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.

Happy Father’s Day to the Fathers Who Defy Patriarchy

Happy_Fathers_Day_1I once thought that I was just a weird little girl.  I have never fantasized, for instance, as a young girl or now, about the design of my wedding dress, the colors of my bridal party ensemble, the look of my imaginary husband, or location/church/flowers of my wedding (in junior high school, I decided me and Prince could be a good couple but his cross-over after Purple Rain turned me off and so I have moved on).  I do believe in celebrations but not those defined by European histories of female domesticity. I never wanted to play with a Barbie Dream House as a girl though I did have Barbies: I simply re-designed their outfits.  Poverty certainly discouraged materialism in my childhood; in contrast, creativity was inserted.  Instead of the Barbie Dream House, which we could never afford, my mother gave me cardboard and my father gave me scraps of carpet and wallpaper.  It ends up that I was, in fact, quite domestic… I made my own damn house.  Sometimes I would do a house for kids, or one for basketball players, or one for grandmothers; there was never a nuclear arrangement.   Today I realize that my girlhood was filled with alternative expectations and opportunities.

"A Father's Love" by Elliot Miller

“A Father’s Love” by Elliot Miller

My parents were divorced when I was very young so I was raised by a single mother.  Because my mother’s family disowned her after she gave birth to me, I was raised with and around my father’s very large family, a gift that I attribute to him. I have grown closer to him in my older years and, now as an adult, one of the things I realize and cherish most is that he never imposed patriarchal roles on me even though he was certainly raised in a patriarchal culture.  Today, I will set the dining room table, buy all of his dishes and glasses, recover/re-paint/re-stain/re-place his chairs and table, and I have mostly decided the furniture layout at his house. But I have never been expected to cook or wash dishes or do anything considered “woman’s work.”  My father is quite the cook so I never even equated cooking with women’s work.  Though I really like stainless steel gas ranges and have a nice one, that’s about as domestic as I get in the kitchen.   This fact leads to GREAT laughter from my father: he insists that I don’t need a fancy stove given how little cooking I do.  According to him, the only thing on my stove is dust.  He is right that my range is still newish, but there is NO dust in my house.  The way that my father delights in telling this story convinces me that he likes that I define femininity differently (i.e., buying my own home, remodeling my kitchen as my own GC, installing and deciding upon my own appliances).  In his own home, my father made a cut-out on the living room wall, like a picture frame/ plant ledge, that looks into his kitchen.  As a child, I would stand on the sofa on one side of the cut-out, peek through and talk to him as he cooked on the other side of the cut-out.  This is something that I still do now, kneeling where I once stood, always also emboldened to similarly tear down and rebuild walls in my house too.  In the summers, while he was cooking, I was outside playing softball and kickball with my childhood friend, Damon. Whenever my father did buy me things, he bought me dirtbikes, big wheels and race cars and was one of the few people who would oblige me in adorning everything in my favorite color as a child: BLUE (pink sent me into hysteria).  It didn’t occur to me until now that while he couldn’t overturn the expectations of patriarchy in his own life, he did for me.  When my female colleagues suggest that I don’t have a man because I don’t like to cook, I laugh, wonder why they have never witnessed a man cook and why their fathers let them center men in their lives.  Then my stomach starts churning when I think of who they are married to.   If I had to cook for THAT and be married to it too, wellllll, Houston, we have a problem. I’m not suggesting that cooking makes a woman domesticated, oppressed, or that it only consigns us to patriarchy; nothing is that simple.  But I am talking about imposed expectations and having a father who chose something else for his daughter.  So, on this father’s day, I am speaking as a working class black daughter: the greatest gift a father can give, the one that I received, is the rupture of patriarchal expectations.

I want the story of my father to defy a dominant cultural script. I am reminded of Denene Milner’s blog where she describes having ice cream at the mall every Friday with her father, a black man who adopted her when her biological mother left her on a doorstop; she connects that to her own husband reading The Snowy Day over and over again to his daughter at bedtime, as many times as the little girl requests.  spelhouseLove describes playing monopoly with her father, having her father always cheer for her at her track meets, and commemorating her childhood by creating an album for her that captured photos of her along with the verbal exessions she made at the time. Eric Payne at MakesMeWannaHoller.com talks about his realization that the smiles from his father have been his greatest treasures, a gift he strives to always give his own daughter.  I highlight these blogs because they might be the only media spaces where we see black men acting as fathers who know how to deeply love children and families in a world that suggests they cannot.  This seems to explain why sites like BlackAndMarriedWithKids have been so popular amongst black families since positive images and STORIES are so difficult to find.  I stress STORY here because I truly believe that you can deny a group’s humanity with the kinds of stories you tell about them.  What is told ABOUT us does not need to be what we tell ourselves though.  I am grateful for the kinds of story that I know and can tell about my father.

