Black Twitter, White Tears

Something is happening everyday on Black Twitter, the social media platform that amplifies African American culture.

When Twitter began in 2006, it is doubtful that the founders had any idea that it would become a platform for race dialogue. Yet from Nicki Minaj’s critique of structural racism to Donald Trump spreading fabricated statistics about the relationship between race and crime to the recent discussion and debate over the #BlackGirlMagic and #OscarsSoWhite hashtags, here we are, almost ten years later, watching racial debates play out in 140 characters or less.

For those of us in academia, Twitter provides ample “teaching moments” for our students. The combination of relatability and timeliness makes Twitter something that millennial students can understand, often better than they can understand traditional academic material.

For example, in Angry White Men, sociologist Michael Kimmel elaborates the concept of aggrieved entitlement. Kimmel explains that because straight white men are used to race, gender, and sexual orientation privilege, recent societal changes towards equalizing the playing field– such as equal rights and the increasing social and economic parity for racial minorities, women, and LGBT Americans– feel like mysandry and oppression. Many of the people Kimmel interviewed felt as if the things they deserved were unfairly being taken away from or denied to them.

This feeling of entitlement to be the sole possessor of social goods is often evidenced on Twitter whenever black users create a culturally-relevant hashtag. For example, in August of 2015 the hashtag #IfHogwartsWasAnHBCU resulted in days of comical tweets from the amorphous, ever-present “Black Twitter”.  As Buzzfeed reported at the time, Black Twitter used this hashtag to poke fun at life at an historically black colleges, while also imagining a Harry Potter world of Hogwarts infused with Black culture.

Some of the more hilarious examples of this collective Black imagination included the band being better than the football team (and thus being the only real reason anyone attends football games), as well as speculation about which black celebrities would play which Harry Potter characters:

hogwartsHBCUtweet

Yet the Black imagination– conjured solely for the Black gaze– was too much for some Twitter users to handle. Feelings of entitlement to white dominance, both on social media and in society’s collective imagination, was no doubt the logic behind one user who tweeted that a hypothetical, magical HBCU was ruining Hogwarts for her:

whitetears

For Blacks to create a form of entertainment that neither featured nor benefitted the White majority was seen as, for lack of a better word, perverse.

Then, a few months later, right before Thanksgiving, the hashtag #ThanksgivingWithBlackFamilies found Blacks again sharing intra-cultural jokes and social commentary on our culture. Black users’ application of the hashtag revealed a collective insight into a social zeitgeist, one created and perpetuated by the fact that many black Americans share similar culture and experiences.

Still, before we had finished laughing so hard that we choked on our “diabetes-sweetened Sweet Tea”, some white Twitter users fired back, calling us “racists”.

In the words of the illustrious prophet, Yo Gotti, “We woke up to some Twitter beef.”

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Notice here that there is no attempt to gain awareness of a historically-suppressed perspective, no urge to debunk the narrative of power and privilege that has pervaded our country for centuries. No desire to understand or deconstruct the cultural implications of the hashtag. There is just one sentiment: rage. Rage at the perceived unfairness of asymmetrical license to stereotype Blacks.

This rather insidious envy, born of the desire to engage in uncritical mudslinging with impunity, obscured the more socially-significant questions that White Twitter users should have raised. Instead of asking, “I wonder where these cultural jokes are coming from?”, these Twitter users ask: “Why can’t we be ‘racist’ too?”

The disappointment shown towards a missed opportunity to subvert and demonize a celebration of Blackness is a clear sign of the terminal illness that mass majority racism has inflicted upon our society.

And that’s just half the problem.

Twitter users not only lamented this missed opportunity, but seemed incensed that their perspective on this intra-cultural issue wasn’t even acknowledged.

To expand, Black people are notorious for what is called “playing the dozens”, for our resilience, wit, and ability to laugh in order to get through tough times. After a long, harrowing year of watching the extrajudicial oppression and execution of countless innocent Black men and women, the #TWBF hashtag emerged as an attempt to gather around the cultural fire, to enjoy a holiday, to laugh off stereotypes, and to live in our resilience. This one social media phenomenon was a true and necessary manifestation of the cultural love, joy, and resilience shared within our culture, not only in spite of, but because of the race-specific and global challenges Blacks face in the world today.

This feeling of Black togetherness and camaraderie is ever-present, and the use of culturally-specific hashtags on Twitter only serve as contemporary mediums for expressing this inner beauty and strength. That the #TWBF hashtag was seen as a racist affront to Whites is as random as an outsider trying to get in on a family joke.

Dude. No one was even talking to (or about) you.

More so than classic white privilege or Kimmel’s concept of aggrieved entitlement, the white Twitter users who angrily object to the existence of black hashtags epitomize mass majority narcissism, wherein not only do Whites believe that they should be the sole possessors of social goods, but of the social gaze as well. For these White social media users to be offended by a minority group’s celebration, discussion, and acknowledgement of its own culture only further illuminates how deeply this mass majority narcissism sits in the bosom of our country.

In spite of the strange and self-centered opprobrium launched at Blacks having a good Turkey Day, Black Twitter users will continue to create and enjoy our hashtags. Because they’re fun. Because they’re funny. And because despite the narcissistic expectations of the mass majority,not everything on Twitter has to be about, for, or even intelligible to white users.

So stop being mad, son.

 

~ This post was written by Jennifer Patrice Sims, PhD, and Vanisha Renée Pierce, MS. Sims is an adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Her work examines racial perception, mixed race identity and the sociology of fictional societies, in particular Harry Potter.  

Pierce is an urban fantasy, dystopian sci-fi, and sci-fi thriller novelist and creative entrepreneur. Her fiction work explores the collisions between socio-political hegemony and the Afro-futuristic imagination. Her entrepreneurial mission is to educate, inspire, and empower women to connect with their innate creativity.

Understanding the Charleston Shooting from a Sociological Perspective

The shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday has shaken the country, leaving many reflecting on the state of race relations in the United States.

Nine people, including Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor and a South Carolina state senator, were shot to death by accused gunman Dylann Storm Roof at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Authorities have called the shooting a hate crime.

But how does one explain such a crime from a scientific perspective? What could lead someone to commit a racially motivated hate crime? What is racism — and how can we as a society overcome it?

HuffPost Science posed those questions and others on Thursday to Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, an associate professor of sociology at The City College of New York (CUNY) and author of the book Inequality in the Promised Land.

Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy

Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy

I would define racism as a system of social advantages and disadvantages doled out based upon group membership, particularly what we have socially defined as races. Among sociologists, we also talk about a newer form of racism known as “colorblind racism” (Eduardo Bonilla-Silva pioneered this work) that emerged after the 1960s, where the outward expression of racial animus and explicit discriminatory laws have been silenced or removed, but unfair racial advantages or disadvantages are still doled out, despite few people admitting to being devout racists.

From my framework, it is possible for someone to be working in service of racism by endorsing white supremacist ideologies. For example, Dylann Roof in South Carolina opened fire in Mother Emanuel Church and subscribed to beliefs about the superiority of whites and the “natural” order of things. Alternatively, someone who is black can also endorse negative beliefs about their racial siblings despite being a member of that group. A common example of this would be a police officer who is black but utilizes racial profiling in her or his everyday police work.

How would you then describe the ways in which our society is set up to perpetuate racism?

Our society is ripe with messages about the meaning and limits of race. In contemporary America, the immigration debate is often framed around Latinos from Central America, when in fact immigrants come from a wide range of locations and vary greatly by hue. In domestic policy, issues of welfare are often framed [with] African-Americans … assumed to be the beneficiaries of social support, when in reality far more whites receive federal and state support for poverty alleviation. In the area of international violence, terrorism has become nearly exclusively associated with Muslims, both in the Middle East and here in the states.

All of these media frames and our often unquestioned endorsement of them perpetuate racism. They lead people to think the observed differences they see are naturally occurring. Because of these frames, people can believe in the intellectual inferiority and superiority of differing groups, in the athletic abilities of another and in the artistic capacities of another. Rarely are these things questioned. An example I often use is that if tomorrow the Educational Testing Service came out with results that said white Americans outperformed all other ethnic groups, it would not result in an ounce of attention or scrutiny. However, if tomorrow the ETS presented results that said African-Americans outperformed all other ethnic groups in math and reading, there would be considerable uproar, because many of us have been taught the shape of racial inequality and will fight to maintain it.

Do you think economic factors perpetuate racial inequality?

Economics and race have always been tied. It’s hard to understand racism without a fundamental understanding of how economics play into the inequalities of our lives. Contemporary wealth inequality is a perfect example. Demos recently published a report showing the average white family has $111,146 in wealth holdings, while the average black family had $7,113 and the average Latino family $8,348. These disparities are huge! They are not simply the function of some groups working harder than others — instead, they result from differences in the opportunity to accumulate wealth. The history of unequal home loans, access to higher education, as well as wage gaps, have allowed whites to gain advantages at the expense of other racial groups. However, contemporary racism often asks us to ignore the role of the past on the present, which turns a blind eye to the hands of inequality in the past and present.

In that case, do you think America is still suffering from slavery, and how so?

America is not a country that has forgotten about slavery — after all, you can stay at bed-and-breakfasts on “plantations,” visit museums that discuss the wonder of the cotton gin and even attend Civil War re-enactments. However, America is a country that has failed to fully reckon with slavery. The unequal racial worlds that we live in today are tied back to the critical “peculiar institution” of slavery. The wealth accumulated on the backs of African people, the laws erected to separate races, and the resulting social ethos and material inequalities remain unrattled.

Last year, when Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic, he was pointing to unequal practices that occurred since the end of slavery because he knew America would not deal with [its history of] slavery. While his piece was widely celebrated, people are scared to confront the Jim Crow South and the industrial North, so slavery remains unaddressed. Today, Americans are still scared to confront why they have accumulated [wealth] while others haven’t, and if those differences in accumulation are tied to race. Instead many buy into the belief in meritocracy and desire their gain to be based on what they’ve accomplished. Unfortunately, our national history and present show that meritocracy was never the system that governed reward — here or abroad.

Is Southern culture perpetuating unequal practices or such thinking? For instance, the accused shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, in Charleston hadConfederate license plates on his car, and the Confederate flag is sometimes used as a symbol of post-Civil War white supremacy.

