It’s all Connected and it’s all Sick: Samuel, Sandra and Cecil

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My Facebook is a steady stream of Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose and Cecil the lion. Many of the posts are expressing frustration at how universally accepted the outrage over Cecil is in comparison to the loss of Black lives in this country. The conversation, whether intentional or not, often times ends up being an exercise in futility and blaming. But it need not be that way. Many people who have remained silent about the state sanctioned stealing of Black lives have taken to their social media to express outrage over Cecil the Lion, and that is a problem. What I hope to get across to these people tonight, and what I hope you can get across to these people in your network, is this simple truth: the same depravity that led to Walter Palmer’s hunting Cecil the Lion is the very same depravity that took Sandra Bland’s life, and Samuel DuBose’s life, and Trayvon, and Rekisha, and Aiyana. It is the same depravity that has kept the media from reporting that in the last month four other Black women, besides Sandra Bland– Raynetta Turner, Kindra Chapman, Joyce Curnell, and Ralkina Jones– have been found dead in their jail cells. It is the same depravity that keeps us ignorant of the violence the USA continues to perpetrate on the indigenous people of this land at the hands of the police. This depravity is whiteness. Not white bodies, whiteness. It must be named, confronted, and destructed.

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Prosecutor Joe Deters, when talking about the murder of Samuel DuBose, pondered that he suspected that Ray Tensing was upset because Samuel DuBose didn’t get out of the car. Everybody has seen the video of Brian Encinia absolutely freaking out after Sandra Bland didn’t immediately follow his orders. What sent Eric Casebolt over the edge in McKinney was young Black people not following orders. This is whiteness, this need to dominate, to be in charge. Whiteness tries to make this the natural order. It tries to hide it behind the faux authority of a badge, but we know that’s bullshit: George Zimmerman didn’t have a badge. The real authority in this country is supposed to be whiteness. That is how order is maintained.

When folks who believe they are white (to borrow Ta-Nehisi Coate’s saying) they have to feel like they are dominant. The best form this can take is in a cis-gendered white male who can use his physical, intellectual, and social power to make the rest of society genuflect. When that’s not enough you go hunting lions. This is depravity. It is sickness.

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Many will say, but the lion was innocent and those others broke the law. Really? Tamir Rice broke no law, and his murders are free. Are you really comfortable saying that selling single cigarettes, or driving without having your physical license, or changing lanes without signaling is enough to lose your life? I challenge you, dig deeper. You will find whiteness there. There is no escaping it, not in this country. There is, however, a purging that can begin. We can each, those of us who are supposed to be white, do the work of examining our conscious, our ways of knowing, and interrogate these for this depravity. Once we find it, and we will, we must remove it, swiftly and without hesitation. That means delaying your immediate response and asking “wait, why haven’t I shared a single post about Sandra Bland?” Or, ” wait, “why is the name of this lake Calhoun?” Or, “why don’t I know who Fong Lee and Terrence Franklin are?” We have been taught we don’t need to know these things, or these people because we are dominant and they are lesser. That is the terrifyingly simple truth of the matter. We struggle to see it because whiteness covers us with asinine mythologies about criminality and personal responsibility which evidence shows us is false and hypocritical, but we buy it anyway. Why?

When Walter Palmer sent that arrow through Cecil he was affirming his dominance. When we make apologies and rationalizations for whiteness we are trying to affirm its dominance. If you are pissed about one, be pissed about the other, and do something about it!

Hearing Ta-Nehisi Coates While White: a response to David Brooks

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Eleven days ago David Brooks, the conservative op-ed writer for the New York Times, wrote a pseudo review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book Between the World and Me.The book itself is excellent and pulls no punches in challenging what Coates’ calls “The Dream” i.e. the idea of America that many cling to. Brooks acknowledges the power of Coates’ work but completely misses his point. In fact, Brooks is the perfect example of the “Dreamers,” and “those that must believe they are white” whom Coates discusses in the book.

Brooks — like many Americans, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democratic– find Coates’ general premise to be false, they believe in the American dream and will defend it at all costs. They will write it off  the book as venting, or race-baiting, a distortion of history (as Brooks claims) and that he is simply wrong. This is a problem. While it’s true the book was not written for white audiences that does not mean there is nothing in it for “those who believe they are white.”

