Monday, December 17, 2012

Parenting in the USA

Like everyone else, I have cried many tears since Friday.  The thought of 20 small children, ages 6 and 7, being gunned down boggles the mind and hurts the heart.  But my sobs have not kept me from noticing a refrain that deserves scrutiny: “as a parent.” 

 “As a parent,” countless people can sympathize with the grief-stricken community of Newtown, Connecticut.  Therefore, while mass shootings are nothing new, many feel certain that the outcry this time will be intense and sustained enough to propel the nation toward gun control because most victims were small children. The prediction is likely correct, but what does that tell us about empathy and being a parent in the United States?

For most Americans, being a good parent means protecting your child.  It means offering your child the best you can provide, without regard for whether other parents have the same opportunities.  In this context, it makes sense for a homeless mother, who sent her child to school in a neighborhood where they did not live, to be “charged with first-degree larceny for stealing $15,686 in education funds from the Norwalk, Connecticut school district” (April2011).  It is a very American mentality: “I got mine. I don’t have time to care about whether you got yours.” This attitude permeates parenting as much as anything else. This is how we end up with cities across the nation in which some schools do not have enough books while others have an abundance of everything. 

So, when we hear our leaders insist that they are responding “as a parent,” we should consider what that has ALWAYS meant. One of the unspoken prerequisites for our leaders is that they be heterosexual and married with children. Candidates with these characteristics are viewed as stable and responsible, and their morals are not automatically questioned.  Thus, it has mostly been heterosexual married parents who have made the decisions that created our current policies.

Also, many of those now shedding tears for the Sandy Hook victims quickly grew tired when Trayvon Martin’s parents had to beg for a simple arrest…for 46 days after George Zimmerman killed their son.  Likewise, many of those who are heartbroken “as parents” about the Newtown shooting rolled their eyes just a few weeks ago when Jordan Davis was killed in a parking lot for the volume of his music, drawing comparisons to Martin’s murder.  Most readers will object to my even mentioning these dead teenagers, insisting that Friday’s violence was different because small children were targeted. A parent’s pain is a parent’s pain, though, right?  No parent should have to bury their child. We all understand that, right?

As the heartrending funerals begin in Connecticut, many note that counseling services should be a matter of course for the community, that the surviving children and their families are traumatized and in need of coordinated support.  However, as a nation, we do not think in those terms when we hear about the gun violence plaguing inner cities.  We do not work to ensure that youngsters exposed to that trauma will receive help. Instead, our policies dictate that impoverished communities can count on less investment in education and healthcare, but they will receive more than their share of surveillance, juvenile detention, and incarceration.

In short, gun violence in Newtown inspires an outpouring of support and empathy for victims and understanding for the perpetrator, who has inspired a national conversation on mental illness. Meanwhile, for those who are black and brown and/or poor, gun violence helps justify the school-to-prison pipeline.  And when the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights organizations try to call attention to the injustice, they get nothing like the media coverage and overall emotional investment that we see when victims are white and middle class.

And let’s not lie to ourselves and suggest that our empathy has nothing to do with the fact that the victimized neighborhood is predominantly white and middle class.  The reason so many Americans identify with Newtown residents is that, “as parents,” they are doing exactly what Sandy Hook parents did.  They are moving to suburban areas with “the best schools” in order to shield their children from interaction with “others.”

Our neighborhoods and schools are not segregated by accident.  Let’s not pretend that the best schools “just happen” to be mostly white, and low-performing schools “just happen” to be mostly black and brown. Parents’ decisions about where to live—when they possess the means to make that decision—have everything to do with avoiding schools with too many “undesirables”…and even the poorest among us have received an impeccable education regarding who that is.

Americans are good at playing innocent, though.  We just can’t understand how tragedies like this happen. “Who would visit this kind of violence on children?,” we ask desperately. 

Meanwhile, our society does violence to children everyday, and all of us are complicit. Not only do we allow corporations to make untold profits by bombarding youngsters with violence via toys and video games, but we also turn our backs on countless children. Because we have allowed food deserts to form all over the nation, malnutrition is not just a problem in so-called “Third World” countries.  In fact, as Chris Williams reports, “The number of federally licensed firearm dealers (129,817)” in the United States far exceeds “the amount of grocery chain stores (36,569).”

Likewise, we sentence innocent black and brown children to live (and die) in toxic environments.  A 1992 study of 1, 177 cases handled by the Environmental Protection Agency revealed that “polluters of sites near the greatest white populations received penalties 500 percent higher than penalties imposed on polluters in minority areas—an average of $335, 566 for white areas contrasted with $55, 318 for minority areas” (Lipsitz 9).  Indeed, “nationwide, 60 percent of African Americans and Latinos live in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites” (Lipsitz 9).  As long as white middle-class children are protected, there is apparently no need for widespread action.

