Form Follows Function

A Matter of Our Souls

Growing up Irish-Catholic and going to Catholic schools from kindergarten through 12th grade I couldn’t help but think about my soul, often. I remember Sister Bev leading sex ed class in 8th grade. It was essentially her telling us to leave each other and ourselves alone or we would go blind. I remember confessing everything from swearing to premarital sex and feeling so relieved while saying my ten Hail Mary’s. I thought about my soul often. And, while I am no longer Christian, I still find myself thinking about my soul. Thinking about our soul.


I was leading a workshop on white privilege a while back as part of Poetic Assassins. I had read Tim Wise and some others and was pretty confident I was prepared to lead this workshop. I did the workshop and felt pretty good about it. After, one of the the participants asked me what whiteness was. I was taken aback by the question. Not because it is a bad question. I was taken aback because I realized I did not have an answer. At least not one that was good enough. I don’t remember my exact answer to him, but I remember leaving there with an understanding of the work I needed to immerse myself in: understanding whiteness.

As I read about whiteness a familiar feeling came over me: concern for my soul. It became clear to me that this work was, at its core, work that was spiritual. Not in the hippy, new age, spacey kind of way; this work was and is spiritual in the most concrete and real ways I had ever known.


Whiteness can be summed up with that one word: disconnection. The initial disconnection being from the creator and creation. As whiteness has matriculated and evolved into the global system of oppression we currently find ourselves subsumed by we must understand that it is disconnection. While humans have been bickering and fighting with one another and separating themselves into hierarchies for millennia never before has the disconnection been so complete and so thorough as the creation of whiteness.

Whiteness is a uniquely American invention. Yes, people with white skin have existed for centuries, but whiteness is relatively new. I should be clear it didn’t just happen out of nowhere, there was build up and warning signs i.e. colonization of Ireland which Ronald Takaki calls practice for the genocidal colonization of the Western Hemisphere. But in Virginia and Maryland and the other colonies, whiteness is born.

The need to rationalize slavery and maintain the economic social order led our ancestors down a path of disconnection from which we have yet to recover. And, I fear we may never recover. We are just now experiencing the slightest collective consciousness around the way the police kill brown and black folks with impunity. That ain’t new, just the cameras are. We are so disconnected from our brothers and sisters that collectively we have ignored, or blatantly refused to acknowledge, the reality they have been telling us about. We talk about the wealth gaps, crooked politicians and corrupt CEO’s and bankers as if they are natural phenomenon that must be tolerated as opposed to the logical outcome of a system built on genocide and slavery which murders and steals to protect its interests everyday. Still, the clearest example of how utterly disconnected from humanity and creation whiteness has pushed us comes in how we are treating the earth.

The earth must be sacred. Whiteness, though, has commodified and exploited it with no regard for the consequences. Our disconnection is so thorough we are actually killing ourselves and resisting the calls to stop. While I am certainly talking climate change, which has real and immediate effects hurting us all right now, I am also talking about the lead in our water from Flint to my hometown Minneapolis (and everywhere else).  I am talking about the daily destruction of the rainforests, the historic drought in California, and the islands of trash in our oceans. Most presently, I am talking about oil pipelines and cutting off water to Native Tribes protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.


“The past is never dead.It’s not even past.”

I’m sitting here at 4:45am thinking about my ancestors. I’m thinking about the Standing Rock Sioux and the other tribes protecting what is left of their land from the insatiable appetite for destruction of whiteness. I’m thinking about the disconnection and legacy necessary for the Army Corps of Engineers to actually say the Standing Rock Sioux “failed to describe specific cultural sites” that would be damaged by the pipeline. As if the water and land is not a “specific cultural site.” I am thinking about our soul.

How did we get to this place? How do we return?

As a kid, I always appreciated the relief I felt after going to confession. I think we need something like that. We need to begin with truth-telling and then work at reconnecting. We need to understand if the earth isn’t sacred, nothing is. It will be a journey, this reconnection, but it is one we must pursue with urgency. Jack Forbes calls whiteness an illness: the Wetiko Disease of Exploitation. I do believe whiteness is a sickness. I believe this is first and foremost a spiritual sickness. I also believe there is a cure. Go out with an open mind and heart to learn and love others. Ask questions and listen to the answer. Be in community. Find out what matters to others and why, then have it matter to you. Reject the individualism of whiteness. Reject the disconnection. Our souls depend on it.


