Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 16, No. 7, July 2020
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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I am: Gender, Race, Culture, Community, and Environment

Derek G. Ross

July 2020


If you’ve ever seen the movie, The Princess Bride, you know that Mandy Patinkin plays the role of Inigo Montoya, a man on a quest to avenge the death of his father, Domingo. Patinkin embodies Goldman’s Spaniard, the greatest swordsman in the world, and his catchphrase, what he repeated in his mind and out loud over, and over, and over on his quest to find his father’s killer, is the stuff of legends. As William Goldman writes in the classic tale, Inigo “had it all carefully prepared in his mind. He would find the six-fingered man. He would go up to him. He would simply say, ‘Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die,’ and then, oh then, the duel [1, p. 111].”

Montoya’s mantra is simple, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die.” And then. Oh, then. The duel. It’s a simple, yet powerful message: a greeting, a repetition of who he is, his relevance to the situation, and what he intends to do. A four-point meme has even made its way around the internet, described as “Inigo’s Guide to Networking Success”:

1. Polite greeting

2. Name

3. Relevant personal link

4. Manage expectations” [2].

To me, the next phrase seems critical:

5. And then, oh then, the duel

The first four points are effective and simple, and the last critical: to duel is to challenge each other, to negotiate conflict, and to do so face-to-face. Sometimes violently, as in Montoya’s swordfight, but, I think, sometimes gracefully. We can duel with words and ideologies, and, like duelists, learn to respect each other’s skills and positions.

Montoya’s mantra seems to me like an effective way to talk about gender, race, and culture—a shorthand for making sure that we all know who we are and where were going, with the expectation that certain beliefs and behavioral patterns are going to get challenged. So, I’ll follow it. And, along the way, I suspect I’ll upset a few people. See? I’ve already managed your expectations. Let us duel.

1. Polite Greeting: An Introduction to the Situation

On November 1, 2018 I had the pleasure of meeting Rev. Dr. Bernard LaFayette Jr., and hearing him discuss his work with the Civil Rights movement. I’ve since had the pleasure of working with him again, along with John T. Jones, Jr., Capt. (Ret.) Charles L. Alphin, Sr., Chuck L. Alphin, Jr., Victoria Christgau, Dr. Tangier Scott, and many others, to study Kingian Nonviolence.

For those unfamiliar, Dr. Rev. Bernard LaFayette, Jr. helped cofound the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was a Freedom Rider. He directed the Alabama Voter Registration Campaign in Selma. He was with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the morning of his assassination. And, to be completely honest, he is one of the most kind, humble, generous, and terrifyingly strong human beings I have ever had the pleasure to meet. This essay is not about Dr. Rev. Bernard Lafayette, Jr. This essay is about civil rights and social justice. Dr. Rev. Lafayette just helped crystalize a few ideas for me. He inspired me. He gave me the greatest gift one human can give another. He gave me ideas.

You see, Dr. LaFayette told me that “people can only be judged by their relationships with others, regardless of their color.” He told me that “if you can defeat your opponent in a psychological way, you have won.” He told me that “sometimes you need to know when to go to the middle,” because sometimes you can make change at the middle, and the top and the bottom will move. Must move.

He told me about how sometimes you have to put leaders in conversation and get yourself out of the way. How part of his early organizing work was to rally other religious leaders against him, because they needed something to unify them. So he unified them. Against himself.

That’s power. That’s powerful. Sometimes you work to unify people. Sometimes you must figure out what will bring people together, even if that unification is disagreement with you. With me.

So, here I am. Maybe you’ll agree with me, maybe you won’t. But, to quote a pop song from the 1990’s, “if the answer isn't violence, neither is your silence” [3]. Maybe I just need to speak up. This is me speaking. Because Capt. (Ret.) Curtis Alphin, Sr., told me that, “if you cannot articulate your opponent’s position, you cannot argue against it.” And, sadly, but truly, The Opponent often looks just like me.