Southern culture in particular and American culture in general often casually perpetuate racism in the present, often by recrafting narratives of the past. The Confederate flag, which flies over South Carolina, was not a long-lived historical symbol — it was the symbol of a rebel force against the United States. The “heritage not hate” trope conveniently skips over the central issues of the Civil War, the position of black people who labored in the antebellum South, as well as the costs that the war had on the nation. Symbols like the Confederate flag are common among hate groups, but also are part of the state’s image. The history of those symbols, along with the large number of schools and statues named for Confederate soldiers and even [Ku Klux] Klan members, create a hostile environment for those who understand the history of race in the nation, and those whose ancestors were painfully forced to labor under those flags during and after the end of slavery, and who had their lives terrorized by groups like the KKK.

dylann storm roof

Dylann Storm Roof is seen in his booking photo after he was apprehended as the main suspect in the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church that killed nine people on June 18, 2015, in Charleston, South Carolina. 

 

Were you surprised by Roof’s age of 21? Why do you think a young white man from a young generation could be motivated to commit a racially motivated hate crime?

I was not surprised by Roof’s age. Outspokenness of white supremacists may be on the decline, but white supremacist ideology exists in a range of ages. Hate groups often have events where children are socialized into racial hate. As well, the Internet has democratized access to white supremacist information. If I am a white high-schooler who feels he has been mistreated while racial minorities have been favored, I’m only a couple of clicks away from a myriad of sites and message boards where I’ll find kinship with folks who are in legion of racial hatred or racial nationalism.

If the shooting in Charleston hadn’t happened on the heels of many other high-profile race-related incidents — from Ferguson to Walter Scott — do you think the general public would have reacted in the same way, why or why not?

I think the shooting’s timing was significant in that we are seeing a greater national concern about “Black Lives Matter.” The visibility of police violence, particularly due to technology, has meant the American public is now more aware of the dangers that black people face on a daily basis. With that being said, a young man shooting into a church on a Wednesday night should raise ire and action. In the past, we’ve had church burnings, bombing and a host of other moments that make the nation pause and reflect on how far we have come in terms of race relations and how far from healed and whole we are.

Indeed, the shooting in Charleston eerily parallels the racially motivated 1963 Birmingham church bombing, in which four young girls were killed. Can you explain the long history of violent attacks on black churches and racism?

Understanding racism as a system means we must understand the ideologies associated with racism. In the contemporary U.S., colorblind racism demands people not outwardly display their hatred — instead those beliefs lie just beneath the surface. When the Civil Rights Acts were passed, they did not magically change the hearts or minds of racists. Instead, they made it unpopular to express such beliefs publicly and made certain activities illegal.

Today, the tensions that exist around race are rarely new. They’re composed of xenophobia, a belief in the natural order of things and impending threats. Thus, in 1963 in Birmingham, we see a church attacked as black people fight to have the same rights as all Americans and in 2015, we see a church attacked because, [as Roof allegedly said,] “You are taking over the country.” The fear of usurpation of power is central.

How can we overcome racism?

To overcome slavery and end racism we first have to reckon with their effects. Not simply pay lip service but look deeply at the wounds and unequal worlds created. This is not simply about a class divide. It has been, and still is, about the fictions around race that were created — the belief that black is inferior, that white is superior and that all others must earn their space in the American hierarchy is dangerous and must be dismantled. The path to overcoming can only happen once we go through it and make sure that people are not only held accountable in rhetoric, but also deeds. From lending institutions to learning institutions, racism continues to structurally and socially divide. The true solution to such a gargantuan task is to dismantle the social world as we know it. Importantly, that does not mean the end of this planet, it simply means the end of an unjustly created, defined and refined world. Until we can see that as a possibility, racism and slavery will continue to shape our daily lives.

 

~ This interview was conducted by Jacqueline Howard for The Huffington Post Science, where it originally appeared.

Research Brief: An Interview with Robin DiAngelo about ‘White Fragility’

For this week’s research brief, we’re highlighting the work of Robin DiAngelo. She was recently interviewed by Sam Adler-Bell, a journalist and policy associate at the Century Foundation, a NY-based think tank.

Research in the Dictionary

Last year, a white male Princeton undergraduate was asked by a classmate to “check his privilege.” Offended by this suggestion, he shot off a 1,300-word essay to the Tory, a right-wing campus newspaper.In it, he wrote about his grandfather who fled the Nazis to Siberia, his grandmother who survived a concentration camp in Germany, about the humble wicker basket business they started in America. He railed against his classmates for “diminishing everything [he’d] accomplished, all the hard work [he’d] done.”

His missive was reprinted by Time. He was interviewed by the New York Times and appeared on Fox News. He became a darling of white conservatives across the country.

What he did not do, at any point, was consider whether being white and male might have given him—if not his ancestors—some advantage in achieving incredible success in America. He did not, in other words, check his privilege.

To Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicutural education at Westfield State University and author of What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy, Tal Fortgang’s essay —indignant, defensive, beside-the-point, somehow both self-pitying and self-aggrandizing—followed a familiar script. As an anti-racist educator for more than two decades, DiAngelo has heard versions of it recited hundreds of times by white men and women in her workshops.

She’s heard it so many times, in fact, that she came up with a term for it: “white fragility,” which she defined in a 2011 journal article as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”

When the Black Lives Matter movement marched in the streets, holding up traffic, disrupting commerce, and refusing to allow “normal life” to resume—insofar as normalcy means a system that permits police and vigilantes to murder black men and women with impunity—white people found themselves in tense conversations online, with friends and in the media about privilege, white supremacy and racism. You could say white fragility was at an all-time high.

I spoke with DiAngelo about how to deal with all the fragile white people, and why it’s worth doing so.

Sam Adler-Bell: How did you come to write about “white fragility”?

Robin DiAngelo: To be honest, I wanted to take it on because it’s a frustrating dynamic that I encounter a lot. I don’t have a lot of patience for it. And I wanted to put a mirror to it.

I do atypical work for a white person, which is that I lead primarily white audiences in discussions on race every day, in workshops all over the country. That has allowed me to observe very predictable patterns. And one of those patterns is this inability to tolerate any kind of challenge to our racial reality. We shut down or lash out or in whatever way possible block any reflection from taking place.

Of course, it functions as means of resistance, but I think it’s also useful to think about it as fragility, as inability to handle the stress of conversations about race and racism

Sometimes it’s strategic, a very intentional push back and rebuttal. But a lot of the time, the person simply cannot function. They regress into an emotional state that prevents anybody from moving forward.

SAB: Carla Murphy recently referenced “white fragility” in an article for Colorlines, and I’ve seen it referenced on Twitter and Facebook a lot lately. It seems like it’s having a moment. Why do you think that is?

RD: I think we get tired of certain terms. What I do used to be called “diversity training,” then “cultural competency” and now, “anti-racism.” These terms are really useful for periods of time, but then they get coopted, and people build all this baggage around them, and you have to come up with new terms or else people won’t engage.

And I think “white privilege” has reached that point. It rocked my world when I first really got it, when I came across Peggy McIntosh. It’s a really powerful start for people. But unfortunately it’s been played so much now that it turns people off.

SAB: What causes white fragility to set in?

RD: For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing.”

In large part, white fragility—the defensiveness, the fear of conflict—is rooted in this good/bad binary. If you call someone out, they think to themselves, “What you just said was that I am a bad person, and that is intolerable to me.” It’s a deep challenge to the core of our identity as good, moral people.

The good/bad binary is also what leads to the very unhelpful phenomenon of un-friending on Facebook.

SAB: Right, because the instinct is to un-friend, to dissociate from those bad white people, so that I’m not implicated in their badness.

RD: When I’m doing a workshop with white people, I’ll often say, “If we don’t work with each other, if we give in to that pull to separate, who have we left to deal with the white person that we’ve given up on and won’t address?

SAB: A person of color.

RD: Exactly. And white fragility also comes from a deep sense of entitlement. Think about it like this: from the time I opened my eyes, I have been told that as a white person, I am superior to people of color. There’s never been a space in which I have not been receiving that message. From what hospital I was allowed to be born in, to how my mother was treated by the staff, to who owned the hospital, to who cleaned the rooms and took out the garbage. We are born into a racial hierarchy, and every interaction with media and culture confirms it—our sense that, at a fundamental level, we are superior.

And, the thing is, it feels good. Even though it contradicts our most basic principles and values. So we know it, but we can never admit it. It creates this kind of dangerous internal stew that gets enacted externally in our interactions with people of color, and is crazy-making for people of color. We have set the world up to preserve that internal sense of superiority and also resist challenges to it. All while denying that anything is going on and insisting that race is meaningless to us.

SAB: Something that amazes me is the sophistication of some white people’s defensive maneuvers. I have a black friend who was accused of “online harassment” by a white friend after he called her out in a harsh way. What do you see going on there?

RD: First of all, whites often confuse comfort with safety. We say we don’t feel safe, when what we mean is that we don’t feel comfortable. Secondly, no white person looks at a person of color through objective eyes. There’s been a lot of research in this area. Cross-racially, we do not see with objective eyes. Now you add that he’s a black man. It’s not a fluke that she picked the word “harassed.” In doing that, she’s reinforcing a really classic, racist paradigm: White women and black men. White women’s frailty and black men’s aggressiveness and danger.

But even if she is feeling that, which she very well may be, we should be suspicious of our feelings in these interactions. There’s no such thing as pure feeling. You have a feeling because you’ve filtered the experience through a particular lens. The feeling is the outcome. It probably feels natural, but of course it’s shaped by what you believe.

SAB: There’s also the issue of “tone-policing” here, right?

RD: Yes. One of the things I try to work with white people on is letting go of our criteria about how people of color give us feedback. We have to build our stamina to just be humble and bear witness to the pain we’ve caused.

In my workshops, one of the things I like to ask white people is, “What are the rules for how people of color should give us feedback about our racism? What are the rules, where did you get them, and whom do they serve?” Usually those questions alone make the point.

It’s like if you’re standing on my head and I say, “Get off my head,” and you respond, “Well, you need to tell me nicely.” I’d be like, “No. Fuck you. Get off my fucking head.”

