From One Karen to Another

Yes, my name really is Karen. And it’s not a surprise: I am white and middle aged. I grew up in suburban, segregated New Jersey (a state that likes to pretend it’s not segregated, when it’s one of the most). I didn’t learn about race and racism in K-12. I didn’t learn that race is a social construct, much less that whiteness is an invention. I didn’t learn that I, as a white person, was benefitting from advantages that I did not earn but rather were built into our systems. I didn’t learn any of that because it was not taught. I graduated near the top of my high school class without that knowledge. Also, though I wouldn’t have wanted to admit it at the time, I had also learned several false racial myths: that black men are dangerous and that white women need to be protected from black men. While these myths might not have been overtly taught in school, they were everywhere in the very air we breathed. I’m thinking especially of the news coverage during my junior year of high school in 1989 of the young black men who the media identified as the “Central Park Five,” whose guilt I took for granted.

I am Karen, and I am a Karen. While part of me wants to insist #NotAllWhitePeople, that reaction is simply unacceptable. The truth is #YesAllWhitePeople. Rather than distance myself from Amy Cooper, Travis and Gregory McMichael, and Derek Chauvin, I need to confront what we have in common. While I may never have called the police on a black birdwatcher, killed a black jogger, or forced my knee into the back of a black man as he died in the street, my very whiteness is a weapon, a weapon I deploy without always being aware of it. As a white professor, when have I deployed my whiteness in the classroom? Or in the grocery store? Or walking around my town?

Fellow Karens, Amys, Travises, Gregorys, and Dereks, we must begin by acknowledging the racial truths that we were not taught and the racial myths that we were taught. If we are too defensive to even be willing to begin to recognize and learn about those truths and myths, then we are going to cause more racial violence. We must learn the truth, debunk the myths, develop an antiracist perspective, and carry out that antiracist perspective. That is our responsibility.

by Karen Gaffney, author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge) and creator of the website Divided No Longer

Confronting 1619 in 2019 (Part 2)

Could understanding how white people first became indoctrinated into white supremacy help us un-indoctrinate ourselves now? After finishing Ibram Kendi’s smart, accessible, and much-needed recent book How To Be an Antiracist, with its emphasis on actively resisting racist policies, decisions, and other manifestations of white supremacy, I keep going back to when it all began. For guidance, I look to Kendi’s earlier book Stamped from the Beginning as well as the recent attention to the year 1619, when enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia (see The 1619 Project, created by Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times). (Find my Part 1 blog post on this project here.) As I highlight here, we might see this indoctrination several centuries ago in two phases, the first by an elite fueled by their own self-interest and the second by the masses, pressured by the elite.

In Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi makes it clear that when we look at history globally, we see that enslaved people initially encompassed a variety of skin colors and that slavery existed before the creation of what he calls “racist ideas.” How did we go from this period of slavery without racist ideas, if you will, to centuries later in August 1619 with colonial Virginia’s arrival of “more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists,” as the cover of the August 18, 2019 New York Times Magazine explicitly states? Furthermore, how did we go from August 1619 to 1705, when colonial Virginia passed the “slave codes” that identified enslaved black people as “real estate” at the same time as it provided a list of benefits to European servants who occupied the newly-created racial category of “white”?

These are questions I’ve been thinking about for years and that my book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), attempted to consider. In retrospect, though, I think I did not give enough attention to the impact that “racist ideas,” again using Kendi’s words, had already had on the minds of colonial Virginia elite by 1619. Kendi helps us recognize that the early propagators of antiblackness tended to be the elite, first in Europe and then in colonial America: intellectuals, politicians, royalty, clergy, and major landowners. It served their interests to believe in black inferiority because that was a convenient rationale for slavery, which in turn allowed them to carry out their imperial, colonial, missionary, and capitalist ventures, which in turn led to increased power, wealth, and profit. “Racist ideas” were at first generally limited to the elite, not yet indoctrinating the minds of European servants.