What is most disappointing about American responses to the realities we have created is that we pretend that our politics matter only some of the time.  But, politics refers to how societies make decisions about where to funnel resources, including emotional resources.  Everything social, everything about human interaction, is political.  This elementary school shooting does not become politicized because people discuss the social issues it lays bare. What the United States values is simply being exposed, and make no mistake, values and politics always go together.

When we do violence to children everyday but are willing to acknowledge the damage only when particular kinds of children are hurt, that is a reflection of our politics—of where we think resources and energy should go.

What would happen if being a parent motivated people to want to change institutions and policies so that (for example) all children receive a quality education, not just those whose guardians can afford your zip code?

If parenting meant that you want to make life better for every child, not just your own, different decisions would be made.  Then, it might really mean something when people say that they empathize “as a parent.” Without that shift in values/politics, the Sandy Hook tragedy will simply encourage parents with material means to seclude themselves and their children even more, looking for a safety that they are not invested in others having.

Since its inception, this country has operated on the premise that we are not all brothers and sisters, that we can disregard the welfare of others and it won’t negatively impact our own.  We still seem to believe that.  However, as the incomparable James Baldwin explained long ago, “you can’t deny your brothers without paying a terrible price for it. And, even then, they are still your brothers.”  

So, as a nation, we should ask ourselves: As long as we refuse to make the United States safe for all the children here, why would we think it would be safe for our own? Putting the question another way, because I ask it as an American with not only tears in my eyes but also blood on my conscience: When the United States sends drones to deliver terror and death to families in other parts of the world, why would we expect peace at home?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

OSU Haters: Exposing Know-Your-Place Aggression

A group of Ohio State students have created a Tumblr site, OSU Haters, to expose the microaggressions and hate speech that shape their daily lives. Quite brilliantly, this group is remaining anonymous, determined to focus attention where it belongs: on the atmosphere that OSU provides for them. In this way, the site continues the activism of the last academic year. On the heels of domestic terrorism—including the burning of a Muslim student’s home while he and his roommate slept and the racist murders of Trayvon Martin and Shaima Alawadi—students formed OSU Stand Your Ground and dramatically asserted, “Enough is enough!” Yet, what was most striking about student testimony was the insistence that racist incidents were not unusual. Though the media outlets covering their activism failed to highlight this refrain, it reverberated throughout the organizing meetings and the sit-in. Also, whenever the hate crimes came up during a conversation with an alum who wasn’t white, the first thing they said to me was, “That’s nothing new!” or “So, it hasn’t changed, huh?”

Arson and vandalism upped the ante because the former was attempted murder and the latter made the attitudes more public by involving school property, but students routinely said that unsolicited antagonism was part of their experience as Buckeyes and United States residents.

OSU Haters is valuable, then, because it acknowledges what students have been saying all along: that racism and other –isms shape their daily lives. If we truly listen to these students, the vacuity of the administration’s most consistent responses becomes painfully obvious. President Gordon Gee has been quick to say that racist behavior does not represent Ohio State, and other administrators claim that there is “no place for hate” here.  But I have to ask, “Are you sure about that?” These students have been brave enough to explain how much other people’s hostility has shaped their reality.  When the first reaction is to insist that ugly attitudes are held by a small number of aggressors, we discount their testimony.  To launch into how little these tweets represent Ohio State is to suggest that what these students endure does not matter nearly as much as the picture of the university that we prefer.

By its very existence, the OSU Haters tumblr challenges the assumption that racist comments are insignificant or that they do not accurately represent the climate at this institution. First, the site illustrates the ordinary nature of the most persistent racism, reminding everyone that an attack does not have to be physical (or even extreme) to do violence. Seemingly thoughtless, off-hand comments send the powerful message that some people’s presence is tolerated, not welcomed.

As importantly, because the site exposes hateful tweets, its existence ends up shining a light on that which most allows hostility to persist: apathy. As more people learn of the tumblr site, if they do not feel personally attacked by it, the reaction is often to defend the tweeters, whom they believe should never have to worry about facing consequences for creating a hostile environment. The experience of students who are hurt and offended by these tweets barely seems to figure for these defenders. They argue for the tweeters’ right to “free speech” and “privacy” (though Twitter is the most public forum I can imagine). In other words, such responses confirm what OSU Haters suggested in an interview with the local newspaper: “Even though the number of students posting hate speech compared to the entirety of the student body is small, they have a large audience in their online social circle, and the students who are seeing these hateful messages aren't exposing or reporting them for hate speech. Apathy is more widespread” (my italics). When these kinds of comments are so acceptable as to be tweetable, how much do students who are not targeted care about the experiences of those who are?

