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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Frat Boy Culture: Life under Institutional Racism, Part II

Though working at a conservative, denominational university could never have been a very good fit for someone like me, I must admit that I miss some of the piousness of a religious institution. A strange confession, surely, but it was a nice reprieve from what I call the frat-boy culture of academia.   I began to really notice frat-boy culture in graduate school, though that culture plagued my undergraduate years as well. As an undergrad, I just assumed frat-boy culture was what folk would someday grow out of. No such luck.

I was, quite honestly, floored by the nature of sexual activity in graduate school where everyone was sleeping with everyone, married or single. When you are the one drop of chocolate in the flymilk, you know better than to think you have enough privilege and power to participate in this culture… though I have certainly seen more than a few black men get fully entrenched (grad school has a way of making them forget that they are black, but they usually get THAT reminder soon enough). Here we were in graduate school and a man could sleep with 3, 4, 5, 6 different women in his program/college and not even think twice about it… AND even get a few of them pregnant! Professional conferences are no different. It’s all fray-boy culture. You can see why a religious university, for all of its problems, was a nice, short breather in between all of that. I never once suspected my chair, directors, dean, etc to have slept with every young woman/man who walked past them and I am the type of person who once I SUSPECT it, I know that that ish has gone down. It’s not to say that power and whiteness are not everywhere exerted and celebrated in other ways on such religious campuses, but it is not inserted THAT way.

inferiority complexI am NOT talking about upholding respectability politics here, which really just becomes a buy-in of black inferiority.  Critiquing and rejecting respectability politics does not mean we lose the critique of frat-boy culture and its role in maintaining power and inequality. Notice here how I am critiquing male dominance and not women who use their sexuality to manipulate and vie for power (think Kim Kardashian, Mimi Faust, or the “video hoe”). It is just TOO played out to keep castigating individual women or, on the flip side, to call them sexually revolutionary or powerful (all the while, of course, ignoring that race determines which women will be most denigrated for these sexual choices). Insomuch as white fraternities have been marked with the most economic and political power in U.S. history of higher education and beyond (go to any campus and see who has the biggest and nicest frat houses…or who has them at all), then I connect frat-boy culture with whiteness and patriarchy.

frats on FOXFrat-boy culture is about power that gets controlled through sexual domination. For sure, religious universities are still controlling sexuality (with the Bible), which explains why whiteness and power were not ruptured in any way on a campus where the men kept it in their pants. But when you are in a closed-door meeting with a white man and woman who have surely had (maybe still have) sexual relations, let me tell you: THAT shit is palatable. You are navigating a whole other kind of terrain when they vie to maintain their whiteness and position over you. Like I said, I KNOW frat-boy culture so I can spot this in a minute. That’s the most powerful position you can be in though. When you are in the academy and workplace, you need to be able to read the hell outta EVERY aspect whiteness and power… sexuality is always a marker. That’s how frat-boy culture and inequality work.

It Ends How It Starts…

isley_brothers-choosey_lover-choosey_lover_instrumental-1It ended the same way it started… that’s another one of those expressions that I grew up hearing.  There was no way that my mother, aunties, and older cousins would ever let any woman get away with saying, for instance, that a relationship ended because a man changed from the first moment you met.  There is no True Side or Dark Side that emerges in the later stages of a relationship.   Just so that it’s clear that I don’t associate doggishness with men only, I’ll offer advice based on a personal observation instigated by a woman.  If you are the aggressively-pursued mister/mistress to a married woman, maintain “contact” while she is married, and then get back with her years later when she is still legally married but newly separated (but still creepin with her not-yet-ex-spouse and many others while her school-age son is in full tow), you can’t get mad when she brings all kinda lovers into your home and hearth.  When the Isley Brothers crooned “Choosey Lover,” they didn’t have your lil honey EVER in mind and that evidence was always right there.  I ain’t knocking the woman (no, this story ain’t about a sista— we wouldn’t get away with this and still keep our job/title/status as college professors) since men don’t lose dignity or respect for such lifestyles, I am just saying that you can’t ever expect monogamy in such an open system.  The problems at the end were the same problems at the very beginning.