The Cowardice of Minneapolis: how race and class undermine justice

Growing up, Saturday nights were spent watching a movie, eating a frozen pizza and waiting for my Mom to come home from her shift at Gasthofs. My Pops would take us to the movie spot where we would find a movie in the .99 cent section, stop by the .25  cent Shasta pop machine that was outside the grocery store, and then pick up a Tony’s pizza (if we were really balling we got a Tombstone). When my Mom got home we would pause the movie, and I would go count her tips with her. I have vivid memories of seeing the thick knot and thinking we were rich. She was always quick to say “they are all ones sweat pea.”

I grew up much more conscious of class than I ever was of race. I knew who the system protected, and who it didn’t. Who it benefited, and who it screwed. When I was doing work study to supplement the financial aid my parents got from my private high school, I knew it. When I walked on my college campus, I knew it. When I filled out my private student loan promissory note, I knew it.

What took me a little longer was understanding how that system, which I knew intimately through class, leveraged race as a way to fundamentally maintain itself.

The dance between race and class is a complex one. Sometimes class leads, but at others race is running the show.RACE_POVERTY_CLASS[1]Without understanding how both are weaved into the fabric of our society’s systems of domination it will be impossible to build an effective movement for justice, let alone establish alternative systems rooted in justice. There is no clearer example of how crucial this intersectional worldview is than what took place in Minneapolis this last week.

Minneapolis has a certain reputation. It is solidly Democrat, and embraces its liberal identity. Last year The Atlantic published an article called “The Miracle of Minneapolis” which sings Minneapolis’ praises. Sadly, this utopian vision of Minneapolis  doesn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny. With only a Google search you find that Minneapolis is a much different place for people of color which The Washington Post and The Atlantic detail. The reality is that the chasms between whites and people of color that exist in Minneapolis are the largest in the country.

In the face of this overwhelming  white supremacy  Minneapolis rolled out its One Minneapolis plan. The overwhelmingly white lawmakers adopted racial justice language and ostensibly began to do the serious work of building “One” reality.

Between then and now organizations and individuals have been organizing and building power in order to hold the city accountable. Unfortunately, there is nothing better for maintaining white supremacy than class interests.

Maybe the most visible manifestations of this accountability came in the form of the $15 Dollar Now and Insure the police campaigns. Organizers across the city worked tirelessly to collect the necessary signatures to put the issues on the ballot, to give the people a voice. Sadly, when presented with the signatures, the City Council sided with lawyers representing the city and voted against placing the issues on the ballot.1024x1024 Many so called “progressives,” in true liberal fashion, hid behind the legality of adapting the city charter. Only two members of the council, Alondra Cano and Cam Gordon, voted to prioritize  the people (Cano cast the only vote to insure the police). And this is what we mean when we talk about systemic oppression.

By citing legality the City Council did what good liberals always do: count on the system to maintain their own privileges. This is how systems work. Systems ignore the fact that the law has always been a tool of the powerful. They forget that at one point, not so long ago, it was legal to own another human being. Another, shamefully recent, period of our history embraced legal segregation and system of apartheid. The idea that legality and morality are one in the same simply does not carry water. The City Council knows this. However, by stating, as Council Member Andrew Johnson did (he wasn’t the only one), that they are all for the $15 dollar wage but that it wasn’t appropriate for the city charter they deflect the reality of oppression while maintaining the veneer of a racial justice advocate.

The reality is they are scared. Justice is scary to oppressors. Their class and racial allegiances prohibit their ever actually becoming even a portion of the people they want us to believe they are. The $15 Now campaign, while still below a livable wage, is a threat to the material wealth of the middle and upper classes. White liberals are fine with racial justice until it means actually redistributing wealth and power. They know this. They know they need to protect their positions, and those serving to protect them: the police. Even in the light of Jamar Clark and Philando Castile middle class liberals side with the foot soldiers protecting the status quo. They know that voting to insure the police will be seen by the Union and larger law enforcement community as a sign of disrespect, and they can’t afford to send that message. They are invested in this system regardless of what they tell the newspapers and cameras.

I’m still mesmerized by my mother. She lets nothing get in her way. She ain’t the only one. Last night I saw hundreds of people celebrating the historic victory of Ilhan Omar over Phyllis Khan. Fue Lee also won his primary, unseating Joe Mullery. There is a shift happening. Folks are beginning to understand the need for systemic change. Working class white folks, like my family, are beginning to understand the need for a paradigm shift. We are rejecting the social order and building something new. There is power in that. And, there is hope in that power.




Electoral Politics in 2016, I wanted to Believe

I remember telling one of my best friends that two Democrats: Barack Obama and Keith Ellison were going to change the world. I was canvasing for Alliance for a Better Minnesota and, for the first time in my life, was energized around politics. As I knocked on hundreds of doors and talked to people all over Minneapolis and St. Paul I felt good about my work and about the future of the country. I wanted to believe, and I did.