2. Name: Who I Am, Where I Am

“Develop a motto,” Dr. Rev. Lafayette enjoined us. We need to have something to stand by, something that defines us, something that we can repeat to ourselves and to others to let everyone know who we are. Something what we can repeat to ourselves to remind ourselves of who we are—perhaps who we want to be—when needed. Something we can put on a wall, to broadcast ourselves to the world. I have a few, but they all come from the same place: my family.

My Grandfather always told me, “Never forget who you are, or where you came from.” That’s one. To me, it means that you should always be true to yourself. It’s a big, complicated world, and it’s easy to get off track, to follow others, to become something, even someone else for a while, especially when emotions run high. Especially when the stakes are high, when others expect you to produce, to provide. “Never forget who you are and where you came from” is grounding. It’s a call to remember that you are you—a call to recall the feel of soil in the yard where you grew up, or the smell of the roads in your neighborhood the summers, the cracked glaze of the ice on the pond in winter, or the shouts of your friends’ laughter as you ran down dark streets. A call to think about friends long cherished, friends here and gone. A call to remember family. A call to remember the self. “Never forget who you are or where you came from” is not an anchor holding me back, but an infinite line, like that tethering a balloon to the ground, always unspooling, always providing a path back, a way out of the labyrinth, and way to get home in my mind and in my soul.

“Spem Successus Alit” is another. It’s my clan motto, Scottish, meaning “Success Nourishes Hope.” It means that any success, no matter how small, is something to hang on to. Something to light a spark, warm the heart, offer a path out of the darkness that sometimes seems to creep around when it doesn’t seem like things are going my way. Each success—and, let’s face it, sometimes getting out of bed counts as a success—can lead to another success. Each small success can lead to something bigger, each bigger success to something larger, each larger success to something greater. Or not. But the chance is always there, and hope—a chance for change—is sometimes enough. “Spem successus alit” means that there is never no hope. Action always results in (re)action. (Re)action means the potential for success. The potential for success means that, sometimes, we will succeed. Success nourishes hope. Hope is always there, just there, sometimes just around the corner, just out of sight, just at the corner of our vision. But it is there. And to take a chance means, perchance, to grow.

Then there’s my personal motto. Just mine. It’s a simple one. “I am.” That’s it. “I am.”

I am Derek Gilbert Ross, son of Stephen Thomas Ross and Yvonne Yates Ross. Grandson of W. Paul Yates and Louise Yates, of Vernon Gilbert Ross and Katherine Ross. The blood of scientists, teachers, warriors, authors, poets, artists runs in my veins. I am D. G. Ross, male, white, privileged university professor. I have access to power and conversations and resources that others do not. I have that access because of my schooling and my passions and the work I’ve put into being me, but also because, as the story goes, three Scottish brothers signed on to join the British Army and hitched a ride over to the United States in the 1700’s to fight those rowdy colonists. Then the Brothers Ross defected, giving me the birthright of white skin and a great story. (For the record, I believe that makes me the descendant of illegal immigrants.) To my students, I am Dr. Ross. To others, Derek, or, sometimes, just D. I am also a bit player in other people’s stories. I am a husband, a son, a friend, a teacher, that author, some guy, some annoyance in a photo taken by someone I’ll never meet. To someone, I’m probably just “that asshole.”

I know that my place in this world is the product of hard work, of struggle, of gains and losses. It’s the story of a great, great grandparent who was offered stock in a company in return for the services of his ball bearing factory, and he said no. Coca Cola did alright, the Rosses, we did Ok too, but without the benefit of stock that would have catapulted us into a stratospherically different income bracket.

But I’m also here, with the access I have now, and the everyday power I have now, because my skin says I can. Because I’m cis-gendered (my sense of identity and gender follows my biological sex), and white, and male, and I read to most of those around me as a cis-gendered white male in a society that, no matter what’s going on in the world, privileges people just like me.

