Career Counseling: The Impact of Ethnicity, Gender, and Class on Career Options, Career Choices, and Career Opportunities – An Interview with Millennial and Spoken Work Artist, Pastor Malachi

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By Paula Celeste Neeley

What would it mean if a Society could reimagine itself as 1) open, just, equitable for ALL of its residents and 2) economically viable with a richness that was not chained to extraction, oppression, and exploitation? And for the residents of this “reimagined” society, would they show up to their lives differently if they knew their value was not in question? Would they produce differently if they knew their efforts would result in being able to afford to feed their families? Would those residents move differently through the world if they were not consumed with decisions between buying medicine or paying utilities? 

The economics of ethnicity, gender, and class. We live in an America that is not open, just, or equitable for ALL its citizens, especially those in Black and Brown bodies. This America causes some of its residents to question the value of themselves, the value of their neighbor. This America forces certain of its citizens to work more than one low-paying job to possibly afford medicines, childcare, a Metro ticket. This America obstructs the path for entry into the middle class “American Dream,” an ideal to which all U.S. residents do NOT have access.

The Spotlight Series explores survival strategies of a few who live in a society where structural inequities devalue their existence daily. Yet, these individuals (and thousands like them) do not loot businesses nor do they plot to violently exact revenge. They do not scheme for vindication or plan reciprocal injustices to mirror what has been perpetrated against them and their ancestors. Instead, they live their lives noticing and naming the barriers and devising plans to find another way to accomplish their dreams. They agitate within their spheres of influence to improve their corner of the globe. 

What is different in the mind of a person who navigates around an obstacle from a person who throws a trashcan through a plate glass storefront window? There are so many avenues for non-violent, civil disobedience, one of which is peaceful protest as an appropriate and healthy expression; an outward manifestation of disagreement. Perhaps an overlooked path is the individual who understands that their very existence is the resistance. This month, the series spotlights a gentleman I met at the beginning of 2020 (before COVID-19 turned the world upside down) at a Saturday workshop entitled, “Holy Diversity” sponsored by the Religion and Race department of the United Methodist Church. It was a very interactive 6-hour workshop. I was drawn to the urgency in Pastor Malachi’s comments: astute, perceptive, and timely.

In the Spotlight – Pastor Laquaan Malachi

Pastor Malachi is a licensed local pastor in the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. He was born and raised in Bennettsville, South Carolina, but currently resides in Minneapolis. He attended undergrad at Francis Marion University and seminary at Candler School of Theology. Malachi is currently the pastor of North United Methodist Church and has a passion for people and justice. He is an author, poet, and spoken word artist whose work often includes themes surrounding justice and/or mental health.

How would you describe yourself and your upbringing from a socio-economic perspective?  I would consider myself as the working poor. I grew up in a small town in South Carolina; a little town called Bennettsville, and I think I might make just as much as my parents made at the highest point in their lives … of my childhood. But man, it feels like so much less money now than it was when I was, like, five or six. And imagine me, I’m thinking that maybe I’m just, like, not frugal, not a good spender or maybe I’m misremembering how much they made. And then you do some research and you realize, no, they’re still paying people the same thing they’ve always paid people, but everything else in the world has been becoming more expensive. And the only thing that hasn’t kept pace is what people are required to pay you. 

It’s such evidence of the trap that Millennials find ourselves in that when my parents earned what I earn now, we lived, you know, comfortable-ish, at least. Whereas now my salary just puts me pretty much living week-to-week, most weeks. About 60% of Americans who work could go bankrupt or miss a bill if they had a $500 emergency right now. I had to buy a car and I was broke and hungry for, like, two weeks. But what do you do, right? You gotta buy a car because you gotta be able to get to work. I have two jobs. I’m a full-time pastor, which is salaried, and I make the minimum allowed. And I work in a group home part time, and it doesn’t really pay well either, but at least it’s hourly. When you work salaried, sometimes hourly work feels more fair because at least, when they overwork you, they still gotta pay you. Versus when you’re salaried and gotta pull a 60-to-70-hour week. I don’t get no extra money for that extra work.

