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.

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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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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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Big Mac, the Heart of Whiteness, and Composition Studies

I recently spent a good deal of time reading the last year’s issues of one of the prominent journals in my field, rhetoric-composition studies, and found myself unpleasantly surprised.  There was, of course, the usual error in representation of a black student, in this case an adult returning student whose vocabulary of her writing process was described as simplistic (the researcher did not culturally interrogate the student’s vocabulary) while a white male adult student was described as sophisticated.  I wasn’t surprised by that, however.  It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a white researcher called us simple and it won’t be the last time either.  I was a bit taken back, however, to see two articles in the same year about ONE writing program.

Since we are talking about 16 articles for the whole year of the journal, two articles, not just about the same college or from researchers at the same college, BUT two articles about the SAME PROGRAM accounts for more than 10% of the year’s content.  I am not an editor and never want to be since it is excruciatingly arduous work.  My problem here is with the school in focus and with how the editors of my field understand, in contrast, colleges that serve working class students of color.  And since these editors were selected “democratically” by peers in the field and articles are peer-reviewed, these editorial choices cannot be regarded as merely individual phenomenon.

hithereI have always worked at schools that serve large or ONLY serve working class, first-generation, working, and/or racially marginalized students. And for as long as I have worked there, I have gotten editorial and peer responses across the board that question how THAT student population, or how the university where I work, is relevant to the kind of classrooms most compositionists see— white middle class kids.  The problem is that this is a lie.  White, middle-classness is not what MOST colleges and universities today look like and it is not going in that direction either.  This is merely a white myth that the field maintains as part of its possessive investment in whiteness, to riff off of George Lipsitz.  Given the activism, widespread outrage, and speak-out against our current student debt crisis, it is unfathomable to me that we are so ahistorical and still choose to see colleges and universities as the sole bastion of the elite.   Casting today’s college student population as white and middle class serves political and ideological needs, not statistical needs, and does the work of maintaining existing white social networks (see Robert Jensen here).

big_mac_meal

This university writing program that saw two articles in one year simply isn’t relatable to the kinds of universities where most of us work so why the need to keep casting such spaces as the model?  Let me break it down.  I won’t name this university, I’ll just call it MidWest Big Mac, so as not to retract from my larger focus.  Midwest Big Mac is a selective public university, a very large research-extensive university.  Only them 1 or 2 flagship state universities across the country can relate to THAT!  So, off the bat, we are talking about 60-80 colleges and universities.  That’s just NOT where the majority of us teach.  In the past ten years, 4.7% of the undergrad student population at Midwest Big Mac has been black, 4.4% Latin@, and 0.2% Native American.   If you are at a school that is trying to keep its demographics in keeping with the national demographic or a school whose population reflects a local or historical population, you cannot relate to this school.  25% of admitted students had a 4.0 high school GPA and most of the students scored above 1700 on their SAT.  97% attend full time with their first year retention rates at 96%. Given the conferences and consultants who are all focused on the singular experience of the first-year experience and general retention, these statistics put you in the elite ranks, not the common ranks.

At 26K tuition per year with room and board, Midwest Big Mac will cost a family/student at least 100K by the time of graduation.  Even if that is relatable to many universities in the country, here is something that won’t be. With an endowment of $8.4 BILLION at the end of the 2013 fiscal year, MidWest Big Mac does not seem to feel the effects of the recession.  It is the second-largest endowment in the nation among public universities and the seventh-largest among all U.S. universities.  Only 6 other colleges can relate to you, MidWest Big Mac!  And yet the premier journal in my field constructs this location as the predominant college composition experience.  If you were ever wondering how a discipline maintains its whiteness or how educators maintain a system that is completely non-responsive to non-white, non-middle class, non-elite peoples, I encourage you to  think of this example.

Black Language Matters: “I Ain’t Got No Time For That,” Sweet Brown, & Other Black Rhetorics

There are times when talking to my poet-friends is just so difficult.  You’ll say something and it will remind them of a memory or a line they had in their heads, so they will just interrupt the conversation and start writing.  You can be in the middle of dinner, talkin about sumthin real intense too, and then, all of a sudden, BAM, they stop cold-turkey and write in their notebooks.  I suppose I annoy people too, because I am always delighted by and stop dead in my tracks for African American language patterns. I  can get as enthralled by the content as the language and start crackin up at the ways my friends say things, not because it’s funny, per se, but because of their cleverness and verbal dexterity. I can’t help but trace the deep, sociological specificity of how, when, why, and where a term or expression is used.  “I ain’t got time fa dat”/“I ain’t got NO time fa dat” is one of my favorite expressions, interchangeable with: “aint nobody got time fa dat” or “aint nobody got time fa you” (a few expletives might also come.)  This expression is certainly not new since I have heard elders use it for as long as I can remember, so I suspect that my age and current circumstances correspond to its new frequency in my discursive toolkit.

