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Form Follows Function

This is Why we Hate You: MisAdventures in Gentrification

To Leslie Bock and the folks over at Betty Danger’s

My name is Ryan Williams-Virden. I spent the first thirty years of my life in Northeast Minneapolis. The Northeast that I remember, however, is very different from the one that you have crafted from what, I’m sure, you saw as rubble. Let me explain.

I grew up in Northeast before there was ever an “arts district.” I grew up in Northeast when abandoned buildings and tore up homes were not blank canvases, but symbols of perseverance, monuments of memory. Before craft beer and microbreweries Northeast was my home.  In my Northeast the only Pub Crawls folks did were when they got too lit to drive home so they literally crawled. Peddle Pubs looked more like kids too young to drive biking in the streets after getting into their parents liquor when they were gone, or even sometimes with their parents. In my Northeast problems were often worked out with left jabs and right crosses and vacations came at the end of a six pack, or–depending on how long you been surviving day to day– at the bottom of a bottle. If you were lucky, like me, you could bus tables at restaurants which you would probably never be able to afford to eat at.

I don’t say all this to romanticize the struggle of so many working class people. It is not romantic. There is nothing romantic about alcoholism and poverty wages. I know from first hand experience. I remember giving hugs and trying to see if I could smell liq on their breath. At my first job washing dishes the cook would sneak across the street to grab a couple beers between orders. He called his car the pussy chariot  trying desperately to find something honorable in his nightly routine; he talked to me, a 14 year old, about how when I get old enough to drink I can have a couple with him after the shift. He fully expected me to be there, working with him, when I was old enough to drink. My park board baseball coach kept a cooler with beer under a jacket between the driver and passenger seat.

Nothing romantic.

But I also don’t write this to shame or distance myself from that history. It is precisely because of those experiences and that geography that I am who I am today, for better or worse. For every memory of struggle, I have two memories of laughter and love. That is my history and I won’t sit around quietly as you– and the hipsters like you who are currently colonizing Northeast– position my monuments for your own shits and giggles and make light of the struggle that forged so many scoundrels.

You may be wondering what I’m talking about. And while I am certainly talking about the general way you have interacted with those of us born and raised in Northeast who have great ideas but didn’t get a loan from our father’s to play around with and dabble in entrepreneurship, this time I am talking about your flagrant violation and mockery of Alcoholics Anonymous in the sign outside the establishment. You see, Northeast has an intimate history with alcohol, and therefore alcoholism. The bars that you and your ilk are so attracted to actually have a history. They served working people who needed an escape, any escape from the systems that you and yours capitalize on to own those very properties.

I have personally seen warriors struggle daily with sobriety. I’ve seen battles lost and won. I know what it means when my elders say “there by the grace of God go I.”  I know the subtext of the serenity prayer. I have seen the alcoholic at the bar drowning demons decades in the making. I have seen the bruises on my friends when their brother, or dad, or uncle, or boyfriend, lost the battle and came home to teach them a lesson. For these folks AA represents their hope, it represents their salvation. Growing up the sobriety medallions were stored away and treated with reverence. You mock this history and these struggles with your Northeast AA: Arts and Alcohol event.  Sadly I expect no less. You are doing what colonizing White folks have always done. You believe that the world is your playground,  that cultures and histories are simply accouterments that add a little spice and exoticism to your consumption. For examples of this look no further than the greeting on the very same sign: The Village of Mexampton welcomes you to Northeast Minneapolis. You want to turn the masterpieces we painted on the daily with our blood, sweat and tears into a pentimento, replaced by your obviously forged hipster print. We see you. And this is why we hate you.

 

Adventures of the Multi-Racial Family Vol 1. raising our biracial daughter

Being in a multi-racial family is not an easy thing. There are constant moments that require a level of critical thought, analysis and consciousness. The necessity of these things, while always crucial, become magnified when you add a biracial daughter to the mix.

“Her skin tone is so nice!” “Look at that hair!”  She has “so much attitude.” She is “so sassy!” She is “just like her mommy.”  These are only a few of the “compliments” we receive about our daughter. Most of the time they are from people who mean well. Some of them are even family. They are always said with a smile. But they are all, also, reproductions of a particular stereotype of Black women: the Sapphire, and how white standards of beauty and the implicit bias and latent racism of white supremacy shape our everyday relationships, even ones that mean a lot to us.

