Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Oh, the Places We Could Go: Just Think of the Possibilities If We Would Step Out of Our Zone of Comfort

A couple of months or so ago at the end of the summer, my wife and I planned a trip with a few other African American couples we know just to have one last bit of fun before summer ended. When we first conceived of the idea, we bandied about several suggestions, but all of them seemed so absolutely done.

Someone suggested a cookout at the beach, but I was beached out, and I don’t particularly find the beach all that fun. Of course, Disney and/or Universal Studios in Orlando were offered, but we go to Orlando several times a year already so that was out. And in that same vein, someone suggested Busch Gardens in Tampa, but that too was voted down.

Then my wife suggested that we go somewhere and do something none of us had ever done, something unlikely. And we finally decided on a destination and an activity. But on the eve of our trip, one by one the couples and families called us to say that they had to cancel, that they would not be going. And each couple and family proffered the same excuse: “We all talked and decided that that’s just something black folk don’t do.”

Evidently, all of the black folk got together, or at least enough to form a quorum, and decided that black folk didn’t do such things.

And when we arrived at our destination, we found that they seemed to be very right in their assessment. My family was the only African American family present. The other African Americans there were there either with their white spouses or partners or friends.

But nonetheless, we had the time of our lives, and my children talked about the experience for days afterward. This was an experience that they, that we, will never forget and our lives are richer because of it.

In thinking about this, I remember something my grandfather said on numerous occasions when I was a young man, but I didn’t understand then. He would say that if black folk had to discover anything, it would never be found because black folk didn’t like to step outside the familiar.

And this might seem to be a small thing to you, but the implications are much bigger. Perhaps, we can best look at this through philosopher Wittgenstein’s notion of the umvelt. Wittgenstein used that notion to explain that an individual’s knowledge of the world was limited only by the limits of that individual’s access to the world.

In other words, experience translates to knowledge, and we can further extrapolate that knowledge translates to opportunity. So, when we limit our experiences, we limit our knowledge, thus we limit our opportunities.

And I see this all too often when I am out in the community. Too often I encounter African American children not living up to their full intellectual potential simply because they believe studying and achieving is simply something little black kids do not do. And when I inquire of their dreams and aspirations as adults, the very few who do not want to be rappers or singers or professional athletes all name the same handful of occupations: cosmetologist, firemen, policemen, teacher, doctor, lawyer.

Not that these are not noble, worthwhile occupations, but there are so many others to choose from. They are so grossly uninformed of the wide range of possibilities, of opportunities, open to them simply because of their dearth of experiences.

And when I inform them of all the possibilities outside those few mentioned, the response is always the same: “Is that something black folk really do?”

You know, I had a friend in graduate school, a young African American man, who was studying something like forestry management science or national park management science or something of that nature. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I do remember it was something that black folk don’t usually do.

And the National Forestry Service was so anxious to attract black folk to do it that they were willing to pay for him to receive a master’s degree and a doctoral degree and then hire him right out of school at a starting salary of about $65,000. When I saw his contract, I kind of wish that it was something this black man had done.

But if we are to increase the opportunities available to us and our kids, we must increase our willingness to explore our world. We must explore the full range of experiences available to us. We must step outside our zone of comfort, and go to those places we have never been before, and try those things we have never tried before. And if we begin to do this, oh the places we could go.

12 comments:

vincee101 said...

Max again another dead on observation. We limit ourselves which isn't news but I think we are comfortable in doing so. This is the shame of it. Do we realize it?

The "black folks don't do that" mentality indicates a group think/ethos that maybe requires professional address. Are we still afraid of lynching? Is this an indication of our mistrust of America? If so, this is still not our home and we remain displaced.

md20737 said...

They say if you want to keep a secret from black folks put it in a book & this post just proved why.. Its sad but true we dont step out our comfort zones we dont encourage our kids to read, write, or do anything thats non sports related.

I remember I was in a group called odyssey of the minds in middle school. Our group was given several different problems to solve through the year after school. The we had to produce a live skit solving a the final problem at the end of the year. We had to act, write the script, and build everything for the act including the little car we needed. Needless to say it was fun & I will never forget it. But our group was like 5 ppl out of an entire school. Myself -black, a hispanic young man, a white guy, a white girl, and some other non black nationality. And our sponsor who was white. We had 500 ppl in school why didnt more ppl join it was free. Prob bc the school was predominatly black. Anyway I will never deprieve my child of something like that, becase I leared early on how to solve problems. Critical thinking skills, and creative problem solving has carried me a long way.

LoudPen said...

Max,

You have been sooo on point lately. Not that you weren't always this way but I'm becoming addicted to your blog. Like really. I mean I follow so many blogs that it's hard to keep up at times, but, you sir are now a daily read.

And I'm glad you wrote this post, because, it's so true. It seems like Black ppl. were denied so much for so long that now that we have access to other things, we're scared to try them out. I know my parents always raised me, my brothers, and my sister to never limit ourselves. We've been on vacation in some of the strangest non-Black places. We've gone to Maine, Wiscosin, Kentucky, my parents even went to Nebraska.

They made us horseback ride & go camping. As a kid, I just thought my parents were weird, and I couldn't believe they kept out voting us & making us go to these strange places. But, now that I'm older I see how diverse I am. I can hang with anybody & have something interesting to say. And I owe that & much more to my parents. If you can't tell I'm really missing home right now, I'll be there for Thanksgiving though. (thank goodness)

Denisha said...

Great post! I'm curious to know what activity did everyone in the group think black folks don't do.

FreeMan said...

Well you should've responded to all those families that didn't want to go that if you all go then it will be something Black folk do. Rephrase it like a pioneering effort.