Sweet Brown from a White Perspective

Sweet Brown from a White Perspective

For many non-Black folk, the first time they noticed this expression was from the now infamous, internet-sensation Sweet Brown in early 2012.  When Sweet Brown escaped an apartment fire in Oklahoma City, she told the local news that she left, without shoes or clothes, and ran for her life.  After then explaining that she has bronchitis and the smoke was getting to her, she proclaimed: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”  From that point on, the memes and remixes ridiculed her, circulating her last words seemingly endlessly, with of course, an incessant focus on her headscarf.  Ironically, with all that arrogance and surety that she was saying something simple, none of these folk were smart enough to actually know what Sweet Brown was articulating: about the apartment building, about her life, about her health, and about her social circumstances as a black woman.  The time spent on caricaturing her voice and look was appalling, though she SAID she ran out the house unable to even put on shoes. And, true to white appropriation, not a single meme used the expression correctly.  Most of these folk even thought Sweet Brown INVENTED the expression.  Unfortunately, not enough black folk saw the light either.

Sweet Brown… Through the Fire!

Sweet Brown… Through the Fire!

The use of “that” in “I ain’t got time fa dat” is never solely about a specific event you simply cannot attend or that causes an inconvenience for you. “That” means pure foolishness, the kind of mess you should not have to waste your time, essence, energy, and spirit on.  If someone asks me if I am going to a certain event and I say, “naw I ain’t got time fa dat,”  I am making a criticism of the event, the people involved, the ideas being promulgated, and the social world being maintained.  I am NOT talking about a conflict with my schedule, calendar, or date book!  On top of that, I am proclaiming the worth of my energy and attention in relation to the sponsoring person, event, or issue.  It is a public declaration aimed at re-assessing the worth of the speaker and the listeners who she is trying to define the world for and with. I see black folk everywhere publicly proclaiming who and what they don’t respect with this obvious phrase and yet so many miss the meaning.  I mean, really: you can tell folk to their faces that you ain’t feelin em too tough and they will think you are talking about your dayplanner!  In the words of James Baldwin: “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is!”

Of course, it goes deeper.  It also depends on HOW you say it.  We can gender the term too.  If you are a love interest (with the interest coming more from your end than mine), and I say “ain’t nobody got time for you” in an annoyed way, look you up and down, and roll my eyes, I am telling you that: a) I am not ever going to be interested in you; b) you are stupid, AND; c) your momma dresses you funny.  Yes, all that from 6 words.  If I say this about my boss, colleague, or some fool with a title or “authority,” I am calling them stupid and useless to my life, other than as another source of oppression, which I hardly need more of (which was EXACTLY what Sweet Brown was actually saying).  Yup, all that from 6 words.  This is precisely why translation exercises from Ebonics-to-Standard-English or simplistic contrastive analysis don’t work: the context of Black Language always suffers and loses depth of meaning, hardly a coincide since we live in a world where its speakers are not considered people who produce deep sweet brown meanings either.

It goes deeper still.  Since the expression always uses the word time along with any variety of emphatic double negatives, we have to notice how time is configured completely outside of a western norm.  The use of time in  “I ain’t got time fa dat” does not reference the here-and-now alone.  This means we need to turn to all that AfroCentric stuff that white academics and their bourgeois allies of color think is so, so far beneath their high-brow western theories of their western selves.  This expression is based on an Africanized notion of time! Time here counters the run-til-you-are-ragged hustle under hyper-consumption and neoliberalism.  And yet, the expression also makes time cyclical, non-linear, and, therefore, more of the spirit than of the temporal body (maybe even something like habitual be).  Given its Africanized originary impulse, its place as a marker of oppression, and its circulation in the context of white institutions, it is a markedly black expression, not simply because black people have produced it but because THEIR EXPERIENCE has produced it.

It didn’t surprise me that folk couldn’t see depth into what Sweet Brown was saying and opted for black-face performances instead.  Academics/scholars who imagine themselves to study language or rhetoric don’t do much better either.  They too, and proudly so, take a white framework and simply apply that to black lives and act as if they have created anything other than the same kind of blackface caricature of the likes of those offensive memes about Sweet Brown.  I am not suggesting that black scholars not use white theorists, since that would be stupid.  But I have also never forgotten Professor Sylvia Wynter’s warning either: that when you borrow and inform yourself, you must ALWAYS notice when race as an overarching sociogenic code of our present episteme is untheorizable/unseeable in a scholar’s work.  I like to use Black Rhetoric to understand those kinds of academic slippages and the slippin’ and slidin’ that academics do in the context of whiteness: I ain’t got no time for that.

Runnin with the Rabbits but Huntin with the Dogs

bill-withers-grandmas-hands-1973I have always liked Bill Withers’s song, “Grandma’s Hands.”  He takes what is seemingly part of mundane, everyday utility and reads an entire history and philosophy of life there.  I could do the same thing with my grandmother’s words, though I am ashamed to admit that it is really only at this late stage in my life that I am truly understanding them.  She gives me an explanatory model for things.  I actually named my dissertation based on one of her expressions: running with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.  That became the title of the introduction for my book but it really frames all of my thinking.