Outside of socioeconomics, I would describe myself as –and this isn’t in order of preference or importance– but obviously I’m Black, I’m Christian, what I would consider “devout Christian” in terms of the sincerity of my belief … and the way that I freely take Jesus with me everywhere I go. I’m liberal. Ha! So liberal. I’m typically among the most liberal Christians I know. I’m a voter, that’s for sure, because I mean, you know, that’s pragmatism. I’m not a Democrat; only when I have to be to vote in the Primary. I don’t know if I said pastor, but obviously that’s a major part of my identity. But, I feel like on some level, it doesn’t really matter how I see myself because the World will always see me first and foremost as a Black man. So chiefly, I’m that. A Black man, in America, in North Minneapolis.

This self-description is so apt an example of the inequity of systemic racism: the inaccurate compression of a rich life into two words “a Black man.” As a society, we dismiss so much when we focus so heavily on race.

Can you say more about your Christianity? I only ask because I watched your interview with New City Church and you mentioned how you were almost Atheist when you went to college. And three years later when you graduated, you were headed to Seminary.  I was. That’s very true. I was pretty close to being Atheist … thinking that it was all just like a bunch of BS to get people’s money on Sundays.  But, I met some people who were able to show me through their actions, more so than their words, that you didn’t have to be a Christian and be like all the other Christians I was thinking of when I thought of my poor experiences with Christian people growing up. That didn’t really restore my faith, per se, but it kept the door open, that’s for sure. [Belief in God] was a door I was about ready to close. To me, before that, the church just represented …a chain, basically. It was just like this thing that always told you what you could and could not do, that said it loved you, but never really seemed to be under any obligation to prove it.

“‘The Church’ said it loved you, but didn’t seem to be under any obligation to prove it.”

When I told my mom I was going to be a pastor, when I finally told her … I had already been accepted in Seminary. So I had to tell her at that point because, you know, somebody had to take me to Atlanta … I didn’t have a car. She was like, ‘You gonna be a preacher?! You don’t even like church!’ But I was like, ‘I really don’t, but something’s here.’ You know? I felt it. I’m supposed to be there. So, I went.

What were your dreams as a young boy? What did you think you would do with your life?  Where I grew up, dreams never really came true. So, ‘what were your dreams?’ and ‘what did you plan to do with your life?’ aren’t remotely the same question. My dream was to not have to struggle, right? A lifetime of living paycheck to paycheck is really a lifetime of stress, exhaustion, and constant crisis management, and our bodies, our brains are not made to endure that. And that’s the thing with Black people, even if you adjust for health and wealth, Black people still, on average, die a decade earlier than our White counterparts. We have so much “lived” stress to combat every day, and it’s generational, and all this trauma just compounds. And so dreams are one thing- – – I mean, I had all the normal dreams little Black boys have: that I can play in the NFL one day, or play [Pro] basketball.

“I didn’t like the idea of conceding to a life that brought me no joy.”

In terms of dreams, I just always wanted to find a way to do something that would get me out of South Carolina, out of my small town. The older I got, the more I realized that in a town of that size in such a rural area, there weren’t really any opportunities for an expansion of my life. We didn’t even have a Walmart in my hometown until the same year I graduated college. 

A lot of people [in that town] long before they even touched the age of 18, had already surrendered to the fact that this is our life:  I’m gonna go get a job that I don’t like, and do that for the next 30 years, so I can retire. I’ma have a couple kids with somebody that I might maybe don’t hate, and we’ll try to work it out. Then maybe get divorced when the kids turn 18. Like, if you’re lucky, right? If your kids don’t end up in jail or in the streets. And I just did not like the idea of conceding to a life that brought me no joy, just because it was what you do when you live there. 

So I enlisted in the Army when I was 17 because it was a ticket right on out of South Carolina. And I did end up going back [to visit] a little bit before undergrad, and then a little bit before Seminary, but never for more than a few months at a time. Then I started college and in college, I found my call to ministry. And from there I went to grad school.

