Indy Rewind: Opinion: Toward a Better Understanding of Official Fragility in Amherst


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Indy Rewind: The following column by Michael Burkart first appeared in the Indy on September 1, 2023 under the title “Getting Beyond The Either / Or Dilemma.”  In it, Burkart offers an analysis of the phenomenon in which powerful people minimize or delegitimize concerns and critiques voiced by cultural minorities. With discourse in town continuing to emphasize alleged bullying of town officials over alleged bullying of children, and with ongoing efforts to redefine criticism of public officials and public policy as “bullying,” preemptively silencing those who disagree, we thought it would be helpful to revisit Burhart’s understanding of truth, power, and position to help us decipher this perplexing state of affairs and show us an alternative to toxic polarization.

I have followed the proceedings of the Amherst School Committee for over 25 years. One of the issues that they continue to struggle with is one that we faced in working with client organizations that committed to valuing diversity. That issue is learning to operate from a stance of both/and rather than a stance of either/or.

What do I mean by both/and?  A stance of both/and allows for the different realities of different groups to be considered equally when making decisions. 

By contrast, a stance of either/or assumes that there is one truth, and it can be known.  The purpose of any discussion then becomes a search to establish just what that truth is. This often results in an impasse in which one group asserts the reality is one way and another group describes the reality very differently. 

What is to be done? 

What most often occurs is that the group with the most power decides to ignore any narrative that does not fit their experience, perspective or priorities. They don’t necessarily do so out of a drive to dominate—they do so because the alternative narrative does not fit their experience.

This is a valid dilemma for those who have traditionally been in charge: men, whites, middle-class, professional, heterosexuals.  Think of their dilemma.  If I have not witnessed or experienced something, why would I accept it as fact when described by someone else?  What should a man conclude when a co-worker who is a woman tells him that another male co-worker creates a hostile work environment for other women?  If the man who hears this report has not himself witnessed the other guy act that way, what is he to do?  Should he just take the word of his woman co-worker?  She may be distorting what occurred, or she may even be slandering the other guy as a way to get ahead in the workplace.

This dilemma is one that I have observed for decades among the school committees. It has surely been the pattern when BIPOC parents, or BIPOC school committee members, make claims about racial inequality in the school.  When those claims do not fit the experience of white school officials or white school committee members, the claims get dismissed. I have witnessed successive school committees dismiss or explain away empirical data showing that students of color are disciplined at rates far higher than their percentage of the student body. Rather than invite further exploration of the data, the whites offered narratives that explain how these patterns had nothing to do with race.  More importantly, they shut down any further exploration about what may be driving this pattern of unequal outcome. They also diligently avoided any discussion about how that pattern of disparate discipline rates impacted BIPOC students and parents.

This dilemma is exacerbated by the fact that different groups of people have different norms for behavior (how to speak, how to dress, how far apart to stand, whether or not to touch or make eye contact, whether to defer to elders, how long or how loud to speak, etc.). This Is not only a matter of individual preference; it is also built into institutions.  All institutions in this society were established by whites, men, and overt heterosexuals, and the institutions retain many of the norms of these founding groups.  

One common norm consists of what is considered correct speech. In the professional or business setting, correct speech is expected to be linear, non-emotional, and directed to a point. Many cultures in the world do not share this norm.  In some cultures, the speaker is expected to inject emotion in her or his words.  In many cultures, the speaker is expected to repeat the main points several times.  In some indigenous cultures there is no “point,” since everything is a circle and all aspects, however contradictory, have to be identified.

Additionally, when people have been excluded or not respected, they have strong feelings about that.  If “correct” speech excludes the expression of negative emotion, this norm puts them in a hard place indeed, and the reality is that the group that is offended has to assimilate to white cultural norms as they try to articulate the injustice they experienced. 

I have to go beyond my personal experience, and explore…a reality that may feel very foreign or does not accord with my norms of how things should be.

What is the way out of this pattern?  After all, it is neither rational nor responsible to just accept any allegation as true. The way out is to explore the probability that different groups are experiencing the same event very differently.  As a white man, my experience of the world can be drastically different than it is for a woman, BIPOC person, LGBTQ person, immigrant, working class, or English-as-a-second-language person.  In discussions that involve people who are different from me, my experience cannot be the deciding criteria. I have to go beyond my personal experience, and explore in-depth a reality that may feel very foreign, or does not accord with my norms of how things should be.

