How Institutional Racism Trained Me to Be a Doomsday Prepper

I have never watched a full episode of one of those reality shows featuring doomsday preppers, the over-the-top survivalists who prepare for the end of civilization, nuclear invasion, or natural catastrophe.  I am however very familiar with preparing for the inevitable racial targeting that comes with being a woman of color working in educational institutions.

Many people at universities today are thinking critically about the safety of racially marginalized groups on campus and the threats to teaching politically-charged content in this post-election moment.  I don’t mean to suggest here that this critical care and thought are widespread though.  There are just as many places that move forward— business as usual— with their love affairs with classic Europe, administrivia, departmental parties, and neoliberalist regimes of outcomes assessment.  Academics doing the work of questioning and thinking through where we are today, those who commit to pedagogy as something more rigorous than an anemic list of suggestions about teaching tolerance, are a rare gem. It seems to me though that institutional racism has long prepared us for the coming doomsdays on university campuses.  The very campus protests related to #BlackLivesMatter showed us students who challenged their administrations to deal with the racism they were facing and not simply dismiss campus-wide white supremacy under the auspices of (for-whites-only) “free speech”?  The very history of Black college student protest, dating back to the 1920s, connected off-campus racism with the treatment Black students face on campus.   As an undergraduate in 1989, I never walked alone on campus, especially at night, not simply because I was a woman, but a Black woman.  As women, we know we are always the potential victims of sexual assault, but as a Black woman, you also know that no one will care or notice when that happens.  Black men on campus certainly weren’t any safer; Black masculinity does not offer that.  They didn’t travel alone either for fear of the campus police who had no ability to see their bodies as part of the student population.  Doomsday was always here.

I have always known better than to think I was safe as a professor on campus.  Like I tell all of my Black and Latinx graduate students who cannot visibly pass for white at their new university jobs: do not plan to visit campus on weekends or move your boxes to your office after-hours.  If you are not at an HBCU, those spaces will have no practice in seeing your body as a Ph.D.ed member of the organization. On the weekends and in the evenings, security will stop you and no office staff will be available to vouch for you when these campus border patrollers come for you. And they WILL come— and it won’t matter a single bit if Obama, Trump, Hilary, Jill Stein, or Bernie Sanders is president. I especially know no Black male tenured faculty who is dumb enough to close their office doors, not even when they are in there alone (Black women fare much the same way).  Yes, Black faculty are marginalized and invisible but we are also hypervisible when it comes to surveillance and criminalization on our campuses.  No, we are not preparing for the apocalypse in the same way those reality TV doomsday preppers are getting ready simply because the danger that we forecast for the future is not manufactured by paranoia and delusion but by the very real and ever-present violence of institutional racism.

Teaching involves a level of doomsday prepping also. My syllabi for my fall semester classes were each 20-25 pages long.  Granted, much of that space is dominated by personal narrative, photos, and graphic images.  But even those space-filling texts have a rhetorical purpose based, in part, on institutional racism. No one can read my syllabus and make the mistake that my identity is not firmly rooted in Black life and consciousness… and if they don’t like it, they can move to a different course or section.  I have never had a single semester where at least one white student didn’t leave after the first class and look for another open section. I don’t even take it personal; it’s as natural as the sun shining.  Because I also use web-based materials for students’ reading materials, I have made those spaces considerably more rooted in Black visual rhetorics, Black vernacular language, and Black sonic philosophies.  Again, students can’t say they weren’t forewarned.  I spend a considerable amount of time on my syllabus explaining and showing the assessment process in my classes in a way that is almost fool-proof and easy to read.  I can’t make a misstep in any of that because if a student complains that my grading isn’t clear or fair, I know better than to think anyone at my campus will have my back.  I suspect these strategies will work well for me in a post-election educational climate, but if I need to step it up more, I will Blacken those spaces up even more.  I even create an agenda for each day of class, even on the very last day of class which is more celebratory than anything else.  When I was accused of not preparing my lesson plan during an observation from another faculty member who does not even hold a Ph.D., it was easy to refute the claim since that day’s agenda— and every other day’s agenda for the past 4 years of my teaching— is posted online BEFORE class begins in an open-access digital space that anyone with wifi in the world can see and use. These extra burdens related to doomsday planning have always been part of my teaching in the academy… I just don’t see any other alternative when you are Black.