How and why did this elite become indoctrinated into a racial ideology? Here are a few highlights, which also reveal the inter-connectedness of this elite:

  • Kendi describes a commissioned biography of Portugal’s Prince Henry, completed in 1453 by Gomes Eanes de Zurara, as the beginning of “the recorded history of anti-Black racist ideas” (10). Kendi makes it clear that these “racist ideas” were created in order to rationalize Prince Henry’s slave trading of African people, which had become financially lucrative for Prince Henry. While Eastern Europe had earlier been a source of slaves, that became more challenging at the same time as Portugal began venturing further down the western coast of Africa. Even though Prince Henry’s motivations for slave-trading in Africa were driven by greed and a desire to grow his wealth, his biographer Zurara needed a more palatable justification, so, as Kendi describes, Zurara rationalized the slave trading of African people at the exclusion of anyone else as necessary for their “salvation” and “improvement” (12). Kendi therefore concludes that the “racist idea” of black inferiority was “a product of, not a producer of” Prince Henry’s slave-trading (10). It is essential to recognize this pattern of a “racist idea” being created in order to rationalize elite self-interest.
  • About a century after Zurara’s text initiated an ideology of anti-blackness, a second text by Leo Africanus affirmed these “racist ideas” and depicts Africans as hypersexual and less than human (17).
  • In 1600, an Englishman named John Pory translated this second text into English (21), less than a decade before England invades what is now Virginia and establishes the colony of Jamestown.
  • In 1619, George Yeardley is governor of Jamestown and owner of 1,000 acres (26). John Pory is Yeardley’s cousin and in 1619, he arrives in Jamestown to work as his cousin’s secretary (26).
  • Yeardley then organizes a foundational meeting of local elected politicians, which included the great-grandfather of Thomas Jefferson, and they elect Pory to be their speaker (26). In other words, as Kendi spells out, the English translator of one of two major texts spewing an antiblack ideology “became colonial America’s first legislative leader” (26).
  • The very next month after this first meeting of what became the General Assembly, enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, and Yeardley bought twenty enslaved Africans (26). The rationale of a racist ideology served the self-interest of the elite.

The elite were using a racial ideology to protect their self-interest and grow their profit at the same time as their racial ideology was not permeating the minds of European servants. After all, if European servants were fully indoctrinated into antiblackness, would there be so much evidence that European servants and enslaved Africans ran away together and engaged in relationships with each other? Would Bacon’s Rebellion have occurred, an interracial uprising by people who may not have focused on their difference in skin color as much as their common fight against the wealthy landowners?

Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 was one major catalyst for the elite to carry out their racial ideology in full force against the European masses. As Kendi writes, “For Governor Berkeley’s wealthy White inner circle, poor Whites and enslaved Blacks joining hands presaged the apocalypse. . . . Rich planters learned from Bacon’s Rebellion that poor Whites had to be forever separated from enslaved Blacks. They divided and conquered by creating more White privileges” (41).

Likewise, as Mary Elliott and Jazmine Hughes of The 1619 Project put it: “In the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion, in which free and enslaved black people aligned themselves with poor white people and yeoman white farmers against the government, more stringent laws were enacted that defined status based on race and class. Black people in America were being enslaved for life, while the protections of whiteness were formalized.”

As I discuss in Dismantling the Racism Machine, the 1705 Virginia “slave codes” not only codified the status of enslaved black people as chattel, as property with no rights, but it also elevated the status of the newly-white servants and granted them specific benefits upon the conclusion of their period of indenture.

In dividing and conquering white servants and enslaved Africans, white servants had to be taught this racial ideology. They had to be indoctrinated into a belief system of white superiority and black inferiority. In other words, they had to be taught that whiteness was real, that whiteness was an inherent special quality that they naturally possessed. This is a lie, of course, and so whiteness itself is a lie. Moreover, it is a lie that taught white servants and other poor whites to accept their low status because at least they were white. This ideology is deeply intertwined with capitalism, a zero-sum game that depends on people believing that they need to fight each other for crumbs, while the elite amass far more than their share. Colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism are all interconnected systems of power that, not coincidentally, emerged at the same time as “racist ideas.”

I don’t believe that in 1619 American racialized slavery was a foregone conclusion, but by 1705 it most certainly was. The colonial elite of early Virginia made a choice to come here in the first place. That choice is not one of innocent “discovery” or “exploration.” It is a choice about greed and self-interest. They built their colonial elite power on a foundation of white supremacy and capitalism, something The 1619 Project makes especially clear. The servants who came to be seen as white also made a choice – they accepted that whiteness. They didn’t have to.

