Lessons from Kim TallBear . . . and the Tears Not Shed

Right after the announcement of Donald Trump as our next U.S. president, I got on a plane and came to Canada for the National Women’s Studies Association. I enjoy this conference for one reason: I see more women of color/gender-queer folk here than any other professional conference I attend. There are problems like with every other professional organization but at least I like who sits and fights at the table.

This year, I was grateful for the Black and Indigenous women in Canada who let us know at every turn that freedom ain’t up here. You can follow the drinking gourd, Underground Railroad, North Star, Black Moses and then wade in the water all you want: Black folk still ain’t free in Canada. Kim TallBear’s plenary talk was the highlight for me.

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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.

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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

Remembering George Whitmore this MLK Day

IDFor a few years now, many, many black women have recommended the ID (Investigation Discovery) channel to me.  I always promised to check it out simply because I trust sistas’ judgements about this kind of thing, but I honestly never got around to it.  Quiet as it’s kept, black women talk about the ID channel more than they talk about Scandal; at least to me, they do. What holds constant across these black women’s recommendations is the promise of a representation of bone-chilling criminality and death without the overdetermination of mass media’s (local and national news; shows like CSI, Law and Order; all of the NYPD; etc) equation of violence with blackness.  This is not the goal of the channel and race is never admitted or discussed, but it is all right there for the taking.  This winter break I started watching ID channel and let me just tell you, I ain’t never seen so many murder-hungry white folk in my life…. outside of history books, that is.  Like I said, I trust sistas’ judgements on these kinds of recommendations and they did NOT disappoint.  I can’t even watch this channel late at night because Freddie Krueger and Elm Street ain’t got NUTHIN on the kind of nightmares and fears that this channel induces.

I could tell countless stories of the things I have seen on this channel.  One story in particular fascinated me: the robbery and brutal murder of an elderly white couple in the state of Washington in the dead of winter a few days before Christmas.  (Generally speaking, after these few weeks of watching this channel, I can truly say that if you are in any small town in Utah, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, or Minnesota and you see/hear/feel something kinda strange, RUNNNNN FOR YOUR LIFE!)  Two young white men from the town held the elderly couple at gun-point in their car, took $8500 from them, shot them in their backs, and then threw them on the side of the road in a couple of feet of snow.  It was 20 years before the killers were caught.  One teenager, driving in the car with his mother, saw the elderly couple with the two local men (his friends), knew they had committed the murders as soon as he heard about the incident on the news, and claimed he was so scared that he said nothing about what he saw and knew about that day… for 20 years!  The two culprits moved to Alaska a few months after their crime so this man claimed fear for more than 19 years even though he never saw the two men again. The two criminals abandoned the elderly’s couple’s car at the mall where many locals saw them exit the vehicle with guns under their arms.  Because the law does not require anyone to conceal their firearms in Washington, no one thought anything of it.  Nuthin quite like American shopping malls!  And, it gets better. The two murderers had borrowed the guns they used from a friend, so they returned their borrowings to their friend who suspected what they had done.  The friend simply had his stepfather get rid of the gun to protect the murderers.  Other than a neighbor who saw the two criminals casing the elderly couple’s home, no one in this “warm, small, tight-knit community” (the townspeople’s language, not mine) said a word about what they knew.  Twenty years later, the 60-year old children of the elderly couple hired their own private detectives to secure new leads and discoveries in order to re-open this unsolved case.  At this point, the criminal pair was hidden deep in the arctic jungles of Alaska so when authorities finally found the pair, one had already died: a diabetic who used heroine profusely even though, apparently, diabetes and heroine do not mix.  The other still-living culprit was as cool as a cucumber and even paused to order hisself some chicken wings while being questioned by police. Now, this ain’t such an extreme murder case in the context of the ID channel, but what baffled me the most was the townspeople’s insistence that this town was warm and friendly.  Ain’t enough money in the world that could get me to visit that town and if I ever get stuck there, Ima get down on my knees and pray for escape ideas from the kind of North Star-knowledge of a Harriet Tubman!

In a really strange way, I began to see very clearly how the media really does twist people up.  Racially subordinated groups often believe the stereotypical images of black/brown-as-innately-violent and hate their own skin.  Racially elevated groups believe their kind can do no wrong and risk their daily lives with their inability to see the white dangers right in front of them at the gun-friendly shopping mall. Wow!  This is not a surprise, for sure, but ID channel just showcases these issues in amazing ways. Like I said, there is never any such race-dissection in the shows.  The commentators seem to believe in these delusions of white-town-innocence too.  I most certainly don’t.

So this brings me to the point of this post: THE LIFE OF GEORGE WHITMORE.

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White Supremacy & Its Cognitive Deficiencies

A Shelf in My Office

A Shelf in My Office

This post starts with an issue that might, at first, seem a bit irrelevant.  Nonetheless, I am making a point.  Here it is: I HATE COFFEE.  I am a tea drinker which means that I often travel with my own kettle: I have one that stays in my suitcase for travel; another for my home; and another for my office.  I have tea bags and tea leaves everywhere.  I drink my tea strong and with almond milk, a regrettable concession since I had to give up my true preference, a habit I acquired from Jamaican students and friends: take a big ole dollop of sweetened condensed milk and stir it up.  (That’s some good ish.)  The tea kettle in my office today has travelled with me across four institutions and has the bruises to show it.  It sits on a shelf in my office with other tea accessories; behind it is a collage created by one of my high school students from 1997, a young man who at every stage of his high school career gave me some kind of painting to thank me for helping him become the man he is today (I cried with each gift he gave me).  To make this short story long: I am serious about my tea.

I needed to take this narrative detour to set the context for just how confused I was when a white male professor at my institution accused me of stealing his teapot last year, less than 3 months that I had been on the job. 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.