Form Follows Function

A Truth-Telling Thanksgiving

Last night five peaceful protesters were shot by white supremacists in Minneapolis.  As Black Lives Matter demands a fundamental shift in society, white supremacy is desperately trying to do whatever it can to hold onto its position in society.

Many of us, in the next few days, will be gathering with family and friends, and it is more important than ever that we engage conversations about race and it’s insidious impact on every aspect of our society. Here are some resources and frames to help us make these conversations more than just arguments but effective at moving people towards justice.

  1. Minnesota Nice is racist! We need to deal with this fundamental truth.
  2. All Lives Matter is racist nonsense.  All lives matter is simply an iteration of white people’s fear that, as the country changes both demographically and ideologically, they will experience the same type of marginalization they facilitate over people of color.
  3. Get out your feelings! One of my co-workers reminded me that we      need to be treating racism like a disease. If someone notices our cough, or our cold, or that we have the flu we don’t get defensive and mad about it, we get medicine. We need to treat racism the same way. If someone points out an action, a joke, a statement, or anything else that is racist we need to find the cure not ignore the sickness. Robin DiAngelo offers some guidelines for that.

While the struggle is certainly happening on the streets it is also happening in our homes and in our families. May we have courage to fight on both fronts.

Just Beginning to Wrestle with Race? Cool. Here are 5 things to consider

Over the past 18 months or so this country has been forced by the #BlackLivesMatter movement to face the reality of racism and white supremacy. The murder of Jamar Clark in Minneapolis is the latest tragic example of the necessity of this movement. While many white folks have resisted the message, with varying degrees of vitriol, many whites have begun, sometimes for the first time, to really consider race and racism. For those folks I thought it would be beneficial to provide some basic ideas to wrestle with and understand, as I see them.

  1. Our lives are different because we are white. The most common way this idea is expressed is through the term white privilege. What this looks like in real life takes many forms. It is not having to ever question if you are being pulled over because you are Black. It means not having to worry about if you will survive the interaction. It means never having to represent “the race” in classrooms. It means never having to worry if your name will get your resume thrown out before consideration. It means seeing people who look like you being represented in media with nuance and complexity as opposed to one dimensional stereotypes. But, it is not just limited to these “psychological wages of whiteness,” whiteness has also materially benefited those of us with less melanin. White privilege looks like being able to go to college because your dad can cosign a loan by putting his home up as collateral due to FHA loans which were denied to people of color. It looks like being able to own property, period. It means having access to management, therefore having the social capital to network for the next promotion. To put a twist on Dr. Cornel West: Whiteness matters.
  2. Privilege is a symptom not the disease. While whiteness is often framed as a privilege, it is actually a sickness. When someone calls us out for acting in racist ways they are noticing our sickness, our job is to find the cure. Whiteness is the product of a system meant to simultaneously justify the fact that rich white landowning men controlled all the resources while keeping working class whites focused on who was “below” them rather than on the system that oppressed them as well as Africans. The effects of this strategy are still being felt today. Capitalism is decimating the planet and its people while racism continues to be used as a wedge between working class whites and people of color in order to prevent the relational power necessary for recreating the economy from developing. Whiteness relies on this individualism because it must isolate people; it must turn us into individuals disconnected from communities and their collective strength. This creates the cultural void capitalism’s consumption is desperately trying to fill. We are destroying our planet for the sake of profit all because we have conflated happiness and healing with wealth. Those of us who are seen as white are a bit closer to this mirage, but like all mirages we are left with simply sand.  Real health is in community and relationships; real health is in sustainability and respecting creation, and as the saying goes: health is wealth. Whiteness keeps us from this knowledge through our “privilege” and capitalism exploits this ignorance.
  3. We actually benefit. When we take #BlackLivesMatter seriously and do the work of considering the origins of white supremacy and racism we come to the most liberating conclusion: we are living a lie. Because whiteness is marked by consumption and isolation it can only produce sickness. When we work at unlearning whiteness we move closer to community, closer to relationships that can heal us, closer to our truest selves. There is nothing more liberating than that. The resulting relational power is transformational
  4. It is hard, continuous work. Unlearning whiteness is a journey. Literally every day we have to make intentional and conscious choices to evaluate our knee jerk reactions; we need to ponder where each feeling comes from. We may have a solid systemic frame but fall back into whiteness in interpersonal relationships or vice versa. Put simply, whiteness is the path of least resistance and that can be compelling, but we must push back. An often used metaphor is the moving walkways at airports. You don’t have to be walking to be getting somewhere. Whiteness is the moving walkway, we must be actively walking against it. All. The. Time.
  5. Listening is always the best choice. So many white folks tell me they don’t engage because they don’t want to make a mistake and be seen as racist. That makes sense. Shit, even the KKK doesn’t own the label! Something that will help with that, I think, is to focus on listening. Don’t critique or even ask questions right away. Take what you hear and let yourself be uncomfortable. Fight against the initial defensiveness that comes up so naturally.When you get home, or to the office, or wherever find a book or other resource and try to get as much info as you can on the subject.

