Culture, Care, and Competence

chartI walk through the main entrance of my college’s main building each day. There are three entrance points for the public in this ten-story building. We don’t have many campus buildings; space is limited in NYC so we build up rather than out, giving a large body-traffic flow at this main building.  This is my fourth semester teaching at my current college and, though this may be a strange observation, I have never entered or exited the building when the student in front of me did not hold the door open for me.

I noticed this pattern right away.  It is something that I have never witnessed at any other university.  It happens every single day.  And, if I am standing on line, the students let me go first.  I do not know any of these students, but they recognize me as a professor right away.

There are other things that I have noticed about the students at my college. If I am sitting in my office, eating my lunch when a student stops by, they feel bad and are deeply appreciative that I would speak to them while I am eating, that I would allow them to interrupt me. In fact, when a student doesn’t approve of my health choices (or even when I am eating healthy), they have often stopped by at a later time to bring me lunch. My college has strict rules about not accepting gifts from students, but, for my students, food does not count as a gift.  I should say here that the students who I currently teach are more financially challenged than any other group I have taught, though I have always taught working class, first generation students.  But that doesn’t stop them from trying to take care of you.

nonwestern-learningI won’t say that these characteristics are ones that I have never experienced amongst my students before.  That wouldn’t be true.  But not at THIS LEVEL.  It’s quite palpable.  And while my colleagues are certainly quick to point out how wonderfully non-entitled the students at my college are, I hear very little discussion about how the students’ cultures, backgrounds, and experiences account for their alternate ways of being in the world.  The caring that I have described didn’t just emerge from thin air.  It is a cultural disposition.

It seems strange to me to subject so many students with such non-Western, non-white, non-individualist, non-neoliberalist, non-patriarchal dispositions to the endless, traditional, individualist curricular paradigms and white, western modes of argumentation that they get at my college.  These students challenge all of that even in the way they hold the doors open!  Seeing my students’ cultural dispositions and, thus, their cultural competencies (rather than merely complimenting their non-entitlement) would mean an entire eruption of the current colonial model of pedagogy where we bestow Western logic and knowledge upon them.  It would mean a shift in the whiteness on which higher education rests its values.  That kind of shift would open even more doors.

Lessons from the University of Oklahoma: The Macro of Microaggressions

For Harriet released a video yesterday, “Black Women OU Students Discuss SAE, Race and the University,” interviewing three young Black women at the University of Oklahoma: Aubriana Busby (Junior), Chelsea Davis (Sophomore), and Ashley Hale (senior), all students involved with OU Unheard.  I was delighted to watch and hear these interviews as well as the general footage that we have seen in the past week from Black student protesters on the campus.

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“If You Gon Sing It, Then Bring It”

At a recent meeting I attended, a participant talked very disparagingly about scholars who do work in digital rhetorics and digital humanities.  Now, it ain’t like I ain’t got my own questions about the aforementioned, mostly along the lines of why is this scholarship so damn white, but that was not the participant’s beef.  His beef was that scholars in digital rhetorics and digital humanities only offer meta-analyses of digital culture and not actual digital products and projects.  That’s not true, though I can see where the impatience is coming from: a dull, visually stale website that you paid someone else to create and an active twitter account ain’t exactly sophisticated digital production.  I said, for the most part, that these impressions were false and then really left it alone.

Because you see, I was operating from a black cultural/language frame.  And that means something very simple: if you dissin what somebody else ain’t doin, then it must be because YOU DOIN IT!

african_american_expressionsIn my childhood, we would simply say it like this: if you gon sing it, then bring it.  This expression could be applied to someone who was poppin off at the mouth about you behind your back but not bold enough to bring it to your face; OR if an athletic team, especially, talked a lot of junk about their impending win: this was a reminder to watch your mouth unless you were really bringing your A+ game.  What does this mean in the context of the situation I described in the first paragraph?  Well, as soon as I got home from the meeting, I google-stalked this participant like it was no tomorrow. And what did I find?  Not much of nuthin.

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The “White Turn” in Composition Studies

When I first tried to publish “ ‘This the ConscienceRebel’: Class Solidarity, Congregational Capital, and Discourse as Activism in the Writing of Black Female College Students,” I must admit that I was taken aback by white resistance in composition studies— the field to which I am most closely aligned by nature of the work that I do but certainly not by the nature of my politics , aesthetics, or pedagogies.  I was not surprised that the white editors saw the work— a text that focuses on working class Black female college students— as irrelevant to the wider field.  But, I must admit: I was surprised that it was Black female scholars in the field who gave the white editors rhetorical ammunition.

black womenIt was Black female reviewers who brought up the point that most professors reading the article would be white and have mostly white students and so would not be able to relate to the content.  Yes, you heard that right.  It was Black female professors who made that claim.  And I shouldn’t have to tell you that the white editors went to town on that right there. Besides the fact that it undermines all Black women when Black women see themselves as tangential to educational research, the idea that the majority of college writing classrooms today mostly enroll white, middle class students IS FALSE!  That’s not historically accurate and it certainly does not apply to an era where higher education gets browner and browner every year. Whiteness in this field gets maintained by scholars of color as much as it gets maintained by white scholars and it’s time we start talking about it.

