Commencement Address, Winter 2011 - Johnetta Betsch Cole

Commencement Address
Winter 2011

One Flower Never Makes A Spring 

Johnnetta Betsch Cole
Commencement Address
December 17, 2011 

And what a great getting' up morning it is as we gather to celebrate the accomplishments of each of these Northern Michigan University and wish them well as they "commence" the next leg of their journey.

To you, dear graduates, let me say: Congratulations! Felicidades! Mahbrook! Mazel-tov! and, "You done good!" But as much as I applaud you, I know that you did not get here all by yourselves. Indeed, you would not have made it to this day if you had not had been supported by your parents, grand parents, aunts, uncles, partners, spouses, children and all of the folks who have believed in you, especially during those times when you didn't fully believe in yourselves.  And many of you are surely grateful for the way that your folks have been your human ATMs!

I trust you will continue to appreciate the faculty at NMU, the women and men who have been your partners in the precious and powerful process of teaching and learning.  And may you always appreciate NMU staff, those women and men who provided all of the support services that allowed you to grab a hold of and fully embrace a fine university education.

Please know that it is an honor and a joy for me to share this great celebration with you; and in receiving an honorary degree from Northern Michigan University, I consider it a privilege to be a member of your class, the class of 2011.  All that I have read about President Wong leads me to respect and admire him.   I have known Brian Cloyd for many years, and I can testify that this university is mighty fortunate to have him serving as the chair of your university's board of trustees. 

I bring you greetings from the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. It is a special place where we collect, conserve, exhibit and educate about the diverse and dynamic traditional and contemporary visual arts of Africa.  Yes, Africa, the place that is the cradle of humanity.  What an important and moving fact it is that there is but one place from which all human kind has descended. And how true and significant and amazing and full of Grace it is that there is only one human race.

Dear classmates, know that I gave a lot of thought to choosing the topic on which I should center this commencement address.  There is no shortage of topics about issues of critical importance in our communities, our nation and our world. To name just a few issues: poverty; the presence of war in many parts of our world and the crying need for peace, assaults to our environment that threaten our planet; the state of education in our country, especially what is taking place in our K-12 public schools, the troubling state of the American economy, indeed economies around the world, complex issues around immigration; and technology – oh the power of it and yet the importance of letting it be of service not disservice to humanity.

I settled on something that is clearly of critical importance all over this great country of ours, and in so many other countries as well.  I have chosen this commencement address to focus on the critical need for each of us to do what we can to address bigotry and discrimination wherever we find it: in our own homes, in our schools, in places where we worship, in places where we go for recreation, in our work places, and in world places.

I thought that Brother Chair Brian Cloyd will speak about diversity and inclusion. But that's alright, because when it comes to education, repetition is good for the soul.

Let me begin by drawing on words of the great African American scholar and activist, Dr. W.E. B. DuBois. He said that the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line. Here we are in the 21st century and we have yet to eradicate the problem of the color line, and there are so many more lines we human beings have constructed to divide us---lines based on gender, class, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, age, and physical and mental abilities.

Because various forms of bigotry and discrimination are so widespread and so tenacious, many are led to say and to believe that it is "just human nature" to dislike people who are different from the way you are, and to create systems of inequality based on those differences.

No! Bigotry is not "just human nature," and it is not passed on genetically! Bigotry is learned, and because it is learned, it can be unlearned, and indeed we could just stop teaching it. I am not naïve enough to think that we can rid the world of bigotry by declaring a moratorium on teaching it.

How well I know that bigotry and discrimination are about power and privilege. And it is not easy for folks who have power and privilege to decide to just give it up. We have to offer to those who have it, a more rewarding alternative. We need to imagine and work toward making real a world in which difference doesn't make any more difference. We need to envision and then create communities where everyone is respected, and invited "to the table" so that their voices can be heard. And if there isn't room enough "at the table" for everyone, then a bigger table must be built.

