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Monday, September 8, 2014

The So Diverse and the Faux Diverse: Child's Play in Black-White Relations

As the curtain opens on another school year and on the start of another course on race and law, I have pondered the mournful plethora of real life examples to present to students about the nature of race, racism and law.  We start the course by talking about how the black-white binary, the notion that issues of race in the United States are framed around a two-tiered hierarchy wherein blacks are diminished and whites are exalted, is still very much useful for understanding both historic and contemporary United States racism.  Yes, there are other people of color.  And of course their voices count.  But at the beginning and at the end of the day, some of the most pernicious, ongoing, and intractable race prejudice is that perpetrated against black people.

We need not look far for examples. There is, of course, the fatal shooting of an unarmed black youth named Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  There is also the choke hold death of an unarmed man named Eric Garner by a white police officer in Staten Island, New York, a choking that persisted even though Garner called out, “I can’t breathe.” A few weeks ago a Dearborn Heights, Michigan white homeowner was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to a minimum 17 years in prison for shooting in the face and killing Renisha McBride, a 19 year old black woman who knocked on the man’s door for help after an auto accident. The New Yorker magazine, in describing McBride’s death, related it to the shooting of Trayvon Martin by a white vigilante and recounted how McBride’s killing, even in all of its horror, was “a cliché with a casualty,” another all too commonplace killing of an unarmed black person by an armed white civilian or white police officer.

These are, of course, examples of some of the worse cases in black-white relations. Cases that involve racist practices but do not result in deaths would have to be, by necessity, classified as less bad. As we see situations such as the revelation that yet another NBA owner has engaged in racially “insensitive” comments about black people, we are left to feel grateful that nobody’s dead.  If an owner feels comfortable enough to write in an e-mail to numerous people that his “theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites,” or that he wants some white cheerleaders or that he “balked when every fan picked out of crowd to shoot shots in some time out contest is black,”  this is merely an example of his “subtle biases and preconceptions when it comes to race.”  I suppose anything less subtle would have to involve signs at the game saying “No blacks allowed.”

In the middle of all of this is the continuous insistence by some people that we are living in a “post-racial” climate where diversity is a given. But what goes under-discussed and un-discussed is the specious nature of these claims. Even in neighborhoods and institutions boasting racial diversity, there are often gaping divides. There is the careful, cool exclusion of non-white families from neighborhood events and activities (“Oh, you didn’t get the flyer for the block party? Maybe it blew away; it was so windy….”).  There are the school-within-a-school strategies that result in virtually all-white classrooms in overwhelmingly minority schools.   There are the stony silences when black people pass by on the street or arrive in all-white settings, the absent greetings not because of forgetting who you are but choosing not to demonstrate remembrance.  Sometimes it feels like child’s play, really.  In fact, my 12 year old recently laughingly observed that only one of her numerous white former classmates acknowledged knowing her after her recent few years’ absence.  That she laughs instead of cries about it instills a sad sense of pride in my wounded parent heart. She knows already to look beyond the game being played if she expects to be happy. But this bitter game is played by children and adults alike, this faux diversity.  It’s a game with sometimes fatal consequences.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

It is Michael You Mourn For (Or, the Man in the Mirror)

Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson on June 25, 2009.  I am republishing this blog article, originally published July 7, 2009,  to help commemorate the life and death of a great artist.

When I was in high school my English teacher Mr. Tattu made us do something that I hadn't done since third grade: memorize a poem. I was indignant. "Why should I have to do something so hopelessly old-fashioned?" I fumed. Still, being heavily vested in my identity as a Good Girl and a Good Student (at least at that point in my life), I did it. The poem was Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child". It goes:

Margaret, are you grieving
Over goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! As the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

I have never forgotten this poem, especially since, as time has passed, I've come to truly understand its meaning. This is a poem about a child's innate understanding of her own mortality. Someday, sooner or later, we will all be gone. This poem kept playing in my head during the last few days as I reflected on the death of Michael Jackson. On the day that he died, I was traveling west to a conference and had been ensconced in a plane for several hours. I had passed the time doing something that I rarely do on such trips: conversing with the passengers next to me. It's not that I'm antisocial. It's just that, mostly, I've found that the average business traveler (and that's who I often run into on my itineraries) seems to have no interest in conversing with me. Maybe I don't seem…adequately business-like. Yes, we'll call it that. As I've remarked to some friends, there has been a remarkable upsurge in the desire of fellow business travelers to converse with me over the last year or so. When I think about it, it seems to coincide with Barack Obama getting the presidential nomination. Really. I think I have Barack (or maybe Michelle) to thank for making me more acceptable as a traveling companion. Anyway, as we touched down for the landing in Seattle my seat mate was showing me his Blackberry and its amazing bells and whistles. He turned it on as we reached the ground. I read the screen: "Michael Jackson dead". I frowned and started to tear up, catching my breath sharply. My seat mate, puzzled, looked at the screen to see what had caused my reaction. "Oh, is Jackson dead? Wow, that'll be a big deal for a while."