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Remembering George Whitmore this MLK Day

IDFor a few years now, many, many black women have recommended the ID (Investigation Discovery) channel to me.  I always promised to check it out simply because I trust sistas’ judgements about this kind of thing, but I honestly never got around to it.  Quiet as it’s kept, black women talk about the ID channel more than they talk about Scandal; at least to me, they do. What holds constant across these black women’s recommendations is the promise of a representation of bone-chilling criminality and death without the overdetermination of mass media’s (local and national news; shows like CSI, Law and Order; all of the NYPD; etc) equation of violence with blackness.  This is not the goal of the channel and race is never admitted or discussed, but it is all right there for the taking.  This winter break I started watching ID channel and let me just tell you, I ain’t never seen so many murder-hungry white folk in my life…. outside of history books, that is.  Like I said, I trust sistas’ judgements on these kinds of recommendations and they did NOT disappoint.  I can’t even watch this channel late at night because Freddie Krueger and Elm Street ain’t got NUTHIN on the kind of nightmares and fears that this channel induces.

I could tell countless stories of the things I have seen on this channel.  One story in particular fascinated me: the robbery and brutal murder of an elderly white couple in the state of Washington in the dead of winter a few days before Christmas.  (Generally speaking, after these few weeks of watching this channel, I can truly say that if you are in any small town in Utah, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, or Minnesota and you see/hear/feel something kinda strange, RUNNNNN FOR YOUR LIFE!)  Two young white men from the town held the elderly couple at gun-point in their car, took $8500 from them, shot them in their backs, and then threw them on the side of the road in a couple of feet of snow.  It was 20 years before the killers were caught.  One teenager, driving in the car with his mother, saw the elderly couple with the two local men (his friends), knew they had committed the murders as soon as he heard about the incident on the news, and claimed he was so scared that he said nothing about what he saw and knew about that day… for 20 years!  The two culprits moved to Alaska a few months after their crime so this man claimed fear for more than 19 years even though he never saw the two men again. The two criminals abandoned the elderly’s couple’s car at the mall where many locals saw them exit the vehicle with guns under their arms.  Because the law does not require anyone to conceal their firearms in Washington, no one thought anything of it.  Nuthin quite like American shopping malls!  And, it gets better. The two murderers had borrowed the guns they used from a friend, so they returned their borrowings to their friend who suspected what they had done.  The friend simply had his stepfather get rid of the gun to protect the murderers.  Other than a neighbor who saw the two criminals casing the elderly couple’s home, no one in this “warm, small, tight-knit community” (the townspeople’s language, not mine) said a word about what they knew.  Twenty years later, the 60-year old children of the elderly couple hired their own private detectives to secure new leads and discoveries in order to re-open this unsolved case.  At this point, the criminal pair was hidden deep in the arctic jungles of Alaska so when authorities finally found the pair, one had already died: a diabetic who used heroine profusely even though, apparently, diabetes and heroine do not mix.  The other still-living culprit was as cool as a cucumber and even paused to order hisself some chicken wings while being questioned by police. Now, this ain’t such an extreme murder case in the context of the ID channel, but what baffled me the most was the townspeople’s insistence that this town was warm and friendly.  Ain’t enough money in the world that could get me to visit that town and if I ever get stuck there, Ima get down on my knees and pray for escape ideas from the kind of North Star-knowledge of a Harriet Tubman!

In a really strange way, I began to see very clearly how the media really does twist people up.  Racially subordinated groups often believe the stereotypical images of black/brown-as-innately-violent and hate their own skin.  Racially elevated groups believe their kind can do no wrong and risk their daily lives with their inability to see the white dangers right in front of them at the gun-friendly shopping mall. Wow!  This is not a surprise, for sure, but ID channel just showcases these issues in amazing ways. Like I said, there is never any such race-dissection in the shows.  The commentators seem to believe in these delusions of white-town-innocence too.  I most certainly don’t.

So this brings me to the point of this post: THE LIFE OF GEORGE WHITMORE.

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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. Continue reading

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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