In practice, this requires whites, men, middle class individuals, professionals, native English speakers to seek out the experiences and priorities of those other groups who are not represented in the power positions. The key skill is to avoid explaining one’s own reality, and focus on understanding the impact of whatever occurred on members of the other or marginalized group.

When an event has occurred that is judged as negative or hostile by BIPOC residents, the whites tend to focus on two things:
* They treat it as a one-time, isolated event
* They focus on the intent of the white individual or individuals.

I know from over 30 years of experience that when an event has occurred that is judged as negative or hostile by BIPOC residents, the whites tend to focus on two things:

  • They treat it as a one-time, isolated event
  • They focus on the intent of the white individual or individuals.

In contrast individuals in groups that have been marginalized, people focus on patterns. They immediately notice whether this event fits into a pattern of negative treatment toward their group. They also focus on the impact of this event on marginalized people, both the individuals who were present at the event as well as the community itself.

These different points of focus easily become sticking points.  When you watch the discussion, you will see whites focus on explaining the good intent or unintended ignorance of any offending white person. If whites are not convinced that ill-intent was at play, they tend to conclude that there is no need to discuss things further.  BIPOC people, on the other hand, focus on the impact that event has. They are acutely aware of how this event fits with other similar events that negatively impact their group.  They are also dealing with how it feels to see, once again,  something like this occur to members of their racial identity.

To reiterate, a both/and approach requires whites in this case to avoid explaining and shift to listening and inquiring about the impact of the event under discussion.  This is not easy because the natural tendency of the whites, men, etc. is to feel attacked. The natural reaction is to provide an explanation of the situation that negates the claims of foul play or injustice. The good news is that I have seen whites and men learn to slow down the discussion, and move into a mode of asking about the impact of the event under discussion. 

Once this has been fully explored, the discussion process moves to (1) articulating the impact on all parties involved and then (2) searching for solutions that meet the needs of all parties. What is involved here is a switch toward finding solutions that address the concerns of all involved. It results in a wider set of solutions than the process that takes an either/or approach.    

An additional new practice I have seen is for committed leaders to go beyond issue-oriented meetings to a practice of engaging various groups from the marginalized classes. The purpose is  to get a more in-depth understanding of how they experience the organization, its history of treating them, and how the current event impacts their group. Most importantly, such leaders change their priorities to include spending regular time listening to marginalized members of their organization. They create structures and venues where they regularly hear how marginalized groups are experiencing the organization’s priorities, policies,and practices (hiring, evaluating, promoting, rewarding, mentoring).  These new structures enable such leaders to continually expose themselves to experiences and viewpoints that they will otherwise not have.  Over time, the knowledge gained from these interactions with marginalized group members changes how the leader looks at and understands the organization. 

When you look at the various Amherst town committees, you see that they are composed of primarily white, middle-class, professional people.  This composition skews how the town sets priorities, and understands events in town.  Having one or two members from marginalized groups does not change this dynamic.  When the views of the marginalized are voiced, they tend to be discounted because they do not fit the experience of the majority group member.

Changing this pattern will require that men, whites, middle-class, heterosexual and professional officials acquire and practice the skills of operating from a both/and stance. Verbal assurances about equality no longer suffice.  They do not bring about anything that changes the either/or stance. 

I remember one white candidate for school committee who claimed she could represent the views of marginalized town residents. However, she knew few such people.  She did not spend time at the Boulders or South Point. She could not describe the school priorities of the English-as-a-second-language immigrant parents.  She was not in touch with parents whose children did not intend to go to college.  She could not speak about the key struggles that working class families have in town.  Most importantly, as I tracked how she voted on the school committee, her votes always reflected the views and priorities of the white, middle-class, professional residents in town.  She did not apply a both/and approach to the issues that came before her. 

Amherst needs elected officials and town committee members who will learn to use and practice a both/and approach to the issues before us. We have a multi-cultural citizenry. It is becoming increasingly so. The mono-cultural either/or stance will only exacerbate conflict as it imposes a win/lose outcome. I hope the recent controversies bring forth officials who will embrace and institutionalize a both/and approach to serving our diverse community.

Michael Burkart is a resident of Amherst.

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