That year was 2006. By 2008 I had lost my faith in electoral politics. I didn’t vote for Obama in 2008. By 2008 I had come to the conclusion that no person, no matter how well-intentioned, could enter into the machine of American electoral politics and come out the other end. I was studying relentlessly and after every book I finished, after every interview, and podcast, and YouTube lecture I watched I couldn’t come to a different conclusion. Whether it was Malcolm X, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, or Rosa Clemente the message was the same: Republicans may be more blatant in their oppression but Democrats had the same ends in mind.quote-the-republican-and-democratic-parties-are-only-factions-of-the-government-party-noam-chomsky-143-3-0365  I cast my vote in 2008 for the McKinney-Clemente ticket, and watched as the country elected the first black president. I smiled when Obama won, it was undoubtedly a major moment. I wanted to believe.

It is now 2016. Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for president. His blatantly xenophobic, racist, sexist, homophobic and fascist rhetoric has resulted in him surging in the polls. I want to believe so badly that the Democrats have an alternative. But, I’m watching the opening night of the Democratic National Convention and it is more about Donald Trump than it is about Hillary Clinton. It seems the Democratic strategy is to simply scare people into voting against Trump instead of for Clinton. The phrase “lesser of two evils” is so common in our  political discourse that folks don’t even bash an eyelash at its implications.  We accept the overwhelming ineptitude and inadequacies of our efforts around climate change. In fact, we prefer silence on that issue. But when we do talk it’s not much better. We talk about drone bombings, military budgets large enough to conquer the universe, homelessness, healthcare for profit, education for profit and CIA trained black ops leading coups in sovereign nations like they are a given, a force of nature. We shrug our shoulders and fall in line when wealth disparities and systemic inequality remind us that Democrats have done just as much harm as Republicans. We turn to one of the architects of mass-incarceration  for its solution knowing full well there is nothing there. We watch real immigrants facing real deportation being ran out on stage to talk about how evil Trump is but remain silent about the record setting deportations carried out under our current Democratic President. We shake our heads as folks continue to act like the threat to police officers is somehow on par with how the police brutalize communities of color and poor communities. Still, though, I want to believe.

It is now 2016 and the lies of both major political parties are so shallow and see through that fear is our greatest motivator. I want to believe we are better than this. I want to believe that we are better than empty political rhetoric. I want to believe we are better than catering to American exceptionalism. I want to believe we can tell the truth– good, bad or otherwise– about this country. I want to believe we, the citizens, are not being manipulated, but are, instead, being trusted. I want to believe… but I know better.

We need something else. We need a different field. We need a different game. This isn’t about any individual. I’m sure many Democrats are good people. I’m also sure the rules of the game will buffer their impact. rosa_clemente_maThese folks talking tonight: Corey Booker, Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders know they are selling woof tickets. They know the real deal, and so do we. Yes, we may be able to push Democrats a bit and that is something, for sure, but it is not the long game. The long game comes between elections cycles (why you think they want us in perpetual elections). The long game comes at the dinner tables, and the street corners, and clubs and the classrooms. It comes in the protests. It comes in the Zines and Indy media. It comes in the barbershops and the church pews. It comes with base-building outside of the Democrats. It comes outside of electoral politics as we now know it. It comes with you and me. The long game is the people and we are the people.  I still believe.


Shedding Whiteness: an introductory guide

Somebody I respect and look up to greatly, who also happens to be a writer, once told me to write the article you wish you could have read when you first started your journey. This is my attempt at doing just that.

As the country once again reels from our collective inability to address issues of race and racism, more white folks are becoming aware that their identities (how they identify socially and politically) are not neutral and benign but are actually  very problematic and rooted in a history of violence (of course we all know this at some level that’s why we have yet to embrace truth-telling in any meaningful way). There is a growing desire and willingness to embrace transformation. It is incredibly important, then, to support folks who are just beginning the process of shedding whiteness. I have often said the first step in this process is being able to identify and name whiteness in order to work against it. That is easy to say and very hard to do. What follows is my best attempt at articulating  what I am calling the pillars of whiteness. By beginning to understand these pillars those of us with white skin will be able to more readily identify and work against whiteness.

Pillar One: Whiteness is Ideological 

The most common misunderstanding of whiteness is that it is biological. Many of us with white skin observe this biological fact and automatically begin identifying as white. We embrace things such as rugged individuality, an obsession with private property and punctuality. We shame open displays of sexuality and sensuality while internalizing shame and guilt around a great many aspects of the human experience. This is because whiteness is a coalescing of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP)  ideals, values and norms. The fact is that people we now label white would not have been considered white for most of history. Which brings us to the second pillar.

