I just returned from Netroots Nation in St. Louis where I gave a training called “Moving Beyond White Guilt: How to Talk to Whites About Systemic Racism.” I posted to Medium some reflections on this issue and concrete recommendations for Netroots Nation to work on strengthening their response to racial justice as they plan for next August in Atlanta. Medium created the tag Nn16 for posts about the conference. Please check it out here!
Here’s a link to an article I wrote analyzing the TV show Scandal through the lens of Critical Race Theory and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow; it was published on PopMatters. It’s based on a paper I gave at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in Seattle in March 2016: “Scandal in the Age of The New Jim Crow”
I just attended the 10th Annual Critical Race Studies in Education Conference (CRSEA): #ResistanceMatters: Disrupting State-Sanctioned Racialized Violence Through Education Research, Theory, and Practice. It was only a few months ago that I found out there was an organization and conference devoted to applying Critical Race Theory to an educational setting (with an emphasis on K-12). I’m so grateful to have discovered this amazing conference and organization. I’ve been studying CRT for more than 15 years; I completed an English PhD dissertation on CRT and contemporary literature and have been exploring interdisciplinary CRT work ever since. Having just presented my work at Yale’s CRT conference in April, it was great to see another CRT conference doing exciting work, this time outside of CRT’s original legal origin. (If you missed my blog on the importance of CRT, please check it out here.)
More disciplines need to follow CRSEA and apply CRT to their respective fields. This conference has clearly grown over the last ten years, and it needs to keep growing. Educators (K-12 and higher ed alike) need to become more familiar with CRT and engage with its call to identify the systemic nature of racism and take action. If everyone in a given school system did that, it would be much harder for that school to participate in the school-to-prison pipeline. I hope the introductory manual I’m currently writing, which focuses on race and systemic racism, with tools for action, could be helpful in Teacher Ed programs as well as serve as professional development for current educators who want to develop their approach to understanding racism.
Here, I would like to share some highlights from this conference and reflect on how this work continues to push me as a white educator.
One of the primary questions that kept coming up in presentations was: Who is meant to be in college and grad school and who isn’t? As a white person raised in middle-class suburban NJ by white parents who went to college and grad school, I was meant to attend college and grad school. Not only was I meant to be in the classroom, but I was also meant to be in front of the classroom. The school is a site of state-sanctioned racialized violence (physical and symbolic). If my presence at the front of the classroom affirms white supremacy, what can I do in that space to challenge white supremacy? How can I make the space liberating for my students not meant to be there? These are the kinds of questions I need to think about every day in order to be less complicit in white supremacy.
This conference organized three plenaries to center the importance of activism: Student Activism, Faculty and Scholar Activism, and Engaged Community Activism. The students were an absolute inspiration. As a faculty member, I kept thinking that we need to figure out how to support student activists more effectively, across the country. These students spoke of faculty who challenged their activism, didn’t provide support, and otherwise served as obstacles to justice. We need to address that. Then, faculty who are scholar activists (which include many if not all of the faculty at this conference) spoke passionately about the challenges they face in balancing their scholarship and activism and the very difficult challenges of the tenure and promotion process. Again, more obstacles to justice that senior faculty have at least some control and power over, so that’s another area we need to work on. And finally, grad students and faculty spoke about community activism. Throughout all of these plenaries, the people doing the most activism were still questioning whether that was enough.
During the conference, there were some recurring questions that we need to spend more time considering:
- How can we end the school-to-prison pipeline?
- What does resistance look like?
- How can we create a “brave” classroom space?
- How can we bend the arc of history toward justice?
Finally, from the plenaries and concurrent sessions, I thought these specific aspects of systemic racism were especially noteworthy since they don’t often get attention:
- “White innocence” perpetuating white supremacy (Richard Orozco)
- White savior complex manifesting itself in volunteer tourism (Molly Gallegos)
- Pressure on women of color faculty to produce “affective labor” (Bianca Williams)
- Historical amnesia of claiming white fragility as civil rights issue (Cheryl Matias)
- “System working to correct itself” (Cristina Mislan)
- “We protest and are complicit at the same time” (Zeus Leonardo)
I also want to call attention to the following organizers and presenters for their valuable contributions: Daniella Cook, Frank Tuitt, Tom Romero, Katherine Rainey, Erica Van Steenis, Julia Daniel, Esther Ohito, Jamie Utt, Keffrelyn Brown, Michael Barnes, Romana Beltran, Lisa Calderon, Jasmine Haywood, Ruth López, Subini Annamma, Meredith McCoy, Justin Coles, Monica Ridgeway, Theodora Regina Berry, Marvin Lynn, David Stovall, Christine Zuni Cruz, and Gerardo López. Finally, as a panelist remarked at the end of the conference, if you haven’t read the “red book,” otherwise known as Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, then start there. I’m honored that I had the opportunity to see Derrick Bell speak at the University of Delaware about 15 years ago, and he is one of those key founders. His counter-narratives of science fiction and legal analysis helped me understand the interdisciplinary potential of CRT, and I will always be thankful for that.