The Tumblr site exposes hate as well as indifference about the conditions created by that hate, and in the process, it reveals how easily any of us can be lulled into apathy. Many are tempted to dismiss aggressors as “ignorant.” When we use this label, we are suggesting that they are “just ignorant,” so why give them attention? Why worry about what they think and say? Why bother addressing them at all? The implication is that you should not waste your time and energy on those “ignorant” people. OSU Haters shows that this sort of response is misguided.

To dismiss individuals who spew hate as “ignorant” is to deny what the Tumblr site so clearly reveals, that these are informed people. Whether their articulation of hate is blatantly aggressive or casually so, many of those exposed by OSU Haters demonstrate a keen awareness of U.S. and world history. Tweets refer to the bombing of Hiroshima, “summer camps” as a reference to internment camps, lynchings, and honor killings.

The violent force of many of these tweets emanates from the fact that their authors understand the function of bias-based violence: to keep certain groups from enjoying the rights and privileges of citizenship, to deny certain groups a sense of belonging within the community and the country. 

Given the historical awareness underpinning these tweets, we must remember what dominant assumptions encourage us to forget: racial violence is often a response to success. What have people of color and gays and Sikhs, for example, done to deserve these attacks? What have they done “wrong”? They have managed to succeed despite the many obstacles put in their way. These tweets are therefore part of a much longer tradition of what I call know-your-place aggression. The messages conveyed by antagonists go something like this: “You may have a higher g.p.a. than I do, but you are still just a ‘ch**k’” or “You may have a law degree, but you are still just a ‘f*g’” or “You may have outstanding credentials, but you are still just a woman” or “Barack Obama may be President of the United States, but ….”

In this country, people who are white and/or male and/or heterosexual and/or Christian and/or “able” and/or middle class will be respected when they achieve, but when those who do not fit these categories succeed, they can expect aggression as often as praise. 

Of course, even those targeted by this aggression sometimes insist that it is rare; doing so fuels their success, they may believe. That is, they choose to focus on the positive and give the benefit of the doubt.  But targeted groups are expected to give the benefit of the doubt (“she didn’t mean it” or “it was just a joke”) even in the face of blatant malice. Given this very american expectation, it is important for members of marginalized groups to believe in their capacity for reading their surroundings accurately. You must be able to trust your ability to interpret what is happening, no matter how many times someone else says, “That’s just not the Buckeye way” and “We are better than that.” You must be able to know the difference between those claims and something like, “That shouldn’t be the american way” or “We can be better.”

When faced with evidence that the environment is hostile, especially when that hostility is inadequately addressed by those in power, it is important to empower yourself and others to call a spade a spade. Clearly, bias is leading many to prioritize the comfort and “freedom” of dominant groups, even when it is at the expense of those who become their targets.

I am therefore impressed by the students’ insistence that the tweets, and the hostile atmosphere they represent, cannot be ignored. Building on the work of OSU Haters, a town hall meeting was held on Tuesday, September 4, 2012. It was sponsored by student organizations—the Asian American Association, the Multicultural Greek Council, GradPAC, and OSU Stand Your Ground—and the Multicultural Center. Substantial time was allotted for attendees to share personal experiences with bias and discrimination.

Several students were eloquent in their critical reading of the environment that OSU provides them. For example, one young woman said that she is disturbed by peers who denigrate others, but she can accept it as a simple expression of opinion. However, those same individuals will also insist that they “hate when people are overly sensitive or politically correct.” With great insight, this student explained that when denigrating comments and admonitions against sensitivity and political correctness go together (and they usually do), then the remarks are not just casual judgments; they are active attempts to silence others.

As importantly, a student leader said that it is simply too convenient to suggest that the attitudes exposed on OSU Haters belong to a “fringe” group. With many in the audience nodding in agreement, he shared that walking down High Street (the main drag near campus) and having racist comments yelled at him has simply been part of life at Ohio State. In other words, the incident described in “Hate on High” is not a rare occurrence. And, of course, what happens at OSU is a reflection of what is happening all over the country.

When these students stand firm in what they know about Ohio State and the United States, they are operating as citizens of the spaces they inhabit. They are acting out of their belief that they belong. In doing so, they approach hostile tweeters as equals. Just as the tweeters assume that this is their school and they have a right to feel that it is designed with them in mind, so do the creators of OSU Haters. The group behind this tumblr site is not accepting the idea that so-called “minority” students must be suppliant, must put their case forward as injured subordinates and hope for sympathy.  They are presenting themselves as equals who know that they deserve space.