I am.

3. Relevant Personal Link: What I Stand For, Who I Stand For

This is where this essay gets complicated.

People like me have a duty to others. All people have a duty to others, but here I’m focusing on a specific group. People like me, cis-gendered white males (CGWM), with unearned privileges granted solely by phenotypic characteristics.

Cis-gendered white males have a duty to people of color, to those in the LGBTQ+ or GSRM communities (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, and more; and Gender Sexual Romantic Minority). A duty to women. We have a duty, created by culture, to all of those not-us, not CGWM. That duty is unambiguously noncomplex. If culture is going to suggest that cis-gendered white males have power, then it is our duty to give that power away, to empower others, to lift others up, to get out of the way. That’s it. Lift each other up and let others live their truths. Or, perhaps one step further. Lift each other up and help others live their truths. Remember earlier when I said that Dr. Rev. Bernard LaFayette, Jr. had power because he united others against himself? This is the kind of power CGWMs need to act on. We need to use the privilege granted us, wherever we see it, to put others forward. To get out of the way. To open doors, or, at least, to make sure that doors can be opened. To make sure that the claim of an even playing field really is even and open to all.

It is the job of the CGWM to make sure that women have all the same opportunities, and then some. It is the job of the CGWM to make sure that the color of a person’s skin is a matter of pride, not a point of conflict. That a person’s gender and sexual identity is their gender and sexual identity. And if that means that we need to graciously accept that someone who is better qualified than ourselves gets the job we applied to as well? So be it. Sit down. If that means that we need to stand up for someone who has been told to sit down their entire lives? Stand up. If it means that we need to offer an arm for support to someone that keeps getting knocked down? Arms out. If it means that we need to act with care for others, when care has so often been identified with women, when men are supposed to be strong and stoic? Shed a tear, put your heart on your sleeve, and get to work.

Why is it the job of the cis-gendered white male to do these things? Why can’t everyone rise by their own merits? They can. Everyone can rise by their own merits. But only if the majority in power get out of the way, only if the majority in power stop writing laws and policies that, by design or by accident, support only those with the same culturally-implemented powers. The CGWM continues to be in power because others just like him protect him. The CGWM continues to be in power because others just like him support him. The CGWM continues to be in power because others just like him want to be surrounded by other cis-gendered white males. It’s, honestly, exhausting. And boring. Just stop it. And you’re right—if you are reading this as saying that, one day, these won’t be issues, and the CGWM will have only as much power as the next person, and the next person won’t be a CGWM, then I certainly hope you are right.

I read the other day on social media that the prevalence of cis-gendered white males in power often seems invisible to many, but if you think of every position of power held by one and then picture someone entirely different there—a non-heteronormative Asian woman, for example, you might begin to see how dramatically different our world could be. This sounds true to me. And exciting. What could our world be if we really encouraged diversity? If we not only tolerated or accepted but graciously welcomed different patterns of thought and ways of being into the very power-making structures that design and control society? If we celebrated, truly celebrated, diversity and culture?

Taking a brief tour into deontological ethics, what all this means is that the cis-gendered white male is, or should be, driven by duty. We have a duty to not try to be the savior in someone else’s story and a duty to respect ourselves because of our own merits and strengths, not the false power often granted by society. That means that this essay is difficult to write, and that the role of the cis-gendered white male in society is—or should be—complicated, and troubled, and often conflicted. Cis-gendered white males also have a duty to each other to point out our duty to others. NOT to establish each other’s authority based on sexual preference. NOT to lift each other up in power based on the color of our skin, but to lift each other up in helping each other grow and learn and experience the world in all its complexity. We have a duty to each other to call each other out. To help break the homogenized patriarchy that we represent.

