Tag Archives: racism

The White Case for Reparations

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This photo was found in an attic in 2010. It depicts an enslaved child named John next to an unidentified enslaved child, and was stored with a bill of sale for John. Historians have dated the photo to the early 1860s. John is believed to be the ancestor of the man in whose estate the picture was found.

In June 2014, the brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates published his landmark piece, “The Case for Reparations.” This should be required reading for all Americans. In it, Coates lays out the ways in which Black Americans have been systematically shut out of the generational accumulation of wealth through multiple, simultaneous avenues that include things like redlining and denying mortgage loans, predatory lending, gerrymandering, under-funding schools, wage theft, and outright terrorism through bombing, lynching, and the legal slavery of the 13th amendment.

Most white people strenuously reject the case for reparations. This is for several reasons: 1. We do not, on the main, understand what reparations are;

2. We reject the idea that white America owes Black America anything, insisting that the harms of slavery ended when slavery itself ended, and even if they did not, financial compensation is not appropriate. This is a deeply misguided viewpoint.

We as white people need to start viewing reparations as a white issue, a debt we chose to incur that is no more avoidable to white people in 2019 than the national debt.

Coates details the ironclad, undeniable evidence that the harms of slavery and anti-Black racism have had devastating economic impacts on the Black community in America, and continue to do so. He advocates for the passage of HR 40, a bill that calls for the study of the possibility of reparations. John Conyers had introduced the bill– again, a bill calling for just the study of the matter, not for any actual payment of reparations– in every Congress since 1989, and it had been denied a vote every single time.

That Coates is calling for Congress to simply agree to study reparations is, in itself, a testament to the ongoing stranglehold white supremacy has on the levers of power. We have refused to even discuss the possibility that Black America is owed reparations for generations of deliberate economic oppression.

White America freely admits that deliberate economic oppression has happened. It’s all a matter of the public record. Most white Americans are also well aware that race-based economic oppression is still ongoing. For example, the Senate voted in 2018 to eliminate protections against auto lenders from discriminating based on race, a policy that was just five years old. Hiring discrimination against Black people has not changed since 1989, with white applicants still 36% more likely to receive a callback than Black applicants. Black people are almost three times as likely to be denied a mortgage loan as white people. Black people are treated much more harshly at every level of the criminal justice system, and are far more likely to be wrongfully imprisoned. The legacy of slavery continues in its innumerable injustices, and it’s nearly impossible to live in America without being aware of that.

Yet white America has long refused to even discuss reparations. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has taken up Conyers’ mantle and, together with the Congressional Black Caucus, reintroduced HB 40 in January in the hope that we will finally establish a governmental commission on reparations. The bill has just 90 sponsors, all Democrats. Establishing a commission just to study the possibility of reparations is still, in 2019, controversial.

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Enslaved Black women were routinely forced to nurse the infants of their enslavers. Imagine having to nurse the infant of the people who sold your own children away from you. 

No one is denying that Black Americans have been, and continue to be, aggressively and deliberately oppressed. The facts speak for themselves. What white America is arguing is that Black America does not deserve any kind of redress for that oppression.

Let’s think about that for a moment. White America feels perfectly justified in seeking millions of dollars in damages for “pain and suffering” in lawsuits over uneven carpets and spilled water. We are perfectly happy with a system that takes millions of dollars from a family business due to “negligence”– not direct, deliberate responsibility, but negligence. Yet any reparations for the extreme, horrific, deliberate racist violence and oppression that disenfranchised generations of Black Americans, that caused immense pain and suffering, permanent damage, and loss of life– and continues to do so– is not even worth discussing.

White Americans have a litany of excuses. We claim that we “don’t have a racist bone in our bodies,” that we never personally enslaved or attacked anyone, that our families came to America after the Civil War, that we ourselves are poor and disenfranchised. And even if all that were true, in every case where white Americans claim– true or not– that we have not deliberately inflicted pain and suffering, there is no denying that we have been, by any measure, deeply negligent.

White people sulk about reparations by pretending “reparations” means “poor white people will be forced to make personal cash payments to LeBron James.” Let’s take a closer look at what reparations are actually being discussed. This is a partial list, but it will give you an idea:

Creating government subsidies for home ownership– for example, setting up a fund that pays a 20% down payment on behalf of Black first-time home buyers.

Decoupling school funding from property values and distributing per-student funding equally.

Student loan forgiveness; government subsidized tuition reduction programs for Black students.

Re-asserting and strengthening the Voting Rights Act; requiring Congressional districts be drawn impartially; making partisan gerrymandering a federal crime; requiring districts to maintain a certain number of voting machines per 1000 residents; making election day a federal holiday.

Extensive criminal justice reform, including restoring the right to vote to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

Expanded government-funded studies into racism in health care; health insurance subsidies.

And yes, cash payments.

This is by no means a comprehensive list and I am by no means an expert. There is a wealth of information out there about what reparations can mean.

What’s important to remember is that this is not about assessing whether or which individuals deserve to benefit– a favorite complaint of white people when discussing reparations– but redressing injustice we either caused directly or allowed to happen through our negligence.

The first step, of course, is studying the issueHB 40 would do exactly that. Why is this controversial?

White Americans are terrified that a study will daylight what we already know: that we are complicit in the violent, ongoing oppression of Black people. We identify so strongly with the idea that America is the “land of opportunity” and that we are the “good guys” that even the thought of studying the ways in which we already know we have not always lived up to that promise terrifies us. Reparations terrify us because we don’t know exactly what payout is owed, but we know it is a lot.

What’s startling to me is how obviously everyone in the nation would benefit. Reparations would boost the economy into a golden age of prosperity for everyone, not just Black people. The money spent for reparations goes right back into the economy, paying salaries, buying goods and services, investing. There’s no down side for white America but admitting that we were not, in fact, the good guys. While that will be difficult, taking a good, hard, honest look at ourselves is not a down side in the long run, but a step towards a more just society. Reparations benefit white people financially, emotionally, and ethically. But we do not pay reparations because we will benefit. We pay a debt because it’s owed.

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Another image of an enslaved Black woman with a white infant. It was fairly common to have your child photographed with their enslaved Black nurse, evidently to show off your child and your wealth simultaneously. 

How do we pay for all this, you ask? Who cares? No one is asking Rosie’s Bowling Lanes if they can afford the pain and suffering payout when they get sued for “negligence” because someone spilled a beer on the approach to lane 17 and Phyllis Cardstock in the Senior League slipped and broke her hip. White people aren’t angrily demanding “How do we pay for this?” when the issue is a bloated military budget, a tax giveaway to the wealthy, or a wall to keep out non-white immigrants. It’s only when Black people might benefit that we start fretting about the cost– reparations, “welfare,” “Obamaphones,” Head Start. White people would vote to detonate the sun if we found out Black people were getting daylight for free.

Of course there are some ideas about how to pay for reparations (pay it out over time; use eminent domain to acquire former plantation land and gift it to Black historical nonprofits and HBCUs; reallocate funding from the aforementioned bloated military budget; stop paying Trump millions of dollars for food and lodging for government personnel at his tacky golf resorts every single weekend; raise taxes back to Reagan era levels; establish a marginal income tax rate of 90% for every dollar over $10M earned per year from all sources). But the point is:

You pay what is owed because you owe it, not because you decide you can afford to pay it. It’s not charity; it’s a debt. 

Passing HB 40 is, quite literally, the least we can do. All Black America is asking us to do is to read the damn bill. We can discuss a payment plan later.

Find your Congressional Representative here

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Black Ariel: Casting Controversy Under the Sea

 

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Halle Bailey. (Photo: Leon Bennett/Getty Images for Essence)

By now you’ve heard that Disney cast someone called Halle Bailey, a young singer, as Ariel in a live-action Little Mermaid. While I was stuck trying to figure out why they would cast someone in her 40s as Ariel and then discovering that it was not, in fact, Halle Berry but someone else entirely, because I am #old, don’t watch TV, and have no idea who anyone is, the rest of white America was, evidently, freaking out.

Twitter exploded in a #notmyAriel campaign/Klan rally. It’s exactly what you would expect– a lot of emotional displays about how the fictional character of Ariel is “supposed to be” white, and that “little white girls deserve to see themselves represented.”

“They’re subverting Andersen’s original intent!”

As soon as the rest of us began pointing out that this is a film about a mermaid, and therefore a fictional story about a fictional creature who isn’t “supposed to” look like anything, they switched to this– Hans Christian Andersen’s supposedly inviolable intent.

