September 21, 2013

Some Thoughts on Malcolm X

I've been a fan of Spike Lee's movies for a long time, and I still remember seeing his "Malcolm X" in the theater.

Though it may seem like an odd thing for a white guy, I left that theater an admirer of the icon of Black Power who would later choose the name Malik El-Shabazz, and earn the honorific El-Hajj.  

And it wasn't just the universalist El-Shabazz I admired, the one who had given up his anger and hatred against me and my kind, but, in part thanks to the brilliance of Lee's movie-making, I also learned to admire, and appreciate the necessity for, his time as "Malcolm X", when he would have been perfectly happy to call me a "white devil" to my face.

When you believe passionately that diversity is a strength and an enhancement to the quality of your life, when you feel that you are "one of the good guys" reaching out in friendship, the venomous rejection that X and the Nation of Islam were spewing out is very hard to take, even if you recognize the justice of the grievances that inspired it.  It isn't easy being told "We don't want you here" when you feel you are on the same side.

But I learned through Spike Lee and Malcolm X that the "white devil" message was not about me, and not for me.  In a way, it was none of my business.

It was about purging the internalized sense of inferiority, shame, and envy that had been instilled by centuries of domination and abuse. The truth is that equality is not conferred by others: it needs to grow and become firmly established within first.  Once it is there, others can accept it or not, but then that is THEIR problem.

Centuries of collective, and decades of personal, anger and hurt had to be vented, processed, and transcended before El-Shabazz could emerge, equal not because someone else (or some document) told him he was, but because he just was, and knew it as surely as he knew his own freely-chosen name.

Another important thing I admired about Malcolm X, and the Nation of Islam, were the discipline and focus they brought to their activities, and while the message may have sounded vitriolic, they stopped short of actual violence.  This is not a trivial accomplishment, and it makes all the difference.

Recently, it has come to my attention that I need to relearn the lesson that Mr. Lee and El-Hajj El-Shabazz were kind enough to teach me over twenty years ago.

In my larger professional community of software developers, there are new groups with real historic grievances, and they are getting to the point where they too want to sit at the table without having to apologize for who they are. I've been fortunate to work in environments with a lot of diversity, and I welcome more of it enthusiastically. 

But some of these aggrieved groups are working through the anger and hate built up from their long suppression, from the mistreatment they have received from our industry and society at large. And sometimes what they say and do makes me uncomfortable, seems to target me or seems to contravene the values of diversity as I understand them.

As I said, this can be hard to take.  But maybe I have to remember the lesson of Malcolm X: it's not about me, and it is not for me. In a way, it's not even my business.

Rather than taking offense, or speaking up, maybe the best thing I can do is LET them hate my male, white, hetero, cis, middle-aged ass. 

If it gets too much, I can look away, ignore it, bite my tongue, live my values in some other way.  Short of actual violence, or the genuine threat of it, maybe I need to let them express themselves, however they like, until they've worked it through.

Diversity is one of MY most deeply-held values, and no one said that living your values was going to be easy (actually, I'm pretty sure that it being hard and doing it anyway is how you know it really is a value). I will continue living that value, even if sometimes it is rejected by those I'm reaching out to.

Perhaps the best I can do is to continue to be a SILENT ally, and to be ready, when they have worked through all that anger, when they are healed, to welcome them as the friends, colleagues and siblings in the universal family that I already know them to be.