Black folks don't do that really means I haven't heard any black folks recommend that as a safe place for us to go. Also, it means if we are going to go somewhere for fun we aren't going to voluntarily go some place where hostility may be. Even if that's Santa's Village if we think Whites are going to be racist we aren't going to go. Also, exploration costs money and we might not use our money for that purpose.

The jobs are people saying is there anyone else black there. We don't like to be surrounded and be the only one because that carries it's own issues. We already deal with some much crap what person in his right mind would go sit in the heart of it.

See most see it as a problem but it's a defense mechanism. If you are in or even perceive yourself to be in a hostile environment you limit your interaction with this perceived threat. So although you say it's not reality anymore it's still a tradition. How many people think being rich is a sin from reading the bible? That's not true either but it still influences people.

Real talk some people are explorers but that is a small percentage of any group. It requires a lot of extra disposable income and who wants to waste that with the possibility of being surrounded by whites and feeling uncomfortable.

Max Reddick said...

@vincee101

I think everybody, to include myself, craves the familiar. We crave to be in situations in which we feel we can operate competently without criticism or critique and have relative control. But you are right, while I do understand this desire, in maintaining the familiar, we severely limit ourselves.

@md20737

I take every opportunity to take my children everywhere I can and give them every experience that I can, and I enjoy watching them learn and experience new things. That, perhaps, is my greatest joy.

@LoudPen

I will usually try anything at least once. My intrepid spirit comes from my parents, who like yours, took as to many places and allowed us to experience many things. But in the same way a lot of fears and anxieties are passed on from generation to generation. At some point somebody has to take a few risks, take a few chances and break this cycle.

@Denisha

There is a national park here in NE Florida where you can either tube or raft down this stream. The scenery is absolutely beautiful and the stream is so clear that you can see the bottom.

@Freeman

I agree with your points but with a caveat. In my original draft I did include the issue of economics, but I deleted it for the sake of space. Economics are a real issue; however, that still does not preclude an individual from taking advantage of those opportunities and experiences that are either free or cost very little.

In addition, I don't think we inform ourselves of all the opportunities available to us. In the community organization I work with, one of the main problems we have is community members not being informed of all that is available to them. And they will not come look for the information.

And as far as being comfortable in situations, this is one of the points that I am trying to make. We, and especially our children, need to get to a place when we are able to negotiate all terrain. It is too much to believe that every situation we find ourselves in will be favorable to us or contain only us.

Let me leave you with this. When I was in grad school, the African American grad students would segregate themselves from the white students. However, a mentor told me to participate not only in the social events hosted by black grad students, but make sure I was there for the social events hosted by white grad students as well.

And I did. And what I found early on is that not only did the professors show up at these social events, these students also circulated information among themselves and got to form those relationships with the professors that are important to the success of grad students.

By cutting themselves out of this discourse, many of the other black grad students missed out on a good many opportunities simply because they chose to stay with what was familiar and in situations that they found comfortable.

FreeMan said...

@Max - "I don't think we inform ourselves of all the opportunities available to us" - I think that's the core of the issue right there. Most of us haven't been exposed to the possibilities so it becomes hard to take the leap. This is why kids need to be exposed but it also is another reason why we need to have Black folks in the media to show that we are there.

I agree the next generation needs to be comfortable in their skin in any situation BUT it's fools gold to walk around in this country thinking that everyone is open arms. I agree the pendulum is too far to the right and we need balance.

My story is similar but in Law School and there my professor told me "You are here for information so don't let your emotions cloud you attaining that information" So I sat amongst everyone too but that's a school situation.

In vacation situations what information is there to gain? Vacation is about being comfortable and if you feel uncomfortable that's enough for me. The more you are exposed to at a early age the more you see things for what they are and not who happens to be around.

Jara said...

Thank you for writing this, Max! You already know how I feel about "what black folk don't do." Ugh!

I remember my little brother (then 8 years old) having the time of his life playing soccer with some boys in South Africa...until he was informed that's something AMERICAN black folk don't do. Now he plays multiple sports to feed his appetite for variety - point fwd on varsity high bball team, QB on varsity high and baseball...all sports that black folk do. :-/

The saddest thing is my brother is well-traveled (his passport has lots of stamps!) but his mind stays home because he's not allowed to actually experience where he travels.

The experience is what leads to opportunity/growth.

Where did you and your family end up going?

Jara said...

Just had a thought: our collective reluctance to try something new could be leftover lessons learned from crossing the plantation line. In order to survive, we learned where not to go, what not to do, that the world "out there" is unsafe, so don't even think about experiencing it.

Max Reddick said...

@Jara

That's a good point. I never thought about it that way. Perhaps we have learned that lesson, not to transgress boundaries both real and imagined, too well.

@FreeMan

I think it is a question of semantics. What you are referring to as vacation, I am referring to as travel. What travel does is to increase your knowledge of the world around you. And most importantly, broadens your sense of place. It erases that sense of boundedness one receives when they are relegated to one place, one small area.

I know in education we always speak of culturally biased tests. But what happens one these tests is that those students who do poorly on them do not have those world experiences that would give them a frame of reference outside their immediate neighborhoods. But the thing is, based on my experience, that these children's knowledge of the world is so small that any test, no matter how you frame it, could potentially be culturally biased because they do not possess the most basic life experiences to inform them.

Jara said...

@Max in response to your response to FreeMan...bravo. You keep hitting that nail on the head and we're going to have a very nice foundation for the community. :) The problem isn't always the test. Sometimes it's the limited world view of the person taking the test. The cure is live more, think more, learn more, be more, question more, achieve more, dream more, want more. More, more, more.

We should all encourage each other to have an unquenchable thirst for life.

Reggie said...

Yes indeed.

In order to enjoy life and open our hearts and minds to new experiences, we must step outside of our comfort zones and sometimes do something just a litte extraordinary.

Once again, yet another excellent post!!!

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