Rage was never a thing I had easy access to.
In the staggeringly stereotypical tradition of “ol’ school,” Black parents, emotional outbursts were not tolerated and suppressing any rage was always preferable to censure. Positionality was key. I had my position, and I played my part. I learned quickly that I got much further with my parents with reasoned, well-timed questions and demonstrable fealty.
However, as I became increasingly politicized in undergrad, my rage blossomed and found a righteous home. It’s the little stories–the off-hand anecdotes that stuck with me. It’s not just the source material that changes you. It’s also the one-offs and the “by the ways.”
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It’s learning about the hundreds of postcards circulating throughout the US with “I wish you were here” printed on one side and photos of lynchings decorating the other.
It’s learning that dysentery killed so many of us on the transatlantic voyage that tubs were installed to save more lives (read: investments). It’s learning that children often risked (and presumably some succumbed to) drowning in these tubs full of the human waste of their fellow captives because their legs were too short to brace themselves in the often turbulent waters.
It’s learning the story of Mary Turner, who in 1918 dared to speak out against the lynching of her husband. On May 19, 1918, the day after her husband was lynched, the mob sought to “teach her a lesson.” A mob took her to “a lonely and secluded spot…near Folsom’s Bridge.” Mary Turner, who was 8 months pregnant, was hung upside down by her ankles to an oak tree. After which:
“gasoline and oil from the automobiles were thrown on her clothing and while she writhed in agony and the mob howled in glee, a match was applied and her clothes burned from her person…and while she was yet alive, a knife, evidently one such as is used in splitting hogs, was taken and the woman’s abdomen was cut open, the unborn babe falling from her womb to ground. The infant, prematurely born, gave two feeble cries and then its head was crushed by a member of the mob with his heel. Hundreds of bullets were then fired into the body of the woman….”
These are the stories that changed me forever. They are the anecdotes that stick with me forever. They are one side of a bloody, brutal bridge which connects the past to the present wherein viral videos of police brutality/murder form the opposite end.
It’s watching the indifference to another child killed in the visage of Tamir Rice who SO resembles Emmet Till*…as though the soul of an ancestor is doomed to relive racialized violence over and again. My continuous intimacy with these images—the accompanying scholarship, and the never-ending news cycles of state-sanctioned violence–accompanied by the realization that this history was kept from me throughout my K-12 education–renders me bitter.
Herein lies the precarious space I occupy. While I love the work I do, I’m often invited into spaces where people ask for culture change when what they actually want is diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This now-ubiquitous acronym is just close enough to the mark as to leave me all-the-more bitter…rageful. The ascendancy of DEI embodies everything I resent about our industrialized, assembly-lined, capitalistic system. The same is true for sensitivity training, cultural competency, and echo chamber courageous conversations.
To be clear, CWC does NOT do DEI work. If we did, they’d be doing it without me.
DEI work rarely asks white people to embrace their full humanity— humiliation, fear, frustration, and/or fury. These processes are designed to allow a psychological distance–an internal safe-space wherein silence and a sign-in sheet co-conspire to convey completion without confession, conscious raising, or catharsis. This reality becomes more obvious In the age of Covid-induced zoom trainings. I’ve found myself conveying historical and contemporary tragedies, pouring out my heart and soul to black screens with names and (sometimes) accompanying gender pronouns (because that’s a box easily-enough checked whether you truly appreciate the significance or not).
Working in predominantly white spaces to discuss white supremacy and other components of identity politik comprises the bulk of my work. While it feels like a vocation (and every calling has its less-than-ideal components), it is a draining one…often an enraging one. Every docile, sheepish, impassive face is a reminder of everything I hate about this work. I’m not “allowed” to be pissed at your indifference–the very indifference that gave rise to the need for these conversations in the first place.
I was taught to never use the word hate lightly.
I hate injustice. You seem to hate discussing it.
I hate that we’re dying. You seem to hate the guilt you feel from thinking about it.
I want change so that I can be left alone in peace, you want the status-quo so you can be left alone. That makes it hard not to hate you.
What I hate most, is that eliminating your discomfort remains prioritized. DEI and other modalities largely embraced by the public are mechanized–designed for mass-production without mass-backlash–passivity prioritized over possibility. While I’ve made it clear to any and all I work with that I don’t do traditional DEI work, the often unspoken expectation is often that participants will be able to remain comfy-cozy in the face of brutality. Participants too often want solutions without soul-searching. They want to see the world change without having to change themselves. They want the equity equation–a set of explicit directions that will allow them to be on the “right” side of history without risking anything.
This further fuels my rage, and I’m not even clear about what my ask is…in part because I often believe you’re incapable of meeting it. Asking a depleted soul to feel something for others when they have a hard time connecting to themselves is a big ask.
Either way, it’s painful to watch you grapple at the space where your ignorance and comfort fight for territory against the impending guilt and growing discomfort that comes with facing hard truths. Or you attach “meaningful” to “outcomes” as though this whole exploration is only worth your time if there’s a prize at the bottom of the box. Your orientation to check something off a box only extends to the external world around you, but there is little enthusiasm for checking off the boxes in the universe within you. I suspect if I could give you a list of things to do to avoid being “perceived” as racist, you’d happily take it and never do anything to address who you actually are.
Do you honestly believe that who you are doesn’t matter? That you should be able to do this work without touching something inside yourself that yearns to be free? Perhaps. But I suspect there’s more to it than that…
I can spend so much time staring at a blank screen, attempting to figure out how to talk about something which has been discussed so often and by far better minds than my own. Yet, so long as the ignorance-induced-indifference of some, the benign neglect of many, and the outright hostility of still others continues to permeate the social landscape of this nation, I suppose the observers must continue to watch and alchemize the often intangible into something held, felt, and eventually, if we’re lucky, grappled with.
When organizations ask for culture change and the individuals within said organization realize they don’t know where this work will take them—because they don’t know where they are—they get nervous. They hide behind the organizations “need for clearly-defined outcomes” and beg for answers the way one clutches for twigs after a ship capsizes. They want all the nuances laid bare and plain. They want to feel better. They haven’t even begun the work in earnest and they’re already falling apart. Group agreements like, “expect and accept non-closure” are logically understood yet emotionally abandoned.
At times, these spaces feel like daycares full of ill-tempered, passive-aggressive toddlers. And despite their temperament and lack of life experience, they’re ostensibly trying. So…I show up—in all my rage—and prepare to hold their hand even as I know I can never go back and hold the hands of all my ancestors and contemporaries who could’ve used it far more–not to simply feel soothed, but to survive.
*I chose NOT to include a trigger warning precisely because I never got one upon entering my body, my African American Studies courses, or my daily life. I wanted my readers unprepared because that is ALWAYS part of the trauma…to know a thing logically, but to remain always woefully unprepared….
 See: The Life of Olaudah Equiano  (Dover Thrift Edition), p.53
 “The Work of a Mob.” Crisis Magazine, September 1918, pp. 221-223
Delma Jackson is a Senior Fellow with CWC. His focus is on facilitating system change on campuses and in institutions through transformative practice and the power of story. He received his undergraduate degree in African-American Studies and Psychology, and his Masters in Liberal Arts with a concentration in American and African American Studies at the University of Michigan. He regularly lectures on a variety of socio-political topics with a special emphasis on intersectional approaches to social justice.