Today, 500 years later, we have another choice to make. Are white people in the US today going to continue to accept the lie of whiteness? The lie of white superiority? Or we going to disavow this lie? If we look back at the gradual indoctrination of the elite and then the masses into a racial ideology, we can see that the group with the least self-interest in this ideology was the group indoctrinated last, which is not a surprise, the masses. Ironically, today, it is often the poorest of whites who are blamed for the persistence of white supremacy when it was and continues to be an elite who creates and perpetuates this system for their own self-interest. Not only do poor whites today not have a self-interest in whiteness, but it is actually hurting them. In fact, Jonathan Metzl’s recent book Dying of Whiteness shows exactly how an ideology of white supremacy is killing white people today. Likewise, Kendi reiterated this point at his recent appearance at the Morristown Festival of Books. The last to be indoctrinated may have the most to gain from becoming un-indoctrinated today.

We need to recognize the lie of whiteness for what it is in order to begin to un-indoctrinate ourselves.

by Karen Gaffney

Confronting 1619 in 2019

Last month, we saw the year 1619 appear throughout the news media and social media, especially through The 1619 Project, an “initiative from the New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery.” This work is necessary and deserving of our attention. I also think we need to pay attention to the reactions to this work. On the one hand, it’s not surprising that conservatives like Newt Gingrich called the Times project a “lie” and “propaganda” for focusing too much on slavery and not on the “other things going on.” His response of whitewashing history reveals exactly why this project is so critical, especially today.

On the other hand, the reaction I’d like to focus on here is more complex and nuanced but one that gets to the heart of the need for this project in a different way. It involves language and what happens when those writing about history seek to humanize people who were not seen or treated as human. More specifically, I’m asking: What are the implications of using “servant” vs. “slave” vs. “enslaved” to describe Africans in early Jamestown, Virginia?

On August 14, The Guardian published an article by historian Nell Irvin Painter, who wrote the groundbreaking book The History of White People (2011). The title of the article was: “How we think about the term ‘enslaved’ matters,” and the main heading stated: “400 years ago, the first Africans who came to America were not ‘enslaved’, they were indentured – and this makes a crucial difference when we think about the meanings of our past.”

The same day, scholar Alondra Nelson tweeted a link to the article highlighting Painter’s statement: “This process of turning ‘servants’ from Africa into racialized workers enslaved for life occurred in the 1660s to 1680s through a succession of Virginia laws… In short, the 1619 Africans were not ‘enslaved’.”

The next day, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times journalist who founded The 1619 Project, replied to Nelson’s tweet:

“The bulk of the scholarship disagrees. 1) Those Africans did not enter into labor contracts. They were sold. 2) Slavery can exist without being permanent or for life. 3) From the beginning, African people were treated different by law and census.”

As a white anti-racist educator and writer who has eagerly followed the work of Painter, Nelson, and Hannah-Jones for several years, this exchange gave me a chance to think more carefully about the tension over the language of “servant,” “slave,” and “enslaved” and to reflect on the language I use in my work.

On one level, Painter and Hannah-Jones have different interpretations of the historical evidence, and that’s not unusual. Painter focuses more on the ambiguous status of Africans in early Jamestown, and Hannah-Jones focuses less on ambiguity and more on a clearer inferior status of Africans in early Jamestown. That alone might not seem like a big deal. All academic fields have debates among people who still share fundamental ways of thinking. However, the implications of their debate, especially in the context of today’s atmosphere of white supremacy, put them in an impossible bind, one that gets to the deeper issue of how do you talk about a history of human beings who were not treated as human beings without further dehumanizing them? My impression, based on following their work for some time, is that they both are deeply concerned about the persistence of systemic racism, and they both have devoted their careers, despite the obstacles they have faced as black women, to raising awareness about the history of racism and its continued impact today.

While I don’t believe she said this explicitly, I think Hannah-Jones’s negative response to Painter’s article relates to the dangerous ways in which the word “servant” have recently been used to whitewash the history of slavery, a concern that I think Hannah-Jones and Painter would share. For example, in February, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam received significant criticism when his medical school yearbook page was shown to include a racist photo of a person in blackface and a person in KKK regalia. In a follow-up interview that received additional criticism, he said, “If you look at Virginia’s history, we’re now at the 400-year anniversary – just 90 miles from here, in 1619, the first indentured servants from Africa landed on our shores.” The interviewer Gayle King then said, “Also known as slavery,” and Northam responded, “Yes.”