Disney made many changes to Hans Christian Andersen’s original, but the only aspect the #notmyAriel hysterics care about is the mermaid’s skin color, described in the original as “white.” Yet Disney changed the most basic aspects of the story, remaking the plot entirely into a love story. In the original, the mermaid (who isn’t named, let alone given the name of a male Shakespeare character), is far less interested in the young prince than she is in obtaining an immortal human soul so she may go to human heaven when she dies. Her grandmother gives her the idea of marrying a human as a way of obtaining a soul:

“Why have not we an immortal soul?” asked the little mermaid mournfully; “I would give gladly all the hundreds of years that I have to live, to be a human being only for one day, and to have the hope of knowing the happiness of that glorious world above the stars. . . . Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?”

“No,” said the old woman, “unless a man were to love you so much that you were more to him than his father or mother; and if all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon you, and the priest placed his right hand in yours, and he promised to be true to you here and hereafter, then his soul would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind.”

Souls being, evidently, sexually transmitted.

In the end, she doesn’t marry the prince after all, but leaves him to his bride– who is not the sea witch, but a human princess– and flings herself into the sea to die without an immortal soul. She is then carried into the sky by the “daughters of the air,” who promise her an immortal soul for her continued good deeds and self-sacrifice, and assure her– and all the children in 19th century Denmark, one assumes– that good, obedient children shorten the lives of the “daughters of the air” and therefore bring them to the “kingdom of heaven” more quickly, but bad, disobedient children add time to their “probation” on earth.

Andersen’s happy ending isn’t a wedding, but 300 years with Sky Lesbians ending in Danish Christian Heaven.

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The original 19th century illustration of the “daughters of the air” by Vilhelm Pedersen. (Robarts Library, the Internet Archive)

Fealty to Andersen’s original is a ruse, of course. The one and only change white people care about is that, in one of the many retellings of this story, the mermaid will have dark skin.

Note that none of these white people are demanding that a Danish actress be cast in the role; just a white one. In all other respects American white people, who voted for Trump and continue to support him, despise Denmark and the entire Nordic Model. They despise democratic socialism; they despise single payer health care; they despise unions; they despise “big government” and the social safety net. They despise everything about Denmark, but they feel entitled, by virtue of their whiteness alone, to claim ownership of Andersen’s story and demand that its heroine not be representative of Denmark but representative of themselves– of white Americans.

“Little white girls deserve the see themselves represented! Does this mean we can cast white people in Black roles?!” 

It’s preposterous to say that this one casting decision is a problem because white girls “deserve to see themselves represented.” The original white Ariel will continue to exist both in the animated film and in the mountain of related merchandise. And of course, white people are dramatically overrepresented in the media in general.

White people know this. The issue is not that white girls need representation, or that the integrity of Andersen’s original needs to be preserved, or that live action Ariel needs to look identical to animated Ariel, with her inhuman proportions. The issue is that white people believe they are so much better than Black people, so different than Black people, so deeply connected to norms of representation, that it’s an affront when a Black person is cast in a “white” role. This is hardly the first time this has happened. Michael B. Jordan as Human Torch, Idris Elba as Heimdall, the Miles Morales Spider-Man, Noma Dumezweni as Hermione, and just the consideration of Idris Elba as James Bond spring to mind. Even Amandla Stenberg as Rue in The Hunger Games despite her description in the books as having dark skin and hair.

“Then why can’t we cast white people in Black roles?” is right up there with “Why isn’t there a White History Month”? and “Why can’t I wear a White Pride shirt?” This is an obviously disingenuous question, but just to be clear: WE DO. All the time.

Whitewashing is one of the most common practices in Hollywood, and often entire eras and areas of the world are whitewashed. One of the knights of the Round Table, Sir Morien, was Black; one of the most feared and successful Revolutionary War fighters was Colonel Tye, an escaped slave who led an entire regiment of Black soldiers for the British, attacking Rebel slaveholders and freeing their slaves; Moses’s wife is described in Numbers 12 as a Cushite– an Ethiopian– and God punishes Miriam for complaining about it; one of Henry VIII’s best court trumpeters, John Blanke, was Black, and was so valued the king gave him a handsome raise in pay; there were Black Puritan clergy (Lemuel Haynes) and Black Puritan women who were landholders (Zipporah Atkins). I could go on. These aren’t contested stories or theories by amateur historians. This is all part of the established historical record, all routinely overlooked in film depictions.

We so deeply believe that white is the default, it’s common for white people to complain about the inclusion of characters of color at all. “But why does he have to be Black?” or “Why does she need to be Asian?” are common critiques, as if one needed a specific reason to be anything other than white. White people consider white to be “generic human,” and any other type of character must therefore be some kind of specific racial commentary. The only reason to cast a Black actor is if you’re speaking specifically about Blackness within a white context. If you include a Black character who never specifically discusses Blackness within a white context– explaining what it means to be Black in a white world, talking about the struggles of being Black, absolving white people of racism by offering easy solutions like “Just be my friend”– white people demand to know why that character is even there. 

Diversity in casting, for these people. is about white people graciously scooting over to allow people of color a small amount of space that we define for them and that exists only in relation to us. It’s therefore a massive affront and highly offensive when Black people “take” something that’s “rightfully” ours because it’s something we did not define as set aside for them to use to explain their lack of whiteness to us.

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Super cute piece by artist Alice X. Zhang of Halle Bailey as Ariel

People angry about Black Ariel are shrieking all over the internet right now, “Why don’t they just find an African story to do instead of ruining our stories?” Sure, except you get angry about that as well, Ashleighee. Apart from the fact that The Little Mermaid is not “ours” and a Black actress does not “ruin” it with her Blackness, these are the very same people who get angry when Black stories are produced by mainstream studios. Those studios are “pandering” and “too PC.” Black Panther, Dear White People, and Luke Cage were all “racist,” with too few white actors and white characters who weren’t shown “positively.” When Black films are confined to Black spaces, they’re fine, but when Black films come into the mainstream, the culture we define as “white space,” we demand that our needs, stories, and visual representations be centered.

So let’s be clear: This isn’t about one remake of The Little Mermaid with a Black American instead of a blue-eyed Dane. This is about white anger about any story being told in which white people are not the heroes, the center of the narrative, and the posited audience. They’re perfectly fine with a colonial New England, ancient Rome, or Tudor London with zero Black people on screen; they’re perfectly fine with white Europeans playing ancient Egyptians; they believe it makes perfect sense for a “galaxy far, far away” to have enough racial diversity to sustain Wookkiees and Hutts but not enough for humans to be anything under 99.77% European, yet they are absolutely livid over one Black mermaid. It’s not about character or narrative integrity and it never was. It’s about preserving the vision of a white-dominated, white supremacist world.

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If You’re Angry That Harvard Rejected Kyle Kashuv for Using a Racial Slur, It’s Because You Don’t Know Anything About College Admissions

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Kyle Kashuv. (photo: Getty Images)

Recently a young man was denied admission to Harvard. That’s not much of a story, but this young man is famous because his conservative viewpoint set him apart from his fellow survivors of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, which made him a conservative media darling. This young man, Kyle Kashuv, had his offer of admission rescinded from Harvard after it came to light that he had used the racial slur “n****r” multiple times in school-related shared googledocs and text messages in his junior year, when he was 16 years old.

Kashuv showed no remorse about his actions until he learned that someone was planning to make screenshots of his repeated use of “n****r” public. Knowing this would jeopardize his admission to Harvard, Kashuv contacted Harvard in advance and pled his case. That’s “not who I am.” He says he’s “changed” in the “years” since then, as if he turned 16 in May of 1977 instead of May of 2017.

When Harvard denied his appeal, Kashuv went public, posting everything on Twitter, hoping to create a controversy and pretend that Harvard was singling him out because he’s a prominent conservative voice. That ruse has worked, and it’s worked because most people have no idea what the college admissions process is like. I’ve been teaching for years. Here are the facts they’re missing.

Universities rescind acceptances all the time. This is by no means unusual; what’s unusual is that Kashuv is a celebrity. The other students whose acceptances were rescinded this year by various universities are not celebrities, and are not being invited to talk about it on radio and television. All rescinded offers are rescinded due to new information coming to light. Academic dishonesty (cheating and plagiarism), lower-than-expected senior year grades, and dishonesty in your application materials, including falsifying transcripts, lying about extracurricular activities, or, oh, I don’t know, pretending you’re not a huge racist, top the list of reasons offers are usually rescinded. Harvard has rescinded applications of students for similar racism in the past, yet for some reason Kashuv expected to be treated differently. Anything other than special treatment is “persecution of conservatives,” according to the many conservative pundits currently in hysterics over this.

