Fear of “Breaking the Rules”: Conformity and Dependency
One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way. Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” And they had nothing to say. (Luke 14:1-6, NIV)
In this story, the Pharisees insist on the overriding importance of the rule of law, while neglecting the spirit of the rule of law. The basic dignity and genuine needs of human beings are more important than following rituals and practices for their own sake. When a rule undermines its intention, it should be reconsidered, or the act should be an accepted deviation because the greater principle was upheld.
The worst thing we can do is follow a rule just because it’s in place, when there are more effective and honorable alternatives. Geoffrey Canada understands this all too well. He is the black anti-poverty reform advocate and founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a pioneering nonprofit organization committed to ending generational poverty. His organization has served more than 10,000 children over the last twenty years.
Based on Canada’s experience in the 1950s and 1960s, in order for the black people in his mother’s generation to get a job, they had to be subservient to their white bosses. Racial dehumanization was so ubiquitous in workplaces that black people were forced to bow down and compromise their dignity to put food on the table. They had to know their place. They couldn’t speak up, or they would be fired.
Because of white dominance and subjugation, many black people were forced to bow down symbolically. They realized how hard the fight against racism would be and acknowledged that life was already hard and short, so they acquiesced to the unfair, racist society.
Unfortunately, black parents passed these survival practices down to the children. Their children also inherited the accompanying perceptions, interpretations, opinions, assumptions, and beliefs about the world—and in many ways, the mindset disempowered them.
I am thankful for those who came before me who made it possible to exercise a greater level of courage in the fight for justice and progress of black people in America. Slavery survival practices were appropriate in adapting to a hostile environment, but they could not be a final solution for people living in a just society.
Acquiescing to injustice also is contradictory to brain science. A person’s mind needs to be stimulated to progress and develop in a healthy way. The brain requires active exploration, feedback, challenge, and creative work to get the most out of the educational experience. Essentially, many black parents were teaching their children to be afraid, mediocre, and subservient.
Most parents give their children advice based on their experience. If the dynamics of their experience is anything similar to the type mentioned above, the advice will often be disempowering. If an oppressive, racist system signs your paychecks, passes laws, creates policy, and interprets the world, that system influences your culture.
When those in power are indifferent to the way they harm those subordinate to their authority, they force their subordinates to capitulate to the system, fall into despair, possibly pathology, or rebel and revolt by any available means. This has been my observation.
Refusal to play by the wrong rules means breaking the rules. Something may be a prevailing practice, but that doesn’t mean it’s moral, useful, or necessary. We have been trained by explicit and unwritten rules on how to live, achieve, and ultimately, who to become. But what happens when rules (explicit and societal) don’t serve the best and highest purpose? What happens when social/cultural rules and standard professional practices keep you from doing your best and most honorable work?
Then you must break the rules.
What Does Breaking the Rules Look Like
As American politician and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan discussed in his 1965 report The Negro Family – The Case for National Action—specifically in the third section, called “The Roots of the Problem”—he acknowledged the way American chattel slavery differed from the types of servitude in ancient or modern history.
One important aspect of American slavery was that the slave could not practice any religion unless their master granted them permission. The master would have to determine if the slave was being taught the “right” way to practice the faith. The “right” way, in the eyes of the master, was the way that kept them ignorant, disempowered, and continually subservient to the system of slavery.
The rules represent what you’ve been conditioned to believe is “the right way.” According to Carter G. Woodson in The Miseducation of the Negro, some enslaved black people were against emancipation and condemned abolitionists. A few free black people actually went back into slavery after emancipation, and others didn’t even try to be free because it would disconnect them from their “masters.”
This practice highlights one of the legacies of Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome: looking for the permission of white people to succeed in a chosen path or the desire to remain subordinate to white people to be safe. I heard a minister who started a ministry serving homeless people reflecting on the interactions he had with those he served. He realized that the religious traditions he was accustomed to would render him ineffective in his purpose of effectively serving the people.
From his perspective, either you're going to honor your traditions or you're going to reach the world. To be effective, you can't be more loyal to your traditions than you are your purpose. You must be willing to be the driver of new ideas in a world that is designed to make you conform.
Unfortunately, people living on purpose can unwittingly become part of systems that put pressure on them to compromise their purpose, out of fear of making others uncomfortable or calling into question the values of the dominant culture.
Some of us get stuck in the context of society’s opinions, ideas and established patterns of thinking and operating, particularly in group settings. If we are to combat the legacy of the racial dehumanization of black people, we have to be able to allow deep reflection to lead the way in breaking out.
As the Word teaches, “Desire without knowledge is no good.” (Proverbs 19:2, NIV) Instead of going down an established path, you may have to go where there is no path and establish a new one with your own values and principles.
There are times and seasons when you have to break the protocol of the day to achieve your purpose. World-renowned actor Denzel Washington told a story about an IQ test where a piece of paper has a box with 9 dots marked within and outside the box. The instruction is given to connect the dots 9 dots on the page without lifting the pencil. The only way to do it was to go outside the box.