Patrisse Khan-Cullors writes, in When they call you a terrorist: A black lives matter memoir, about a friend, Darnell, who, “even as a Gay, feminist Black man” is “granted more space than he has earned” [4, p. 221]. This, to me, is powerful, this assessment of/granting of space. If we recognize the space we have, and recognize that that space may not be earned, but be granted, how might we take that disparity, that unfairness, and turn it around for good?

The problem of all of this, of course, is that in making it the CGWM’s responsibility to empower others, the CGWM, people like me, might begin to feel like it’s our duty to swoop in and save everyone. To be the great, White, male, hero. The White Savior. I think this is a conflict we should embrace, but carefully, and with our eyes wide open and our ears carefully attuned to the voices around us. Always listen. Always look for disparity. The goal is not to be a savior or a hero but, perhaps, a pathway, a lift. A friend. A colleague. A doorway. Never a barrier. It’s the paradox of power. And like the paradox of tolerance, where the only way for tolerance to flourish is to be intolerant of intolerance, the paradox of power means that those unfairly granted power must use that power to enhance the power of others.

I cannot say everything correctly. I just can’t. I have offended someone already, and I’ll likely offend more. I’m ok with that. Sometimes, I think—I hope—it’s enough to really, honestly try.

I still am.

4. Manage Expectations: Prepare for Change

We can’t say that we want change, fight for change, and then, when it’s time to cast the vote, push the button, say, “but not today, because that will change my life, too.” If I want real workplace equality, real social change, I have to acknowledge that I’d better make sure I’ve got my own house in order, because I can already list a dozen other qualified people coming for my job. I have a hard time coming up with, “I’m a white guy, and I should be scared” scenarios, though, because, honestly, there aren’t many that are really real. I’m not scared to work with people of different colors, backgrounds, ethnicities, and identifications. I mean, honestly, it sounds like we’re going to have a lot of great stories to share.

“But what about criminals!?” you ask. Those dangerous immigrants and sexual deviants. Those not-me people. Sure, yeah, I’m scared of violent, predatory, sadomasochistic killers. Angry, axe-wielding death dealers. But, really? White people seem to me to be the ones doing most of the killing. Nicholas Cruze. Stephen Craig Paddock. Ian David Long. Robert D. Bowers, and so many others. Why do I give them names? Because they cannot be ignored (but they should never be glorified). If we’re going to name every non-white target of police investigation loudly, and call them out on social media, on television, in our papers, then we need to call out the white folks too. Come on, folks. Popular culture worked it out a long time ago. Almost all of our major horror figures are white: Leatherface, Jason Voorhees, Hannibal Lector, Norman Bates. Even that psychotic little doll, Chucky, was white, and turned into the maniac he was because he was the reincarnation of—wait for it—a white murderer. People of color, as a category, as a people, as individuals, do not scare me. Cis-gendered white men scare the shit out of me. And sexual deviants? One, the word is generally misused, and should only apply when we’re talking issues of age and non-consent; and two, what happens between consenting adults is, well, what happens between consenting adults. I’ll take care of my house, you take care of yours.

I’m not scared to share a bus, or a seat, or a boardroom with someone not-me-ish. If someone not-me moves in next door, I’ll do the same thing I do now—wave and smile and generally keep to myself. I like my privacy. I wish more people obviously not-me taught our children—all of our children—because then we could get on to the real issues of humanity in our classrooms and our everyday lives, and work out how best to lift each other up, not work out how best to protect each other, or, as has been the case, try to convince some folks that others of us are even worth considering at all.

Here are a few recent folks worth considering: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Jamar Clark, Bettie Jones, Janet Wilson, Alton Sterling, Mary Truxillo, Philandro Castile, Stephon Clark, Botham Jean, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. This is a small sampling of an unreasonably, unconceivably, unconscionably, disturbingly long list. I do not know “these people,” a phrase I have heard used far too often. But folks are protesting in their name, and that feels right to me.

