When White People Drop the N-Bomb

DeenBetween packing up my office, moving to a new university, and participating in the protests related to Trayvon Martin’s murder, I missed an important diss-able moment here: doggin out PAULA DEEN.

Black folk on twitter kept me afloat during that time and I’m not even on twitter.  And in case anyone was confused about this, yes, we are laughing AT Paula Deen, not with her.  Everything about her— her dishes, her health, her children, her Bubba— got publicly dissed on every social network site imaginable.  It was the most lovely way to treat a white supremacist.  The memes alone inspire deep pride for me. It made it that much easier to dismiss all those “liberals” saying black people were too sensitive or blowing things out of proportion. If my recent trip to Savannah, Georgia is any indication, then it seems safe to say that social networking brought down Deen: every time I passed a Paula Deen Tour Bus, it was E-M-P-T-Y!  Personally, I think all of those very public disses of Paula Deen should be a model for how we treat anyone who thinks we should dress as/be slaves, serve them sweet potato pie (and everything else), and/or maintain confusion about the N-bomb.  Descriptions of Deen’s racism are hardly over, including the ongoing testimonies of black women in the recent NYTimes who Deen exploited while thiefing their recipes and expertise as cooks.  It seems like Deen’s empire really was run like a plantation: the exploitation of black labor, ingenuity, and skill while she sat back, rich and fat, grinning for the public as if she had herself pioneered something.  A plantation, indeed.

Like I said, Black Twitter was a thing of beauty, but my heart goes out to AfricanoBoi who gave the best commentary on Paula Deen yet!  For all non-black folk, no, you can not laugh at this but you do get to hear how WE HEAR white supremacy.   For all black folk: yes, you can roll all over the floor and laugh your hearts away!!!  I know I still am.  Sometimes, laughing back and talking back go hand-in-hand because, given all that is coming to light about Deen’s labor practices, AfricanoBoi might not be exaggerating that much.

Academic Culture vs. Educational Change

Popular meme created by college students

Popular meme created by college students

In my first academic job, I arrived after a 2-3 year commission of faculty who evaluated that university’s core/ liberal arts curriculum.  That commission wrote a report detailing what the challenges were.  The administration reflected on that report for another year. I was later assigned to a new committee that would discuss the commission’s report.  That took another two years.  When I left that committee and university, a new committee was designed to come up with a report that outlined a plan on what to do next.  5 years of students graduated and nothing changed; it looked like the next five years would promise more of the same.

I noticed some strange stuff in my first year of department meetings when I was an assistant professor.  I once had a question about students’ progress in the program (which was a certification program) so I saw my question as vital and requiring an answer… as in, ASAP.  It was a two-hour meeting with lots of discussion but I was confused by the end and said as much.  I had class the next day and needed to tell my students something and needed to ACT on a decision.  So at the end of the meeting, I asked: what did we decide here?  The answer was this: that we need to keep talking about this.  In the three years that I was there, I never got any answer to that question; we just kept talking. I stopped asking and got annoyed with even listening since the circuitous, nit-picky-do-nothing-and-go-nowhere dialogues just gave me pounding headaches.  I designed my own process with my students in my classes, processes that the department could have learned from and adopted had folk not spent their time trying to standardize a curriculum that couldn’t work. When I realized there was no way to do real or important work in that space with infrastructural support– whether it was from colleagues, the chair, or upper levels of academic administration/management— I left.  It was a good call on my part too; with no sense of urgency or political vision, the department has all but folded now.

Popular meme created by college students

Popular meme created by college students

I still remain stunned by the unwillingness of faculty to fight, to see education as a way to critically intervene in the world, to think politically about what literacy and learning mean in the 21st century, or to actually engage polemics and research on higher education and learning.  It’s frightening, especially since the current educational system we are in is one predicated on our demise as teachers.