In the course of my work, I’ve had many people of color give me feedback in ways that might be perceived as intense or emotional or angry. And on one level, it’s personal—I did do that thing that triggered the response, but at the same time it isn’t onlypersonal. I represent a lifetime of people that have hurt them in the same way that I just did.

And, honestly, the fact that they are willing to show me demonstrates, on some level, that they trust me.

SAB: What do you mean?

RD: If people of color went around showing the pain they feel in every moment that they feel it, they could be killed. It is dangerous. They cannot always share their outrage about the injustice of racism. White people can’t tolerate it. And we punish it severely—from job loss, to violence, to murder.

For them to take that risk and show us, that is a moment of trust. I say, bring it on, thank you.

When I’m doing a workshop, I’ll often ask the people of color in the room, somewhat facetiously, “How often have you given white people feedback about our inevitable and often unconscious racist patterns and had that go well for you?” And they laugh.

Because it just doesn’t go well. And so one time I asked, “What would your daily life be like if you could just simply give us feedback, have us receive it graciously, reflect on it and work to change the behavior? What would your life be like?”

And this one man of color looked at me and said, “It would be revolutionary.”

SAB: I notice as we’ve been talking that you almost always use the word “we” when describing white people’s tendencies. Can you tell me why you do that?

RD: Well, for one, I’m white (and you’re white). And even as committed as I am, I’m not outside of anything that I’m talking about here. If I went around saying white people this and white people that, it would be a distancing move. I don’t want to reinforce the idea that there are some whites who are done, and others that still need work. There’s no being finished.

Plus, in my work, I’m usually addressing white audiences, and the “we” diminishes defensiveness somewhat. It makes them more comfortable. They see that I’m not just pointing fingers outward.

SAB: Do you ever worry about re-centering whiteness?

RD: Well, yes. I continually struggle with that reality. By standing up there as an authority on whiteness, I’m necessarily reinforcing my authority as a white person. It goes with the territory. For example, you’re interviewing me now, on whiteness, and people of color have been saying these things for a very long time.

On the one hand, I know that in many ways, white people can hear me in a way that they can’t hear people of color. They listen. So by god, I’m going to use my voice to challenge racism. The only alternative I can see is to not speak up and challenge racism. And that is not acceptable to me.

It’s sort of a master’s tools dilemma.

SAB: Yes, and racism is something that everyone thinks they’re an authority on.

RD: That drives me crazy. I’ll run into someone I haven’t seen in 20 years in the grocery store, and they’ll say, “Hi! What’ve you been doing?”

And I say, “I got my Ph.D.”

And they say, “Oh wow, what in?”

“Race relations and white racial identity.”

And they’ll go “Oh, well you know. People just need to—”

As if they’re going to give me the one-sentence answer to arguably the most challenging social dynamic of our time. Like, hey, why did I knock myself out for 20 years studying, researching, and challenging this within myself and others? I should have just come to you! And the answer is so simple! I’ve never heard that one before!

Imagine if I was an astronomer. Everybody has a basic understanding of the sky, but they would not debate an astronomer on astronomy. The arrogance of white people faced with questions of race is unbelievable.

~ Sam Adler-Bell is a journalist and policy associate at the Century Foundation, a NY-based think tank. Follow him on Twitter: @SamAdlerBell. This interview was originally published March 12, 2015 on Alternet.

The Stacked Deck

So this happened:

After driving around that corner and through this yellow light, up the one-way street and around again through the morning work traffic in an unfamiliar neighborhood of Brooklyn, I found a parking spot in front of a row of brownstones. I grabbed my gym bag from the back seat, double-checked the locks on the doors, and kicked down the cracked sidewalk toward the YMCA. I had never been here before. This particular neighborhood had fences. Not the decorative ones skirting the trees and patches of grass pervasive to NYC in general to keep unaware pedestrians and wandering animals at bay. Here the fences were prohibitive rather than suggestive. The fences here climbed high over the first story windows and barred the second.

Here they laced even the doorways. As I approached the intersection, I noticed a middle-aged woman with a drag-behind, travel carryon walking my direction from across the street. She hoisted her bag against her side with one arm, not utilizing the wheels. Even this early in the morning, her shoulder length hair fell in smooth brown curls to frame her warm complexion, her make-up flawless. There was little movement on this street. A few people lingered by the YMCA entrance. One man sat on his steps watching the morning pass. I noticed them as I did the approaching woman and, adhering to New York social code, did not avert my eyes from my destination. No salutary smile or nod as my Southern manners dictated. I was far from home and the only person of my race in sight; my only objective here was to exercise and get cleaned up for the day ahead listening to the presentations at The New School. As the woman and I crossed paths she paused to yell, “Why don’t you jump off the bridge, you white bitch.” I kept my eyes forward and laughed a little to myself not having expected any acknowledgment—let alone one of such caliber. Seconds later she continued. “If you are white, stay on the other side of the river.” I smiled to myself and went inside, not giving the matter much more thought.

OK, that last sentence was a lie. This interaction turned and turned inside my mind—as I ran, as I showered, as I rode the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan, even as I listened to bell hooks’ discussion on transgression and the presentation of black bodies in media.

Here’s the rub: this is not racism. The woman who yelled at me was not being racist.

Granted, she was not being polite, but the equivocation of affronted political correctness with racism has too long overshadowed the underlying issue. This was outside of politesse but not racist even though the comment referred to my race. And here is why: I laughed. Perhaps I laughed at the tale as a possible narrative for, as a writer, I constantly look for novel anecdotes about what “happened on the way to the forum.” Or it could have been the oddity and surprise of the situation which amused me. Or it could have been the realization of completely misreading her that morning and possessing zero understanding of what experiences occupied her mind or the possible slights she was diffusing. But the point is still there: I laughed. Her invective was not a threat. My safety, ability to comport myself, or my socio-economic progression was in no way hampered by her anger. Hell, my day wasn’t even ruined.

Racism is not about the feelings of one person toward another. Let us not confuse it with prejudice where a personal predilection dictates action based upon stereotyped assumptions or fears about a perceived racial, sexual, or class orientation. It is much, much bigger than that.

Much, much bigger than you or me or the aforementioned woman. It is a systematic discrimination and withholding of privilege, safety, ability, and comfort because of color and/or nationality. It exists as an institution above us, behind our language, and within our social code.

Even as an outsider dissimilar with the majority of the inhabitants of an unfamiliar neighborhood, I felt perfectly at ease to conduct my business and to move freely without inhibition or concern for my safety or any fear of oppression. I was not going to be stopped by the police for looking suspicious or for not fitting in. My earning potential was not hampered by her displeasure. No possibility was barred me for looking as I do. Nor did I feel the threat of danger or assault on my person because of my racial positionality. The system, even when a physical minority, has been established to give me a chance. And that chance affords a place, an ability to determine my own definition, and even the ability to laugh at situations that could have been risky or frightful had the mechanisms of privilege been switched.

Racism is not only within an inappropriate joke, a look askance at someone as they pass by, a burning cross, or discrimination of housing and/or employment. Each one of those acts are complicit participation within a system which is established and reinforced by the hetero-normative, imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.

Now don’t get me wrong here.

This is not to vilify or cast blame upon any particular person who participates or identifies with the dominant socio-class. No offense, but this system is bigger than that. We are past the days when we can point at any particular white, straight, business man as the enforcer of the system.

But unless you are actively working to dissemble the mechanisms of privilege and empower diversity in all forms, you are simultaneously upholding the system which benefits one while restricting others.

An aspect of privilege most of us privileged don’t want to admit is that we don’t have to think about privilege. Peggy McIntosh called facing white privilege “elusive and fugitive,” over twenty-five years ago, and as a whole, we have not encroached upon any robust apprehension of it since. White (and male) privilege is rarely considered until threatened. When I walk into the room, no one wonders why I am where I am, if I am alone, if I am leaving alone, or going home with them. Their thought is not one of belonging or whether or not I have upset delicate social relationships in being where I am. And since I have not upset persona particular expectations, the perceivers are not confronted with their own self-definition. They continue on without ever wondering where they stand within the social spectrum. It is frighteningly easy to ignore. And unless confronted, acknowledged, and challenged, it will refuse to reconstruct within a paradigm of greater equality. Life is most profoundly felt at its perimeters. Society has given me a berth where the perimeters lie upon who I know, what kind of girls I date, and what car I drive. Those are the requisites and possible impediments to perceived success within the “myth of meritocracy” wherein most people benefited by privilege believe privilege itself is hinged upon personal drive and acumen.

Because that is the locus of struggle for most who have the same socio-economic identity as I do, that is also the limits of perceived persona. Still, worlds exist outside of that monolithic worldview which are as valid and beautiful as any sphere imaginable. Unfortunately, by most, these worlds are not seen.

This works to the depth that most of you reading this probably assumed my white male-ness as a given in the short episode above because it was not mentioned (and props to those of you who didn’t). It is that pervasive. Think about that. What does that then mean when the perception shifts? What are the other assumptions which are inferred? Do any of those assumptions restrict or endanger someone’s freedom and ability to express themselves? If it is easy for you to pass a police officer without worry of being frisked or arrested for looking how you do, remember that.

If you can walk home alone without worry of being assaulted, taken, violated or worse, remember that. If you are able to declare the love of your beloved without fear of being beaten, fired, or ostracized, remember that. Now think about all those who can’t—think of all those who are struggling under a system which demands of their identity explanation, justification, or apology. And what are you doing to champion difference?

~ This post was written by Steele Peterson Campbell, a graduate of Auburn University, with a Master’s Degree in Literature. He is a writer who is currently completing his first novel and currently resides in Nashville, TN. You can follow Steele on Twitter @TheSteeleC.

Walls of Whiteness in Higher Education and Academic Publishing

It has been heartening to witness a heightened concern with race and higher education. An increase of concern helps to expose the lack of previous concern. But is it a welcome exposure. We have had articlesin the mainstream media reflecting on the extraordinarily low numbers of black (especially black female) professors in the UK as well as events such as Why isn’t my professor black?” in which black voices have spoken about the relative absence of black voices. A network for Black British Academics was set up in 2013. One college has introduced Black Studies.