American History and Truth Telling

The first thing that, to use Coates’ term “those that believe they are white” can take from Between the World and Me is an understanding of history. One of the excellent aspects of this book is that it is truth telling. When Coates, referring to Lincoln’s famous line at Gettysburg that government of the people not perish from the earth, says: “The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant ‘government of the people’ but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term ‘people’ to actually mean” he is pointing out a fundamental contradiction in American history, which our curriculum largely ignores. Coates is by no means the first to suggest this, since the Revolution there has, in every era, been those who bravely point out the contradictions and hypocrisy in American rhetoric. Ironically, Brooks actually cites Lincoln as an example of the benefits of the Dream. Instead of dealing with these ugly truths America, by and large, opts for what historian Ronald Takaki calls the Master Narrative, a self-serving, soothing narrative of the greatness and benevolence of our founding fathers. Any flaws they may have had, or violent laws they had codified, have been remedied by equally praise worthy Europeans such as Lyndon B. Johnson. As Brooks says ” [t]his country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame.” This is a a trademark of whiteness and of the actions of those who must believe they are white: The individualism with which history must exist to ease the conscious. Brooks can not see that history acts on more than individuals, history created and shaped institutions and systems which remain beacons of hate and exclusion, and which must be dealt with. Coates very eloquently details how history has impacted him, how it is full of violence to the Black body. To miss — or worse, deny– this truth telling is to remain articulated with whiteness, and to persist as an obstacle to progress.

Believing in Whiteness

As any legit book that engages racism should, Between the World and Me deals with whiteness. It is here, at this engagement, that the book struck me deepest. I also believe it is here that many people who look like me will feel a tremendous amount of confusion, and fear, and anger, and unrest. Coates, very rarely, if ever, simply refers to white people. Instead he chooses to say “those that believe they are white” or “those who must believe they are white.” Sometimes the way he uses the term “Dreamer” would imply he means white people. Coates is acknowledging what many have claimed: whiteness is more than having a white body. To say “those who believe they are white” is to implicitly suggest that you do not have to believe it. It is opening the door to dismantling white supremacy. Beyond that, it places the onus where it belongs, on those of us who are considered white.

Perhaps this is where Toni Morrison’s comparison to Baldwin is most fitting. Coates understands that the American history he carries, “the Dream,” and its counterpart, Coates’ streets, are all the product of this thing called whiteness, and the subsequent race thinking that followed. If we are to truly move forward as a people then we must accept this simple truth. We can not be as silly as David Brooks and surrender to foolish, childish, and false sensibilities. We must do more than listen and have our ears full, we must hear, and then act differently.

How Whiteness Murdered Sandra Bland and Blames Her for it.

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I often write about the destructive force that is whiteness. This rubs people the wrong way and makes them feel uncomfortable because popular knowledge has positioned it as an adjective, as the description of people who originate in Europe. This mystification lies at the heart of our inability to understand and ultimately dismantle racism. There is a difference between white bodies (white people) and the ideological apparatus and framework that is whiteness. Whiteness is the foundational Ideological State Apparatuses, to borrow Althusser’s term.

As such, whiteness, and consequently race, underlies every aspect of American culture. The problem with this is that whiteness is an evil force. That is not hyperbole or an attempt to be dramatic. Whiteness is evil. Whiteness only exists to divide people into a hierarchical social order with itself positioned at the pinnacle. It has relied on genocide, slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, and all other forms of domination and violence to maintain its privileged position. All the while using the rhetoric of colorblindness to appear harmless, and even normal. As David Roediger says “Whiteness is not merely oppressive and false, it is nothing but oppressive and false.”

The most recent heartbreaking manifestation of whiteness’ true self is the murder of Sandra Bland. The circumstances leading up to her arrest, the pathetic attempt to call it a suicide, and the reaction from certain folks are all enough to turn your stomach, but they must be engaged, especially by those of us who have been labeled white, in order to create a world where this never happens again. Here are three specific ways whiteness acted in the taking of Sandra Bland’s life.

