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.

Continue reading

When White Violence Is “The Canon”

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks

In preparation for a group discussion about critical research methodologies in gender studies, I went back and looked at hours of footage from Rebecca Skloots, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as well as other research about race, Black women, and medicine/science.  I had been particularly inspired by Karla Holloway’s ability to relentlessly give Skloots DA BIZ’NESS for constructing a research study for mainstream audiences that, in fact, re-enacts violence against the Lacks family, a Black family who for the most part still live in abject poverty.  Henrietta Lacks, known by the medical/science industry as HeLa, was a poor Black tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 for developing what we now know to be the vaccine for polio and the central tools for cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more.  Her cells have made billions of dollars but her family, then and now, do not even have health insurance.  Meanwhile Skloots enjoys the big dollars from Olympic-styled endorsements, media showings, and a New York Times bestseller.  Despite her economic wealth, I wouldn’t ever want to be Skloots given the criticism, rightly deserved, that she has endured by formidable critics who link the central fetishization, exoticism, violence, and exploitation of her research/methodology to the kind of minstrel show we get on Bravo television when Black women’s bodies are the subject.  Whew, so glad I ain’t Skloots! I wouldn’t even be able to wake up in the morning with a morsel of self-respect.

Continue reading

On this Juneteenth: Black Cultural Literacy in Times of Racial Warfare

At an event that I recently attended, a high school teacher at a prominent and privileged high school told a frightening story about her students.  Her students had read a novel in her class about a young woman who was raped.  During the class discussions, students analyzed the text beautifully, said all the right, erudite things; they even composed wonderful essayist prose interpreting the book.  However, surprisingly to the teacher, the students had a whole other conversation amongst themselves in the lounge/ common space: the victim of the rape was just a dumb whore as far as they were concerned.  Though the teacher was hopeful in regard to the promise of new curricular endeavors, I wonder what it means to teach folk whose violence lies in wait this way.

I am not saying that I have never heard students blame the victims of oppression.  Yes, I have.  All the time. That’s the nature of consciousness-raising in classrooms: help students see, understand, and dissect where these soul-crushing ideologies come from and fight those ideas back.  What I don’t experience much in my classrooms are my non-privileged students (who are the targets of oppression, not the voyeurs looking from afar at it) saying what I want them to say, performing what they think is a liberal, progressive discourse for my approval, and then publicly promoting violence elsewhere.  They just say what they think and work ev’ryone’s butt to the bone to try and convince them otherwise.

Continue reading

R.I.P. for the Nine Massacred at Mother Emanuel

church“It is a great honor. The Church has a very proud history and has really stood for the spirit of African Americans and I would even say the spirit of America in Charleston since 1818, a spirit of defiance and standing up for what is right and what is true… Mother Emanuel, since 1818, has stood for freedom and worship for African Americans in South Carolina. And so it is a humbling privilege that I have to serve as the pastor.”

~ Words from the Late Senator and Reverend Clementa Pinckney from  the forthcoming documentary, The AME Movement: African Methodism in South Carolina

Politics/Politricks of White Innocence: Life under Institutional Racism, Part III

TMImagine you are a professor at a large, urban university.  Space is always tight in such places so this means you must share an office with other professors.  You come in early one day to grade papers and do your other work when another professor who shares this office opens the door, sees you, and seems VERY displeased. You keep working; after all, you DO have things to do.  Ten minutes later, a band of security officers comes for you.  They have been told that a Hispanic male broke into your office.  You, the Professor, Ph.D. in tow, stack of papers to grade, student conferences lined up, are THAT Hispanic male.  You see, some of us do not need to imagine this scenario because we live it.  This is NOT a fictional story.  This happened to a very good friend of mine at an urban, public college that serves mostly Latin@ students. It would take me years on this blog to relay the many stories like this that I know.

Nothing ever happened to the white male professor who made this security call against the “Hispanic burglar” who was actually his Puerto Rican office mate. There was no apology or regret expressed from anyone at the university to my friend.  There was no recognition or acknowledgement of racism from any corner of the campus.  The predominantly white faculty moved forward as if nothing had ever happened. Convinced of their utmost dedication to their “minority” student population (which actually constitutes the majority at that college), white faculty simply ignored what had just happened in their own department, a racist event instigated by one of their own colleagues who then turned around to go teach a class of predominantly Latin@ students.  Meanwhile, my friend, whose life on campus bears a striking similarity to George Zimmerman’s 911 call when he saw Trayvon Martin in the neighborhood, was marked as “difficult” for expressing his outrage at campus racism.  When he kept to himself (I mean, geez, why would he want to be friends with these people?), he was simply called non-collegial.  In this paradigm, folk of color ARE the problem, not racist white folk.  When he left that college with joy in his heart, too many white folk acted perplexed and surprised that he had been so unhappy.  The sheer stupidity of racism never ceases to amaze me.