Some have suggested, even at the Town Hall gathering, that those behind OSU Haters should not be anonymous.  Such calls for the online organizers to reveal their identities should be understood as a sign that some resent dealing with members of marginalized groups as equals. Some people want to be able to identify them so that they can intimidate them or more directly dismiss their concerns and downplay the significance of their experience. In an environment structured in dominance, the group’s anonymity is one of the only ways that they can be on equal footing with those who are privileged within the institution. And if you wonder what being privileged in this environment might look like, please refer to my post “The AmericanWay:  Mediocrity, When White, Looks Like Merit.”

The Town Hall meeting focused on generating solutions that will add to the work of the OSU Haters tumblr, but the site itself makes an important contribution that should not be lost on any of us. These online organizers clearly reject the idea that they should tolerate hostility and just be glad they are here. They know that they more than earned their space, and they (unfairly) keep having to earn it every day.

Know-your-place aggression is a way of asserting that certain groups do not truly belong. I am always proud when targeted communities refuse to accept that painfully consistent message.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Never-ending Battles Require Sustainable Energy

Everyday, the United States gives me plenty of reason to be frustrated, offended, and downright depressed. It sends powerful messages about how little it values me and mine. I live in a country where slavery literally lasted through the 1940s and where today’s prison industrial complex continues to create The New Jim Crow. Nevertheless, the smallest acknowledgment of racial injustice inspires dismissive accusations of “playing the race card.”

I live in a country where 17-year-old Trayvon Martin can be murdered in cold blood, and his killer, George Zimmerman, is treated with leniency. In fact, I live in a country where Zimmerman would not have been arrested if there had not been weeks of protest. What is most painful about the Trayvon Martin tragedy, though, is the fact that his story is so familiar. As Lisa Guerrero and David J. Leonard have noted, violence against black and brown people has long been considered an entertaining pastime.

The United States excuses violence that prevents (certain) teenagers from fulfilling their potential, but when people of color beat the odds, the response can be equally brutal. Black and brown success is often discounted, disrespected, and denied or it becomes the reason for additional violence—what I call know-your-place aggression. In an earlier post, I shared my experience with such aggression and the pain of seeing white mediocrity valued more than black excellence. Responses to that post suggest that my experience is far from unique, as does Dr. Christian Head’s case against UCLA. Still, some of the most egregious know-your-place aggression has become so pervasive that many don’t notice it: now that the president is clearly not 100% white, disrespecting the nation’s highest office has become routine. The vicious nature of Obama-era public discourse has been ably documented by Michael K. Wilson and David J. Leonard, and Huffington Post contributor Andres Jauregui notes that hanging images of President Obama in effigy has become a trend.

Facing these realities, how do you avoid utter despair? How do you keep from giving up by assuming that the country will never make good on its promises? As importantly, how do you resist the temptation to become completely disconnected? Many people of color try to escape by self-medicating with alcohol and drugs... or with religion. I can see why the latter is particularly tempting. This country is always doing us dirty. Why wouldn’t we welcome a holy cleansing?

I have decided to resist these temptations; I will not ignore the world around me, but I refuse to sink into despair, no matter how justified that sometimes seems. Too many people sacrificed to leave me the improved conditions that I enjoy. It is my turn to try to do the same for future generations.

But I am not deceived: surviving and thriving in a society that is set up to destroy, denigrate, and disrespect me requires much more than a strong will.

Exercise has therefore become invaluable! I am much more active now than I was as a teenager, and I don’t see myself slowing down. I cannot afford to—not if I want to make a difference in this world, which I do.

Though I have long understood the value of exercise, making a commitment to do it consistently did not happen over night. It has been a journey, and I have had many sources of encouragement along the way. In 2003, I was welcomed into SisterMentors, an organization that helps women of color finish writing their doctoral dissertations while they mentor school girls. Dr. Shireen Lewis, the founder and director, guides women through the dissertation process, and she takes a very holistic approach. She insists that each woman see herself as a complete human being whose mind, body, and spirit all deserve attention. Dr. Shireen encourages meditation, yoga, and clean eating. I followed much of her advice but never really became consistent.

Once I earned the PhD and relocated to begin my first job, I thought that a healthier lifestyle would be part of the transition. Again, I was not particularly consistent. However, the encouragement to prioritize physical and spiritual health continued to flow into my life. In July 2009, I attended an arts showcase by young women who had completed the Girl/Friends summer program. Girl/Friends is a project of A Long Walk Home that empowers teenagers to do rape prevention educational work in their own schools. The showcase was titled “Fearless,” and it featured the girls’ creative work with photography, dance, and spoken word. As they shared some of the experiences that impacted them the most, I was struck by the program’s emphasis on being physically active and honoring the mind-body-spirit connection.