1) The police officer, having pulled Sandra Bland over, expected her deference. When he didn’t get it he reacted with violence and utter disrespect. This can not be separated from the history of white male domination, nor the geopolitical context of this happening in Texas, which was part of the Jim Crow south. Whiteness taught that officer that he deserved to be treated with a smile and the utmost respect, when he didn’t get it there was hell to pay. It is important to note in no way did Sandra Bland have to get out of her car nor put her cigarette out. The officer violated her constitutional rights as well as her humanity.

2) We do not know, yet, what happened in that jail cell. What we do know is that the authorities had the audacity to claim Sandra Bland took her own life without providing any evidence to back this claim up. To make such a claim is to assume that this Black woman’s life is of little worth, and that nobody would care enough to probe deeper. Furthermore, because as this article explains even if it turns out Sandra Bland did take her own life the system is still guilty. Only whiteness makes this lunacy even remotely plausible.

3) The reaction from the police, and their defenders, to the outcry  places the blame on Sandra Bland for being “arrogant” and not following the police. Again, the expectation of deference is at play here. This segment on CNN is the best illustration of this ignorance. Harry Houck continuously claims Sandra Bland was arrogant and even imagines Sandra Bland refused to give her ID. This mindset is indicative of the devaluing of Blackness which whiteness requires. Only whiteness could be so pathological and deviant to even consider anything other than the the officer acts responsible for this tragedy.

Whiteness is a verb. It is acting on us daily. For those of us who are perceived as white we have a duty to refuse this violence. The words of Elder Mahmoud el-Kati come to mind “Whiteness is a moral choice.” Time to choose.

Blessings on Blessings on Blessings: when being grateful goes wrong

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Be thankful. Count your blessings.

I remember complaining as a child about not being able to get something I wanted. My parents  would say “What, you think money grows on trees?” and remind me to “be thankful for what you have, lots of people have it worse.” I remember feeling a sense of shame about my greed, my desire to have more. Later on in life I applied this lesson to everything I did. I was thankful to have a job, to have food, to have clean water, the list goes on. I am thankful for these things, but there has been a feeling, a suspicion, eating at my soul for awhile now. I wonder at what point is gratitude a cop out. At what point were my “blessings” a euphemism for spoils of war? At what point was my gratitude akin to giving thanks for being on the winning team?

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I was sitting on my couch scrolling through Facebook for the umpteenth time when I came across this BuzzFeed video explaining privilege. I had been a part of a similar exercise, and even used something like it in workshops and trainings I had done. As I watched I was thinking about the pro’s and the con’s, and was pleased that they had included the participants reactions to the exercise, a chance to dig deeper! And then it happened, the 3:28 mark, a young cisgendered white male’s takeaway: ” I feel like I just learned to be grateful for what you have. You know? We are in such a huge society where… it’s always complaining about what you don’t have.” I had found it, the point when gratitude became “hey at least I’m not _____”  fill in the blank: Black, a female, gay, a Muslim, poor. I watched the remaining 20 or so seconds and shut my computer. #epicfail

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It’s a week, to the day, that I first saw the BuzzFeed video making the rounds on my Facebook page. So many people posting it, talking about it, exclaiming how great it is. I can only think about the white dude’s takeaway: be thankful. I can’t get with it, be thankful. The fuck. We are standing on stolen land. The biggest and most popular lake in my city is named after John Calhoun, and folks are really fighting to keep it that way. My city has the largest disparities in the country, but this dude wants me to be thankful I ain’t on the wrong side of those statistics. I’m not going.

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Gratitude has its place, it just ain’t here. This is not the time for those of us who occupy privileged positions in the social order to be grateful. We need to be pissed. This is not the time to shrug our shoulders and count our “blessings.” It is time to realize, as Pope Francis just acknowledged, much of what we have been taught to call blessings are actually the consequences of crimes against humanity. We may be blessed, but it is not with white skin, a penis, working limbs, a large bank account, or an attraction to the opposite sex. We are blessed with community. With an ability to see through this facade, this system of knowing which makes us individuals disconnected from history, culture, and each other. If we are giving thanks let it be for the ability to study ourselves and reconnect. Let it be because we saw ourselves in the reflection of our sisters, of our darker brown kin, of our Trans* brothers and sisters. Let us give thanks to have been shown truth before it is too late. Let our blessings truly come from the creator, not from dead Anglo men who created systems that drafted us on to their team. Then we can give thanks. Blessings on Blessings on Blessings.