Further Readings: The Racial Contract by Charles Mills.  The Myth of Race The Reality of Racism byMahmoud El Kati 

Pillar Two: Whiteness is Fluid 

Because whiteness is ideology it can be shaped to fit specific needs. When whiteness was first codified it was meant to protect the planting class in the colonies from the multiracial rebellions that threatened their profits. All that was necessary to guard the status quo was to extend certain rights and privileges to poor English. But as America grew and more immigrants came to the country from various cultures across Europe the threat to the elite once again posed too great a risk. As a result whiteness was expanded. Groups that were previously not considered white where now granted membership into the club given that they shed their cultures and assimilate into the dominant WASP culture. The Irish were one group who quite explicitly demanded rights in exchange for accepting whiteness. As more and more European groups acquiesced to whiteness the divide and conquer nature of whiteness was further entrenched.

Further Readings: Working Towards Whiteness by David Roediger, How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev, A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki, The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

Pillar Three: Whiteness is divisive

Whiteness can not survive unity. It’s entire purpose is to maintain a chasm between those it labels white and those that fall outside its purview. It requires isolation. In order to maintain the division it nurtures discontent and hatred towards those that fall outside its borders. Because we all know this (at some level), and nobody openly chooses oppression, marginalization and dehumanization those of us with white skin invest in the ideology and the division. Also, our institutions are built on a foundation of whiteness which further perpetuate its destructive impact. When we blindly accept the label of white because it “matches” our skin tone we are also accepting the division, the disease. We must push back against this. We must reach for connection and struggle for community. We must unlearn whiteness.

Further Readings: Wages of Whiteness by David Roediger, Possessive Investment of Whiteness by George Lipsitz.

Pillar Four: Invisibility

Growing up I was taught not to “see color.” I know so many good people who were taught the same thing. The problem is that when we don’t see color we are defaulting to the norm i.e. whiteness. We are requiring people to give up their cultures, religions, languages, customs… themselves and become, in this country, white. This colorblind approach has been the dominant frame for liberals since the Civil Rights movement and has become especially prevalent in the age of Obama and the rise of post-racial rhetoric. However, without dealing with the other pillars of whiteness this invisibility only serves to protect whiteness. It creates an environment where the privileged actually believe they got where they are by themselves and resent efforts to rectify the systemic inequity that facilitated their position in society. Ironically this resentment is also eating away at their own humanity. Whiteness is cannibalistic. We must begin talking explicitly about whiteness and how to heal from its effects.

Further Readings: Racism Without Racism by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, White Like Me by Tim Wise.

I am hopeful that more and more people who look like me will begin to do this deeply important and sacred work so that they can join the struggle. A new world is possible and it is up to us to path the way.



Overwhelming* Silence: White Silence and Alton Sterling

I want to start by being very specific about who I am talking to; this post is meant for people who look like me, those of us with white skin.

Many of you woke up this morning and heard the news about Alton Sterling, the 37 year old man who was shot and killed by the police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The sickening feeling in your stomach probably hit you hard as you watched the cell phone footage of a police officer charging and tackling Sterling to the ground. You knew what was coming next. And, within seconds you saw it: the police officer mounts Sterling like a UFC fighter. There is no confrontation. No struggle. Sterling is subdued and then another officer yells “Gun. Gun.” The officer on top of Sterling pulls his gun and within seconds fires multiple rounds killing Alton Sterling.

This morning my Facebook feed is full of yet another hashtag, #AltonSterling. So many of the Black and Brown people I’m connected to have no need to see the video. They say as much. They already know what happened, and, sadly, how this will play out. There is outrage; there is disgust; there will be calls for patience and to let the system work; what there won’t be is justice. And this is where I find myself this morning. Pondering my role in justice. What I’ve come to is overwhelming in its simplicity and crushing in it’s complexity. We are responsible for justice.

I don’t mean we in the vague and generalized sense that it is often used. I mean we, me and you, people with white skin. The reason this genocide against people of color continues is because far too many of us remain complicit in our silence. I thought about not writing this this morning. I thought about just retreating in my feelings of disgust, outrage, and grief. But that is not my job. Every time I, or anyone of you, retreats into silence we breath life into the killing machine. downloadEvery time we urge restraint or make apologies, or rationalize this brutality we are degrading our own spirit. And make no mistake this is a spiritual endeavor. Our souls are being crushed under the weight of whiteness. How much longer can we take it? How much longer can we acknowledge how broken our world is and ignore the weapon used to break it?

