As I collect my thoughts for this writing, I am reminded of the fable about the wolf and the lamb. Early one morning, a lamb stood drinking on the bank of a stream. That very same morning, a hungry wolf came by, farther up the stream, looking for something to eat. Then his gaze fell upon the lamb. Usually, the wolf snapped up such delicious morsels without thinking much about it, but this lamb looked so very helpless and innocent that the wolf felt he ought to have some kind of an excuse for taking its life.
“How dare you paddle around in my stream and stir up all the mud!” he shouted fiercely. “You deserve to be punished severely for your rashness!”
“But, your highness,” replied the trembling lamb. “Do not be angry! I cannot possibly muddy the water you are drinking up there. Remember, you are upstream, and I am downstream.”
“You do muddy it!” retorted the wolf savagely. “And besides, I have heard that you told lies about me last year!”
“How could I have done so?” pleaded the lamb. “I wasn’t born until this year.”
“If it wasn’t you, it was your brother!”
“I have no brothers.”
“Well, then,” snarled the wolf, “It was someone in your family anyway. But no matter who it was, I do not intend to be talked out of my breakfast.”
And without more words, the wolf seized the poor lamb and carried her off to the forest.
By now you’re probably wondering, OK, Kenya, so what’s the point?
Here’s the moral of the story: “The tyrant can always find an excuse for his tyranny. The unjust will not listen to the reasoning of the innocent.”
After five months of people across the nation waiting, protesting and demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron shared the news: though an innocent Black woman was killed at the hands of law enforcement officers, there will be no justice for her and her family. Protesters across the nation view the outcome of this investigation through the lens of an oft-told tale, where the tyrant can always find an excuse for his tyranny.
We, as a nation of citizens, find ourselves divided once again along increasingly polarizing lines and arguing over whose lives matter. On one side, you have folks lining up to justify the actions of the police by criminalizing the dead victim. On the other side, you have folks who see the criminalization of Breonna Taylor as a well-worn strategy taken from a familiar playbook. The dehumanization and the vilification of the person you seek to make the enemy — like an individual from a different nation, ethnic group, social class or political party — inspires hatred toward them and makes it easier to hurt them, because they are viewed as subhuman.
Negative stories have been written that cast Breonna Taylor as either an active drug dealer herself or as a known and active associate of drug dealers. In case you are unfamiliar with her story, she was a 26-year-old Louisville emergency medical worker studying to become a nurse, who was shot several times in her hallway after three plainclothes narcotics detectives busted down the door of her apartment after midnight on March 13. The officers entered the home as part of an investigation into a suspect who lived across town. No drugs were found at her home.
Rather than spending time debunking misinformation about her, I’d like to pose this question: when did our response to the loss of a human life become predicated based on our political leanings? Has our sense of compassion been swallowed up by our desire to push an agenda at any cost? Is our need for our side to be right greater than our ability to see the people who are impacted in profound ways by these life-altering experiences?
Higher education offers us the opportunity to ask these questions and ruminate over them, and still maintain enough intellectual curiosity to explore all sides of a matter. We don’t get stuck in what-about-isms, and we are not easily thrown off course by false equivalencies presented as facts to bolster weak arguments. In this seminal moment in our nation’s history, it is important that institutions of higher education be actively engaged in creating platforms and starting dialogues that challenge us to reason together, and be open to these discussions, recognizing that anything that is not talked about doesn’t just go away. Instead, it festers and quietly poisons our perspectives on issues, and it hinders our ability to work together for the development of a more welcoming and inclusive society.
This is not just about Breonna Taylor. We have an opportunity to drive change in our culture by talking about the things that we’ve been programmed to believe we can’t talk about. Whether it is race relations, politics, gender equity, LGBTQIAP+ rights, religion, disability rights or social justice movements, it’s time for us to lead the way.
For a moment, I want you to consider these eight useful steps that will help us all on our journey of learning and growing together.
Step 1: Fight the impulse to react with anger when someone has a different opinion. Take time to seriously consider the topic of discussion from their perspective. Really try to place yourself in that person’s shoes, and attempt to gain an understanding of what shapes their point of view. The emphasis here is on understanding, not agreement.
Step 2: Avoid the urge to withdraw and shut down, either physically or mentally. When things get contentious, don’t check out. Practice staying engaged rather than being enraged. Going out in a blaze of glory may feel good in the moment, but consider the work that will be required to repair the fractured relationship and trust in the aftermath of the incident. Work to consciously have your inputs in alignment with your desired outcomes.
Step 3: Don’t leave your comfort zone, expand it. New situations and unfamiliar environments can be unsettling. However, consider the new thoughts and people who can be introduced to you to enrich your life and challenge you to grow in new areas. Be led by your intellectual curiosity to learn about something or someone new each day.
Step 4: If you don’t know or are a bit unsure, ask questions. My mom used to say, “If you knew better, you’d do better!” One way to know better is by taking the time to ask questions. Real questions, when asked sincerely with the intention of gaining new knowledge, will usually have a welcome reception.
Step 5: Truly listen. Another thing my mom would say is, “Don’t try to be a Smarty Arty. Be quiet and listen.” Sometimes, it’s not about having an answer or a rebuttal. Practicing the art of actively listening to another person will unlock new insights for you to take into consideration. Listening also indicates to the other person that they matter, and their contributions are of value. By listening, we can learn what to do and what not to do, but we have to pay attention.
Step 6: Free yourself from binary thoughts. Everything can’t simply be viewed from the lens of “I’m right, and you’re wrong.” On more occasions than I’m comfortable admitting, there have been moments when what I thought to be the only correct way was proven false. Consider that it’s possible that we may not have all of the facts. Maybe we thought we heard something that was actually never said. Maybe we assumed something was fact that was fiction. Just be open to the notion that there may be more than one plausible explanation for something that has taken place.
Step 7: Recognize that anyone can teach us something, so be open. At an institution of higher learning, we are all lifelong learners, or at least we like to believe so. Even after becoming an expert in your field, there’s always something new to learn. The late Professor Carlene Polite, an incredible professor of African American Studies at SUNY Buffalo, once told a story about how her dad told her that she thought she was pretty smart, but the things she didn’t know could fill up a library. Professor Polite said she was so offended and upset with her dad. But several years later, she told her father to his face that he was wrong about what he told her years earlier, because she learned that the things she did not know could fill up several libraries!
Step 8: Challenge your B.I.A.S. What are the beliefs, ideas, assumptions and stories (B.I.A.S.) that you tell yourself that determine how you view the world? How do your experiences and history help to color and shape your perceptions of other people and situations?
As we work to implement these steps in our daily interactions with one another, we will be better equipped to work toward change, advocate for justice, and work effectively and collectively toward the goals of diversity, equity and inclusion.