“But he was only 16! How can they judge him so harshly for something he did at 16!” Everything on a college application is something students did at 16– or younger. When do you think they earned those grades, took that SAT, played that cello, or wrote that college essay? Every scrap of information on a university application represents a student between the ages of 14 and 17. If you believe universities should not judge students for their actions at 16, you believe universities should not judge students at all.

Almost all university applications are due in the fall semester of senior year, before any senior year grades have been posted. The entirety of the application represents the student in 9th – 11th grades. Kashuv turned 17 at the end of his junior year. Why should Kashuv’s repeated acts of racism be excused due to his age when literally everything else about him at that age is precisely what universities are judging for admissions? His repeated use of “n****r” is the one and only thing about him that should not be judged for university admissions?

Are conservatives advocating for universities to stop rescinding offers when students are caught cheating or plagiarizing as teenagers, when their senior year grades drop as teenagers, or when it’s discovered students lied on their applications as teenagers? If not, then we know what they’re actually protesting.

Conservatives love to talk about taking personal responsibility, but they only believe that applies to people of color, poor people, and liberals. (Will Laura Ingraham condemn Kashuv’s posts about this as “whining”?) All the very same people who vigorously complained that teenager Michael Brown, teenager Trayvon Martin, and literal child Tamir Rice were “no angels” and should bear the responsibility for their own murders are now upset that a privileged white boy will have to take personal responsibility for his actions in the weakest and mildest way possible– having to choose a different university than Harvard. That “denied opportunity” is angering conservatives, but denying a Black teenager literally all opportunities, stealing his entire future, is absolutely right and just in their eyes, because when a Black teenager is “no angel,” murder is justified, but when a white teenager is no angel, even when he rapes someone, no punishment, no matter how mild, is justified.

Harvard rejects 95% of all applicants. Conservatives evidently believe that white teenagers belong in the top 5% and must commit atrocities much worse than racism or rape to lose that place while Black teenagers must be perfect in every way just to retain the right to draw breath.

People are more concerned about the kid who repeatedly used “n****r” than they are about the Black students and staff who would be forced to sit in classrooms with him. Harvard is rightly considering the health and safety of its current students and staff in its decisions about who they add to their community. It’s telling that people are more worried about protecting this celebrity from the consequences of his own racist actions than protecting the Black members of Harvard’s community from racism. They’re worried about Kashuv’s future, but not at all concerned about the grad student who would be forced to teach his freshman Comp class, knowing full well that Kashuv would take to Twitter with a whining rant about “reverse racism” and “persecution of conservatives” if he earned a B on an essay.

In the application process, elite universities are just as concerned about character as they are about grades and SATs. Applicants must submit a personal narrative and letters of recommendation that attest to their character as hardworking and community-minded. Elite universities are very picky in their decision-making around who they will add to their learning communities, and a student’s character– again, at 16, just like everything else on the application– is a large part of the consideration. It is not at all surprising that Harvard rescinds acceptances from students when racist acts come to light. The examination of applicants’ character during the high school years is precisely what the application process is designed to do. It’s preposterous to imagine that the best way to go about this is to examine everything about a student BUT racism.

I’m writing this on Juneteenth, a time when many people reflect on the brutal racism Black people have suffered, and continue to suffer, in an America dominated by white supremacy. Do we really wish to continue being the kind of nation that believes it’s too much to ask white people who were born in 2001, who grew up with the internet, and who are supposedly academic superstars devoted to the betterment of society to avoid repeatedly using the word “n****r”? Several conservative pundits I refuse to link here have stated that Harvard is setting an “impossible standard” by weeding out students who have used racial slurs, which reveals far more about those pundits than it does about Harvard.

I’ve spent the last six years teaching 16-year-old students after 25 years as a university adjunct. They are magnificent, brilliant human beings perfectly capable of understanding that racial slurs are harmful and why they are harmful. We expect them to take personal responsibility for literally everything else right up until a white male student must face consequences for words or actions harming a woman or a person of color. We expect 16-year-olds to be responsible enough to drive, to work, and to carry the enormous academic workload that college-bound students now must undertake. It is completely and obviously disingenuous to pretend that 16 is too young to understand the harmful nature of racial slurs. We all know that Kyle Kashuv absolutely understood what he was doing and felt no remorse for anything but being caught. What they’re arguing for– what all of Trumpism and modern conservatism is arguing for– is the right to use racial slurs without consequence.

Free speech means freedom from government interference, not freedom from social consequences. “Free speech” means you can say “The President sux” without going to prison. It does not mean that social media companies must host your racist speech, that TV shows must not fire you, or that Harvard must allow you to attend. Actions have consequences, conservatives. Yes, even for you.

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“We Shouldn’t Rush to Judgment” on the MAGA boys? Who Does That Serve?

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Omaha elder and Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips.

The response of some of my fellow white people to the jeering mob of MAGA boys mocking a group of Native people (including Omaha elder and Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips, pictured above) after the so-called “March for Life” anti-choice rally in Washington DC on Friday, has been less than spectacular. I’ve had all I can take of “let’s not rush to judgment” and “let’s avoid knee-jerk reactions” and “the media is playing to extremist assumptions.” 
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When you label people of color pointing out racism (or women pointing out sexism, or people with disabilities pointing out ableism, etc) a “knee-jerk reaction” or an “extremist mindset,” who does that serve? 
Whenever people of color discuss an incident of racism and we respond with “Let’s not rush to judgment” or “There could be guilt on both sides,” we’re deliberately ignoring every scrap of sociopolitical context. Who does that serve?
Let’s start with “let’s not rush to judgment.” We can all see in the video that their behavior is appalling, so what, precisely, is the white defense of the MAGA boys against people of color labeling their behavior “racism”?
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The white defense comes in various flavors of “we shouldn’t rush to judgment because we don’t know the whole story” and “They were just [standing there, dancing, smiling, etc] and did nothing wrong.” If you believe that there’s some important context that needs to be applied to this in order to fully understand it, you’re right. If you believe that there’s any context that could be applied to this to justify the actions of the MAGA boys, you’re wrong.
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If you believe knowing “the whole story” could exonerate the MAGA boys, you’re stating that the racist behavior of these MAGA boys could somehow have been earned by the Native elders. You believe that, at least some of the time, people of color share some blame in racism against them. That argument is, at its core, racist.
If you believe that the boys were “just standing there” or “just dancing” or “just” anything, you’re ignoring the entirety of the sociopolitical context, as if this incident happened outside of our culture and time; as if a white mob swarming a small group of people of color, MAGA hats, or chants of “build the wall” are minor details that have no cultural meaning or bearing on understanding this encounter.
Who does it serve to ignore the fact that the actions of the MAGA boys happened within a pre-existing framework of white supremacy? Who does it serve to ignore that MAGA gear is a symbol of racism, an implied threat? Who does it serve to ignore that high school racism in the US has been widely accompanied by students shouting “TRUMP” and/or wearing MAGA gear? Who does it serve to ignore that mobs of white males, especially displaying racist symbology, have a long history of terrifying violence in the US? 
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It’s Privilege 101 to excuse racism by scraping away the context and keeping focus on the actions of the moment, so that the person wielding their privilege is framed as just innocently doing X. “All he did was say she looked nice,” “All he did was stand there and smile,” “All he did was say that there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood,” “All he did was use the OK sign.” It’s a well-worn trick to protect privilege.
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So when we pretend that the sociocultural context of this incident just doesn’t exist, who does that serve? It serves white supremacy.
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Racist pro-Trump graffiti found on a Spanish teacher’s door at a high school in northern California. Racist pro-Trump graffiti and other expressions of pro-Trump racism have risen to alarming levels at US high schools. While the election of Trump has clearly emboldened young racists and contributed to the frequency with which racists express themselves openly, Trump’s election is a result of longstanding systemic racism, not the cause of that racism.