 

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ZoZoThe Sapphire stereotype — Black women having attitude, being mean, quick to snap, and aggressive– gets its name from the popular 1930’s radio (and later TV) show Amos ‘n’ Andy, but actually dates further back. During the 1800’s up to shows like Amos ‘n’ Andy Black women were portrayed in popular culture as “sassy mammies.” These figures were meant to soften the oppressive and violent nature of Jim Crow: White supremacy was just providing the same type of discipline and attitude that Black women did. As David Pilgrim wrote “The Sapphire Caricature is a harsh portrayal of African American women, but it is more than that; it is a social control mechanism that is employed to punish black women who violate the societal norms that encourage them to be passive, servile, non-threatening, and unseen.”

The Sapphire stereotype has persisted and continues to shape our collective view of Black women today. Many of us 80’s babies grew up on Martin  and saw Pam embody the Angry Black Woman, the Sapphire. And Martin was not the only show. Today’s generation is being reared on a much more blatant and insidious manifestation: reality TV like Real Housewives and Bad Girls Club. With this level of saturation, it is no wonder that some of the first impressions people take from our daughter is that she has “attitude.”

Complicating the issue is that our daughter is biracial. She has fine “white girl” hair and her skin is light. When people say she is “just like her mom” and “has attitude”  they are projecting their understanding of Blackness and specifically, Black femininity from Tiffany — because she is just like her mom– onto Zoe. This is a complicated and dangerous conflation.
ZoZoTony yayoFirst, when folks comment on Zoe’s sass and attitude and then tie that to her being just like her mother, they are betraying their own level of collusion with the Sapphire stereotype, and ultimately the system of white supremacy it is meant to uphold. Instead of choosing funny, smart, kind, or the myriad of other adjectives they could use to describe our daughter, they choose sassy. Not only have they boxed our daughter in, but they are damaging their relationship with Tiffany: What must they think about Tiffany if they are using this frame to understand her daughter?

Importantly, the implications are much farther reaching than our family: what other stereotypes about Blackness are they colluding with, whether explicitly or implicitly? It is not unreasonable to believe that the same people who see our daughter as having “attitude” are the same people who believe Darren Wilson when he said Mike Brown looked like a “demon.” It is not unreasonable to believe that if you strip our one year old of her childhood innocence by thinking she can be “sassy” you can also believe that a 12 year old boy named Tamir Rice “looked older” and that is why it was ok for police to take his life.

 

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Becoming parents to a biracial child, we knew there were things that we would have to explain to Zoe about racial identity and colorism. It is very, very real and unfortunately there is nothing we can do to protect her from experiencing it. “Oh her skin is so beautiful,” or “Oh her skin tone is perfect.” Um, excuse me?! Stop please, because your racism is showing. The notion that light skin is more beautiful is disturbing and hella offensive to us! When you say our daughter has beautiful skin, it implies that Tiffany’s (darker) skin is not beautiful. How’s that for a slap in the face? There is no denying– in these parents biased opinion– that Zoe is beautiful, but that her beauty is due to the fairness of her skin, perpetrates the age-old “light is right” notion.

ZoZo staringLet us take it back real quick: The term mulatto — which is an archaic definition of a child with a black and white parent– has been the subject of fascination and exoticization for centuries.The obsession and admiration of light skin has real consequences. Many scholars have conducted studies on what is called light skin privilege. Make no mistake, it is a product of white supremacy. The lighter you are the more likely it is that you can pass for white and enjoy the benefits that come with it. More than that though, across the planet, due to European imperialism and colonization– the lighter the skin the better you are treated. For example, it is common knowledge that lighter skin African’s (often the products of rape by the slave master) were treated better and given privileges. The fascination with biracial beauty actually dehumanizes mixed race folks and upholds the complexities of racism. In this day and age when we are dealing #teamlightskinned, and “light girls only” night at the clubs, we continue to wade in the waters of the color complex which dates back to slavery.Two things: If you haven’t read The Color Complex by Kathy Russell, check it out. Also, if you haven’t seen Alex Haley’s Queen, find it, rent it, watch it!

This oppressive ideology is so damaging to the psyche, as a society we don’t  fully grasp its emotional impact on people. Not to mention, as Zoe gets older and continues to hear these descriptors, she may begin to associate negative images with Blackness.That is unacceptable to us as parents and why we are in full support of movements like Black Lives Matter which are calling for a fundamental shift in our framing of Blackness.  Nonetheless, all of these messages inform her and are shaping her perspectives. As parents, we have to be diligent at breaking down these messages and arm her with the tools to craft and disseminate images herself.