Activity can generate debate. For example, Dhanveer Singh Brar has recently suggested the question “Why isn’t my professor black?” needs to be accompanied by other questions, ones we might pose back to universities. If people of colour are included in the institutions of whiteness, are those institutions necessarily transformed? And are we at risk, to use Brar’s terms, of creating a“class of experts” to “administer the race problem”?

One of the aims of Media Diversified is to address the ubiquity of whiteness. Ubiquity is a strong word. It is the right word. Ubiquity suggests omnipresent; everywhere. Over the course of my 20 years as an academic, I have experienced whiteness everywhere; the ubiquity of whiteness. There have been a few moments, rare and special moments which I recall as exception, when I have looked out and not encountered “a sea of whiteness.” Some of my favourite events thus far have been when I have been part of a “sea of brownness” either at inaugural lectures for women of colour (I think especially of Avtar Brah and Heidi Safia Mirza’s inaugurals – both have mentored and inspired my generation of Black feminism) or at events that have been set up to address race. “To address race”: unless race is taken up as an explicit object of concern, made into a question, whiteness is the default position.

On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, by Sara Ahmed

In 2012 I published a book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, which drew on some of my experiences as an academic of colour living with and in the ubiquity of whiteness (or what we can also call simply “institutional whiteness”). Reflecting back on the process, I had a hard time getting this book published. Two publishers who first expressed interest eventually declined: one expressing doubts about whether there was a big enough market for such a book with such concerns; the other expressing doubts about the content (the material was described by one editor as “too subjective”). The book does draw on my own involvement in the world I am describing (I called it simply “the diversity world”), including observations of diversity and equality committees, meetings, and conferences that I attended over a ten year period. It also drew on 21 interviews with diversity practitioners that I conducted myself, as well as some data drawn from other projects in our research team (the team involved multiple projects on diversity and leadership across Adult and Community Learning, Further Education as well as Higher Education).

On Being Included:
Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life
by Sara Ahmed

What does it mean for this material then to have been described as “too subjective”? Speaking about whiteness as someone who is not white often means being heard as speaking about yourself. I think “subjectivity” becomes a problem because some of us are reduced to subjectivity, as having an experience that is particular to ourselves. Some subjects can disappear or speak for the universal: to have a view from nowhere means you can speak of everywhere. When “the others” speak, our view is from somewhere, we speak about somewhere. Many of us who are black or minority ethnic have probably experienced the very requirement to tell our own story, to explain where we are coming from (for further discussion, see my blog post, “Being in Question”). Indeed that we come to embody diversity (to add colour to whiteness), or how we come to be “the race person” is part of the problem: whiteness ends up being neutralised; the default position.

The difficulty of getting this book published, I would suggest, was about encountering a wall, the wall of whiteness.[i] What do I mean by the wall of whiteness? The idea of walls came up repeatedly in my interviews with diversity practitioners, those appointed to institutionalise commitments to diversity. Most of the interviews took place just after the Amendment to the Race Relations Act of 2000, which required that all public institutions have race equality policies. Some of the people I interviewed were appointed to write those policies. The appointment of a diversity officer seems to express a commitment to diversity. But when an appointment is a form of compliance, it often falls short of a commitment. I learned so much from listening to those who wrote race equality documents. One officer described diversity work as a “banging your head against a brick wall job.” You encounter these walls, what blocks transformation, in the very organisations that gave you the task of transforming them.

I learned as well from doing these interviews and from my own experience of being on race equality and diversity committees how the very technologies introduced to transform institutional inequalities can themselves become walls. One practitioner said that policies can be used to create the impression that“We’ve done race, when we clearly haven’t done race.” I have myself encountered how policy documents can be used to conceal what they were intended to challenge: the VC at a university I worked said “We are good at race equality” when we were judged as having a “good policy.”

The very appearance of doing something can be a way of not doing something. There was one very striking example from my interviews of how a diversity policy had been introduced, with considerable effort (and resistance), but nothing changed in practice; nothing happened although on paper it appeared things had. A wall is what tends to keep its place. Unless you come up against this wall, though, the university appears as committed to diversity: as happy as the documents that circulate. Indeed it was listening to practitioners talk about how happy stories of diversity can lead to the concealment of inequalities and racism that led me to ask questions of what happiness is doing. Happiness seems to be about creating a shiny surface. One practitioner called diversity a shiny apple that underneath has a rotten core.

Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place by Nirmal Puwar

 

Take this example: one human resources department at an elite university sponsored a research project to find out how external communities perceived their organisation. The research found that the university was perceived as white. Their response to the finding was to change their prospectus to include more bodies of colour. You know the kinds of images of happy colourful faces that are instantly recognisable as images of diversity. Diversity here translates into changing the whiteness of the image rather than changing the whiteness of the organisation. Indeed the whiteness of the organization can be supported, even reproduced, by generating new more diverse or colourful images. Nirmal Puwar describes in her important book Space Invaders: Race, Gender, and Bodies out of Place (2004) how diversity can then end up being about including people who “look different.” That inclusion can be imagined, as well as real.

Space Invaders:
Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place
by Nirmal Puwar

In such inclusions are new exclusions. For example, when race equality is reframed in positive terms (as a positive duty), more negative terms can end up being the terms you are not supposed to use. When diversity is put into circulation, other terms are put out. And this is what we found in our study: that the focus on positive terms, toolkits, solutions became another way of concealing the problem of racism, a way of not even saying that word. The final report for our diversity project was never published: and one of the reasons for this was because it was judged as too focused on racism. We ourselves were supposed to return their commitment (this “their” refers to those who funded the project) by telling happy stories of diversity. Even using the word “racism” meant being heard as ungrateful. We became for the funders a sore point.

Whiteness can be understood as a wall in the sense that it keeps its place: even the attempts to modify whiteness can end up supporting it. Whiteness is like a shape that “bounces back” as soon as the pressure to modify it is eased. The experience of anti-racist work often feels like this: banging your head against a brick wall. If the wall keeps it place, it is you that gets sore. You come up against the same thing, over and over again.

There is no doubt that such repeated encounters are oppressive and diminishing. Black feminists such as Audre Lorde have taught me this: that describing what we come up against is itself a political action. Walls are often reproduced through not being perceived to exist (if we perceive them it is assumed our perception is the problem). It is one of the ways walls keep their place though not the only way. We need to describe the tangibility of whiteness: to make whiteness thick by thickening our own descriptions of whiteness. Of course we will encounter resistance. And that is why anti-racism can only ever be lived as a collective project; we have to support each other often by sharing with each other “wall stories.” There can be relief in knowing that we come up against is shared. And with relief, we can keep going.

[i] In the end, the book was published by a US based publisher. I did eventually get an offer from a UK based commercial publisher, but it came too late in the process.

 

~ This post was written by Sara Ahmed  and originally appeared at Media Diversified. Sara is an Australian and British academic working at the intersection of feminist theoryqueer theorycritical race theory and post colonialism and  is a Professor in Race and Cultural Studies. Born in Salford, England to a Pakistani father and English mother.  She has published 6 single-authored books:  Differences that Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism (1998); Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (2000) The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004); Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006) The Promise of Happiness. (2010), which was awarded the FWSA book prize in 2011 for “ingenuity and scholarship in the fields of feminism, gender or women’s studies” and On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012)

This piece was commissioned for  Media Diversified, an academic experimental space for long form writing curated and edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline. As well as responding to current concerns and events, it’s a space for writing that endures, for cutting-edge ideas and approaches that fortify and inspire. The articles you will find in this space will show clarity without jargon, careful thinking that takes risks, runs off with ideas but doesn’t compromise on rigour.

Colorblindness is a Real Problem

**This post is dedicated to all the strong people of the world who persevere every day for justice in the face of mass ignorance, resistance and a fusillade of criticism that the world we imagine is simply a “utopia” that we will never reach. You are critical in the face of widespread passivity. You are brave in the face of conditioned acquiescence. I salute you.**

Sitting in a room filled with university students, who passively accept a status quo that is shoved down their throats, is deeply distressing. I am that person in the class who never stops questioning the mainstream paradigm and traditional liberal way of thinking- who won’t just accept the way things are; this simultaneously drains me and exhilarates me. I call it a state of being “hopelessly inspired.” The pain of being surrounded by pacified individuals is not to be undervalued, especially when you yourself cannot stop questioning why things are the way that they are and why we, as a global society, aren’t doing enough about it.

The truth is, my mind never stops working. I am constantly criticizing and questioning the state of our global affairs. I will not passively accept injustice. I will not stop asking questions that matter. I will not stop trying to conjure up new ways for us to solve our world problems. But, (and this is a massive but) I live in a global society where most people do not care to burden themselves with such worries. It is truly disheartening and depressing to be around people who ask you things like: “Why do you care so much? Don’t take everything so personally!” One of the most difficult tasks in the world is to keep your breath in a world that is actively suffocating you.

So here’s my story about how I got mad in one of my classrooms because of categorically false statements about inequality, institutional racism, white privilege, and discrimination. I have written up a transcript of the discussion and picked out key parts that also represent a wider culture of ignorance and colorblindness. All these statements came directly from students in my class; my responses are verbatim. I want to point out that the blame does not lie with my fellow students, as they are only drops in the ocean; rather, I have used them as a means to express a worldwide problem.

*In a political philosophy seminar about equality*

Person 1: Equality and racism are not related. We don’t need to discuss race if we are discussing equality.

Me: That is very easy for you to say as white, privileged male.

P1: That is very unfair.

Me: Is it fair that you’ve never had to walk down the street and worry about being stopped and frisked on the basis of your skin color. Or fear being denied a job on the basis that your ethnicity. Or deal with a judge who is two times more likely to charge you because you’re black. Yet you sit here and claim that equality and racism have nothing to do with each other?

P1: What’s that got to do with equality?

Me: Everything.

Person 2: Well I know what racism is. In South Africa there used to be racism against black people and today it is the other way around. Do you know that they have a Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) law that discriminates against white people? I am from South Africa, I know.

