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DEI or DIE: be a good little soldier

His upstanding service is the reason that I can sit behind a computer and give you just black thoughts. He’s the reason that my step-father is one of my heroes. Thank god my step-father had a hero. When heroes have heroes--those who sacrifice and seek a mission bigger than themselves--individuals, families, and communities are more likely to have foundation, stability, life. My hero’s hero was my grandfather– a quiet Black man, loving husband, father of four, and a courageous war veteran. Like a good soldier, he served his family and his country honorably and humbly. I am not even half the man that my step-father is, so I can only ponder and perform in these men’s shadows…

A man who spoke very little and saw too much, my grandfather experienced real war, from the race wars of the Jim Crow era to war overseas in Vietnam. No telling what sounds were trapped in his ears forever, only to elicit his screams at night when the PTSD hit. My grandfather knew the white rage and the Black power of the Civil Rights Movement, yet he didn’t live long enough to hear the white noise surrounding DEI let alone the terms and conditions of this work. I damn sure can’t call myself a soldier, but I do wonder: tip-toeing "enemy" lines, where are the landmines of DEI? What detonates within us when we hear the terms "diversity," "equity," and "inclusion"? Who lands and stands on those supposed landmines? What lives are lost as a result of the blow-up, the blowback? As I stand in the shadows of my Black forefathers, a dark cloud of thoughts forms, further shadowing me and the supposed enemy.

Am I in combat mode over this ideological framework? Where do the institutions of education and military collude? Collide? Why is Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion also known as DEI under fire? Is there a difference between the rationale, the (mis) representation and the reality of DEI? Is DEI my hill to D.I.E. on?

I write this piece because I feel as though innocent folx are being called into extreme ideological warfare; our country is splintered as folx get sucked into cultural wars when real wars are taking place around the world. It appears that only the extreme cases of discrimination and injustice make the headlines. It appears that the news and presidential candidates profit from not only promoting polarizing points of view but also weaponizing minorities of minorities to represent majorities and castigate–you guessed it–minorities. It looks like we are moving into silos, too afraid to meet in the middle, to dip a pinky toe into the water of vulnerability in order to just have a civil discussion. We would rather drown others and or ourselves in this same water than be caught dead with “opposition.” Is that same water clean or swampy? I now hear shouts of "drain the swamp!"Who exactly is the enemy or the "opps" as my students would say?

In America, we are sorted and grouped; however, no group is monolithic or immune to a healthy dose of self-responsibility. Intersectional identities make us unique, privileged, prejudiced, and hopefully and humbly primed for empathy or enmity, depending on whether we choose solidarity or savagery that day.

As people in America, we do not have to operate in this continual fractured state of dichotomies or binaries. We shouldn’t simply reduce our country to “REPUBLICAN” or “DEMOCRAT” or “LIBERAL” or “CONSERVATIVE” nor should we live in a permanent state of extreme social distancing or sociopolitical tribalism based on our relative individualized positionalities, social relegations, or political views. And we do not have to be disciples or dupes of rugged individualism or political party chauvinism. Casting aspersions like "You must be a ____ then!" creates explosive interactions as well as chasms for critical-thinking, compassion, and civil discussion to be buried under name-calling, shaming, and convenient truths. Regardless of our differences, we can still work together (well) through our differences (and because of our differences).

Talks of DEI–whether screaming matches or whispers of problematic hiring practices– remind me that Americans and American institutions have internal and external issues to treat. In a capitalistic society, an individual has to prove himself and earn everything, even his own life—and that can be taken from him in the blink of an eye or within the snap of a finger…whether that finger is on a gun or a gavel. I am a Black male English teacher with an incarcerated biological father and a military step-father, so I’d like to say I can parse and punctuate sentences. I definitely know that things can either come to a certain point (fatal or inflective) or end with a bang — point-blank period! Nonetheless, I have to be on point.

I understand that our education and military systems have been known to propagate propaganda for less equitable reasons. I know that corporate practices and political agendas are (mis)appropriated within education; hence our country eyes meritocracy in schools while also wanting to turn a blind eye to the pain, violence, and discrimination that pulses through our country. Because of this conflicting stance, America has developed a lazy or wandering eye, one of which looks for made-up villains. And please do not be disingenuous, for we know that America is not the first or only country to be symbolically or systemically violent. How can we teach “good ol’ fashion American virtues” (sarcasm) and not bring up the “drill and kill” methods (and music) seen in the classroom, in the streets, and on the battlefield ? Oops…maybe I meant “skill and drill.”

I enjoy hearing former soldiers speak about the camaraderie among fellow servicewomen and servicemen; I know that many soldiers believe in an individual’s work ethic and persistence as the keys to success. An individual’s hard work can pay off for sure. Like a soldier, I try to pay my debt to society even when our country’s leaders can be morally bankrupt. Furthermore, what happens when a country can’t pay its debts to its constituents, those harmed by a government's constant expenditures toward the exploitation, the extraction, and the extinction of human and natural resources? And just because a few individuals like myself “make it” through certain institutions does not mean a system is not broken or warped.