Colin Kapernick took a knee, and Mike Pence (CGWM) protested the protest by walking out of a 49ers vs. Colts game in Indianapolis. When folks protest peacefully, the power structure either ignores it, pats it on the head, or protests back. No one listens. Folks protest legally, no one listens. Folks try to be heard, but no one listens. Or, rather, no one who can sign law into being listens. No one who can amend the constitution listens.

"These people" are scared, broken, terrified. “These people” are strong, resilient, and powerful. “These people” are our people. “These people” are “We the People.” These people don't need a quiet, peaceful, sanctioned event that can be quietly given 30 seconds on the nightly news. These people need a government that will finally grant them—us—all of us—all of us together, the right to live free and without fear.

We’re going to have to change. We’re running out of non-renewable resources and our planet is heating up. There are more humans than ever before, and we keep reproducing at an alarming rate. Our cities are overcrowded, and we are pushed closer and closer together. We should be building spacecraft and looking to colonize Mars. We should be working out new models of hydroponics, new means of alternative energies. We should be working out new ways to teach ethics, new ways to do art. We should be writing poetry. We should be contemplating true love. Instead, we mourn. We mourn fallen children, fallen people of color, fallen attendees to churches and synagogues. We mourn fallen concert goers. Movie goers. Fallen friends and loved ones. And we rage. And we wonder why it doesn’t stop.

It doesn’t stop because we still, despite everything we do, send out—yes, we, the collective we, the we the people—still send out complicated messages of dis-inclusion, saying I am not like you, I am not you, you are other. We need to stop. We need to be we. We together, we the people.

5. And then, oh then, The Duel

I am me. Male, white, cis-gendered me. And I am here for you. Black you, gay you, trans you. Asian you, Islamic you, Jew you. Christian you, young you, old you. Woman you, man you. You. I am here for you. And I hope you are here with me. Together, we have the chance for change. We can always remember who we are, and where we came from, and we can learn from it. We must always remember that there is always the potential for hope.

And the duel? The way forward will not be easy. I know I’ve upset someone here, and, like I said, I’m fine with that. Be we must negotiate with each other. Have conversations, disagreements. We have to give each other the respect of personal engagement, not faceless attacks. The duel, you see, is, at its very core, about looking your opponent in the eye as a fellow human. So let us do that. No more hiding behind false constructs and falsely-granted power. When we disagree let’s actually engage with each other—find a place (Martin Buber called it the “narrow ridge” [5]) where we engage with each other as humans, not flat stereotypes.

I wanted to end this essay with some sort of pithy message:


My name is __________________________.

You can change the world.

Prepare each other.

But I think the world is more complicated than that, no matter how pithy Inigo Montoya’s model might be. I do think, however, that positive change can happen slowly, and maybe it really is that simple: lift each other up, recognize each other’s value, believe in each other, help each other, care about each other, regardless of sex, race, color, creed, class, gender-identity, ability, or anything else other than our shared humanity. And if we bring the rest of the world in, too, and care about the environment, and the potential of the world around us to flourish, we might just find that we’ve accidentally made the world a better place. It’s a big dream, but you can start small.

If “I Am,” then You Are.


[1] W. Goldman, The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure, New York: NY: Del Ray, 1973.

[2] Unknown, "Inigo's guide to networking success," [Online]. Available: [Accessed 2 November 2018].

[3] P. Clint Mansell, Composer, Ich Bin Ein Auslander. [Sound Recording]. 1994.

[4] P. Khan-Cullors and A. Bandele, When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, St. Martin's Press, 2018.

[5] M. Buber, Between Man and Man, New York: Macmillan, 1965.


Derek Ross received his Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric from Texas Tech University, and is now Associate Professor of Technical and Professional Communication, Department of English, Auburn University, and Editor of Communication Design Quarterly. His current research interests include environment-related rhetoric in popular and modern culture, investigation of modern perceptions and use of commonplaces in environment-related rhetoric, and audience analysis techniques related to understanding perceptions of environment-related communication.

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