Tuesday, September 22, 2009

white quotation of the week (robert terry)

The Parable of Ups and Downs

What makes an Up an Up and a Down a Down is that an Up can do more to a Down than a Down can do to an Up. That's what keeps an Up up and a Down down. The Ups tend to talk to each other and study the Downs, asking the Downs about what's up—or what's coming down, for that matter. The Downs spend a lot of time taking the Ups out to lunch or to dinner to explain their Downness. The Ups listen attentively, often in amazement, about the experiences of being down. They contrast one Down's experience with another Down's experience and don't worry too much about what the Downs are up to because the Downs never get together. If they did, the Ups would have to shape up.

After a while, the Downs weary of talking to the Ups. They tire of explaining and justifying their Downness. They think, “If I have to explain my Downness one more time, I'll throw up.” And so they form a process which they call “networking and support groups.” This act makes the Ups nervous. Three Ups together is a board meeting; three Downs, pre-revolutionary activity. Some Ups hire Downs, dress them up, and send them down to see what the Downs are up to. We sometimes call this “personnel and affirmative action.” This creates a serious problem for the Down who is dressed up with no sure place to go. That Down doesn't know whether he or she is up or down. That's why Downs in the middle often burn out.

Sometimes what the Ups do to smarten up is to ask the Downs to come in to a program one at a time to explain their Downness. The Ups call this “human relations training.” Of course, the Ups never have to explain their Upness; that's why they're Ups rather than Downs.

There's good news and bad news in this parable. The good news is, we're all both Ups and Downs. There's no such thing as a perfect Up or a perfect Down. The bad news is that when we're up it often makes us stupid. We call that “dumb-upness.” It's not because Ups are not smart. It's that Ups don't have to pay attention to Downs the way Downs have to pay attention to Ups. Downs always have to figure out what Ups are up to. The only time Ups worry about Downs is when Downs get uppity, at which time they're put down by the Ups. The Ups’ perception is that Downs are overly sensitive; they have an attitude problem. It is never understood that Ups are underly sensitive and have an attitude problem.

I used to think that when Downs became Ups they would carry over their insight from their Downess to their Upness. Not so: smart down—dumb up.


I find this parable helpful to gain insight in my work and life. Very rapidly we move into up and down categories and misunderstand each other. If Downs want to understand why an Up doesn't understand an issue, all they have to do is think of their own Up category and see why that issue is not understood. Downs know more about Ups than Ups know about Downs, yet we tend to come out of our Down category first to make sense out of our experience. The Up category is taken for granted and is rarely under review.

Who often has more insight about how the society functions, how organizations function, what's really going on? Frequently, it's Downs, not Ups. Ups are too busy trying to maintain the system rather than generate insight about what's really going on or how to change it. So our source of new insightful information comes from Downs, not from Ups. Yet it's Ups who are the ones whom we often call leaders.

Read more here (PDF)

Robert Terry directed the Reflective Leadership Center at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, and was the author of For Whites Only. He died in 2002.


  1. This is a damn good post. It really descibes exactly how this country is.

    Again... Good Post.

  2. Yes, thanks for posting this. It's clarifying about how this country works. Co-sign with Dirty Red!

  3. As it applies to racism (and it could easily apply to other "isms" as well, what this suggests to me is that there is little if any use for the idea that racism is something that afflicts some individuals and not others. The very up-and-down-ness of this system makes any distinction of racist or non-racist (or anti-racist) irrelevant. And I concur with that view. Just as there is little point in men trying to establish their feminist cred while still buying into sexism in countless almost subconscious ways, white people trying to say that only some white people are racist or trying to wash themselves of racism is an exercise in self-righteousness and little else. It's not that racism exists in an otherwise fair system; racism is the system we live in. We're all playing a part in it. What kind of change will it take to alter that?

  4. The kind of change I recommend is letting as many as we can of the Ups and the Downs know that this is how it all works. Many don't even realize much of this. And fight for laws and policies that counter its effects.

  5. Damn! Now that's a post!

  6. Thanks for sharing this. I shared it on my blogs. It's so truth!


Please see the "commenting guidelines" before submitting a comment.

hit counter code