This kind of culture in the academy was just not something I could get used to:

  • The kind of culture that says everything is okay and, if not, we can just ignore everything, make gradual changes, or just talk for a decade (I mean this literally) about what we will do.  There’s a kind of white bourgeois privilege here that does not imagine there is an urgency or danger to other people’s livelihood and progress when all you do is talk and stall.  I am reminded of that infamous text that seems to populate all composition textbooks: Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  Bourgeois “progressives” are still all about waiting while other people suffer.
  • The kind of culture that says let’s just find a way to co-exist with the existing social forces, even if we do not want to.  I hear this kind of selling-out from many white liberals in relation to assessment and standardization in schools today.  I find it utterly irresponsible…and stupid.  What exactly do we think black communities have been doing all along since Brown v. Board of Education?  We have been making our peace with a system that promised improvement but gave very little, if any, for a longlong time now.  Making peace with the way things are could only be a perspective that comes from white privilege; that’s the only perspective that could see ACCOMMODATION as something new… or viable.
Popular meme circulated amongst college students

Popular meme circulated amongst college students

What gets clearer and clearer to me is that the majority of the white liberal bourgeoisie, the PMC, who makes up the professoriate has not had and will not have the tools to challenge or even understand the most corporatized university structure we have ever had.  I suppose if you take the arguments about the PMC to their logical conclusion though, the PMC was never interested in waging a challenge anyway.  However, the PMC is no longer invited to the table; holding on to the delusion of privilege seems a high price to pay.

I am thinking about these things because I was recently on another committee to evaluate the core.  As one assignment, we had to write about what we think students should be doing/learning in Core/Liberal Arts in the 21st century.  I liked the homework assignment and plan to move forward on my ideas in my next classes:

  1. Take on current information about new global markets and the connections to 21st century imperialism
  2. Fully immerse ourselves in a digital empire in ways that (re)center self-determination and community-control (see the National Conference for Media Reform)
  3. Speak to and locate racial oppression in a Post-Katrina nation-state
  4. Speak to and locate male dominance in new Benevolent Patriarchy (women are outnumbering male college students more and more, but this is not bringing us any closer to gender equality in higher education… can we talk about this?)
  5. Craft new rhetorical mobility and design competence in a multi-media and digital universe
  6. Develop new worker consciousness in current modes of capitalist production (are we going to keep ignoring our students’ increasing debt, students’  increasing inability to find a job or one that can pay off those debts, and the corporatization of professions that makes professional jobs today look more like factory assembly lines?)
  7. Reframe the standardized education students have received (this is the most tested and standardized group of students in the world and ever in history) and work toward counter-standardization as an educational and human right
  8. Internalize and apply real tools for cross-racial dialogue and alliance in a multiracial/multilingual world
  9. Make daily decisions about the planet with an eco-consciousness that will not destroy the environment we take for granted (it’s not an option to just ignore this)
Popular meme circulated amongst college students

Popular meme circulated amongst college students

Of course, right-leaning white liberals will accuse me of indoctrination but this will be what my curriculum for first year writing does and interrogates in the future anyway. I am not looking for student agreement here, just engagement, something I think I am pretty good at.  I suspect that, once again, the curriculum and strategies that I devise will be ignored while faculty sit on more commissions and committees, talking about and doing nothing.  I’ve seen how it goes down.

Obviously, I think these nine points are the role of a liberal arts curriculum, work that I think traditional disciplinary structures do not even come close to.  We keep talking about the theories of Freud, classical literature, Greek empires, blahblahblah that students need to know and the students keep asking us about their debt, about the world in which they live, about their livelihood and living wage, about the realities of digital design in their lives.  My definition of a liberal arts/core curriculum has nothing to do with the disciplines and their canonical texts/ideas at all.   A liberal arts/core curriculum is the framework for the intellectual culture of a college… it is a deep, meaningful, intellectual engagement with ideas and contemporary social issues, not a set of isolated skills to measure.

What I am left with now is not so much about student identities or ideas about what students need to do. I am thinking more about faculty identities and what faculty need to do.  As faculty, we need to ask ourselves: What should Core/Liberal Arts FACULTY be doing in the 21st century?   We will need to fight for exactly the kind of intellectual and political culture that I am describing here … an intellectual and political culture diametrically opposed to our current corporate models of higher education.  At best, we faculty of the PMC have been D students in achieving this.