In every professional space where I have met another white professor who knows my friend, they have ALWAYS described him as “difficult.” In fact, a white person has called every vocal Black or Latino male professor who I personally know DIFFICULT.  You KNOW you have NO sense of audience (and maybe just NO sense at all) when you are telling ME this.  I always make a few mental notes about such a speaker and their campus:

  1. this campus looks like any other space that racially profiles and terrorizes people of color
  2. this white faculty member (and all of his homies) are as happy as clams and choose to ignore the processes of the campus’s racialization that benefit them
  3. the politics and politricks of white innocence are in FULL effect… so BEWARE!

white privI am borrowing this language and concept of “white innocence” from Thomas Ross’s 1990 legal theory article called “The Rhetorical Tapestry of Race: White Innocence and Black Abstraction.”  I have always found Ross’s arguments compelling.  Though he is offering a rhetorical analysis of white discourses surrounding Brown v Bd of Ed, I think his analysis applies directly to the opening story I have narrated.  Ross believes that whites’ refusal to historically contextualize the experiences of people of color works as a language that protects white supremacy.  Whites are offered a kind of material innocence in the very real day-to-day workings of professional settings where a Puerto Rican male professor’s experiences match a larger history of targetted surveillance and racial profiling.  Like I have already said, George Zimmerman is not an anomaly given the experiences of this professor on his campus.  The professor’s experience is supposed to just be one, isolated, abstract event that he is supposed to accept and get over, a requirement that would obviously benefit white guilt more than it could ever psychologically benefit him. Whites move on, as if everyone can and should just start all over again, as if a brand-new beginning is possible. Ross makes the bold claim that this abstraction works as the path and process for more racism.

Faculty at U.S. universities and colleges will insist all day long in their highbrow academese that race is just a social construction (i.e., there is no biological or genetic differences between races), claiming race as just some kind of ethereal thing out there, not real or seen.  In the quest to NOT essentialize or naturalize race, the very REAL “materiality” of race is always right there in front of us, deciding who can rightfully be, think, and work and who cannot.

My reading of this event would not surprise or particularly enlighten faculty of color who I know and who have seen exactly what I describe.  This ain’t news for them.  My major concern is with the college students in these classes who need to learn to read these events and actors in exactly the same way as I have.  Their sanity and mental health depend on it.

Remembering Corey, Worrying about Omari

inwoodAs a sixth grade teacher in 1993, I was caught off guard by one of my young black male students, Corey.  He came in one morning, all excited, because he had made 10 dollars for a round-up.  I had no idea what that meant and assumed this was a Bronx colloquialism that I did not know since I was new to New York.  What Corey actually meant was a LINE-UP.  He didn’t even know the terminology. He and his friends were playing streetball (the norm when there is no grass or safe playground nearby where parents can be in viewing range).  The police came by and asked all of the boys who looked like Corey (dark-brown-skinned, skinny as a rail, and 5’4 tall) if they wanted to make an easy 10 dollars. All they had to do was come to the station and stand on a line.  I. WAS. HORRIFIED.  I think it took me a minute to even say anything.  For starters, I couldn’t imagine any person feeling threatened and needing to file a criminal charge against someone as frail as Corey.  All you had to do was sit on him and my man would be DONE.  More importantly, he seemed to have no idea that this 10 dollars was not a gift (but DID have enough sense not to tell his mama).  On the one hand, the naiveté of feeling safe with the precinct and police reminded me that Corey was just a child.  However, I was terrified of what would and could happen to him if anyone pointed him out as their “perpetrator.”  It was a tough conversation to have with sixth graders that morning, but I dived right in… and called Corey’s mother that night, a woman who worked two jobs, kept Corey locked inside the apartment with the exception of streetball downstairs.  Her sniffles on the phone suggested both fear and anger, all at once.

NYPDTwo years after meeting Corey, I started teaching high school: ninth graders.  They were not as naive as Corey, suggesting to me that, in the 90s at least, these lessons about racial profiling, violence, and surveillance came a little later in Black and Latin@ youth’s lives.  I have distinct memories of field trips where I always asked the one older white male in the building, an administrator, to join us.  All you needed was one cop to get a call about a Black or Latino male or female in a dark goose-down coat!  That was my WHOLE class.  That was ME!  And, at 24 years old, most people thought I was a high school student so I was never granted the status of TEACHER of the class.  If the police yoked up me or one of my students, it was straight to the precinct; I could not even be an “alibi.”  Like I have already said before on this blog, I was always criminalized alongside my students.

WoodsI was taken back to these memories today, with a mixture of rage and deep sadness, after hearing Denene Millner talk about Omari Grant, an 11-year old from Henry County, Georgia.  Apparently, he and his friends were trying to build a tree house from sticks, mud, and bark in the woods behind his house.  A woman in the NEXT subdivision saw them from her window and called 911. Two police officers came to the scene and approached the boys, one with gun drawn and forced the boys to lay down on the ground.  Omari did as the officers asked him to, because, in his words: “”I was thinking that I don’t want to be shot today.”

OmariIn a strange and ironic twist of fate, Omari represents a kind of progress from Corey’s naiveté.  Omari knew to be scared and knew the dangers ahead of him, unlike Corey. Today, an 11 year old knows he will be shot and demonized by police, law enforcement, and racial power.  I will go to bed tonight imagining this as the “progress” America has made.