Northam’s use of the phrase “indentured servants” can be seen as a white-washing euphemism that erases the fact that African people were kidnapped and taken by force, very different from the status of indentured servants, who generally became servants willingly, often in exchange, in this case, for travel to Virginia. Likewise, in 2015, the major textbook company McGraw-Hill Education was criticized for using the word “workers” to describe people who were enslaved. We can see this same effort at the erasure of past and present systemic racism in the #WhiteLivesMatter response to #BlackLivesMatter.

When Hannah-Jones questions the word “servant” as a description of African people in Jamestown, it appears to me that she is trying to highlight the existence of antiblackness in Jamestown in 1619, and that’s important because acknowledging the existence of antiblackness relates to acknowledging the full humanity of black people. This reminds me again of the fundamental principle behind #BlackLivesMatter, that black people are human beings. It is significant to note that Painter is also trying to acknowledge the full humanity of black people in her concern about the word “enslaved” to describe Africans in early Jamestown because for her, this word reinforces the problem of thinking that, as she puts it, “enslavement is the essence of black identity.”

Together, Painter and Hannah-Jones reveal that we don’t necessarily have the sufficient language to recognize the humanity of those who were dehumanized. This should not be a surprise, given that we have not acknowledged our history, and we often deny it. For example, I think many, if not most, people in the US, especially white people, would be surprised to learn that, as Hannah-Jones writes in The 1619 Project, “10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers.” Furthermore, this same audience would likely be horrified at her suggestion that “some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.” We have such a long way to go before we have fully confronted our history, especially in an environment where explicit and implicit examples of white supremacy surround us, from violent hate crimes to structural racism widespread throughout  our institutions. Yet, even as our language appears insufficient, we do change our language to do better.

With that in mind, I point to the recent shift in language from “slave” to “enslaved.” I think this shift in language is really important, and unfortunately, I had not adopted it when I wrote my book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), but I have since been actively working to make this shift. The word “enslaved” reflects the humanity of the person who is being enslaved because it emphasizes how they are not inherently a slave but that status has been forced upon them. They are humans who are being treated as sub-human. Likewise, there has been a shift from the word “slaveowner” to “enslaver,” and I did not, unfortunately, take that into account in my book either. The former sounds more innocent and passive, not active, whereas “enslaver” reflects the fact that every day a person who owns other human beings has to decide whether or not to keep owning them.

As we reflect on the work of The 1619 Project and the responses to it, let’s consider: Is our language a “master’s tool [that] will never dismantle the master’s house,” as Audre Lorde put it? Or can our language change to be used for liberation?

by Karen Gaffney

In the Wake of White Supremacist Terrorism and Toni Morrison’s Death

As we reel from a weekend with two mass shootings linked to white supremacy and toxic masculinity, we hear about the passing of literary genius Toni Morrison. After the massacres in El Paso and Dayton, many are quick to jump to mental illness as the problem, but to equate mental illness and violence is not only offensive but also simply inaccurate. And to focus on the explanations of a “lone wolf” or even “hatred” misses the systemic nature of domestic terrorism rooted in white supremacy. Now, in 2019, it is the 400th anniversary of the first arrival on colonial Virginia’s shores of people who were kidnapped from Africa. As the 1600s progressed, colonists built a system of racialized slavery. In 1705, Virginia colonial legislators passed the slave codes, which clearly established racial categories and positioned them on a hierarchy in order to protect the power and profit of the elite (as I describe in my book Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox).

While systemic racism has evolved over time and adapted, we are still living with the same core system of racial oppression that we’ve had for centuries, yet white Americans in particular usually refuse to acknowledge–much less seek to dismantle–this system of white supremacy. When, in response to recent shootings, “well meaning” white people say on social media, “This is not America” or “Why is there so much hate?” or “Why does this keep happening?,” the denial of our history is clear. This is America. These recent horrific massacres are a manifestation of the ideology of white supremacy at the heart of America, from our colonial history to the present. Professor Eddie Glaude, speaking on MSNBC after the shootings, said, “This is us.” White Americans, he said, want to see themselves as innocent, and that desire is dangerous because it’s grounded in a denial of systemic racism, past and present. Either we confront the truth of our white supremacy, or this will keep happening, he said.