In short, the program confirmed that doing lasting good in a world that is designed to discount you—anyone who isn’t white and/or male and/or heterosexual and/or middle class—requires valuing yourself enough to prioritize self-care.

Still, it was not until I fell in love with running that I finally found my way of being good to myself on a regular basis. I have now been running since August 2010, because I found positive sources of motivation rather than focusing on losing weight. Basically, I run because I can. I am grateful that I can move, and I show my gratitude by moving.

Gratitude remains my motivation, but in April 2011, I found additional support by becoming an ambassador for Black Girls RUN!, a national organization founded by Toni Carey and Ashley Hicks to promote active lifestyles.

It took me a while to find my primary exercise passion, but I kept looking because I knew that the benefits would be immeasurable. Too many people believe that self-care means being selfish and self-centered, but how can you give the world something of quality if your tank is empty? We assume that everything else is more urgent than nurturing ourselves, but there is no way around it: you can't give what you don’t have, and energy is our most precious resource.

Why Not You? Why Not Now?
I continue to resist the idea that losing weight is a good motivation for exercise. My points of emphasis therefore differ from the sound bites often associated with Black Girls RUN! Nevertheless, I love seeing BGR! inspire women of all ages, sizes, and backgrounds. I am honored to be a part of it. And, we are not alone in this invigorating work.

More and more people understand the importance of getting everyone around them moving. Of course, First Lady Michelle Obama contributes significantly to this endeavor, but there are many such leaders. It is not uncommon to encounter messages like “Strong is the new sexy” and “Health is the new wealth.” And I love the way that Stic of Dead Prez puts it: “Healthy is the New Gangsta…stay G’d up!” Similar sentiments have recently been articulated by the great thinkers of Crunk Feminist Collective and Colorlines. It is an awakening that I am thrilled to see.

Why don’t you join us? Why not now? The nation is not getting any less racist, sexist, heterosexist, and classist or any less brutal toward people who are differently abled or whose gender expression resists rigidity. When you realize that, you understand that Audre Lorde said it best: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Running may not be the answer, but please find your source of sustainable energy.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Interpreting American Experience: Which Facts Command Your Attention?

Sometimes, a truly honest conversation can illuminate the different kinds of experiences that people are having even as they live in the same country. That is precisely what happened when I shared my frustration recently in a facebook status and a white male friend of mine took the time to express how slanted my view seemed. I reproduce the exchange here because I think we were both honest, civil, and respectful in ways that are instructive for anyone who wants to think more critically about how americans are encouraged to interpret the realities that surround us.

My facebook status on Thursday, March 8, 2012: How I WISH I were wrong more often about how much white privilege & racism rule everything around me.

I commented on my own status:
James Baldwin always makes you think: " can be unutterably exhausting to deal with people who, with a really dazzling ingenuity, a tireless agility, are perpetually defending themselves against charges which one has not made. One does not have to make them. The record is there for all to read. [...] One wishes that Americans, white Americans, would read, for their own sakes, this record, and stop defending themselves against it. [...] The fact that Americans, white Americans, have not yet been able to do this—to face their history, to change their lives—hideously menaces this country." ("Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes").

White male friend:
Hi Koritha. I will preface this by saying I am in no way hiding from or defending “white history” (although I can easily argue that there is no such thing, but that is not for today) but given that your post is in the present, I am a bit curious. You have a fantastic job at a prestigious university, you get to study and teach your subject of choice, you own a home (and presumably were granted a loan), you are married, with equality, to a wonderful, well educated, well employed man, you can freely post your intellectual opinion on Facebook, you are a published author, you pay US income taxes, your president is multi-racial, you freely associate, interact, and socialize with people of various races. I may have some form of white ignorance here, but where in any of that are you being “ruled” by white privilege and racism? Sorry, but I don’t see anyone or anything ruling YOU!

ME: Well, I said that it rules everything *around* me. I certainly recognize that I have a good life, but I've also shared on here that I know that my successes are thanks God and to the sacrifices of my ancestors—they are not the result of this country becoming fair or free of racism, sexism and other -isms. And, my having the *privileges* that I have is exactly why it's important for me not to be silent about the injustices and double standards that I see. If I'm encountering them with all that I have going for me, then how much worse is it for other black women and members of other marginalized groups?? And, please understand that I know this country's past and present well enough to know that my success has been DESPITE everything that the nation has set up to ensure that I am NOT successful. The fact that I have the life I do is not because things are so fair but because I managed to escape—to this point, at least—all the traps that are set by a society that has designed pretty much everything to favor/advantage white male heterosexuals with middle-class backgrounds. I also very much understand my being able to speak out is a *privilege,* but again, it is one that has been HARD WON (by ancestors and others) with a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. And anyone who doesn't know that blood, sweat, and tears are still being shed today (Obama or not) should consider the possibility that not knowing that is also a sign of privilege.

