Here’s a link to the interview I did while in Saratoga Springs, NY for MLK weekend (Jan. 17-18, 2016). The text of my speech is the previous blog. This interview focuses on systemic racism, mass incarceration, Meta Theatre Company, and more. Please check it out, and keep in mind it’s my first radio interview!
When there is media attention devoted to Somerset and Hunterdon Counties of NJ, it often focuses on these two counties as two of the wealthiest in the country. I teach English at Raritan Valley Community College, which serves both of these counties. Even when food stamp use across our two counties has grown and financial aid at our college has increased, we struggle to even raise awareness about poverty because the common perception is that “poor people just don’t live here.” Here are some excerpts from my presentation at the “Fighting Inequality: Class, Race, and Power” conference at Georgetown University last month.
As part of an ongoing effort with my colleagues to insist that our students need additional resources, I designed and taught a Special Topics English Composition II course called “Inequality, the American Dream, and the 99%.” I want to highlight just a few strategies that worked well in raising awareness about inequality within the college’s demographic context and describe how the semester culminated in the students taking action.
One of the main challenges of the course is raising awareness about the systemic nature of economic inequality. Because the mainstream media tends to reinforce the notion that hard work leads to success and people in poverty are just lazy, it can be a real challenge to help students question this ideology. I would imagine it’s a challenge in many parts of the US, since this media message is a national one, but I think it’s especially challenging in wealthier areas.
We began the semester by watching Robert Reich’s film Inequality for All, which I found to be a valuable introduction to the concept of inequality. The fact that the framework of the film is Reich’s own class about inequality makes it especially appropriate to show to students at the beginning of this course. Keep in mind this is first a composition course and second a course about inequality; it’s an English course, not a course in economics, political theory, or sociology, although I did try to make the course interdisciplinary. In Reich’s film, one of the ways he shows the seriousness of inequality is by discussing the concept of a vicious cycle. This was a very helpful concept to emphasize throughout the semester because it shows that economic inequality is systemic and has profound consequences. In one of the follow up activities to the film, and later in the semester, I asked students to sketch or use post-its to create a vicious cycle of the problems we were discussing, and these activities helped students understand the big picture. (See photos of students’ vicious cycles related to education and economic inequality)
By the time we finished the first part of the course, an introduction to inequality, students generally understood that economic inequality is systemic, serious, and unfair. Many also indicated in end-of-semester reflections that this came as a surprise, with comments like: “growing up in a very upscale neighborhood, I never understood the extent of economic inequality in our world.” At the same time, students also explained that economic inequality “should be something everyone discusses because it is a major problem” or as another student put it, “something everyone should be educated on no matter what social class you come from.” Students in the class came from a range of socio-economic backgrounds, and they recognized the value of being in the same class to learn about and discuss economic inequality, noting, for example that “being [at] a community college … is a good place to study inequality because our class was filled with people from all different backgrounds.”
The student comments illustrate that students from both lower and higher socio-economic backgrounds really seemed to believe that learning about economic inequality is important for everyone. I would like to think that such a framework provided students from lower socio-economic backgrounds with an understanding that they should not blame themselves or their parents for their economic status. Likewise, I also hope that this framework provided students from wealthier backgrounds an understanding that they should not blame the poor for their poverty. Inequality is a systemic problem, not an individual problem, and I believe that by the end of the semester, most students understood and appreciated that concept.
The other strategy I’d like to share is the integration of social action into the course. The last assignment asked students to do four things: 1) choose a problem related to economic inequality that interested them (whether or not we had discussed it in class), 2) research it in order to write a paper describing the problem (and why the problem is a problem and how it relates to economic inequality), 3) present a solution, and 4) take one small step of action towards that larger solution. The students actually had to take action, not just write about it hypothetically.
Many students, however, were quite hesitant to take action, and as I discovered, their hesitation related to the issue of confidence, which we had already been discussing throughout the course, especially in the context of the way students in poverty can sometimes have less “academic confidence” than students from higher socio-economic backgrounds. I hadn’t thoroughly recognized the extent of this lack of confidence, so I was surprised at how hesitant students were to take action, although perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, why would a student without much confidence find it easy to take action? I revised the course to help address this concern, and I integrated a gradual buildup to this project. The assignment gave them two options for the social action: 1) to use their existing social media network like Facebook or another social media platform to raise awareness and educate their friends about the problem they were researching or 2) to send a letter to an elected official or another type of official who has some authority related to the problem they were researching and to advocate for a solution. Students had the option of giving me permission to include their post or letter on the Tumblr site I had designed for the course. Some students did raise concerns about the small action being too small and insignificant. I told them: “You need to start somewhere.” If I could help students develop the confidence to take one small action for my course, then I hoped it wouldn’t be so hard for them in the future when they faced or witnessed an injustice they wanted to address. I will conclude with student comments about this experience to highlight the importance of empowering students with the confidence to take action so they can build on that foundation in the future:
- “Although we aren’t exactly changing the world just yet, the seed was planted and the issues we talked about will stay with us forever.”