In the Spirit of John Brown: a letter to so called whites after Charleston

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My heart is heavy this morning, a terrorist has killed 9 people in Charleston, South Carolina. A 21 year old white man went to a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Church after which he took the lives of 9 Black people. In the church which was home to Denmark Vesey, in a state that still displays the Confederate flag,racial hatred and white supremacy has stained the country, once again. My soul hurts, as it should.

This is a crucial moment for my people, so called whites. Many of us will be horrified, many of us will want to be there to support our Black brothers and sisters, and that is great. However, many of those same people will talk about this event in isolation. They will talk about how sick the shooter was. They will say things like “not all white people.”  Please, stop with that shit. This incident is not about one person. This is a single manifestation of a system that has always seen Black people as less than human. This is a single manifestation of a genocidal system. Yet, there will be those (Fox News) who try to separate this from our history, from our current situation.

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At this time- just as the ancestor Denmark Vesey has been invoked- it is time for us to invoke our ancestor, John Brown. Those of us who truly want to stand in solidarity, who truly want to be a force for good are not without our own models. John Brown gave his life for the end of slavery. He understood it was much bigger than one white slave owner, one plantation, it was  system that must be destroyed, a way of knowing that must be erased from that planet. That fight is still going on this morning. We must have the courage to take up this legacy. To be fearless in the face of genocidal terrorism. If Black Lives truly Matter then we need to confront every person who wants to rationalize, or make apologies, or minimalize this as an isolated incident. In every workplace, in every home, in every church, in every area of government so called whites need to be talking about, reflecting on, and putting together plans to actively dismantle white supremacy. To avoid this is an act of cowardice, pure and simple.

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Lastly, this is not a time to police the emotions and reactions of the Black community. We need to be doing our own work: looking at how we are colluding with the system that is taking the lives of Black people. May the spirit of John Brown guide us and may we be brave:  “Caution, Sir! I am eternally tired of hearing that word caution. It is nothing but the word of cowardice!”

Rachel Dolezal and the Case for New “White” Identities

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In the midst of social media’s response to Rachel Dolezal a clear theme has emerged: White people, get your folks. But, from what? And, how?

As filmmaker and educator Ali Michael wrote about, Rachel Dolezal is not experiencing something new, or even unique. Dolezal is stuck in the “immersion” phase of racial development. This is actually not an uncommon thing. Lots of European-Americans, when they first become aware of just how pervasive white supremacy is, no longer want to identify as white. I know that feeling. And, it is here that we find the answer to the first question: From what must we get our people?

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There isn’t any Negro problem; there is only a white problem- Richard Wright

We must get our people from whiteness and race-thinking. Whiteness is the cause of white supremacy and racism. The elite (propertied) Anglo’s in Virginia needed something to distract and divide the increasingly rebellious multi-racial laboring class, whiteness was that thing. Whiteness was the consistent that everything else was measured against. Whiteness was codified in law yet also remained fluid in order to serve the needs of the ruling class. As immigrants, especially European ones, continued to invest in the traits and characteristics of whiteness it solidified as a legitimate racial identity, which also solidified the other. This is the point James Baldwin was making when he said: “As long as you think you’re white, there is no hope for you. Because as long as you think you’re white, I’m forced to think I’m Black.”

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The fact is, Whiteness is not real. Historian and Critical Whiteness Studies scholar David Roediger says whiteness is ” not only oppressive and false, it is nothing but oppressive and false.” It is a socio-political alliance with no grounding in reality, nor roots in culture. It is this identification that so many European-Americans are trying to distance themselves from, sometimes in disastrous ways. And let’s be clear, Rachel Dolezal is a disaster. Which brings us to the second question: How do we get our people?