ME: This makes me want to share this status from Feb 10 again: It must be nice: If you're a white man and mediocre, you're treated with respect, and your BELONGING in positions of authority is never questioned. Meanwhile, I can do exceptional work and folk act like I should be grateful for their even giving me a hearing. Then, if I'm more confident than overly grateful to mere mortals, it's interpreted as arrogance. It's the American way, and it's extremely tiresome.

ME again: And this too: @ Amy, I'm touched by this. Thank you. I appreciate that you can understand my venting. Yes, it's just part of the landscape. As you might guess, I'm articulating just a small part of my frustration. I'm in a moment when things are going so well but there's always got to be some race and gender BS with it. Not only is there some general hateration, as my girl Mary J. Blige would say, but there's also the reality that—because this is the United States, which is so good at being the changing same—I get to shop for something to wear to [an event at which I will be honored for my research] while dealing with sales clerks who act like I'm going to steal something and random shoppers trying to "girlfriend" me and make comments about how I probably can't afford x, y, or z. Just lovely. Accomplishments are always accompanied by this kind of stuff. So, on top of dealing with that, you also have to deal with folk forever trying to downplay the achievement, as if something was handed to you. You know, because this country has become so liberal, it's always cutting black women a break. The unearned arrogance that always insists that my accomplishments have to do with being black and a woman but whites' accomplishments have NOTHING to do with being white is just so freakin' old—and it would be funny if it didn't affect our lives so much.

White male friend: You are awesome. Privilege is earned (be you Bill Gates or Bruce Springsteen or Oprah Winfrey or Ken Chanault) and you have clearly earned yours, and I think we can agree on that. So my point remains firm. You may feel those things rule "everything" around you, but the very fact that you are who you are and a guy like me is so impressed by you, and what you do, is proof that you are not. You are so much better than all that nonsense!

And, for the record, I am a thoroughly mediocre white guy and routinely treated with little to no respect. Case in point, I would wager you have little to no respect for me right now!!

ME: Thanks for the compliment and for taking the time to share this. It's astonishing how different our experiences have clearly been because our perspectives feel worlds apart. I am made to see things that you simply don't, I guess. When I acknowledge that I have privilege, I am referring to the fact that I know that some of what I have is NOT EARNED because WE LIE when we say that we live in a country in which people have what they earn. I'll give just one example. Of course, I work hard. I certainly work harder than those who are even more privileged than I am by our racist, sexist, classist, heterosexist society. However, because I'm not invested in lying to myself about how much I earned x, y, or z, I can admit that I know that I have had certain breaks and only those breaks allowed me to get here. Why are breaks so crucial? Because we live in a society that consistently withholds from some and gives to others; it is not invested in equal distribution of ANYTHING, including opportunity. So, (for example) I've seen how black boys who were just as smart as I was did not get the opportunities that I got in the early decade or so of schooling. So much is set up to make everyone see black boys in less innocent, less child-like ways, so if my black male peers weren't extra bright (and caught on extra fast) and weren't extra perfect in behavior, they could easily be treated with no patience and end up falling behind in learning, etc. etc. etc. So, my decent intelligence coupled with the fact that I was girl and knew how to walk a VERY straight line—because enough imperfect behavior from me could've easily led to my being thrown away too (certainly quicker than misbehaving white children)—allowed me to end up okay. Now, this didn't mean that I didn't still encounter all kinds of craziness. Despite my record, despite honors classes, I was NEVER given college counseling. The only reason I ended up going to college is because my mom worked too many jobs for me to go to the college nights that the school sponsored anyway, so I always had to be proactive and figure out how to get exposure. Because I did that, I ended up at a college fair in downtown Houston (not associated with my school) and met a representative from Ohio Wesleyan University. Again, I know better than to think that I deserved x, y, or z because I took that extra initiative. How many breaks did I get that allowed me to know to figure these things out on my own? If I hadn't figured it out, it certainly wouldn't have been because I was lazy and didn't deserve it. It just would've been that I fell through the wide cracks that the society left for me. Anyway, I can't try to go through it all. The point is that I know the workings of this society well enough to know that it's not just about EARNING. It's also a lot of blessings and luck and chance because what is most consistent and systematic are those mechanisms that nearly ensure that people like me would never get to where I am. Again, there's more than I can say. But there's plenty of evidence that our society constantly advantages certain kinds of people, constantly ensures that certain kinds of people get 2nd, 3rd, and 4th chances and ruthlessly increases the likelihood that ONE MISTAKE will destroy another type of person's life. That's the United States that we live in and not knowing just how unfair its most systematic practices are requires a willingness to ignore that I can't pretend to have. Because I know that my privileges are unearned, I try to use the ones I have to create justice for others. I can only do that within the limits of the power that my privileges give me, so I hope and pray that those who have more privileges and power will see the value of using that to create justice for others. But here's the thing: Doing that means looking at the environment and what can be improved about it rather than saying, for example, "Well, if Oprah, Obama, and lesser folk like Koritha made it, then that proves that this is a country that spells opportunity for all." That's the hype we're told to believe, but the evidence to the contrary is everywhere—and it doesn't take being a researcher like me to find it. To refuse to see the environment and insist that all that matters is those few who escaped the traps of that environment has been the american way. I am working to inspire people to see that we can do a lot better. The country can actually walk its talk one day.
All that I will add now is that I am grateful for whites who are allies in anti-racist work. There have always been whites who are serious and proactive about being anti-racist thinkers and activists, and they have been in the trenches along with people of color and other marginalized groups. Tim Wise is the most visible, but I am grateful to know of others. Rather than list here, I would just encourage those who don't even know about Tim Wise to consider getting his latest book Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority. Also see his website