- “Definitely an eye opener. I was … timid and didn’t really want to speak up for what is right. This class allowed me to become a social crusader.”
- “While getting closer to completing my final paper, I find it hard to stop thinking of ways I can get involved! My ideas and desires to make this issue apparent to people is gaining daily and my thoughts are expanding more thoroughly in creating new ways I [and] others can take action.”
- “In our final paper, having everyone take a small action was something very unique and an amazing concept. It pushes our comfort zone to demonstrate our feelings on economic inequality and some other problem involved with it, whether it be food, education, homeless veterans or any other aspect of inequality. I believe this course has a huge effect on my social action in the future. This class has shown me to speak out on a topic that I have a strong opinion on, instead of keeping my opinion bundled up.”
- “Over all, I think that the course’s emphasis on social action will affect my decisions in the future, because it has improved my courage.”
Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society Induction Ceremony, April 12, 2015, Raritan Valley Community College, NJ
Thank you so much for the invitation to speak here on the topic of “equality.”
I would like to begin by acknowledging my American Literature students at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility who have taught me new ways to understand and appreciate equality and inequality.
I would also like to thank the students in my two sections of English Composition II; they gave me input on my comments, and some are being honored today. The thematic focus of our course is “Inequality, the American Dream, and the 99%.”
One of these English II students recommended that I “speak from the heart” and “just say what needs to be said.” So here goes…
Our society has many beliefs about equality and inequality, and some of these beliefs are myths. They are simply not true, but they get repeated and celebrated. They mask the truth. Such myths have consequences, serious, often deadly, consequences.
Let’s start with a myth that everyone here is likely aware of, a myth that is familiar and uncomfortable at the same time. That’s the myth about community colleges. We’ve all heard it, that it’s not a “real” college, that it’s 13th grade, that it’s for losers. We have all—faculty, students, and parents alike—felt the burn of the anti-community college stigma. Our students describe how in high school they were ashamed to tell anyone where they were going to college. Why wouldn’t they feel ashamed, when we live in a culture that treats higher education as another commodity, another acquisition? It doesn’t help that local high schools set aside a day for seniors to wear the sweatshirt of the college they will attend. It’s an accessory, like a fancy label or brand, and a shirt from RVCC just doesn’t cut it. Students feel embarrassed. Who wants to be called a loser? Even more so, who wants to go to the place that is used as a derogatory chant, a taunt, at seniors by younger high school students during local high school pep rallies in the supposed spirit of friendly class competition? What kind of a culture exists so that such behavior is considered acceptable?
The myth that the community college is inferior has devastating consequences. Myths usually do. Myths serve to cover up a truth, and the truth is that community college is a real college. Our students are real college students. They are getting real college degrees and transferring to other real colleges for further study. Our students are smart and capable. Our PTK students here are living proof that the myth is wrong. Our college offers top-notch academic courses that many of our students say are more challenging than the courses they take elsewhere as juniors and seniors. The secret of our high quality is kept, just that, as a secret, masked by a powerful stigma.
The problem is that systems support myths like this one, and these systems are powerful and wide-reaching.
Let’s consider some examples of the way systems support the anti-community college stigma, systems like the government and the economy.
RVCC President McDonough recently told us that six of our students participated in the first-ever Community College Day at the New Jersey State House. Our students reminded our representatives in the Assembly and the Senate that the state formula for funding higher education is grossly unfair to community colleges, with: New Jersey Public 4 Year Colleges receiving $10,276 per Full Time student, New Jersey Private Colleges receiving $1,972 per Full Time student, and New Jersey Community Colleges receiving only $1,780 per Full Time student.
Really? Community Colleges in NJ receive less money from the state per student than private colleges and less than one fifth of what public colleges receive? Where is the equality there?
When the community college system was first created in NJ in the 1960s, the NJ legislature created a funding system where the state, the county, and student tuition would each provide for one third of the college’s funding. Students, instead of paying the originally envisioned 33% of our funding, are now paying more than 60% of our funding because the state and the counties are not following through on their obligation.