For the first time, I attended the 17th annual White Privilege Conference in Philadelphia; it’s an important and impressive conference that has grown to 2700 participants. More than half of the participants were white, maybe even 60% or 70%, and so that’s a lot of white people recognizing the need to examine and dismantle white privilege and white supremacy. There is no doubt this is a step in the right direction, but it is only a start – we need to work on action. The beginners at this conference (and maybe others as well) are exactly the audience I have in mind for my book project, an introductory manual on systemic racism and racial justice with tools for action aimed at white readers.
As I think about my work, I would like to reflect on the conference by beginning with some meaningful experiences and a few brief highlights and then conclude with a longer reflection about #WPCsowhite that emerged during the conference.
I was honored to present a workshop with The Meta Theatre Company called “‘When the Curtain Falls, Community Action Begins’: Dismantling White Supremacy through Theatre and Community Action in the Age of The New Jim Crow.” Caroline Hann, Barbara Cannell, Cyndie Wiggins, and I performed two sketches and shared our collaborative experience working with the Hunterdon County Anti-Racism Coalition (of NJ) that led to book discussions of The New Jim Crow in three very different locations last year: 1) the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, NJ 2) my class “Race in American Literature and Popular Culture” at Raritan Valley Community College in NJ and 3) in the community at the First Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Hunterdon County, NJ. We explained how the women of Edna Mahan helped develop curriculum materials for these discussions and wrote short pieces about their personal experience in relation to Alexander’s book, we read a few examples of the women’s writing that we read last year to my class and the community group and a few of their responses, and we explained how we facilitated dialogue between all three groups even though the three groups never met. The audience participation in both workshops was impressive, and the discussion was motivating.
I participated in the Leadership Institute organized by Joe-Joe McManus of Rootstrong and Eddie Moore, Jr., the founder of the White Privilege Conference and the President of The Privilege Institute. The Leadership Institute brought together about 25 people who spent one full day together before the conference began and then reconvened during every lunch break for conversation with the keynote speakers. Since the conference was so big, it was great to be able to return to this small group for discussion and reflection. Joe-Joe did an excellent job of organizing this institute and its speakers, which included Kecia Brown McManus, a wonderful presenter.
I also want to acknowledge the work of presenters at some fantastic breakout sessions:
- Debby Irving, author of Waking up White, shared her personal struggle in learning about and interrogating her own whiteness
- Jacqueline Battalora, author of Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People and Its Relevance Today, gave an exceptional presentation about the invention of whiteness as a divide and conquer strategy, an approach I find very effective
- June Christian of Teaching Tolerance demonstrated the “Let’s Talk” strategies for conversations about race and racism, which were great to experience rather than just read about
- Robin DiAngelo, whose work on the concept of “white fragility” I’d been following for a while, helped run a highly interactive workshop about changing the “rules of engagement”
There were also excellent keynote speakers and performers:
- Jasiri X and Aisha Fukushima shared their beautiful and powerful art, what Aisha calls “RAPtivism”
- Young people from the Youth Action Project and 1Hood Media shared their inspiring stories, showing real leadership
- Yusef Salaam described his heart-wrenching experience as one of the Central Park Five, the teenagers wrongfully locked up for more than 10 years; he now works to end mass incarceration
- Vernā Myers addressed the fear white people have of saying the wrong thing and the importance of “interrupting bias”
- Howard Stevenson talked about racial micro-aggressions and systemic racism using both exceptional research and personal examples; he even shared an audio recording of a conversation he had with his young son about the murder of Trayvon Martin to show how hard it is, even for experts in this field, to have such difficult conversations
Finally, I want to reflect on the larger issue of the complicity of well-meaning white people in white supremacy (myself included). I was especially interested to hear keynote speaker James Loewen, who wrote about whitewashing history in Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. He did a great job of explaining the significance of the period 1890-1940 when white supremacy escalated and when the Civil War was rewritten as a conflict over states’ rights; he described how sundown towns forbid people of color after dark. I was nodding along, diligently taking notes, when he showed an image of a sign for a sundown town and read it out loud, including the n-word. I was surprised to hear him speak this word, but I also thought, he’s a famous and well-regarded scholar with a lot of experience: he must know best. I moved on. Soon, however, I saw that the official conference hashtag in Twitter #PHLWPC17 included criticism of his choice to speak the word out loud. I then saw #WPCsowhite emerge