A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections, Part 7

This month’s post, the seventh in Teacher-Scholar-Activist and Spark’s 12-part series “A Year of Activism: Perspectives on the 2020 U.S. Elections,” comes from Kimberly C. Harper (North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University). In the post, Dr. Harper raises questions about the recent commitments that many white academics are making to antiracist practices and how these commitments will transform white academics’ behavior.

In the remaining months leading up to the U.S. elections, this series will feature critical perspectives on those elections, issues related to them, and thoughts about how scholar-activists (teachers and students) can intervene. We encourage readers to share these posts and to discuss the ideas with people in your communities, classrooms, and workplaces.

Liz Lane & Don Unger, Managing Editors—Spark

Darin Jensen, Editor—Teacher, Scholar, Activist

Do White People Hate Us?

By Kimberly C. Harper

When COVID-19 hit, my children worried if they would see their friends again. It was easy to tell them they would be back together—very soon. Then George Floyd was murdered, and racism and police brutality became a conversation I could not water down for my children. On the way to the dentist, my 8-year-old daughter asked me with such innocence and concern, “Mommy, do white people hate us?” In that moment I caught my breath. Not because of the question per se, but because her dentist is white, and it hit me like a ton of bricks that my child was considering if her dentist hated her because she was Black. I wondered if she thought her dentist might harm her because, even at the age of 8, she equates hate with harm. The question was so heavy that I wanted to redirect the conversation, much like the adults in this country who refuse to acknowledge that racism is an infectious disease in our society. I found myself looking at the dentist and her staff wondering how do we right the wrongs of this society and create a safe space for Black and Brown children. And I do mean to exclude white children from my question because white children are excluded from the dangerous assumptions that can potentially end their lives for the simplest of things. I knew I couldn’t give her a fluffy feel-good answer. I knew that I had to honor her concern and find a path forward for us—and this is something that Americans must do NOW. Right now!

I ask myself what clearing a path forward looks like for educators. We work with students—future leaders. It’s nice to write articles, Tweet, throw around the word antiracist, and post call to actions, but how do we work together and live in a society where the wounds of police brutality and racism have been reopened in such a way that we can’t afford another Band-Aid? (Truthfully, the wounds never close for Black and Brown folk.) Moving forward looks different for Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) and white people. For BIPOC I ask myself, “How do we go back to work and deal with coworkers who were blatantly anti-Black, just three months ago?” You don’t pack racism away and say I’m done with it. Racism has to be dug out—much like a cavity and replaced with a filling to prevent further decay. How do we deal with people of color who are also anti-Black? Are we to forget the racial macroaggressions and forgive the mental anguish and stress that made some of our jobs unbearable?  Are we willing to help our colleagues—despite having told them on various occasions in and in various ways that racism exists? Don’t believe me—just look at the responses to the Twitter hashtag #BlackInTheIvory. Do we really expect BIPOC students, faculty, and staff who’ve been bullied and silenced to walk through the door and say Kumbaya now that the academy is working toward a new iteration of diversity and inclusion?

So much has been written about the Black community and its various pathologies. We’ve been researched to death—literallybut what of the inherent violence that lies dormant in white culture and rears its ugly head when a threat to the systems that oppress Black and Brown people are questioned. As we begin to reimagine a different America—one where color doesn’t equate with police brutality among other things, I ask, “How will white people decenter themselves, and are they willing to do so? Will they work to eradicate the silent culture of hate, privilege, and violence that is part of their American experience?” We can’t move forward if that is not acknowledged. We can’t be allies and work together if they are afraid to confront their privilege and the surveillance culture that is part of the American experience.

I know you might be thinking well where is the scholarship, framework, references, how-to guide, and call to action. I have none. This post is about the emotional work that we must carry out and our shared humanity. It is about the traumas we carry with us from living in a deeply racist, Islamophobic, homophobic, sexist, classist, and all things in-between society. It is about the work we have to do as individuals that can’t be described by a theory. Besides the scholarship is already out there, and I have no fucks left for the academy and our calls to action. Can it be simple enough that we decide to show up for each other on a consistent and meaningful basis? It’s about our humanity and not forgetting that when the country really reopens and we are no longer working from home or going to school from home, we will have to face each other. These words will have to be transformed into action.

It’s easy to be antiracist behind a computer screen, but it’s totally different to stand in the face of racism in real life. That requires courage. Do we have the courage to forge a new path? Do we have the courage to be uncomfortable? Do we have the courage to be silent and let others walk into spaces that have been traditionally reserved for white men? Do we? Can we do this in real life—at our faculty meetings, in our classrooms, at our dinner tables, and in the car on the way to the dentist with 8 year olds?

A Drawing By Dr. Harper's Daughter
A drawing by Dr. Harper’s daughter

A photo of Dr. Kimberly C. HarperDr. Kimberly C. Harper is an Assistant Professor of English at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. She has taught at the postsecondary level for 16 years. Her research examines social justice, race, and ethos within technical and professional communication. She also researches and writes about the rhetoric of maternal health and hip-hop discourse. Dr. Harper has a forthcoming monograph that discusses the ethos of Black motherhood and its influence on the Black Maternal Health Crisis in American society. She is the host of The Space of Grace, a monthly podcast focusing on reproductive justice and Black Maternal Health. Follow her on Twitter @ronbett75 or @spaceof_grace, or visit her online at www.drkimberlycharper.com.

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