I can also assume that all of the examples, personal experiences, and politics that I have described in this post will mark me as “bitter” or “non-collegial” or “angry” or “isolated” or “difficult” in the departments where I work.  I use quotation marks here to indicate that these are the EXACT words people have used to describe me to deans, chairs, provosts, faculty, and other university players (stuff they could actually get sued for).  These insults are meant to silence and disembody: you are supposed to be silent about your treatment and then smile and be happy as the price of the ticket for entry into these hostile spaces. If you keep your ear to the ground, all of that gossip will get back to you REAL QUICK and as it turns out, it can work in your favor.  When those folk turn around and need you (which they will), you can refuse to engage in “white forgetfulness” and instead always remember the ways they have tried to sabotage you (and make sure you NEVER forget lest you lose sight of the kind of space you really work in).  Though these pejoratives are meant to hurt you, you ain’t gotta feel sorry for yourself and let it go down that way. This particular kind of institutional racism simply means that you learn real fast never to expect allies in your unit, that you remember your college ain’t ever gon be or feel like HOME (I mean, really, what institutions could ever be THAT for Black folk anyway?), that you must seek out powerful networks and real colleagues wherever you find them in all kinds of departments on your campus and other sites off your campus, and that you build your street cred elsewhere. To be real blunt about it: I pimp out neoliberal educational structures in my own favor.  I stay on the grind, travel a lot, and find sustenance and motivation in alternative spaces. I also take a note from many of my colleagues and do the opposite: instead of shaping an intellectual and scholarly presence so that it only matters in the small, brick building where I clock in for work, I throw out a much wider net and make linkages nationally and globally.  In the thug-mentality of the neoliberal university, it’s the street cred that matters and makes you ultimately mobile and widely respected, not in-house/at-home false validation. But for Black folk in the academy, I’m talking about the difference between being a plantation slave and a maroon.  I don’t mean to romanticize the maroon community but plantation life, no matter how well liked you are, ain’t ever gon get you freedom, self-determination, dignity, or mobility.

When it all falls down, survival for progressive, intellectually-engaged, and thoughtful researchers, scholars, and teachers in a post-election academy will need to take its cues from Black faculty survivalists.  Institutional racism has always taught us to expect and prepare for the worst.

Lessons from Kim TallBear . . . and the Tears Not Shed

Right after the announcement of Donald Trump as our next U.S. president, I got on a plane and came to Canada for the National Women’s Studies Association. I enjoy this conference for one reason: I see more women of color/gender-queer folk here than any other professional conference I attend. There are problems like with every other professional organization but at least I like who sits and fights at the table.

This year, I was grateful for the Black and Indigenous women in Canada who let us know at every turn that freedom ain’t up here. You can follow the drinking gourd, Underground Railroad, North Star, Black Moses and then wade in the water all you want: Black folk still ain’t free in Canada. Kim TallBear’s plenary talk was the highlight for me.

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Black Language Matters: Slick Mouths and the Fact of a Black Lexicon

Recently, I described a person in a (relative) position of power at a job as a woman with a real slick mouth.  This isn’t a compliment.  The loaded meanings of this term points to the reality of what a distinct Black Lexicon is and does.  Like I said a few weeks back, I continue to insist that Black Language Matters.

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Like It’s Still 1999 . . .

prince r.i.p.Let my elementary and junior high school friends (and mom) tell it, I once had a rather unhealthy infatuation with the legend and genius we have come to call Prince.  I stopped adoring celebrities in that kind of way long ago but I have always been someone who would ride or die for everything before Purple Rain (For You, Prince, Dirty Mind, and Controversy) + “If I Was Your Girlfriend” + “Adore” + so much more.  At eleven years old in 1982, Prince’s 1999 was the first vinyl album I ever bought for myself, by myself, with my own money earned from babysitting. No borrowing or asking adults when it came to this album! The track, “Lady Cab Driver,” was my ultimate center of gravity though I couldn’t possibly have understood what that song was talking about (see the music player above).

“Purple Rain” seems to be literally playing in homes, cars, stores— all around me— right now, a song whose coupling of deep sadness and triumph I am only now appreciating. It had never occurred to me that I would take Prince’s loss this hard, though the OldSkool block parties here in my hometown of Brooklyn sure do make the mourning so much sweeter. There will be memorials and tantalizing stories of Prince’s death in the days to come, I am sure. During all of that (pending) mayhem, I’m going to just sit with my 11-year-old self and the woman I am now who understands “Purple Rain” so much better.

A Re-Mix of the Fourth Demand: June Jordan, Race-Radical Black Feminisms, and Teaching-as-Survival

Today, I will be participating in a collaborative workshop and dialogue that will discuss June Jordan’s transformative contributions to Black Studies, literacies, poetics, and solidarity.  Together, with Conor Tomas Reed, I will be discussing Jordan’s essay: “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person.”

I decided that I would do a re-mix and use key moments and signals in June Jordan’s text as points of entry into her specific inventions of race-radical Black feminisms for writing classrooms, pedagogy, and education.

CCNY Protests

Black and Puerto Rican students and community members marching in front of Shepard Hall before taking over the South Campus of City College in 1969.