I also don’t mean justice as in jail time for the police. Though that would be something, I think. I mean justice as in creating a world that truly values the lives of Black, Brown, Asian, and Native people. I mean a justice that leaves no need for an Ethnic studies curriculum because truth-telling is already the curriculum. I mean a world where #BlackLivesMatter and Native Lives and Latinx Lives and Asian Lives. I mean a world where Donald Trump would be embarrassed to show his face, and my students wouldn’t chuckle at the idea of not having to struggle. I mean that kind of justice. We are responsible for ushering that world into existence.

The first step to creating this justice is to understand how it was sidelined in the first place. We must understand the way that whiteness — fitting into the Anglo-Saxon archetype –has been valued historically via formal avenues such as legislation and school curriculum as well as informal ones such as social customs,traditions and practices. Because much of this is passed down through generations, or happens away from public scrutiny, or is largely implicit it is necessary to learn and then unlearn this sordid history and way of being. Once we can come to grips with the ways whiteness keeps us from our own humanity and strangles our souls there is no other choice then to struggle for this justice. We won’t struggle because we are trying to help anyone else, or feel bad for them; we will struggle because our own freedom, our own humanity, is tied up with everyone else’s. As we continue to bear witness to whiteness destroying communities of color while cannibalistically devouring those of us with white skin this unlearning is the only choice we have if we ever hope for peace.

This last week a petition went around calling for the firing of Jesse Williams because his speech at the BET Awards was “racist.” When Shonda Rhimes heard about it she shut it down quickly, this is positional power, and it’s a real thing. Well, white folks have positional power in society. Once we have unlearned whiteness (and even before that) we need to be using this power not to simply name our privilege and then cower behind guilt, that is about as weak as weak gets; we need to use it to stand up and demand fundamental, radical, structural changes. To fail to do this is to betray humanity, it is to betray ourselves. There must be no compromise here. There is no compromise with the humanity of our brethren. This is especially true on days like today, days when whiteness has taken another life. Left another family fatherless. Left another community in mourning trying to survive loss. These are the days when our voices need to be the loudest, they must be clarion voices calling for the dismantling of whiteness.

The silence is deafening and it must be broken. Lives, ours included, depend on it.

*The title of this piece was initially “Deafening Silence” but if was brought to my attention this was abelist in casting being deaf as a negative. I have changed it to be more inclusive.

#Inspired… Now what?

I am not caping for Justin Timberlake, I have never been a fan; I do, though, understand him a little bit, I think.

I know what it feels like to be inspired by unfiltered and unapologetic truth-telling. I know what it feels like to have your soul spoken to. I also know what it feels like to feel lost when that happens. I know the despair of realizing how seldom that feeling comes. I also know the confusion, and anger, and guilt, and eventually the dissonance that comes with trying to figure out what it means when people of color inspire you but you are white in a white supremacist society.

I imagine Justin Timberlake was feeling many of those same feelings while he was watching Jesse Williams’ speech at the BET Awards. I imagine a lot of folks who look like me, folks with white skin, felt themselves coming alive. images (2)Sadly,  when called out on their collusion with Whiteness (for Timberlake in the exact ways Jesse Williams had just broken down) many will fall back on the classic “we are all human” liberal deflection.
I know I’ve done that. And it’s not that it’s wrong (we all are human) it’s that it misses the point: our lived reality is very different. But this ain’t new, there are so many eloquent break downs of this lived difference a Google search can easily put the curious on game. This is not a breakdown of that difference. This is, I hope, a call to begin thinking about the solution.


When I first enrolled in grad school I was beyond excited to be studying Hip-Hop. I love Hip-Hop and felt myself a part of the community. I had been performing spoken word for some years and responded with indignation when folks even hinted at questioning my authenticity. I could run down the laundry list of reasons why I was Hip-Hop despite my white skin. And I still don’t back away from that. What I have learned, though, is that my relationship to Hip-Hop and the community is not the same as a Black or Brown person’s relationship to Hip-Hop. Looking back I realize that for an embarrassingly long time I treated Hip-Hop as an equalizer, as a way of saying “we are the same.” I was violating. It wasn’t until I started studying culture and whiteness that I began to understand why I was drawn to Hip-Hop in the first place and how to genuinely engage and be a part of the culture. This is what, I think, Timberlake and others are missing: a critical frame.

Whiteness is a destructive and divisive force. This is not opinion, or analysis, it is objective fact. The first time White appears in legislation is in anti-miscegenation laws. It’s only function has been to delineate which people were considered fully human and which ones would be relegated to subhuman status. That is not pretty stuff.Texas textbooksWhite people have worked incredibly hard at scrubbing all remnants of this history from our collective memories and storytelling. This is especially true in the post-civil rights era where overt racism is ostensibly unacceptable. While this erasure is quite obviously a violence to people of color it is also a violence to those of us with white skin. It is at the intersection of this violence and ignorance that cultural appropriation finds life.