Thursday, January 19, 2012

What Are You Speaking to Power?

Since the October 2011 publication of my book Living with Lynching, I have been asked whether I see parallels between our contemporary moment and the period that I study, 1890 to 1930. The short answer is yes. In fact, I find the last turn of the century fascinating partly because it looks so much like this one. The similarities include the ugliness of anti-immigrant sentiment, the need for women to fight for baseline equity and safety, the ease with which certain families are denied recognition and respect, and the dehumanizing treatment of the poor while corporations are treated as people. (See the 1886 Santa Clara decision and today’s Citizen’s United case leading to the doctrine that “money is free speech.”) And, of course, there are striking parallels between the lynching era and our present moment in terms of the strategies being developed—right now—to keep certain populations from voting.

Questions about whether or not the dynamics I examine still exist usually arise in relation to a very specific claim. Armed with the insight of those who lived and wrote in the midst of lynching, I contend that racial violence was a response not to black criminality but to black success. I hope to write several posts addressing various versions of the historical parallels question. Here, I begin with one from Michael Eric Dyson, who interviewed me for his hour-long radio show honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, January 16, 2012.

I was describing the revisions that black male lynching dramatists offered when they entered the genre a decade after it was initiated by women. While women playwrights had put forth ideal images of black manhood, black men offered the pimp and the coward. The message of their plays is that the mob attacks black patriarchs, those who gain traditional success and are family and community leaders, but it will often spare pimps and cowards. Michael Eric Dyson asked if there was any parallel between the collective message of these plays and today’s cultural landscape, in which black pimps are welcomed in popular media. I said that there is a link and that the circulation of pimp imagery is acceptable, and even desirable, because it does not disrupt the status quo. Let me elaborate here.

Living with Lynching is about citizenship. I am interested in the many ways that the nation defines citizenship as white and how racial violence contributes to this mission. After all, lynching emerged only after slavery ended (so, killing blacks didn’t mean losing property), and it intensified when black men began gaining ground politically. (Black women were far from voting rights at this point.) To discourage black men from voting and otherwise participating in the political process, whites used violence and they invented the black rapist myth to destroy black men’s reputations, portraying them as unworthy of citizenship. In other words, the images allowed to circulate in the public sphere—black rapists and white heroes who avenge rape—reiterated the assumption that whites are the rightful citizens.

Today’s pimp imagery works in a similar fashion to ensure that only certain people come to mind when you say “citizen.” Any success that a pimp might have is deemed immoral, so his popularity only confirms that black men cannot be responsible citizens because they do not live by the ideals of upstanding manhood that the country claims to respect. It is more threatening to have a black man who exemplifies american ideals, such as Barack Obama. He did everything according to what should bring him respect: he went to Ivy League schools, he’s heterosexual, he’s married, he's had only one wife, etc. He creates much more anxiety than does the commercial gold mine Snoop Dog because he embodies what the nation says it values, thereby illustrating that black men can be more admirable than whites, even by conservative standards.

