Communication

Your White Opinion on Dolezal is Probably Irrelevant

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week or so, you’re probably at least vaguely familiar with the Rachel Dolezal controversy. Like that relative that sucks all the air out of a room, the twisted tale has overshadowed no less than three presidential campaign announcements (and, conveniently, the unbelievable police brutality story in McKinney), capturing the attention of a rapt if ill prepared audience.

Just in case you are one of those rock dwellers, let me get you up to speed. Rachel Dolezal was the President of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. Last week, her parents came forward to reveal that their daughter — contrary to how she presented and represented herself — was actually White.

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The story set off a firestorm, replete with bizarre revelations and proclamations from Dolezal and her family. Initially, Dolezal made it clear that she didn’t care what White people thought of her chosen identity, believing they were incapable of engaging in an informed conversation on the subject (which, to be fair, has proven mostly true, but more on that in a minute). As outrage and mockery surged, however, she participated in a series of interviews, during which time she clarified that, regardless of biology, she identified as Black. As she explained to NBC’s Savannah Guthrie, “I am more Black than I am White.”

These explanations were woven between accusations that her parents were not her biological parents, lies about her childhood, and stories that seemed at odds with her self-proclaimed lifelong identification as Black. For instance, in 2002, Dolezal sued Howard University for discrimination against her in an art exhibition… because she was White. And if you ask her siblings, the transformation to representing herself as Black is relatively new; though her parents have stated they noticed the changes in 2006, her adopted brother said it began in 2011.

People of Color have varied and justifiable feelings on the matter. Most of the reactions I’ve seen and read have been negative ones. There are a slew of memes being passed around that mock Dolezal’s “identification” clarification, and the hashtag #askrachel trended with tongue in cheek questions meant to determine just how Black her life experience had been.

Others aren’t laughing. Some have blasted Dolezal, sick over the idea that a White woman would attempt to claim power in Black spheres (Don’t White people have enough of it?!?) through a complex lie, with some calling into question the work Dolezal did while working with the NAACP. There has been rage that a White woman would be so presumptuous as to assume that pretending to be a Black woman with the lived experiences of that identity qualified to advocate as a Black woman, particularly when you using the lie as an educator or leader. Others, such as Western Kentucky University Forensics Coach Jeremy Frazer, sees a middle ground that allows for anger despite accomplishment:

Even if the cognitive dissonance between her work and her lie can be resolved, others take deeper issue with Dolezal’s deception. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Tamara Winfrey Harris skewered Dolezal, providing a detailed history of the “one drop” rule that had been used to prop up miscegenation and segregation laws for decades before pointing out that Dolezal had now used that one drop law to build a sham of a life. Articulating just how offensive the charade was, Harris cast the behavior as a function of the privilege Dolezal claimed to want to dismantle:

In the days since this story broke, many people have been quick to point out that race is merely a social construct — as if that fact changes the very real impact of race on the lives of minorities. The persistence of systemic racism means there are penalties for blackness in America.

Black women — real ones — live at the nexus of that oppression and enduring sexism. The gender pay gap is steeper for them. They are more likely than their white counterparts to live in poverty, to be victims of domestic homicide and sexual assault. If Tyisha Miller and Rekia Boyd, black women who were victims of extrajudicial violence, had been able to slide into whiteness — for just a moment — they might still be alive. (Perplexingly, Ms. Dolezal told Matt Lauer that her decision to identify as black was a matter of “survival.” That is rich, indeed.) But racial oppression is not as easy to shrug off as racial advantage. This is partly because America has spent centuries ensuring that certain people can never be white.

Being able to shift one’s race is a privilege. Ms. Dolezal’s masquerade illustrates that however much she may empathize with African-Americans, she is not one, because black people in America cannot shed their race. We cannot proclaim the black race a nebulous concept, while strictly policing whiteness and the privileges of that identity. I will accept Ms. Dolezal as black like me only when society can accept me as white like her.