Again, myths have consequences. The stigma against community colleges reaches all the way to the state house. Without the state’s promised funding and without the counties’ promised funding, two things happen: 1) our students unfairly bear the weight of funding our college when we’re supposed to serve the community and 2) we don’t have the funding we need to support the work we do.
For students, this means taking on debt, working extra hours, attending part-time instead of full-time, and even leaving school. They give up sleep, they can’t take as much time to study, and they can’t spend as much time with their kids if they are parents. The impact is not only financial, but it is also physical and psychological. Social justice is at the heart of our mission, yet we are not serving the students who most need our help.
Research shows that the single greatest factor in whether or not a college student will graduate is the income of that student’s parents. The higher the parental income, the better the chance the student will graduate. While financial resources certainly play a role, one of the biggest resources that students from wealthier families have is academic confidence. Knowing your parents finished college provides a confidence that being the first in your family to go to college doesn’t provide. This confidence is the difference between failing a test and deciding to drop out of school vs. failing a test and deciding to go for extra tutoring. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds need access to a strong support system in order to build this confidence that other students already bring with them to college. It’s our obligation to provide such a support system.
In addition to students suffering the burden of broken promises by the state and counties, for the college, this means hiring part-time faculty (adjunct faculty) instead of full-time faculty. RVCC is certainly not alone in going down this path, but it is an unsustainable one. Adjunct faculty are the majority of our faculty, and they are paid per course. When you break down the amount of time it requires to teach a course, they are paid less than minimum wage. They have no job security from semester to semester and no benefits. They all have Masters degrees, and some have PhDs.
The myth that community colleges are inferior has serious consequences.
Knowing the power of this myth, it is all the more impressive that we have the opportunity today to honor these students here, who have fought against so much to excel academically.
Part of the reason the anti-community college myth is so powerful is it supports a larger myth in our society against public service, a myth that says the key to success is individual hard work. The corollary, of course, is that those who are not successful do not work hard. These interlocking myths are very dangerous because they deny the impact of the privileges, benefits, and resources available to those who have succeeded. Those very privileges, benefits, and resources are then not available to those who didn’t inherit them, buy them, or get lucky. Even though we believe we live in a meritocracy, that anyone who works hard can achieve the American dream, that is a dangerous myth that ignores the impact of race, socioeconomic status, citizenship status, sexual orientation, and gender.
Let’s consider a few examples:
- According to a 2013 ACLU report, drug use in NJ by blacks and whites is similar, yet blacks are arrested at a much higher rate. In fact, Hunterdon County, out of all the counties in NJ, has the highest racial disparity when it comes to marijuana possession arrest rates. Blacks are 5.1 times more likely than whites to be arrested in Hunterdon despite comparable drug use.
- According to the Sentencing Project, the “lifetime likelihood of imprisonment” for white men in the US is 1 in 17, for black men is 1 in 3, for white women, it’s 1 in 111, and for black women, it’s 1 in 18.
- Amnesty International reports that “Over 30,000 immigrants are in detention on any given day in the U.S. . . . triple the average number detained just ten years ago.”
- The American Association of University Women reported that in 2012, Latinas earned 53 cents for every dollar a white male earned, African American women earned 64 cents for every dollar a white male earned, and white women earned 78 cents for every dollar a white male earned.
- According to the PEW Research Center, in 2013 median net worth of households for whites was $141,900, but for blacks it was only $11,000, and for Hispanics $13,700.
- Finally, according to the African American Policy Forum, “The median wealth for single Black women is $5.00.”
This is the richest country on earth – how is any of this acceptable?
Somerset and Hunterdon Counties are two of the wealthiest counties in the country, but you wouldn’t know it from hearing our students’ or our adjuncts’ experiences. Given that wealth, don’t these counties have an even greater obligation to give back to the community, specifically the community college, the only college in either county? What would amount to just another yacht to one of our wealthier residents would mean the world to this college, yet wealthy donors tend to donate instead to the Ivy League university they attended, even if those universities don’t really need the money, while they ignore the community college in their very own backyard where that money could change lives.