Despite the attempts at scrubbing the bloody foundation which whiteness is built upon the stain remains. Our souls know and carry the weight of whiteness. We feel the isolation and disconnection which comes from ignoring our history. We crave a return to community. We need connection. We need our humanity back. We also inherently know it is whiteness which has robbed us of these things, and we push back against it whether we know it or not. But without culture, without a clear understanding of how whiteness works our pushing back is simply a leveraging of the privileges granted us by our white skin. We must do better.

When I learned the truth about my people, Celtic people, I immediately lost any insecurities around my role in liberation, or my place in culture. I carry with me a beautiful history of resistance. Of course I was drawn to the most salient form of resistance in my own generation. But I also learned how whiteness has duped my people into exchanging their culture for access to the American Dream, forever cementing their place as the torchbearers for American racism.your humanity too
I was able to see with the clearest of vision how my need for community was as legitimate as anyone else’s. That there was indeed a place for me and people who look like me at the table of liberation. I was also able to see, with astounding clarity, that before that was
possible I needed to study whiteness and unlearn its ways of being.

In doing just that I have never felt more alive, more free.


When Justin Timberlake was getting dragged on Twitter it wasn’t because people were mad he was “inspired.” People were upset because it is not clear what Timberlake was inspired to do. Because Timberlake lacks the cultural knowledge and historical lens necessary to understand whiteness, his response to the criticism confirmed the righteousness of peoples suspicion and anger. What Timberlake should have said in the first place could have gone something like this: @iJesseWilliams tho… #Inspired #UnlearningWhiteness #GoingtoDoBetter

And we can do better. I know that. There is a place at the Cultural table for people who look like me. We simply have very specific work to do before we ain’t crashing the party.



My Students are Extraordinary: and, sadly, they have to be.

I’m just finishing my 8th year as a classroom teacher. I have worked at a number of schools, with a number of different philosophies and a number of different lenses through which students and families were viewed. These have ranged from simply encouraging students to show up so that the school could collect funding to preparing students to compete for full ride college scholarships. I have stayed after school to talk to a student about why he felt the need to come to school with a pistol; and I have stayed after school to tutor a student needing to grow two ACT points in order to qualify for admission to her stretch college.

There are volumes and volumes written about the differences between the various institutions I have worked at. There are even more volumes written debating the causes of those differences, and I ain’t trying to add to either. I want to write about the similarities. I want to write about the constant: needing to be extraordinary.

Every school I have taught at has been in Minneapolis. As such I have taught in the city with the largest opportunity gaps in the country. The. Largest. Full stop. Let that sink in.

No matter if I was at the Magic Transcript School or the Ruggedly Individual “Grit will save you” college prep the students I taught had been, by virtue of the city they went to elementary and middle school in, the victims of a gross injustice. And that’s not victim mentality that’s the straight up and down facts. And here comes the constant. To “make it”  (what does that even mean) students at both places needed to be extraordinary. Ex·Traor·Di·Nar·Y.

The student who brought the pistol to class did so because he lived in a neighborhood where to survive you cliqued up. When you clique up it comes with certain risks and rewards. He happened to be living through the wrong end of the risk part and needed the protection. He is a good kid. He is smart. He is kind. He is worthy. He is also extraordinary. Do you have any idea what it takes to live in that environment? To wake up and feel that level of anxiety? And then go to school? That is extraordinary.Inner-City-Schools It’s just an extraordinary that we don’t talk about. It doesn’t result in donors throwing thousands of dollars at you, thought is should. It doesn’t even result in politicians waking up and addressing the systemic origins of your environment. Why is that? Nevertheless it is extraordinary. It requires a skill set we don’t like to admit is required in the land of the free and home of brave where equal opportunity abounds. It exposes that lie. Adding to the extraordinaryness.

The student who needed two more points on her ACT to get into her stretch school, we like to talk about her much more. She did everything right, made the right choices and learned the ways of respectability, the force is strong with her. She goes to the school where students are expected to do what she does because the teachers are, of course, extraordinary (even though they aren’t, not even a little bit). Rich white men who scoff at the struggle of my student with the pistol will hold her up as what everybody could do if they could just “behave.” They will marvel at her grit and wonder at “how she came from where she did.” They will call her extraordinary. And they are right, she is. Just not for the reasons they think. While they hold her up as “making it” she is code switching and deflecting their not so micro-aggressions. She has had to overcome the pitiful primary education which left her on the wrong end of the opportunity chasm this city has so eagerly put in place.  Nobody mentions that though. Nobody acknowledges that to get where she is she lapped their own children. Nope. Never. Instead she has had to read about dead white men, in books written by old white men, being taught by young white women. Never once has she seen herself reflected in her curriculum. And she still kills the game. Nobody in her family has attempted to play the game she is, and she knows it’s a game. She is learning the rules as she goes, and winning. When she gets accepted she is not done having to be extraordinary, she still has to pimp the system and avoid the student loan trap. And she does. She funds her college education through scholarships,and work study and grants. Still they will misunderstand her extraordinaryness. They will say her hard work paid off and pat themselves on the back for nurturing the benevolent meritocracy, and they will never question why they are cashing checks their own work didn’t write. They will think they had something to do with her extrordinaryness. They are so, so wrong.