Me: Comparing one concentrated incident you had in South Africa is not the same as hundreds of years of oppression that people of color have faced and continue to face. The fact that you receive racist treatment when you are in South Africa because you are white is not the same as facing daily discrimination from a racist system. Racist treatment and systems are two very different things and have completely different outcomes.

P2: It is not fair that you are saying that I do not understand what racism is.

Me: You can never understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of daily discrimination when you have white privilege and do not suffer the same as people of color.

P2: You know, if the IRA came back to Ireland tomorrow and the police wanted to stop and frisk Irish people on the street to prevent terrorism, I wouldn’t stop them. Even if they were white, I would support it. I’m not racist.

Me: You’re not dealing with the issue at hand, which is institutional racism in this country. I don’t want to talk about hypothetical examples of the IRA. How about we talk about the here and now, what’s actually going on. The daily prejudice that people of color face.  You really think that you can understand that because someone was once racist to you in South Africa and now all your white privilege is wiped out? You don’t understand that a racist system operates on a very different level to actual individuals carrying out their prejudices in their society. Systems have mass outreach and affect more lives and that is the institutional racism here and in the U.S.

*Discussion moves on to positive discrimination*

P1: I don’t think it’s fair that women and people of color are given jobs on the basis of their sex or skin color. We should only give work to those people who have earned their position, have worked hard for it and not just got in because of a quota.

Me: You do understand that those systems are in place precisely because people of color and women have been marginalized for so long that without such affirmative actions, the work force continues to be dominated by white, middle-class, males.

P2: People should work for their positions, not be handed them. I just think that if you work hard enough, you can get where you want. We don’t need quotas for people who don’t deserve them.

Me: Again, that is very easy for you to say as a white privileged male. You don’t have to suffer employer discrimination or worry about being denied a job because you are a single mother with children. Clearly you have no understanding of what people of color and women face and you’re not even willing to listen to how institutional racism affects equality of opportunity.

This entire conversation was a reminder to me about how unaffected and invested in their own privilege people truly are, and if this is coming from students of political science, what hope is there really for our global social development? If you have no qualms with our system representation, it is likely because you are already being represented. But there are many sectors of society who are massively marginalized and under-represented and this warrants recognition.

just because

Mass colorblindness is a real problem. It’s that ridiculous Morgan Freeman has argued that ignoring racism will lead for it to go away. Racism doesn’t go away if you ignore it. You are doing more wrong by omitting race out of the conversation of social politics than good. You are ignoring the suffering of millions and causing more pain through colorblindness. The only way to work towards a more equal society (even though I believe that equality itself is an illusion) is through acknowledging our collective wrongdoings and shortcomings. I do not want to exclude those with privilege, I just want them to accept their racial privilege whether it makes them feel uncomfortable or not. You cannot be an ally while you are still colorblind.

People who believe that we all start off on an equal footing and everything that happens to us post-birth is a direct result of our own actions are the problem. People who deny that socio-economic inequalities are a product of our hyper-capitalist society are the problem. We don’t suffer from mass inequalities because people are lazy. Neither do we suffer from them due to individual luck. There is a system in place that not only causes these inequalities, but also perpetuates and exasperates them. Just read oligarchy theory and how a small number of elites agree to a transition to democracy just to maintain their wealth and privilege. Capitalism will always require a docile, underpaid working class that is crushed by the force of our wants (not needs). Racism is not a natural state and we need not accept its existence in our society. I will not pretend that institutional racism does not exist in order to appease and cater to whiteness’ ideals of humanism. My humanism involves addressing everyone’s struggle and not just the ones that relate to me personally. We need more allies, not people who deny the reality of our societies.

You are in an intimate relationship with the rest of humanity and it is your duty to be bothered, to be frustrated, and to get mad. And if you don’t feel anything, you are the problem. Just because you are unaffected by injustice does not mean you should remain mentally, emotionally, and physically unaffected. Privilege is thinking that something is not a problem because it does not affect you personally.

There is nothing wrong with being perpetually sad at the state of the world, as I wrote here. There is too much stigma around sadness. Depressive realism is not a disease; it is an impetus to act. Be sad at all the injustice. Be angry that we are a part of it. Bathe in your anger. Live it. But, do not let it consume you. Channel it into improving the situation. Apply your anger for the betterment of humanity. And be unsatisfied with the state of mass inequalities, institutional racism, greedy capitalist ideals, patriarchy, and white privilege.

I’d rather have dangerous freedom than peaceful slavery any day.

 ~ This post was written by Mohadesa Najumi who is the special College columnist for The Feminist Wire, where this post originally appeared. Mohadesa blogs regularly here.

Hollywood’s Post-Racial Mirage

The increase of colorblind casting in sci-fi television shows like “The Walking Dead” and “Sleepy Hollow” suggests that a “post-racial revolution” is being televised, according to a writer at CNN. John Blake especially celebrates shows like “Arrow,” which have a diverse racial cast and manage in many instances to avoid stereotypes. Certainly, I agree with Blake that television is slowly but surely diversifying in ways that it simply has not been diverse over the last decade. (ABC’s “Scandal” has a diverse cast, a black female lead, and is one of the most popular shows on television. It is certainly a personal favorite.)

But I’m not sure post-racialism is a thing to want, that it should be our goal.

Cosby Scandal images

(Image source)

First, although television seems to be changing, we should not forget that 20 years ago television was more diverse. When we tell ourselves these post-racial fantasies of progress, we act like more black people cast in roles that have traditionally gone to white people is progress. Second, we act as though this is the best definition of diversity. I came of age in the 1990s, where there were several black shows that populated the landscape of my adolescence – “The Cosby Show,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Martin,” “In Living Color,” “Living Single,” “Sister Sister,” “The Parent ‘Hood,” “The Wayans,” “Smart Guy,” “Hanging With Mr. Cooper,” and “Family Matters.” As a little kid, I watched “227″ and “Amen.” All of these shows were spread out over a combination of minor networks like UPN and the WB and the traditional major networks.

Slowly by the late 1990s all black shows were being outsourced to the minor networks. Then those networks consolidated, with UPN and the WB becoming the CW, and then the CW decided in the late 2000s to move from an “urban programming format.” The same thing is true of the movie industry. In the 1990s, there were black movies – black gangsta movies, black love movies, black family movies. “Boyz N the Hood,” “Love Jones” and “Soul Food” are representative classic black movies of the era. By the mid-2000s, the only person able to command an impressive box office showing was Tyler Perry.

 

Commitment to racial diversity on the big and small screens has always been fickle.

Now the tide is changing as black actors are being asked to do black versions of white movies like “About Last Night” or the thinly veiled mashup of “The Hangover” and “Bridesmaids,” that will be “Think Like a Man, Too.” I have seen or plan to see these movies, because I like seeing people who look like me on the big screen. But I’m bothered by the idea that progress means black people’s lives can fit into traditional white narratives. Why are black stories particular, but white stories universal? Surely this is not the best definition of diversity.

And it certainly is not progress. It’s more like the gentrification of media, being marketed to us as progress. Under the logic of gentrification, both the physical kind and this new mediated kind, those of us who harken back to a prior moment when people of color could live and work and be represented on their own terms are seen as barriers to progress. Even though we are made to witness the systematic removal of people of color from posts and property that they have labored for generations to have access to, we are supposed to be impressed when these new social and geographical formations allow token participation by people of color, who are viewed as having crossover appeal. To be clear, crossing over means that despite your color, white people like you. It’s an ugly truth, but we should tell it. And given the racist audience backlash to the casting of “The Hunger Games” character Rue as  black and to the new version of Annie starring African-American Quvenzhané Wallis, I’m not sure we should actually believe this optimistic narrative of post-racial revolution.

In fact, the backlash toward these young black characters is more in line with a recent finding from  the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, that of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black characters. To this day, I keep a list of children’s stories that feature black girl protagonists, so that my friends with daughters can have culturally relevant books for their children.

African-American author Walter Dean Myers penned a response to the children’s book study in the New York Times. I didn’t even know people wrote children’s books about African-Americans until I stumbled upon a whole shelf of Mr. Myers’ books one lazy summer when my mother left me at the library all day. I eagerly brought home a copy of the teenage love story “Motown and Didi,” which remains a favorite to this day, alongside a stack of books that included stories about the Box Car Children and the Sweet Valley Twins. My personal favorite was Baby Sitters Club books, but those only came out once a month, and I usually had devoured them by the second day after purchase. And while the characters were mostly white, part of being a voracious-reading black kid in the ’90s meant you learned to relate to white children, and to identify with the “universality” of their narratives.

I also vividly remember my joy at seeing and eagerly purchasing a copy of Myers’ “The Mouse Rap” in 1992. Though I preferred stories with female protagonists, the chocolate black boy on the cover, who had dreams of being a rapper, appealed to me.

As a young black girl growing up in a predominantly white environment, race mattered. Despite my attempts to mimic the cultural habits and speaking styles of my white counterparts, a journey to racial self-awareness that got me mercilessly teased by my black counterparts, I was never going to be white and didn’t especially want to be. Like other children, I wanted to fit in and not be bullied. Reading children’s and young adult stories with black characters helped me to imagine other ways to be black besides the sometimes limiting representations that I saw in my immediate environment. Those black stories also affirmed my nerd self, letting me know that white children didn’t have a monopoly on smarts, and that I didn’t have to jettison blackness to embrace nerd-dom. Seeing ourselves represented, not as devoid of race but as shaped by and deeply influenced by race, matters. To have race not as a biological but as a social condition is not a bad thing. We all do.

And until all of us – white people included — grapple with what this means, until we can tell the truth honestly about it, our swift desire to get to a post-racial future will remain a gilded project, and one steeped in dishonesty.

That kind of dishonesty will have us doing as John Blake did, invoking the work of Octavia Butler, an African-American sci-fi author, to make the case for post-racialism. I think Butler would take deep issue with being read into a genealogy of post-racial cultural production. She thought that black life provided the ground upon which to explore questions of dystopic futures, life after armageddon, and other forms of relationship to the human body, to African-American history, and to the time-space continuum. Blackness is central, rather than incidental to her work.