Remembering Sojourner Truth: Reading Men and Nations

“The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles” by Faith Ringgold (1996) In this lithograph, Madam C. J. Walker, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ella Baker hold out their quilt. Vincent van Gogh, well known for his paintings of sunflowers, stands to the right. Willia Marie, a fictional character at the bottom left, entertains the women in conversation.

“The Sunflower Quilting Bee at Arles” by Faith Ringgold (1996)
In this lithograph, Madam C. J. Walker, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ella Baker hold out their quilt. Vincent van Gogh, well known for his paintings of sunflowers, stands to the right. Willia Marie, a fictional character at the bottom left, entertains the women in conversation.

In my first academic job as an assistant professor, I was not allowed to choose what classes I wanted to teach, what times or days I would teach, or ever permitted to create a new course. There was a level of toxicity that began already in the first semester. Because the other newly hired assistant professor and myself taught at a critical point in the program where assessment data was vital, the chair and her two flunkies senior administrators once sat we two newbies down under the pretense of a “meeting.”  It was just my first two months at this job and here we were, literally yelled at like misbehaving children: we needed to learn to do what we were told was the gist.  The senior faculty, of course, were left alone. I started to get real heated and, at one point, started rising up from my chair.  I don’t know what I was planning to do but as far as I was concerned, I was a grownass woman so sitting there obediently listening to an incompetent chair and her flunkies senior administrators (the chair made 100K more than I did) so violently weasel her way into getting two, new assistant professors just out of graduate school to do HER work for her was just… TOO… MUCH (she called this feminist collaboration).  I was a brand-new assistant professor but I wasn’t THAT kinda brand-new.  The tirade, however, abruptly ended when my fellow junior colleague started crying (as I have already described, white women’s tears always fulfill this function.)  That was my very first semester as an assistant professor and that ain’t even the half; each semester only worsened, putting the H-O-T in hot mess.  Needless to say, there has never been a single moment in my professional life where I have missed or thought fondly about this department or its leadership, a department that is pretty much defunct now.  I do, however, deeply miss the sistafriends I made at that college.

SOJOURNERAs soon as that “meeting” started, I noticed the peculiar way the chair and her flunkies senior administrators were looking at one another.  I knew from jump that this meeting had been pre-planned and that something real foul was afoot.  I am also someone who loves language and discourse; though I am not always quick enough on my feet to interject rapidly and cleverly, I will often commit a conversation to memory and this “meeting” was one of those times.  Who talked first, second, and then the turn-takings were so memorably awkward and poorly performed that I just KNEW this “meeting” had been pre-orchestrated under the chair’s tutelage (she was good cop; the other two were bad cop).  In fact, in these past eight years as a professor, I have learned this to be a common  form of discourse maneuvering in academia with white administrators.  When I suggested to my fellow-misbehaved-colleague that this was a premeditated homocide, she didn’t fully believe me.  It was many months into the schoolyear before she realized just how unethical this chair was.  Like with this moment, I have remained perplexed by my many colleagues who can’t seem to gauge the petty politics, backstabbing, scheming, lying, theft, and violence that is being waged against them behind closed doors until it is much, much too late (after they have cast their allegiances and trust in ALL the wrong places).  In direct contrast, when I described the turn-taking of that chair’s “meeting” to my sistafriends at that college, they pointed out even more slippages that I didn’t catch.  You see, these are women who read men and nations.