The world is changing. This is a good thing. My hope is that those of us who are considered white don’t miss the opportunity because we are too afraid to go through the growing pains. I hope these brief points help folks who are just engaging this work to make some sense of what’s going on. For those interested in continuing to learn check out works like “The Wages of Whiteness,” “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness,” “Working Towards Whiteness,” and  “Racism Without Racists” to just name a few.


Arrested For Disrupting School: Is your school Spring Valley High?

Wanting to stay in class can apparently get you arrested. After it gets you brutalized by a grown ass man.

Arrested for disrupting school is apparently a thing.

This is what our education system is. This is what schools feel like.

Like most people, when I saw the video I was in shock. It is terrible. Totally uncalled for. Unlike most of the people I see talking about this, I didn’t think this was an isolated incident. I don’t believe Ben Fields is a bad apple. And I certainly don’t believe this type of aggressive and raw demonstration of domination is limited to Spring Valley High. This is simply an extreme manifestation of the power dynamics that school reproduces all across this country.

This video surfaces at a time when Saint Paul is coming under fire for its discipline policy. According to many the district has gone soft and ignored discipline problems that should be met with firm consequences. It is not much of a stretch to think some of those folks would like to give the police more power in the schools. I have argued that this obscures the real problem: lack of culture and authentic cultural interfacing. What happened at Spring Valley High should be all the evidence I need to make my point.

This young black girl was assaulted because she refused to leave the classroom after quickly taking out her cell phone. That quite clearly does not warrant this type of reaction, in fact, despite what Don Lemon says, there is nothing she could do that would justify how she was treated when we the camera begins rolling. Sadly though, this type of interaction is not uncommon in schools. And just like with police murders, it takes video for us to pay collective attention. That is a disgrace. But it is not surprising given the workings of white supremacy.

Public education by and large are sites of social reproduction. Young people go to school with others who are from a similar walk of life. This sets the atmosphere and expectations for the school as a whole. When the school is made up of majority students of color this atmosphere is often one focused on shaping behavior and teaching “middle class values.” You should read that as focused on assimilating students into whiteness. When this is how students are approached it creates an ever-present, pervasive, and exhausting state of conflict. The microaggressions (important to note that a read line comes up when I type that…) add up and eventually students take a stand, or act out, or some combination of both. Often, it  looks like not wanting to leave a classroom.

And let’s start there. If this was NOT about controlling students, if this was NOT about putting this young woman in her place, if this WAS about teaching and learning, why not let her stay? In the video she is not belligerent, in fact none of the students are. There is no sign that the classroom was chaotic at any point in the recent past, why couldn’t the teacher teach? A petty and insignificant rule was broken, and when she challenged the teacher — and by proxy the school and therefore larger society– she had to be taught a lesson. That where Ben Fields comes in, the teacher of the real lesson. What lesson was she being taught though? (

This is how whiteness works. This is how whiteness has always worked. Setup institutions that  on the surface seem benevolent, or even pinnacles of equality and justice, while embarrassingly close to that surface maintain a vicious system of oppression that is in no way nonviolent.

I think about how calm the students were during this. It almost felt like they were used to it. Conditioned. The one student who spoke out also got arrested. What does that tell us? More than that though, I think about how calm the teacher was. We, as teachers, must do better. We can not be the medium through which the violence of white supremacy is made manifest. Quite the opposite we need to be a barrier to it. It helps no one to think this is an isolated event disconnected from the larger systems that shape too much of our collective pedagogy. We must see this as intimately connected to our own city, our own school, and even our own classroom. We must reflect on our own practice. Do we demand conformity from young people? Why? Do we engage in power struggles? Why? Do we leverage the power of our institutions to impose our will? Why? Are there police in our schools? Why? Are the young people unsettled, restless, disengaged? Why? There are reasons.

