is not leadership. It’s preaching. You ran for office and though you were not elected by everyone, you noe represent everyone. Take that responsibility seriously. Get educated on the issues of the day and use your knowledge to build your community, not keep it divided. That is the sign of a true leader!