There Is No Going Back. We Can Go Forward, But We Do Not Go Back.

Dear Visible Man:

     I am a 19-year-old African-American sophomore working toward becoming a chemical engineer.  I live in a residence hall on the school campus. I am really getting fed up with the ridiculous remarks that come from the people around me.
     One of my roommates believes that slavery was a good thing (“they had someone to take care of them.”)  Recently, one of my roommates greeted me (in a room FULL of other students) with a “what’s up my niggaz.”  I felt so humiliated.  When I protested, he stated “if your people can say it, why can’t I?”  I have filed a complaint with the campus residence staff and so far nothing has happened.
     After a year of putting up with this crap, I am sick of it and want to knock his teeth out. I know that I will probably wind up in jail.  I have talked to my parents; they are no help. My father wants me to “man up” and stick it out. He tells me that if other black men can stick it out do it, so can I. My mother wants me to come home.  Coming back home would feel like failure.
     I’ve started to drink alcohol, smoke weed, and skip classes.  As one can guess, my grades are dropping.  I will probably end up on academic probation.
     When I left home, I didn’t think it would be this bad.  I feel like a failure.  I want to go back home to my community.  What should I do?

Man Down, Seattle, WA

Dear Young Man,

      I have several things to say to you.  First, I want to extend to you my sincere congratulations on your decision to attend college and pursue your goal of becoming a chemical engineer.  Your decision to do so shows that you have chosen a path that may lead to a bright and successful future.

     Second, take time out for reflection. I call this stopping point the “way station.”  The way station is a place within the psychological self where you can go and give yourself the opportunity to reflect upon the actions you are taking and the experiences that are occurring.

     Third, and most important, do not fall for the trap of “man up.”  The psychological self is talking to you. Please listen to the pain and the wounds that have been impacted upon the self.  To “man up” is a trap that seeks to separate you from the psychological self and serves to either ignore or minimize the reality of both the pain and the emotional wound that you are now responding to.

Having said all of the above, let’s clearly identify the issues that you are responding to:

·      As one of the few African-Americans within the campus residence system, you are feeling extreme isolation and lacking a clear sense of community.

·      You are being impacted psychologically by comments and remarks that are racist and lacking in sensitivity.

·      You are conflicted with your desires to leave the current environment and your desires to fulfill your father’s demand by remaining in school.

·      You want to go back to the life you previously had.  However you feel that to do so will mean that you are a “failure.”

Now, let’s identify the ways you are currently responding to those issues.

·      You want to physically assault the person who is creating this emotional wound.

·      You are using alcohol and marijuana to ease, minimize or ignore the emotional pain you are experiencing.

·      You are skipping your classes, therefore creating the likelihood of being ejected from school due to inability to maintain the required grade point average.

     YOUNG MAN, life is not a rose garden.  Nor is life promised to you.  If you want it, then you must experience the good, the bad and the ugly.

     However, life can be what you want and work for it to be.  As you take your respite at the “way station,” view this as an opportunity to accept ownership of your feelings and in doing so, reinforce acceptance of your direction.  Empower the self to explore the following:

·      Isolation- Identify activities on campus or within the local area that can assist in developing and reinforcing a sense of community.

·      Anger- the emotional feeling of anger is an appropriate response given the “micro-aggression” you have experienced.  Micro-aggression can be defined as constant repetitive assaults that have the potential to lead to a sense of “hyper-alertness” and stress in those individuals being targeted by the offending behavior.

·      Conflict-there may be a state of “open warfare” going on within as you attempt to resolve the disharmony between two incompatible interests, that being fight (man up!) or flight (go back home).

   YOUNG MAN, learn and accept that there is no such thing as “going back.” 

     You can “return” home to visit; however you can “never, ever go back.”  The life you left, the safety and comforts that live in your memory no longer exist.  The person who left home to “explore the world and beyond” has now changed into the person of today. There is no “stepping back into the past.”   However, the “changing person” can continue to transform and in doing so, “journey into the tomorrow,” and experience new comfort and ways to feel safe there.

Framework for Failure (Living in Fear)

·      Drugs & Alcohol are tools to salve the psychological wound and medicate the pain.  The after effect of the intoxication or drug-induced feelings will not resolve the problems that currently exist.

·      Skipping classes will ultimately serve as disempowering—it will hamper your efforts to achieve academic, professional and personal success.

·      Physical Violence may lead to short term satisfaction, but long term regrets. Such actions may lead to academic suspension/expulsion, arrest, and incarceration and serve as a dark cloud as you continue the journey that we know as “LIFE.”  This one action can impact one’s ability to gain employment, obtain credit, buy a home and provide for one’s family.

     YOUNG MAN, The conflict that lies within you is in reality “FEAR.”

     This fear comes from the disconnect between standing up for yourself and your culture through violence and yet knowing that if you do so, you risk making things worse for yourself in the long run. It is the difference between letting this person disrespect you momentarily, and the stark reality that if you react violently, you can adversely impact your own life, which is, in effect, you disrespecting yourself.

     Resolve the conflict by having the willingness to “live with your fear rather than living inyour fear.”  Fear, like other emotions such as joy, happiness, sorrow and laughter, are simply feelings.  It is for the individual to take ownership and learn to “balance” (i.e. live with such feelings.

Framework for Success: (Living with Fear)

·      Communication- In sharing “space” i.e. school/residence/work, you must acknowledge your own vulnerability and exposure to comments that can be on the face based on ignorance (lack of knowledge) or hurtful (with purposeful intent). Show the willingness to “educate” those lacking in knowledge and distance & protect the self from those who seek to inflict hurt and injury.

·      Explore & process your internal conflicts.  Explore the incompatibility that exists. Work towards bringing peace to your internal self.  Contact your local student health services.  Inquire into mental health counseling for support and a safe place to express your feelings.

·      Process your feelings of anger.  Make decisions that will increase your options of success.  Let go of your desire of physical altercation. 

·      Follow up with your grievance to the school officials.  Document your concerns. 

     YOUNG MAN, Process your desire to “man up” or use physical violence. Understand that such desires are traps, and are manifestations of “living in fear” in that it maintains separation from the psychological self, which has been wounded and is experiencing pain.   Such desires reinforce the fear of exploring other ways to resolve conflicts and disagreements.

     Regarding the individual who made the racist remark and afterwards questioned why he and others can’t have the freedom of using such racist language– rather than resort to living in fear, ask yourself what this person seeking from you.

·      Is he really just seeking permission from you to use the racist terms without dealing with the consequences of using the word?

    Rather than accept those feelings of humiliation (reinforced living in fear), engage the individual in a discussion within the same group.  Help him understand that he is free to use any racist terms that are available, but will be held accountable for those terms, and will have to bear those consequences.  Such consequences could include the following:

  •  Loss of relationships with black people
  • The risk of being assaulted by angry individuals who may not choose to partake in intellectual discussion regarding the usage of racist terms
  • Being shunned by other white people who are more culturally sensitive and do not want to associate with a person who they perceive as a racist

     Furthermore, affirm for you and specifically you (as you do not speak for all black people,) that the term is offensive. If he chooses to use racist language, then some people (including you) would consider him to be an offensive person. That’s just reality. He’s now shown himself to be that kind of person, and it is his problem to deal with, not yours.    

     Do not allow this individual to become a victim of physical assault by your hand.  Do not allow yourself to become victimized in a system in which 1 in every 3 African-American males born today can be expected to go prison at some point in their life. 

     Learn from this encounter.  Understand that ignorance (that being, the lack of knowledge) looms along the journey and there will be many more such opportunities for more such experiences to come.

     Have the willingness to transform the view of being a “man down” to being a young man seeking his way, creating his path in the journey we call LIFE.

     YOUNG MAN, in closing, let me share a story.

     In a time long ago, there was a young man, who almost was expelled from graduate school due to almost becoming embroiled in a physical altercation at the internship.  This person was given a second chance to seek a new path.  He took it, and he went on to have a successful academic & professional career as well as a healthy family and marital relationship.  That person was me.

     I am no longer the man I was.  I have become the man I am. There is no going back. However, one can always go forward.  To do so one must be willing to “live with fear” and in doing so let go of the old ways of “living in fear.”  As you sit at the “way station,” you also stand at the “crossroads” where the new path is available to you.

     The “new path” leads to the return to the classroom.  In doing so, you can continue to advance your very promising future.  Or you can continue on the “old road,” isolating, drinking alcohol and getting high and thus continue to living in fear.  The choice is yours. 

What will you do?  Continue what you have started.  Walk your journey and finish the race. 

Living life can be likened to a marathon. Finish the race; don’t worry about coming in first place. Cross the finish line. Just finish the race. Finish what you start.

Ten Flashes of Light For The Journey of Life

The Visible Man

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