White Supremacy & Its Cognitive Deficiencies

A Shelf in My Office

A Shelf in My Office

This post starts with an issue that might, at first, seem a bit irrelevant.  Nonetheless, I am making a point.  Here it is: I HATE COFFEE.  I am a tea drinker which means that I often travel with my own kettle: I have one that stays in my suitcase for travel; another for my home; and another for my office.  I have tea bags and tea leaves everywhere.  I drink my tea strong and with almond milk, a regrettable concession since I had to give up my true preference, a habit I acquired from Jamaican students and friends: take a big ole dollop of sweetened condensed milk and stir it up.  (That’s some good ish.)  The tea kettle in my office today has travelled with me across four institutions and has the bruises to show it.  It sits on a shelf in my office with other tea accessories; behind it is a collage created by one of my high school students from 1997, a young man who at every stage of his high school career gave me some kind of painting to thank me for helping him become the man he is today (I cried with each gift he gave me).  To make this short story long: I am serious about my tea.

I needed to take this narrative detour to set the context for just how confused I was when a white male professor at my institution accused me of stealing his teapot last year, less than 3 months that I had been on the job.

Sample of Ezequiel's Artwork

Sample of Ezequiel’s Artwork

I was walking to the pantry/copy room to fill my kettle with the filtered water when this particular professor got up from his desk, walked out into the hall after I had passed, waited until I came back, stood in my path, and asked if my kettle was his.  As a tea drinker, he recently bought his own kettle (we had this conversation just a few weeks before) and he left his kettle in the pantry for anyone to use (a pantry/copy room that is open to anyone on this floor whenever the building is open!!!)  His new $9.99 Target-special looked nothing like my well-worn kettle. I wasn’t exactly surprised by this behavior, but I have been thinking about this moment a lot ever since it happened.

How did I respond?  I looked him up and down, then looked him up and down again, inched in closer to him so that he could really take in my message and calmly told him: naw, dude, you ain’t got nuthin I would ever want.  And I meant it.  He hasn’t bothered me since.

My colleague and I do not live in similar neighborhoods, do not attend similar cultural events, do not eat at the same restaurants, do not hover in the same section at Barnes & Noble or amazon.com.  It is safe to say that the only place we might socially interact in this world is in the space of this work environment so this deliberate, calculated choice to render me as a thief in our only shared social landscape deserves serious scrutiny. We can’t call these kinds of incidents accidental or unintentional.  This fool ACTIVELY chose to GET up from his office chair, WALK into the hallway, and STOP the only black woman on that hall from walking forward.  This is a deliberate choice, not a fluke, mishap, or mistake.

howdy doodySomething else has really stayed on my mind since then: my colleague is the straight up-and-down deadringer for Howdy Doody.  If Pinocchio’s fairy godmother made Howdy Doody into a human being, that puppet-turned-man would surely share DNA with my colleague.  That leads me to a most perplexing question: if every day of your waking life, you pass a mirror and see Howdy Doody looking back at you, what on earth would make you think you have something any sista on this planet would covet— tea, tea kettle or any other thing?  Now, I am not sayin that if he looked like Brad Pitt, this incident would be okay.  Nevertheless, the fact IS that we are dealing with Howdy Doody here. It was perhaps a strange moment for me to reach an epiphany: white supremacy imposes serious cognitive deficiencies.  There is just no other system of logic that could convince this man he is desirable and then go out and police the hallways accordingly.  Many, if not most, of the white women who I work with would insist that Professor Howdy Doody is a nice man, meant me no harm, and was just emotionally distraught at the loss of his tea kettle.  They will, as they often do, accuse ME of being the “mean” or “non-collegial” one (I am always called “mean” by white women in their racialized attempts to gender me away from the virtues of [white] womanhood). I can guarantee that there will be no accusations of meanness or non-collegiality for automatically assuming that if you are missing something, the one black woman you know stole it! Like I said: COGNITIVE DEFICIENCIES!

It’s this cognitive deficiency that helped me, for instance, comprehend the letter that Daniel Pantaleo wrote to Eric Garner’s family after having just killed Garner with his bare hands less than five months before.  Even an often self-proclaimed conservative like John McWhorter English-teacher-red-penned the bad writing in that letter.  As a New Yorker, I KNOW that the no police precinct in Staten Island produces such standard English prose so it is very clear that a team of publicists and advisers wrote that letter for Pantaleo.  For this team of most certainly mostly white folk, those were the best words they could collectively compose.  They were not even skilled enough to offer faux contriteness in a letter!  Of course, white supremacy means that you do not have to be contrite; but here it also means that you are not literate/word-wise enough to even fake it.