At this point some of you may be feeling a bit defensive, or embarrassed, or maybe feeling bad for having perpetuated some of what we are talking about. As we said, most of the time these things are said by family or friends who intend no harm. But intent is not the point, impact is. In a world that is seeing an increase in multi-racial families with multi-racial children it is paramount that we sharpen our understanding of white supremacy and how its antiblack sentiments are damaging our children. If there is a better reason than our children and grandchildren for committing to racial justice, we don’t know it.

 

 

About My Brothers in Oregon: don’t fall for the okie doke

As I’m sure you have heard by now, a militia group led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy have taken over a wildlife refuge in Oregon. They are armed and have vowed to stay there until their demands are met.

As the story hit social media, many quickly pointed out the double standards between the militia’s treatment and the treatment and framing of other protests across the country led by Black Lives Matter. Many of these pieces are outstanding think pieces and illustrate the fundamental difference white skin provides folks in this country. But this piece is not one of those.

This piece is not an analysis of racial double standards, not an examination of white privilege, and certainly not a piece meant to distance myself from my people in Oregon by making fun of the way they (may) speak by calling them “Y’all Qaeda”

This piece is about how whiteness works against both sides.

The militia, who call themselves “Citizens for Constitutional Freedoms” fundamentally believe they are entitled to certain freedoms and that the federal government is infringing on those freedoms. They are, as their name suggests, claiming what is Constitutionally theirs. They believe they  are acting under the banner of patriotism. They are not wrong, and that is the problem.

George-Washington-Mount-Vernon-1853-631.jpg__800x600_q85_crop

One of the first things taught to high schoolers in Civics and Government classes across the country is that our democracy is the embodiment of a specific tradition: the Enlightenment. Specifically, we are taught that the English philosopher John Locke –who articulated life, liberty and property as natural rights– is responsible for laying the ideological framework of our country that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The obvious questions: didn’t they own slaves? What about the people already here? What about women? What about the poor?  are often ignored or dismissed as rectified by future movements. What is not dealt with at all is the system of knowing which gives birth to this contradiction i.e. White Supremacy.

Charles Mills in his work The Racial Contract argues that the social contract, which is a fundamental aspect of the enlightenment, is actually a racial contract. That only wealthy white men could enter into the social contract and therefore be entitled to citizenship, its rights, and ultimately humanity. It is only by understanding the social contract as a racial one that we can make sense of committing genocide against an entire people or a contradiction like chattel slavery existing in a country that claimed all men were created equal.  And it is the Racial Contract that helps us make sense of how working class and poor whites can take up arms and occupy a federal building to demand their constitutional rights (with the support of thousands across the country including politicians) while others– also poor, but mostly brown and Black– can protest and end up being ridiculed and demeaned across the country.

The ironic thing is, of course, that the Racial Contract’s benefits still mainly go to those it was originally intended to benefit: wealthy white men. Poor and working class whites are facing crippling poverty in every corner of the country. It is the Racial Contract that steers our anger and angst towards people of color. This divide and conquer is the life blood of the Racial Contract. Who needed trillions of dollars from us after they gambled with our savings? Who sits in the board rooms? Who decides its cost effective to continue burning fossil fuels? Whose sons and daughters fight the wars for those fossil fuels? Whose communities are decimated by oil spills and other pollutants? Whose children are drowning in student loan debt? Whose jobs don’t pay livable wages?

The real question, then, is who is maintaining the Racial Contract. The answer is middle class white liberals. Those folks who comfortably vote Democrat and feel like they are part of the solution. Those folks who call for restraint and to “let the system work.” Those who openly rail against President Bush and his policies, but are silent when it comes to Obama’s. The same folks Dr. King warned us about in his “Letters from a Birmingham jail.” Many of these folks currently hold seats of power in my city, Minneapolis, and all over the country. They are the ones that benefit from the Racial Contract’s subtleties. They point their fingers at folks like those in Oregon attempting to discredit them by making fun of how they speak, a sort of class dog whistle. They want us to believe we have nothing in common with the folks in Oregon. They want us to believe we are like them, that we should aspire to be where they are. This is the Racial Contract at play. We must refuse it. We must reject both the blatant white supremacy of many in the militia movement but also the more sophisticated form coming from these folks. We want a totally new way. A way that brings us together with our brothers and sisters of color and doesn’t require allegiance to the Racial Contract.

