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.

“When They Reminisce Over You, My God!”: Reminiscing Racial Violence, In and Out of School

Thank you to Crystal Belle and the organizers of the Trayvon Martin Effect Conference at Teachers College for this weekend’s events and for inviting me to attend!

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?
—Audre Lorde, Sister Ousider, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action

The stories that I am telling here all began with the image that you see above of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Emmett Till.  When I pieced the images together, all I could hear in my head were the words of Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth from their 1992 album featuring T.R.O.Y./They Reminisce Over You, dedicated to their friend Troy Dixon.  It’s the end of the first verse and C.L. Smooth’s last two bars that propels the stories that hits what I think is at stake when we let everyone know that we refuse to forget Trayvon or Jordan or Emmett or any black boy:

Déjà vu, Tell You What I’m Gonna Do

When They Reminisce Over You, My God!

It is the way that CL Smooth hits that last bar, the way he uses sound of his voice to achieve the emphasis he wants to make.  He is making a promise to the world that the weight and impact of this death, via the reminiscence, will be felt for generations to come… because you see, for me, that weight and that re-remembering is exactly what I think schools quite actively and deliberately keep us from doing.

“Terrorism is Part of Our History”: Remembering September 15, 1963

Angela Davis spoke last night in Oakland, California at an event organized by the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project that is part of the Northeastern University School of Law.  That speech offered important reminders of what is at stake when we look back fifty years ago to September 15, 1963: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama and the murder of Denise McNair, age 11, and Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, all 14 years old.

I appreciated Davis’s focus on both historical context and contemporary ramifications when she reminds us that:

  1. racist terrorism has not ended and has fundamentally shaped the history of United States;
  2. Robert Chambliss, the man convicted of the church bombing, had terrorized and bombed so many black homes and gatherings for so many years that he was more affectionately known by whites as “Dynamite Bob” in Birmingham (also better known as Bombingham);
  3. the most salient sound of Angela Davis’s childhood in Birmingham was the sound of bombings, so much so that her neighborhood was called Dynamite Hill;
  4. less than two weeks before the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the lead civil rights attorney in Birmingham lost his home to a bombing;
  5. on the day of the 16th Street Church bombing, two other black youth were also killed by whites— Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware;
  6. bombings in Birmingham continued well after the 16th Street Baptist Church was targeted and everyone knew who was responsible, including the FBI, which simply looked the other way;
  7. Chambliss was only charged with the possession of dynamite, not for actually bombing anything, and J. Edgar Hoover refused to release any information about the evidence gathered from the church bombing (so there was no trial);
  8. the Children’s Crusade was immediately activated in response to the church bombing where children as young as nine or ten years old were jailed and tortured for the future of racial equality and justice in the United States;
  9. Bull Connor, the commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, helped ensure that violence in Birmingham was the norm where he would routinely promise and deliver bloodshed against black citizens;
  10. Black people were forced to arm themselves in Birmingham for protection (guns were fired in the air but never shot) but those Black communities never retaliated by bombing white communities and today constitute perhaps our best model for what it means to respond peacefully, but defensively, in the face of extreme violence;
  11. Black people had, in fact, been arming themselves since the 1877 Compromise where President Hayes withdrew all federal troops from the south as part of his bid for presidency (the model mentioned in #10 has been in long effect) and have always known that they must fend for themselves by themselves.

Four Little GirlsDespite the facts of the eleven issues listed above, we have never acknowledged the terrorism that was the norm in places like Birmingham, Alabama. Racist violence has been part and parcel of our local and national governments. Davis reminds us that the murder of these 4 Little Girls is a complex history, one that is rarely acknowledged in our commemoration ceremonies, but one that is intimately connected to ongoing violence under our ongoing racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia: from Trayvon Martin… to Oscar Grant… to the numerous stories of racist violence that I have told here about the universities where I have taught.