In Precious Knowledge Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade says: “I’ve never met a kid with a dysfunctional relationship to learning. I’ve met a lot of kids with a dysfunctional relationship to school.” If we are going to create schools which kids can have a healthy relationship to we must do our homework on whiteness and work at unlearning its violence. The #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh taught us that.

“If Adults Would Have Reacted Differently”: what we should be talking about when it comes to SPPS

“Kill the Indian Save the Man” Capt. Richard H. Pratt

Saint Paul Public Schools has been in the media often over the past several months mainly due to their contract with Pacific Education Group (PEG) and the discipline policy aimed at curbing suspensions for students of color.  Yesterday they were in the news once again, and once again the rhetoric and resulting frame does little to actually shed light on the situation, nor, more importantly, on potential solutions.

The Pioneer Press article details a rough week in Saint Paul schools, there were fights,  police tased a student, and to top it off, a gun was found in a students backpack. Nobody disagrees that these things are problems. Everybody wants to create a safe and healthy school. The tension comes when we start to think about potential solutions.

On one side of the spectrum are folks like Aaron Benner and Joe Soucheray who seem to believe in the more traditional and punitive forms of punishment such as suspensions and expulsions. They place the blame squarely on the students and, as Soucheray claims, poor parenting. Besides the racist overtones, this approach assumes the benevolence of the large society. It removes any responsibility from us for creating the conditions which facilitate and feed the anger and pain these students are literally fighting their way through. It perpetuates the idea that students, specifically students of color, have a deficit which schools are charged to remedy.

On the other end of the spectrum are those of us who believe that there are reasons young people are acting out. We know that poverty breds violence. We know that trauma marks too many of our young people and their communities. Superintendent Silva said as much at her press conference when she said students are bringing stress from poverty and other issues with them into the classroom. And why wouldn’t they? But that doesn’t mean we are helpless.

As adults debate back and forth about PEG and Positive Behavior Intervention the question about how to heal remains largely ignored. What we refuse to engage is the hard truth of how our country is marked by white supremacy and racism. PEG is right: racial bias largely marks the interaction of teachers and students because we live under white supremacy. If PEG is failing it is because they aren’t explicit enough about how to combat that reality.

Culture is the solution. Without culture there is no hope for creating schools that serve all our citizens. Culture is what roots us in values and traditions and establishes norms. In America this means whiteness. And that’s not a good thing because whiteness is not real. Whiteness is a social construct meant to be a wedge between poor people and landowning elite. It’s only tradition is violence; it’s only purpose is to legitimize inequality. It is nonculture. How can systems setup to protect whiteness ever be sites of positivity? What’s more astounding is we expect young people to be willingly assimilated into culturelessness. We scratch our heads and ask “what’s wrong with them?”

Contrary to what Brenner, Soucheray, and their ilk would have you believe the responsibility lays squarely on our shoulders: those of us that are living cultureless. If we are genuine in our desire to end the suspension disparity; if we truly want an end to the opportunity gap; if we mean what we say and want to see schools be places that help shape healthy and productive people engaged in their learning, we must engage in the real cultural work this task calls for. To leave this aspect out will only further perpetuate the trauma of whiteness, and we can expect little progress.

May the Force Awaken Us

I hadn’t been on social media for most of the day, so I logged on to see what my people were talking about. It didn’t take long for me to come across the #BoycottStarWarsVII hashtag. Being the Star Wars nerd that I am, I was intrigued.

What I found simultaneously made me sad for humanity and gave me life. It turns out that a bunch of White folks got in their feelings about the casting of the new Star Wars movie, there are too many black people! Calling it anti-white propaganda and white genocide these folks are hard to take serious, and some have said it is best to ignore them, I don’t agree.

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Do I think this piece will change the way any of those folks see the world? Of course not. So, then, why am I writing it? Because I want you, the person reading this right now, to understand that this hashtag is not an anomaly, it is simply an extreme iteration of the defensiveness those of us perceived as white act on far too often. We may not call it white genocide, but we are comfortable with #AllLivesMatter. We may not call it anti-white propaganda, but we think reverse racism is a thing. Do you see my point?