Other Black individuals with light complexions — individuals one might not immediately visually identify as Black — are even angrier, as Dolezal’s deceptions create even more treacherous waters for them. As one such woman explained:

I already get asked the dumbest questions you can imagine about race. I think that now, with Dolezal’s little antics, it’s only going to get worse. People already give me the side eye if I tell them that I am biracial. Am I going to have to carry some form of identification? You know people are going to ask me to “prove my blackness” now.

Still others have been kinder, using the term “transracial” to describe Dolezal’s experience. To be clear, the term is being misused; transracial refers to the adoption of a child of one race by a family of another race, and is an arena with its own complexities, which explains why transracial adoptees have been pretty upset with the term being applied here.

Those objections aside, its use is a rhetorical tactic to draw a connection to our emotional reaction to the term transgender. With the timing of Caitlyn Jenner’s grand reveal, the parallels drawn between Dolezal and transgendered individuals have caused an additional layer of tension. Dolezal herself said Jenner’s story resonated deeply with her. The line of argument questions why we accept those who identify as a different gender, going so far as to surgically represent their identity, but cannot forgive someone who chooses to do so in regards to race. After all, both Jenner and Dolezal lived under identities they were uncomfortable with for years. Both committed to projecting what they saw as their true identities in their everyday life, even though they faced discrimination as a result. Parallels, everywhere, right?

Others have quickly quashed that argument. Yes, both race and gender are social constructs, particularly in the way people and institutions interact with the identifications. Race, however, is a matter of biology and genetics, whereas gender is a function of masculine or feminine identification or presentation. A transgendered person is an individual whose sex is at odds with their gender, or who they are as a person. While one may identify heavily with the culture of a different race, the identity associated with race is a lived one, and not one that can be encompassed through changes in appearance. Artist, vLogger, and Black trans woman Kat Blaque does a phenomenal job of breaking it down here:

Yet the story has, at a minimum, spurred conversations about how we conceptualize race and why. In an artfully written essay for the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb discusses how tensions in how race is perceived and evaluated leave room for Dolezal’s choices, instead indicting her dishonesty over those choices. She writes:

Rachel Dolezal is not black—by lineage or lifelong experience—yet I find her deceptions less troubling than the vexed criteria being used to exclude her. If blackness is simply a matter of a preponderance of African ancestry, then we should set about the task of excising a great deal of the canon of black history, up to and including the current President. If it is simply a matter of shared experience, we might excommunicate people like Walter White, whose blue eyes were camouflage that could serve both to spare him the direct indignity of racism and enable him to personally investigate and expose lynchings. Dolezal was dishonest about an undertaking rooted in dishonesty, and no matter how absurd her fictional blackness may appear, it is worth recalling that the former lie is far more dangerous than the latter. Our means of defining ourselves are complex and contradictory—and could be nothing other than that. But if the rubric is faulty it remains vital. The great majority of Americans recognize slavery as a figment of history, interred in a receding past. But, for black people, that past remains at the surface—close at hand, indelible, a narrative as legible as skin.

These are all important conversations, and these reactions of People of Color paint a tapestry of emotion as complicated as this nation’s history with race. These are relevant perspectives, and they deserve our time, attention, and consideration. Yet, in the midst of this significant moment, White people feel it necessary to make the story about them and their intellectual hangups in the most disgusting ways possible.

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Tale as old as time.

The problem is that this should be a major learning moment for White America. This is not the time to opine on how this story is proof positive of the worthlessness of the NAACP. It is not the time to laugh about how Dolezal being Black is the equivalent of Caitlyn (referred to as Bruce in these conversations) being a woman. It is not the time to say maybe being Black in America isn’t as bad as some people think. It is not the time to jokingly say you now “identify as being skinny.” It is not the time to debate whether Dolezal was hotter as a Black or White woman.

It is the time to listen as people who have actually lived the life Dolezal has claimed respond to the coopting of their identity. Listen, and listen alone, because even after years of listening, you’re still not going to have enough context to really have an opinion on the subject.

Let me frame it this way: if someone were to steal your identity in a really grandiose manner — I’m talking name, style, speech patterns, career, maybe even getting prosthetics to appear more like you — and experienced great success in doing so, how would that make you feel? How unnerving would that be? How uncomfortable would friends and families who had trusted this doppelganger as you be upon finding out the truth? How angry might you be if your made-up twin tried to insist they were a very real version of you after being discovered?