Here in the United States, power and privilege based on race and gender stand out, and so, as an African American woman, I know what it is like not to have White skin privilege and not to have male privilege.

But it is ever so important that I acknowledge and deal with the reality that there is some power and privilege that I do have. I clearly have some power and privilege as someone who is upper middle class, heterosexual, a Christian, and physically able.

This reality, that each of us has some form of power and privilege flows from the fact that each of us has multiple identities. And it is ever so important for us to be aware of those identities and to guard against efforts to characterize us in singular terms.

Let me share another reality about this stuff that we call bigotry and discrimination. It is this: unfortunately, being the victim of one form of bigotry or discrimination does not immune one from victimizing others. For example, some White women who have been the victims of sexism practice racism. Some Black people who have known the bitter sting of racism are homophobic, and practice heterosexism. Some people who are Jewish, and have been the victims of anti-Semitism can harbor feelings and carry out actions that stem from Islamaphobia.

My sisters and brothers all of this mighty class of 2011, based on the points I have just made about on-going challenges to human diversity, challenges that take the form of bigotry and discrimination, what can I ask of you as you go out into the world of graduate and professional studies or the world of work? There are indeed some very specific things that I want to ask you to do, but please know that I will not ask anything of you that I do not continue to ask of myself.

First, I ask that you seriously think about how you learned your prejudices. That is, interrogate yourself about your particular journey around questions of human diversity. And when that day comes when you are parents--- if that is something you want to do and can do--- then please contribute to changing the world by refusing to teach bigotry to your children.

If you are off to do post baccalaureate work, then encourage your new institution as I hope you encouraged NMU to do its part to promote respect for diversity and to create an inclusive environment. How much better our communities and our nation would be if each of us spoke up and called out folks who tell racist, sexist and heterosexist jokes. And suppose each of us took time to truly understand the issues involved with highly charged topics such as immigration, and the number of Black and Latino men --- and yes women too---who are entangled in our nation's criminal justice system.

I ask that each of you get in touch with your multiple identities. And once you do so, then you must never let others relate to you in terms of only one of your attributes.

I also urge you to honestly examine your own power and privilege. For if you are to avoid using your power and privilege in ways that exploit and oppress others, then you must be in touch with what power and privilege you have, the basis of it, and how it can be used in positive ways.

It is time now for me to move toward closure on this talk, and I want to do so by leaving with you some inspiriting words that come from the heads and the hearts of women and men of diverse communities.

From a Native American people, the Sioux, we hear these words: with all beings and all things we shall be relatives.

Here are words that are spoken by many different people to capture the value of gender equity. The words are: Women hold up half the sky!

I turned to a Chinese saying for the tittle for this commencement address.  It is a saying that speaks to the beauty of human diversity: One flower never makes a spring. Indeed it is when there is an incredible array of many different flowers that we say – after a long Northern Michigan winter, spring has come!

Even though each of us has heard them many times, I must lift up Dr. Martin Luther King's moving words that continue to speak to the struggle against racial discrimination. "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Caesar Chavez, the exemplary Chicano leader once said: "Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others----for their sakes and for our own."

The beloved Rabbi Hillel was asked if he could stand on one foot and say everything that is in the Torah. He responded that he could and this is what he said: "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow men (and women). That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary."

There is a passage in the Koran that says this: "We are made into nations and tribes that we may know and love each other.

One of my sheroes, Audre Lorde, who described herself as a Black, feminist, lesbian, mother, warrior poet offered these profound words: It is not our differences, it is our silence about our differences that harms us.

Here are the words of Helen Keller, an amazing social activist who was deaf and blind from the age of 10 months: "Each of us is blind and deaf until our eyes are opened to our fellow men and women, until our ears hear the voices of humanity."

Now I really will bring closure, but to do so I must ask one more thing of each of you, my classmates of the mighty class of 2011.  Please, will each of you who is graduating today to please stand.  Now give yourselves a big hug.  Remember, you must first love and respect yourself before you can love and respect the diverse people of the world.