Many of us will be quick to agree the people behind this hashtag are on the fringe, but we will remain silent and comfortable encased in a world where whiteness is normal and “just the way it is.” We know Star Wars isn’t genocide, but we won’t talk about the genocide that actually happened on this land. That has to change. While anti-white propaganda certainly doesn’t exist in mainstream American media, anti-black propaganda does.  Donald Trump, a viable Republican candidate, is building his campaign on anti-Latin@ propaganda. An award winning “poet” openly talked about using an Asian name in order to get published. Where were we?

These are all iterations — less belligerent, but iterations nonetheless — of the same worldview that gave birth to #BoycottStarWarsVII. May the force awaken us!

Uncommon Schools With All Too Common Solutions: how the emphasis on effective teaching undermines justice

I was walking down the hallway during study hall. I shouldn’t have been in the hallways but it was 8th period and I was a senior. In other words, I didn’t give a shit. When I turned the corner I ran into my Street Law teacher. I don’t remember every detail of the conversation, but I do remember him telling me: “You have to turn in something so I can give you a grade!” I shook my head and pretended to go to class. I never turned in anything in that class and got a high grade, I think even an A. I don’t have one memory of ever doing a Turn and Talk, a Think-Pair Share, or of my teachers cold-calling. Most of my classes consisted of lecture and note taking. In fact, the best class I took was entirely lecture. I don’t remember teachers ever being observed, the principal was never a classroom teacher and was in no way qualified to assess best practice. I graduated in 2001, so some of this has to do with being before the education reform extravaganza, some of it, not all of it. Most of it has to do with the fact that I went to DeLaSalle, a “good” school, as such I was expected to be a “good student.” I had to take an entrance exam to get in. If I didn’t act right, or perform to standards, I would simply be put out. If I didn’t make gains nobody looked at the teacher, in fact, nobody looked to see if I made gains, I was not “at risk.” I was not a statistic.

This last summer I sat in an AP training with teachers from schools like De — schools that are full of middle to upper class white kids who come in with little to no “gaps” in their “skills.” I watched in astonishment at the nearly orgasmic reaction they had to the “trainer” introducing graphic organizers and Cornell Notes. I thought about all my colleagues who would teach circles around them, but would be labeled ineffective. I thought about all my students who were dealing with things these grown folks would never have to, all the while being judged and ridiculed by them.


The evidence is overwhelming. So overwhelming in fact that its implications escape analysis: teachers are the single most important school based factor on student achievement.

As a teacher this fills me with incredible pride and motivates me to continuously hone my craft. These are good things, no doubt. But lately these feelings have faded, giving way to a deep sense of trepidation. I know I am a good teacher, and I know that is too simplistic to be the standard by which schools are judged. When we emphasize effective teaching as the root cause of poor student performance we are giving a pass to all the things we know effect performance more than teachers, in a word: oppression. We are placing extra burdens on students that never get placed on students from privilege. We over-test– to make sure we are effective. We extend school days– to make sure we are effective. We require strict discipline codes– to make sure we are effective. We are perpetuating a deficiency model about poor students and students of color and placing ourselves (overwhelmingly middle class and white teachers) as the saviors to these poor helpless students. That is not how relational power is built.

This weekend I spent several hours analyzing the results of a practice ACT my freshmen students just completed. I am two months into the school year and already stressing about how my students will make the necessary gains to compete for college acceptances and scholarships. Many of my students are several grade levels behind, and it is going to take some seriously effective teaching to get this job done. I know that. I accept that. It is the rules to the game we signed up for. But, I think about the teachers at De and other suburban schools– which continuously rank among the best in the country if you are white and wealthy— and what effectiveness looks like for them. The fact is it looks very different. The fact is teacher effectiveness only comes into play when you are teaching poor students and students of color. The research itself betrays this point, and we never deal with it. The research admits teacher effectiveness is the most important school related factor.

What does that mean, school related? What it means is we are simply accepting that schools like De, with shitty teachers like the one that gave me an A for doing literally nothing, get away with being sub-par because the students have the skill set to cover their inadequacies. It means teachers that couldn’t teach their way out of a paper-bag end up being rewarded with student success that they never actually had a hand in facilitating. It means teachers who are working their asses off to get 1.5 or 2 years growth from students will feel like failures, and be in jeopardy of losing their jobs, because their students are still not at grade level. More importantly though, it means that we are accepting a society that is grossly inequitable because, as this RAND report states, societal issues are out of schools control. Instead of addressing the most basic flawed premise, that the ACT actually predicts success, or addressing the actual most important factors influencing student success: poverty, racism, sexism, classism, mass incarceration etcetera,  we focus on teachers. We are more comfortable telling teachers and students to be extraordinary than we are talking about the real issues. Is effective teaching hugely important? Yes. Is it more important than stable housing? No. Is it more important than knowing you will be safe when you leave school? No. Is it more important than knowing you will eat more in a day than the terrible excuse for food they serve at school? No. That is violence we must not accept.