That person would not be you. They would not have lived your life, but an impression of it. And at any point in time, they would be able to shed their costume and become themselves again. Perhaps that would come at great personal cost to them, but they could always call off the hoax if they so chose. After all, there were no permanent changes. They have options.

Now imagine you’re going through all of this, and the world is laughing at you. The world is justifying your impersonator’s choices by saying they’re being true to their authentic selves. They’re championing the impostor’s cause by saying this is a symptom of a broken society and they are clearly a victim. You’re just tired and sad and scared and angry and confused, and you’re standing in the middle of a storm you didn’t cause and certainly never asked for.

Imagine all of that and you still won’t come close to understanding, because that identity exists only as long as you’ve been alive. The identity coopted here is rooted in centuries of oppression, degradation, determination, and a collective beautiful and indomitable spirit. It’s one that’s been coopted and appropriated time after time after time by White people who don’t even bother to pretend they’re not White and profit tremendously as a result.

You know what? Forget it. Even this analogy can’t come close to explaining how much this is NOT your place to comment as a White person.

And right now, the Black community is in the eye of that storm, with White proselytizers whipping around their world with self-righteous words of so called wisdom, the bite reminding them that their opinions and voices — even on issues that are specific to them — are too often merely tolerated, if not ignored outright.

In other words, White people: shut up and take several seats.

We Need to Talk About How to Talk About Mental Illness

Let’s kick off this party by admitting one simple truth: we suck at this whole talking about mental illness thing.

It’s the dirty laundry your family doesn’t want to share. We don’t really learn about it school. Most of our understanding comes from movies and TV and books that cast it as a dangerous villain. We associate the term with “undersirables”: the homeless, the violent, the drains on the system. The fact that all of this is unsustainable will pop up in the social consciousness now and then, usually when someone hurts someone else (as long as the person doing the hurting is white – but that’s a topic for another day), before fading into the shadows once more. We like it there. It’s scary when it’s in our face.

The simple insight – and the one most repeated – is that we don’t talk about mental illness enough. But where do we begin? Even as someone who believes that effective communication is one of our most powerful tools in situations like this, bringing up the subject of mental illness makes me uncomfortable sometimes. Part of that stems from stigma, part of it from my struggles with my own diagnoses, and part of it from not knowing where to begin.

But perhaps it’s also because the hesitation starts with the labels: mental illness, mental disorders, mental health crises. I hate it. When the conversation starts, the language we use to frame the subject matter immediately conjures negative connotations. It continues as we try to draw parallels to make it all make sense to those on the outside.

It’s like diabetes, we say. A lifetime of management.

It’s just like any other idiopathic illness, we say. You don’t blame someone for genetically-derived cancer, right?

It’s like a disability, we say. We just have to figure out how to operate differently in the world.

But what does all of that really say? There is something wrong with us. We are sick. We are broken. We are crazy. We need to be fixed.  

Let’s Hope This Works

The truth is more complicated than we might like. In recent years, efforts to push conversations on the issue into the public spotlight have, arguably, succeeded. People are more willing to listen to our stories; there seems to be a greater desire to understand the universe of conditions that impact one in four people.

The problem is that each experience conveyed through those stories is distinctive, and may require different language and metaphors to establish an understanding of that narrative. While people may be more willing to hear those distinctive narratives, the missing link has become understanding that one narrative does not foster a full understanding. It’s a snapshot in a mosaic of lives lived under the shadow of a diagnosis.

This becomes more problematic when we recognize that diagnoses are not static. For most conditions we might group under the blanket term of “mental illness,” we don’t have an answer to what causes it. As a result, pinpointing the best way to describe an individual’s condition is achieved by looking for what label best correlates to a given group of symptoms. Should medication be indicated by the psychiatrist involved in a person’s treatment, the prescriptions are written to treat those symptoms; there is no precise grouping of chemicals that can be relied upon once a label is applied. Most of the time, there’s a bit of pharmaceutical roulette involved.