with additional criticism. That made me question why I initially gave Loewen the benefit of the doubt. I deferred to his experience and status as a well-published scholar, as we are taught to do in graduate school and in the profession. I realized I was reaffirming a hierarchy based in white supremacy rather than thinking about the trauma people of color can experience when hearing this word, especially from a white man at a podium in front of more than 2000 people. At our lunch discussion with the speakers, I wanted to know what he thought of the criticism, and though I felt awkward and uncomfortable, I asked him what he thought. He wasn’t aware of the criticism in Twitter but indicated that he provided context and was reading a historical sign. He’s since affirmed that perspective in Twitter. I was disappointed that he didn’t really seem to hear the concerns expressed. Even though he’s an experienced scholar, I don’t expect him to be perfect, but I do expect him to want to continue to learn and grow. I wished he had taken the concerns to heart and reconsidered his position. I believe white educators can still show students the history of white supremacy in this country without saying the n-word out loud. Refusing to say the word out loud doesn’t mean denying a history of racism. For me, as a white educator, not saying the word out loud means recognizing that me saying that word as an authority in the classroom can echo the decades of white educators before me who used that word not to reveal white supremacy but to enforce it. I believe that to help break that cycle, I should never say the word, in any context, whether in the classroom or outside of it. I don’t believe other white educators should either. However, if people of color had not spoken up about the pain they experienced when Loewen spoke the n-word, I probably would have left his keynote still thinking, well he knows best. And that’s my complicity in white supremacy.
I just participated in a fantastic Critical Race Theory conference held at Yale Law School. First, the conference is run entirely by the law students. How impressive is that? Second, I was pleased to see that unlike the conference they held two years ago, the participants this time came from a variety of disciplines outside of the legal profession. Last time, as an English professor, I was one of the only outsiders to the legal field, but this time it was great to see the impact that Critical Race Theory is making in a variety of disciplines and professions. However, there were probably not more than a hundred or so people there (not too different from last time) and not too different from the Critical Race Theory conference I attended at UCLA Law School a year and a half ago. That’s something that needs to change. We need Critical Race Theory now more than ever. If you’re not too familiar with the area, here are a few things you should know:
- It emerged in the 1980s as a way for legal scholars of color to analyze racism as systemic rather than as individual or aberrant.
- Founding Critical Race Theorists like Derrick Bell wrote “counter-narratives” to experiment with the form of traditional legal scholarship following the idea that radical ideas demand radical form. He wrote science fiction in order to illustrate what he called the “permanence of racism.”
- For decades, Critical Race Theorists like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, Mari Matsuda, Ian Haney López, and Cheryl Harris have been advocating action to address ways in which systems (especially those related to the law and criminal justice) reinforce racism.
This weekend’s “Race (In)Action: The 2016 Critical Race Theory Conference” built on this foundation in meaningful ways. Here are a few highlights:
- Harvard Law students Ke’Andra Levingston and Titilayo Rasaki shared their inspiring work on the Reclaim Harvard Law School movement.
- Margaret Montoya, a founding member of Critical Race Theory, shared a brilliant overview of the field and offered her insight into the problem of “teaching racial silence to law students.”
- In a breakout session, Meera Deo, Vinay Harpalani, and Khiara Bridges explored how race and class intersect with higher ed, focusing on affirmative action, the Fisher case, recruitment and retention of faculty of color, and what “diversity” means.
- In the breakout session on the “Changing Dynamics of Race in America,” Faiza Patel, Steven Bender, Francisco Valdes, and Meejin Richart explored, respectively, Islamophobia and what we mean by “national security,” Latinos and changing demographics, “social impact advocacy” and “critical outsider jurisprudence,” and the work of CAAAV.
- In the breakout session on Race and Policing, Devon Carbado mapped out several factors that put people on a “path to police violence,” including “repeated police interaction,” “police culture and training,” and perceptions of “justifiable force.” Tracey Meares described her work on President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and explained how the answer to “what are police for” has changed over the past few decades. Justin Hansford asked a great question connecting the discussion of policing to Michelle Alexander’s critique of mass incarceration in her book The New Jim Crow.
- Angela Onwuachi-Willig gave an excellent keynote lecture: “On Revolts and Revolutions: Critical Race Theory in Action.” She connected the work of Critical Race Theory over the past few decades to the #blacklivesmatter movement, including student activism at Yale, University of Missouri, and other campuses around the country, and the use of social media.