Myths have serious consequences, and you, as strong academic students have the power to make a difference. The odds may seem set against you, but that is all the more reason to do something. If the odds seem against you, then they most certainly are against your peers who are not able to be here. Do it for them. What powerful myth governs our society that you want to change? Myths are stories, and stories can change. If you tell enough stories to counter the myths, if you speak up enough about the value of community colleges, people will listen. But telling new stories to counter damaging myths is not enough. You’ve got to take further action. Learn about the problem, and advocate for a solution. Meet with someone of influence and explain your view. Start a petition. Vote in every local and national election. Hold government leaders accountable. Hold corporate leaders accountable. Organize a boycott. Advocate for a new policy or law. Run for office. Raise awareness among your network. Raise your voice. Share your knowledge. Teach.
Keep saying that black lives matter, that transgendered people are people too, that undocumented Americans are real Americans, that bullying against LGBT kids must stop, that students in poverty need support.
Raise your voice, and people will listen.
The Facing Race 2014 conference (organized by Race Forward, publisher of Colorlines) highlighted social justice activists from across the country. Their inspiring words began immediately. At 8am Friday morning, activists from Ferguson reminded us that Sunday, today, will be the 100th day since the police killed an unarmed black man, yet again. While we hold our breath waiting for the indictment results from the Grand Jury hearing, these activists also reminded us we should not be stopped by a likely return of no indictment. They said, “Young people have awakened a collective consciousness of a community, and it will not be put to sleep.” The youth are leading this movement, and we need to be prepared to have an open mind about the vision they bring at the same time as elders need to help them understand history. History and vision must be brought together.
And that was just the first hour of the conference.
We heard from a panel of youth activists doing amazing work around the country, including Jaime-Jin Lewis from the NY organization Border Crossers. Their website states: “By the time they enter kindergarten, children express an explicit white bias. Despite the fact that research consistently shows that taking a ‘colorblind’ or ‘colormute’ approach does not yield race-neutral opinions in children, teachers do not receive adequate training or support in how to address these issues with young children.” I believe more and more that an anti-racist pedagogy needs to begin as early as possible. I don’t teach students until they get to college, and they say, “Why didn’t we know about this history of race before? It would have made all the difference if we had known when we were younger.” I hope my work can help contribute to this mission.
I was very excited to meet scholar john a. powell, who, along with activists from the Demos organization, spoke to us about the relationship between money in politics and racial justice. Professor powell shared a metaphor about the car of neo-liberalism being fueled by racial and other anxieties. Wow! I can’t wait to read his new book, Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society.
I went to two amazing media literacy workshops that taught practical tools to help us develop a stronger critical media lens. This can especially help me in my class right now, where students are working on a Media Social Action Assignment (where they identify a specific piece of current popular culture and contact its producer to share whether they think it’s moving us forward or backwards due its representation of race). One workshop focused on reality TV and identified the ways in which stock characters are used repeatedly to dehumanize all women, but especially women of color. Jennifer Pozner (author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV) and Sofia Quinero focused on tools for viewing reality TV (and TV in general) more critically, while the other panel gave us an insider perspective into the ways the media industry operates and how it perpetuates white supremacy.
Both panels reminded us about the power of advertising in TV (especially product placement in reality TV). If we keep buying the products that support the shows that perpetuate racist stereotypes, then this system will continue; we need to be more mindful about our power as consumers and use that to put an end to degrading portrayals of people of color. Furthermore, we also need to work on disrupting a system where very few people of color are hired to work behind the scenes, whether as writers, costume designers, or executive producers. The organization Color of Change is doing fabulous work raising awareness about these issues. We also need to support alternative media like Color Creative; its founder Issa Rae talked to us about her experiences developing the web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.
I was especially excited to attend a panel focused explicitly on the work I’m trying to do here with this blog; it was titled “Multiply and Mobilize: Resisting Divide and Conquer Tactics in Multiracial Work.” It was an interactive session run by the organization AORTA that gave us the opportunity to hear from activists who described situations where the divide and conquer mentality could have ended a specific fight for justice, but activists forged on, built bridges, and successfully created coalitions. I was personally so thrilled to be able to hear a panel of experienced activists, including the leader of Race Forward, Rinku Sen, speak about the need to disrupt divide and conquer ways of thinking. As the title of my blog makes clear, this is exactly what I’m trying to do.
In the keynote presentation, three generations of the Reagon family, Bernice Johnson Reagon (founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock), her daughter Toshi Reagon, and her daughter Tashawn Reagon, shared the power of music in the fight for social justice and the importance of inter-generational coalition-building. Tashawn is a college student, so I was especially interested in her advice that we “dig deep” and “lean into discomfort.” She also described her work at Skidmore College in Intergroup Relations, a program that more colleges should explore to foster dialog about social justice.