Davis’s speech affirmed the history and perspectives that I think are most valuable.  How we tell the history of this moment can be as violent as the actual history if we do not grasp the full context of how and why Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins were so brutally killed.  The fact of the matter is that for many, many years, it was only black communities who actually remembered and cared about these 4 Little Girls’ names and legacy. How we remember and care about them today is no less critical.  The privilege of who tells history and how it is told is most often decided within the terms of white property.   But as people who as, Davis remind us, have always had to fend for ourselves, we should be able to remember and care about our own stories and children differently.

For Tiana & Black Children: AfroVisual/AfroDigital Love

8C8880633-tdy-130906-TianaParker2-tease.blocks_desktop_teaseLike most black women who I know, I was really upset this weekend when I saw the news coverage of beautiful, 7-year old Tiana Parker, a straight A student, as she shed tears when her school officials castigated her hair/locs!!  If you ever thought black hair could be politically neutral in our social world, then you may never truly understand these kinds of tears. After being continually harassed, Tiana’s father was forced to enroll her in a new school because her charter school banned all dreadlocks as inappropriate, calling Tiana’s locs a distraction from learning/thinking.

I talk/write/think a lot about the white violence and terror that black girls face in school and this example rocks me to my core.  I find myself remembering what E.M. Monroe wrote about her son’s (Miles) first day of kindergarten this fall in the post, “Models Monday: Black Boys, Trayvon Martin, and the Politics of Comfort.”  In the post, Monroe talks about the humanity of Ms. Malcolm, a teacher who can see Miles’s humanity:

I tell you, it was a damn good surprise to have someone who sees your black child as having a life worth preserving temporarily responsible for their keeping. She’s a model for how a person might demonstrate their liberal views: You want to prove to me that you aren’t racist, well then how about you showing me that you Always choose to be an Aide and not an Assassin.

Monroe captures brilliantly the kind of teacher and school that I think black children like Tiana so rarely experience.  It is clear to me that the adults at Tiana’s school belong to a kind of violent trajectory that Monroe discusses in this post that she relates to the murder of Trayvon Martin.  Make no mistake about it: this demonization of Tiana’s hair— a part of black bodies— belongs to the same ideology that demonized Trayvon Martin’s black body.

Like what Ms. Malcolm offered Miles, Dr. Yaba Blay offered Tiana and black women a similar kind of witnessing.  Dr. Blay’s response has been the most brilliant with her focus on Tiana’s spirit.   She created what she calls A care package of sorts. A digital book of photos and messages from 111 women and girls from all over the country and all over the world, all of whom wear their hair in locs, all of whom want Tiana to know that she and her hair are PERFECT.” The result is simply stunning (followed by a new facebook community).  Click on the digital booklet below that Dr. Blay left open for embedding and sharing across multiple platforms:

It’s an important reminder about the political power of healing and loving black children and the role of always offering them visual images for staking out who we are.  This digital care package also offers black communities a way to inhabit digital spaces outside of the white norms of collecting images and videos to showcase family consumption and bourgeois achievements— after all, that is the same kind of whiteness that left Tiana in tears.  E.M. Monroe and Dr. Blay offer us real images and processes of what it looks like to show and love black children in a digital age.  These are the only kinds of AfroVisual/AfroDigital spaces that can recognize our humanity.

Django Rechained: Russell Simmons in Context

horsesI might be the last hold-out, but I finally watched Django Unchained.  I had read and heard so much about it that I really did forget the nature of  Quentin Tarantino’s tomfoolery.  I was stunned, for instance, at the scene where none of the white male nightriders, intent on yet another vicious murder, could agree on what to do with their masks because no one amongst them had the skills to cut eye holes in the right place.  When you see and hear historical footage of the likes of southern police commissioners, governors, et al  justifying Jim Crow, north and south, you won’t be hearing anything that sounds even close to intelligence.  In his zeal to make KKK-styled nightriding into something funny, Tarantino might just have captured white men in that era quite well.