For the young black time-raveling teens in Kiese Laymon’s “Long Division,” their Mississippi-inflected, crooked-letter blackness is central to who they understand themselves to be. These characters, and African-Americans more generally, to disagree with Harlem Renaissance thinker George Schuyler, are not simply “lampedblack Anglo-Saxons,” dropped into the middle of an Ebony version of “A Wrinkle in Time.”   

Butler, Myers and Laymon show us black possibility through their fearless engagement with what it means to be both human and black. The stories they tell, the movies and shows that could be made from those stories, are far better models for diversity than our current infatuation with colorblind casting.

Post-racism, not post-racialism, should be our goal. To be American means we are deeply shaped by narratives of race, culture, and power. And celebrating our multiculturalism is not a bad thing. But multiculturalism and post-racialism are not the same. In their most ideal states, one recognizes the power, possibility and gifts of our differences and uses those truths to connect us. The other – the latter — erases the salience of those differences and attempts to use the lie of sameness to connect us. As ever, the question for us remains, what kind of nation do we want to be?

~ This post was written by Brittney Cooper who is a contributing writer at Salon and a Professor at Rutgers University. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.  The original post appeared at Salon and you can read it here.

Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In

A year ago, few folks were talking about Sheryl Sandberg. Her thoughts on feminism were of little interest. More significantly, there was next-to-no public discussion of feminist thinking and practice. Rarely, if ever, was there any feminist book mentioned as a bestseller and certainly not included on the New York Times Best Seller list. Those of us who have devoted lifetimes to teaching and writing theory, explaining to the world the ins and outs of feminist thinking and practice, have experienced that the primary audience for our work is an academic sub-culture. In recent years, discussions of feminism have not evoked animated passion in audiences. We were far more likely to hear that we are living in a post-feminist society than to hear voices clamoring to learn more about feminism. This seems to have changed with Sandberg’s book Lean In, holding steady on the Times bestseller list for more than sixteen weeks.

No one was more surprised than long-time advocates of feminist thinking and practice to learn via mass media that a new high priestess of feminist movement was on the rise. Suddenly, as if by magic, mass media brought into public consciousness conversations about feminism, reframing the scope and politics through an amazing feat of advertising. At the center of this drama was a young, high-level corporate executive, Sheryl Sandberg, who was dubbed by Oprah Winfrey and other popular culture pundits as “the new voice of revolutionary feminism.” Forbes Magazine proclaimed Sandberg to be one of the most influential women in the world, if not the most. Time Magazine ranked her one of a hundred of the most powerful and influential world leaders. All over mass media, her book Lean In has been lauded as a necessary new feminist manifesto.

Yet Sandberg confesses to readers that she has not been a strong advocate of feminist movement; that like many women of her generation, she hesitated when it came to aligning herself with feminist concerns. She explains:

I headed into college believing that the feminists of the sixties and seventies had done the hard work of achieving equality for my generations.  And yet, if anyone had called me a feminist I would have quickly corrected that notion…. On one hand, I started a group to encourage more women to major in economics and government. On the other hand, I would have denied being in any way, shape, or form a feminist. None of my college friends thought of themselves as feminists either. It saddens me to admit that we did not see the backlash against women around us…. In our defense, my friends and I truly, if naively, believed that the world did not need feminists anymore.

Although Sandberg revised her perspective on feminism, she did not turn towards primary sources (the work of feminist theorists) to broaden her understanding. In her book, she offers a simplistic description of the feminist movement based on women gaining equal rights with men. This construction of simple categories (women and men) was long ago challenged by visionary feminist thinkers, particularly individual black women/women of color. These thinkers insisted that everyone acknowledge and understand the myriad ways race, class, sexuality, and many other aspects of identity and difference made explicit that there was never and is no simple homogenous gendered identity that we could call “women” struggling to be equal with men. In fact, the reality was and is that privileged white women often experience a greater sense of solidarity with men of their same class than with poor white women or women of color.

Sandberg’s definition of feminism begins and ends with the notion that it’s all about gender equality within the existing social system. From this perspective, the structures of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy need not be challenged. And she makes it seem that privileged white men will eagerly choose to extend the benefits of corporate capitalism to white women who have the courage to ‘lean in.’ It almost seems as if Sandberg sees women’s lack of perseverance as more the problem than systemic inequality. Sandberg effectively uses her race and class power and privilege to promote a narrow definition of feminism that obscures and undermines visionary feminist concerns.

Contrast her definition of feminism with the one I offered more than twenty years ago in Feminist Theory From Margin To Center and then again in Feminism Is For Everybody.  Offering a broader definition of feminism, one that does not conjure up a battle between the sexes (i.e. women against men), I state: “Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” No matter their standpoint, anyone who advocates feminist politics needs to understand the work does not end with the fight for equality of opportunity within the existing patriarchal structure. We must understand that challenging and dismantling patriarchy is at the core of contemporary feminist struggle – this is essential and necessary if women and men are to be truly liberated from outmoded sexist thinking and actions.

Ironically, Sandberg’s work would not have captured the attention of progressives, particularly men, if she had not packaged the message of “lets go forward and work as equals within white male corporate elites” in the wrapping paper of feminism. In the “one hundred most influential people in the world” issue of Time Magazine, the forty-three-year old Facebook COO was dubbed by the doyen of women’s liberation movement Gloria Steinem in her short commentary with the heading “feminism’s new boss.” That same magazine carried a full page ad for the book Lean In: Women, Work, and The Will to Lead that carried the heading “Inspire the graduate in your Life” with a graduating picture of two white females and one white male. The ad included this quote from Sandberg’s commencement speech at Barnard College in 2011: “I hope that you have the ambition to lean in to your career and run the world. Because the world needs you to change it.” One can only speculate whether running the world is a call to support and perpetuate first world imperialism. This is precisely the type of feel good declaration Sandberg makes that in no way clarifies the embedded agenda she supports.

Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In

Certainly, her vision of individual women leaning in at the corporate table does not include any clear statements of which group of women she is speaking to and about, and the “lean in” woman is never given a racial identity. If Sandberg had acknowledged that she was primarily addressing privileged white women like herself (a small group working at the top of the corporate hierarchy), then she could not have portrayed herself as sharing a message, indeed a life lesson, for all women. Her basic insistence that gender equality should be important to all women and men is an insight that all folks involved in feminist movement agree is a central agenda. And yes, who can dispute the facts Sandberg offers as evidence; despite the many gains in female freedom, implicit gender bias remains the norm throughout our society. Patriarchy supports and affirms that bias. But Sandberg offers readers no understanding of what men must do to unlearn sexist thinking. At no point In Lean In does she let readers know what would motivate patriarchal white males in a corporate environment to change their belief system or the structures that support gender inequality.

Readers who only skim the surface of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In will find much they can agree with. Very few if any professional women will find themselves at odds with a fellow female who champions the cause gender equality, who shares with us all the good old mother wisdom that one of the most important choices any of us will make in life is who we will partner with. And she shares that the best partner is one who she tells readers will be a helpmeet – one who cares and shares. Sandberg’s insistence that men participate equally in parenting is no new clarion call. From its earliest inception, the feminist movement called attention to the need for males to participate in parenting; it let women and men know that heteronormative relationships where there was gender quality not only lasted but were happier than the sexist norm.

Sandberg encourages women to seek high-level corporate jobs and persevere until they reach the top. For many individual women, Sandberg telling them that they would not be betraying family if they dedicated themselves to work was affirming. It is positive in that it seemed to be a necessary response to popular anti-feminist backlash, which continually suggests that the feminist push to place more women in the workforce was and is a betrayal of marriage and family.

Unfortunately her voice is powerful, yet Sandberg is for the most part not voicing any new ideas. She is simply taking old ideas and giving them a new twist. When the book Lean In began its meteoric rise, which continues to bring fame and notoriety to Sandberg, many prominent feminists and/or progressive women denounced the work, vehemently castigating Sandberg. However, there was just one problematic issue at the core of the anti-Sandberg movement; very few folks attacking the work had actually read the book. Some of them had heard sound bites on television or had listened to her Ted Talk presentation. Still others had seen her interviewed. Many of these older female feminist advocates blatantly denounced the work and boldly announced their refusal to read the book.

Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In

As a feminist cultural critic, I found the eagerness with which Sandberg was viciously attacked disheartening. These critiques seem to emerge from misplaced rage not based solely on contempt for her ideas, but a rage bordering on envy. The powerful white male-dominated mass media was giving her and those ideas so much attention. There was no in-depth discussion of why this was the case. In the book Sandberg reminds readers that, “men still run the world.” However, she does not discuss white male supremacy. Or the extent to which globalization has changed the makeup of corporate elites. In Mark Mizruchi’s book The Fracturing of the American Corporate Elite, he describes a corporate world that is made up of a “more diverse crowd,” one that is no longer white and male “blue chip dudes.” He highlights several examples: “The CEO of Coca-Cola is Muhtar Kent, who was born in the United States but raised in Turkey; PepsiCo is run by Indra Nooyi, an Indian woman who came to America in her twenties. Burger King’s CEO is Brazilian, Chryslers’s CEO is Italian, and Morgan Stanley’s CEO is Australian. Forget about influencing policy; many of today’s leading US CEO’s can’t even vote here.” Perhaps, even in the corporate world, imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is ready to accept as many white women as necessary to ensure white dominance. Race is certainly an invisible category in Sandberg’s corporate fantasy world.

Sandberg is most seductive when sharing personal anecdotes. It is these true-life stories that expose the convenient lies underlying most of her assertions that as more women are at the top, all women will benefit. She explains: “Conditions for all women will improve when there are more women in leadership roles giving strong and powerful voice to their needs and concerns.” This unsubstantiated truism is brought to us by a corporate executive who does not recognize the needs of pregnant women until it’s happening to her. Is this a case of narcissism as a potential foundation for female solidarity? No behavior in the real world of women relating to women proves this to be true. In truth, Sandberg offers no strategies for the building of feminist solidarity between women.

