Black Folks, We are on Our Own: A Meditation on Agency, Power, & Race

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[This is a transcript of the embedded podcast episode]

I wanted to have this conversation just around education and what comes with that for our kids. But I really wanted to talk about one of the things I think our kids lack the most, and not just our kids, but just Black folks period. I mean, people of color in general, but I’m speaking specifically to Black folks. I think that’s the freedom to fuck up. Let me explain what I mean by that.

On Education vs Schooling

Let’s just start by defining education versus schooling, right? Education is the knowledge that you actually gained, whether it’s knowledge of self, and learn about the things around you, and just general knowledge and then being able to communicate that knowledge out to others. That’s just a poor man’s definition of what education is, right? Schooling is something different. 

“Let’s just start by defining education versus schooling, right? Education is the knowledge that you actually gained, whether it’s knowledge of self, and learn about the things around you, and just general knowledge and then being able to communicate that knowledge out to others. Schooling is the apparatus by which we pass through an educational system. What that means is you can be great at school and never receive any education.”

Schooling is the apparatus by which we pass through an educational system. What that means is you can be great at school and never receive any education. You can also have terrible schooling and receive a ton of education. I wanted to define that and split those things apart, because a lot of people conflate the two. And it could be dangerous to conflate the two, because if I’m having a conversation where I’m very clear on these definitions and I’m looking at these as two separate things, and somebody else has conflated these two things, then we could be arguing against each other and completely missing each other because we not having a shared understanding.

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One of the things that I try to look at when we talk about education is what you control versus what systems control. What’s in your power versus what’s not in your power. Off top, I want to kill the liberal-conservative beef. [There’s] an argument that lives out there, of whether is it all systemic or is it all behavior? The answer that most people, if you actually have a conversation with them, is that it’s a bit of both, and so I just think that this part is just really important because here’s what I know that we can control, or what I can control, or what you can control.

On Agency

One is your level of agency. Agency is a term that’s kind of foreign to a lot of people, but I think it’s becoming a bit more popularized. Our agency is the ability to know what we need and the skills and will to go out and do those things. I have agency if I go to a school, I got the wrong classes, I know I got the wrong classes because I know what’s required. I then know to go to the counselor and get that stuff changed. If they don’t change it, I know how to escalate that issue up to eventually get what I need. That’s agency in action.

The other thing that I control is how hard I work, right? How hard I work is something that’s fully under my control, fully under my purview. How hard do I go? Am I putting in an extra mile? Whatever the case is. Knowing how to navigate, that’s another piece that’s pretty important. Not only am I working hard and doing all this stuff, but do I know the path to take to get to where I need to go? Do I know that I need to go to a counselor to change that grade? Or if that counselor don’t want to change that grade, do I know how to escalate that stuff? And then part of that also goes into how to make that school work for me. Even if the school isn’t super great, let’s say a school is terrible, somebody that has a lot of education or has gone to college or done a few different things or whatnot they might be able to get more out of that school than somebody who has parents that didn’t navigate education well, or didn’t go onto colleges, or doesn’t have money, or whatever the case is.

“If my future depends … racist people … waking up one day and no longer being racist, if that’s what was contingent on my success, then just take me out the game, because I can’t compete in that game.”

Those are the things that we control. Now, the things that we don’t control is racist systems and racism, or people’s fears of Black people or brown people. We don’t control necessarily how much folks spend on education, right? We don’t control how much our state spends on education. We don’t always control what the curriculum is. This is something that speaks to me directly because I say this a lot. If my future depends or depended on white people or racist people or rich people waking up one day and no longer being racist, if that’s what was contingent on my success, then just take me out the game, because I can’t compete in that game. That just takes away all of my agency. That takes away all my power, because I can’t control what other people do, let alone what they feel.

This is the part, since I talked so much about agency, this is the part where I wanted to veer a little bit more on the systemic and what we don’t necessarily control. One of the ways that I think that we’ll see a switch or a change in these things is when Black people, Black kids, those living in poverty or whatever, actually have the freedom to fuck up. This is what I mean by that. Chris Rock, I think it was Chris Rock, it might not have been, but the joke was how amazing Barack Obama was. He was the president of his law school. He was this model citizen. He had done all this stuff and he was brilliant, right? He was like creme de la creme of intelligence and he became president, and then he made the joke that George Bush Jr. was a C student.

On A Racist Society

The point that he was making was, in a racist society, you can get somewhere, you can actually do some great things if you are exceptional in that thing if you are a person of color. More specifically like a brown person, male or female, you have to be exceptional. The dichotomy he was building was when you are the majority, when you are the people in power, when you are white, you can just be average and you can still get a lot of great things. The punchline was we haven’t reached racial equality until we can have a Black George Bush in the office.