Imagine if we could think outside of the Racial Contract. Imagine if  working class and poor whites built with Black Lives Matter, Idle No More,  the DREAMers and the myriad other organizations demanding their own constitutional rights.  How quickly would things change? How drastically?

 

 

 

To My Fellow Whites: 4 Reasons You Should Be at The Mall of America Wednesday

I woke up to news that Black Lives Matter organizers are being sued by the Mall of America in an attempt to force them to cancel the planned protest on Wednesday.

I don ‘t know why I continue to be surprised by events like this. I know better.

I also know I am going to be at the Mall on Wednesday. I hope that you are there with me. Here are four  reasons why:

  1. Otherwise you Might Think You Don’t Have to Deal With Race. So many people who wouldn’t otherwise think about race and racism are going to be forced to think about why this is happening. To me this is one of the most important aspects to come out of actions like this. So many White folks simply go on about their lives and never come face to face with the reality of racism. They believe that because they don’t openly use the N word and don’t believe in Jim Crow style segregation they have no further responsibility to interact with race. They never consider how it came to be that they don’t live around people of color. They never reflect on what systems are in place that keep them from interacting, on a daily basis, with peers who don’t look like them. Most importantly, they don’t consider how their daily routines perpetuate the systems that keep this situation in tact. By being at MOA these realities are forced upon folks who would otherwise go on about their day as if they had no stake in this struggle.
  2. Our Freedom is Intimately Tied to This. A common mistake that white folks make is to think that we do not benefit from the movement for racial justice. Nothing can be farther from the truth. As I have claimed here many times, whiteness is a divide and conquer strategy which is meant to keep working class and poor whites fighting with people of color as elite whites continue to control the vast majority of resources. What little resources we do have we are expected to spend at places like MOA. We are integral cogs in the machine that is capitalist white supremacy, and it isn’t working for the majority of us either, as the case of Michael Kirvelay illustrates.When we move past whiteness and act in solidarity with movements like Black Lives Matter we connect with the larger community and build the power necessary to better our own material reality.
  3. It is the Right Thing to Do. Quite simply, speaking out against racism and the violence it perpetuates is the right thing to do. That the Mall is private property with the legal right to bar protesters does not mean it is wrong to be there demanding justice. Legality does not equal morality. Lest we forget: slavery and Jim Crow were both legal. The land that the Mall sits on is stained with the blood of Natives and the sin of the genocide perpetrated against the indigenous people of this land, all done legally. This argument is flimsy at best, especially given that the Mall lets other groups gather such as Zach Sobiech’s tribute.
    jmp Clouds choir0256
    More than 3,500 people registered for a world-record “Clouds”- singing choir of Zach Sobiech’s moving hit song about dying at the Mall of America Thursday night December 5, 2013. (Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri)

    The argument is meant to alleviate the conscience of folks who are struggling with being confronted with the reality of white supremacy and their inherent complicity in it. To those folks I offer the words of Bishop Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

  4.  Because there are people who look like us that are actively spewing hate. The comments on the Black Lives Matter Minneapolis Facebook page consisted of this type of nonsense. 0d                                                     If we sit on the sidelines and remain silent these are the voices that get heard. I hope that is unacceptable to you.

 

 

Minneapolis PD can learn what from Columbia Heights PD?

On November 15th Minneapolis police shot and killed Jamar Clark. For the next 18 days protesters occupied the 4th Precinct in North Minneapolis, just yards from where Clark was shot. The protesters came together under the banner of Black Lives Matter and, once again, showed the world that justice was not going to be delayed, today would be a new day. The protesters themselves, and their supporters, were multiracial. This was in no small part to the articulation –put forward nationwide since the inception of the movement– that Black Lives Matter held white supremacy, not white people, accountable. I also believe that white supremacy is the enemy, and that it claimed another victim in Columbia Heights, an inner-ring suburb of Minneapolis: Michael Kirvelay.

What Happened?

On November 24th Columbia Heights police shot and killed Michael Kirvelay while he was experiencing a mental health crisis. His family called for help and informed the police of the situation. Michael was holding an unloaded BB gun which the family also informed the police officers of. Instead of doing their job Michael Kirvelay is dead, and another family is left mourning an unnecessary tragedy. 

How is This a Racial Justice Issue?

White Supremacy, as I have argued before, is not about the color of your skin it is about a worldview, a value system and a set of norms. There is a difference between having white skin and being White.  The police are the first line of defense for these ideals. They enforce them on the ground in our everyday lives. Therefore violence by police is inherently racialized violence in service of white supremacy. To not start here is to miss the point. Which Mark Obie does in his piece “One Street in Minnesota Separates Radically Different Policing Strategies.”

