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What is the Point? Blackness & White Panic

I wanted to say a couple words on the recent outcry about the photo of a group of WestPointers with raised fists. Now, in general, this would NEVER make news if it stayed as a “group of WestPointers”. It becomes news only when we add qualifiers like “black” or “female”. In fact, if we simply said “a group of WestPointers”, many would have already formulated what the group looked like based on their bias about the look of a WestPointer.

For those outside of WestPoint, the controversial image is that of a typical “Old Corps” photo—a pretty common photo taken by many groups at West Point to replicate some of the famous photos of cadets that have circulated over the last 2 centuries. The photos are typically rendered with a Black and White or Sepia finish to give the vintage appearance sought. Graduating seniors typically make appointments by company, by club or simply as a group of friends to have this style of photo taken. It became a tradition for the graduating African American cadets to convene for a photo of this type. While there, I even convened all Barbadian cadets for a similar photo to demonstrate our pride in “The Rock” and to make it clear who we represented when we were there.

Now given that backdrop, let us discuss what took place recently when a group of African American ladies, 3 weeks away from graduation posed with raised fists for an Old Corps photo. Admittedly, I struggled to understand why this was newsworthy. What about this stoked someone’s emotions and sensitivities? Why has this become a national concern? And given that I am being asked about it from Barbados, why is it an international concern? Why did it ascend to virality with such velocity?

As an “insider” of the Academy, I really didn’t get what was the big issue. Then I forced myself to assess this particular situation in the very same way I have asked audiences and students to assess social phenomena that occur in our environments—from the viewpoint of a systems theorist.

When I took this stance, two things stood out for me.

Consideration #1. I often say that every day we wake up, open our eyes and fumble around on our metaphorical nightstands to grab our trusty spectacles. These spectacles bring into focus “the world” as we know it. It is a unique view of the world since no one else has our prescription. We get out of bed, walk around a bit and by breakfast time we forget that we have our spectacles on and that no one else has quite our world view. If we aren’t careful, we even forget that there are alternative views. Breakthroughs occur when we choose to borrow someone’s glasses and let them have ours. We gain a true understanding and problems or misperceptions can be collaboratively righted.

Consideration #2. In general, I have found that people are actually trying to create positive changes in the world. However, these very people are too caught up with events. Something just happened! Someone just said something! The response that follows is seldom measured with little time spent looking beyond the surface event. Instead there is either quick display of intense support or intense abhorrence for the event. This judgment based on the surface without considering underlying issues sounds familiar? Think iceberg.

Now, I can relate to almost everything associated with the photo – the motivation, the pose of unity, the feeling of exhuberation when you are so “short” (short means you are really close to graduation at WestPoint). Since conversation about the photo itself has been exhaustive, I wanted to place some attention on the other side—on the response that the photo generated. The outburst from the author of the response, coupled with the broad commentary, in my view, has more far-reaching social implications.

The response from someone outside of the Academy circles was a rant about the photo being a political statement, a racial expression and a violation of regulations. Let us treat this response as an event that occurred which has now sparked a nationwide discourse. If we look solely at the response, we will fail to see the patterns, trends and systemic structures from which a response like this emerges.

At the surface, we have to ask ourselves what makes one react to this:

But not to this...

The answer is even deeper than trends or systemic, institutional structures. It is rooted in how people see the world.

The assumption that if a group of black people congregate, they are up to no good is common today. Any such gathering must be a coming-together for the purpose of crime. In fact, I recently heard one of my African American classmates comment about this issue by stating “If people only knew! If people only knew how many times we are warned that we should not congregate in groups of more than 5 for any prolonged period less we be perceived negatively as a gang or something of sorts.” I can absolutely relate to this.

This is sad, but it speaks to one thing. It speaks to the mental models and the lens through which people view the world and their surroundings—their upbringing, the “prescription” of their lens. One thing is for sure. The only time we will ever see real change is when we start to attack the problem at the base of the iceberg…where the mental models of bigotry, racial superiority or inferiority, “white privilege”, “white panic” and stereotypes of “those others” are confronted and an attitude of tolerance wins.

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