 
Perhaps even worse than “let’s not rush to judgment” is the claim that people of color are having a “knee-jerk reaction” rather than a reasonable response. When we make the claim that people of color are having a “knee-jerk reaction,” we’re insisting that people of color don’t know racism when they see it and are just reacting emotionally, without thought. We’re insisting that our “thoughtful” reaction that does not “rush to judgment” is superior, and should be deferred to. We’re insisting that there are ways in which people of color bring racism upon themselves, and that they are required to test all events thoroughly against white-created standards to satisfy us that they did not deserve the racism we gave them. We’re insisting that people of color require our consent to identify our actions as racist.
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“But we don’t have the whole story.” While white people have no business telling people of color what is and what is not racist, let’s set that obvious fact aside for the moment to entertain the possibilities around “the whole story.”
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Look at the statements conservatives are making in the MAGA boys’ defense:
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“He drummed right in that boy’s face.”
“He walked over to them before they swarmed him.”
“There was a group of Black people there calling the boys racist and homophobic slurs.”
“That Native elder has a history of instigation.”
“One of the Natives told the boys to go back to Europe.”
“The Natives were just using the boys for a hateful political stunt.”
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Even IF conservatives are correct and every one of those statements is true, none of it excuses the way the MAGA boys behaved, none of it erases the sociopolitical context that gives cultural meaning to a swarm of MAGA gear-wearing white boys surrounding a small group of Native elders and jeering at them.
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People of color are not “rushing to judgment” or having a “knee-jerk reaction.” They’re identifying something they’ve learned to identify through generations of experience.
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Taken from the video.

There’s a reason the smug smirk on the featured MAGA boy’s face has instigated such a visceral reaction from everyone who is not white or male.
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Speaking from personal experience, every woman knows what that smug smirk means. Every woman knows what it means when a privileged white boy blocks your path and stands inches from your face with a smug smirk. Even most white men know, if they’re honest, the face of the smug, taunting bully. We have all been victimized by that boy, watched as the adults excused it, watched as their mothers lied– as this boy’s mother has apparently done— to make us the aggressors.
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To quote Ruth Graham from the Slate article I linked in the first paragraph:
“Anyone who knew the popular white boys in high school recognized it: the confident gaze, the eyes twinkling with menace, the smirk. The face of a boy who is not as smart as he thinks he is, but is exactly as powerful. The face that sneers, ‘What? I’m just standing here,’ if you flinch or cry or lash out. The face knows that no matter how you react, it wins.”
To the widespread knowledge of what entitled bullying looks like, add generations of racism and genocide against Native people. Add the daily grind of being a person of color in the US and having “TRUMP” shouted at you as a taunt as you’re just trying to go about your business, having “Trump is deporting all of you!” shouted as you as you’re walking down the street. Add generations of having to carefully scrutinize white behavior, learn its signs and symbols, merely as acts of self-preservation. White people, we have no evidence that people of color are “rushing to judgment” here, and plenty of reason to trust the judgment of people of color when they tell us that something is racist.
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Most importantly, no one is asking white people for a ruling on whether or not this is racism. That is not our role here. Our role is to ask ourselves what our level of complicity is in allowing this to happen and what we can actively do to ensure that it never happens again.

 

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What Does it Mean When Trump Says He’s a “Nationalist”? Ask the Man Who Just Shot Up a Synagogue

 

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A candlelight vigil outside Tree of Life Congregation yesterday evening. (Photo: Matt Rourke/AP)

Am I surprised a man opened fire in a synagogue yesterday during a baby naming, murdering 11 people while yelling “All Jews must die”? No. Jews have been a favorite target of violence– political and otherwise– for two thousand years. But open hatred of difference has now gone mainstream, and is present at the highest levels of our society. The extremist right wing, which always feared and hated Jews, people of color, and LGBTQ people, is now dominating conservative media and directing the tenor of the national discourse. Open hatred has become fashionable.

“I’m not politically correct,” goes the refrain, as the speaker defends sexual assault, racial slurs, transphobic violence, on and on. The extremist right has framed this as “truth” vs “the perpetually offended,” as if bigotry represents “truth” and those opposing it are just comically “offended,” like a schoolmarm shocked to find “FVCK” carved on a desk. Opposition to racism, sexism, transphobia, and all abuses of power is strenuously belittled and mocked by the right as “political correctness” and “virtue signaling.” They have made it fashionable to mock opposition to bigotry. 

So it comes as no surprise that part of this fashionable bigotry is hatred of “globalists,” a longstanding euphemism for “Jews” repopularized in recent years by the Nazi-sympathizing alt right. “Globalist” is a reference to the very old antisemitic conspiracy theory that Jews have no allegiance to any one nation and seek to dominate the globe as a whole, usually through banking (look for references to the Rothschilds) and skullduggery. Trump himself, just days before the shooting, decried the danger of “globalists” to a Houston crowd that roared its approval. In claiming to be a “Nationalist,” Trump is using alt right terminology that means he opposes “Globalist” Jews.

The extremist right believe “Jews,” as a nebulous, evil consortium (often said to be headed by philanthropist and frequent Democrat donor George Soros), are somehow “selling out” the US to other nations for personal gain– including the destruction of the “white race”– and global political power. “Nationalist” means “white Nationalist”– someone fighting for the preservation of a white-dominated, Christian America against Jewish Globalists. One of the things white Nationalists believe Jewish Globalists are plotting is the “destruction of white America” through the left’s “support of open borders,” which fosters “white genocide” by creating an “invasion” of Brown people. These Brown people are all “criminals,” “rapists,” and “terrorists,” an “infestation.” When the right claim that “the left” is funding “the caravan,” they mean that Jewish Globalists are funding it as part of their plan to destroy white domination in the US. This is why it makes no difference to these people whether immigrants are asylum seekers fleeing horrors or people seeking the American Dream. The operative for Nationalists is whether immigrants are– or are not— white. 

Black people– the lowest of the low to Nationalists– are portrayed as witless fools, “duped” into voting Democrat with offers of “free stuff.” “Welfare” encourages them to “outbreed white people.” This is what the “welfare queen” slur has evolved into– a subhuman tool of Jewish Globalists encouraged to breed with free food, free phones, and subsidized rent as Jews cackle over the impending destruction of the white race. One wonders what Nationalists make of the thousands of Black Jews in America or of African Jews.

Do I think Trump knows any of this? No. Would he care if he knew? Also no. Do the roaring crowds who approve this rhetoric know? Many of them, sure. And some are just along for the ride because they love the bullying, the anger, the hate. They love that the bigotry and hatred they call “patriotism” is now at the highest echelon of government. It’s why they elected him and why they remain faithful as the rest of the nation– and the world– looks on in horror.

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The chapel in the Tree of Life synagogue. (Source: tolols.org)

The mainstream right refuses to address– or even acknowledge– the popularity of white Nationalism in its ranks even as their leaders defend its principles and actors. This is a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, and an utter lack of any serious effort apart from some weak statements decrying “racism” (even as they campaign for the racists) is their admission of defeat. They’re all rushing to prove to conservative voters how loyal they are to Trump even as he screeches racist conspiracy theory rhetoric at rallies. Against that behavior, who believes mealy-mouthed tweets about being “against racism”?

Compounding this moral cowardice, the right consistently refuses to accept that anyone on the right can do any wrong. They have already begun pretending this synagogue shooting is a “false flag,” just as they are pretending the recent mail bombs are “false flags,” just as they have pretended that every murder and attack by far right extremists in recent years are all somehow orchestrated by the left. They claim the left has somehow planted every shooters’ right wing social media posts, evidence of membership in right wing groups, photos of the shooter clutching Confederate flags, giving Nazi salutes, and wearing MAGA hats– even claims of planting Nazi and pro-Trump tattoos.

The right will pretend there’s “violence on both sides” and point to an antifa kid setting fire to a trash can.

I tell you what, Tucker. I’ll GIVE you my trashcans if you BRING BACK THESE LIVES.

The false equivalency of “both sides” is dangerous, because it equates violent racist rhetoric with the rhetoric opposing it.

I agree, wholeheartedly, that there should be no rhetoric advocating violence, period. But it is dangerous– and I mean that literally, as in more people will die— to pretend that approving of a politician’s physical assault against a journalist, or popularizing lies like “Democrats are a violent mob” and “[If Democrats win, they] will overturn everything that we’ve done and they will do it quickly and violently. And violently. There is violence” are in any way equivalent to accosting right wing politicians in restaurants with protests against their actual policies, or statements calling attention to the very real rise of white Nationalism in conservative politics. Republicans are even equating putting googly eyes on a campaign billboard with Nationalist murders.