Beyond the rhetorical violence, this frame is an insult to actual effective teaching. Currently, effective teaching is most commonly measured through some iteration of a super-complex matrix of several dozen qualities which are assessed by someone who only observes your classroom for a few fleeting moments and then extrapolates from those observations. It very rarely engages the actual stakeholders in the creation, assessment or analysis of classrooms. As such it never assesses what students actually need, especially in schools that serve poor students and students of color. As Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade points out in this Ted Talk, no teacher is actually assessed based on what we know our students need before they can actually make the gains we want to see from “effective” teaching: the basics of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. My effectiveness is not measured in ACT points. If a student enters my classroom feeling beat down, angry and hopeless but leaves feeling empowered, equip with the necessary tools to change the circumstances that had them feeling beat down, angry and hopeless, I am effective and they are successful. Does that mean they will become better readers? Yes. Does it mean they will become better writers? Yes. Does it mean they will become better thinkers? Yes. But can I be effective and students successful without those things? Yes!!

Why won’t we ever talk about effective teachers being teachers who build up the self-esteem of their students? Why aren’t successful schools the ones that provide housing, healthcare and shelter to its students? When will we understand self-actualization as a prereq for ACT gains? If we are honest with ourselves we know the answer to these questions. We know that if we focus on self-actualization of poor students and students of color that the status quo would be in serious jeopardy. So, we demand assimilation. We demand conformity. We pathologize those that resist this blatantly oppressive agenda and/or act in a manner consistent with being traumatized, hurt, and angry about their oppression.

The reality is fairly obvious: our country is only interested in effective teaching if it furthers the established norms. Effective teaching translates, then, the ability to do well on a biased test and to fit into middle to upper class institutions. However, to truly be effective teachers the fundamental needs of students and the community need to be centered. In schools where the student body is well adjusted, largely trauma free, and has been primed for acceptance and success in the existing systems effective teaching is much less demanding than in schools where the student body is traumatized, marginalized, and oppressed.  Yet, teacher training programs and schools continue to emphasize teachers as the issue. They implement strategies from Teach Like a Champion, drill and kill and test and re-test until students either drop out or conform. None of this is a recipe for a truly healthy society.


If we want to focus on teaching lets do that. Let’s focus on training and hiring teachers who are adept at building relationships and can act as mentors. Let’s train and hire teachers who understand Critical Race Theory and can prepare students to contribute to the dismantling of white supremacy. Let’s train and hire teachers who have a background in Radical Feminism and can help build the self-esteem and actualization of both our young women and men. Let’s create schools that refuse to throw their hands up and plead helplessness in the face of homelessness and hunger. Instead of privatization lets turn schools back to the community and make them places of refuge and power building. Until then let’s not pretend we are all on the same field, playing the same game.

Reading the World: Schools vs. Society

For the better part of the last decade I’ve been a high school social studies teacher. I’ve spent a considerable amount of energy during that time explaining to students that taking education seriously and going to college was the path out of pretty dire circumstances. Even though I do my best to tell them the truth, I essentially end up telling them the same things that were told to me as a first generation college student: school will make your life better. I do this knowing that college, and our entire education system, does little to address the myriad issues plaguing society. So, I add in a cautionary tale about student loans and I discuss the reality of being people of color, but when it comes down to it, I have endorsed the idea that education is the yellow brick road leading them to…. We never get that far.