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The first step is to, as Jamie Utt says, accept the tension that comes with being perceived as white –and therefore receiving its benefits– while working for its abolition. Next, we must begin to think and act culturally. Culture is real. It is rooted in place, it consists of shared experiences, and has roots to people — to ancestors. However, culture is not an artifact from the past that we simply reach back and bring to the 21st century. Yes, we need to learn from our ancestors and root cultures, but we also live in different times, in different places, and in community with different people. So, we must accept that culture is fluid and work at building healthy, harmonious relationships with each other and creation.

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There is a lot going on with Rachel Dolezal. Who knows why she may have made up death threats? Who knows why she pretends her brother is her son? Her actions can not be fully explained by the immersion, or any other, theory. I don’t know if having an alternative way to identify would have kept Dolezal from appropriating Blackness; there is some real deep-seeded trauma there combined with what looks like some straight-up insidiousness. Maybe some folks just can’t get right. However, this Rachel Dolezal saga can help us to understand a bit about the dangers of not working to create healthy identities rooted in culture.These identities need to serve as places of healing for Euro-Americans looking to dismantle white supremacy by striking at its base: whiteness. Truthfully, we are the only ones who can do that work. And, Black Twitter is right: we need to get our people.

In Reverence: prayer for Mckinney

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The violence of a sunset:
light breaking on the horizon,
like bones, and spirits
at their unholy feet. They feel they have won. Foolish.
We are in awe at your beauty.

It is darkest before the dawn.
On My Mama
They mock your warning as weakness.
See your flesh as gaps in armor.
On My Mama
Cannibals lurking
Zombies zoned on the zeitgeist
On My Mama
But shadows don’t linger,
dispersed by a rising sun.
Tides turn:
Battles lost become wars that are won.
Bones heal, wounds seal, and
sutras become movements
that can’t be killed.

The violence of a sunrise:
light breaking on the horizon,
welcoming a new day.
On my mama

On Trusting and Order: a response to City Pages

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Recently, there has been heightened attention paid to issues of equity in education, and closing what is commonly referred to as the “achievement gap.” Most recently Susan Du wrote an article for the City Pages which illustrates the fundamental failure of this discourse. The article examines the current tensions and conflicts arising from Saint Paul Public School’s attempt at achieving racial equity, specifically the new suspension policy. The article relies on racist norms, while centering the feelings and intentions of white educators, blaming a culture of dysfunction for the problems plaguing the school district.

How Do You Know It’s About Race?

Let’s get the most basic element out of the way: this is entirely about race. As is the modus operandi of racism in the 21st century, explicitly racist language is avoided, substituted for language that pathologizes culture. So, while the article never says “Black boys are the problem,” Du makes it  clear that they are the subject of this particular examination. In fact, the very first lines of the article primes the racial imagination of readers: “A student walks down a Harding High hallway wearing headphones, chanting along to violent rap lyrics… The kid stares at [the teacher] with chilling intensity. He points at the older man, fingers bent in the shape of a gun, and shoots. Then moves on.” The reference to “violent rap lyrics” quite clearly invokes a Black male body. Even if the reader doesn’t picture a Black male walking down the hallway, Black men are still responsible given they are the overwhelming practioners of Hip-Hop music. Add to this problematic anecdote the insinuation of natural violence, and the atmosphere is perfectly set for Black bodies to be the main culprit in their own oppression.

Later on in the article, Du abandons the racial ambiguity all together and directly names the source of tension: “The district also shifted its thinking on discipline, influenced by data that showed black kids being suspended at alarming rates.” These suspension rates, and resulting education debt were the impetus for SPPS hiring Pacific Education Group to conduct racial equity training in the district. It is these trainings, more specifically the perceived failure of the trainings along with the suspension policy, that has lead to the tension in SPPS.

While Du is attempting to give voice to teachers, and express valid frustrations, she falls into the trap of thinking in binaries: “this or that” type of problem-solving. We are supposed to decide if the teachers are right in (largely) opposing the policies, or if the district is right in implementing these policies. Du also positions education in  a vacuum free from the influences of the larger society. She attempts to fight for teachers by painting them as the victims of random acts of violence, “intrusions,”  of students “barging in,” and even of death threats. The reader is supposed to feel sympathy for the teachers and contempt for the students causing this chaos. The language invokes the historical stereotypes of Black males as violent, lazy, and animalistic, in need of being trained and controlled. All the while the real concern that whiteness has an objective, tangible, and damaging effect on schools is trivialized.

