At an event that I recently attended, a high school teacher at a prominent and privileged high school told a frightening story about her students. Her students had read a novel in her class about a young woman who was raped. During the class discussions, students analyzed the text beautifully, said all the right, erudite things; they even composed wonderful essayist prose interpreting the book. However, surprisingly to the teacher, the students had a whole other conversation amongst themselves in the lounge/ common space: the victim of the rape was just a dumb whore as far as they were concerned. Though the teacher was hopeful in regard to the promise of new curricular endeavors, I wonder what it means to teach folk whose violence lies in wait this way.
I am not saying that I have never heard students blame the victims of oppression. Yes, I have. All the time. That’s the nature of consciousness-raising in classrooms: help students see, understand, and dissect where these soul-crushing ideologies come from and fight those ideas back. What I don’t experience much in my classrooms are my non-privileged students (who are the targets of oppression, not the voyeurs looking from afar at it) saying what I want them to say, performing what they think is a liberal, progressive discourse for my approval, and then publicly promoting violence elsewhere. They just say what they think and work ev’ryone’s butt to the bone to try and convince them otherwise.
In contrast, the anecdote that the teacher shared is a specific kind of violence not available to oppressed groups, that particular brand of nice-nice, bourgeois, two-facedness that has promoted horrific racist acts. It is the kind of ideology that allows you to have a “nice” family gathering while you SIMULTANEOUSLY take short breaks outside to go burn a “Kaffir” in your backyard, a hallmark of white violence under South African Apartheid. It is the kind of terrorism that packs a picnic basket for a lynching (which did not halt white folk from thinking this was a time of improved race relations since, after all, slavery was “over”) and makes postcards of the occasion, years later to be displayed in Jim Crow-on-display museums as merely a regrettable by-gone history. It is the kind of violence that allows you to go on a local syndicate television station (which will go viral via youtube hours later) as a white woman and tell the world that a 14 year-old, Black girl in McKinney, Texas who was pinned down to the ground, in her bikini, by a white policeman three times her body mass for simply walking past DESERVED it; all while, of course, you insist that your face and name not be shown on camera. It is the kind of historical, automatic brutality that allows you, with conviction and self-righteousness, to warn the media to leave your property or you will call the police; because… despite the fact that your white son has just massacred nine Black people who were praying at Mother Emanuel with the gun you gave him the money to buy as a birthday present, you have the utmost faith that law enforcement will still protect you and yours, though all the Black parents around you across the country fear for their innocent children’s lives at the hands of said police. And we still live in the savagery of a white colonial system that told Spanish-speaking people of African descent that they were Spaniard, white, and therefore better than their neighboring French-speaking, Black people of African descent, their genetic clones, the warrior-descendants of Toussaint L’Ouverture who gave Europe a run for its money as the first Black Nation. Academic/post-modernist pundits will tell you that such race relations in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, Jim Crow era, contemporary anti-Black-girlisms, current police/state-sanctioned violence, and South African Apartheid are different… and they will also tell you that those high-scoring SAT students who call rape victims “dumb whores” while they are rewarded for public exclamations of progressivism are the top, best students in the country, our “brightest minds” at our “best colleges.” Racism and violence against Black bodies have always been niced-up for the benefit of our perpetrators’ public performances of goodness. We will be told that all matter of non-humanity is an improvement from the decades before… and that the most ugliest of people are the smartest because they do well at the schools designed for and by them.
At times like these, I seem to always relate everything back to schooling, classrooms, and education. I think it’s because I am an educator and see schooling as the most vile of institutions. I would say that I am also a Woodsonian (as in Carter G. Woodson), by way of Sylvia Wynter, who taught me that lynching always starts in the classroom; you can only lynch and massacre people inside of an educational system that taught you to devalue them alongside a myriad other institutions that structure inequalities.
It makes sense, sociologically speaking, that an oppressed group needs to know who and what to trust QUICK AND IN A HURRY, but there is also a kind of Black cultural literacy operating here. Two-facedness, just generally, is simply not a cultural attribute that is widely tolerated. I KNEW to steer clear of white male students, for instance, in college who commented aloud about women’s equality in Arts&Sciences classrooms and then laughed about rape in the hallways… or in their frat houses. As a further case in point, I have only experienced two-facedness from hyper-privileged students like the student who complained about me and my curriculum every chance he got to his enabling adult audience but used every single moment of my personal time to endlessly solicit my help for his avalanche of personal problems and pathologies. To this date, I have never had a Black or Latin@ student act this way and have never seen one whose bad behavior was so flippantly dismissed because they had personal problems. They wouldn’t be able to get away with that but they ain’t that two-faced to begin with.
When I think back on the event that I attended at that high school, I have that much more respect and allied affinity for the very small minority of students and teachers in that building who are desperately trying to do something else, be part of different conversations, build a different world. Why spend so much time trying to change the minds and hearts of two-faced perpetrators of violence? As for denouncing and de-throning their power? Well, yes, I am down with that. But anything else, count me out. I will always look forward to those classrooms peopled by allies and the people who look like me who need a world where they are at center and not marginalized according to two-faced cultural codes that have never had real freedom and democracy at heart.
As a sister Woodsonian, via Sylvia Wynter, I thank you for this wisdom and affirmation of our being. And thank you for reminding us of an important Black cultural ideal. . .not bing “two-faced”.