She makes light of her ambivalence towards feminism. Even though Sandberg can humorously poke fun at herself and her relationship to feminism, she tells readers that her book “is not a feminist manifesto.” Adding as though she is in a friendly conversation with herself, “okay, it is sort of a feminist manifesto.” This is just one of the “funny” folksy moments in the book, which represent her plain and ordinary approach – she is just one of the girls. Maybe doing the book and talking about it with co-writer Nell Scovell provides the basis for the conversational tone. Good humor aside, cute quips and all, it is when she is taking about feminism that many readers would have liked her to go deeper. How about just explaining what she means by “feminist manifesto,” since the word implies “a full public declaration of intentions, opinions or purposes.” Of course, historically the best feminist manifestos emerged from collective consciousness raising and discussion. They were not the voice of one individual. Instead of creating a space of female solidarity, Sandberg exists as the lone queen amid millions of admires. And no one in her group dares to question how she could be heralded as the “voice of revolutionary feminism.”

How feminist, how revolutionary can a powerful rich woman be when she playfully admits that she concedes all money management and bill paying to her husband? As Sandberg confesses, she would rather not think about money matters when she could be planning little Dora parties for her kids. This anecdote, like many others in the book, works to create the personal image of Sandberg. It is this “just plain folks” image that has been instrumental in her success, for it shows her as vulnerable.

This is not her only strategy. When giving filmed lectures, she wears clothes with sexy deep V-necks and stiletto heels and this image creates the aura of vulnerable femininity. It reminds one of the popular television advertisement from years ago wherein a sexy white woman comes home and dances around singing: “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in the pan and never let you forget you’re a man…cause I’m a w-o-m-a-n!” Sandberg’s constructed image is not your usual sexist misogynist media portrayal of a feminist. She is never depicted as a man-hating ball-busting feminist nag.

Instead, she comes across both in her book and when performing on stages as a lovable younger sister who just wants to play on the big brother’s team. It would be more in keeping with this image to call her brand of women’s liberation faux feminism. A billionaire, one of the richest women in the world, Sandberg deflects attention from this reality. To personify it might raise critical questions. It might even have created the conditions for other women to feel threatened by her success. She solves that little problem by never speaking of money inLean In; she uses the word once.

And if that reality does not bring to her persona enough I‘M EVERYWOMAN appeal, she tells her audiences: “I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner or who that partner is.” Even though most women, straight or gay, have not seen choosing a life partner as a  ‘career decision’, anyone who advocates feminist politics knows that the choice of a partner matters. However, Sandberg’s convenient use of the word partner masks the reality that she is really speaking about heteronormative partnerships, and even more specifically marriages between white women and white men. She shares: “Contrary to the popular notion that only unmarried women can make it to the top, the majority of the more successful female business leaders have partners.” Specifically, though not directly, she is talking about white male husbands. For after telling readers that the most successful women at the top are partnered, she highlights the fact that “of the twenty-eight women who have served as CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies, twenty- six were married, one was divorced and only one was never married.” Again, no advocates of feminism would disagree with the notion that individual women should choose partners wisely. Good partners as defined by old style women’s liberation movement and reiterated by Sandberg (who makes it seem that this is a new insight) are those who embrace equality, who care and share. One of the few radical arguments in Lean In is that men should come to the table – “the kitchen table.” This is rarely one of the points Sandberg highlights in her media performances.

Of course, the vast majority of men in our society, irrespective of race, embrace patriarchal values; they do not embrace a vision or practice of gender equality either at work or in the domestic household. Anyone who acts as though women just need to make right choices is refusing to acknowledge the reality that men must also be making the right choice. Before females even reach the stage of life where choosing partners is important, we should all be developing financial literacy, preparing ourselves to manage our money well, so that we need not rely on finding a sharing partner who will manage our finances fairly. According to More Magazine, American women are expected to control 23 trillion dollars by the end of the decade, which is “nearly twice the current amount.” But what will this control mean if women lack financial literacy? Acquiring money and managing money are not the same actions.  Women need to confront the meaning and uses of money on all levels. This is knowledge Sandberg the Chief Operating Officer possesses even if she coyly pretends otherwise.

In her 2008 book The Comeback, Emma Gilbey Keller examines many of the issues Sandberg addresses. Significantly, and unlike Sandberg, she highlights the need for women to take action on behalf of their financial futures. One chapter in the book begins with the epigram: “A woman’s best production is a little money of her own.” Given the huge amounts of money Sandberg has acquired, ostensibly by paying close attention to her financial future, her silence on the subject of money inLean In undermines the call for genuine equality. Without the ability to be autonomous, in control of self and finances, women will not have the strength and confidence to “lean in.”

Mass media (along with Sandberg) is telling us that by sheer strength of will and staying power, any woman so inclined can work hard and climb the corporate ladder all the way to the top. Shrewdly, Sandberg acknowledges that not all women desire to rise to the top, asserting that she is not judging women who make different choices. However, the real truth is that she is making judgments about the nature of women and work – that is what the book is fundamentally about. Her failure to confront the issue of women acquiring wealth allows her to ignore concrete systemic obstacles most women face inside the workforce. And by not confronting the issue of women and wealth, she need not confront the issue of women and poverty. She need not address the ways extreme class differences make it difficult for there to be a common sisterhood based on shared struggle and solidarity.

The contemporary feminist movement has not concentrated meaningful attention on the issue of women and wealth. Rightly, however, the movement highlighted the need for gender equity in the workforce –equal pay for equal work. This economic focus exposed the reality that race was a serious factor over-determining women’s relationship to work and money. Much feminist thought by individual visionary women of color (especially black women thinkers) and white female allies called for a more accurate representation of female identity, one that would consider the reality of intersectionality. This theory encouraged women to see race and class as well as gender as crucial factors shaping female destiny. Promoting a broader insight, this work lay the groundwork for the formation of genuine female solidarity – a solidarity based on awareness of difference as well as the all-too-common gendered experiences women share. It has taken many years of hard work to create basic understandings of female identity; it will take many more years for solidarity between women to become reality.

It should surprise no one that women and men who advocate feminist politics were stunned to hear Sandberg promoting her trickle- down theory: the assumption that having more women at the top of corporate hierarchies would make the work world better for all women, including women on the bottom. Taken at face value, this seem a naive hope given that the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal corporate world Sandberg wants women to lean into encourages competition over cooperation. Or as Kate Losse, author of Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network, which is an insider look at the real gender politics of Facebook, contends: “By arguing that women should express their feminism by remaining in the workplace at all costs, Sandberg encourages women to maintain a commitment to the work place without encouraging the workplace to maintain a commitment to them.” It is as though Sandberg believes a subculture of powerful elite women will emerge in the workplace, powerful enough to silence male dominators.

Yet Sandberg spins her seductive fantasy of female solidarity as though comradely support between women will magically occur in patriarchal work environments. Since patriarchy has no gender, women “leaning in” will not automatically think in terms of gender equality and solidarity. Like the issue of money, patriarchy is another subject that receives little attention in Sandberg’s book and in her many talks. This is ironic, since the vision of gender quality she espouses is most radically expressed when she is delineating what men need to do to work for change. It is precisely her avoidance of the difficult questions (like how will patriarchal thinking change) that empowers her optimism and the overall enthusiastic spirit she exudes. Her optimism is so affably intense, it encourages readers to bypass the difficulties involved in challenging and changing patriarchy so that a just moral and ethical foundation for gender equality would become the norm.

Dig Deep: Beyond Lean In

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg delivers the keynote speach at Barnard College’s 119th Commencement ceremony, Tuesday, May 17, 2011, in New York. Photographer: Louis Lanzano/Bloomberg

Women, and our male allies in struggle, who have been on the frontlines of feminist thinking and practice, see clearly the fairytale evocation of harmonious solidarity is no easy task.  Given all the forces that separate women and pit us against one another, solidarity is not an inevitable outcome. Sandberg’s refusal to do anything but give slight mention to racialized class differences undercuts the notion that she has a program that speaks to and for all women. Her unwillingness to consider a vision that would include all women rather than white women from privileged classes is one of the flaws in the representation of herself as a voice for feminism. Certainly she is a powerful mentor figure for fiscally conservative white female elites. The corporate infusion of gender equality she evokes is a “whites only” proposition.

To women of color young and old, along with anti-racist white women, it is more than obvious that without a call to challenge and change racism as an integral part of class mobility she is really investing in top level success for highly educated women from privileged classes. The call for gender equality in the corporate American is undermined by the practice of exclusivity, and usurped by the heteronormative white supremacist bonding of marriage between white women and men. Founded on the principles of white supremacy and structured to maintain it, the rites of passage in the corporate world mirror this aspect of our nation. Let it be stated again and again that race, and more importantly white supremacy, is a taboo subject in the world according to Sandberg.

At times Sandberg reminds readers of the old stereotypes about used car salesmen. She pushes her product and she pushes it well. Her shpiel is so good, so full of stuff that is obviously true, that one is inclined to overlook all that goes unspoken, unexplained. For example, she titles a chapter “you can’t have it all,” warning women that this idea is one of the most dangerous concepts from the early feminist movement. But the real deal is that Sandberg has it all, and in a zillion little ways she flaunts it. Even though she epitomizes the ‘have it all kinda girl’ – white, rich, and married to a wonderful husband (like the television evangelist Joyce Meyer, Sandberg is constantly letting readers know how wonderful her husband is lest we forget) – she claims women can’t have it all. She even dedicated the book to her husband “for making everything possible” – what doesn’t she have? Sandberg confesses that she has a loving family and children, more helpers in daily life than one can count. Add this to the already abundant list, she is deemed by the larger conservative media to be one of “the most influential,” most powerful women in the world. If this is not another version of the old game show “queen for a day,” what is? Remember that the women on the show are puppets and white men behind the scenes are pulling the strings.

Even though many advocates of feminist politics are angered by Sandberg’s message, the truth is that alone, individually she was no threat to feminist movement. Had the conservative white male dominated world of mass media and advertising not chosen to hype her image, this influential woman would not be known to most folks. It is this patriarchal male dominated re-framing of feminism, which uses the body and personal success of Sheryl Sandberg, that is most disturbing and yes threatening to the future of visionary feminist movement. The model Sandberg represents is all about how women can participate and “run the world.” But of course the kind of world we would be running is never defined. It sounds at times like benevolent patriarchal imperialism. This is the reason it seemed essential for feminist thinkers to respond critically, not just to Sandberg and her work, but to the conservative white male patriarchy that is using her to let the world know what kind of woman partner is acceptable among elites, both in the home and in the workplace.

