The Directness Principle

Raised in a Black matriarchal household, I quickly discovered the directness principle. One of the ways my mother built my resilience, as her only Black male child, for the white world through which I'd have to navigate was in the practice of directness, often colloquially described as "say what you mean, and mean what you say." Oddly, though, that directness was never utilized to communicate callously and heartlessly. On the contrary, directness was a form of humane communication that removed any illusory barriers between those communicating. The path to abolitionist communication requires the directness principle for the sake of the community. We must start, again, by asking, how does a lack of directness oppress Black folx and other marginalized identities? By doing exactly what my mother set out not to do in communicating with me—creating illusory truths. When leaders fail to be direct in our communication, particularly when we are leading teaching and learning communities that disproportionately serve Black folx, brown folx, and income insecure folx, we suppress freedom. The nuance and complexity of directness are that, in approach, it can be perceived as merciless; and yet, it is the epitome of mercy in that directness takes seriously that knowing what a thing is, how a thing is going to be, and the impact a thing will have offers folx a freedom to plan, prepare, and position themselves according to the outcomes that make most sense for their households and lived experiences. In a way, a lack of directness on the part of leaders has an air of individualism and selfishness by withholding meaningful, influential, and intentional knowledge from the community. The point here is that the directness principle nip-pily alleviates any imagined, perceived, or actual internal fears and concerns in the recipient of the knowledge, and gives the recipient clarity on what is to come.

Anyone who has ever worked with me has inevitably, and perhaps nauseatingly, heard my four-word rule for the directness principle—just say the thing. It is seemingly a simple act, yet it is loaded with complexity and anxiety and wonderings and questions and reluctance by so many. I often wonder if our reluctance to just saying the thing is, in part, because we lack clarity on what the thing is. Think about it: one can't say something if one doesn't know what one is saying; and being able to know the thing, not all the things, is a revolutionary act of directness. The problem is seldom that leaders don't know things to say, but that they regularly lack knowledge of the thing. As someone who values the potency of language, English has two article types—definite (the) and indefinite (a/an). As you might remember from elementary and middle school grammar lessons, the is used to refer to specific, particular, unambiguous nouns, while a/an is used for non-specific, non-particular, ambiguous nouns. So, the directness principle of just saying "the thing" is a principle first driven by a sense of discernment and sensitivity to a crisis, or a moment, in order to determine with unambiguous clarity the thing you are communicating.

As our senior management team contemplated how to communicate about the impending city and state budget cuts that would impact all New York City and State public schools, we went round after round about how much to say and how little to say, how many other things to say alongside the thing we really wanted to say; and after a few rounds of what could be interpreted by some as an incessant back-and-forth, I was asked why I was being so quiet, which was unlike me, and if I had any input on what we should do. By way of my mother's spirit, and in acknowledgment of what we risked by not employing directness as our driving principle, I replied,

Just say the thing. Here is what's happening—cuts toward education, and other social impact areas, are on the table to rectify the budget gaps as a result of state and city revenue losses from Covid-19. We are unclear, at this point, of what those cuts might be. But what we do know is that they will range from 5% to 10%, potentially even more, by the end of the fiscal year. We have reviewed our budget, prioritized human capital, and made necessary adjustments to circumvent layoffs for as long as possible. We will be continually guided by the following principles—x, y, and z—and we will keep you informed, to the best of our ability, as we continue to learn more. Just say the thing.

The options for what we could have shared were endless, and there were a host of things being considered as additives for our communication to staff. Were the additives things that mattered? Potentially, to the folx who are always intrigued by more information than less. Were the additives the thing? No, and therefore, they flunked the directness test. In just saying the thing, we employ an abolitionist communication approach that accomplishes five aims: provides meaningful, influential, and intentional knowledge for the freedom sake of the community; affirms the impact of a crisis on our communal consciousness; rejects self-centered inclinations on the part of the leader by not centering how emotionally difficult it is to say, and instead focusing on what needs to be said; humanizes the lived experiences of the recipients as being deeply impacted by whatever is being communicated; and is steadfast in its pursuit, and sustaining, of freedom. Effectively executed, the directness principle points communication toward hope.

White leaders, however, must be mindful that the nature of systemic racism, positional power politics, and implicit biases adds a layer onto using the directness principle. This is because the historical trauma of directness rhetoric from white folx to oppressed folx, namely Black folx, has often resulted in bodily violence and psychological harm. One way, but certainly not the only way, to control for an abolitionist approach to the directness principle as a white leader is to oppression-test your communication by asking three guiding questions:

  • 1. Am I the appropriate person to be talking about this issue? When I talk about this issue, what is the historical legacy of the issue itself and the words I'm going to use, and the historical consequences for oppressed folx in response to the issue I am going to address?
  • 2. If someone read my spoken words without context of the situation, relationship with me personally or professionally, or without knowledge of the teaching and learning community I lead, how would they perceive the effect of my words on oppressed identities?
  • 3. Who in my sphere of influence can I trust to hear, or read, my words and hold me accountable through a critical feedback-loop that intentionally checks my trivialization of traumas and identity politics, use of white-dominant norms, and/or my use of language that reinforces a deficit-based framing of non-white, non-privileged, non-hegemonic identities?

As a white leader, it's important to be honest with yourself that your use of the directness principle must be vetted, then vetted again, and then again in order to avoid perpetuating oppressive communication politics that calcifies existing narratives surrounding oppressed folx that are implicitly and explicitly harmful to the task of abolition. Further, oppressive messages in the smog of white privilege framing might be unintentional, and yet even unintentional harm must be identified and critiqued directly.