A big deal indeed. I saw my whole life, and especially my childhood, pass before my eyes. Suddenly I was back in primary school listening to a Jackson Five song for the first time—somebody had brought it in to play during free time, as we were permitted to do. The class froze. "Who is that?!!" we shouted. Even we little kids knew that we had just heard something special. It was as if the unbounded joy and unmet longing of childhood came together in a heartbeat. Very quickly, the Jackson 5 consumed our and the public imagination. Michael, especially. We dreamed of meeting him. All the more we dreamed of it because we were from Los Angeles. Star sightings were common enough. My mother once worked in an upscale department store where she waited on Diana Ross. We actually knew people who had met Michael Jackson. Michael sightings and interactions became the highest-valued social currency of our childhood. A girl across the street from me named Juliet got a puppy from Michael Jackson because her grandmother, a maid for a Really Famous Person, had met him. A girl from my neighborhood named Venus got to go on the Dating Game with him. Yes, we had only a few degrees of separation from Michael Jackson. He was, to us, like a much better off, distant relative. Maybe none of us could be him. But we could see him; he was always there, somewhere.

As we grew up he was still there, but somehow far larger than life by then. We read tabloids, we heard the stories. Michael was…different. Maybe. But Michael was ours. He was like a cousin that you used to hang out with but then there came a day that you really didn't hang anymore but you still loved and admired him because he was great. And he was…yours.

So, if it seems strange to people that I am mourning Michael Jackson the International Pop Star, so be it. That's only a small part of who he was.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

College Teaching While Black and Female: Sustaining the Culture of Open Minds and Open Hands

An article in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education discussed whether there is a propensity for black female professors to become “mean.” You can read the entire piece at A Black Female Professor Struggles With 'Going Mean'.

The author writes:

...we forget that minorities and women, especially minority women, are not granted authority even after earning a doctorate and being hired in a very competitive academic market. It is an uphill battle for authority; they must prove their merit. For women and minorities, it is a frustrating process, and feeling as if they don’t have the same status creates distance between them and their colleagues and their students. I believe that helps explain why some minority professors become so overwhelmed that they "go mean." They become cold and, dare I say it, angry.

I have been there, struggling with coldness and anger in the course of my professional life. I have, for the most part, managed to retain the grace and warmth of my true self. But it is not easy.

As I explain to people, college teaching while black and female is, for some of us, a little like constantly putting your hand out for a handshake and having it ignored or slapped (and I don't mean the slap of a high five, but rather something more violent. However, even getting a high five when you meant to solicit a traditional handshake can be an odd form of cultural violence when performed by non-black people on blacks) students and colleagues on numerous occasions. Thank heavens, it doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes you get a true handshake of fellowship when you extend your hand. But because of all those negative experiences, after a while, you are more inclined to either keep your hand to yourself or, even without your knowing it, your hand begins to form into a fist at every new interaction, as you anticipate what comes next. Hence, for many of us who have been in academia for a while, extending your open hand for a handshake sometimes takes an enormous amount of psychic and emotional energy. These are efforts that are often unacknowledged and uncredited.

I have found that there are more open hands and open hearts in places where there is open-minded inquiry and mutual respect for others. Of course, we cannot always know where these places are. And even when places start out that way, they can and do change.  Hence, the job for those of us who care about these issues is to put practices into place that create and sustain the culture of the open mind and the outstretched, open hand.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

#BringBackOurDaughters, #BringBackOurGirls

#BringBackOurDaughters, #BringBackOurGirls

The kidnapped girls of Chibok are on my mind.  On April 15, 2014, armed men kidnapped well over two hundred Nigerian schoolgirls (estimates range up 276) from their school.  The kidnapping occurred at the Government Girls Secondary School, in Chibok, Borno State, Nigeria. Chibok is a rural village in the northeastern portion of Nigeria near the borders of Chad and Cameroon. The kidnapped girls were in the midst of taking examinations. While some of the kidnapped girls have escaped, the majority of the girls remain either in the hands of the captors or in parts unknown.  As horrifying as the kidnappings are, perhaps more distressing is the fact that to date there is apparently no official, state-based or international effort to recover the girls.  Instead, parents and concerned citizens have formed groups to attempt the rescue of the girls.

#BringBackOurDaughters, #BringBackOurGirls

The kidnappings are a reminder that despite the freedoms that some women enjoy today, there is an ever-present fact that shadows the scene: women’s bodies are often the field on which political, social and legal battles are fought. These battles are seen in the continuing threat of sexual assault and gender-based violence; these battles are also seen in efforts to control reproductive freedom and access to education, and in proliferating pornographic norms that elide art, aesthetics, commerce and political speech and in the process demean and diminish women. While in some ways some women gain power, at the same time many women’s rights are reduced, and their voices are frequently silenced. Women too often find themselves not only muted but transmuted from members of the body politic to principal objects in the politics of the body.