That means a lot of uncertainty for those who have been diagnosed. Some doctors may interpret a grouping of severe symptoms as evidence of an acute manic episode. Others may see it as the manifestation of bipolar disorder with psychotic features. Others may see a psychotic break. The label selected often depends on the psychiatrist in question, their history with the patient, and the intensity of the circumstances. In cases where there is no prior relationship with the psychiatrist, family members may find greater sway in the evaluation process.

Even medication selection can be tremendously varied. There are those who attribute that to pharmaceutical marketing efforts, and there’s probably some truth to that. There’s also the fact that experiences with pharmaceuticals in the past may color a psychiatrist’s opinion of a drug, and that can be a problem when people can have dramatically different reactions to the same drug and the same dose. And speaking of doses, some prefer a heavier dose; others will start at a very low dose and work their way up. The same person might get the same label from three different doctors and be prescribed the same drug at three different dosages.

There are those who give up on the biological approach to treatment altogether. They will swear by cognitive or dialectical behavioral therapy (recognizing, thinking about, and talking your way through distorted thought patterns, for the TL;DR version). They may find yoga and meditation an essential part of regulating their thoughts and emotions. They’ll even argue that the right diet and exercise regimens are all you need.

And then there are people who buck the idea that these conditions require treatment at all. Terms like “mental skillness” get thrown around. They believe that what we view as mental illnesses are simply variations in the way our brains work. They insist that most people diagnosed are simply misunderstood creatives and empaths. They circle around the word “neurodiversity” as a rallying point – but we’ll get back to that in a minute.

The fact of the matter is that none of these really work as a one size fits all framework. Even on an individual basis, one can find themselves stuck squarely in the middle of these perspectives.

What’s It Like to Be A Fixer-Upper?

With the caveat that this is ONE story, let’s use my case as an example. I’ve been diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder.

There’s a part of me who can totally identify with people who get angry about being told that their unique brains are a symptom of illness. They extol the tremendous creativity and productivity associated with hypomanic episodes. They point to other cultures that see schizophrenia as representative of spiritual enlightenment. They present long, star-studded lists of the people who have accomplished tremendous things in their lifetime, despite having minds that others would call sick. I can’t argue with any of that. I miss being able to see things with vivid clarity, rapidly drawing connections and processing available data and sensory inputs to get a solid understanding of a situation’s nuances.

It’s more than that, though. People assume these labels mean you’re somehow deficient. That they should worry about you being unbalanced, even when you’re not symptomatic and things are under control. When a relapse happens – and they often do in a world of shifting diagnoses and treatments – it’s interpreted as support for the persistent, misplaced concerns. You find yourself wanting to scream that you’re not sick; you’re just different.

At the same time, I cannot see the acute manic and depressive episodes I’ve had as good or healthy. The experiences I had during those time periods were not a function of social stigma or being misunderstood. They were painful and terrifying. I torched my life, burning bridges and hurting the people I care most about. That’s not “mental skillness.” That’s not a form of diversity I celebrate. It’s not something I want anyone else to fully understand, either, because that would require them feeling what I felt, and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

Drugs have helped to regulate those experiences. But they’re not perfect. Episodes still happen, though most of the time they are less extreme and shorter in duration on the meds. And though I recognize their importance, I also lament how tired the drugs make me, and how slow I feel I’ve become.

CBT and DBT work; I know that. I’ve read the lit, I’ve talked to doctors and therapists, I’ve listened to the stories from people who had their lives changed by practicing those techniques. I use them when I can. Sometimes it can be effective in cutting off a panic attack at the knees or breaking distorted thought patterns before they spiral in the midst of an episode.

But I’m also a trained debater. It’s not like I can compartmentalize those spiraling voices in my head so they don’t have that training, too. Sometimes recognition of a distorted thought pattern and logical counterpoints get shouted out. CBT and DBT alone are not enough.