I didn’t watch Django Unchained because I actually wanted to see the movie though.  I watched it because I wanted a deeper context for understanding Russell Simmons’s “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” parody.  Unlike so many others, I didn’t have any questions of why Simmons thought this short skit was fine.  Simmons doesn’t have the kind of ethic or high standard in any aspect of his life for me to expect right-thinking from him.  I am pretty clear that Simmons thought he would be cashing in on this feel-good-slavery-movie era so I have to ask: why the prevalence of this genre in the neoliberal era?  And who does it really belong to?  Who’s “new” history is this?

Lincoln-Movie-Poster-1536x2048_extra_bigI needed to see what this genre is actually doing so I self-hosted my own personal movie night.  I started with the movie, Lincoln, and I was amazed.  Here we have a film that displays just how pro-slavery and anti-black the North really was but yet and still casts the white men of that era and location as the heroes.  We see with our own eyes that many voted in favor of abolishing slavery simply because of the monetary/status/job favors they received because hardly no white man wanted to see slavery end.  It takes some real cinematic orchestration to make it look like progressive thinking triumphs in the end.  And, of course, it is as if the supra-radical Lincoln invented the idea of freedom for black folk. Spielberg insists he created an accurate film of Lincoln’s radicalism but his accuracy is along the likes of his most fantastic cinematic fantasy… E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.  I knew this movie would be as fantasy-based as Django Unchained; I only started with it because it was long and incredibly dull and gave me some background sound and image while I dusted my house.

Abraham-Lincoln-Vampire-Hunter-by-Henry-Jackman-The-Horse-Stampede-2012Next was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  It is actually a good follow-up to Lincoln because in both films, Abe is the sole location of humanity, progress, and radicalism.  And once again, white violence gets minimized, but this time not by a dramatization of white property owners in Congress.   Slavery in this movie is really the work of vampires and so we get a whole new narrative for the origins of white terror and inhumanity that invented and sustained slavery.  It’s all a battle of good vs. evil with the North being good.  This movie is as fictional as Lincoln.  And we get to really see how extreme this absolute cinematic inability to look whiteness in the historical eye of slavery really is.

By the time I got to Django Unchained, I was not surprised by anything anymore.  I knew I would get some real gore and violence but there was, of course, no context for it.  We do get a new male gaze in this movie, however: the white male gaze on black women’s bodies.  There is no black woman in the movie who has any agency but here’s the new, cinematic twist: every sista in the film is stunning, even the mammy who controls the kitchen of Candyland is gorgeous.  Movie mammies are never supposed to be pretty. Kerri Washington is more attractive (and naked) in this movie than she is with all her make-up, fake hair, and designer warddrobe on Scandal… and she has absolutely no personhood.  There are no tired, haggard, tore-up-from-the floor-up black women in this movie because white men are surrounded by dozens of beautiful black women who serve merely as delicious, beautiful backdrop— a Candyland, indeed.  We certainly know that white men did not visit black women in the slave quarters and people their plantations with rainbow hues simply because they had sexual urges. Plantation discourse presents a public discourse that white women were the center of beauty, femininity, and virtue but that has never been true nor was it ever endorsed in private by white men.   All that public discourse did was offer a cover for white men’s sexual violence against black women.  The media unleashes that same public discourse now, with the addition of the Jennifer Lopez’s and Kim Kardashian’s into the center of beauty and purity (yes, after all that impurity, beauty, desire, and profit for them are never threatened). Either Tarantino slipped and let his private world/longings show through and/or he wanted us to really see what white men see and want when they see black women.  

harriet-tubmanWatch these three movies and then play the “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” skit.  It all fits together.  I really do believe Russell Simmons thought this video would be subversive and funny and that he really never meant to offend.  Black people are not at a place where they can create a good, sellable, laughable fantasy story about slavery though, even when we think we are recreating Django Unchained, part two.   We WERE the auction block, not the auctioneers.  That’s the only history we have in the context of slavery and it ain’t re-inventable or fantasizable.  White property today may not mean explicit ownership of black bodies like in slavery, but white property today certainly means an unequivocal control of the ways the histories and legacies of slavery get told.