The closing plenary was as inspiring and intellectually rigorous as the rest of the conference, where three speakers provided insight into where we’ve been and where we need to go over the next 50 years in order to achieve racial justice. Ian Haney-Lopez (author of Dog Whistle Politics), Van Jones (former Obama advisor and author of Rebuild the Dream) and Rinku Sen left us with both insight and tools to help us move forward.
I’d like to wrap up here with a few take-away points that kept coming up throughout the conference, concepts that are very important as we fight for justice:
- make sure your social justice goals are not at the expense of someone else
- diversity (ie variety) is not enough; it needs to be about equity (power)
- we need inter-generational coalition-building
- we must have difficult conversations about race; avoiding it doesn’t make racism go away
- the false stories that the media tells us about people of color (whether in the news or in prime time drama) fuel the inhumane way people of color are treated in their daily lives
- we need to understand how different systems (media, Wall St., technology, corporations, electoral politics) connect together to perpetuate systemic racism
- whiteness was created centuries ago to benefit the white wealthy elite, and it is still being used to support primarily a very small ultra-wealthy white minority that exerts substantial power over everyone else
- the divide and conquer mentality must be examined and disrupted so we can build coalitions and fight for our common interests
Thank you, Race Forward for organizing such an inspiring conference!
You would think after all the years of interdisciplinary academic programs being developed that we would have reached a time when we weren’t still so divided. But we are. We are stuck in our silos at the expense of social justice. Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about, and then I’ll talk about why I think it’s such a problem. Oh, and by the way, if you’ve read the “Silo” series by Hugh Howey (starting with the novel Wool), then you’ll be able to visualize the problem I’m talking about.
I attended Netroots Nation in Detroit in July 2014; this conference is considered the biggest progressive conference of the year. It was amazing, and I learned about various progressive issues, activist strategies, and more. However, I didn’t meet one other college professor, of any discipline. And I only met a few K-12 teachers. Almost everyone there was either a blogger, journalist, activist, and/or political candidate, and they all seemed quite invested in social justice. Where were the scholars, the college professors, and the K-12 teachers?
In April 2014, I attended a conference at Yale Law School called “Re-Envisioning Race in a ‘Post-Racial’ Era: New Approaches in Critical Race Theory.” All of the panels and presentations were inspiring and informative. The audience was almost primarily law faculty, law students, and practicing lawyers, even though anyone who follows current events who doesn’t have a law degree would have gotten so much out of the conference. Where were faculty, grad students, and undergrad students from other academic disciplines? Where were the high school teachers? Where were the activists unaffiliated with an academic institution?
We are doing such a disservice to the cause of social justice by cutting ourselves off from conversations and interactions with like-minded people who could teach us something valuable. We seem to congregate in conferences with people who have similar graduate degrees or similar positions. I’m certainly not discounting the value of that. For example, many of the classes I teach are composition, and it’s very helpful for me to spend some of my professional development interacting with other composition instructors at community colleges in order to share best practices for achieving our common goals. However, that can only be a piece of my professional and personal growth, only a small piece of the larger project of social justice. We have to think less about what discipline we’re in or what our job is and think more about what larger social problems we want to come together to discuss, analyze, and at least begin to resolve. How can we possibly know if the solution we come up with will work if we are only sharing it with people who have the same graduate degree as we do, who have the same type of job we do? I need to be able to talk to people outside of the discipline of English and even outside of academia altogether to know if my solutions even make sense.
Much of my blog (and my book project) is devoted to stereotypes that divide us, that keep us separated, that prevent us from coming together to form coalitions. I’m trying to raise awareness about those stereotypes so that we can dismantle them and build coalitions around common interests. I think something similar is going on here when it comes to divisions between academic disciplines and divisions between scholars and activists. We’re divided, for various reasons, some of which are not ill-intended, but the result is the same. We don’t come together across disciplines, across careers, to discuss the concerns that we share.
However, I did notice that as soon as the news from Ferguson spread across the country in August, it seemed that there were connections being forged across disciplines, across all types of communities. We can’t lose that momentum, and we can’t wait until a tragedy of that scale to make it happen. We have extremely serious problems that we need to tackle, from systemic racism to economic inequality to homophobia to climate change. We need to think about developing more issue-oriented conferences, open to anyone who is interested, that can foster dialogue and prompt change. I’m looking forward to attending Facing Race in November, where I hope to experience just that.