In the article Obie claims that the Columbia Heights Police Department is fundamentally different from the Minneapolis Police Department due to its embrace of community oriented policing. This is a dangerous assertion, if Columbia Heights PD is practicing anything different than Minneapolis PD it is simply a more polished white supremacy:  white supremacy lite. The article, while seemingly in support of Black Lives Matter and the movement to dismantle white supremacy, actually ends up perpetuating the very ideas necessary for the maintenance of white supremacy. It is simply the “bad apple” argument on a larger scale. Ironically, given the often argued point that Black Lives Matter’s critique is at the institutional and systemic level, the article focuses largely on two officers: a Somali officer assigned to the Somali community and a white officer who is assigned to the high school (nothing says justice like police in the school, even nice ones.) The article uses these two officers as proxy to make the argument that Columbia Heights is doing something revolutionary. Nowhere in the article is there an examination of power; nowhere in the article is there a discussion of the history from which policing comes from. Both of which are fundamental to understanding the basis for policing. Most importantly the article –despite being written on December 14th, three weeks after Michael Kirvelay’s death– does not mention the shooting or the family’s claims of excessive force. In fact the article claims there is an almost nonexistent rate of excessive force complaints.

The Failure of Race Thinking

As long as you think you’re “white,” there’s no hope for you. As long as you think you’re “white,” I’m going to be forced to think I’m “black.”- James Baldwin

Columbia Heights is a small inner-ring suburb of Minneapolis. It is working class and 70% white. For many of these families the benefits of whiteness are largely limited to what W.E.B. DuBois called the psychological wages of whiteness. They do not work at living wage jobs, many are paying mortgages to banks that could care less about them, and they have sub-par health care, among a great many other things. In short, they represent the perfect buffer (both geographically and socially) between the white elite and communities of color.  It is only the constructed identity of whiteness that keeps communities like Columbia Heights and North Minneapolis from coming together to better their collective material reality. This divisive strategy –originated after Bacon’s Rebellion and remixed with policies such as the Southern Strategy— is playing itself out in 2015.

shut it down

One of the first things that the ruling class in the colonies did when legislating whiteness was to allow these new whites to serve as police. These European- newly white- Americans would enforce white supremacy and protect the wealth of the elites (often literally as the slave patrol) in exchange for the promise of a few crumbs to better their own material reality. So, community policing may soften the edges of white supremacy but  when push comes to shove, without an ideological shift, it is still just that, white supremacy. The story of Michael Kirvelay stands in stark contrast to the picture the article paints of a police force which “are trained problem solvers, not “robotic” enforcers… That means, for example, when they confront chronic problems…they apply protocols designed to drill down to what’s really going on. Drugs? Mental illness? Child abuse?” If this were true then how did Michael Kirvelay, who was experiencing a mental health crisis, end up dead? That answer is simple: he wouldn’t have. And,where did the police learn to treat life with such callous disregard? This is the insidiousness of white supremacy, it is cannibalistic, its violence will devour even those who should theoretically benefit. This is the system which even community oriented police departments are operating in, there is nothing admirable about ignoring this fundamental truth.

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No one is free until we are all free- Martin Luther King J.R.

Black Lives Matter is right, the enemy is white supremacy. We need to remember that white supremacy does not only count people of color among it’s victims. It is only the made up idea of race and  race thinking that has separated us into these groups and pitted us against ourselves. It is up to us, right now, to reject this frame. We need to stand together and reject the infrastructures that prop up white supremacy, the police being primary among them. When protesters for Michael Kirvelay confronted the police they were greeted with jeers, smirks and disrespect that mirrored the actions of Minneapolis PD at the 4th Precinct. Their demands are for the body camera footage to be released and the police prosecuted, similar to the demands for those of us supporting Justice for Jamar Clark.

While the paths to liberation are different, requiring different things from those of us perceived as white than communities of color, the end goal is a shared one: dismantling white supremacy. If this is true, we must reject the erasure of violence perpetrated in the service of white supremacy. Instead we need to understand, as Guante,  G.P. Jacob, and Tish Jones remind us in “One Bad Cop,”  the problem is much bigger than one cop or even one department. As Tish says ” call the problem white supremacy cuz we know that.”

To support the family of Michael Kirvelay donate here. 

 

 

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 killing 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.

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 7_06_10 PM

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!

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