#BringBackOurDaughters, #BringBackOurGirls

The politics of the body put the human body, and especially women’s bodies, at the center of political engagements and manipulations. The kidnapping of the girls of Chibok, in order, say some, to make then “wives,” not only terrorizes the girls and their families, but also serves as a means of relegating girls and women to civic outsiders, mere pawns in a cynical game of political brinksmanship. And the tepid response of the international community makes it difficult to distinguish condemnation from condonation.

#BringBackOurDaughters, #BringBackOurGirls

So please join me in moving this matter to the center of public consciousness. Don’t be saddened. Be outraged. Command, demand. Speak, write, march to bring our daughters, our girls, home.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Of Inequality, Mental Illness and Bootstraps

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times discussed how inequality hollows out the soul. A key focus of the piece is that major and minor mental illnesses were three times as common in developed societies where there are large income disparities between rich and poor, such as in the United States. This piece resonated with me. One section in particular caught my attention:

"Two sociologists at the University of Toronto, Robert Andersen and Josh Curtis, found that although there is always some connection between people’s income and the social class to which they feel they belong, the match between the two is closer in societies with bigger income differences between rich and poor."

I found this an interesting claim. Because of my early life, I still think of myself as poor. If pressed I'll acknowledge that I am not, at this time, poor.  It is very difficult for me to think of myself as middle or upper middle class; if I am better off than I used to be, I tend to see it as both fortuitous and temporary. This is in some ways a positive situation for me, since it makes me empathetic to the poor. But my difficulty in acknowledging that my class position might have changed since my childhood and early youth also means that I sometimes miss out on the advantages of my change in class. In many ways, I am still breaking out of the box that first constrained me.

I don’t think that the opinion piece advocates the elimination of income disparity. Instead, I take it as a useful part of a broader discussion about how we view income disparity and the toll that our views take on the mental condition of both the poor and the rich.  As the article notes, the poor are much more likely to experience depression than the rich.  And the rich are, according to some research, more likely to experience conditions such as narcissism or feelings of grandeur. The interesting thing I find, however, is that narcissism, perhaps because of its greater association with the rich, is less stigmatized as a mental disorder than depression. 

Though we tend to laugh about narcissistic outliers, we are not really laughing that hard at most of them. Instead, our laughter is often the ambivalent, envious laughter of the socially striving. We wish that we were laughing with the narcissistic. There is some sense that narcissism is not a failing at all, unless it’s really, really out there.  Even recent psychological thinking on narcissism tends to move away from a categorical approach and towards a dimensional approach that centers on the severity of the dysfunctional personality. Recent changes in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual reflect this approach. What goes undiscussed much of the time is that there is, as I have written before, a distinctly gendered and classed aspect to discussions of narcissism. (See my previous post (In)Sanity, Thy Name is Woman.) There is also a racial aspect to narcissism. People of color, men or women, who exude, shall we say, too much confidence, are far more likely to be considered at the social if not psychological extremes of narcissism. Ask Richard Sherman.

It is almost as if we are supposed to be (somewhat) self-absorbed, vain, and self-aggrandizing as a result of being (or in order to become) wealthy. How else are we going to have the gumption to pull up our own bootstraps and keep them up?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Black and Pink and Re(a)d All Over: Michelle Obama, Shotgun Feminism and the Media

A recent article in Politico magazine called First Lady Michelle Obama a “feminist nightmare” and lambasted her for her failure to be “edgier” and more vocal about more controversial issues. One commenter quoted in the article asserted that Michelle Obama has become “an almost music-hall-level imitation of a warm-and-fuzzy, unthreatening, bucolic female from some imaginary era from the past.” The author ends on a note of somber resignation: “Someday somebody will shatter the conventional First Lady mold. It just won’t be Michelle Obama.” Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. Michelle Obama is the most unconventional First Lady in the history of First Ladies. No amount of reading to children and gardening will undo this.  

Discourses of the good wife and mother, along with discourses about empowered womanhood, have historically been forged within the frameworks of racial and class based ideologies. This is especially true today. There remains, for instance, an intimate link between motherhood, race, class and civic membership. Black motherhood is a particularly difficult role to occupy in contemporary United States society, and that difficulty is heightened for educated black women who sometimes find themselves conflicted by the possibility of desireable work outside of the home and meaningful work within it. While an iconic goal of the mainstream (white) feminist movement has often been to get out of the house, for too many black women the goal has long been to get into the house—that is, into their own houses and out of the houses of others where for centuries they worked for no wages or low wages.  