As silly as it sounds, I am just starting to realize that academics/professors/scholars RARELY actually mean what they say and write/talk about.  Unfortunately, it’s taken me a long, long time to get this simple fact.  Like I have already said, my grandmother always used words and language intentionally.  I just wasn’t raised in a world where you would write a book or deliver a speech on a topic because it was a hot-topic item but not something you actually believed in.  That would be runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.  Now, of course, many of these issues are related to power.  For instance, in my field, you can publish articles about teaching students of color but never actually teach any of them (or, really SUCK at it).  That is to be expected in a knowledge-production system where a select white privileged group decides who and what gets published even when they know nothing at all about communities of color.  You can also go home and beat the hell outta your wife but if you have the right mentor, the right university pedigree, and the right connections, your career will be catapulted forward as someone with solutions to violence.  That’s just patriarchy working there.  And like I have discussed here on the blog, George-Zimmerman-styled racists can get published and hyped in my field as radical agents of social justice.  These examples are things I have just come to expect.

I mean something a little more than these everyday scenarios that I just described. Here’s what I have finally figured out: folks be FLAT-OUT LYIN…runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.  Imagine a radical gender studies scholar who then goes home and makes his children and wife wait on him hand-and-foot like they are serfs in his kingdom.  Go on and get that image in your head because you might just have his book on your shelf and be quoting him regularly as someone who is disrupting gender norms.  He doesn’t mean any of that.  Let’s take another example.  Imagine a department full of folk who teach and talk about critical theory forever and a day but when a black male student in the department is called a N**** and when a Latina student is called a wetback, all you get is D.E.A.D. S.I.L.E.N.C.E.  Is this critical theory in action?  Or are these people just faker-traitor-perpetrators?   Now imagine a scholar who people (well, let me be honest— not all people, just white men) herald as a champion of sustainability and yet, on the ground, every policy and utterance he makes is so corporate, standardized, and neoliberal that you may as well be working for the Conservative Right.  Yeah, get that image in your head nice and good too because folk in my field will call THAT the NEW LEFT if you let them… runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.

Princess-Ariel-disney-princess-7095223-841-1014Like I said, I have learned these lessons very slowly and today is no different.  I decided to look for videos from someone in my field who marks himself as a radical Marxist of color; I thought maybe I would add his work to one of the modules my students get to choose this semester.  I found some self-aggrandizing performances of really bad poetry (and that’s bad meaning bad) and more than 100 videos of his daughter with more than 50,000 views on youtube alone, posted by him and the mother of the child (also a self-proclaimed Marxist).  Now, really, I should have known to expect this foolishness from them but I felt a certain kinda way to to see this biracial family raising a little brown girl to publicly dance and sing in outfits like a pink, Mickey Mouse tutu with two kittens who she has named after Disney princesses. I won’t even replay my general feelings about the dangers of raising brown and black girls to see themselves as white disney princesses since I have already done that TO DEATH here at this website.  I really do get how hard it is as parents to displace Disney but you also gotta get how hard it is for anybody to see you as a radical third world Marxist with 100s of such videos.  In the least, if you consider yourself anti-capitalist, non-hegemonic, and non-standard, you need to admit just how slippery that slope is when you don’t even counter your small child’s total embrace of Disney, white ballerinas, white princesses, and all things pink.  That’s about as standard, capitalistic, and hegemonic as it gets.  All of these folks calling themselves Marxists and theorists of political economies but then go and use technology solely as a neoliberalist shrine to children’s conspicuous consumption (i.e., Pokemon, Disney, iPads, bourgeois outings, et al on full display).  If only Marx could see them now!!  If you truly know Marxism and political economy, then you might not want to be listening to a damn thing of what these folks have to say.

My grandmother wouldn’t have left this as simply a contradiction amongst life’s political difficulties under capitalism though.  When you understand a construct like runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs, you have to follow through and ask the tougher questions like: How is the total embrace and worshipping of white femininity part and parcel of how gender works in this version of Marxism?  You have to question how and why academics circulate their theories of political economies such that white women/whiteness stay at top.  As a black woman, you can’t afford to NOT ask such questions because you will be hunted by these folk who are only pretending to be a rabbit beside you.  It is hardly a coincidence that my grandmother offered such a violent image about people who are not politically on your side but pretend to be.  The complexity and sophistication of my grandmother’s expression and her determination to live a life according to its meanings are at the core of how I define black working class consciousness.*

2-dogs-hunting-rabbitThese have all been hard lessons for me to learn.  As strange as it may seem, I would prefer my students to come at me, in full force, as the next kingpin of the G.O.P. rather than think/act like the G.O.P. but then turn around and call themselves Howard Zinn.  My GOP example is extreme because I have never actually had such students, but the point remains.  Today when I have to explain to my students the kind of writer that I want them to be, I think of my grandmother’s life as an example: Say what you mean and mean what you say.  Know who you are and what you are really about.  The last thing I want is for my students to be the kind of academic writers and thinkers that I can find in my field.  From where I stand, academic writing/speaking in this field is all about FLAT OUT lying about everything that is important and that should be REAL.  My students deserve a writing curriculum that asks them to tell and know their Truths.

 

*My grandmother (and my youth) would have been “officially” categorized as the “black poor”, but my grandmother did not call HERSELF that.  She saw herself as a worker so when I say black working class, I am not excluding the “black poor,” I am just excluding the whiteness of THAT label.