Today, I am with my wonderful colleagues— Steven Alvarez, April Baker-Bell, and Eric Darnell Pritchard— at the Conference on Community Writing where we are facilitating a deep think tank on “Anti-Racism, Intersectionality, and Critical Literacies: A Teach-In and Work-In.” In our opening, we will each do a short framing and then start our first day of discussions (day two will feature organizing). This webpage collects the frame that I will offer about RACIAL REALISM.
I decided to write out my thoughts today in the hopes that would be easier to follow. I am placing these notes on a website— so you can follow along. Or, you can just listen. (I make a sincere effort to do what most ENG teachers tell vernacular black intellectuals NOT to do— write the way I talk. As it ends up, that is the most difficult thing to do… so please bear with me here.)
I am hoping that we can frame ourselves pragmatically and theoretically as racial realists— as coined by critical race theorists and afro-pessimists. Racial realism, put quite simply, rejects any notion that we have made racial progress. That’s a fantasy of white comfort and white fragility rather than any kind of proximation to the lived experiences of black peoples. Progress is always politically conflicted, contingent on whiteness/white approval, and reversible via white supremacy… one step forward, and then sometimes two steps back.
Some of my favorite racial realists are my undergraduate students (though they do not use this language unless I am explicitly teaching CRT). In my undergraduate classes this semester, I often have weeks where students can choose any one of 50-60 essays and videos about the theme we are studying. Since everyone has read something different, they are each asked to create a discussion question inspired by their unique reading. From our unit on feminisms of color this year, here were some of my favorite discussion questions that students created, none of which have easy answers:
- Given how many Puerto Rican and Mexican women the U.S. sterilized in the 1900s, what is the historical consequence of this for women of color today? What’s the message that we still receive?
- Black girls are suspended from schools at much higher rates than white kids, even for lesser infractions. What is the point of this? How do schools and colleges benefit from shutting out black girls/black students? … How do we protect black girls from schools?
- Given all that we have learned of racism, sexism, and inequality, why were you surprised that Trump won the election?
For me, you just can’t answer these questions without racial realism… in fact, you wouldn’t even think to ask them.
I saw a job ad recently for an assistant professor and lecturer in my field. I shook my head as I read it, feeling sorry for the early career scholar who might read that ad and not understand the coded meanings. The ad asks for someone to help design/run a (failing) program, publish in the field, work closely with the entire department, AND make a strong commitment to the college. No, those are NOT reasonable requests. It’s all just code for: we gon exploit the hell outta you and question your integrity and commitment if/when you refuse to let us get over on you and use you up til there is nuthin left. And I am crystal clear here too: if the new hire is Black, that person will get exploited even more with these kind of community service expectations since it is not imaginable that Black college faculty are— first and foremost— critical scholars and researchers. Because I know the context of this college, I know three things about this job: 1) the salary and package do not match the administrative requirements and are not commiserate with national norms; 2) there is no mentoring, available role model, or support for research and scholarship in the department that you’re expected to get so close to (publication is STILL the only thing that matters for tenure/promotion); 3) the organization and infrastructure of the college are so unstable with such constant shifts and changes in leadership that it is strange to expect NEW faculty to be the ones to bring longevity and consistency. I am able to read and understand these signs in that job ad because of the kind of mentoring I had in graduate school.
Mentoring of young Black faculty (and graduate students) who work at colleges across the country usually hinges on teaching young Black professors the rules of college life as it pertains to tenure and promotion. You can find all kinds of empirical research on the best strategies for mentoring young Black faculty so that they secure that golden fleece in the end. This research is also really clear about the importance of Black mentors for these early career professionals. But there’s always been something missing from these discussions for me. It’s not just about teaching young Black faculty the rules of the academy. It’s about centering Black thought and Black life in people’s lives at the academy. That’s where Black Language comes in for me.
When I have become obsessed with yet another dysfunctional episode at the colleges where I have worked, the words of my graduate mentor, Suzanne Carothers, always ring in my head: do not confuse the WORK with the JOB. Those words have kept me sane and grounded …and those words have helped me move onwards and higher when the limited horizons of other folk have attempted to confine me. I locate this mantra— and its many offshoots— squarely within Black culture. I see this as a kind of cultural memory and hence language for a social group who has had to continually invent dignity and identities that run against the menial “jobs” and “positions” they have been relegated to. It ain’t difficult to feel good about your job when the people who look like you/live with you are the ones always chosen as the CEOs, CFOs, COOs, et al (I include college administrators in these titles given the corporate nature of higher education today). It takes more imagination and humanity to carve out a communal sense of worth when your labor exists solely in terms of some kind of subservience to whiteness: slave, domestic, factory worker, janitor… you name it. In my own family, the J.O.B. did not dictate the limits of one’s worth, no matter how little you were paid. As we usedta say in the 90s: It’s a Black Thing… Plain and Simple.
My mentor’s reminder to never confuse the WORK with the job gives me a framework for surviving hostile environments based on the cultural memory and history of my own people. That’s so much more than simply telling me the rules of publication for tenure. Suzanne’s mentoring and example have helped me shift the political, linguistic, and aesthetic center of gravity in my own self-actualization in spaces that work directly opposite of that. For so many of my colleagues, the work that they do is confined to the physical building that houses their job. For Suzanne, the WORK is always much bigger and much more meaningful than that. That’s why I could never support a job ad like the one I described in my opening. If you don’t know the difference between the WORK you have chosen to do/that has chosen you and the JOB that employs you at this one moment in time, you will fall for any ole kind of okey doke that exploits you rather than transforms/challenges/ understands the world around you. Black language teaches us to do/think/be better than that.
With all of the different committee and administrative roles I have had in academia in the past 13 years, I have reviewed a whole LOTTA syllabi. Across multiple institutions and departments, the most dominant and lengthy prose that I have seen on these syllabi revolve around policy:
- if and what you can eat and drink in the room
- when and if you can go out and pee during class
- when and if your mobile devices can be used or seen
- how long your papers must be (with descriptions of their dullness— i.e., western styles of paragraphing, language, etc)
- how to make headings on the page (usually of the bad 8th grade variety)
- what happens if your body or your work is late or absent
- who to call for this and that and when to call them
- who to email for this and that and when to email them
- numbers of all kindsa offices on campus, including the professor’s, and anyone else students can be pushed off on if they have life-difficulties (i.e., leave your personal problems at the door)
- the horrors of plagiarism and the threats of what can happen
- the campus’s cut-and-paste language/legalese around disability (rather than genuine care)
- the department/program’s cut-and-paste list of learning objectives that a small group of faculty have gathered to write, usually for the purposes of assessment rather than a political investigation of what the hell we are teaching and how and why.
This bulleted list of PUREEEE boringness makes you wonder: who would actually want to read this mess? And what are students even learning? And you know what is significantly short? A discussion of the CONTENT STUDENTS ARE LEARNING! In fact, if you look at most syllabi, what students are mostly learning is the particular college’s and the classroom’s disciplining of their body movements. When you do get an actual course description, what you really see is the university’s neoliberalist discourse that appears in the course bulletin— more of a coded doctrine than any kind of readable prose because the course description is always really tight (in terms of words and characters allowed) and confined by the tastes and politics of the mostly white faculty who had to approve it. In fact, if you took a good look at most college syllabi across the country, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that any real student learning is happening at all… or that words mean and do anything but CONTROL students’ bodies.
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.
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.