SoujnerThese women of color on my first campus as a tenure track professor were phenomenal and though I knew they were dope when I was there, I never fully realized that having a set of sistafriends on your campus to lift your head  is a sho-nuff RARITY!  Notice that I said: women of color who are sistafriends.   That is NOT the same as having women of color on campus.  I am not talking about the kinds of women of color who come talk to you in closed offices but never speak up in public settings, a strategy often learned early on because it is so handsomely rewarded in graduate school.   These women might say they keep quiet because no one is listening to them but, more often, they choke their words to not lose favor with those in power, not ruffle white feathers, not take any risks, or not lose their token status (and many times go home to wealthy, breadwinning, and/or white husbands).  They are, in sum, passing for white. I ain’t talking about THEM women of color. I am talking about the sistas who read their environments openly and will read the institution out loud with you and, especially, when the time is right.  Quite honestly, I assumed that I would find a sistacypher like this everywhere, that institutional racism would inevitably mean as much but I have learned otherwise.  What I have missed most about these sistafriends is the way they read institutional racism AND patriarchy.  You see, that’s that rare gem right there.   Talking up institutional racism does not always come with talking up patriarchy and misogyny and I mean something more than talking about public spectacles from the likes of fools like Rick Ross.  I mean talking about the day-to-day workings of men in our workplaces— white men and men of color— all of their immediate articulations of societal structures, social hierarchies, and violence: we didn’t just co-sign our misogynistic black male colleagues who were actin the fool (dropping their “seed” anywhere, taking female students out for drinks, text-messaging/calling/visiting/closing-the-door with female students, etc); nor did we leave our feminism at the door and blindly support the campus’s white patriarchs and their violence.  Like I said, I have learned the value and rarity of these kinds of sistas in these past years.  You see, these were women who read men AND nations.  

sojourner-truth-poster3”I don’t read such small stuff as letters, I read men and nations.”  These are the words of Sojourner Truth, the famous African American suffragist and abolitionist.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton described Truth making this statement to her in a 1867 visit.  I have pushed myself to think deeply about this phrase because it is one that my students continually re-mixed throughout the past semester— always noticing this way that the black women who we studied were reading their social environments!  “Reading” someone is, of course, a popular African American verbal expression and usually means telling somebody about themselves after an extensive, head-to-toe assessment of who and what they really are.  I imagine this is part of the reason students of African descent gravitate to this expression— they already recognize it.  Remembering Truth, however, means we must take this expression much further. Reading men AND nations is still that rare gem: the ability to analyze and navigate white supremacy (nation) AND patriarchy (men).  I can’t think of a better way to describe what my circle of sistafriends was doing at my former college than with Truth’s statement: a present-day iteration of a historical reality and necessity .

graveThis semester, I wanted to really think about the reverberating references to black female figures that have occurred across multiple semesters of my teaching.  Part of me is responding to a tendency of mostly white teachers to describe mostly white students who reference a litany of white authors and novels in the course of classroom discussions.  This gets marked as intelligent and well-read and I do certainly agree.  However, within the scope of these parameters, I have never heard any black student be referenced in the same way for knowledge of black cultural history and persons (and what passes as KNOWLEDGE of people of African descent, even at the graduate level, is often so dismal that I am utterly embarrassed for all parties involved).  At best, when undergraduate students of African descent reference black cultural histories, these are treated as personal connections, not literate connections (as if white students describing white authors is NOT also about personal connection). Alternatively, black students might be seen as activating their prior knowledge which is admirable and tolerated but that is not the same as regarding these moments as sophisticated analyses.  Part of this series for me then was to push myself to see the recurring themes and issues related to black female cultural figures as articulated by students of African descent as literate connections and sophisticated analyses: to, in sum, treat black students’ ruminations as seriously as white students’.  My past posts about Aja Monet, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Queen Latifah’s “UNITY,” Eve’s “Love is Blind,” Audre Lorde, and now, Sojourner Truth, intended to show the recurrent references by students of African descent in my classes.  My goal was to hear more deeply… and build new pedagogical understandings from there.

Liberated Response to Patriarchy

Imagine that you are a black woman who had a full-day, grueling job interview and then returned to your hotel room to speak to your partner until 1am in the morning, though you needed to return to the interview at 8am the next morning.  In the course of the day, you did not encounter any other black person so you know that taking this job will be more than a notion.  Your partner, a black man, is in distress via work-related issues (since his job looks similar) and so that is all that you talk about because, after all, this is what it means to truly support someone.  However, never once, not even in the weeks and months later, did he ask you what happened at that interview (and clearly a lot happened since the interview lasted for more than 15 hours).   As a black female professional/academic, this scenario is more common than not and approximates the kinds of conversations I routinely have with many girlfriends— married, dating, looking, AND single-by-design.  And while this example is certainly from a now bygone and regrettable past, it ain’t that past as to represent some kind of different century when women were supposed to just be barefoot and pregnant… and yet, you would think so.

