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Form Follows Function

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Maybe.

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.

 

Choosing Our Humanity: Cody Nelson and the Confederate Flag

“I may not be from the South, or never been down there, but I stand with the South and their belief”

Those are the word of high school senior Cody Nelson who was told he can not fly the Confederate Flag from his car while it is parked in the school parking lot. Cody is from Crosby, MN a small town where folks “grew up flying the flag.” And my heart is on fire.

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I grew up on some f*ck the government shit. My family worked too hard for too little, and I knew it wasn’t “fair.” I have vivid memories of my Grandma, Mom, Dad and anybody else who had survived long enough to teach me the ropes telling me “life ain’t fair.”  It cultivated some kind of anger that I can’t even name. It’s a strange anger because it exists in this space between privilege, exploitation, isolation and humanity. Having beige skin and being perceived as White has granted those of us with this anger a certain amount of access, a certain amount of privilege. That privilege, though, exists side by side with the deep and very real economic exploitation that fuels capitalism. At this point one of two things happen 1) we “make” it and fully embrace the desolate reality of whiteness or 2) we remain the white working poor, “white trash,” and  that anger burns even hotter. It is here, at this crossroads, that I return to Cody Nelson, his friends and an alternative.

In the KARE 11 piece Cody’s friends tell’s Boyd Huppert that they grew up around the flag and don’t think it’s a big deal. This is followed by a cosign from a person of color assuring us that they are not racist because he’s known them his whole life. This is the logic they have fed us working poor whites, and we know it’s wrong. In our souls, we know it’s wrong. Maybe that person of color believes that his friends aren’t racist, maybe they don’t call him the N word behind his back, or maybe they do, either way that is not what racism is. Racism is about that strange place we occupy, that space between privilege and our humanity. Racism is about systems that were set up to cater to our white skin. Racism is about the fact that when people see us they think we failed. They call us trash, they call you, Cody and friends, rednecks and  hillbillies. They call you backward for not capitalizing on the privileges your white skin afforded you. And despite the economic exploitation we face, our white skin has impacted our lives. But, like me, it hasn’t satiated your anger and you are striving to give the system the finger. That is what the Confederate flag is about to you . I understand that. But is that what you are doing?

South Carolina seceded from the United States to guarantee it’s citizens the right to own other human beings as property. The rest of the South followed suit. That is terrible. Cody Nelson says “[i]f they think it represents slavery that’s their opinion” and he is wrong, it is historical fact. Here is what is missing from that: The Union didn’t abolish slavery out of some moral impetus. The North had a different economy, a different form of exploitation, more humane in that workers are not slaves nor property, but exploitative nonetheless. More importantly they were just as racist. The North embraced white supremacy as wholeheartedly as the South. The North continues to feign some sort of racial progressiveness while maintaining the highest disparities between whites and people of color. This is our country, North and South. Whether you are flying the Stars and Stripes or the Stars and Bars. Different sides, same coin. So what is the alternative?

***

My anger won’t go away. I’ve accepted this. In fact, I’ve embraced it. I’m mad. This shit ain’t fair and I know it ain’t. I grew up around the serenity prayer: ” God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”  It used to bring me some sort of comfort. It doesn’t anymore. I am no longer accepting my own powerlessness. We can change everything. We have to decide, then, what are we going to change. Will we continue to perpetuate the divide and conquer tactics that date back to colonial Virginia? Are we really going to accept the choices of the United States or the Confederate as if they aren’t both guilty of embracing White Supremacy? We don’t have to. We don’t have to offer our anger to the likes of Donald Trump who would turn it towards our Brown and Black brothers and sisters. We can turn it towards the George Washington’s, Jefferson Davis’, Abraham Lincoln’s, Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’ of the world: the elite who keep us fighting each other to the death while they rake in the money. We can choose our own humanity. It starts by taking down the symbols of our division, Confederate or otherwise.

 

Trenches and Tenure: a teachers view on ed reform

I did my student teaching at a Minneapolis Public School. I taught a freshman class and two sophomore classes. You could walk in the school and see the multiple shades of brown that make up the student body in inner-city public schools. When you walked down the hall you would hear the typical teenage conversations, with the typical teenage language. When you walked in the classroom you would see the typical level of disengagement that has come to characterize the typical teachers inability to resonate personally or through curriculum. I did my student teaching here.

One day, during prep, my supervising teacher and I were talking about this or that and somehow I must have started ranting about how wack I found a lot of what I saw at schools She, without missing a beat, gave me the only advice I remember her giving me: “Give them worksheets. They really like worksheets.”

I had to take out a loan to pay tuition for that semester, all 19 thousand dollars of it,  and worked 40 hours a week, for free, to come away with that sage advice.

***

I’ll be real honest: I used to hate Teach for America. I didn’t know one person from TFA, but I was sure they were hacks who were leaching jobs from well trained teachers like myself. Then I met some TFA folks.

The best teacher I have ever seen is a TFA alum. The best instruction coach I have ever had, yup, TFA alum. You know what else, they both support organized labor.

On Friday we gave our freshman their end of year assessments: the ACT. Today I sat down with a student whose reading subscore grew 12 points. Twelve points. This year. On the ACT. Her reading subscore is now a 24. She, as a freshman, scored higher than many of the seniors I recommended for college acceptances. Guess how much she cares that her reading teacher was trained at TFA.