All the while, in a suburb close to you, the mediocre children of mediocre white folks are crying while their father is sending an email to the principal asking her to intervene on their child’s behalf because the mean English teacher gave them the B they earned instead of the A the seat on the board was suppose to guarantee.

You see, white rich men and their families never have to be extraordinary.

They have been born with the access and the resources that every single one of my extraordinary students has had to fight for. They make the same mistakes, if not worse, and never have to answer for them.  They don’t have to worry about some grossly underqualified “captain save the hood” white liberal setting up grading systems that inflate grades while he sells their successes to other white liberals who “want to make the world better” as students fail out of college because they have never heard of a deadline before. Nope. Won’t happen. They have safety nets in place to prevent that sort of thing. Ask George Bush. Adding insult to injury these are the same “save the hoods” that will use the extraordinaryness of the students who do graduate college to distract from their own complicity.


Today, as I said goodbye to my advisory– a group of the most awesome 14 and 15 year old boys you could ever meet– I asked one what he learned this year. He said: “That I ain’t smart enough.” He passed all his classes and is plenty smart. He has also been a student in the worst city he could be a student in, so he is not as strong in some academic skills as he needs to be. I have told him that. I don’t bullshit him. I hugged him, told him he was brilliant and that we got this. We are going to work our asses off and be extraordinary.

This year I was part of a phenomenal group of people charged with founding a high school. It is a school dedicated to disrupting systemic inequality, closing the opportunity gaps and making the world a more just place. Are we perfect? No. Are we learning? Yes. Are we growing? Yes. 20160304_graphic-mn-graduation-rates_33-300x211Part of that growth has been paying specific attention to how much more our students are expected to do. How much better they are expected to be. How extraordinary they will have to be. Not just if they want to go to college, but if they want to sharpen the skills necessary to understand the world around them and make a difference in that world. And then telling them that. And that hurts my soul to write. Still, it is the truth. In the state that is ranked 48th and 50th for Black and Latinx students respectfully, my students will have to continue to be extraordinary. And it would be extra-f#cking-ordinary if that would change.


Brock Turner and the Twisted Sexual Logic of Masculinity

My 5th grade teacher, Ms. Paulson, was beautiful and everybody knew it. We would make jokes about our gym teacher trying to “mack her.” One day a friend brought a bunch of generic cologne to school so we could “get hoes.” We made jokes and bragged about doing things we had no idea how to do. We were boys being boys. We, of course, used too much cologne because, well, we were in 5th Grade. Ms. Paulson kicked us all out of class to go wash it off because the smell was overwhelming.

Back in the bathroom one of my friends, we will call him Billy, started up: “Fuck her. She know she wants this.” Or, something like that. The chorus of “Yea” and laughter wasn’t far behind. I remember Billy planning on getting detention so he could stay after with Ms. Paulson, part of me really thought he had a chance with her. I wonder how much of him thought he had a chance?  More importantly, where did we learn that? Where did we learn that even prepubescent little boys could lay claim to the female body? Where did we learn grown men could lay claim to female bodies? Where did we learn it was acceptable to objectify our teacher, or anybody, like that? Before we even knew what it meant to have sex, before we even knew what the hell we were talking about at all, we knew that this is what makes us men. Where did we learn that? This was part of our rites of passage. In our laughter and assurance of Billy we were asserting our own masculine dominance over a woman who had the nerve to embarrass us for “stinking.”

I don’t know why the Brock Turner case reminds me of this day in 5th grade. Maybe because I am trying to understand what makes a Brock Turner.


More likely though, I think, it’s because somewhere deep down I know that I am not as different from dude as I would like to think. Would I get physical with a woman so drunk she couldn’t stay conscious? No. I’m certain of that. But that is only the grossest and final step in the making of Brock Turner. So much happened to get him, us, me to this point. Like Brock I was brought up in a society that taught me if I was feeling inadequate, if I was feeling weak, if I was feeling lonely, or, if I was feeling joy, if I felt like celebrating, if I had done anything or was feeling anything the appropriate outlet was sex. Sex could and would fix just about anything. This becomes normal. Everything gets conflated with sex or the road to sex.