What happens when individuals consume more than they contribute? Our American economy is based primarily on consumerism, so what happens when a capitalistic society cannabilizes itself and ferments into compulsive consumerism turned uncontrollable criminal confiscation? Walgreens and Wal-Marts alike have become heated combat zones.

Can individuals even salute themselves in the mirror? Or do we show face? Save face? Or about face?

With short reels and (unreal) stories lowering our attention spans yet raising our recency bias through the algorithmic looping of sensationalist clip after clip, many of us Americans are suffering from selective amnesia and or cognitive dissonance as we shout “Happy (July) 4th” and “Get over slavery already!” Also, America stories itself to be the unquestionable hero in the history books and on the big screen while selectively claiming victimhood to create foreign (and domestic) enemies (scapegoats). While political leaders and influencers alike think they are “dropping the mic” on supposed dissenters, America has and will continue to drop actual bombs. And I get it: everyone’s a pacifist or a quiet protester until it's their family, their cause, or their well-being being targeted. Or, it sometimes feels like everyone's an outlaw, a rogue, or a rebel without a cause when convenient. Again, who is the enemy?

When some folx talk about DEI work, they focus on meritocracy, calling DEI straight-up discrimination or exclusion (ironically). I know people argue that you can’t fight discrimination with more discrimination. I hear that logic; however, this argument is shallow or hollow at best. In a perfect world, we would judge people based on merit not melanin. The irony is that white supremacy did just the opposite, and such an ideology has left death, debris, and dummy rounds. We have to put things in context, historical and current-day.

Admittedly, I, too, with my private school education, have had to play the game, and at a high level, in order to survive. Now that I am a bit more settled in my life, I have some unsettling perspectives of the system and myself.

The Inspiration Behind this Post

Consequently, we can agree that modern America was not built on meritocracy, right!? Are we arguing about diversity or diversification? Or both? Corporate America cares about diversity when it a) makes money in terms of commercialization and commodification of various cultures; b) capitalizes off (unpaid) undocumented labor; c) signals virtue for political campaigns. Nonetheless, Corporate America doesn’t care about diversity when it comes to people’s actual humanity. Cue the song “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor" by Emma Lazarus and Irving Berlin. What exactly have we done with, to, and for our tired, our poor, and our homeless? We have left many of these people tired, poor, and homeless way before 2023, including our very own war veterans.

Furthermore, how was and is DEI a part of the recruiting process, especially for potential talent from different “pipelines”? There are other heinous pipelines other than the infamous “school to prison” pipeline. Is military recruiting predatory—primarily focused on rounding up a “diverse” group, consisting of the under-served, the black and brown, the disenfranchised, and or the working class to serve a country that considers them “disposable” or “expendable”? And yes, I am including working-class white folx on the aforementioned list! They are NOT the enemy.

Let’s just say, I rarely hear of ROTC programs or recruiter visits in those fancy private schools. When I went to private school as a kid, joining the army was condescendingly for the public school kids. On the other hand, my step-father always said I would have made a great pilot or soldier because I am a "thinking man." I don't question his judgment as much as I question my own moxie or mental (and physical) fitness for such a role. From low-income backgrounds, my grandfather as well as a select few members in my family made a living in the military. I repeat: just because a system provides some opportunity for a few to “make it” does not mean a system is not broken or unfair.

From what I gather, the military and school are based on structure; both structures have different objectives, objections, opportunities, opportunity costs, incomes and outcomes; both factory models, yes, but each model has different motives for diversity and different means of diversification. DEI may look different in different contexts, yet I think the spirit remains the same: how can we build sustainable infrastructures, leadership habits, and cultures that lower barriers, not standards, in order to give different people a fair shot and the safety to contribute and serve?

I always wonder what people mean when they say a school or any workspace is becoming “too diverse.” Is that code or double-speak? And for what? Doom-scrolling through the many DEI jobs and self-proclaimed DEI consultants (like myself) on LinkedIn, I wonder how is DEI a part of "the war for talent"? Or the war on talent? And is "war" the proper terminology?

For both the military and schools, people of high competence and high character are coveted; however, in the battlefield, the circumstances are literally life or death, thus soldiers vet for candidates who are reliable, trustworthy, team-oriented, and coachable. Looking at the state of some of our schools and neighborhoods, some would say the same for teachers. While DEI factors are not unimportant, I believe in the heat of the moment, soldiers fall back on their military training habits and instincts more so than their DEI training. Soldiers indifferent toward or disappointed in DEI work have told me that they do not care what fellow soldiers look like or how individuals self-identify as long as that they can trust their life with them. I can respect that take. Obviously, when off the battlefield and living amongst civilians, soldiers care about justice and equity.

