“White people will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” – James Baldwin, Letter from a Region in My Mind
Baldwin, one of the greatest writer’s of the 20th century, was a front runner in truth telling, especially about the Black experience in America. He wrote about the intersectionality of life, before “intersectionality” was a thing. His ability to see into the heart of a matter, as in the above quote, set him apart. He goes on to say in this same article, “Neither civilized reason nor Christian love would cause any of those [white] people to treat you as they presumably wanted to be treated…”
Baldwin’s letter explores the Christian journey that he and others took during the 1950’s and 1960’s and how it contrasted to the white Christian journey. One of the ways that slave traders justified the kidnapping and enslavement of Black bodies from Africa was by claiming it was all about “saving those Black souls for Christ.” Christianity has a lot to answer for. (See: How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi for the story of the first racist). Two concepts that Baldwin mentions – loving ourselves and the Golden Rule – comprise my focus on this piece.
Loving ourselves and others is a lifelong practice. Another way that this has been expressed is in what we call the Golden Rule. Basically – treat others as you would like to be treated. This concept is found in every religion and culture in the world. To apply this concept through a DEI lens, it needs to be upgraded. If you are treating others as you would like to be treated, you are deciding that your way of being in the world is the best way. It’s not that the Golden Rule is bad, it’s just not as good as it could be! If I really want to treat others as equals, I need to ask them how they want to be treated, not assume that I know. Nor do I get to judge others as inferior to myself; for example, Black, Queer or female bodies, so that I can treat them worse than I want to be treated, “because they deserve it.”
There are so many places where we need to reframe how we think and talk about things. It can feel frustrating to keep learning about new things that are not “PC.” In fact, you may be taking issue with me wanting to rewrite the Golden Rule! Let’s say you have met a gender non-conforming person who uses they/them pronouns. You might be embarrassed to use they/them pronouns and so when you introduce this person, you go right on using pronouns that are comfortable for you. You’re trying not to embarrass them, right?
Except that person isn’t embarrassed until you describe them in a way that is not true for them. You have just erased an important part of their identity. So, the best thing to do is to ask them: “Hey – I’m not sure how to introduce you. Can you help me out?” You are not only honoring their difference, but their autonomy. You are acknowledging that they know what they need and want. You are recognizing and honoring their value.
The same thing is true for any demographic in society. Don’t assume! Because we all know what “assume” breaks down to. And believe people when they tell you what they want, so that you can treat them the way they want to be treated! (Just as you would want.)