The box represents manmade constructs and ideas. Some people live in so much fear that when you step outside of their box—to pursue a purpose or manifest a dream—they will criticize you, because you remind them that they are living for less they were made for.
Far too often, I see people who, in good faith, give their mentees advice to live safe and secure lives without risk. Of course, I think prudence is advisable, but as you can see from the introductory story, living without taking risks is actually the greatest risk.
I was taught that, in order to be successful, I should not make any mistakes. I should try to get everyone to like me. After some years of observation and reflection, I concluded that this type of thinking will rob you of your destiny and lead you to a life full of compromises.
Of course, this is not suggesting you be obnoxious—but you should never let anyone place you in a box. When you set out for a path where there are new concepts, values, and principles being applied, don’t be too concerned with the “right” way. Let the task take you where it may. The rules that you follow will be determined by the purpose you’ve been given.
Instead of thinking “this better work,” think “this might work.” Many times, we are deeply entrenched in a particular system. You might need to break small rules in service of your purpose before you develop the courage to break big rules that shift your culture.
In basketball, it’s a bad shot until you make it consistently. You might be the only one who knows you took a bad shot. You need to have just as much sense as you have courage.
If what you’re going to do will needlessly hurt someone or significantly derail you from your life’s path, you need to refrain from acting impulsively. You can go after what you’re called to do, but you don’t have to deny or hurt anyone else.
If the rules you’re following violate or stifle safety, morality, common decency, cultural sensitivity, or effectiveness, you have a duty to reexamine and choose a better way.
When you follow rules to achieve validation from white society, you need to break the rules. Just a heads up—when you’re pioneering, you’ll be criticized, ridiculed, and condemned by some, and if you succeed, you’ll be celebrated. You can normalize the confusion and pain and in a weird way, be thankful for it. It's a blessing and a burden to be the first at anything.
If you can live with the controversy and the people whispering about you, you stand a much better chance of being effective. Recognize your progress so you don’t lose hope. Learn from those who have pioneered other ways.
We must frequently question the rules we adhere to. Otherwise, we become servants to the rules, instead of the rules serving our purpose. Ensure that you understand both the letter of the rule and the spirit of the rule.
Examples of Rule-Breakers
Because the greater society avoids acknowledging and addressing controversial racial issues, there is a level of hostility that black people endure culturally, judicially, academically, and economically. One of Carter G. Woodson’s main messages in The Mis-education of the Negro is that black people have been conditioned to operate under white society’s prerogatives for so long that they have been lulled to sleep and have not identified why they do what they do.
Many black people are so used to the manmade sense of prison that the notion of freedom feels like bondage. When someone is constantly victimized, passive living becomes the default response. There’s something that happens to a person when they know they are more than their opportunity allows them to be.
What makes it worse is that the black people who had the greatest ability to galvanize the masses of black people to action were ultimately killed, rendering the community hopeless and in disarray. Other black people, out of fatigue or hopelessness, drifted toward compromise. They lost moral courage and acquiesced to the powers that be.
American politician and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan discussed in his 1965 report The Negro Family – The Case for National Action—specifically in the third section, called “The Roots of the Problem”—commented that the condition of enslaved Africans did not provide incentive for developing enterprise and initiative. Instead, slavery depressed the need for personal accomplishment and placed the slave in a completely dependent role.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw this problem up close. He believed that black people must set themselves free. He said we must reach down into the depths of our own souls, sign our own Declaration of Independence, and refuse to let anyone take our humanity. If we are to achieve freedom, we must no longer wait for someone to validate our vision. We must desire to create our own.
The reality is that you can’t change the “rules” until you break the “rules” in your own heart and mind. You can’t change the accepted norm until you make a new normal, and that doesn’t come without some disruption. Game-changers break “rules.”
After slavery was abolished, violent racist attacks continued. It was like black people had a sword in one hand and a shovel in the other. How could we fight and build at the same time?
Whether the threat is real or imagined, it’s a real fear that’s present in the minds of many black people. There’s a sense that the game is rigged when you play by the rules of your conditioning. If that applies to you, you will have to rewrite the rules.
Many significant changes are occurring today, and they need to continue. Everyone’s task is as unique as his specific opportunity to implement, so I think it’s important to identify relevant examples and highlight. Here are a few.
a. On September 27, 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom signed bill SB 206 (Fair Pay to Play Act) into law allowing NCAA players to accept endorsements. California is the first state passing the law that allows college athletes to be paid for the use of their image, name, or likeness. The governor was urged to veto the bill by several university presidents who feared it would destroy the purity of amateurism. On the flipside, $14 billion goes to the universities and $1 billion revenue goes to the NCAA. The players who support the system receive no financial compensation. Long after some of the college stars graduate, their jerseys are still for sale, but they receive no compensation for their likeness. This includes players like Diana Taurasi from the University of Connecticut, Jason Williams from Duke University, and Andre Iguodala from the University of Arizona. California Senator Steven Bradford commented that, for forty years, black athletes have been exploited for their labor and talent. This bill is an opportunity for them to monetize their image and likeness, which gives them an incentive to stay in school longer.
