Carter G. Woodson wrote in his book The Mis-Education of the Negro that “if you can control a man’s thinking you don’t have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.”
The underlying theme of the hit movie “Get Out” is about a mind control process that conditions Black people to accept a marginalized status and continually choose to go into the back doors of life. This mentality of consistently accepting a second class placement permeates many colleges, universities, and other educational institutions.
The broader context of the movie is the interaction between the Black male main character, Chris, and the White family of the young lady (Rose) that he was dating. Unbeknownst to Chris, he had been selected to enter a system of mental programming that was designed to detach him from the community and consciousness that he came from.
The movie featured a pivotal scene where Chris was hypnotized by the mother of Rose. Upon being hypnotized, he fell into a place that was described as “the Sunken Place.” Jordan Peele, the film’s director, recently tweeted that “The Sunken Place means we’re marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us.” This description is particularly relevant to certain college and university personnel.
Many educational institutions have Sunken Place-like settings that cause some Black employees to operate in an atmosphere of fear and weakness. They do this by incentivizing and rewarding those who comport themselves as docile and non-threatening. This is what causes highly placed Blacks in universities and school systems to frequently remain silent about rampant inequality and ineptness.
The hypnotism that Chris underwent is replicated in higher education every day. People are hypnotized by a position or a title. They are hypnotized by being accepted as a “good Negro” in the dominant society. They are hypnotized by a fear of being punished for upsetting the status quo.
Though these individuals may be benefitting themselves, they are essentially a disgrace to the broader community. They have bought into an incomplete notion of “success” based on an inadequate system-generated measuring stick that prizes private gain over systemic change.
Many have bought into the selfish notion of individual advancement without caring about community upliftment. Economic dependency on the system then makes individuals capitulate to whatever the system desires in order to survive and pay bills. If one were to break free from the unconscious “Sunken Place” state, they would be risking the possibility of not being able to provide for your family. Thus, the system seldom changes to a significant degree and even those highly placed individuals who are bold and outspoken behind closed doors end up being silent when it really matters.
There are many other people trapped in the lower levels of organizations that feel that they are never given a chance. This is a different kind of “Sunken Place.” Those people who are in this predicament must find alternative ways to exercise their gifts and talents so that they can reach a level of self-actualization that ultimately brings a deep sense of fulfillment. The kind of fulfillment that comes with tapping into their potential and using their ability to positively impact the world and make a difference.
The ultimate question for highly placed persons in higher education institutions is how uncomfortable they are willing to get. Can they survive rocking the boat and upsetting the status quo? Can they cultivate the fearlessness that is missing from the majority of higher education executives?
It is this elusive fearlessness and willingness to take some risks that will free people from Sunken Place University and allow them to get out of a life of being boxed in. It is time to resist falling into the vast abyss of becoming the typical walking zombie who feels like they will lose their job if they have any semblance of a backbone.
We can no longer afford for people to stay silent in Sunken Places and allowing themselves to be put into a box every day where their ability is marginalized, suppressed, and buried. This is the time for people to come out from behind their cubicles and push the envelope on issues that matter to them. Effective leadership is not in the center, it is on the edge. We must find a way to “Get Out.”
Dr. Marcus Bright is a political commentator and the Executive Director of Education for a Better America. He also serves as adjunct professor of Public Administration and Political Science at Lynn University.