I’ve had panic attacks in yoga class, believe it or not. I still do yoga in an attempt to calm my mind and build my ability to focus, but it’s far from a panacea. Meditation helps sometimes, but isn’t a realistic consistent solution for a single mom who’s constantly on the run. I exercise to regulate my energy and mood levels, which makes a difference, but certainly doesn’t kill off the anxiety that plagues me most days. While I try to eat a balanced diet, the costs of some of the more “trendy” diets, lack of evidence to support the claims associated with them, and the picky taste buds of a six year old have sort of rendered that solution worthless.

That’s my experience. Not everyone requires medication. Not everyone will be helped by CBT and DBT. Not everyone will be able to keep things in check without drugs and therapy. For me, no one solution works; it’s a blend of all the worlds, and that blend varies depending on where I’m at in a given moment. For others, it’s a different blend. For some, one solution may be all they need.

Most people have no idea how complicated all this is; how confusing and scary it can be to navigate a world where your mind is cast as your enemy; how desperately we want to be able to function alongside people whose brains are “normal.” The only way things get better is if we talk about it, but we’ve got to find a way to talk about what’s been cast as mental illness that respects the vast spectrum represented.

That’s part of why I like the term neurodiversity so much.

Don’t Call Me “Ill”

Think about it for a beat. When we talk about diversity, it’s often because we’re encouraging understanding. We still recognize that said diversity can result in injustice and pain. It shouldn’t be that way, of course. That’s why we look to cultivate perspectives and solutions that address said injustice.

How do we get to those solutions, though? Consider the conversations we have about privilege. We encourage those in a position of privilege to, essentially, follow the advice of Stephen Covey when he said successful people look first to understand. We ask them to listen. If they don’t, we can’t possibly work together to dismantle said privilege.

The same principles make sense in the context of discussing what we’d previously labeled as mental illness. It’s more about mental diversity. Let’s break it down for further clarity.

The experience of a person of color, for instance, is inherently different from the experience of someone who presents as white; history, social structure, and residual bias combine to create interactions for people of color that a white person will simply never encounter. Similarly, the experience of someone who has received a diagnosis or displays symptoms associated with a diagnosis is distinctly different from someone who does not. Someone who presents as neurologically typical can’t understand what it’s like for their brain to short-circuit, or to have their credibility and agency tainted by perceived weakness. Just as we have to listen to the narratives of those with different experiences to understand privilege in the context of race, gender, socioeconomic status, faith, and more, the only way conversations about mental health are going to be productive is if we are willing to explore the tapestry of narratives that color the spectrum.

Just as it is in discussions about privilege, it’s important to recognize experiences we may not immediately associate with that spectrum, too. Presenting as a member of a minority group illicits one experience; presenting as a member of a different group creates a different one.

Consider how that idea functions when it comes to race. The idea of being “black enough” has been present for years, ostracizing those whose pigmentation isn’t associated with being a person of color. Recently, black actress Rashida Jones, as an example, was told on the red carpet that she looked “tropical”… to which she responded, “I’m ETHNIC.”

There are some who benefit from the lack of apparent association, too. Take, for example, actress Maya Rudolph. She’s owned the ambiguity (professionally, I am not going to presume to know personal perspective), with roles as diverse as Beyonce on SNL and a woman who largely presents as white in Bridesmaids. It’s not a reflection of her identity or self-definition; it is a function of her experiences, and the way people experience her.

These dynamics introduce a whole new layer of complexity to critical conversations about racial diversity and injustice. That type of complexity is also important when we talk about diversity in how the mind functions.

There are absolutely people who experience hypomania, for example, without the negative repercussions associated with a bipolar diagnosis, and their experience (and approach to how they process those experiences) are distinct from someone who has recurrent acute manic episodes. The former may never present as being “mentally ill.” They, like Rashida, may become frustrated by ignorance. Like Maya, they may find rewards in their socially ambiguous status, taking advantage of elevated mood and energy in pursuit of greatness. The latter may yearn for the experience of the former, exhausted by their own intense symptoms. To some end, there may be comfort in their more obvious symptoms, as it can garner more sympathy and understanding (though certainly not always). But broadly speaking, the tension that surfaces between those with diagnoses is real.

All of these experiences matter in the conversation about neurodiversity and mental health, just as diverse experiences matter in conversations about privilege with minority groups. There are intersections and levels of impact and they deserve consideration.