41z0dk6KxjL._AA160_For my own part, I have been in the early stages of a relationship where Partner-Potentials (PPs) hurry me off the phone in order to go for breakfast, drinks, coffee, or conversation with “friends,” without nary a worry about whether or not I was receiving the support, attention, or nurture that I needed.  That PP is, plain and simple, a playa, so I treat them accordingly.  If a PP like that cheats on you later, you most certainly cannot be surprised.  That’s just what playas do so you can’t expect otherwise.  Let’s not make it so extreme and let’s say this isn’t really a playa, just a smooth operator, so there is nothing “sexual” or flirtatious between your PP and all of these “friends,” present and past, who are obviously more valuable than you since you got hurried off.  If you actually believe in such “innocence,” it still ain’t gon work.  When hanging at lounges, bars, coffee shops, etc— all these bourgeois-chic performances— is the priority then financial stability, actual completion of a goal, and the ability to be dedicated to something real or to a relationship will not be soon forthcoming.  I’m not saying that I don’t like to go out, because I really do, but, as a grown woman, I just do not know exes, shops, or new “friends” that are so interesting that I would compromise my priorities for them. None of that happens overnight or all-of-a-sudden… evidence is always there. And once you witness one dumb decision, you can rest assured that many more will follow: dumb decisions never act alone.  You don’t need to stick around to wait and see how this will end; your answers are already there.

There ain’t never no surprises.  Every lie, trifling-ness, infidelity, dumb decision, and unethical act left its trace very early on. As my mother and othermothers always insisted: my job is to keep my eyes wide open and read everything that happens in the very beginning.  Professionally, I just can’t think of better advice.

wpa-logo-gray2In professional settings, I may not be able to necessarily get up and leave right away like I have with PPs, but I benefit from the clear reading of my environment early on.  It’s one thing to understand institutional racism while reading it in a book; it is quite another to be able to read it in your everyday environment. That’s a whole other kind of reading. In a previous administrative experience, I started preparing and planning for workshops, the semester calendar, orientation, and a host of other things as soon as July 1 dropped.  My first paycheck, however, did not drop until September 15.  I knew right away that my job was largely bureaucratic, anti-intellectual, apolitical tedium, and I saw that months before my name was even registered on payroll.  It was also clear in that instance that no one would protect me or care about my time and research requirements as someone without tenure.  In retrospect, I would tell all other black faculty to refuse such summer work.  So many of our people need us in various community centers and initiatives so if you want to do some charity work, do it with people that look like you rather than for institutions that exploit you.  Like I said, it ends how it starts: I was alone and on my own from day one and that never changed.  I walked out without needing to say good-bye, but fully embracing the GOOD in good-bye.

Before classes began, on the day when I met all of the faculty who I would be working with, one newly-minted white male Ph.D. (and stunningly sub mediocre teacher and researcher) asked me to meet with him after the meeting.  In our meeting, he proceeded to tell me all of the things that I needed to do.  It should go without saying that my credentials— then, now, and forever— trumped his many times over but that surely didn’t stop the higher-ranking white male administrator from telling him that he should request this meeting with me and direct me.  Like I said, classes hadn’t even started. I didn’t even have the chance to unpack a single box and get settled in my office yet.   The singular authority of white males, the host of surveillance and messenger tactics, and the decoupling of rigor and research with teaching, were right there in the beginning.  It never got worse from that… it didn’t need to.  The vulgarity was consistent and there from jump.

I am thinking a lot about my mother and the women in my family and their constant warnings to always read the very beginnings. When incompetent white men below your pay grade have been explicitly authorized by other white men to have authority over you, you need to be real clear about the kind of place you are in and you need to get real clear about that real fast. I am thankful that my mother and othermothers always highlighted the importance of such clarity.

Public Writing/Public Teaching: A Year & Counting

Close-up from the collage that is used as background of this website

Close-up from the collage that is used as background of this website

A year ago now, I created this website.  I wanted a space to do the online work of my classrooms off the grid of a university’s corporate vibe— a space that would offer a more sonic and visually dynamic course organization.  For the most part, that is still the primary goal.  Blogging became the way to think through things and the public nature of this practice has meant that I actually do it, consistently, even if no one will read it.  Blogging feels like the teaching journals I once kept, back when I could actually write on paper.  I like the steady stream of short pieces rather than the longer, extended writing that I often do for publication.  It keeps me writing in the in-between time.  These are very simple practices in terms of the kind of work that happens in online spaces today but that’s where I am for now.

Other things happened though that I didn’t anticipate.  I began to articulate a very particular position on public writing and multimedia spaces where all that I know about the Black Radical Tradition and all that I disdain about neoliberalism began to converge.  That has been the single-most benefit to my thinking in the 21st century, a place where everything is digital and everything is commodified: from the continued hyper-spectacle-making of black bodies TO the new century versions of the socially networked Leave-It-To-Beaver family/nation.  Any conversation about digital spaces that does not include these levels of analysis is anti-political.

