Notes on Racial Realism by One of the “Problem People”

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

Racial realism, however, is often well beyond our grasp. I have to catch myself all the time when I start slipping. I often find myself disgusted— and dare I say even surprised— by the lack of depth in our field about the ways institutional and structural racism shape every aspect of what a literate life looks like and does. In this regard, as far as I am concerned, we have made no progress in this area in the field. None. What. So. Ever. Why aren’t the questions I shared from my students’ readings and discussions central to the research, discourse, and daily literacy work we do? Why are so many white folk in the field still so unable to deal with brown and black people who theorize their intersectional marginalization as the text we are all always already composing? Why don’t we have any in-depth theoretical work about the distinct kinds of racist aggressions that especially black graduate students and new assistant professors in comp-rhet across the country are facing— why is this oppression not named as ALSO part of what happens in this field? Where is our field’s advocacy work for the daily aggressions black and brown faculty face? Why do we think a 1990s-styled “Social Justice Task Force” at a neoliberal professional organization (4Cs) will secure justice for faculty who look like me and the students who I teach…who are about a life-force, not a task force? Why doesn’t a BlackFeministQueer Framework of literacy and activism have Solange’s proverbial “seat at the table,” especially when folk (NCTE and 4Cs) will go to Missouri this year where the BlackFeministQueer Frameworking of BlackLivesMatter put Missouri on the map in the 21st century in the first place?  These are obvious issues to me. But here’s the problem: I should not entertain any glimmer of surprise that these issues are not taken up seriously when, as a racial realist, I understand how and why a white system of knowledge is not about these questions… and must be aggressively challenged outside of the codes of white respectability and early 20th century forms of bourgeois professional organizing.

Racial realism escapes us at every turn. I see this too in the often anti-intellectual and anti-political beliefs that we have finally found some kind of lesson plan, some rubric, some approach that offers some penultimate expression of anti-racist work.  This is foolishness…and profound arrogance. Given deep structural inequalities in black incarceration, unemployment, income, home ownership, college degree attainment, infant mortality, I could go on and on, for really any social axis, it SHOULD BE unconscionable to think that your little assignment or assessment strategy is offering a radically transformative end-game in this social system. That’s academic marketing— and a catering to white comfort. It’s NOT anti-racism. Your pedagogy is not unshackling 400 years of slavery for any slave or her descendant.   Your classrooms are not untying the noose of Jim Crow lynch law, past or present, for any black bodies that have hung from trees. And you are not breaking down today’s prison walls and borders. So comfort and a feel of ease are not options. All that we have— when we think in terms of racial realism— is struggle. That’s it. The hope is in the process of the struggle. It is in the constant work, not the end result or an eventual sign of progress because that is not forthcoming… not in the lifetime of anyone in this room. Being a racial realist changes the way you approach and politicize the work.

I’ll also say here that racial realism, especially for brown and black faculty in the academy, is the only psychic salvation. Yesterday, beginning at 6am in the morning, I was answering emails, texts, DMs from brown and black people and white allies across the country about an online essay that I wrote that went online a week ago about one, rather small racist incident I faced at an institution (I ain’t even give the full context… well, not yet).  After dinner, I came home to more.  These mostly young folk of color, some of whom I do not even know, were reaching out to me because they felt triggered by the comments on Facebook of white faculty who denied my positions.  In the last 24 hours, I have offered one simple reminder over and over and over again: EXPECT RESISTANCE!  It’s just another day of struggle. Work it Out. Write It Out. Keep It Poppin.  And, in the words of Jay-Z, get… that… dirt… off… yo… shoulder.

Whenever you find yourself hoping for different outcomes or dialogues related to race and racism, you need some racial realism. When you find yourself disappointed by the “lack of diversity” at your college/in your field/in your department/in your hood/in the books and journals you buy, you need some racial realism. When you find yourself frustrated with the inability of white power and white privilege to listen, see, and hear, you need some racial realism. You need to get real and real fast… or there is no anti-racist work that we can accomplish.

I’ll close here by going back to Derrick Bell.  When he began arguing for racial realism, he was often accused of being too pessimistic and hopeless. He countered that with what I consider his most compelling story and message about an elderly Mississippian woman named Ms. MacDonald — a story and message that I will end with today. So here is the story (this is Bell talking):

The year was 1964. It was a quiet, heat-hushed evening in Harmony, a small, black community near the Mississippi Delta. Some Harmony residents, in the face of increasing white hostility, were organizing to ensure implementation of a court order mandating desegregation of their schools the next September. Walking with Mrs. Biona MacDonald, one of the organizers, up a dusty, unpaved road toward her modest home, I asked where she found the courage to continue working for civil rights in the face of intimidation that included her son losing his job in town, the local bank trying to foreclose on her mortgage, and shots fired through her living room window. “Derrick,” she said slowly, seriously, “I am an old woman. I lives to harass white folks.”

Mrs. MacDonald did not say she risked everything because she hoped or expected to win out over the whites who, as she well knew, held all the economic and political power, and the guns as well. Rather, she recognized that-powerless as she was-she had and intended to use courage and determination as weapons “to harass white folks.” Her fight, in itself, gave her strength and empowerment in a society that relentlessly attempted to wear her down. Mrs. MacDonald did not even hint that her harassment would topple whites’ well-entrenched power. Rather, her goal was defiance and its harassing effect was more potent precisely because she placed herself in confrontation with her oppressors with full knowledge of their power and willingness to use it.

Mrs. MacDonald avoided discouragement and defeat because at the point that she determined to resist her oppression, she was triumphant. Nothing the all-powerful whites could do to her would diminish her triumph. Mrs. MacDonald understood twenty-five years ago the theory that I am espousing in the 1990s for black leaders and civil rights lawyers to adopt. If you remember her story, you will understand my message.

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