“I learned how to dream better for myself.”

Do you feel like you have accomplished the things you wanted to?  I don’t necessarily think I’ve accomplished the things I dreamed of when I was a kid. I think I learned how to dream better for myself as I got older. It’s hard to properly dream, unless you have a certain level of hope. I had never seen college graduates. I went to a high school, one of the worst in the country and in one of the worst school districts in the country. The federal government calls it “The Corridor of Shame”, the part of the state I grew up in because it’s that bad. So I never really saw a lot of what people would call successful people who actually didn’t hate their lives on some level or who looked like me or who were from where I’m from. By the time I met people who had graduated college, I was already in college.

I had no idea of the wealth of experience in the world that exists beyond the place you grew up. I wasn’t close-minded, I was probably on the way to being just as liberal as I am now, but I was closed-minded in terms of the possibilities I could imagine. Because I had never really been nowhere, never seen nothing beyond like, North and South Carolina. My imagination wasn’t big enough for my dreams to be something of substance.

Was it expected that you would go to college?  In my community? No. With my mom? Yes. My mom was always big on education. I’m pretty sure she had her mind made up about me going to college before I even breathed air for the first time. Did anybody else expect it? Not really. And we didn’t have social media back then, social media was just in the infancy of becoming what it is today. I’m a millennial. People like to think we were born with the internet in our hands, but we weren’t. We grew up as the internet grew up. So it wasn’t like I could just hop on Instagram, or Twitter, or Facebook, and see people posting selfies from college, right? 

Pastor Malachi described how his generation was the first generation to use social media to post images from college life and share insider survival tips with younger ones in his community: that paying tuition doesn’t cover the cost of room-and-board; that getting registered for classes doesn’t cover the cost of expensive textbooks. He said that because there was no generation ahead of him to post those images –that world didn’t exist yet in social media— he was not able benefit from what existed in the broader world. 

Did you have coaches or teachers who encouraged you to go to college?  Where I come from, they just want you to do something. The bar is that low. And when they say “do something” what they mean is don’t end up broke, destitute, with a bunch of kids that you can’t afford, at like, 18 to 21. Don’t go marrying somebody you hate and be stuck with them at 18. Don’t end up in jail or a criminal. I mean, if you can stay out of trouble and pay your bills, that’s success where I come from. 

“People can only push you as far they’ve gone.”

Did I have support? For sure. Did I have the support I really needed to get to where I am today, or to even imagine that I could be where I am today? No, because people can only push you as far as they’ve gone. My friends in school, my aunts and uncles they were like, “You’re smart. You’re capable. You can do stuff.”

When it comes to the “American Dream”, a college degree has been touted as the ticket to the middle class. Do you agree with this? Why or why not?  Is the American Dream even a real thing? In my parents’ mind, they were living the “American Dream”. It didn’t look that dreamy to me. 

When do you remember becoming aware of a division between “blue collar” and “white collar” work?  I don’t think there is a distinction in all the ways that really matter, but I do think that there is somewhat of a class distinction. As far as I’m concerned, work is work. I got just as much respect for the guy who works at IBM as I do for the guy who sells weed on the corner so his kid can have shoes. This world was not made with us in mind. At least not, not the world with America at the forefront. We built this system … they made us build this system that really didn’t have any benefits for us. So I don’t talk down on people who do what they have to do to pay bills and feed families because it’s not really their fault, in most cases, that we’ve allowed our nation in the world to degrade in such a way where those are their options. 

In America, not everybody has good options. Sometimes you just gotta choose from a list of bad choices. And people who’ve never had only bad choices can’t understand the concept. They want to talk about it in terms of like, responsibility and criminality, but that’s because they’ve always had good choices, and they don’t even realize a world exists where a person could have no good choices. 

Depending on where you live in this country, on any given morning to go to school your options could be: don’t take this illegal gun and they might see me and shoot me, or take this illegal gun and I might have to see them and shoot them, or take this illegal gun and hope that I don’t get searched when I go into school and end up in jail. For some children in this country, those are their only range of realistic, pragmatic day-to-day options. And no matter what choice they pick, it’s a bad choice. People do not put themselves in those circumstances, in most cases, therefore they should not be subject to judgment from broader society for the ways in which, really, we’re failing them. 

