By Angela Noel
May 25, 2017
Charlie, from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, unwraps only the tiniest morsel of chocolate each birthday, hoping to make the treat last as long as possible. He nibbles off just a corner—just a taste—each day. Joi Campbell isn’t a fictional English boy living in a shack with four bedridden grandparents. But she’s as careful with her story as Charlie is with his chocolate. And her story has hidden depths, flavors, textures, meaning, and significance just as important to the world as Charlie’s birthday treat was to him.
Joi revealed her life to me in small pieces, inching closer to a deeper truth about who she is and what made her into an extraordinary, resilient, and delightful human being. Some of what she said made me uncomfortable. Because truth can, and sometimes should, hurt. I wanted to feature Joi because her smile lights a room. She always has a kind word, and she’s exceptionally good at truth-telling with both empathy and grit. But now I know better: Joi’s all those things, yet so much more.
Adopted at a young age from a country outside the US, Joi grew up in a small town in Nebraska. As an adult, she moved to Minnesota where she decided to raise her family and make her life as she knows it
The facts of Joi’s life are not who she is. They do, however, play a role in shaping the woman she’s chosen to become. Just as our parents shape us, so, too, do the circumstances we find ourselves in. How we respond to those facts and circumstances makes all the difference. Not what happens to us, but what happens because of us defines the message of our lives. Joi’s life has a story to tell. The obstacles she’s faced are our obstacles, whether we know it yet or not. But her message, as you’ll see, empowers us all.
When Joi first moved in to her current home she met a few of her neighbors. One white, older gentleman asked many of the usual questions. Where did she work? What did she do for a living? But something else lingered there. Something Joi, and other people of color can feel, but white people often cannot. Jessica Nordell articulates some of the reason why in her article Is This How Discrimination Ends published by The Atlantic. She writes:
“ . . . studies demonstrate bias across nearly every field and for nearly every group of people. . . . And they show that at this moment in time, if person A is white and person B is black, if person X is a woman and person Y is a man, they will be treated differently in American society for no other reason than that their identities have a cultural meaning. And that meaning clings to each person like a film that cannot be peeled away.”
Nordell goes on to say, “While people in the majority may only see intentional acts of discrimination, people in the minority may register both those acts and unintended ones. White people, for instance, might only hear a racist remark, while people of color might register subtler actions, like someone scooting away slightly on a bus—behaviors the majority may not even be aware they’re doing.” Joi felt uncomfortable with the conversation with her neighbor. Later, the reason why became crystal clear.
Joi learned from another resident that this gentleman, surprise in his voice, had said of her, “She’s so pretty and so articulate.” His words confirmed what she’d suspected. When a person in a marginalized or minority group hears this kind of statement it sounds patronizing, even hostile. As if, in words and gesture, the words actually mean, “I am surprised to find one of YOUR kind so pretty and so articulate.”
Confronting this man and explaining why his “compliment” offended her might seem like the right thing to do. But he’d need to be ready to hear the message. Or else Joi, or anyone else who spoke up now or in the future would be wasting his or her breath. Yet, there’s hope.
A C-SPAN clip from an appearance of Heather McGhee president of Demos, a public policy organization with a mission to support “an equal say and an equal chance for all” has millions of views. In it, a man from North Carolina admitted his prejudice, saying, “I have these different fears, and I don’t want these fears to come true . . . but what can I do to change?” He asked McGhee for suggestions.
With poise and emotional intelligence, she thanked him for taking a step towards leading change by acknowledging his fear and prejudice. Then, McGhee offered practical suggestions on ways he can change his own mind. Her suggestions include:
- Turn off the news because studies have shown an overrepresentation of African American crime
- Read about the history of African Americans (or other people of color)
- Join an interracial church
- Get to know black families
This response, not only what she said, but how she said it, reminds me of Joi. Joi affirmed that I’d taken the right first step when I admitted to a similar prejudice born of fear and lack of understanding. Wanting to change, failing with grace, and keeping my ears and heart open will make a difference, Joi assured me. She’s learned to wait for these signs of openness. When her message can be heard, she speaks.
It’s not Joi’s job to make me or other white people feel good about how “inclusive” we can be. Or affirm how “not-racist” we think we are. Cast in this role sometimes, Joi chooses her words carefully. But she knows she elected to live in Minnesota, where 85% of the population identifies as white. She chose to live, to work, and to raise her children here. And that means understanding there will be challenges.
Her choices empower her, yet Joi knows the rules are different for her. That, despite what everyone says, if she’s late for a meeting, people will notice because she’s the only brown face in the room. If the conversation requires a “person of color” perspective, all heads swivel her way, whether she likes it or not. Sometimes, it’s draining. Other times, it’s scary.
Clear and Present Danger?
For example, Joi went to Nicaragua this past winter as part of her master’s degree program. President Trump’s executive order to restrict immigration had taken effect; but Joi had little access to wifi or news while abroad. She had no idea what awaited her. She found herself detained, questioned, and searched, while seeing white counterparts moving through the line with ease. “For the first time, I felt fear. I wasn’t sure if I’d get home to my babies.” She had paperwork to prove she was a citizen. But why would she think to bring anything but her passport? All these thoughts ran through her head as she waited for clearance through customs—clearance to rejoin her family, in her own country.
Joi’s eyes well with tears as she tells this story, and mine do, too. Having done nothing wrong, no mother–no person–should be subjected to the fear that they cannot return to his or her child or to his or her country because of the color of their skin, the origin of their birth, or the religion they practice. But the problem isn’t agreeing on this most basic fact. The problem is changing a culture where “done nothing wrong” means something different for people of color than it does for the white majority.
Do Stereotypes Protect Us?
In an excellent TEDMED Talk, David R. Williams points out the frequency of different words used in the media coupled with either black or white. The top six word associations with black in American media are: poor, violent, religious, lazy, cheerful, and dangerous. The top words for white are: wealthy, progressive, conventional, stubborn, successful, and educated. It’s impossible to see that and not think we’re being brainwashed—by ourselves. We’re accepting and reinforcing fictions without even knowing it. And because, mixed in with all the fictions are facts—real people doing real things wrong—we think our stereotypes protect us from harm. But, what if we’re wrong?
Joi grew up in a loving household in Nebraska. The second youngest of four, she has three siblings—all white, all the biological children of her adoptive family. “They love the mess out of me,” Joi says, smiling.
Fiercely protective against the cruel comments of neighbors, her sister once threatened to drown a kid for calling Joi a name. But they couldn’t protect her from everyone. And they couldn’t protect her from always feeling like an outsider.
Only after Joi had her own children, saw their faces as a reflection of her own, did the wounds of “otherness” begin to heal. The scars, she knows, remain. But, they don’t own her. She moves through the world with confidence, choosing her own path.
Seeing the One, Serving the Many
Joi acknowledges how much it hurts sometimes. But she’s staying engaged in the conversation about social justice, race, and the impacts of negative stereotypes. She’s taking one step at a time; one person, one situation at a time. She spends energy every day to help people like me: People who want to wake up a little more to the invisible side of the world. It’s a world we thought we saw clearly, but really see only through murky glasses. The road she’s taking looks at ways to develop people–ALL people–into the beings they want and need to be.
Armed with her master’s degree in human resources, she’s ready to begin a new chapter in her life. Willy Wonka would have chosen Joi to run his marvelous factory. Her heart and her good sense, has always been her guide.
If Joi can do it, so can I. So can you.
Be awesome in real life.
Your turn: When have you seen a friend or co-worker demonstrate courage and resilience? How do you challenge your own beliefs and fears?