None of the policies or debates folks have been having saved me from trash education. When you realize you are on your own, you can do something about it.

Now, I know I definitely butchered his joke, but I think you get the point, right? Let’s also talk about this, let’s bring this down to children. Our children are often not even allowed to be kids. They have to grow up very, very, very fast, right? I often feel that I was born grown. My parents had their own struggles and issues, but I had to carry my weight. I helped raise my siblings at a very young age, I took on a lot of responsibilities, I weighed in on a lot of stuff. That’s not to say other people didn’t do those things, but Black kids tend to be looked at as older than what they are. 12 year old boys roughhousing and wrestling don’t just get seen as kids when they happen to be Black. We don’t see them as kids just kind of goofing off, right? We see that as a threat. You might be afraid of those people. Whereas a white kid that’s 17 years old, can commit a major crime.

Let’s not even say kid, let’s say a white college student, like the young man from Stanford that was caught raping this young woman, the judge said that he has his whole life in front of him. Like there’s a dichotomy and how we are viewed, right? That’s something that we as a people don’t necessarily have control over. That pervasion that starts in childhood doesn’t go away in adulthood, and even when you get some success and you are a person of color, you tend to be paranoid about it. You tend to really understand that all these things can go away very, very soon if I make any type of mistakes.

On The Importance of Having Grace to Fuck Up

I run an organization that I built, and I have to fight for dollars and I have to try to raise money and prove my worth and my value and things of that nature. I have colleagues, I have friends, I’ve seen in this work white folks that get a lot of money and they get to just try things. They get to fail, but they don’t have to worry about failing. They don’t have to worry about fucking up, because usually to get to success, you have to fail a lot. You have to fuck up a lot. Well, that’s not the freedom that I feel in my organization, the one that I own and I started. What I feel is I got one shot at this thing and if I don’t do it well enough, not only would I no longer get money, but it’s going to be very difficult for the next Black person to get money.

I’ve had opportunities to go on major radio shows or have really big opportunities and I’ve turned them down, just because I don’t want the notoriety or the recognition that comes with it. I’d rather stay small, run my organization well, build up from where I’m at and build out the freedom to fuck up in my own way, as opposed to having some type of meteoric rise, because I think the only thing that this country likes to do more than uplift an underdog story is tear that story down. I think that right now today, 36-year-old Dr. Charles Cole, III, that is what I feel.

I just wanted to acknowledge that these issues that we are talking about, these things that we are discussing and dealing with, they start in the womb, they start in childhood, they start when we look at how we treat our kids as a society, and they don’t stop and they won’t stop until we have Black money or brown money or we build out self-reliance, self-sufficient forms of wealth where our livelihood isn’t totally at the whim of somebody who is not on the same wavelength as we are culturally. This is why these things matter. There has to be a balance, there has to be two things happening at once. You have to work hard, you have to be smart, you have to have agency and you have to pave that way for the now and for the future. But we also have to figure out a way to try to break the infection on our society that does not allow us the freedom to fuck up.

Everyone is Virtue Signaling & It’s Halting Us All

This is me saying this as somebody who makes a ton of mistakes, who lives with a lot of guilt, and this isn’t some self-righteous sad talk or article. This is what I know everybody reading or listening to this feels. Everybody has something that has brought them deep shame. Everybody has done some things and culture has passed that thing up, and that thing is no longer popular. Everybody has said some things that they’re not supposed to say. The issue is, and the problem is, is that we become such a culture of the Emperor has no clothes, that so many people are just afraid to be themselves and we partake in these kind of mob mentalities in the moment.

For those that don’t know or who did not read Aesop Fables as a child, the Emperor With No Clothes is the story of a town with a very insecure King, and these two shysters and swindlers knew that everybody was insecure, especially this King. They needed to con this King, and they wove him a “invisible” wardrobe, an invisible outfit. What they said is, “Anybody who can’t see this beautiful, beautiful outfit we’ve woven for you isn’t fit for their position.” The King being insecure already, having his own imposter syndrome issues, this is before this was even a term, says, “This is beautiful.” He lies and said, “This is beautiful”, and then he goes out in front of people in his kingdom and he says, “Look at my beautiful clothes. Anybody that cannot see these clothes are unfit for their position.” And all these adults go with the lie. It’s not until a child, an innocent child, out of the mouth of babes, walks up and says, “Hey, you’re naked.”.

This child doesn’t have to be worthy of anything because he’s just a child. That is what we are going through right now in our society. Everybody is lying to themselves, to their neighbors on social media, all this stuff. Everybody is curating who and what they are, and if you can’t see their virtue signaling then you are not worthy of your position. But the only thing we can do is hope that our children save us, who should only have to worry about being children. When they walk up to all of us, point at us and laugh and say, “Hey, you’re naked,” will we be able to actually listen?