So you want to have a race conversation; how about investing in Ethnic Studies

Over the last few weeks, there has been a lot written about race; following the Fisher decision, the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and more recently the acquittal of George Zimmerman, there have ample discussions online and within the media.   More than likely, there have been even more debates in public/private spaces; social media has had ample debates.

Not surprisingly, calls for more dialogues and encouraging words to continue the “race conversation” have been commonly articulated.  Although not a panacea, given issues of power, systemic racism, segregation and privilege, these calls are striking reminder of the importance of the work that is being done by teachers and community organizers; professors and others working at the grassroots committed to education, learning, and dialogue, all of whom spend hours each week strategizing approaches to foster critical engagement and thought about these essential questions of the day. President Obama weighed in last week, noting:

There has been talk about should we convene a conversation on race.  I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations.  They end up being stilted and politicized, and folks are locked into the positions they already have.  On the other hand, in families and churches and workplaces, there’s the possibility that people are a little bit more honest, and at least you ask yourself your own questions about, am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?

What is striking here is that schools, whether K-12 or colleges and universities, are not listed alongside of families and churches.  The call for dialogues within these segregated spaces, and the erasure of the research, scholarship and work already been done, represents a missed opportunity from President Obama and in the potential for dialogue.

The celebration of dialogues and the call for conversations is striking that amid efforts to close schools, to divest in education, to eliminate any emphasis on critical thinking through testing culture, and the overall assault on Ethnic Studies, African American Studies, Queer Studies, Women’s Studies, Chicano Studies, Asian American Studies and Native American Studies. Those demonized as “race baiters,” who are working in the name of justice and equality, are already doing this work.

There are ample people focused on creating the constructive space to foster these conversations; there are ample places dedicated to developing the tools to effectively dialogue toward transgression and transformation  The support for them is another story.   If “a more perfect union” is actually a goal, maybe schools and politicians, community leaders and communities themselves should start by supporting the very people working to foster dialogue and create change.  And this would need to include Critical Whiteness Studies, a necessity made clear by Dr. Stephany Spaulding,

Without Critical Whiteness Studies, we will continue living in a society that blindly privileges particular ways of organizing institutional practices and structures, not realizing that these ways are rooted in the histories and cultural beliefs of specific people.  It will leave me binging on chocolate, writing blogs and wishing I could tolerate the taste of alcohol every time some student vehemently argues, “But it really was the way he was dressed that caused him to look suspicious

If there is really a desire to actually have a conversation about racism, about gun violence, poverty, rape culture, inequality, and the criminal justice at the national level, at the state or local level, it would be nice to see investment in these spaces.  The failure to not only support, but in effect undermined and attack those committed to this work demonstrates the true agenda – investment reveals priorities — and ain’t that dialogue and it certainly isn’t change. The lack of support tells me everything I need to know about a desire to truly have a conversation about race.  I hope I am wrong.  This moment demonstrates yet again the important work that so many people are doing and why it is crucial to support this work; but I am not holding my breath.

I haven’t been optimistic for a while, which led me to write this piece last year. The last week (month, six months, year) has demonstrated why White America needs Black Studies.  The level of denial, the efforts to silence, and the need for “context” reveals the necessity for greater education as it relates to race in America society.  As important as speeches, television pieces, and columns are in complicating the discourse, education systems need to change.   American education has to do more to give voice to the experiences of communities of color, to push back at stereotypes and implicit bias, and to otherwise provides the tools and skills necessary to not only have conversations but change institutions toward that more perfect union.  Change is not simply the result of time; change requires work.

Recent months have seen a wave of campus racism at America’s colleges and universities, including Fordham University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cornell University, Northwestern University, and the Ohio State University.  While racism is as commonplace at America’s “liberal” training grounds as binge drinking, I found myself wondering about occupying America’s universities.  I found myself wondering how Black studies and ethnic studies have the potential to change America’s racial path.   How Black studies and understanding the ongoing history of racism is essential to a quest for a “more perfect union.”

Imagine if every student took at least one Black studies course per year during college alongside of Chicano Studies, Asian American Studies and Native American Studies.  What if students, what if white students, starting in kindergarten and through graduate school, American’s future leaders, teachers, and voters learned a 4th R – racism – alongside ‘reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic?  Surely institutional racism would remain an obstacle, but Whites who inhabit those institutions, from the classroom to the Capital, would likely be changed.

Learning about minstrelsy and the history of racist imagery would surely impact the decision from White students to don blackface for the sake of fun, parties and Halloween.  Learning about the history of slavery and lynchings would hopefully encourage thought from entire communities the next time a noose appeared on campus, the next time someone scrawled lynch on a chalkboard or dorm room door.  There would be no more excuses and claims of ignorance about these histories.

Can we imagine a world where White students didn’t commonly use the “N-word” behind closed doors because they understood the history of racial violence?  Would the hurling of racist jokes and epithets lessened as all students began to think about the consequences and daily harm?  Would the exposure to alternative perspectives, to unseen history, and to conversations with students of color, change those students? I would hope so.

Through knowledge, critical thinking and dialogue, colleges can transform themselves–and their students.  According to Howard J. Ehrlich, director of The Prejudice Institute, between 850,000 and one million students (roughly 25 percent of students of color and five percent of White students) experience racially and ethnically-based violence (name calling, verbal aggression, harassing phone calls and “other forms of psychological intimidation”) each year.  What if each of the students who hurled the slurs at Cornell or graffitied “Long live Zimmerman” at the Ohio State University taken a Black studies course surely there worldview would have been different.  Surely, those White students who sat idly by, who watched and said nothing, would have challenge their peers had they any real knowledge of race and racism.