The person who put significant spotlight on the issue was Ed O’Bannon, the black retired professional player who decided to become the lead plaintiff in the O’Bannon v. NCAA antitrust class action lawsuit. O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player, saw his likeness from his 1995 championship team on the NCAA Basketball ’09 EA Sports game. His likeness was being used without his permission.
The case resulted in a ruling that allowed schools to offer full cost-of-attendance scholarships to athletes and to place as much as $5,000 into a trust for each athlete per year. But under this ruling, the athletes could receive no compensation. SB 206 changed that. This started with people who decided to break the “rules” in order to create fairness and equity.
b. Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption and the founder of Equal Justice Initiative (www.eji.org), recognized that it was absurd to have traumatized youth certified to stand trial as adults. From his perspective, if a judge can make you into something that you’re not, the judge must have magic ability. In one of his cases, he was representing a fourteen-year-old black male. He wrote a motion asking the court to treat his fourteen-year-old black client as if he were a white, privileged, seventy-five-year-old corporate executive.
The court was upset. Stevenson began to engage in an argument with the court about the nature of his motion and about race, inequality, and poverty. A black custodian came into the courtroom and sat behind Mr. Stevenson. Although the deputy sheriff rebuked him for being in the courtroom, the black custodian told Stevenson to never lose sight of the prize and to hold on. Bryan Stevenson has won the relief of 125 people on death row.
c. John Singleton made the movie Rosewood when he was twenty-six years old. Rosewood is a movie about a 1923 racist lynch mob attack in an African American community in Rosewood, Florida. Singleton wanted to ensure that black people had the ability to tell their own stories. He wanted to ensure that the falsehoods of black people being benign during their persecution was eradicated. His intention was to uncover the untold history of black people fighting back against their oppression in the South. Few movies have been made about black American’s experience with white terrorism, partly because it goes against Hollywood’s function to create movies wrapped in heroism. Singleton was pressured by Hollywood executives to change his movie’s messaging, but he refused. He didn’t work for four years after its release. Rosewood was not commercially successful, but his movie now sits in the Library of Congress. Its release sparked tremendous dialogue about the race riots in the 20th century. Instead of trying to make more money, Singleton chose to do something important. He brought to light the undercurrent of a progressive and healing paradigm for black America.
d. Dr. Joy DeGruy, author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, served as a therapist in Portland, Oregon. In her work with people of color, she continued to get written up for violating the ethical standards of psychology as it relates to her work in mental health. Ironically, she had the one of the (add this) highest success rates of any case manager at any point in the city of Portland. But her work, particularly with black patients, was sometimes deemed inappropriate because she believed that, to be effective, you have to be willing to break the “professional” rules.
The black community has a long history of being mistreated by social workers and social services. Their lack of success in working with people of color was not acknowledged, because the root causes were not validated. Because of DeGruy’s willingness to break the rules, she started a national dialogue to speak to unaddressed pain and trauma in the black community. Dr. Joy’s work on Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is being used to shape programs all over the country. It helps to explain maladaptive behaviors in the black community.
e. In January 2019, SB 188—also known as the CROWN Act—was introduced in California by Senator Holly Mitchell. The act was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on July 3rd. CROWN stands for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair. This law prevents discrimination based on hairstyles by extending statutory protection to hair texture and styles in state Education Codes and Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).
In 2010, Chastity Jones, a black woman, was offered and accepted a job at an insurance claim-processing company. Jones was told by a white Human Resources employee that she would need to modify her hairstyle. When she refused, the offer was rescinded. Ms. Jones brought a lawsuit against the company, which was dismissed by the district court. The court ruled that dreadlocks are not an unchangeable characteristic of black people. SB 188 serves to correct the profound misunderstanding of ethnic hair by amending section 12926 of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. As a result of SB 188, there has been a proposal of a federal Crown Act bill to ban discrimination against black hair. The passage of the bill at the federal level would be a watershed moment for black people, especially black women, who have historically been shamed and directed to conform to Eurocentric beauty standards.
Unfortunately, many black people are conditioned to believe that speaking the unadulterated truth to white people about what they see and feel is a kamikaze mission. Black people’s reticence to speak freely and honestly in front of white people is a result of the memory of violence against black people. This is where we need healing as a people.
Each of us has a certain way of looking at the world, acquired from our early conditioning and our experiences. We face the same choice as the enslaved Africans in the 1700s: develop a way of looking at the world that gives you permission to transcend the “right” way, or be a force of nature in your own life. The more often you act in a certain way, the more habitual the behavior becomes.
What social/cultural rules and standard professional practices are you following that do or do not serve your best and most honorable work?
What can you do to bring about a new, healthier, more effective practice to your work?