After Tyler Perry dropped yet another movie about purposeless/pathetic/pathologized black women, I spent my last week talking to many black female students about their anxiety that their professional success will make them undesirable to black men, the message they receive everywhere around them (the weeks after a Tyler Perry movie are always a rollercoaster ride in my office with young black women who want to talk about relationships).  Even Tyrese, RayJay, and Keith Sweat give dumb, misogynistic advice in new relationship books targeting black women now. To quote Keith Sweat himself: sumthin sumthin just ain’t right. With Steve Harvey’s banal relationship books topping numerous bestseller lists (and considered one of the top 10 bestselling relationship books of all times) followed by his movie that grossed 28 million dollars in its first week, there is obviously some real big money in black men telling black women what to do. I usually ignore this stuff because it is just so simple and played-out but I end up chiming in, if only to shift the direction of the conversation when I am talking to young black women.

Now let’s imagine another scenario.  A black woman’s partner disappears for 6-8 weeks to focus on his own project but expects that she’ll be there waiting when he returns.   The culture of patriarchy nurtures men to live this way as stoic, individual prototypical Lone Rangers who keep to themselves, presumably able to move through the world all alone and on their own, so this scenario should not seem so strange.  On the rare occasion when the partner checks in (maybe between coffee stops and drinks at the bar), she is expected to listen and give support. Nevertheless, he never once gives any such support to her though her own project is just as critical during this 6-8 week period. Though there were some occasions when she was supported (like, maybe, in the very beginning), those occasions are not in the majority because, after all, as a black woman, she is regarded as someone made of Teflon. As such, her person isn’t seen as needing the same kind of care, attention, or defense as a non-black woman (or in more pessimistic terms, black women are simply not as valued as white women or other non-black/women of color so are not seen as deserving of care).  It’s not an understatement to say that many of us feel like we are supporting and holding up the world and never getting that back in return from anyone anywhere. Self-help books do get some of it right though: folk (family, friends, partners) will take and take and take and give almost nothing, but ONLY if you let them.  These texts, however, offer no critical social-help.   The kind of support that women need in these new work-worlds that look unlike what women have ever entered in such large numbers is simply not forthcoming from many male partners at home.   Unlike what you get in mainstream discourse, black women are not trippin’ because we make more money than black men, because there is no one to date, or because we have terminal degrees with extra letters behind our names now (see what I have to say about what it is like to be a black woman in graduate school and you will really understand that we do NOT experience ourselves as being on top of the world).  You have to wonder how and why white mainstream pundits and black male public figures so frequently talk this way about black women.  We can STOP talking now about how to “find a good man,” the mantra you hear ad nauseum.  This notion of “finding a good black man” sticks too closely to the good man/bad man binary under patriarchy (a good man is, after all, just a benevolent patriarch).  We need to instead START talking about building a partnership with a LIBERATED MAN (yes, they exist), which is what I think Jill Scott has in mind here:

These very public (and lucrative) discussions about cultivating black professional women to find black male partners is just a cover-up for the real issues: what will happen to partnering in a patriarchal system when the economic world no longer gives ANY man the sole capacity to be bread-winners (poor black men have always faced this)?  Will we re-script maleness or just blame this newest lack of breadwinning on women/feminism rather than on new modes of capitalism?  Will femaleness get re-scripted or will we go to work, come home, and then act as if we are still stay-at-home moms so that patriarchy can look in tact?

Old, patriarchal models won’t serve working women well who need the same emotional support that men have always been able to count on from women (see the above examples).  The crisis of patriarchy under new capitalism means white supremacy punishes black women the most by labeling us as most undesirable or irrational (or just such robust workers/cotton-pickers that we won’t need anyone or anything). These exaggerated levels of attention that get paid to professional black women who are “unable” to “find” “good, black men” COULD actually point us in the direction of a new rupture of patriarchy if we see that, at root, that is really what we are talking about. Black women’s discourses can lead the way here just as much as when black women became the first and only women to openly and publicly critique male physical and sexual abuse via the Blues— a historical fact that I see as the single-most important contribution of Angela Davis’s book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.  The fact of the matter is that the model of male breadwinner/patriarch and stay-at-home wife (or the almost stay-at-home wife with a man who earns twice as much and who, therefore, has the career/needs that take precedence) is no longer viable for anyone except a very small 5% of the wealthy, elite.  That was never viable for working-class black people anyway but now a more multi-hued middle class is getting to experience what po’ black folk have always faced, hence, all this attention.  And in true American fashion, the nation will work out its psychoses on black bodies.  Unless you are with a trust-fund baby or a Wall Street crook, you gon be workin in the 21st century.  Old notions of domesticity just won’t cut it, not even for white male patriarchs.  I suspect black women will be the ones to take on this charge of re-framing how we understand these old notions though we won’t be acknowledged as such… right now, that is certainly what my office hours are looking and sounding like.