White Nationalism and the racism, antisemitism, and anti-LGBTQ sentiment underpinning it are not new to America, not by a longshot. But it’s undeniable that over the past 50 years, the US has made some small gains in the fight against it, and it has come roaring back, rearing its ugly, violent head and insisting on its dominance. This is the “movement” that caused 74% of white voters to vote for Trump as opposed to just 6% of Black voters, 26% of Jewish voters, and 28% of Latinx voters. That divide is no accident. It wasn’t “jobs” or “the economy” unless you mean the relentless drumbeat of “your taxes pay for Democrat handouts to Black people and immigrants” or “immigrants come here to take our jobs.” Much of the rhetoric on the right was racially charged in 2016, and it has only escalated from there, emboldened by what they see as a white mandate. Nine GOP midterm candidates have open ties to Nationalist or Nazi groups as the bulk of the party continues pandering to Nationalists either with dog whistle racism or open allegiance.

When we say “we must come together as a nation,” unless we’re coming together against Nationalism, all we’re doing is enabling it. At the barest minimum, we must all immediately and vociferously stand against the racist, antisemitic, anti-LGBTQ rhetorical violence spinning out of control in our political discourse. Better yet, we should stand firm against the dangerous policies such rhetoric is designed to enable.

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“Who Will Believe Thee, Isabel?”: Measuring Kavanaugh

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Next week, we will finally hear Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony detailing her memory of Judge Brett Kavanaugh attempting to violently rape her in high school, when he was 17 and she was 15. Dr. Ford has been harassed, threatened, and bullied by the GOP Senate Judiciary Committee, while their minions in the public have doxxed her and sent so many credible death threats the FBI has opened an investigation. It’s ironic given that Dr. Ford has been pleading for standard procedure to be followed and the FBI be allowed to reopen Kavanaugh’s background check in order to investigate her claims. The GOP is desperate to prevent that, shamefully lying that this is not what the FBI does, despite these same Senators stating the opposite on record multiple times in the past. That’s how desperate they are to hide whatever the FBI would find in an investigation. And considering Kavanaugh has already been caught bending the truth in his confirmation hearings about an entirely different matter, I can empathize with their panic. They’re trying to get an ethically suspect man onto the highest court in the land, and their plan was, evidently, to just move as quickly as they could before anyone noticed he was ethically suspect.

Well, that “just run fast and hope no one notices” ploy did not go according to plan, and here we are.

Now the right has moved from “he didn’t do it”– an obvious untruth, given the ethical gymnastics the GOP is performing to prevent the FBI from calling even a single witness– to “it doesn’t matter if he did. He was so young!”

This is, in a word, nonsense.

Whenever a woman accuses a man of sexual assault, men (and even, tragically, some women) line up to  attack the victim and excuse the perpetrator. They eagerly tumble onto the internet in dozens, breathlessly calling the woman a liar, blaming her for the assault, saying she had it coming.

And, increasingly, what we see is “it’s fine that he did it.” The reasons are myriad– he was drunk; he was male; “boys will be boys”; and even, shockingly, asserting sexual assault is not actually a crime. Conservatives have focused their efforts in Kavanaugh’s case around his age at the time of the attempted rape– 17. “He was too young to be held accountable all these years later,” goes the tale.

This is a dangerous lie for multiple reasons. First, it teaches teenagers that it’s fine when teenage boys sexually assault teenage girls. Powerful people will stand between the boy and consequences— forever. A girl who comes forward will be humiliated, called a liar, blamed for the assault, instructed that it’s not such a big deal, told she deserved it, told that the boy’s future is unquestionably and permanently more important and more valuable than her own. She is taught that if a boy tries to rape you– or succeeds– the culture will rise up to protect him. No one in authority will stand with you. In fact, you will be punished by authority figures for even trying to tell boys no.

Conservatives are enthusiastically teaching young women and girls that they are less important than boys and men. In fact, conservatives are enthusiastically teaching young women and girls that they are less important than property. Teenagers are often arrested and charged with vandalism, police stating that the behavior needs to be “nipped in the bud” early to prevent further crime. But sexual assault is winked away with “boys will be boys.” These are the “values” of “values voters.”

However, the idea that a boy is intrinsically valuable– much more valuable than any girl he would ever assault– only holds true when the boy is white.

When an unarmed Black teenager is shot and killed, rather than mourning the loss and holding up his youthful innocence, white people rush to defame the boy. Trayvon Martin was 17 and unarmed when he was murdered by George Zimmerman. The very same people now defending Kavanaugh rushed to smear Trayvon’s character with school discipline records and “tough-looking” selfies. Michael Brown was 18 when the same people now defending Kavanaugh called Brown a “thug” responsible for his own murder. Little Tamir Rice was just 12, but the same people defending Kavanaugh still blamed this child, playing with a toy gun in a public park in an open carry state, for his own murder and called him a “thug.

Black victims are routinely framed as dangerous and suspect, while white shooters are framed as acting in self-defense, as “troubled,” or as “social outcasts who just needed a friend.” Their good qualities always foregrounded— “brilliant,” “soft-spoken,” “an honor student.” Sweet, smiling pictures are used in the press, while the press rips apart the internet to locate the most “thuggish” possible picture of the murder victim.

When a white boy sexually assaults a girl, men claim the boy is the real victim– victimized by the girl’s truthful report. The crime is winked away as natural male behavior while the girl’s vain hope that her victimization be taken seriously becomes the real crime. When Black boys are murdered, white people claim the shooter is the real victim, acting in righteous self-defense when faced with a savage, barely-human thug.

When Black boys are accused of sexual assault, the very same people laughing and winking at Kavanaugh’s “red-blooded natural male behavior” scream for their deaths– even after those boys are exonerated by DNA evidence.

The people excusing Kavanaugh– essentially claiming it’s his right to force himself on a girl– are cut from the same cloth as people who believe Black boys should be executed for the same behavior. The sitting president of the United States believes it was Kavanaugh’s right– and his own— to sexually assault women but still calls for the execution of the Central Park Five, after they have been proven completely innocent by DNA testing.

This is what we’re dealing with here.

Seventeen-year old boys are not feral animals. They’re a few months away from voting. At 17, you’re considered old enough to enlist in the military. This means the US military is officially certain that people of that age possess the decision-making skills to make a life-altering commitment, and the discipline to serve in the US military. We believe people of that age possess the decision-making skills and discipline to choose a university and a major, to drive a car, to work. In eight states, it’s even old enough to purchase a firearm without parental consent.

Yet a sizable segment of our population believes it’s a minor, irrelevant issue that Kavanaugh at 17 attempted to force himself on a 15-year old girl, and that the real crime is her accusation. They believe no 17-year old boy should be held accountable for their behavior . . . unless they’re Black.

This isn’t about sexual assault. It’s about cultural power. It’s about protecting the rights of wealthy white men to victimize the rest of us without consequences. When a wealthy white man is involved, the victim is always the white man.

This is who we’re about to put on the Supreme Court. This is who runs the Senate Judiciary Committee. This is Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump, and Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan, and Orrin Hatch, and Chuck Grassley, and Devin Nunes, and the entire white male conservative cadre– the real American thugs.

Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure in 1604. That play is 414 years old. And yet it perfectly encapsulates the power dynamic white male America works strenuously to protect. The “false” of white men “o’erweighs the true” of everyone else.

Contact your Senators here

 

 

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Back to School: Creating an Equitable Workplace

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Only 2% of K-12 teachers nationwide are Black men, and just 4.5% are Black women. Black teachers are 50% more likely to leave the profession than white teachers. Just 4% of university faculty are Black. (Photo: teacher.org)

This piece is the second in a three-part series about education in the US. The first is Back to School: How to Be a White Teacher, As Taught to Me By Students of Color.

A few years ago, when I was the senior lecturer at [name redacted] university, the only time my “senior lecturer status” was ever mentioned was when the department chair offered me a class in Black theatre because they “had to” due to my “status.” I told them to hire a Black colleague instead. My “status” as “senior lecturer” had never come up before and never came up again. In fact, that same year I was roundly scolded for “assuming” I had a particular class just because it had been offered to me. They suddenly announced at the last minute they were hiring a white man, lecturing there for the first time, and when I brought up the fact that the job had already been offered to me, I was sternly rebuked. So much for my “senior lecturer” status. I was scolded again by senior staff for later refusing to assist the new hire without pay.

My story is not unique. It’s not even particularly unique in my own academic career. White educators, especially white male educators, experience enormous privilege in the workplace, whether they know it or not.

White men are over-represented in all academic leadership roles. In public high schools, 70% of principals are male, almost all white. Independent schools fare no better; 90% of school heads are white and 64% are male. Over 86% of public school superintendents are men and 92% are white.