And these are just the highlights! You might be wondering how did I, an English professor, become interested in this field? After all, I’m not a legal scholar. As a grad student in English in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I had the honor of hearing Derrick Bell speak when he gave a lecture at my school, the University of Delaware. I was already studying race in the context of contemporary American novels by women, and I thought there was an important connection between the narratives of a Critical Race Theorist like Derrick Bell and a creative writer like Toni Morrison. In fact, they had both published books in the same year, no less (1987), that introduced a supernatural female character that transcended space and time in order to show us the persistence of systemic racism. Bell created Geneva Crenshaw and Toni Morrison created Beloved. I also saw a connection between the work of Cheryl Harris in “Whiteness as Property” and the novel Bellefleur by creative writer Joyce Carol Oates. (I shared this latter work at the UCLA Critical Race Theory conference in 2014 and published it here.) My dissertation analyzed five pairs of Critical Race Theorists and female novelists in order to examine the way our society and its institutions construct race and perpetuate racism. That was more than ten years ago, and now I continue to find Critical Race Theory to be not only inspiring but also incredibly helpful as a framework in which to understand the persistence of racism. I was honored to share my current work at this weekend’s conference: “Critical Race Theory in Action: Talking to White People About ‘the Permanence of Racism’.” The questions and comments afterward will be valuable as I continue to develop this work into the introductory manual I’m writing on systemic racism and racial justice with tools for action aimed at a white audience.
Citizen University is one of the best conferences I’ve ever attended, and I’m a conference nerd who’s attended dozens of conferences over the past twenty years. Never before have I attended such an interdisciplinary, multiracial, multigenerational conference that brought together educators, organizers, and activists. Other conferences tend to reinforce the silo effect, either by discipline or by profession. This conference, based in Seattle, gave me the opportunity to hear from people I’ve long admired and to gain new sources of inspiration. Here are a few highlights:
- Eric Liu, the founder of Citizen University, told us to work for and fight for the “republic we were promised.” He asked what is the “future of whiteness”?
- Keynote speaker Alicia Garza was absolutely brilliant and inspiring in talking about her work with #blacklivesmatter: black citizenship is conditional, we are all impacted by white supremacy, and access does not equal power.
- High School students stepped onto an actual soap box for the “Mikva Challenge,” where they each shared a deeply personal story about gang violence, poverty, transphobia, fear of deportation, or another oppressive experience and then made a statement about action steps that can be taken. These were very brave young activists who give me confidence about our future.
- Maria Hinojosa of NPR’s Latino USA (one of my favorite podcasts) explained how important it is for people to see themselves in the stories they hear in the media.
- Melvin Mar, Executive Producer of Fresh Off the Boat, explained how he uses humor to resist stereotypes of Asian Americans.
- Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of ColorOfChange.org, discussed how important it is to represent more and varied stories of people of color through roles that are fully human.
- Heather McGhee, President of Demos, said that we’re told we’re all in this country to compete against each other, but we need to question that narrative and focus instead on a destiny that can bring everyone together in resistance to a racial hierarchy.
- Rinku Sen, President of Race Forward, ran a workshop showing how diversity is not the answer. It is not enough to just have a variety of people. We need to focus on equity, justice, and power.
- Lunch was the most amazing meal experience I’ve ever had at a conference. Yes, the food was fantastic, but that’s not even my point. They simulated a community program called On the Table that brings together a diverse group of people to a table for a meal and provides them with guiding questions so everyone can share a bit about their experiences and their ideas. I met nine wonderful people from around the country, and it made me want to figure out how to do this at my college and in my community.
- Then there was an impressive panel moderated by Tracey Meares from Yale Law School on Restorative Justice, a concept that I don’t know enough about but am eager to understand better. Nikkita Oliver, who had already performed spoken word, described her work in Creative Justice to provide artistic alternatives to discipline for youth. We need a restorative justice position in every school, rather than the police.
- Brittany Packnett described her work on the Ferguson Commission and Campaign Zero, and she recommended we: 1. Start small 2. Listen to those most affected by injustice 3. Examine your power and take responsibility 4. Support urgent systemic changes.
- Jose Antonio Vargas, who created the film Documented, said that we have never fully told our own history to each other, and we must. He asked how are blacks and indigenous people supposed to fit into the idea that “we are a nation of immigrants”?
This conference has given me much-needed direction and inspiration for my current sabbatical book project, a manual on systemic racism and racial justice aimed at white readers. My goal is to help readers move beyond white guilt, understand structural racism and its history and current impact, recognize that race is a social construct so that they can help un-construct it, and embrace an increasingly multiracial US without fear.