***

When Jamar Clark was shot I was vocal in my condemnation of the police and of the system of capitalist white supremacy which creates the need for such brutality. One of my old coworkers who had taught Jamar Clark direct messaged me with a cautionary message of Clark being no angel. I told him just how wack and out of line he was, his response was “I’m not the one working for a charter school.” He is currently a member of the teachers union.

A good friend of mine, also one of the strongest teachers I know, is not going to teach next year. After years of being “let go” and then rehired she was finally on the verge of tenure and her position got cut. Instead of starting all over she is simply done teaching. It took a toll. I can’t say that I blame her. I know the real loss is the schools.

***

My first “real” teaching job was at a contract alternative school in Minneapolis. I remember being beyond excited to have my own classroom. I was going to develop the most relevant and engaging curriculum. I was going to be the best damn teacher that ever walked into a classroom. Pretty much what every first year teacher thinks. One day I wore a Free Mumia shirt and my principal stopped me in the hallway to discuss the “cop killer.” We disagreed, civilly, and I moved on. Within the next month I had been written up for “sitting on the counter,” to this day I’m still not exactly sure what he was talking about. The end of that year my principal, who had never been in a classroom himself, told me he preferred I not use Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in my class. I remember wishing I had a union to protect me.

Teacher tenure laws in Minnesota are currently being challenged via a lawsuit that was filed last month. I can’t help but feel this is shortsighted. It is not tenure which introduced the Reading Horizon’s curriculum. It isn’t tenure which suspends students of color at horribly disproportionate rates. It isn’t tenure that is pushing standardized testing down our throats at the sake of everything else that actually matters. Will getting rid of tenure make it easier to get rid of bad teachers, yes. Are there bad teachers, yes. Will they be the ones being cut, doubt it. What is more likely is that the teachers we need the most, the ones most dedicated to challenging the established way of thinking and being, will be fired by their more conservative and conforming principals. Principals matter.

***

The truth of the matter is if we don’t get to the root of the problem, if we don’t fundamentally change the way we think about and position education none of the rest matters. Teacher for America or four year university teacher training program, tenure or no tenure the systemic inequalities will persist. Neoliberals can only position TFA members for their benefit because we have a hallow and pathetic commitment to racial justice as a country and have failed communities of color by turning public schools into pipelines to prison. This is the issue, not TFA. Tenure is only a problem when it is protecting the colorblind white teacher who refuses to acknowledge the reality of racism today. When it is protecting the young black woman who wants to teach Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah  it is a God send.

This is not a simple issue and there is no simple solution. We need nuance and vision. Let’s not confuse ourselves about what is what.

 

#WhiteLivesMatter: Old Hickory and the Played Out Tricks of Whiteness

Much of my social media is ablaze with talk over Harriet Tubman being put on the $20 bill.  As this article by Chanelle Adams over at Black Girl Dangerous highlights Black folks have a variety of feelings about this. As a white man I don’t have any desire to tell Black people how they should feel. What I do want to talk about is Andrew Jackson.

Andrew Jackson is often framed in history as being a champion of the people. I imagine that this has much to do with how he ended up on the $20 in the first place. As we should always do when discussing American populism we must ask ourselves who are “the people” that Jackson was championing.  In doesn’t take a historian to find the ugly truth, Jackson, like so many other American heroes, was a slave holding homicidal racist. The people for whom he was a champion were the disenfranchised poor whites who Jackson strategically leveraged to win the Presidency. old hickory

This shouldn’t surprise us, this is what whiteness does. At every turn Whiteness capitalizes on the opportunity to further divide working class and poor whites from people of color who may share similar material and spiritual interests i.e. providing for their families and being connected to the larger human family. Jackson is the epitome of this. He became popular in early America through his skill in warfare and by killing a man in a duel to protect the honor of his wife. As President he threatened to use the military to crush state rebellion in the nullification crisis. All of this was fueled by Jackson’s support  of  working class white male suffrage. Up to this point, non-landing owning white men  could not vote; being fed up with the denial of the rights they felt the Revolution was fought to secure for them they were demanding they be given this and  other rights they felt they deserved, a pre-internet #whitelivesmatter campaign.

And let’s be clear, it was a #whitelivesmatter campaign. As President Jackson was pushing the full humanity of poor whites he signed the Indian Removal Act and held hundreds of slaves at the Hermitage plantation where he died.westward-expansion-werl_03_img0255 This fundamental contradiction of morality can not be understated. Whiteness demands an abandonment of what we know to be good and true. We quite literally sell our souls to Whiteness. Andrew Jackson is the epitome of this devils bargain.

At this point it is absolutely necessary to connect the legacy of Jackson to our current situation. Jackson organized and gave birth to the Democratic party. The party that vigorously opposed abolition and federal programming during Reconstruction. It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement, when the Democratic party included civil rights into its platform that they became the Democratic party of today. And let’s be clear about what that party is today. While it has shifted superficially the Democrats are just as reliant on White Supremacy as any Republican is. How could they not be with a founder like Andrew Jackson?

That brings me to the $20 dollar bill and Harriet Tubman sharing space with this monster of history. If we really want to honor what Harriet Tubman fought for, if we really want to begin to hear from the atrocities that stain that currency, then we can start by removing Jackson and all the other slaveholder Presidents from the exalted positions they currently occupy. We need to tell the truth about what this country was founded on. By putting Tubman on the 20$ but avoiding the rest of what is necessary to honor her legacy we are doing what Whiteness always does: tokenize and pacify in order to maintain survival. I suggest we keep Harriet Tubman on the $20 and begin paying reparations with them.

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