Yet, the need for a world of Black Studies as multi-year required isn’t simply to teach White students about prejudice, but the erased experiences and voices of Black people.  Knowledge about Black culture, history, and identity would come not from Basketball Wives or The Help but in James Baldwin and Tayari Jones, Daughters of the Dust and Killer of Sheep.  We would no longer hear about Martin Luther King’s dream of colorblindness, but instead his dream of justice, reparations, and equality of outcome. The civil rights movement would be a history told not through King and one great speech, but people like Bayard Rustin and Ella Baker, heroes and sheroes who refused to accept American Apartheid.  This is my dream, a dream where White students learn alongside of students of color about the history of racism, about privilege, and inequality; about the contributions and humanity of communities of color; about histories of resistance from “Aint I a woman?” to “Let freedom ring.”

While a freshman at the University of Oregon, I took my first African American history class.  This class and so many others changed my life.  Beyond learning about African American history, beyond reading the likes of DuBois, Frederick Douglas and Carter G. Woodson, beyond hearing for the first time names like Turner, Garvey, Delany, and Hamer, I learned to think for myself, asking why wasn’t I learning this history and what does it mean that the history, literature, and culture I learned during my formative years was a story of whites.

A couple years later, while at University of California, Santa Barbara, I enrolled in a Chicana feminism class. Being the only White male in the class, I felt apprehensive and unsure as to my place in the class.  With the encouragement of the professor, I remained in the class.  During a small group discussion about race and privilege, I shared my anxiety within the class, explaining how I felt like an “outsider.”  A classmate quickly responded, noting “Now you know how we feel in every class.”  But in fact, I did not and couldn’t know since I felt uncomfortable, as an outsider, and as representative of “my community” twice a week for 75 minutes.  When class was over, I returned to the sea of Whiteness, privileged in my invisibility and empowered by a world that normalized Whiteness.  I can only wonder how the world might look if more students had this type of experience. It is a world I think is worth fighting for.

White Boy Remixed: Whiteness and Teaching Race

White Boy Remixed: Whiteness and Teaching Race
| special to NewBlackMan

This summer I have dedicated to reading that stack of books I have been wanting to read. The 4th installment (I will write about the other three books on my blog) was Mark Naison’s memoir – White Boy. Naison, a professor of African American Studies at Fordham University, chronicles his personal, political and academic journey, responding to those who have ubiquitously asked how he as a white man became a professor of African American Studies. With a tremendous amount of honesty, openness, complexity, and vulnerability, Naison explores his own history as a teacher, activists, and source of community empowerment. While the book chronicles a powerful story of the 1960s – the anti-war movement, the Panthers, Columbia, identity politics – it is a story of a dynamic man whose life and insights teach us just as he has taught his students for several decades. In telling the story of the “white African American Studies professors, Naison offers a narrative that highlights how whiteness matters but how it does not define or over-determine the arch of his life or career. It is a story that resonates with me on so many levels, leading me to want to share my own story.

Like Mark Naison, I have been consistently asked about my entry into Ethnic Studies. In my first class at Washington State University, I had a student that constantly wanted to know my story. The student could not understand why this White guy was teaching African American film – what had lead me to be me – In the course of the class, he asked “How I can to be the Eminem of Ethnic Studies?” While the class oohed and aahed, some thinking it was a slight against me and others thinking it was a point of celebration, I saw it as a good question, one that could lead (and did) into some important conversations. Another day I had a group of students who came to my office asking me to settle a bet about how I came to Ethnic Studies, each having a different theory – (a) I grew up in the Black community; (b) I had a Black girlfriend or a Black wife who had taught and encouraged me to learn; (c) I was just down. In fact, I have been asked several times if I have a Black girlfriend who educated me about blackness, taught me to be committed and down, and pushed me down my educational and career path.

On another level, I have been asked if I am a “culture vulture,” in the tradition of Elvis, in that I am “taking” and “impersonating” something that I am not, in my educational and professional choices. I have also experienced much celebration being a white guy in ethnic studies. Most often such comments reflect desires for colorblindness as a presumed end goal; that is, my presence in Ethnic Studies supposedly embodies the fulfillment of King’s dream or a sign of progress. A student once sent me an e-mail that said that world was changing racially, for the better, because the best rapper was white, best golfer is black, best basketball player was Asian …and their ethnic studies teacher was white. Not to be outdone, a student cited my presence in Ethnic Studies as evidence of colorblindness, to discount our discussions about racism and inequality. However, what the student failed to see is whether or not their teacher was White, or the president is Black, racism remains a constant.

I am certainly defined by my whiteness, whether teaching ethnic studies or driving through Colfax; yet my relationship to Ethnic Studies, social justice struggles, my scholarship, my pedagogy, my ideology, my gaze upon the world, and my understanding of racism/privilege/inequality is not overly determined by a monolithic white identity formation. As Bakari Kitwana argues in Why White Kids Love Hip Hop, “Each Person has a unique story that brought him or her to hip-hop. Looking at the micro reasons as well as the macro ones helps us make sense of a contemporary hip-hop scene in which a new generation is affected by America’s racial history and in the process is constructing a new politics.” In others words, my arrival to and place within the field of Ethnic Studies (or a larger racialized discursive field) reflects a myriad of factors and experiences, ones that are neither defined exclusively by nor immune from the realities of whiteness, racism, and contemporary racial politics.

I grew up in Los Angeles in a middle-class family that spent most of its income on schools, not so much because of concerns of “safety” or even the quality of education available in the public school system. I went to an elementary school founded by Hollywood Communists, including Charlie Chaplin. During my life, I have never gone to school where we did not call our teachers by their first name; I did not receive “grades” until the 9th grade. More instructive, both detention and the pledge of allegiance were completely foreign concepts to me until high school. This educational background clearly established a foundation but this only tells part of the story.

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