I use the term, “public,” very loosely though when I reference this site. I never even bothered to open the comments section because I don’t foresee anyone wanting to comment.  Couple that with spam and the many trolls who piss me off and the commenting feature becomes more irrelevant.  Only very recently, I finally did the necessary work to put the “follow” button on this site.  Like I said, “public” is a really generous adjective of this website: I ain’t the academic version of Tyler Perry’s Madea and we don’t live in a READING CULTURE, not even for academics, so I ain’t never been fooled into thinking any large group of people is really interested in me or my work.  It’s just me and my closest girlfriends really up in this.troll spray

What I did not anticipate, however, is that my students would visit me here at this site, like graduate students of color who KNOW they are not included in the intellectual organization of their programs given their experiences, interests, mouths, and proclivity against being white folks’s tokens and lackeys.  Those kind of folk in the academy are few and far in between… but the ONLY ONES who really matter to me!  White graduate students are also here with me, ones who want to actually think about racism rather than perform some kind of touchy-feel guilt or intellectual chic (those kind always go back to not noticing and, thereby, maintaining racism at the institutions that anoint them with degrees and tenure).  These students have been a pleasant surprise… I am honored that they are interested and are with me here.  Truly honored.  They make up the kind of academy worth being in.

WeCatertoWhiteTradeOnlyP260My international colleagues also embolden me.  I can see what countries visit each day and I can guess by the hits on a specific post who might be visiting that post.  What international comrades remind me, those who visit here and email me about my articles, is that internationalism is NOT the whiteness that white scholars in my field construct.   I have been told by editors, time and time again, that people outside of the U.S. will not understand my language and references.  It becomes clear from these people that blackness is to be consumed globally but not politicized; no one questions whether people outside the U.S. know Miles Davis or contemporary black musicians… but now, all of a sudden, no one understands our language and cultural references.  Black is International, no matter how much white scholars in my field would suggest otherwise and keep us out.

The "Touch My Hair Exhibit," was a blogpost/issue especially inspired by students!

The “Touch My Hair Exhibit,” was a blogpost/issue especially inspired by students!

I must say though that my undergraduate students have surprised me most.  I never imagined they would find this website interesting and would tune in so often to this blog, students who cut across the last 15 years of my college teaching.  They have changed the way that I think and the way that I write. I feel bolder now in what I say and how I will say it.  These students have always been more interested in social equality, social action, black feminisms, and radical thought than my colleagues.  I am reminded of a white-skinned Latina in my class recently who told me about a professor who proclaimed his shock at her heritage by saying out loud, “wow, I didn’t know you are a wetback.”  That departmental klansman didn’t even get a slap on the wrist but this young woman sure had one helluva critique of all the white men at that college who co-sign such violence.  We sat and talked for hours at a local coffee shop where we caught one another miscalculating the weight of the system we were in.  My former student was surprised that the departmental klansman actually copped to calling her a wetback when confronted; I assured her promptly— why wouldn’t he?  It’s his world right here, he knows he can do what he wants.  On the other hand, I was surprised that no minimal action was taken against him.  The student caught ME that time: why would he be punished?  This campus is his world, not ours.  Like I said, we talked for hours about our experiences, things I have NEVER discussed with a colleague in that space. Meanwhile, many colleagues in my field are too busy stroking their egos for being accepted at elite, privileged institutions and organizations that do not enroll or register many folk of color to even really notice what is happening to such racially subordinated masses in higher education; others just think the example I gave is an individual act of meanness, not the systemic racism they benefit from.  Buncha dumb-asses.

In this next year, I plan to write with undergraduate students even more clearly in mind.  If I write with the student in mind who I just described, my content and rhetoric will carry a whole different kind of momentum and weight in what Mecca Jamilah Sullivan has so brilliantly called “THE IMPOSSIBLE FUTURE” at the Feminist Wire.

As for more mundane goals, I also plan to vary some of my vocabulary here.  I tend to over-rely on the word, fool— I think this is a good word and keeps me from cussin too much but it can become redundant.  I have decided to take it Old Skool, maybe even borrow from Aunt Esther on “Sanford and Son” and diversify my vocabulary: old buzzard and jive turkey come immediately to mind. The terms, Klansmen and Grand Wizard (KKK terms), will become vital new additions and I already know who these terms fit best.  It’s gonna be a good year!