White men also enjoy a host of privileges as teachers. In an era when student test scores have become a (mystifyingly) critical marker of teacher performance, white men are assigned high-performing classes more often than women and people of color. Men are given better evaluations than their female colleagues and colleagues of color, even when teaching online classes with literally identical, copy-and-paste content. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in non-union independent schools, men are paid a full 32% more than women. Even in unionized public schools, men are paid 12% more than women. This may sound impossible given the codification of pay scales in teaching positions, but schools have a great deal of flexibility in determining which step on the pay scale a teacher begins when hired and what kinds of classes, certifications, and degrees they will accept for pay-raising post-graduate education. Educators of color are less likely to be retained, and Black teachers’ expertise in both subject matter and pedagogy is routinely downplayed or overlooked.

In short, discrimination is rampant in academia, and, although this piece focuses primarily on race, it’s not limited to race alone. Teachers with disabilities are routinely refused accommodations, and in most areas of the country, transgender, non-binary and gender-nonconforming teachers are deeply discriminated against. Shockingly, half of transgender teachers report being harassed by colleagues and administrators.

White educators, we can create a more equitable workplace for educators of color. Male educators, you can create a more equitable workplace for women. Cis educators, we can create a more equitable workplace for transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming educators. Able-bodied educators, you can create a more equitable workplace for educators with disabilities. While this piece focuses on race, there is much work to be done in all areas of inequity, and the techniques described below can be used to create diversity, inclusion, and equity for all.

EXAMINE RETENTION RATES. A site’s retention rates are key to understanding the experiences of those who work there. Is your site able to retain white people, but struggles to retain people of color? Are men retained longer than women? Has your site lost a number of women of color all within a short time frame? Examining your retention rates will provide valuable insight into whether your site is truly welcoming and equitable. If your site utilizes exit interviews, perhaps compiling the answers of the people of color who have left your site within the past few years will prove enlightening. Believe what people of color tell you about working at your site, and pay careful attention to trends in the compiled exit interview data.

ENCOURAGE DIVERSE HIRING AT YOUR SITE. Diversity in the workplace, both in teaching staff and in leadership, has numerous benefits. Although our student population is now “majority minority,” US teaching staff is 80% white, with many sites lacking even a single Black or Latinx classroom teacher, even in diverse areas, while evidence continues to mount that students of color have better outcomes when they have teachers of color. A 2015 Stanford University study showed that Black students are disciplined more harshly for the same infractions than white students. The odds of being assigned to a “gifted” or advanced program are 66% lower for Black students and 47% lower for Latinx students than they are for white students, even with high placement test scores. Non-Black teachers have lower expectations for Black students than Black teachers do, even when evaluating the same students. Non-Latinx teachers have negative perceptions of Latinx students, especially when they’re EL students. A more diverse teaching staff is the first step in creating a more equitable education for students of color. White staff will also benefit from working alongside educators with diverse perspectives and experiences.

Is your site hiring? Spread the word to colleagues of color. Post on social media and ask your friends to keep an eye out for candidates of color. Mention to administrators the critical importance of a diverse staff. Advocate for candidates of color when they apply. When you have the opportunity to invite guest speakers to your classroom, look for people of color regardless of the topic. Both students of color and white students need diverse role models.

SUPPORT YOUR COLLEAGUES OF COLOR. It’s not going to do much good if you hire educators of color and then dismiss, minimize, or contest everything they have to say. This is diversity without equity—hiring people of color and then relegating them to a voiceless underclass. Practical ways you can support your colleagues of color (and remember that all of these can be extrapolated to colleagues with disabilities, LGBTQ colleagues, etc):

  1. Educate yourself. Read writers of color and believe what they have to say about whiteness. If you’re uncomfortable with their critiques, work to change the impact of whiteness on their lives rather than fault writers of color for telling the truth of their lived experiences. A better understanding of the experiences of your colleagues of color will increase your effectiveness as an ally.
  2. Listen and believe your colleagues of color. Do not argue with people of color about their lived experiences of racism, especially if your argument is about intent (“I didn’t mean it that way!”). Impact is much more important than intent. If a colleague of color trusts you enough to educate you about something racially problematic happening at your site, or something racially problematic that you’ve done or said, listen to them. Your colleague of color is taking an enormous risk by discussing this with you. Honor that by listening sincerely. Then support your colleague if further steps need to be taken, such as bringing a proposed policy change to administration, or requesting administration reverse a racially charged decision.
  3. Work with administration to get diversity and equity training for the whole staff, and approach the work sincerely by educating the staff about white fragility beforehand. I’ve been through many diversity trainings, and I honestly think most white people imagine diversity training will just be a lengthy affirmation of our cherished belief that we are “not racist.” We imagine that we will sit for a few hours shaking our heads in dismay about “those racists over there” while congratulating ourselves for being “not that.” White people in diversity trainings become enormously fragile, defensive, and even angry the moment they realize that diversity training is actually about combating our own implicit racism and the ways in which we support systemic racism. White people will angrily or tearfully insist we’re “not racist” and “a good person,” insist we “don’t see color,” insist the trainer is incompetent, crow about our resistance to the training (such as boasting about “stumping” the trainer with whataboutism or examples of “reverse racism”), state that we feel “attacked,” dismiss accounts of racism by people of color as “exaggerated,” and more. Staff-wide education around white fragility could provide some tools to mitigate those all-too-common negative reactions to the work. Until white staff are past fragility and defensiveness, little progress can be made.
  4. Work to create clear policies and procedures. When we leave decisions to “case-by-case bases,” more often than not, implicit biases create inequity. Clear policies and procedures, applied equitably, can insure that decisions are as untainted by implicit biases as possible. For example, it’s startlingly common for white male administrators to plan privately with white male educators, securing the most desirable classes and assignments for the white men and then offering the remainder to the women and people of color on staff. “We didn’t know you were interested!” is always the excuse, an excuse created by keeping initial planning secret so the question is never asked. Codifying equitable policies would avoid the resentment that such favoritism breeds, increasing retention.

DIVERSIFY LEADERSHIP. In the US, the vast majority of educational leadership is both white and male. Such homogeneity not only reduces effectiveness, but perpetuates itself in that white males are far more likely to hire and promote other white males, minimize or discount their errors and failures, and assume competence even with extraordinary evidence to the contrary. (We’ve all been in situations where a white man who failed spectacularly at another site is hired for a position of leadership at ours.) Homogeneity in leadership leads to the implicit biases common to that group running unchecked through the industry as a whole. Leadership– from department leadership all the way through the superintendent and school board or board of directors– must reflect the diversity of the surrounding community if it is to effectively serve that community.

Diversity without equity is not effective. Hiring women and people of color and then refusing to pay them equitably, promote them, or even listen sincerely to their input is not reflective of a true “commitment to diversity,” a phrase every school and university across the nation displays proudly on their websites. We have much work to do in our industry– and in our culture at large– to live up to that promise. Let’s get to work.

Next: Back to School: How to Fix the “Broken Education System”

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Back to School: How to be a White Teacher, As Taught to Me By Students of Color

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Image: JSTOR Daily (daily.jstor.org)

This is the first piece in a three-part series about education in the US.

I taught for many years as a lecturer at a state university in the Bay Area. Once, after the first day of class, a young Black student stopped me to ask a routine question. He was a freshman, at the start of his college journey. We walked together to my next class for a bit and chatted. I asked him what I asked many of my students when we had a chance to chat: What did he want to do with his life? What were his dreams and goals? He stopped in his tracks, turned to me, and said, “No white person has ever asked me that.”

This was very early in my teaching career, and was a formative moment for me. In one comment, this teenager had given me a master class in being a white teacher, and in whiteness in America. No white teacher– no white PERSON– had ever cared enough to ask this young man the ubiquitous, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” That broke my heart and changed my life as a teacher. I began to think hard about how white teachers serve– or do not serve– students of color. I began to think hard about the many ways in which living in a society flooded with racist messaging has influenced the way we teach, the expectations we have of our students, the material we teach, and our classroom cultures.

While many assume education is extremely diverse– I’ve had white people tell me they believe their whiteness is a liability on the academic job market– 80% of public school teachers are white, and 90% of full-time professors are white (but when you include underpaid lecturers, that number drops to 79%). A full 77% of K-12 teachers are women  (but of course just under a quarter of full-time professors are women). White men are given school leadership roles at all levels– K through grad school– at astonishingly higher rates than anyone else, even though they are underrepresented in K-12 education. The more prestigious the educational institution, the more likely white men are chosen for leadership roles.