I was thinking about his statement when I saw the heartbreaking news of Morrison’s death. As someone who has a PhD in English, who wrote about Toni Morrison’s Beloved in my dissertation, as someone who has taught Morrison’s work for years, this loss is profound. However, as a white person, I’ve also been thinking about how important it was for Morrison to center black characters, black experiences, and black readers. In thinking about what Professor Glaude said, I started to wonder, in horror admittedly: how am I connected to Morrison’s white characters? Since Beloved is the novel I’ve read, re-read, and re-read again more than any other novel of Morrison’s (and actually more than any other novel at all), my mind went immediately to the horrific character of schoolteacher. Perhaps Glaude is urging white people to think about not how different we are from schoolteacher (which is what we are so inclined to do) but what we have in common with him. That’s where we get at our complicity. That’s how we can start to confront systemic racism. schoolteacher is the unnamed everyman who represents white supremacy. In an interview, Morrison once described slavery as a “national amnesia.” We deny it so much that we try to forget it, and in Beloved, that history cannot be forgotten and becomes a haunting force. Glaude insists that if we want change, we can’t remain in denial. White Americans need to resist this amnesia, confront how white supremacy is at the core of American history and identity, and work to help build a new anti-racist future, something we can learn more about from Ibram Kendi next week when his book How to Be an Antiracist is released. Until then, Toni Morrison, RIP.

by Karen Gaffney

My Complicity: A White Woman’s Thoughts on “When They See Us”

I’m sorry I thought you were guilty. That’s what echoed through my mind when I finished watching When They See Us. I wasn’t much older than they were. In April 1989, I was a junior in high school, a predominantly white, middle class, suburban high school in NJ. As a white girl, the world recognized my humanity and the humanity of the jogger. She was “good” and “innocent” – that’s what I remember. The teenagers who became known as the “Central Park Five” were “bad,” and I remember thinking that. I don’t remember wondering if they were guilty; I took their guilt for granted because I thought the criminal justice system was fair. I remember thinking I had something in common with the white woman and nothing in common with the boys.

Ava DuVernay’s brilliant four-episode series reveals to me that my mindset was the same one held by the police, by the media, by all of the systems in power that allowed five innocent kids to be incarcerated for years. Her title is so powerful because white people are taught not to see black people as human beings. We are taught to see black people as criminals, as animals, as inferior. As white people, we need to recognize how we are all Linda Fairstein, how–even when presented with irrefutable evidence–we hang onto the false narrative of white supremacy with desperation.

As the 4th of July approaches, I implore my fellow white Americans to confront our ongoing complicity in a system of white supremacy that persists in the US, despite our attempts to deny it. The criminalization of black and brown people is the norm, not the exception. The exception is that these five men were exonerated, and that only occurred because the person who actually committed the crime confessed on his own volition, more than a decade later. We criminalize black and brown people because we see them as inferior, as other, as sub-human, as animal. We are locking up black and brown people, including children, at the border and at detention facilities around the country. My own state of New Jersey has the worst racial disparity in the country when it comes to youth incarceration, as the NJ Institute for Social Justice reports.

As a white girl, I was taught to trust the system, and I did. I thought that if the boys were called a “wolf pack,” that if the boys were “wilding,” then they were “wild,” that they were animals, that they should be locked up. If the police and the jury said they did it, then they did, and that was it. Justice was fair, and my privileged life was safe.

Now, decades later, as a white anti-racist educator, I recognize that they only way to resist systemic racism is to be actively anti-racist. Being passive just reaffirms the systems that perpetuate white supremacy. We must constantly question the systems that surround us and confront the ways in which they uphold unearned advantages for white people, even without the awareness of those involved. I had the mindset I did as a high school junior in 1989 because I was not taught about the history of race and racism in this country. I firmly believed the myths that I now work with white people to debunk, the myth that race is biological, the myth that race has always existed, and the myth that the Civil Rights Movement ended racism. I wrote my book, Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge, 2018), to provide an accessible introduction to these concepts, with steps for action.

Systemic racism persists because it teaches white people that we are the only people who are fully human. When They See Us resists that in powerful ways by humanizing the five boys and the men they became. As white people, we need to ask ourselves, what will it take for us to share that vision and see black and brown people as fully human? Just because we have been taught otherwise doesn’t mean we need to continue to be complicit in a centuries-long system of oppression. White children would never get treated the way that black and brown children are treated in the US, whether it’s 1989 or 2019. They would not get shot by the police for playing with a toy gun. They would not be seen as a threat. They would not be vilified by the media. They would not be locked in cages at the border. They would not experience the tragic abuse revealed in When They See Us. If white people have been taught that we’re the only people who are fully human, we need to ask ourselves: where is the humanity in continuing to believe a false racial narrative about white superiority?

by Karen Gaffney