Quickly, I just want to make a distinction between DEI and SEL (socioemotional learning) in that both are complimentary but not interchangeable. I have an emotional connection to my students and my classroom, thus it is hard for me to fully separate my emotions from the job. And I am sure that soldiers have a similar connection to their comrades and this country. Then again, both teachers and soldiers can be cold, stoic, and mechanical as well as reckless and feckless to the people around them. We both must use discretion, discourse, and discernment to best complete our respective missions. DEI work anywhere will not thrive in a cold, unwelcoming, hostile environment.

Though under less stressful conditions, relatively-speaking, among civilians, teachers have a different type of pressure on them, a pretty pervasive pressure to hold all parts (likable and unpleasant) of a child well enough to make sure a child feels safe in all senses of the word. As a teacher, I do not want to have enemies–real or perceived. Yes, I have a love-hate relationship with the system of education. Yes, I want to protect and serve my school community; however, I do not legitimize or incentivize my work based on a “friend or foe” framework. Sure, teachers do make workplace enemies, but our best tools (not weapons) have always been our minds and our hearts (and our mouths).

The idea and reality of a military are contextualized and constituted by war; war is evidence of an imperfect, imbalanced, immoral world; war is a means and product of polarity; war is an opportunity for seizure, security, and sanctimony via suppression; ironically, war is sometimes necessary for provisional privilege, prosperity, protection, and peace–keyword: provisional. It is what it is: war is arguably a necessary evil. And then there is the military-industrial complex. More international conflict means more American cash.

Remember that some countries do not even have militaries to protect themselves from internal threats let alone external ones. Sure, I may not like war (whether it's perpetuated by gang gang or the government), but I have to show respect to our soldiers (not the gangsters), for they are just doing their jobs. Similarly, educators everywhere are just doing their jobs, even when schools are under-resourced, kids are under-served, and teachers are overwhelmed. Call both of us crazy for walking into situations for what many may deem as "lost causes."

Due to differences and deviations in accountability structures for both individuals and institutions, DEI work may just “feel” different to implement in different spaces. There's no excuse for workplace discrimination and abuse, yet varying levels of individual buy-in and little to no infrastructure to invite and optimize DEI work will trend toward the dismissal, distrust, and disengagement surrounding DEI work.

Quite frankly, I understand the idea and the inspiration behind DEI work while having seen poor instruction and implementation of the work. We have to differentiate between philosophy and practice; between the intentions and the impacts; between how we hope to see DEI from 30,000 feet in the air and how DEI actually lands for people. Again, not a reason to disavow the work but quite the opposite.

And if one cannot take self-accountability, one is still worthy of human dignity but maybe not worthy to lead or to be followed. I am guilty myself of this, but I want less fruitless feuding. In my naive brown eyes, on an individual level, at the heart of DEI is the willingness (not willfulness) to recognize and dignify another as a human being, hence the constitutional concept of “human rights.” On an institutional level, DEI encourages us to identify and question the systemic and systematic gate-keeping, malpractice, and maltreatment of peoples. There’s a different disposition or disinclination depending on whether the sole focus is income or inclusion. Where's there talk of "human rights," we must also interject "human error."

In my world, DEI calls me to consider the breakdowns and the battles in the recruitment, management, and development of our school faculties, student bodies, and our school communities. For those of us who want to make change within ourselves and the world around us (please re-read those words again), DEI requires us to be self-accountable and self-active just as much as it requires us to be open, adaptable, well-rounded, and receptive to self-and systemic failure, fallacy, and fragmentation.

While our government can’t seem to balance a checkbook, I hope to not count the cost, keep the score, or engage in tic-for-tac petty political squabbles, which distract us and extract us further from community and solidarity. If delivered in the spirit of and within a space of rage, revenge, and or repudiation, then, of course, no one will trust DEI work or the human beings doing the work. And if DEI is met with hostility, hubris, and or hate for the “other” side, then prepare for more friendly fire, more sniper fire, and more dishonorable discharges. If we continue to focus on targeting individual bigots instead of system-wide bigotry and our own self and socially limiting beliefs and actions, then we will find ourselves in ongoing witch-hunts that we'll individually have to elude some day ourselves.

Will we welcome or weaponize DEI? Will we build or destroy? Guess it depends on what we’re building…walls or bridges?

My grandfather did not die for DEI. DEI is NOT the enemy. DEI is NOT the savior, either. DEI is just a tool. Ultimately, we, the people, are–the problem and the solution. We must take responsibility and find different tools to repair our communities and country. I will not let my grandfather’s sacrifice and service be discarded by discord and disinformation. Instead, I hope to honor my grandfather, my heroes, my ancestors, and my fellow Americans with my active duty in the classroom, not just from behind a screen. Service and solidarity are in our hands; it's up to us. Copy that!

Thank you to our teachers and our troops!

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