Saturday, May 25, 2013

More on Morehouse

There's something that's been ruminating in my head all week. And I think I'll take a lazy Saturday morning to see if I can put it into words. It has to do with President Obama's speech at Morehouse and those who are criticizing it.

What I've been thinking about is that over the years, we've developed certain rules for how we're supposed to deal with victims of oppression/violence/racism. One of those rules is "never blame the victim." I totally agree with that rule.

For the sake of comparison though, lets imagine that we're talking to a victim of domestic violence. It is important to always affirm that she is not at fault. But the truth is - she has some choices to make about how to deal with her situation. Part of our job should also be to empower her to make those choices...for herself. To simply focus on her as a victim of her circumstances robs her of that choice.

Empowering a victim to make their own choices doesn't mean that you blame them - or that you don't hold the perpetrator responsible for what they've done. But victims are - by definition - powerless. When we reinforce that sense of powerlessness, we are inviting further victimization.

What I've just said here is something that has often put me at odds with much of the human services field I've been a part of professionally for over 30 years. I don't want to disparage the entire profession, but there's a reason why the term "bleeding heart liberal" was invented. It usually refers to the fact that many of us enter this business to rescue the "poor victims." That puts us squarely on what Stephen Karpman calls the Drama Triangle.

In doing so, this becomes not only how we see the world, but these three roles become the only ones available for us to play. 

To empower a victim means inviting them to step out of that triangle and take charge of their own lives. Contrary to "blaming the victim," that is what I believe President Obama was inviting the Morehouse graduates to do.  
I understand there’s a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: “Excuses are tools of the incompetent used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.” Well, we’ve got no time for excuses. Not because the bitter legacy of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they have not. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; we know those are still out there...

Nobody cares how tough your upbringing was. Nobody cares if you suffered some discrimination. And moreover, you have to remember that whatever you’ve gone through, it pales in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured -- and they overcame them. And if they overcame them, you can overcome them, too.
Now that's some tough love he's dishing out there, isn't it? You see...he knows that racism and discrimination are going to continue to come their way. But he also wants to empower them to not let that define who it is they're going to become. He was inviting them to step off that drama triangle that would only see the world in terms of victims, perpetrators and rescuers. And the vision he offered as an alternative is a grand one indeed.
As Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination. And that’s an experience that a lot of Americans share. Hispanic Americans know that feeling when somebody asks them where they come from or tell them to go back. Gay and lesbian Americans feel it when a stranger passes judgment on their parenting skills or the love that they share. Muslim Americans feel it when they’re stared at with suspicion because of their faith. Any woman who knows the injustice of earning less pay for doing the same work -- she knows what it’s like to be on the outside looking in.

So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need. If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy -- the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, to know what it’s like when you're not born on 3rd base, thinking you hit a triple. It should give you the ability to connect. It should give you a sense of compassion and what it means to overcome barriers.

So it’s up to you to widen your circle of concern -- to care about justice for everybody, white, black and brown. Everybody. Not just in your own community, but also across this country and around the world. To make sure everyone has a voice, and everybody gets a seat at the table; that everybody, no matter what you look like or where you come from, what your last name is -- it doesn’t matter, everybody gets a chance to walk through those doors of opportunity if they are willing to work hard enough...

That’s what we’ve come to expect from you, Morehouse -- a legacy of leaders -- not just in our black community, but for the entire American community. To recognize the burdens you carry with you, but to resist the temptation to use them as excuses. To transform the way we think about manhood, and set higher standards for ourselves and for others. To be successful, but also to understand that each of us has responsibilities not just to ourselves, but to one another and to future generations. Men who refuse to be afraid. Men who refuse to be afraid.
I think that's a lesson we can all take to heart.


  1. From a strategic standpoint the president's message is pleasing to see. I am an atheist who was raised a jew. I had a a bar mitzvah and then I stopped attending temple. The president is correct that the list of people who have experienced discrimination first hand is long and not homogenous. What our nation's diversifying demographic makeup and this speech both point out is that we can become a dominant influence in our society by refusing to fight discrimination as a bunch of separate, homogenous, too small to have an impact victim groups independent of each other and instead recognize we should all stand together as a plurality and have a very serious impact in making this a land of opportunity and equality for everyone.

    1. Very profound lockewasright! Thank you.

    2. Wow...nicely said, lockewasright. I like your way of thinking.

    3. Thank you both. I have thought about this concept quite a bit and may be creating a web site around the idea... maybe some organizing. I haven't got experience with running such a thing or with organizing, but I am passionate.

  2. Spot on, Smartypants! There are NO Limitations, except for the LIMITATIONS we have made for ourselves.

  3. And in the speech, PBO also pointed out that these graduates are competing not just in a domestic sphere, but internationally, with people who have had to overcome even greater obstacles: the peasant from Hunan scratching up to the middle class in Shanghai, or the untouchable working in a call center in Bangalore, living a life she couldn't have imagined a few years before. Everyone has a story; but more often than not, how it ends is up to you.

  4. Sincerity. That's what I love about Preisdent Obama. He means what he says. Every time I hear the man speak, I'm encouraged to do more in spite of how Rough the going may be.

    Thanks, I love coming here:)