Noticing this tendency is not enough, though; placing pimp imagery alongside Barack Obama reveals other dynamics that should not be overlooked. Namely, though conversations about the pimp lifestyle center on non-whites, white men have freely engaged in nefarious activity—including pimping, raping, and otherwise abusing women—since the founding of this nation. Indeed, this country’s biggest pimps have been and continue to be white men, but when we hear that word, they are not the image that comes to mind. Whites have created a society in which negative connotations stick to everyone but them. Another example: a white man can routinely bully and elegantly threaten others, in both his personal and professional life…but never be thought of as a “thug.” Meanwhile, all a black man has to do is choose a style of dress that we don’t like, and he is labeled a “thug” to the point where it limits his life chances.

On the other end of the spectrum, one finds Barack Obama and the countless black men whose existence is seldom acknowledged in mainstream media: black lawyers, black soldiers, veterans, and entrepreneurs, for example. If these men cannot be ignored, they are discredited (“he got that position because he is black”). Why? Because they expose the central myth of U.S. culture, that white men are the best the world has to offer.

Unfortunately, admirable people of color can also be understood as exceptions who confirm the worthlessness of others. You have heard it a million times from americans of all hues: “Just look at ____. Now, there are no excuses.” How did so many come to believe that the main thing that people of color do is make excuses? The ease with which people utter and accept this comment proves the success of the campaign to malign anyone who isn’t white. While everyone is busy making sure that non-whites don’t get away with making excuses, we ignore all of the systems put in place to prevent anyone who is not white and/or heterosexual and/or Christian and/or middle-class from attaining what the nation claims is within everyone’s reach.

But as I said on Dyson’s radio show, I am not invested in speaking the truth because I hope it might change white people’s minds. I am much more interested in keeping people of color from believing the lies that are meant to destroy them while making them feel ashamed if they notice that they are under siege. (Accusations of “playing the race card.”) To the extent that we buy the dominant portrait, which makes white right and everyone else wrong, we are in trouble.

Too often, I hear conversations on race among blacks that revolve around how “the white man doesn’t have to keep us down because we are doing it to ourselves—all these single mothers, deadbeat fathers….” Listening in, one would think that even we don’t know any examples of black mothers who are also wives and fathers who prioritize family life. Sure, images of single mothers and deadbeat fathers saturate mainstream discourse, but we are letting that dictate what comes to mind for us, too.  [And this is to say nothing about the fact that being a single mother isn't shameful!!] 

These conversations remind me of when then-Senator Obama chose the occasion of his address to the NAACP to insist on the necessity of “teaching our sons…to realize responsibility does not end at conception; that what makes them a man is not the ability to have a child but to raise one" (July 2008). He said this as if he does not know plenty of black men who are doing precisely that. He said this as if that’s the most powerful message he could bring to the NAACP. Really? Well, we don’t do any better when that’s how we talk about the race, too.

In contrast, lynching plays evince an understanding of the importance of speaking the truth about black communities that the rest of society is working so hard to ignore. The plays foreground representative figures that help audiences think together about black identity and citizenship. Because my book follows the conversation that blacks were having in the early 1900s, one chapter focuses on the black soldier, another on the black lawyer, another on the black mother who is also a wife. Imagine that! These authors actually placed a spotlight on the people they knew in their communities, not just those who saturated the mainstream: buffoons and mammies, rapists and whores.

According to mainstream assumptions, mobs targeted African Americans because they represented an evil that would destroy society: black men were supposedly rapists who cared nothing for stable domesticity and black women were said to be whores incapable of creating it anyway. In this climate, black playwrights most consistently depicted what national discourse denied existed: loving black homes. As they recorded and contributed to the community conversation, they placed a spotlight on the black soldier, the black lawyer, and the black mother/wife, so bringing the black pimp and coward into the genre constituted a major revision. Today, we seldom bother to talk about those who make us proud before focusing on those who don’t.

These tendencies have political implications. What is our current community conversation? What are we speaking to power? Do we talk about our own communities as if they contain no responsible men, commendable women, or adorable children? If so, is that the truth? Again, the mainstream denies that we have loving families, but we should pause before regurgitating those messages. Too often, we say these things as if we are the only admirable black person we know—and as if judging the presumed majority of the race will confirm how admirable and “objective” we are.

Having seen this pattern more often than I would like, I think we could take lessons from the playwrights. They preserved the truth that society’s myths disregarded, thereby affirming for African Americans what they hopefully already knew about the race. Doing so was (and remains) crucial because blacks are not magically impervious to the messages of american society; we are as vulnerable to national rhetoric as others, so we need to equip ourselves and each other to withstand the attack on our self-conceptions.

Today, no less than in the lynching era, the doctrine of white supremacy/black pathology insists that blacks are not worthy citizens of the nation because they are not even meaningful members of their own families and communities. Let’s not be the loudest supporters of those lies.