Just as an illustration of how those experiences can be distinctive, I know mental illness certainly wasn’t the conclusion drawn by the people in my life when I was experiencing hypomania. I can’t even count the times I’ve been told that I’m more valuable at partial capacity than most people are at full capacity. It feels good to get compliments like that; it’s also lonely and frustrating because there’s more going on than meets the eye and no one gets it. As things progressed and hypomania transformed into acute mania… well, let’s just say the experience was less complimentary. I wish I could go back to when things were simpler most days. The fact that I am not only diagnosed with bipolar disorder but generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder as well can make both of those stories difficult to communicate to those who only experience bipolar disorder, either as an individual or someone who has encountered someone with the diagnosis. It’s not black and white or even grey; it’s a kaleidoscope of rebellious neurons who don’t care about your need for clarity.

And just as conversations about diversity in general require recognition of the way difference is processed as the problem – and not the diversity itself – conversations about neurodiversity should stop characterizing its presence as problematic, and start focusing on how it’s approached.

When we talk about how race or gender influences experiences in the justice system, workforce, and social interactions, we don’t say that the problem is being black or a woman. We say that the way we treat people because they belong to these groups is a problem. So why, when we talk about neurodiversity, do we say that the brain is the problem? Can we not say that the brains of those with diagnoses are distinct, and create different experiences? Can we not say that some of those experiences are positive, while some are not? Can we accept those positive experiences without diminishing them, and seek solutions to the negative ones? Can we seek those solutions without further stigmatizing those who have had those experiences by stripping them of agency?

If it’s possible to adopt that framework when discussing diversity in general, can’t we do the same when it comes to diversity in the way our minds work?

We Can Do Better

Listen, I’m not trying to tell anyone with a diagnosis how they should process or approach it. I’m not a doctor or therapist or expert, and I can’t know the distinctive experiences that dictate solid advice in that arena. But I feel pretty confident when I say that anyone who knows what it’s like to do the mental illness discourse tango will tell you that we can do a lot better as a society in our conversations about unique brains.

I’m fully aware that the discussion that’s taken place here isn’t exactly a detailed road map. I’m not sure it would be possible to draw one. So I’m going to ask you a favor. It doesn’t matter if you have a diagnosis or not. Just try.

Listen.

Listen to the stories of people who think like you. Listen to the stories of people who do not. Listen to their differences. Listen to the stories of pain. Listen to the stories of triumph. Listen without the comfort in believing you know how the story ends.

See.

See people. See human beings, not labels. See experiences, not symptoms. See hope. See despair. See the fight it takes to see through the fog and be seen.

Learn.

Learn about your family’s mental health history, and what your risk factors are (there are probably several, but most won’t talk about them without prompting). Learn what the diagnoses applied to the people you care about mean from them (and those folks are there, even if you don’t realize it). Learn how to ask questions without thinking you already know the answers (you can’t). Learn to support those fighting the good fight instead of assuming you know what’s best for them (you don’t).

Speak.

Speak out when labels associated with neurodiversity are traded as barbs. Speak up when someone conflates those labels with character. Speak about persnickety neuroelasticity and finicky neurochemical levels and atypical neural lobe activity as a function of diversity instead of deficiency.

Remember.

Remember that you’re never going to stop learning about this if you’re doing it right. Remember that even if you do share some of my labels, my experience with them is unique. Remember that I face challenges you probably won’t, and have to make decisions you’ll probably never have to wrestle.

!!! BUT !!!

Even if your experience isn’t mine, it’s still unique. You face your own challenges. You make your own decisions. It’s hard. It’s life. And we’re all just doing the best we can.

Maybe we’re not that different, after all?

I am not sick or broken or in need of fixing. Just different. I’m neurodiverse. I’m me. My diagnosis does not define me or my character. It does not determine my self-worth or agency. And it feels amazing to finally say that and mean it. It’s actually one of my feelings that I do want other people to experience – all of you, diagnosis or no. And I’m hoping that if we can listen and see and speak and remember that more of us might get that chance.