Whose Culture is the Problem?

A reasonable response to Du’s article would be horror at the working conditions of teachers. These poor people, these award winning, kind-hearted people are being taken advantage of by the race-baiting superintendent, and victimized by students who need to be “tamed.” I have no doubt that these teachers are indeed kind, that they love their students, that they are “good” teachers, and that their intentions are well-meaning. Those things, though, don’t matter; they certainly don’t matter as much as what impact they are having on the life chances of their students. It is here that Du, and many, many others have missed the ball. Instead of suggesting that society and structures are the issue they have placed blame on the students, and by extension their families.

The articles states: “Harding isn’t much different than most big city schools. It squats in St. Paul’s most economically depressed zip code, where 83 percent of kids receive free or reduced-price lunch.” But this fact isn’t mentioned again throughout the article. Nowhere are the consequences of poverty, or of being a person of color in this society, discussed. In favor of discussing these issues Du relies on the default: cultural pathology. She leaves in place the overly simple equation that poor students, especially students of color, are inherently broken, in need of fixing, which is the job of the school. This analysis perpetuates the white savior mentality that pervades too many schools, and encourages defensiveness at the idea that whites may have some cultural work to do themselves before being effective in the classroom.

That is not to say there is no validity in the frustration of the teachers.

Yes, and…

Too often in this discourse we are left choosing: teachers or students of color. As a teacher, for nearly a decade, I categorically reject this binary. In the article, a teacher, Becky McQueen, stated: “There are those that believe that by suspending kids we are building a pipeline to prison. I think that by not, we are…I think we’re telling these kids you don’t have to be on time for anything, we’re just going to talk to you. You can assault somebody and we’re gonna let you come back here.” There is truth in the idea that school is a place to teach social norms, and that there should be accountability; however, the question that needs to be asked is, whose norms are being taught?

Too often the dominant society escapes examination, especially when we talk about schools. In a racist, classist, and sexist society it is more than understandable that marginalized students are not eager to buy in to their social training.  Eric Brandt, another teacher cited in the article, begins to approach the necessary analysis, yet still defers to the idea that the job of students is to learn how to behave: “There is a sizable chunk of students that — for a variety of very complex reasons — don’t know how to behave in a decent, sociable way with other people in a school setting.” It would be better if Brandt focused more on those complex reasons and less on how students respond to those reasons.

So What Now?

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It is foolhardy to believe that one year of racial equity training is going to result in significant gains, or that there would not be pushback to an attempt at creating equity. This work is hard, and painful, and takes a long time, but it is work that must be done. This can only happen with a strong critique of society, and an understanding of the structural causes of inequality. It will not happen by instituting harsher, more severe, more militant discipline. However, it’s a win-win situation, this approach actually builds the necessary foundation for real accountability. It is actually counterproductive to fight efforts for racial equity.

As a classroom teacher, who has been in some of the most difficult environments Minneapolis has to offer, I can tell you that the students are not the problem, nor are their families. They all come with a context, they are all products of our society.  When you acknowledge this point you create the space for a respectful and healthy culture to develop in your classroom. This culture allows for true learning, dialogical learning, that values the wealth of knowledge and experiences the students bring with them everyday. If we are to take racial equity seriously we must take this cultural exchange seriously. This starts systemically, by districts requiring cultural study for their teachers, especially the Euro-American teachers. How to best facilitate the cultural evolution necessary should have been the focus of Susan Du’s article, not pitting teachers vs. students with the district as proxy.

Rain and Healing: A letter to Zoe

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Zoe,

I don’t usually write when I feel like this. It feels too vulnerable, too much like at any moment I will be washed away. I’ve spent years building this castle and on days like this I am reminded that shit is built with sand. Maybe it’s the rain. Rainy days have a tendency to elicit these feelings.