We learn this lesson early on and act on it before we even realize its true impact. We learn it so early that a bunch of 5th graders can feel better about themselves by invoking this deranged sexual logic.

It’s easy for us to sit here, after the fact and distanced from the actual event, to separate ourselves from Brock, or even his father. It is easy for us to say “how could he do that?” Or, “how could his father say that?” But how many of us make comments and jokes about our prowess or otherwise objectify women around our sons, nephews, and little brothers? What are we teaching them? How many of us make those comments around our daughters, nieces, and sisters? Taking this personal inventory is part of the work. Another part, I think, is interrupting this twisted logic when we hear it from those we love. I don’t know Brock Turner so it is easy to write him off as a monster. I know of no redeeming factor. I have nothing to lose. But, I know my uncle. I know my longtime friend. I know my students. I know my coworker. I’ve seen their beauty. I care about our relationship. I have something to lose. And we need to be willing to lose it. The cost of ignoring it is too steep.

At 6:30 am, on the dot, my daughter Zoe calls for her Mom and me. I don’t even need to set an alarm.  When I open the door I am sure I have opened the gates to heaven. She is standing up holding onto  the side of her crib with a smile that only somebody in the closest proximity to god could possess. The thought of someone violating her godliness physically or by reducing her to an object in their own quest for self-worth is enough to crumble me. As I walk to her crib she spreads her arms and says “hug.” I pick her up, hold her tight and commit to being better.

Bob Kroll Thinks BLM is a “Terrorist Organization” and He is Right.

Bob Kroll called Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization. I suppose he is right. To Kroll and his ilk Black Lives Matter must be a terrifying thing. And, you know what, maybe folks need to be terrified.

Today the Department of Justice did what we all knew they would do: declined to press charges in the death of Jamar Clark. That is how the system works. It protects itself. It protects those that it holds dear: rich white men. This press conference comes on the heels of a Grand Jury in Anoka county refusing to indict the officers who shot and killed Michael Kirvelay, who was experiencing a mental health crisis and was asking for help as the police shot and killed him. But this isn’t surprising. This is the system. If you do not fit the mold. If you don’t further the goal of producing profits for the elite then you are disposable. This is the fundamental truth of our system. In fact this is the cornerstone of our faux democracy.

You do not have to be a historian to identify the rhetorical acrobatics and contorted worldviews we have concocted to justify our exploitation, or downright disposal of, those we simply find unworthy. Whether you live in the ghetto, which federal housing policies created to corral people of color until it’s their turn to feed the machine that is the prison industrial complex, or you are the working class white kid serving in the infantry in the name of some freedom that you have never touched or tasted, the system couldn’t care less about you. More and more people are starting to wake up to this reality. One simple and admittedly problematic manifestation of this awakening is the rise of Bernie Sanders. Even if you don’t #FeeltheBern there is an undeniable shift in our collective consciousness. And if you are Bob Kroll that is terrifying.

In the face of this shift we are faced with three options: 1) cling to the illusion that the system is salvageable and continue to make band-aid reforms hiding behind the liberal lies of colorblindness and a post racial society. If this doesn’t appeal to us we can 2) join the forces of Trump and “Make America Great Again.” At least this is a more honest approach than many liberals are willing to take. Or, 3) we can get with the program and disavow the system and all its manifestations.Ci1zvIzXIAAyzAJ (1) That means embracing intersectionality and understanding that race, class, gender, orientation, religion and every other identity marker makes a difference in how we experience this life. More than that privilege in one doesn’t exclude oppression in an other, and vice versa. We must be clear that our division is in service of whiteness, of capitalism, of heteronormativity, of abelism, of Islamaphobia because if it is in service of one, ultimately, it is in service of them all. That is how the system works. When we are clear, when we are united, the system cannot function. That must be terrifying.

It is time for it to be terrified. With a world on the verge of catastrophic climate change, when 62 individuals own more than half the worlds population (3.5 billion people), when sexual assaults are so expected from young men that we spend more energy teaching women not be raped than teaching men how to be… human, when the police kill an unarmed person of color once every 28 hours, it is time to terrify the system.

Bob Kroll is right, Black Lives Matter is a threat to the system, and he should be terrified. Black Lives Matter is the most visible symbol of the new age which is upon us. Everyday more and more people are waking up to the injustice of the system and the role of police in protecting that system. Everyday more teachers are telling the truth. Everyday more young people are making their voices heard. Everyday more people are standing up to the terror which the system has been inflicting since its inception. For Bob Kroll that is terrifying. And that is a good thing.


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