Black Language Matters: Mean Well, But Do So Poorly

european-colonialism-in-the-middle-eastI was sitting in my office one evening, getting some work done before I left for the day.  A student happened to pass by my door and stopped to talk about my office artwork and decoration.  I had never met or seen this student before.  He rightly assumed that I did work related to African American and African Diasporan cultures.  I was curious about his interests and became even more curious when I heard he wanted to teach English overseas, especially in the Middle East.

I began to tell this young man about a friend of mine, a rather radical Black studies scholar, who is currently teaching in the Middle East.  The young man grew excited by this example and began to talk excitedly about his dreams of teaching The Great Gatsby to people in Palestine.  It was difficult for me to listen to much of what he had to say after that, all about his civilizing mission, all about how he could get Palestinians to understand themselves better with his hit list of white male authors.   Continue reading

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.