Most American teachers are white, and most of us are teaching under some form of white male leadership, while the US student population is more diverse now than ever before. Yet we’re also confronted with the reality that white fragility around conversations about race and white resentment are both at a fever pitch, making support around these issues from parents, colleagues and, most importantly, administrators uncertain and often conditional.

How do we support all our students whether leadership is on board or not? How do we create a curriculum and a classroom culture that support the needs of all students using the tools available to us, with or without outside support?

EDUCATE YOURSELF. Read writers of color, and not just when they’re writing about race. Seek out writers whose lived experience differs from yours and learn what they have to say about a wide variety of topics. Believe what writers of color have to say about whiteness. If you begin to feel uncomfortable with a writer’s criticism of white people, lean into it. This is where the growth happens. Don’t allow yourself to pretend that your own resistance, defensiveness, or anger mean that the writer is “wrong.” Defensiveness, resistance, and anger are far more likely to mean that the writer is discussing an uncomfortable truth you do not want to confront. Do you want your students to give up the minute something gets difficult? If we’re asking for that kind of disciplined effort from 14-year-old students around algebra problems or essays, we can certainly give that disciplined effort ourselves about the systemic racism that has destroyed lives for generations. If you’re unhappy with the way writers of color critique whiteness, work to change the impact of whiteness in their lives rather than dismiss the writers for telling the truth.

BUILD A DIVERSE CURRICULUM. Don’t worry about being a white teacher teaching material by people of color. Just don’t present yourself as an expert in the race-related material. It’s enough to be the expert in, say, novel structure; you do not also need to be the expert in Black lives to teach a novel by a Black writer. Read the work of Black scholars when prepping Black material. Present the material to your students as something you are exploring together. Tell students why it’s important to read writers of many different perspectives. Model humility; model the desire to learn about people different than yourself, to learn from people different than yourself. Demonstrate to your students that material by people of color isn’t “Black history” or “Latinx literature” but “history” and “literature.” “History” and “literature” are not naturally white, requiring modifiers to demonstrate distance from the natural whiteness of the fields. All work comes from specific perspectives, including white-written work. We just pretend white-written work is “neutral” and “universal.” White work is heavily influenced by the writer’s whiteness, not “neutral,” but we read whiteness as “neutral” and everything else as defined by its distance from whiteness. All work is both specific in perspective and universal.

Scholars invented “the canon” and we can reinvent it to include writers of color. Writers of color are not temporary diversions from “important work,” existing solely to speak specifically about people of color for a moment before we return to work about more universal themes. Writers of color are firmly enmeshed in the same web of influences and references, and handle the same universal themes, as “canonical” writers. But because scholars privileged white work and relegated, for example, Black work to a “Black lit” or “Black history” sidebar, we’ve been taught to see it as an extra, a detour, a specialization. American writers of color are only considered “canonical” when writing about their identity, while we deem white writers the only people capable of writing work that speaks to the human experience as a whole. Does that seem exaggerated to you? Look for the American writers here, here, and here. Works by writers of color about identity are critically important, and of course do indeed contain universal themes, despite generations of white academics ignoring that. But works by writers of color about other topics are also important and also deserving of inclusion in curricula. Any list or syllabus that includes Orwell and Bradbury but not Butler is broken. Academics invented the broken canon, and we can repair it. Start with your syllabus.

If you’re a Humanities teacher, diversifying your curriculum is easy, especially if you’re already seeking out diverse writers and educating yourself about diverse perspectives. There are literally thousands of articles and lesson plans available online. There are social justice-focused lesson plans, lesson plans about writers of color, lesson plans based on primary source material written by people of color throughout history, and so much more. If you’re a STEM teacher, this might seem more complex. How do you “diversify” an Algebra 2 curriculum? The website Teaching Tolerance has sample lessons for all subjects and grade levels, and is a great place to start. They also published a useful article about diversity in STEM teaching called “Planting Seeds, Growing Diversity.”   There are many resources online for STEM teachers looking to create diverse curricula.

EXAMINE YOUR IMPLICIT BIASES. Implicit biases are unconscious responses to internalized cultural messaging. In a culture rife with systemic racism, we encounter racist messaging every day of our lives. (The same goes for misogyny, transphobia, ableism, etc.) Our implicit biases are not consciously racist, but rather a reaction to our understanding of our culture shaped by a lifetime of racist messaging. All humans have implicit biases and must work to uncover what they are before working to counteract them. I won’t lie to you; it’s difficult work and it’s never-ending, but the results are critically important for teachers. What are your expectations of your students? Do you unconsciously expect white boys to be “better” at some things? Do you allow a Black girl’s math errors to slide because “that’s the best she can do”? Do you see rowdiness from Black students as “inappropriate” and requiring consequences, but rowdiness from white boys as “high spirits”? Do you make up nicknames for students when their names are “too hard to pronounce”? All humans have implicit biases, and all Americans, especially white Americans, have a host of implicit biases about race that we must examine intentionally in order to overcome. Not sure where to start? Take a look at this article from the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, “Awareness of Implicit Biases” and NEA Today’s “When Implicit Bias Shapes Teacher Expectations.”   This is a life-long project with no finish line, so don’t look for quick, easy answers or a bullet-pointed “to do” list for the classroom. This is about examining our own thoughts and behavior over time.

RESPECT STUDENTS’ CULTURES. One of the most frequent mistakes we make as white teachers is around the usage of English dialects such as AAVE (African American Vernacular English). What we call “correct” or “proper” English is just one style of communication students will need to use as a tool in a few, very limited settings. Even in the business world, most communication is done in a slang-y, jargon-y English that is nowhere near “correct.” While formal English skills can indeed open doors for you as the lingua franca of many aspects of our culture, it’s just one style of English communication. When I mark something on a paper as “incorrect” grammar or syntax, it is “incorrect” for formal English, not for all English communication. “Correct” grammar and syntax are always changing. Case in point: Americans insisted on using “momentarily” incorrectly so persistently dictionaries now include “in a moment” as an “alternate usage” along with the original “for a moment,” which quite frankly galls me, but language evolves despite my personal feelings about it. White people complain bitterly about various dialects but don’t know how to use “whom” properly and can’t tell the difference between “every day” and “everyday.” I see white people writing the utterly incorrect “I drink coffee everyday” while sneering at the usage of “ax” for “ask,” a pronunciation that goes back 1200 years. Learning to code switch from AAVE, Hawaiian pidgin, or Spanglish to formal English is a skill, and a deeply useful one. When teaching, emphasize that you’re using one style of English—formal English—in your classroom, not that you’re using “correct English.” No one dialect is always “correct” for every setting.

Think about when formal English is required in your classroom and when it isn’t, and be certain that you’re monitoring that equally. During class discussions, too many teachers allow white slang while “correcting” students who use AAVE (even though the vast majority of “white slang” was appropriated from AAVE). If you’re using “cool,” “hang out,” or the prepositional because (“because science”) but “correcting” students who use “finna,” “ax,” or “I got out the bed,” you’re creating a classroom culture where random white slang is acceptable but a longstanding dialect with its own grammar and syntax–AAVE– is not.  We need to teach formal English to our students, but we can (correctly) recognize that code switching is a complex and useful skill rather than denigrate one dialect while teaching another. You don’t need to denigrate other English dialects to teach students formal English any more than you need to denigrate English to teach Japanese.

LISTEN TO STUDENTS AND COLLEAGUES OF COLOR. Most of what I’ve ever learned about serving students of color as a white teacher came from listening to students and colleagues of color. But in order to listen to colleagues of color, you need to have colleagues of color– and you need to have colleagues of color who are able to speak out without consequences. In the next piece, I’ll examine our role as white allies in creating diversity and equity in the academic workplace.

Next: Back to School: Creating an Equitable Workplace.

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Your Nonprofit is “Committed to Diversity”? How Diverse Is Your Board?

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“People ask me sometimes, when do you think it will it be enough? When will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is when there are nine.” — Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Few consider it odd that almost all Supreme Court justices in the court’s 229 year history have been white men, but many considered Justice Ginsberg’s statement to be highly controversial. The idea of an all-female court seemed upsetting and threatening to many people, but an all-male court has always seemed unremarkable.