Until then, I’ll be sharing my ideas at UCLA Law School’s Critical Race Studies conference later this week on the 20th anniversary of Cheryl Harris’ law review article “Whiteness as Property,” which has had a tremendous influence on my thinking. It prompted me to envision a conversation between Harris and Joyce Carol Oates, particularly through Oates’ 1980 novel Bellefleur. While I don’t think that literary scholars are engaging enough with critical race theory, and I’ve been trying to change that, I’m hoping that I can inspire critical race theorists to see the interdisciplinary connections with literature, so we can begin to emerge out of our silos and work together for justice.
As many people know, Sarah Palin and her family were said to have been recently involved in what the New York Times called a “brawl” at a party in their home state of Alaska. Sure, such an incident seems ripe for political jokes and satire. After all, Sarah Palin was a candidate for Vice President of the United States, and the media seems to have reported with glee about her blunders on and off the campaign trail.
However, during social media’s response to the news coverage of this event, why is it acceptable for her to be labelled “white trash”? In addition, during the news coverage of this event, why is it acceptable to have thinly-veiled references to the label “white trash,” even by the New York Times? (If they quote someone making a comparison to The Jerry Springer Show, does that make it ok?)
As soon as the news story hit social media, I noticed phrases and words like “white trash,” “trailer trash,” and “trash” get bandied about by some progressives as if those terms had no history, as if they were innocent words that did not have roots in a history that involuntarily sterilized thousands of poor white people and criminalized white poverty. Is it ok to use this term because Sarah Palin is wealthy? Will somehow the burden of history associated with this term be cast aside due to her wealth? Or is it ok to call her “white trash” because you don’t agree with her politics and you want an opportunity to mock her?
I’m not here to defend Sarah Palin. I don’t support her conservative politics, and I certainly didn’t think she was a good political candidate. I just believe that we need to be much more careful about the stereotypes we continue to perpetuate through the language we use. I’m sure many of the people who breezily called Sarah Palin “white trash” in Twitter, Facebook, or a comment on a news article care deeply about poverty and social justice; however, I don’t think they’re connecting the dots. We have such a pervasive stereotype about poor whites in this country that we don’t even think consciously about it.
The heart of the “white trash” stereotype includes an assumption of genetic inferiority, stupidity, laziness, and filth. The “racist redneck” stereotype reinforces this same emphasis on stupidity, ignorance, as well as extreme conservative reactionary politics, connected to the assumption of ignorance and backwardness, as if “these uncivilized people” don’t know any better. Maybe it’s amusing to apply that stereotype to someone like Palin who does have conservative beliefs but also a lot of power as a way to bring her down a notch. However, doing so just reinforces a pervasive belief system about people in poverty as inferior and undeserving of government support. Calling Sarah Palin “white trash” in the end contributes to the anti-poor platform she supported. The use of this stereotype does not advance social justice whatsoever; it does just the opposite.
As I am trying to demonstrate with this blog (and my book project), stereotypes like that of poor whites as “white trash” or “redneck” are damaging; they are divisive, and they serve the interests only of those in power and the status quo. They keep different racial groups and economic classes separate, without an opportunity to form coalitions around common interests.
Yes, it is certainly possible to use terms like “white trash” and “redneck” in ways that empower poor whites; however, the case of calling Sarah Palin “white trash” is not one of them. In order to use these terms in a way that empowers poor whites, there must be resistance to the idea that they are inferior; their humanity must be front and center rather than cast aside. A writer like Dorothy Allison accomplishes just that. She explicitly uses the term “white trash” to force us to question the status quo, to question negative, pervasive beliefs about poor whites. In her book Skin, she writes: “To resist destruction, self-hatred, or lifelong hopelessness, we have to throw off the conditioning of being despised, the fear of becoming the they that is talked about so dismissively, to refuse lying myths and easy moralities, to see ourselves as human, flawed, and extraordinary. All of us – extraordinary” (36).
In my last blog, I explored white resistance to the idea of “white privilege” in discussions about racism, post-Ferguson. I wrote that in late August, Bill O’Reilly questioned the existence of “white privilege,” and that I wanted to examine that but that I also wanted to look, this time, at how he introduces a question about “Asian privilege” to discredit the idea of “white privilege.” O’Reilly rattles off a bunch of statistics about unemployment, high school graduation, single-parent homes, and household income to show that every time, blacks were the least successful, whites in the middle, and Asians the most successful. O’Reilly then asks sarcastically, “So do we have Asian privilege in America?” He goes on to argue that Asian Americans are the most successful people in the US because they take personal responsibility, they overcome obstacles, they work hard, and their families stay together.