I have some terms for you to define and share a personal example from your life. 

Institutionalized Racism My simplest definition of how I would explain it is “common life for Black people”. 

You can get an accidentally racist infrastructure and systems when there are not enough people who are like you in power to raise comments, concerns, and objections to you. [Certain institutions] have been mostly shaped by only White voices over the course of the institution’s history … that builds exclusion and racism into the system, even if it’s only unintentionally. Racism does not have to be attached to intent, because racism is not only about intent. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t make the system racist on purpose, the system is racist. So systemic racism is about structures and barriers that are put in the way of people; silent, invisible barriers that only stop the people that the system is supposed to stop, that are invisible to the people who are designed to walk through.

Ethnicity & Race They are not always the same thing, but they are the same thing. Black is Black, to me because the “One Drop Rule” was a real lived-in thing [in this country]. And there are conversations about people who can pass as White. What does it mean to pass as White? What does it mean to be Black ethnically, but to be able to pass as White and not be Black, culturally? Those are like all important nuances that have meaning and value. When it’s time for consequences, Black is Black. When they are elevated to a certain level of ascendency, then it becomes what kind of Black. The Black Experience can be cushioned by money, class, status and privilege, but it can’t be erased by it.

Gender Bias The world is full of it. [I define it as] any set of unequal circumstances for men and women. Gender bias is all around us … the fact that women get paid $0.80 cents on the dollar that every man makes. And that is so widely accepted that it would even affect your insurance pay out if you got hurt. I [was talking to a colleague] about someone they knew who was trying to settle with an insurance company. And [my colleague said] ‘they base it on how much money you would have stood to make over the course of your life, if you could still work.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, and because [the injured person] was a woman, [the insurance company is] legally allowed to award her less because she would’ve made less money over the course of her life than a man.’ My colleague was appalled, but it’s like, if somebody wants to call it out, then [gender bias] is imaginary. But when it’s time to pay for the damage you’ve done, oh, now it’s real. It’s real when they want it to be real.

“… and that’s a tragedy because all it does is unjustly mute the potential of women in the world.”

But gender bias isn’t even invisible, it’s so visible. It’s everywhere. You tell me of some circumstance somewhere in this country where things are equal for men and women. They really aren’t … and that’s a tragedy because all it does is unjustly mute the potential of women in the world. Nobody should have to fight harder than anyone else to get where everyone else is. And that’s what irks me about racism and sexism: it gives people permission to make [someone else’s] life more difficult because of who you are and the body and skin you were born in. It makes no sense.

Class Bias Class is interesting because there is like the Bernie Sanders strand of people who have this dream idea that all the problems of race exist only because of class, and that if you correct for class, racism doesn’t exist, and will disappear. Or that race is much less important than class, because it’s really just about money. As if by some imaginary policy White people in general ended up in a higher class than Black people. It’s not a mistake, but that’s a story for another day. But class permeates everything. It’s like what you said earlier about the blue collar worker versus the white collar worker. A person that makes this amount of money next to this one. A person that goes to a public school versus the prestigious school. A person that goes to like a community college versus Ivy League. 

As far as I’m concerned, the idea of class is really just a way for the powerful in the world to rest on their laurels and continually skip the line. Because [they] don’t have to prove anything. People will assume. If you went to Harvard, everyone’ll give you the job and they’ll expect that you can do it. They will expect that you’re competent, because you went to Harvard. Even though you didn’t get into Harvard because you’re smarter than the guy who went to community college. You went to Harvard because you could afford to go to college or because your parent knew somebody “important.”

Or they gave an endowment, or maybe just paid your way in like we so clearly have evidence that they do now. But maybe your dad was the President: wink, wink. Think about George W. Bush, who has never had good grades any time in his life, and has a degree from an Ivy League for undergrad and grad school. What “C” student do you know is able to get degrees from Ivy League schools? But you do if your dad is the President. That’s class [privilege] … a way for people to skip the line based on work that they didn’t do. As a Christian, one thing that gets me the most about capitalism in America is this idea that if you have more money, you’re worth more and that you deserve to be worth more because you worked harder. It’s a lie.

