On the second day of Kwanzaa, we contemplate the principle, Kujichagulia. On the official Kwanzaa website, Kujichagulia – Self Determination – asks us “to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.” This year, I’ve had several opportunities when I’ve come face to face with some of the insidious ways that one’s commitment to self-determination can be undermined, especially as a Black person in the United States.
Since approximately age 12, after graduating from my elementary school in Harlem, NY, I’ve walked and moved primarily in majority-white communities. As a teen and young adult, I did not fully grasp the many ways that so many people intentionally or unconsciously sought to define who I was, often to fit flawed stereotypes of what it means to be Black. Since this dynamic was invisible to me, I didn’t have much protection against these constant assaults on my identity. Attending a specialized high school in NY, there were times I listened to teachers who told me that I should not take a certain class because it might be too hard for me. I listened to people, both in and out of my community, who told me that certain things I loved or didn’t love – reading, dancing, music, styles of clothing – made me “too Black” or “not Black enough.” When I walked with my partner in the streets of New York City and then in Durham, NC, I didn’t know how to make sense of the message from both Black and White people in both places that my love for my partner marked me as someone who was “not from here,” not Black.
It took a long time for me to start questioning, “What did all this mean? How could anyone born with my dark brown skin be determined to be Black or not Black because of what I did, who I loved, what I enjoyed?” I’m saddened when I reflect on how long it took me to realize that Black culture is as diverse as the many shades of brown that make up people from the African culture, and to accept myself fully as one exemplar of Black culture. To truly comprehend and trust that I don’t have to fit myself into someone else’s box in order to be Black just as I don’t have to force myself to fit dominant culture expectations in order to be accepted. To understand the difference between choosing how to be based on clarity about what’s truly motivated from within instead of what’s driven by internalized expectations from the outside world.
As you can imagine, while I intellectually get this, there are times when I have to recommit myself to these beliefs. To choose to define who I am, what I value, what I speak, what I put forth in the world. Kujichagulia, self-determination – is a principle that I’ve had to revisit several times this year as a member of the larger NVC community. After outrage at the continued murders of Black people fueled a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, I was asked to write an article about what NVC could contribute to these times. After submitting the article to the publisher, I was told that a white man I anonymously referenced in the article had reviewed the article and asked the publisher if I could remove the part that discussed his actions. I was stunned, both that he asked, and that the publisher actually made the request of me.
This is not the first time something like this has happened within NVC community. The commitment held by several of my BIPOC colleagues and me, along with some white allies, to explore the ways that power and privilege needs to be addressed when teaching and talking about Nonviolent Communication has been met with fierce resistance. Predominantly white trainers continue to question whether we are truly embodying NVC if we talk about privilege. At least one trainer asked that I no longer be allowed to teach at CNVC events, and even wondered if I should still be certified because I continued to talk about things like privilege and power which he found inconsistent with his version of NVC. While I was clear I had a fierce “No!” inside of me to any request to silence any part of my truth by editing my article, it was a no that was accompanied by intense pain. Leaning into support offered by dear friends, I received hours of empathy and became clear about the path I wanted to take. I realized I was willing to withdraw my article and publish it myself rather than change any word of it to meet that request. I was willing to lose the exposure I would experience by having this publisher share my article worldwide rather than censor my pain about one impact of being Black in NVC community. The situation did resolve. I asked two dear friends, white allies, to talk to the publisher about the impact of the request. And, I heard that several days later, the trainer withdrew his request. But, the pain, the ongoing struggle to define myself as a Black person in NVC community, rather than be defined by others, remains.
This struggle for self-determination as I move through various NVC communities comes up for me repeatedly. How do I embody the values of NVC that I so cherish, while trying to draw attention to and change some of the ways NVC has been presented that has been so painful for BIPOC folks? How do I stay attuned to my needs, choosing when to engage (even when some folks don’t want me to) and when to step back (even when some are pressuring me to step up) in relation to the conflict about this aspect of social change that is roiling some NVC communities? What am I willing to risk in order to help NVC communities be a place where Black folks and members of other historically excluded groups can exercise their self-determination in how to embody NVC principles in culturally congruent ways? As I reflect on the principle of Kujichagulia this year, this is my commitment. That I will continue to look within to see what my truth is. That I will check in with trusted advisors, both in my BIPOC communities and in my NVC communities, to get their feedback on how I’m living in alignment with my values, but ultimately, I will decide for myself. And, that I will continue to be willing to risk my belonging in order to stay true to who I am, in order to fight for everyone’s ability to stay true to who they are.
How do you experience self-determination? In what aspects of your life do you hesitate to fully own your truth and your experience, to take action that fully supports your vision for yourself and your people? When you consider the NVC communities to which you belong, how have you been navigating any tension around honoring all aspects of your experience as you express yourself within your community? In what ways are you able to attend to your needs for self-determination while honoring others’ need to find their own path?
Read my reflections for the 7 days of Kwanzaa
Day 1: Umoja – Unity
Day 2: Kujichagulia – Self Determination
Day 3: Ujima – Collective Work & Responsibility
Day 4: Ujamaa – Cooperative Economics
Day 5: Nia – Purpose
Day 6: Kuumba – Creativity
Day 7: Imani – Faith