Black First Ladyhood is a whole other dimension of black motherhood and womanhood. It is a role whose demands are at once so complex, novel, and difficult to maneuver that its performance certainly defies and disrupts most labels that we might try to append to it.  This is in large part because being a black First Lady involves a much-too-short historic journey from the kitchen of the plantation Big House to the Executive Residence of the White House. And we live even now in a world where Ivy League-credentialed, business suit wearing, briefcase carrying black women may easily be confused with the cleaning staff, courtesy of a pervasive, deep-seated social and cognitive dissonance that admits of few other possibilities. It is perhaps little wonder that Michelle Obama might like to pause to relish her role as Mom-in-Chief. Indeed what a wonder it is for Michelle Obama to be cast as Everybody’s Mother rather than as somebody’s mammy.

Media portrayals of Michelle Obama’s allegedly deficient feminism are often assumed to be neutral and ideologically pure, fueled by the wisdom of decades of well-honed feminist activism and deep thought.  However, too often neither writers nor readers of such portrayals are conscious of the strong ideological biases that are inevitably encoded, and they sometimes adopt such stances without much critical inquiry. It is certainly true that every act by every woman is not feminist. Even so, feminism is a broad, multifaceted, and highly contextual concept. Media pieces like the one in Politico do feminism a grave injustice by framing Michelle Obama as one of the enemies of feminism, taking scattershot aim with a claim that is at once overwrought and undertheorized.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Of Ethical Parenting and Lines in the Sand

I find this article really confusing. It seems to decry some parents’ lack of operational principles, that is, their failure to adhere to their established values and ethics in the face of  mounting pressures to help their children succeed. In assailing such behavior, the article seems to lump acts such as paying for expensive tutors together with cheating, lying or other "corrupt" acts on behalf of your child.  Maybe I misunderstand the piece, but if this is what the author is claiming, I disagree.

Comparing access to expensive tutors or test preparation with cheating is not only a false analogy but also a claim that misapprehends the full nature of privilege.  If providing educational advantages such as tutors were evidence of corruption, then it would be hard to say where the corruption starts. Where is the line? Does it begin with providing comfortable homes, plentiful, nutritious food and appropriate clothing? Or does it begin with providing access to good schools in safe neighborhoods? Maybe it starts with access to travel, visits to museums and summer camps. I discuss similar issues in my blog article Thief Me.

The parents in the article who seem to speak apologetically about engaging an expensive tutor as if they are making a drug deal should come out of the shadows. They should spend the money proudly, push for the best educational outcome possible for their child, and along the way teach her or him to be the kind of person who critically interrogates the notion of “merit.” They might even encourage their child to be someone who dedicates her or his career to eliminating the inequities of the current system. At a minimum, they could encourage their child to financially support organizations that are trying to make a good education more broadly accessible. Money helps to change things.

The article, however, seems to make a virtue of refusing tutoring or other such assistance, as seen in the example of a student who eschews test preparation:

I know a young man who, on moral grounds, steadfastly refused to enlist the help of an SAT tutor or indeed do any test prep during his overheated senior fall at a private school whose name you know. The college-application system is broken and corrupt, the kid said. “I could sense around me this horrible stress and this defeated feeling,” he told me. “The more prep you take, the more tutoring you do, the better your scores. It seemed like a gross system. I didn’t want what I was doing to be determined by it. I didn’t want to play their game. I wanted to play my game.”
Does this story have a happy ending? The kid didn’t get into any college and lived at home, working, until it was time to apply again. (At which point he still blew off SAT prep, feeling that the test he’d already taken was preparation enough.) But he learned something about himself, which was that he really did want to go to college, and now he’s happily studying classes at a school not in the U.S. News top 50, composing electronic music that would blow your mind.

My first response to this story is “Um, what?” How is choosing not to study for college entrance examinations exemplary of a principled moral or ethical stand or of any broad notion of social justice? How is his choice to study electronic music "at a school not in the U.S. News top 50" any different from any other election made by a privileged youth? I would perhaps be more impressed if the young man in question had chosen to study education in order to help disadvantaged children. Since the young man seems under no immediate pressure to support himself, I would have been even more impressed if he had foregone college altogether in favor of volunteering full time at a soup kitchen or teaching basic skills to those without the advantage of a private school education.  If the young man was really exorcised about the "gross system" all around him, he might even have withdrawn from his private school during senior year in high school, enrolled in a public school, and asked his parents to donate his tuition to a worthy cause. 

The profiled young man doesn’t seem to understand that his possible outcomes are already largely determined by a life full of past and continuing advantages. This young man, in making what the article implies is an ethically principled stand, is like the person who draws a line in the sand that he refuses to cross. Only, the line he draws is not a perpendicular barrier to the line on which he walks. The line he draws doesn’t impede his progress at all: it is a parallel line. His refusal to cross the line makes little difference. He still makes the same journey, only on a slightly different path.