First, I want to be clear that various writers have already responded to O’Reilly’s reference to “Asian privilege”; there have been several excellent critiques, including “Bill O’Reilly’s ‘Asian Privilege’ Disgrace” by Marie Myung-Ok Lee of Salon, “What Bill O’Reilly Gets Wrong about Asian Americans” by Kevin Wong, also of Salon, and “Bill O’Reilly and White Privilege” by Charles Blow of the New York Times.
Second, I would like to add to this conversation by connecting O’Reilly’s comment to a larger pattern in our culture. O’Reilly is hardly the only person perpetuating this stereotype. We often hear comments about Asian American students being better at math than anyone else, and that’s just another manifestation of the same damaging stereotype.
So, what exactly is the problem here? What’s wrong with celebrating Asian American success? In fact, that’s not really what is going on here. O’Reilly was using Asian Americans as a weapon against blacks, and that is the fundamental divide and conquer phenomenon that I am trying to examine, raise awareness about, and ultimately dismantle with this blog.
To begin, O’Reilly’s words reinforce the stereotype of Asian Americans as the “model minority.” While a “positive” stereotype might not seem like a big deal because it’s positive, that very mindset just makes it all the more damaging because it goes under the radar. This stereotype was created in the late 1960s and clearly continues to be perpetuated to the present day. Many scholars have demonstrated this phenomenon, including Frank Wu, Neil Gotanda, Mari Matsuda, Sumi Cho, Robert Chang, Angelo Ancheta, Helen Zia, and Robert Lee. The media latched on to the notion of the “model minority” starting in 1966 (not coincidentally, the height of the black power movement), when two prominent news articles established the success of two groups within the Asian American community, Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans respectively, at the expense of other racial minorities. On January 9, 1966, the New York Times Magazine published an article titled “Success Story, Japanese Style.” Consider the words used to describe Japanese Americans here: “better than any other group in our society,” “exceptionally law-abiding,” acting with “perseverance” and “unaided effort,” with a “family life both strong and flexible.”
On December 26, 1966, U.S. News & World Report published an article titled “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.” Again, consider how the very beginning of the article establishes the notion of the model minority: “At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift Negroes and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese-Americans are moving ahead on their own—with no help from anyone else.” The article reinforces this idea throughout with words to describe Chinese Americans like: “obedient,” “model of self-respect and achievement,” who “depend on their own efforts—not a welfare check” with “traditional virtues of hard work, thrift and morality.”
These articles unabashedly established Asian Americans as the “good” minority. And, if there is a “good” minority, there must be a “bad” minority. Both of these articles identify the “bad” minority and so does O’Reilly, but many other references to Asian Americans as the model minority are silent on the flip side of this stereotype, leaving unspoken the identification of the not-so-model minority that Asian Americans are being compared to. However, just because it’s invisible doesn’t mean it isn’t there. That’s the particularly insidious dynamic of this stereotype.
The stereotype of the model minority is shockingly powerful. In one move, it can perpetuate these powerful ideologies about race and class: anyone who works hard can be successful, our society runs on a meritocracy, racism is pretty much over, the federal government does not need to get involved in addressing racism (because it’s pretty much over), Asian Americans are a homogenous group who don’t experience any serious problems, anyone who continues to complain about racism is simply not working hard enough and spending too much time complaining, and we all just need to move on.
Such a stereotype denies the existence of racism against Asian Americans. And if there’s any doubt that such racism continues, just take a look at Deepa Iyer’s piece from the other day on “13 Years After 9/11: A Reflection on Resilience,” which discusses the serious challenges that Asian Americans continue to face.
I’ve written about the model minority myth, its origins and its continued persistence in our media and popular culture, in much more detail in my book project (still in need of a publisher). This stereotype does not get enough attention, and it is often still taken for granted as the truth rather than as a divide and conquer strategy that perpetuates systemic racism and the status quo. We need to raise awareness about this divisive stereotype, dismantle it, and build coalitions around common interests.
It’s not often that the concept of “white privilege” is the focus of the mainstream media. It took the shooting of unarmed black male teenager Michael Brown and the devastated community of Ferguson to show the world the brutality of systemic racism and economic inequality. Over the past few weeks, as the news media has highlighted incontrovertible data about the unequal treatment of African Americans, there have been several valuable articles and blogs about the way white privilege operates in our society today. To mention just a few, the New York Times, AlterNet, The Root, Salon, and Slate have published insightful commentary and analysis on the basic idea of whiteness and white privilege.
