The year was 2012. I walked through the front lobby of Buffalo City Hall and heard a voice call out to me and say, “Kenya, you’re not going to speak? You’re just going to act like you don’t see me?”
It was the familiar voice of one of my colleagues pointing out my oversight. Quickly, I said, “Hey, my friend! I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.”
Generally, I speak to everyone who crosses my path during the day as a way of conveying that whatever may be happening in their day, good or bad, someone notices them and acknowledges their presence. So, a couple weeks later, while walking through the lobby again, the same person called out, “Kenya, you’re not going to speak?” After this occurred several more times, I blamed the dim lighting for obscuring my vision. But, while in meetings, oddly, I had trouble seeing PowerPoint presentations and assumed I was seated too far back. Outside of work, during an evening of shopping with my wife Dianna, we came across a painting she loved. Though it was nice, I did not see anything special about it, because in my view, it wasn’t very detailed. Nevertheless, we bought it.
Fast forward a few days, and I took one of my daughters to get some eyeglasses. Once she returned home with her new specs, everyone admired them and asked to try them on. She passed her glasses around to each sibling, as they giggled and briefly modeled their sister’s frames. Finally, my wife and kids encouraged me to join the fun and put the glasses on to see how I looked in them. Once I did, my eyes fell upon the painting Dianna and I had purchased and hung in our living room just days earlier. Suddenly, the undetailed, blah work of art transformed into one of the most beautifully detailed and colorful paintings I had ever seen!
At this point, it is likely obvious to you what was going on with me, but up until that moment, I did not know I needed glasses. Once I got them, however, things became clear — literally and figuratively. My inability to see had not been caused solely by external environmental factors but by an internal issue that had become an unconscious barrier. Sometimes, we just need to look through different lenses to see that our vision needs correcting.
I am reminded of a quote attributed to Leo Tolstoy that says, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing themselves.” Once I had my eyes examined and my vision corrected, it benefited both me and those around me. I saw all the rich beauty surrounding me, and others no longer felt overlooked, as if they did not matter, because I failed to notice them.
As I reflected on my past vision issue, it was in this context that I started thinking about President Trump’s Executive Order on “Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping,” first issued on September 22, 2020. It defines race or sex stereotyping as “ascribing character traits, values, moral and ethical codes, privileges, status or beliefs to an entire race or sex, or to individuals because of their race or sex.” View more information about Executive Order 13950.
On its face, the order doesn’t seem problematic. Since stereotyping and scapegoating are not good things, implementing a policy to prohibit such behaviors in the workplace seems rational. After all, we do have policies in place that offer protections from workplace bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of race, sex and gender, ability and age. Yet, controversy surrounds this specific policy because of its shortsighted solution for resolving any issues involving race, sex and gender in America.
Essentially, we are told not to speak truthfully about race and gender relations, or we will face the real threat of financial sanction against the institution. Discussing topics like white privilege or pointing out the importance of stopping the promulgation of the idea of color-blindness is negatively characterized as “blame focused diversity training that reinforces biases.” Further, naming and acknowledging white guilt, which could cause discomfort and anguish in diversity trainings, is also said to be taboo. The executive order states that “such ideas may be fashionable in the academy, but they have no place in programs and activities supported by federal taxpayer dollars.”
Now, I invite you to put on your race, sex and gender equity lenses, and take a closer look at the implications of this executive order related to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion in society. If we are to learn anything from this country’s past failures and missteps, and work together to find ways to truly live out the principles upon which this country was founded, we must discuss certain matters in workshops and trainings. And yes, there will be times when we experience feelings of discomfort, guilt and anguish. It is just a part of our collective reality.
Let me ask you this: if you step on a nail, and it punctures your foot, does the pain of it magically go away because you refuse to acknowledge it? I’m guessing probably not. Similarly, if we refuse to acknowledge the residual impact and lingering pain tied to America’s history of slavery, institutional racism and white supremacy, the pain does not magically vanish.
American history is replete with documented examples of racial and gender bias towards its citizens. The 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote was not passed until 1920. (See timeline here.) The Voting Rights Act of 1965 enforced the rights of Black citizens to vote, particularly in southern states. But this right had already been given to Black men by the 15th Amendment in 1870, and it took nearly a hundred years to implement and exercise.
We are all aware of how this country inculcated its citizenry to believe that the so-called white race was superior to all non-white races. We have books, videos and federal documents that speak to the intentional, separate, unequal and disparate treatment of women and minoritized individuals. Therefore, not to speak of these things would do a disservice to the education of the American public.
We should know about the 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative that sheds light on the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans. Initiatives such as these help correct the vision of Americans who fail to see details — both beautiful and ugly — of our history and the diversity of our country. You need only glance at cable news and social media to know we have a long way to go before resolving issues surrounding race, sex and gender discrimination. Ignoring the issues will not help.
Our history informs our future. Thus, if we cannot talk freely and openly about the impact of slavery on current race relations, then we are left with no reference points to guide us as we navigate our present circumstances and shape our future. Without holistic, honest education that is not whitewashed to spare feelings, Americans will suffer from a collective astigmatism that prevents us from clearly seeing and acknowledging the whole of humanity and the glory of its diversity.
The answer to this nation’s long and sordid history of race, sex and gender bias cannot be fixed by an executive order that essentially tells us not to acknowledge what is clearly evident to anyone with knowledge of this nation’s history. We need better lenses from which to view, face and resolve the challenges ahead of us. Our collective vision needs correcting, and this requires tackling hard topics that will expand and elevate our consciousness. If we do not do this, the chorus of voices of the marginalized, unseen, unheard and unacknowledged will ask demandingly, “You’re not going to speak? You’re just going to act like you don’t see me?”
At Medaille, we are committed to seeing everyone clearly and promoting civic engagement to address the problems of our times by developing and educating empowered individuals.