Form Follows Function

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!

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


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.


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


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?


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


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.


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


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.


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.


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


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?


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.”


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?


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.


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


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


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?


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.

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