It’s not that I don’t agree, I actually do think education is key in creating a more just world. However, I am increasingly aware the yellow brick road seems to be a road to nowhere. In my experience we like to wax poetic about the benefits of education and position a college degree as the holy grail of disrupting oppression. We do this at the expense of a fundamental truth: education (and therefore schools) do not exist in isolation. That is to say they are products of our very sick society. It is true education (and therefore schools) may be part of the cure, but they are not THE cure. This is what education reformers will never tell you. They will come up with all sorts of fancy words, spend millions on commercials and billboards, to convince us that education is broken and they got the solution. They will lobby politicians and appear on FOX News in service of furthering a narrative which places the blame for this broken system at the feet of people of color and the poor. They will unveil charter networks who are “beating the odds,” and they sing the praises of schools that feel more like prison than they do institutions of critical thinking. They will tell us what matters is the “improved” (read conformed) behavior of students who are “at risk;”  yet they will never tell us what these students are at risk of. They won’t prioritize equity and justice. They will never acknowledge that it is actually completely and totally logical, intelligent, understandable and healthy to be skeptical, angry, untrusting and even belligerent towards a sick system. How do schools address this reality?

And this system is sick. When you have to remind the world that Black Lives Matter. When Donald Trump is seen as “telling the truth.” When you have an entire industry getting rich from locking up citizens for nonviolent crimes to the point of having the largest prison population in history, you are sick. Instead of embracing this truth, schools, for the most part, run from it. Schools continue to push standardized curriculum which feign high expectations while insisting high GPA’s and ACT scores will stop the trauma. This weekend there was a house fire in North Minneapolis –a section of the city that has largely been divested from and ignored by the powers that be– in which three children lost their lives. The cause of the fire appears to be an oven being used to heat the house because the landlord hadn’t turned the heat on yet. What section of the ACT will cover this injustice? How exactly will 4.0’s help my students heal? When will state math standards require students to calculate the amount of profit generated by slavery? And what about reparations? In places that are ostensibly hallowed grounds of critical thinking these issues will never be addressed. Instead, students across the country will be told that if they just don’t talk when the teacher is talking everything will be ok. That even though every 28 hours someone who looks like them losses their life to the very people sworn to protect them, they should focus on being respectful. They shouldn’t make a fuss as McGraw-Hill rewrites the ugly history of slavery to make white folks feel better, just keep your shirt tucked in! Where exactly is the yellow brick road leading?

I’ve told students knowledge is power, but that’s not totally true. Knowledge — depending on its source and mode of production– can lead to power, but power is power. Schools can play a major part in empowering communities. They can be sites of power-giving knowledge production, but only if they are willing to do the work. Instead of focusing on controlling behavior and drill and kill instruction schools need to build healing and truth-telling into the curriculum. Schools need to, as Paulo Freire says, be willing to read the world before reading the word. One very tangible way to do that is by being accountable to community. Instead of assuming the onus is on students and families schools would be wise to assume systems have stifled the genius of community, and then be intentional about centering that genius. One organization that is doing just that is the Teaching Excellence Network (TEN). TEN allows communities and schools to work together in order to solve the very real issues facing society. Inherently, when you are accountable to community the issues affecting the community becomes the focus. When that happens knowledge is power.


The most insidious aspect of this cycle comes in the condescending advice I’ve heard given to students far too often: “change it from the inside.” This is often couched in feigned understanding of young people’s frustration at a system they inherently know is designed to chew them up and spit them out at the first sign of resistance. It once again places the responsibility on students,’ this time to be extraordinary in order to survive with enough strength to then “change it from the inside.” Shame on us. We need to stop telling students this immediately and start creating schools that assist in the changing.

I told my classes today that I wasn’t sure if college was going to make their lives better. I told them what I did know is that they are brilliant and can change the world. I believe that. When will schools?

Not a Guilty White Boy: balance, decolonization, and liberation

I doubt either of them remember the conversation, but in April 2010 Rosa Clemente and Dereca Blackmon changed my life.

We were in a small circle discussing Hip-Hop and social justice; well really they were talking and a few of us were listening. Rosa had just delivered a keynote speech and Dereca had facilitated breakout sessions at Vices to Verses, a Hip-Hop conference at the University of Minnesota organized by the student group Voices Merging (salute to the powerful people that came through that org!) I remember feeling honored to be in their presence. I was hungry to be as powerful as they are. I wanted to be involved in the same things, connected to the same people, the same networks. Then Rosa said something, to which Dereca agreed, and I felt my chest cave in. They started talking about white folks organizing themselves and supporting themselves. It wasn’t the first time I had heard that sentiment, but for some reason this time it felt different, painful even. I wanted to be with them, not white people. I sheepishly agreed and did my best to ignore the truth that had just rooted itself in my consciousness.