Feminism is just the screen masking this reframing. Angela McRobbie offers an insightful take on this process in her book, The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture, and Social Change, explaining: “Elements of feminism have been taken into account and have been absolutely incorporated into political and institutional life. Drawing on a vocabulary that includes words like ‘empowerment’ and ‘choice,’ these elements are then converted into a much more individualistic discourse and they are deployed in this new guise, particularly in media and popular culture, but also by agencies of the state, as a kind of substitute for feminism. These new and seemingly modern ideas about women and especially young women are then disseminated more aggressively so as to ensure that a new women’s movement will not re-emerge.” This is so obviously the strategy Sandberg and her supporters have deployed. McRobbie then contends that “feminism is instrumentalized. It is brought forth and claimed by Western governments, as a signal to the rest of the world that this is a key part of what freedom now means. Freedom is re-vitalized and brought up to date with this faux feminism.” Sandberg uses feminist rhetoric as a front to cover her commitment to western cultural imperialism, to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Clearly, Sandberg, with her website and her foundation, has many female followers. Long before she was chosen by conservative mass media as the new face of faux feminism, she had her followers. This is why I chose to call my response “dig deep,” for it is only as we place her in the overall frame of female cultural icons that we can truly unpack and understand why she has been chosen and lifted up in the neoliberal marketplace. Importantly, whether feminist or not, we all need to remember that visionary feminist goal which is not of a women running the world as is, but a women doing our part to change the world so that freedom and justice, the opportunity to have optimal well-being, can be equally shared by everyone – female and male.

____________________________________________

~ bell hooks, noted cultural critic, commentator, and feminist, is Distinguished Professor in Residence in Appalachian Studies at Berea College. Born Gloria Jean Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, she has chosen the lower case pen name bell hooks, based on the names of her mother and grandmother, to emphasize the importance of the substance of her writing as opposed to who she is. She is the author of over thirty books, many of which have focused on issues of social class, race, and gender. In 2013,  she published the award-winning poetry collection. This post originally appeared on The Feminist Wire, read the original here.

There are fewer than 100 black professors in Britain – why?

It is a shocking statistic that there were just 85 black professors in UK universities in 2011-12. In stark terms, this means that there are more higher education institutions than there are black British, African and Caribbean professors actually teaching in them. The latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency put the number of UK academic staff from a known ethnic minority at 12.8%.

Black Professor

In contrast, black and minority ethnic students are well represented. In some institutions, such as City University, they make up nearly 50% of the student population. Yet even in these universities black academics are a rarity, particularly those in senior positions.

It is hard to think of an arena of UK public life where the people are so poorly represented and served on the basis of their race. Yet this scandalous state of affairs generates little by way of investigation, censure or legal scrutiny under the 2010 Equality Act.

The Metropolitan Police has come under intense scrutiny for a number of years for its lack of diversity. It was famously labelled as institutionally racist by the 1998 Macpherson report for its failure to be representative and adequately serve the black community under its jurisdiction. In statistical terms, UK universities are as unrepresentative as the Metropolitan police. Somehow, they have managed to escape intense scrutiny of their attitudes, practices and procedures relating to the black populations that they have a duty to educate and serve.

It is also evident that there is a staggering absence of black people in other leadership positions within the UK higher education system. This includes vice chancellors, registrars and other administrators who make the key strategic decisions concerning ethos, priorities and direction of their institutions.

No Black British studies

Another stark feature of UK academia is the absence of any degree courses that systematically explore the experiences of black people in Britain. In the US, African American Studies are part and parcel of the academic environment. Many academic institutions house departments and academic leaders dedicated to the discipline.

But in Britain there is not a single institution that has a degree programme in Black British studies. If one thinks about the plethora of degree programmes that are offered by UK institutions, it is remarkable that not one of them offers a programme of teaching and research into the experiences of communities that have been so important to the shaping of the United Kingdom.

However, black communities are often the objects of detailed academic scrutiny by UK academics. In sociology, psychology, politics, history, theology, and numerous other disciplines, black communities are analysed, assessed, examined, evaluated and commented upon.

This analysis of black life, conducted primarily by white academics, often portrays black communities as dehumanised. Black people are used to illustrate problems as diverse as educational underachievement, health inequality, and religious extremism.

In doing this, universities contribute to an unflattering, stereotypical and false image of black communities in Britain. The rich complexity and diversity of the black British experience gets buried under an avalanche of supposedly detailed and well-established research findings. Equally damaging is that the communities who are the objects of this research are so rarely empowered by these findings.

Black communities still experience exclusion, under-representation and marginalisation when it comes to the UK’s major institutions. While academics benefit from research income and a raised profile because of their knowledge of black communities, the communities themselves remain on the margins of academic life.

Call to action

In order to move black people into the mainstream of British academic life, fundamental cultural and procedural shifts are required. It needs to be acknowledged that the British higher education system has institutional inadequacies. Universities need to take pro-active measures to ensure that institutions genuinely reflect the diversity of the wider society, both in terms of personnel at all levels and in relation to curricula and research.

The introduction of Black British studies courses in British university campuses could be one positive step on the journey towards a more inclusive higher education system. But rigorous scrutiny, analysis and action is also needed to tackle the institutionalised discrimination that is a stain on the reputation of Britain’s liberal university culture.

The Conversation

~ This post was written by William Ackah, Birkbeck, University of London. William Ackah does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. This post was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original here.

Fetishizing Lupita Nyong’o

Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress last night, for her powerful role in 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen! Go Lupita!  But lately I’ve been feeling a little fatigued by the “Oh-my-god-Lupita-Nyong’o-is-so-beautiful-I-can’t-DEAL-WITH-IT!”

The current fad-like coverage of the Kenyan actress, overshadows the more interesting things about her background, the stuff that doesn’t get reported. True, I assumed she was a nobody until this slave narrative film, but a quick skim of Wikipedia reveals the stuff that the media isn’t all that interested in.

Black and white people, alike, are enamored with Nyong’o for what I believe, are different reasons. Blacks are proud that Nyong’o crushed it in her portrayal of Patsey and I’m personally excited that we’ve got another black woman winning major acting awards. Whites seems to be most preoccupied with Nyong’o’s exotic look and I think that’s something we, as a society, probably need to address.

Source

 For those who didn’t know it, Lupita Nyong’o was born in Mexico City and hails from an affluent family of artists, doctors and scholars. She attended Hampshire College, here in the states, and graduated with a degree in film and theater studies. She’s also a Yale graduate and a polyglot, fluent in several languages.

I was pretty excited to know that Nyong’o actually wrote, directed and produced a documentary, in 2009, called In My Genes, where she investigates the how Africans with albinism experiences life in a predominately black Kenya. I was stoked to know this because all I’ve seen of Lupita Nyong’o, is how beautiful she is on every red carpet she walks. Which is wonderful because Nyong’o is indeed quite beautiful! But she’s also extremely talented in other, more important ways.

I’m also weirded out by the onslaught of white people who are just plain gob-smacked by her exquisiteness. I’ve received an enormous amount of trending Facebook articles from various fashion sources that seem almost amazed by how beautiful Lupita is. It irks me that people don’t find it ironic how Nyong’o has preformed one of the most gut-wrenching representations of an enslaved black woman. Her character, Patsey, shows the reality of an enslaved body; this body is allowed to be ogled, worked to death, beaten, and raped. This body does not belong to Patsey and for some reason, it feels as though Nyong’o’s body doesn’t belong to her either.

Source

Not too much has changed in regards to the black female body. Society still turns a blind eye to the raped black female body, but leers at the black female body on display. Whether it be in a Miley Cyrus music video, on the cover of King Magazine, or on a red carpet, black female bodies are still objects to be commodified. Designers have fallen all over themselves to drape their designs on Nyong’o’s black body. When commentators talk about her many red carpet looks, I find myself wondering: “Are they talking about how lovely the dress is, being held up by a black mannequin? Or are they talking about Lupita’s fascinating dark body and face?”

Admittedly, my cynicism can be dangerous. Instead of taking white people at their word, I’m being suspicious of their motives. Whites could genuinely find Nyong’o so gorgeous that they don’t know what to do with themselves: “I CAN’T!” They might find her beautiful without even consciously understanding their exotic motivations: “She’s just so. . . noble!” For all I know, they might not be trying to be provinganything when they loudly insist how stunning she is. This is 2014, why can’t I just be happy that another black woman has won an Academy Award? Young black girls of all shades are finally able to see themselves on screen! That, in itself, is really exciting!

Ugh, but then there’s that nagging feeling, the one built upon institutionalized racism and colonialism. The feeling that tells me that Lupita Nyong’o will end up just like the rest of them:

  • Viola Davis, who white people thought was a national treasure because she played the help with such a noble, quiet strength.
  • Quvenzhané Wallis, who was actually in 12 Years a Slave, but didn’t receive much press. For her role as Hushpuppy, in Beasts of the Southern Wild, she was nominated for a Best Leading Actress Oscar. During Oscars night, she was called the C-word by The Onion in a jokey tweet.
  • Gabourey Sidibe, who played Precious, another “hard to watch” film. The white criticism was mixed and decidedly trite. But almost all of it had to do with her obesity.
  • Halle Berry, the only black female to win the Best Leading Actress award. Ever. Had to preform the most cringe-worthy, upsetting sex scene with Billy Bob Thornton to be recognized by the Academy.

All of this is to say, Hopefully, one day, a black actress will win an Academy Award based on a performance that’s not based on the oppression of black women. Cate Blanchett won the award for Best Leading Actress last night. In the Woody Allen film, Blue Jasmine, she plays a New York socialite, whose life falls apart, forcing her to live with her sister in San Francisco. I’m sure she did an excellent job, she’s a great actress! But did she have to prove anything or teach black people a valuable lesson in history or humanity to get her award? Was she involved in a “teachable moment?”

Just as Blanchett is classically beautiful in, I don’t know. . . a kind of timeless way, I’m still hoping for the next great black actress to be beautiful in the same way. Not in an exotic, noble, new-car smelling way.

~ This post was written by Charish Halliburton, who writes regularly at the blog Black Feminists. This piece was originally posted at Motley News.