I am driving home, in the middle of the day, your Mom has a doctor’s appointment and its raining hella hard. When I called her this morning I could hear the exhaustion, she got up with you this morning to comfort you back to sleep. She was tired and we didn’t have an umbrella at home. It doesn’t seem like a big deal but sometimes the smallest things can feel unbearable. It took me a little while but I eventually remembered I had an umbrella. I decided I was going to take it to her. When I pulled out of the garage the rain immediately blurred the windshield. It just made sense tears should blur my eyes. I pulled over and cried.

There is something in us. Something beautiful and burdensome. Sometimes it comes on with no warning. For me it’s always been around helplessness. I want to do so much. I know so much should be so different. It overwhelms me. I feel like I should be doing more, write better, work harder, make more money, fuck the world and get the revolution cracking. That’s usually when the dam in my throat breaks and the levy’s overflow. It suffocates you, but only when you fight it. Don’t fight it.

I dropped the umbrella off and got a text from your Mom: You are awesome. That was so sweet. I love you. Rain brings healing Zo Zo, mostly when we realize we are not in this alone. You are not alone. We are not helpless.

Rape Culture in the Classroom

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The statistics around sexual assault are staggering: 1 in 3 women will be assaulted in their lifetime. And those numbers are grossly under-reported due to the ordeal women have to go through once coming forward to confront their attacker. While I am aware of these statistics the terrifying reality of rape culture didn’t fully hit me until I saw it being perpetuated in my own classroom.

I had one day left in the week and didn’t want to start a new unit, so I decided to do a spot social justice lesson. The lesson examined the racialized and gendered messages mainstream media send us by analyzing Lupe Fiasco’s song “Bitch Bad”  and various responses to it, like this one from Crunk Feminist Collective. The lesson went well, the students were able to discuss with clarity and share profound insights into the songs lyrics and video. They discussed minstrel, they discussed their own use of the term “bad bitch,” and most importantly the young women in the classes told their truth around dealing with the pressures of looking “sexy” while maintaining respect and not being seen as ratchet. While many of the young men listened and were respectful there was a handful that simply refused to accept what was being said. They rejected the idea that women actually didn’t appreciate how they are viewed, both my larger society as well as the young men in their lives.

It was at this point that the conversation turned troubling. A young man we will call Michael was particularly vocal about his disbelief. He was adamant that women lied constantly and that despite what they were saying now, in front of him and the rest of his class, when he talked to them individually they agreed with him. Despite the often times passionate objections from the women in the class, the other males remained quiet, Michael was not to be moved.

By the end of the day I taught the lesson three times. There were many more positives to take than negatives, but Michael’s reaction was the main one that stayed with me. It wasn’t so much Michael’s reaction in and of itself that was scaring me, while it did. What was getting me was that when the class ended,and the young women were obviously still upset, the reaction of the other men in the class was to rush Michael out to keep him from getting yelled at or “punched,” as one young man told me. This is where I really saw the danger of rape culture. It is not just in Michael’s response, it is in the silence of his peers. Instead of checking their friend they remained silent, passively siding with him. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them would remain silent at the party when a friend wanted to “have fun” with the passed out girl, like in Steubenville? How many of them will say the girl “wanted it?” How many of them will, despite dozens of accusations, refuse to believe that one of their friends is a serial rapist? Worse, and more heartbreaking than that, how many of them will be able to have a healthy relationship with a woman? How many of them will be able to listen to, and truly be supportive of, their sister, mom, aunt, girlfriend, wife, or even daughter when one of them has the courage to face our devastatingly sick society and say she was sexually assaulted?

Me and Zoe

As a new father, I look at my daughter and understand with incredible clarity that the responsibility for healing from this trauma lies with us men. It is up to us to model healthy, loving, and complete humanity by refusing the narrow definitions of manhood. The homie Jamie Utt talks about this with incredible compassion, this is just one of his pieces, please check them all out.  Above all we must not be silent. Just as white silence is tacit acceptance of white supremacy, when we are silent about rape culture, patriarchy, and misogyny we are accepting them as part of our society, we must refuse this.  We must talk about manhood and masculinity, and the entire gender spectrum, early and often. When we do this, our young people will  grow up with a healthy image and understanding of not just themselves, but others, more capable of healthy relationships. And what can be more life-giving than healthy relationships?