Five years later and I can finally embrace that truth: I need to work with my people, not be better than them. For so long I had been consuming every bit of knowledge regarding white privilege and trying to be better than the injustice, like so many other “allies.” While we read about our privilege –and may even understand that it is systems that have granted them to us; some of us may even take up the cause of working towards justice — we are largely ignoring, either consciously or subconsciously, the fundamental problem of whiteness. We talk about white supremacy, we talk about white privilege, and we profess our desire to live in a world free from these things, yet we call ourselves white.

This may seem inconsequential, but is, in reality, incredibly important. When we identify as white the best we can hope for is a re-imagining of what that means. This requires ignoring the genesis of whiteness: the tool used for justifying genocide, rape, murder and enslavement. Whiteness did not exist before these things. It is not a historical nor biological fact that was co-opted and used for evil. Quite the opposite, it was born for these purposes. As such it can not be salvaged. It is impossible to “make it mean something good.” Identifying as white and embracing white as a legit identity is a perfect example of trying to use master’s tools to tear down the master’s house. Whiteness has already proven its ability to adapt and to survive. Unpacking the knapsack won’t help us when whiteness shape shifts once more. We must attack it at its very core, offer it no space to reinvent itself. This is the truth that those of us who are labeled white must accept. We must stop identifying with whiteness. Period. Full Stop. If we fail to do this we have no hope of liberation.


Trying to Find a Balance

It can be a tricky thing, searching for liberation as a person inscribed with whiteness. It is important to recognize the reality of racism and white supremacy which marks the lives of Blacks, Natives, Asians, Latin@’s and everybody outside the parameters of whiteness. This history and legacy is real. However, this often leads to white guilt and the desire, as I talked about earlier, to be the “good” white person. There is no liberation in that. No power. No transformation. To avoid this many of us decide to take the universal humanism approach that race is made up and we are “all human” (All Lives Matter crowd I am screwfacing you here). This approach protects our sensibilities because we can claim we care about “everybody” while maintaining our identity as white. This does nothing to dismantle the systems of oppression which fuel the institution of white supremacy. The only real option left to us, then, is to focus our attention on whiteness. This is scary. For many of us we have no idea what we would be outside of white, outside of American. We react on a visceral level and end up turning into fragile, defensive puddles. Again, this is not power. This is not transformation. This is not helpful. That doesn’t mean we stop doing it. Interrogating whiteness is the only way out of racial thinking. And we need to get out of racial thinking. It doesn’t matter how many anti-racist workshops we attend, or books by Tim Wise we read, if we are trying to stop racism while identifying as white we are losing, and we are going to lose. We need culture. But even this requires nuance and sophistication.

So, I’m Not White Anymore, OK? 

It’s not as simple as just saying “oh, ok cool! I’m not white anymore, I’m Irish.” Whiteness is so insidious that it has worked its way into every aspect of our identity. Our definitions of gender, of religion, of class, of America etc. are all intimately tied to the apparatus that is whiteness. It is not enough to just stop calling ourselves white. We must change the way we act in the world! We must make different choices. This can only happen through serious self-reflection and an interrogation of our deepest held beliefs, along with extensive study of whiteness. We must have the courage to ask questions about ourselves, our reactions, our feelings in every situation and work at disentangling them from whiteness.This will certainly involve exploring our own ancestry, but even getting in touch with our root culture (for me Irish) will not lead us to liberation. Culture is not an artifact that we just reach back and bring into our modern world. We must get in touch with where we come from as a way to expose the falseness of whiteness, but our liberation will truly come from being polycultural. Polyculturalism recognizes the constant interfacing of cultures, and acknowledges cultures fluidity. It is polyculturalism which facilitates the necessary exchange to build trust.Therefore it offers a future. Polyculturalism is the only approach that will lead to the dismantling of whiteness, and therefore white supremacy. It is the only one that makes the space for those of us who are labeled white to become cultural, to truly live free and in authentic community with people of color.

A Note on Decolonization

Words matter. One of the first thing that colonizers do when they attack is to outlaw the language of those they are oppressing. As such the English language does not offer the space to describe a world free from white supremacy. Let’s make no mistake, the work I have laid out is inherently decolonizing work. It is deeply personal work for those of us perceived as white, but it is not only our work. One day we (those of us interested in a world free from white supremacy) will have to develop liberatory language that differentiates white bodies (biological lack of melanin) from white people (those who buy into the ideology of whiteness). Until then we are stuck trying to find a balance, and are required to be sophisticated and nuanced with our words. The sooner a critical mass of white people are actively participating differently in the world the sooner this decolonized language can emerge. I look forward to that day.

It took me five years to fully embrace the challenge of fully and completely challenging race thinking. It took me five years to see myself as worthy of freedom. A Big Homie once told me that  a guilty white person is the most dangerous thing to the movement for justice. I know now that guilt doesn’t look like hurt feelings and white tears. It looks like failure to confront whiteness.

Getting Free: Black Lives Matter, Whiteness and Self-Interest

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Lilla Watson

This spring I told a class full of graduating seniors that history would remember this time period. Some stared at me with screwed-up faces, others shook their heads in agreement, others looked shocked. I believe I told the truth more and more every day. The Black Lives Matter movement is demanding a change of consciousness. This is difficult for liberal “white” people to recognize. Instead of embracing a paradigm shift we tend to call for respect and an adherence to certain protocols and sensibilities. We view ourselves as good people. We even openly say we support Black Lives Matter, as Ben Cohen did yesterday on HuffPost Live. But when it comes down to acting in accordance with this rhetoric we succumb to what feels comfortable, what we know, the path of least resistance: whiteness. The result is sadly predictable, and terrifyingly deadly. Whiteness does what it always does: centers itself and then divides and conquers. Now folks who positioned themselves as “allies” are openly hostile and defensive. We demand that “all the facts be considered.” Or, we tell the country that “Bernie is better than anybody else.” Or, we simply become disgusted at two Black women taking over the microphone at an “event that wasn’t even theirs!” Because the role of whiteness still largely escapes interrogation we are unable to see how this worldview springs from white supremacy and, more importantly, we cannot identify our own self-interest in dismantling whiteness and shifting our knowledge system. We end up identifying with the very systems those we are attempting to stand shoulder to shoulder with are attacking. Jamie Utt outlined this, along with other crucial points, in this article earlier this week.


It doesn’t need to be this way. There is a path to true solidarity and genuine engagement with movements aimed at dismantling white supremacy. However, this is a process, and there is work that needs to be done to understand and combat whiteness before the work can be authentic. Mainly, studying Whiteness.

The most important part of the work for those of us who are perceived to be white is to study what that means. Whiteness has served as a tool for the elite and propertied class to maintain their domination. It actually has little to do with skin color, and much more to do with a certain level (although that varies depending on other factors) of acceptance into the dominant culture. Every single institution and system in this country has this dynamic at its foundation. It is why immigrants Anglicized their names. It is why first generation immigrants often abandoned their native tongue and mandated English be spoken by their children. It is behind the wealth gap, the education debt, the climate debt, etc. Whiteness is foundational to America, and we must confront that truth. When we do we will see that Professor Roediger is right when he says “whiteness is not only false and oppressive, it is nothing but false and oppressive.” This is ultimately what Black Lives Matter is demanding of those of us perceived as white: switch paradigms. As James Baldwin taught us “as long as you think you’re white, there’s no hope for you. ‘Cause as long as you think you’re white, I’m going to forced to think I’m Black!” In other words, for racism to end, for white supremacy to truly be dismantled, whiteness must be abolished. But, this requires nuance. Whiteness demands it be centered, and in some ways and spaces – for its dismantling – it should be. But, what ends up happening too often is white liberals — who haven’t engaged in any serious manner with the way whiteness shapes how we see the world — end up centering themselves, and therefore whiteness, in really violent ways. In real life this looks one of two ways 1) I support Black Lives Matter and the movement should do X, Y, Z or 2) Black Lives Matter is for Black people and I cannot engage at all. The former approach lacks an understanding of how whiteness must always be in charge. The former misunderstands the liberatory power for so called whites in the Black Lives Matter movement. It is possible to support Black Lives Matter and not have to be seen or heard. Thankfully these are not the only options available. It is possible to do internal work, the work of make knowledge applicable to ourselves, without having to be the center of attention. This is the paradigm shift. This is deconstructing whiteness.

Once we confront whiteness it becomes clear that our self-interest, as European-Americans, is to stand in solidarity with communities of color and demand a shift in consciousness. Instead of shouting for Bernie we need to be harmonizing with the Black Lives Matter chants that are piercing the armor of whiteness from coast to coast.

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


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.


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.


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!

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