The fourth demand (in my title) refers to the specific list of demands made by Black and Puerto Rican student activists in 1969 at City College that the racial composition of CUNY must reflect the Black and Puerto Rican populations of NYC schools.  Jordan’s essay offers us a glimpse into her design of an educational experience for college students that does more than simply require white middle class discursive cloning.  Pedagogy—what we could call a BlackArts/BlackFeminist pedagogy for Jordan— is a deliberate attempt at transforming the white space of the academy, a project that will always remains incomplete and a project that few of us ever really participate in.

So… on to the re-mix… (my words are in italics and Jordan’s words are BOLD, in content and font-style)

june-jordanThe next day we began, the freshmen and I, with Whitehead’s Aims of Education

Jordan read Whitehead’s Aims of Education as an undergraduate student at Barnard in her Freshman English class.  Alongside Whitehead, her professor also assigned readings in Greek mythology and an essay about connections between Whitehead and Greece.  Jordan was notorious for calling out Barnard— especially in “Notes of a Barnard Dropout”— and the academy for being able to make Greece relevant to its students, as far away as it was in space and time, but not the Black folk right around the corner in Harlem or in Brooklyn, a train ride away. In her first college class as a teacher, a writing classroom at CUNY, Jordan kept Whitehead on the syllabus and instead of students using Greek mythology as their comparative text like she had to do as a college student, her students used the text of their own black and brown and impoverished lives/bodies. So, for me, what we have here is an alternative praxis of open admissions teaching at a white university AND an entry point for black feminist pedagogy in writing studies, both of which have remained largely invisible and ignored.

Toni Cade Bambara walked with me to my first class.  “Are you nervous?” she asked.

I just want a moment for pause and reflection for black women like Bambara and Jordan walking the halls together, checking in on one another in sisterly ways.  I don’t think I need to say much more than that, but I will point out here that the ways we inhabit the physical, white space of the academy are also important.

I am often stunned, though I should certainly know better, that: 1) so many faculty of color are more interested in securing white favoritism and performing white comfort than in waging race-radical rhetorical action against neoliberalist universities, and; 2) that so many white faculty have absolutely no ability to see or notice or care about the daily, racist microaggressions happening to faculty of color right down the hallway and the students at their college and yet authorize themselves to talk about bodies of color and educational praxis for them.

Jordan/Bambara collageThis image of these two dope sistas acknowledging and embracing one another needs to be another way that we imagine the alternative work of black feminist pedagogies in the academy.  As my grandmother would say, it’s mo’ than a notion.

[T]his essay…is, if you will, a POSITION paper. . .

I want us to keep this image of the position paper in mind, particularly in our current corporate climate where research and writing about schools have conformed to some of the worst, masculinist, most alienating positivist gibberish that I think we may have ever encountered.

The position from which we write and the positionings of our styles and discourses are not opposite running streams.  Jordan’s essay is also a call to question not only WHAT we write in our research studies of communities of color but also HOW we write it.  The positions that we take are often buried in an anthropological othering that our language performs…. even when we claim our methodologies are radical and participatory.

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Trigger Warning: This Post is about Academia and Its “Professional” Conferencing

I am not a fan of the professional conference at this point in my life. Between the expensive hotels and registration fees and the mall-like spatial feel, it just ain’t for me. Ima blame this one of Robin Kelley though—- his piece about “Black Study, Black Struggle” still resonates with me, namely his poignant argument that universities are NOT engines of social transformation, never have been and never will.   If you agree with Kelley’s critiques about labor, race, and empire at the American university today, then you have no choice but agree that professional organizations— housed in neoliberalist, “non-profit” corporations that professionally organize and credential academics— are even less aligned with radical social thought and action.

ccccRegardless of whether or not you were in actual attendance, all compositonist-rhetoricians know that its major, professional organization— the Conference on College Composition and Communication, often called 4Cs (or the C’s by many black folk)— went down this past weekend. It is no secret that many folk of color feel marginalized by that space, despite decades of activism for inclusion born in 1960s and1970s Black Freedom struggles.  Quiet as it’s kept though, younger white scholars are making the same claims of marginalization everywhere that I meet them: fed up with an Old Guard who do not speak to them or to their needs, embarrassed by a new White Backlash, and unimpressed by uber-professionalized middle class comforts and happiness.  Many (not all) of the chairs who organize the yearly conferences have humanized that space in wonderful ways, but that doesn’t necessarily change the organization.  As a professor from a financially strapped city/public university with a heavy teaching load rather than an R1 with its comparatively unlimited funding and leisure time, the conference isn’t designed for me (given its gross expense and time commitment) or my students (given its white, middle class content) anyway.

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