Frankly, it’s been this journey through what we call crazy that’s gotten me to this point. Maybe I am mad, but I can’t help thinking that Plato got it right in Phaedrus when he said:

[I]n reality the greatest blessings come by way of madness, indeed of madness that is heaven sent.

Is that really so crazy?

This Performance About Mass Violence and White Male Privilege Will Take Your Breath Away

When it comes to complex social justice issues, it can be difficult to make people care enough. Sometimes, data points and bar charts fall short of encapsulating the significance of a problem – particularly when those problems require uncomfortable revelations if they’re ever to be addressed. Sometimes, singular narratives aren’t even enough to break through the cultural defenses we’ve put up as a society. Sometimes, it takes the power of creative performance to cut through the conditioning that’s preventing us from honestly engaging on an important subject.

That’s what this is. The video below is a POI peformance from Western Kentucky University alum Sarah Brazier. For those unfamiliar with the world of competitive collegiate speech and debate (aka forensics), POI, or programmed oral interpretation, is one of the many events available. To compete, students will collect materials from a wide variety of media on a specific subject. This might include plays, short stories, novels, poetry, movies, commercials, news articles, YouTube videos… use your imagination here. The goal is to to craft a performance that will explore an idea or illustrate an argument. The student will splice the material together into a ten minute program that is performed with the use of a small black book at tournaments across the country. They are judged on their program composition, creative presentation, and technical performance during competitions throughout the year, ultimately duking it out for national titles each Spring.

While trophies are nice, I’ve never met a POI competitor who valued the accolades over their argument. For many, the forum became a means of raising awareness and advancing crucial social discourse. Such was the case for Ms. Brazier during the 2012-2013 season. In the wake of the Aurora shooting, she and her coaches began researching and designing a program that would examine the connection between white male privilege and mass violence. (Too) soon after that, the Sandy Hook shooting gave the program’s message even greater relevance.

Today? Well, I’d say it’s time to turn up the volume. Sarah’s performance hits you directly in the gut. Part of that stems from the fact that she is a magnificently talented performer. But part of it comes from the fact that she paints, in vivid detail, a picture we have been so reluctant to see: one where the ideals we glorify for straight white men contribute to a culture that tolerates and advances toxic ideologies – a culture that leaves us vulnerable to senseless tragedy again and again and again.

Sharing a video of her performance on Facebook this afternoon, Ms. Brazier stated:

When Ganer Newman came to me back in the fall of 2012 after James Holmes walked into a movie theater and killed 12 people, I knew this topic was important… but I didn’t realize how important. Then, in December 2012 Adam Lanza shot 20 school children, six teachers, and his own mother. My POI became so much more than a speech round. Now, after the atrocity Elliot Rodgers committed, I think it’s incredibly important we talk about the intersection between white male privilege and mass violence. Read one article about Elliot Rodgers, and you cannot deny that there is more at play here than mental illness. Our society is sick. There is something inherently wrong with us, when, as the Onion satirically reflects in its latest headline, there is “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” Atrocities like these need to be prevented. Ganer recorded this performance in the spring of 2013. Please watch, please listen, and please talk about this. This must be talked about, and not just in the speech community. #AdvocacyMatters

She more than has a point here, folks. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped the chorus of people unwilling to critically examine the cultural crisis in front of us from dismissing the conversation. Because I am completely uninterested in a world where that conversation doesn’t get its due, here’s what I’m asking you to do:

  1. Watch the video below. The performance style might be unfamiliar to you at first, but keep watching, and keep an open mind (& heart). You’ll get used to the stylistics quickly and be glad you watched the whole thing when it’s done. Here’s hoping that a different presentation of these ideas galvanizes more of those who know and wakes up more of those who don’t.
  2. Share share share. You can help engage a wider group in the conversation. You don’t want to field the prickly questions that come with the share? That’s ok – send them here.
  3. Start reflecting. Start asking questions. Start talking. The only way we start addressing this problem is if we’re willing to come to the table and do something about it. So much of the requisite changes have to take place on a personal level, which makes these personal interactions key.

You ready? Grab some tissues.

ADDITIONAL READING: