Lori Lightfoot -- a gay black woman who grew up working class – was just elected mayor of Chicago, winning a stunning 75% of the vote. When she was asked by Lisa Desjardins of PBS what her mother said when she heard the good news, the Mayor-elect responded (I am paraphrasing): My mother basically said, “This is how I raised you. To be strong and fearless. To meet challenges, to take advantage of opportunities, to prepare yourself to be in charge.”
Imagine being a black girl born when much of the United States was still segregated. Your parents work multiple jobs to make ends meet. You are slowly recognizing that your sexuality doesn’t fit the norm, but it’s not something you can share because of the homophobia deeply woven into the culture, especially in your small Midwestern town.
And your mom tells you to be strong and fearless, to meet challenges, take advantage of opportunities, and prepare yourself to lead.
You are fully aware of the race, gender, class and sexuality advantages that other people have. You notice it in college at the University of Michigan, in law school at the University of Chicago, as a young lawyer in the District Attorney’s office, as a more experienced attorney at the corporate law firm Mayer Brown, in your various appointed governmental positions. There are a whole bunch of people who, on account of their skin color, gender, family background, etc seem as if they dropped from the sky onto third base, and when friends rig the system so they can saunter home, they act impressed with themselves.
And here you are, smarter and more focused than all of them, just meeting challenges, taking advantage of opportunities, and preparing to be in charge.
And now you are the mayor of Chicago. And you know who is not surprised? Your mother.
A few days ago I met a bright young woman of color on an elite college campus. The first session I saw her, a meeting of a diversity club, she spoke about how her college experience was helping her be more fully aware of the impact of Christian colonialism on women of color and religious minorities like her. Most of the rest of the diversity group nodded sympathetically along. It was diversity theater: she knew her role, and they knew theirs.
But later that evening, she approached me in the lecture hall privately and confessed something of a different emotion: "I’ve been involved in lots of diversity activities here. I’ve built lots of safe spaces and done lots of healing work. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder what good all of it is doing me."
There are lots of stories about how diversity progressives on campus shout down conservative white male speakers. But the quote from the student above makes me wonder about something else: whether the power, privilege and oppression paradigm actually hurts the people it is supposed to be helping – people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, etc.
I visit about 25 campuses a year, and increasingly I see situations where students know exactly which character to play when they step into the theater of ‘the diversity program’. People of color talk about how oppressed they are, everyone else nods along sympathetically.
But many students are smart and honest enough to know that this is chiefly a performance – everyone is playing a part, including the professional leading the program. And at least some of those students, some of the time, are like the young woman I met a few days back. They worry whether a paradigm that was supposedly designed to advance them is having its intended effects.
Absolutely we live in a world where structures of racism, sexism, etc advantage some and disadvantage others. But after you have called those structures out, what do you do next? Is constantly telling stories about how oppressed you are really preparing you to be a powerful agent in the world? A good doctor or nurse? A successful entrepreneur? An effective attorney? The next mayor of Chicago?
Me, I’d put my money on the advice given by Ann Lightfoot: meet challenges, take advantage of opportunities, be strong and fearless, prepare yourself to be in charge.
It worked for her daughter Lori.