In nearly every nonprofit company in the US, the board of directors is overwhelmingly white and male. One or two white women or Black men on an otherwise white male board is considered “diverse.” And when they get a seat at the table, women and people of color struggle to be heard in white male-heavy environments, their voices discounted, their points of view ignored. Endless studies and articles discuss this problem. Entire industries have developed around corporate diversity consultants.

This has enormous repercussions on every aspect of our lives in the US. Health services, education, social services, legal services, civic and environmental advocacy, the arts, and international relations all have significant nonprofit presence. White men– usually white, able-bodied, cisgender, straight men with Christian heritage– control these industries, set their priorities, and determine how resources are distributed without significant input from other points of view.

Few people outside of the nonprofit world know how much power the board of directors has. Most of us know that the board hires the head of the organization, a decision that has enormous repercussions for the institution as a whole. The head is the gatekeeper for every aspect of the organization, and it has been an ongoing, pervasive problem that the people boards choose for the big chair are almost always white and male.

Just as importantly, boards approve annual budgets, and where the money goes– and where it does not– directs everything about a company. Is your building ADA compliant? Do your staff go through regular diversity and equity training? Do you do hiring outreach to communities that are under-represented in your staff? Is budgeting for any of those a priority or considered an “extra”? What we choose to fund has far-reaching effects on every aspect of our organizations.

You cannot be “committed to diversity” unless your Board is diverse. We need to ensure that our boards have an understanding of a multiplicity of experiences, have a wider range of contacts, and can speak with authority to a wider range of people. A diverse board has innumerable benefits while a homogeneous board has just as many drawbacks and limitations.

When boards hire a new company head, they see a white man with little experience as “a fresh new voice” but a woman or person of color with the same (or even more) experience as “not ready.” They see a white man who has failed in other places as “a risk-taker” or “a maverick” but see women or people of color who have failed in other places as just failures. White boards give white men the benefit of the doubt while judging women and people of color too harshly. They see white men as being able to speak to a “universal human experience” while seeing, for example, a Black woman as having a limited, specifically Black and female, perspective.

Our culture assumes that all positions of power are rightfully white and male, and any diversion from that is a deviation from the norm– a place made specially for difference. We assume that white men are “neutral,” able to make decisions unweighted by identity-related points of view, and that everyone else is irrevocably marked by their identity, their judgment skewed by their distance from white maleness. Yet it is a certainty that whiteness and maleness are very specific points of view that clearly impact judgment.

A white person will not have the experience to always recognize and understand racism when they see it. A cisgender man will not have the experience to always recognize and understand sexism or transphobia when they see it. When confronted with racism, many– perhaps the majority– of white people reject it, defend it, or make excuses for it. When confronted with sexism, the majority of men reject it, defend it, or make excuses for it. Men insist that stories about women can’t be universal, but automatically assume that stories about men are. White people insist that Black, Latinx, or Asian stories can’t be universal, but automatically assume that stories about white people are. A film with an all-Black cast is a “Black movie,” but a film with an all white cast is just “a movie.” We label any story that’s not white, male, cis, hetero, and able-bodied as a creation for a niche audience, but the truth is, there is universality in any story, because there is far more that binds us than separates us. White men have been trained to see themselves as “neutral” and everyone else as marked by their distance from that neutrality. This is all summed up by the images below. These are male:

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And these are female:

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Even in simplistic cartoon icons, something extra is needed to denote “female,” because neutral is read as “male.” Every position of privilege is “neutral” and everything else is measured by its distance from that privilege, requiring modifying adjectives or visual markers.

Of course this point of view is a direct result of living in a culture that bombards us with this messaging relentlessly. It’s a catch-22: If we want to change our cultural messaging to embrace the universality of all human experience, not just white male human experience, we need to create that messaging in our culture– through the art, the marketing, the writing, and all the other cultural artifacts currently produced by organizations that overwhelmingly favor the work of white men, hire white men, and promote white men to positions of leadership.

While the gatekeepers are mostly white and male, gatekeeping throughout our culture will have a necessarily limited perspective. When the gatekeepers are homogeneous, outside perspectives, outside needs, and outside trends will always be imperfectly understood or even missed entirely. Having a diversity of voices in the room so dramatically improves an organization’s ability to serve its community, one would think a diverse board of directors would be a requirement for obtaining and retaining the 501c3 nonprofit status. As nonprofits, we exist as “public benefit corporations.” Who are we benefiting if the gatekeepers in our organizations are all drawn from the most privileged demographic in our culture?

It all boils down to this:

There is no “commitment to diversity” without diversity. 

We need to diversify our boards or stop claiming we have a “commitment to diversity.”

 

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Jeff Sessions Does Not Know His Bible

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Jeff Sessions. (Source: Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Today, speaking in Indiana, Jeff Sessions used Romans 13 to justify the Trump Administration’s brand new policy of stealing children from their parents at the border and locking them in detention centers. He said, “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”

Sessions does not understand Romans 13.

Time for Bitter Gertrude Bible Study!

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Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

It appears that Sessions has not read the full chapter. For example, Romans 13:6 tells you to pay your taxes, yet the Trump Administration changed the law so wealthy people would not have to pay their fair share. Romans 13:9-10 states that all God’s laws boil down to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and that we should therefore “do no harm” to our neighbors. It says that love itself is the “fulfillment of the law.”

So I think it’s clear Sessions has not read Romans 13 in its entirety, or he would not have called attention to it.

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No, Sessions got no further in Romans 13 than Romans 13:1-5. I won’t quote the whole thing here. (The full chapter is linked above if you’re curious.) Romans 13:1 gives you the basics of the text and the basis for Session’s quote:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

Romans 13:1-5 tells us to obey the law. Using this to defend the brand-new policy of the Trump Administration is an egregious– and deliberate– misuse of the text.

“Obey the law” does not mean “the law should never be changed.” If it did, Sessions and Trump would be in a Biblical bind because they very recently changed the policy to order border agents to steal children from parents at the border. This policy change was ordered specifically for its cruelty, as Trump and Sessions believed that people considering coming here to seek work or asylum would reconsider if they knew their children would be stolen from them and locked in cages. The Trump Administration has  snatched infants at the breast. They’ve pulled screaming toddlers away from weeping mothers. These stories are being witnessed, recorded, and retold every single day. Those appalled by this horrific human rights violation are demanding the policy itself be changed, not that individuals disobey the law. It is not against Romans 13 to demand that an immoral law be changed. If anything, it’s required by 13:9.

“Obey the law” presents a serious Biblical problem for the Trump Administration, as border agents are stealing children from legal asylum seekers as well as from undocumented workers. It’s the law of our nation that people can come here, claim asylum, and live under US protection while their cases are being considered. The Trump Administration itself is in violation of US law by stealing the children of legal asylum seekers, in addition to being in violation of Romans 13:1-5.

“Obey the law” and “authorities have been established by God” do not give those authorities carte blanche to commit whatever cruelty they please as punishment for disobedience to the law. Undocumented people crossing into the US are breaking US law, but the Bible—and basic human decency—forbids us from torturing children simply because their parents brought them here. In fact, Romans 13:9 is very clear that cruelty is forbidden, and the Bible specifically forbids cruelty to strangers in our land repeatedly throughout the Old and New Testaments. In Matthew 25:37-46, Jesus himself damns those who did not “take in strangers.”

An infant cries as U.S. Border Patrol agents process a group of immigrants in Granjeno, Texas, outside of McCallen on June 25, 2014.

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. — Matthew 25:41-46        (Photo source: Jerry Lara/San Antonio Express-News/Zuma Press)

Romans 13 does not support what you’re doing, Jeff Sessions. The Bible is abundantly clear that what you are doing is wrong, which is likely why so many religious leaders– even (finally) conservative religious leaders – have spoken out against it and against the Trump Administration’s denial of asylum to victims of domestic abuse and gang violence. If Senate Democrats do not succeed against the Republican majority in their attempt to reverse this policy, it will not be long before the other world powers issue sanctions against us for it, as indeed we have done for similar human rights violations in other countries.

Jeff, as you pointed us to Romans 13, I point you to Isaiah 10:1-3. If Trump cared about the Bible in the slightest, I would ask you to read it aloud to him (since he won’t read it—or anything—himself):

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.

I’m no Christian—I’m even a bad Jew– but I do know how to interpret text. Jeff Sessions, you lied about your own Bible to defend an unjust policy that breaks numerous Biblical precepts and US law. If you truly believe you will one day stand before your God on Judgment Day, you should repent—and quickly, before more people get hurt.

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