I remember being a high school student when Do the Right Thing first came out. I was, at that age, really confused why so many white people questioned and criticized the harshness of Spike Lee’s depiction of whiteness.  I remember watching television commentaries—from then “Siskel and Ebert” to special talk shows— question Spike’s rendering of the white police officers’ inhumanity and wonder if they would really so callously murder someone like Radio Raheem.  According to them, Spike was the one inciting black communities’ pain and rage, not a white-led police state.  I was young then and thought I could someday find just the right words to convince these people that Radio Raheem’s murder is REAL!  Today, when I hear that same kind of dumb commentary from people who did not understand what Radio Raheem meant to us growing up as the targets of neo-Jim-Crow regimes— like the supportive writers and readers of Pantaleo’s letter or the criticizers of protesters in Ferguson as the unpeaceful ones— I understand where these cognitive deficiencies are coming from.

Still… Teaching to Transgress

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about bell hooks’s book, Teaching to Transgress, in part based on her series of taped, public dialogues that she has been doing at the New School (and her upcoming keynote address at NWSA) and, in another part, based on my own current teaching location.

I have felt for a long time now that if we want to talk about a radical, transformative education for young people of color, we need to be teaching in the schools that actually enroll them in large numbers.   I have said it and I have meant it. And I do not mean after-school programs, though our presence there is vital. I mean bearing witness to the day-to-day of current schooling regimes as an insider there, not merely as an academic researcher/note-taker. You can call me an Old Skool Black Studies Scholar in that regard, because I just can’t see giving all that I know how to do solely to white students at a privileged university, no matter how much they might need to see and hear someone like me.  I have worked now in three spaces as a tenure-track professor at colleges whose enrollments are largely or mostly students of color from racially subordinated groups: a state university (not the flagship campus, but a space trying to be that); a private university; and a city university. Teaching to Trangress in these spaces is more than just a notion, especially when it is so dauntingly unwelcomed by what Sylvia Wynter would often call “the grammarians of the social order”— those academics whose intellectual lens are so deeply ingrained with dominant reproductive modes of racism and social stratification that their sole, intellectual job is the maintenance of our current systems of logic. You don’t even need to strain your mind and imagination to recognize who these folk are.

Today, I have been looking at the ELA Regents exam in New York State, the state exam in English Language Arts.  Here is the August 2014 exam posted on the state website:

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Cultural Assets, Language, and New Inspiration

I learned about my own language use from my high school students circa 1996.  I no longer remember what we were reading or what we were discussing, something about language politics.  One student, let’s call him Shakim, remarked loudly: yeah, Ms. K., that’s what you do.  I had no clue what he meant.  According to the class, I use four different types of English and since they had names for each type and seemed to have practiced it all out, I guess these were common understandings, commonly understood by all except me.

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 8.39.57 PMMy first English had many names that, out of deference to who might be reading here, I will simply collate and say: THE PLACE OF RACE.  This is a kind of English that I use with folk who I think are racist.  My words are very annunciated and deliberate (and I don’t blink much but I may squint).  I am as “proper,” if you will, as I will get.  Basically, it means that I do not like your stank behind and believe, like Public Enemy said in “Can’t Truss It…no, no, no, no”, that years ago you would have been my ship’s captain (and by SHIP, I mean slaveship, not the Love Boat or Princess Cruise Line). Here are the relevant lines (weblinks take you to Rap Genius’s explanation):

Look here comes the judge, watch it here he come now
(Don’t sentence me judge, I ain’t did nothin’ to nobody)
I can only guess what’s happenin’
Years ago he woulda been the ship’s captain
Gettin’ me bruised on a cruise, what I got to lose
Lost all contact, got me layin’ on my back…
427 to the year, do you understand
That’s why it’s hard for the black to love the land

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Rough Side of the Mountain

My very first tenure-track job was connected to teacher education: I worked with undergraduates who were trying to secure a teaching certificate to work specifically in urban schools.  In the early part of the program, before students were turned off by the curriculum and faculty (the faculty simply thought themselves too difficult and interesting for the students), the classes were full and enrolled mostly first-generation students of color who wanted to go back and teach in their urban communities. I loved the students, especially the early entries, and especially one young woman, who I will call Maya.

Maya was/is an amazing singer who chooses to use her talent for sacred music.  As a high school student, she attended a predominantly black performing arts high school and that is where she did her student teaching.  As a singer/composer/pianist and history major, her goal was to incorporate the arts into history education so that her black students did not experience their talent solely in their art classes but also, intellectually, across the curriculum.  She was teaching American history and her cooperating teacher allowed her to implement the Civil Rights curriculum.  I visited when students did their first presentations.