Human vs. Liberalism

I didn’t know that the little icon next to a web address is called a favicon until mid-August when I set up this website.  I have always noticed these symbols but never thought about how they got there. Needless to say, it took me more than just a few minutes to get the favicon (as pictured here at the left) onto this website.*  Using the Faviconer website was smooth sailing.  But then I had to figure out how to put my favicon.ico file in my theme folder using FTP clients.  I had to learn how to use filezilla before I could even get started.   The reality was that I had no idea what these nouns and phrases even referenced.  I would go to the wordpress help sites and then have to google each sentence to find out what they meant.  Nothing was intuitive.  All alone in my house, I kept working at adding a favicon until I got it, hoping to accumulate yet more proof for my more digitally resistant students that if I can do this, really anyone can.

This story might seem rather silly and irrelevant, but I present my pursuit of a favicon here as a lens into how I think about self-esteem and the refusal to give in.  What might seem even stranger here is that I connect these issues of self-esteem and perseverance to Sylvia Wynter’s work and the grounds on which she has always helped me to challenge the unhealthy, dominant logic of liberalism.

At moments like my favicon creation, I do not label or understand myself as unskilled, bad at something, deficient, or remedial.  I simply did not know how to add a favicon right then, nothing more or less, and I did not attach any meaning to that.  This seems like such a trivial and small thing, but really it isn’t.  I say this because, as a teacher, I can see when students begin to run a script in their heads that they are dumb or slow when they bump up against something unfamiliar or challenging.  What I suppose I got from Professor Wynter is that these moments require more than the usual protocols of self-esteem workshops, confidence boosts, and self-help guides.   You simply need to forego a system of thinking rooted in liberalism that makes you think your success or challenge is about YOU and just go on ’bout your business. No drama, no second-guessing, no frustration.

Lesson #3

When I talk about liberalism, I mean the classical ideas about the individual, equality, democracy, and meritocracy: the idea that if you work hard, the fruits of your labor will shine like a pot of gold; the idea that individuals are the key foundation of everything and so laws and institutions exist solely to cater to the desires and needs of single individuals.  Of course, the history of the collision of liberalism and Western empire is long and complex but a central axis is still: opportunities are everywhere and so it is the individual’s job to decide which opportunities to pursue and how and when.  This means there is never a focus on equality of outcomes, actual social histories of oppression, or perpetrators of inhumanity.  Why would there be?  It’s all about YOU and YOU alone.  This also means that if you are poor, then it is your own fault because you did not pursue the opportunities that everyone has; you are, in sum, cognitively/genetically deficient.  Whatever you don’t have or don’t do well, it is your own fault: you did something wrong, because, after all, life gave you nothing but positive chances to get whatever you wanted and needed.  With this kind of mindset and system of being, it becomes easy to see how someone sitting alone on a computer making mistakes with favicon uploading can simply think they are stupid.  It is what liberalism trains you to feel and think, regardless of whether this represents any reality.  This is the moment that I think many of my students often face: where they doubt themselves. Schooling is,of course, the prime example of where the virus of liberalism can be caught.  Liberalism provides that thought and feeling of inadequacy as central to what school actually achieves.

Lesson #4

Of course, students are not only up against liberalism today, but also neoliberalism.   I use neoliberalism to focus on the uber-glitz of free markets, choice, and efficiency.  So if you ARE good at getting that favicon up there, you are supposed to use that to make money and more money.  This is success and this is a new aim of schooling.   Institutions of higher education are expected to have and market themselves with the ability to turn YOU into a consumable product. I think Professor Wynter has most brilliantly called this the social creation of a species that has been determined solely as homo-economicus. 

At the end of the day, liberalism and neoliberalism are not inevitable ways of being that we must simply resign ourselves to.  They are simply one choice amongst many.  It seems to me, with my favicon generation as just one example, that you can go so much further without liberalism where there is no doubt that as a Human, in the way Professor Wynter means it, communal achievement is already there!


*My favicon is the adinkra symbol for ANANSE NTONTAN (“spider’s web”).  It is a symbol of wisdom, creativity, and the complexities of life and makes its nod to Ananse the spider, a well-known trickster character.