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.
I was walking to the pantry/copy room to fill my kettle with the filtered water when this particular professor got up from his desk, walked out into the hall after I had passed, waited until I came back, stood in my path, and asked if my kettle was his. As a tea drinker, he recently bought his own kettle (we had this conversation just a few weeks before) and he left his kettle in the pantry for anyone to use (a pantry/copy room that is open to anyone on this floor whenever the building is open!!!) His new $9.99 Target-special looked nothing like my well-worn kettle. I wasn’t exactly surprised by this behavior, but I have been thinking about this moment a lot ever since it happened.
How did I respond? I looked him up and down, then looked him up and down again, inched in closer to him so that he could really take in my message and calmly told him: naw, dude, you ain’t got nuthin I would ever want. And I meant it. He hasn’t bothered me since.
My colleague and I do not live in similar neighborhoods, do not attend similar cultural events, do not eat at the same restaurants, do not hover in the same section at Barnes & Noble or amazon.com. It is safe to say that the only place we might socially interact in this world is in the space of this work environment so this deliberate, calculated choice to render me as a thief in our only shared social landscape deserves serious scrutiny. We can’t call these kinds of incidents accidental or unintentional. This fool ACTIVELY chose to GET up from his office chair, WALK into the hallway, and STOP the only black woman on that hall from walking forward. This is a deliberate choice, not a fluke, mishap, or mistake.
Something else has really stayed on my mind since then: my colleague is the straight up-and-down deadringer for Howdy Doody. If Pinocchio’s fairy godmother made Howdy Doody into a human being, that puppet-turned-man would surely share DNA with my colleague. That leads me to a most perplexing question: if every day of your waking life, you pass a mirror and see Howdy Doody looking back at you, what on earth would make you think you have something any sista on this planet would covet— tea, tea kettle or any other thing? Now, I am not sayin that if he looked like Brad Pitt, this incident would be okay. Nevertheless, the fact IS that we are dealing with Howdy Doody here. It was perhaps a strange moment for me to reach an epiphany: white supremacy imposes serious cognitive deficiencies. There is just no other system of logic that could convince this man he is desirable and then go out and police the hallways accordingly. Many, if not most, of the white women who I work with would insist that Professor Howdy Doody is a nice man, meant me no harm, and was just emotionally distraught at the loss of his tea kettle. They will, as they often do, accuse ME of being the “mean” or “non-collegial” one (I am always called “mean” by white women in their racialized attempts to gender me away from the virtues of [white] womanhood). I can guarantee that there will be no accusations of meanness or non-collegiality for automatically assuming that if you are missing something, the one black woman you know stole it! Like I said: COGNITIVE DEFICIENCIES!
It’s this cognitive deficiency that helped me, for instance, comprehend the letter that Daniel Pantaleo wrote to Eric Garner’s family after having just killed Garner with his bare hands less than five months before. Even an often self-proclaimed conservative like John McWhorter English-teacher-red-penned the bad writing in that letter. As a New Yorker, I KNOW that the no police precinct in Staten Island produces such standard English prose so it is very clear that a team of publicists and advisers wrote that letter for Pantaleo. For this team of most certainly mostly white folk, those were the best words they could collectively compose. They were not even skilled enough to offer faux contriteness in a letter! Of course, white supremacy means that you do not have to be contrite; but here it also means that you are not literate/word-wise enough to even fake it.
I remember being a high school student when Do the Right Thing first came out. I was, at that age, really confused why so many white people questioned and criticized the harshness of Spike Lee’s depiction of whiteness. I remember watching television commentaries—from then “Siskel and Ebert” to special talk shows— question Spike’s rendering of the white police officers’ inhumanity and wonder if they would really so callously murder someone like Radio Raheem. According to them, Spike was the one inciting black communities’ pain and rage, not a white-led police state. I was young then and thought I could someday find just the right words to convince these people that Radio Raheem’s murder is REAL! Today, when I hear that same kind of dumb commentary from people who did not understand what Radio Raheem meant to us growing up as the targets of neo-Jim-Crow regimes— like the supportive writers and readers of Pantaleo’s letter or the criticizers of protesters in Ferguson as the unpeaceful ones— I understand where these cognitive deficiencies are coming from.