BarnesThe presentations were a kind of acting/ singing/ music-playing extravaganza with every group member making speeches also.  Each group was responsible for researching and presenting some central issue that galvanized black communities in this moment and had to use their talent to represent the depth of that galvanization.  One young man, bless his heart, took the podium.  It was obvious he had not prepared anything, but that did not stop him from talking.  Before he finished his first sentence, one young woman started singing these words:

Oh Lord, I’m strivin’,
tryin’ to make it through this barren land,
but as I go from day to day,
I can hear my Savior say,
“trust me child, come on and hold my hand.”

I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain…

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Race, Reproduction, Reparations (The 3 Rs)

One of the things I love about blogging is that it gives you a chance to use this experience/practice/process of writing to get closer to what you think and what is important to you.  Granted, I am a writing teacher, so I may be biased, but sometimes you just gotta write it out to ride it out.  That said, I get inundated with the academic school year and all I am writing are project guidelines and comments to student writing, rather than tracing the path of my thinking.  Despite the avalanche of things I need to do, I just gotta stop and pause to reflect on one of the many things I have been following lately: Jennifer Cramblett’s lawsuit.

jennifer-cramblettBy now, everyone has heard of Cramblett’s lawsuit. As a recap, here is the basic gist. Cramblett and her partner are suing a Chicago-area sperm bank after she became pregnant with sperm donated by a black man instead of a white man she had picked. I can’t help but be curious to see how this case will go. Race, reproduction, and the law have always been intimately linked. As early feminists have always told us, the family (the nuclear family) is always a kind of surrogate for the nation-state and all of its attending politics and values about which race, gender, class is most worthy and most human— and therefore, legitimately replicable. I have so many questions because the outcome of this lawsuit will mean so many things. Here are just a few of these questions: Continue reading

What Will We Do When School Starts?

Ferguson 2A few weeks ago, I was on campus meeting with some students.  A conference was taking place at my college (which is located in the heart of Manhattan, New York). As is typical of area NYC colleges, you need to scan your identification card, where security is sitting nearby, to get into campus buildings. The security officers at my college happen to be our very own college students, mostly black and Latino men paying their way through college with this job, and are quite delightful. Because I was working with a small group of students, two of whom were not from my current college, I needed to inform campus security of the names of my visitors.  As I was waiting to talk with the security officer, a young African American man and rising senior at the college, I watched intently as he navigated the crowd coming into the building.  He was, simply put, quite genius.  The officer, as I am sure you can imagine, had many tasks: new first year students and their parents were finalizing financial aid and identification cards, all of whom need to be signed in; the conference attendees, obviously enthralled by the local neighborhood, had to be closely watched since they represented a continual thoroughfare through the gates; and then there were the current IDed students swiping through the gates.  I was particularly curious because most of the parents coming into the building spoke very little English and needed to be directed to their location. The young man quickly scanned their paperwork, animatedly offered a series of complex gestures showing them where to go, and then quickly ran to the side of the desk to make sure they were going in the right direction (accompanied by head nods and more hand gestures when the parents looked back at him). Needless to say, I was fascinated by this young man’s total immersion into and dexterity with this discourse community at the main entrance to the college.  In a brief (and very brief) lull, I managed to give the young man the names of the students who were coming to visit me.  He was very short and businesslike and then went back to his extra-linguistic traffic direction.  Perhaps, it was my fascination and my ethnographic mesmerization that made me slow on the uptake because I just wasn’t quick enough to respond to the next series of events.

i am a manAs I was talking to the African American male student working at the security desk at the main door, one of the conference attendees walked though gates opened from a previous entry.   The security officer reminded the attendee that he needed to show his conference badge before he entered.  While the officer was busy with more people coming through the gates, the attendee walked by me and loudly stated: “I showed you my badge, dude, but you were too busy flirting with the girl.”  I didn’t catch it right away. Continue reading

The Savagery of U.S. Monolingualism, Part I of 2

MultilingualismI often encounter African American college students (and to a lesser extent, AfroCaribbean students, at least those who genuflect to what they call “British culture”) who speak with great pride about only speaking/writing what they call “Proper English,” never speaking a word of Ebonics which is often erroneously interchangeable with “street slang.” These students often cite this ability as the reason for their stellar, academic performance in school.  Despite the fact that we are not at a national, competitive university, these students often think they are at Hahvahd, all because their teachers have emboldened and praised them for their acquisition of a standardized English (if you saw their writing’s content and style, even this, however, is questionable).  Besides the anti-black nature of this sentiment (if black people speak it, it must be wrong) and the utter inability of any of these students to offer any accurate definition of what Ebonics is, the ideology of American empire is fiercely evident.  Only in the United States can you be considered educated or intelligent because you only speak/read/write one, standardized, school variety of a language.   Continue reading