However, not surprisingly, we’ve also seen a considerable backlash to this discussion of white privilege. As Bill O’Reilly said recently during his editorial, “Talking Points does not believe in white privilege.”
This type of resistance to the idea of white privilege is what I’d like to focus on here.
There is a knee-jerk reaction by many whites to the notion of white privilege, and they think, “But I don’t feel privileged…” That’s where the resistance starts to develop because I’m not sure that anyone actually feels privilege as a sensation; therefore, it’s easy and convenient to deny. The resistance can build further when whites compare themselves to other racial groups. Even if they do recognize that they are treated better than members of other racial groups, they can chalk it up to deserving that benefit because of working hard, being smart, somehow earning this privilege. Anything else would fly in the face of the basic notion of the American Dream, that one has control over one’s destiny through hard work.
Bill O’Reilly proclaimed that “African Americans have a much harder time succeeding in our society than whites do” not because of white privilege but because they lack “stable homes and an emphasis on education.” He argued that if African Americans “overcome obstacles” and take “personal responsibility,” they would be successful. The problem, he maintains, is with them, not with white privilege or anything systemic. (I will save his reference to “Asian Privilege” for a future blog post because it will take some time to critically examine the model minority stereotype he upholds.)
So, where does that leave us? I don’t anticipate ever changing Bill O’Reilly’s mind, but I do think for many other whites, we can get past this resistance. What makes the difference? I think history helps. I think if more whites understood the history of whiteness, and the way that whiteness has been used as a weapon, that would help. No white person alive today created whiteness or white privilege; it’s not about holding white people today responsible for inventing whiteness. Acknowledging that white privilege exists and that you benefit from it is not the same as saying you created it. In addition, acknowledging that white privilege exists does not minimize a recognition of how whites can also be marginalized, via socio-economic class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. However, denying that white privilege exists is a problem.
If we take the time to look at the history of whiteness, we will see that whiteness is not a stable, monolithic category; it’s crucial to understand that the question of who is allowed to be white varied from one historical period to the next, from one law or court case to the next. That history shows us that whiteness is not something natural or innate but something that society created, more specifically that those in power created to hang onto their power. White skin is not inherently meaningful, just like the shape of one’s ear is not inherently meaningful. Meaning had to be created and attached to whiteness, and that meaning evolved. For many years, the Irish, for example, were not considered white, and then that changed for a variety of social, political, and economic reasons. The same goes for Italians and many other groups. The definition of white evolved, and it’s still evolving. That means we can have some say in what it signifies; that means we can resist it, separate “white” from “privilege” and build a more just society.
(A few excellent resources on this history include: The History of White People, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race, How the Irish Became White, and Critical White Studies: Looking Behind the Mirror.)
The history of race is the history of an idea, and we must learn this history if we are to see justice.
- Race is not real. Racism is real. Race is an invention, but we take it for granted and fail to understand that what is real is racism, the beliefs and actions that develop based on the invention of race. (Resources include: The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America; Race: The Power of an Illusion; Race: Are We So Different?)
- Race was invented at a particular time in our history for a particular purpose. More specifically, race was invented in the late 1600s in colonial America as a divide and conquer strategy to perpetuate the power and status quo of a small group of elite white wealthy landowners. The invention of race as a method of identifying and categorizing people on a hierarchy divided poor whites, blacks, and Native Americans from each other to avoid their alliance against those in power. The vast majority of people living in the colonies were not well served by the invention of race. (Resources include: The History of White People; Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century; The Invention of the White Race)
- More than 300 years after race was invented, we are still breathing the toxic fallout of its invention; this fallout is called racism. We breathe it, absorb it, become contaminated by it. We witness its fatal impact in Ferguson. Only when we recognize racism’s power can we start to resist it. (Resources include: Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class; The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement; Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge; “The Case for Reparations”)
Just like the Occupy movement highlighted how the vast majority of Americans do not benefit from our country’s economic policies that protect the ultra-wealthy, we need a parallel movement to highlight how the vast majority of Americans do not benefit from the invention of race. In discussing the invention of race, the documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion says the following: “We made it. We can unmake it.” Please read my future blogs as I continue to explore these ideas.
Please read this exceptional column by Charles M. Blow in the NY Times. He does a phenomenal job of outlining how race has been socially constructed to divide and conquer us, which is exactly what I’m trying to get at in my work. At the end, he says:
We can talk this through. We can have this conversation. We must. Hopefully this provides a little nudge and a few parameters.
Yes! Please join me.