“… none of us are innocent. We just exist atvarying degrees of guilt and culpability.”

Usually in America, if you have more money, you exploit better. And that goes for all of us sitting here with our cell phones and computer screens likely assembled by slave labor somewhere else, far away that we didn’t have to see or hear on a regular basis. To be honest, none of us are innocent. We just exist at varying degrees of guilt and culpability. Because [as a consumer] I don’t have any other options. These are the only kind of phones that I can afford that exist in my world. And I gotta have one to have a job and get where I gotta go, right? Sometimes your only choice is a bad choice, or a choice that hurts someone else. And even if you have to do it, it doesn’t make the choice not bad.

Anything else you want to share about the intersectionality of ethnicity, gender, and class?  Privilege and power. They co-exist, intertwine and in different settings, different parts of our identities have more power. Privilege is fluid. In Tamika Mallory’s speech -she was one of the founders of the Women’s March- and she said ‘we [Black people] learned violence from you [White people]. You are the looters, America. You loot our communities, we exist on stolen land. If you want to call us violent, where do you think we learned it from?’ Any negative stereotype about Black people being violent, these are all things we learned from White dominance. If all we know how to do is be violent savages, that’s because that’s all [they] ever were to us. Let’s be clear that 98% of mass shootings in America are [committed by] by White men. So it ain’t us. 

And it’s not just the cops that are a danger to your children, the world is a danger to your children when your children are Black. I don’t like to minimize that particular thing because that’s a real, lived terror that we deal with every day. We’ve gotta know, that even in a liberal city like this, a White person could come in here and do whatever they want to us. And they’re more likely to get away with it; we’re more likely to be arrested and go to jail than they are. 

“This country has thrown everything at us and we have endured.”

And that contributes to the circumstances that Black and other marginalized people often live with: when the police are not safe, they can only ever be your last option, which means things get escalated. There’s so many times that if you call the police at the beginning, you can probably avert a crisis. Problem is, the police themselves are a crisis for us. 

With the racial reckoning that is happening in this country and all the thoughts you’ve expressed as we’ve talked, what gives you hope?  They can’t really hurt us. If they could break us, we would be broken. If they could get rid of us, they would have gotten rid of us. If they could kill us all off, they would have done it already. This country has thrown everything at us and we have endured. Take what I own, but you can’t break me. There is not a People [group] in the existence of the modern world who are more understanding of their oppressors than Black people. The way White people have treated Black people, if Black people treated White people for a week the way they’ve treated us for centuries, they would burn this s*** down. [To assuage their guilt] they say, ‘I didn’t do it.’ My response? ‘But you benefit from the people who did and that makes you guilty, particularly more guilty, if you don’t even have the decency to recognize it.’

Can I say one more thing? I think is an important distinction when we talk about riots and uprisings. That is something that White people struggle to understand, because it was really the basis by which America was built …protecting property. The thing is, property damage is not violence. It is not. Those are things, not people. You can buy more windows. You can build more buildings. You cannot make another George Floyd and we cannot get another Jamar. We cannot get another Philando. Those are lives who were stolen illegally, and violently, lives for whom justice has never been served. I could burn down the entire state of Minnesota and it will not equal an iota of the justice we are owed for those deaths. So Black people down here, they didn’t do anything violent, because [property damage] is not violence.

And nobody’s really scared, except White people and people who benefit from Whiteness. They really think that we’re going to do to them what they did to us. We’re not, or we would have long ago. We’re really not. We just want to live our lives free from the terror that they impose on us on a daily basis.

Peaceful protests, riots, and looting are a response to something? Those in positions of power and influence must decide if they are willing to address these issues at the root cause, or simply suppress symptoms. We do not want a bandaid; we want surgery. We do not want vengeance; we want justice.

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