By Jamila Kareem
“America has looted Black people. America looted the Native Americans when they first came here. So looting is what you do; we learned it from you. We learned violence from you.” –Tamika Mallory, Activist
“Break precedent!” –Victor Villanueva in “On the Rhetoric and Precedents of Racism”
In the 14th century, Mansa of Mali, Abubakari II dared explore the reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. He never returned.
Over 100 years later, Christopher Columbus found a world that already existed and called it new.
Most of our schools teach only one of these legends. Like the bodies that hold its histories, one of them is seen as simply unworthy of systematic knowledge.
When we tell you to “Say their names” …
… we are combating long-held habit of cultural forgetting. We are resisting the institutionalized erasure of our people.
The deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Aiyana Jones, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Jerame Reed, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Tanisha Anderson, Emmett Till, and too many others occurred alongside the propagation of education ideals that demote Black existence in the U.S. and across the world. Like Trump, the police departments, commissions, and supporting legal system that interacted with these lives were inculcated in a hierarchy of schooling that devalues the same lives. I concur with Jones and Williams that “white America tends to focus on the ‘progress’ of this nation through racialized lenses, [but] Black America has had to grapple with the terrors and tragedies that have come out of the white imagination.” So when universities, colleges, textbook publishers, education councils, and K-12 school districts say some version of “we stand with Black Lives Matter,” I am skeptical. I am wary. How can I not be after being both a victim and a beneficiary of the racialized social system that influences these entities?
I think the first time someone said to me “You talk like a white girl” outside the home happened in third grade. At that age, the accusation affected me minimally. My school teachers were White, some of my friends were White, and the people who lived in the nice well-kept clean houses on TV were White. In fact, I, along with the other kids from the hood, was bussed 35 minutes one way to an all-White neighborhood to attend school throughout the week. Talking White didn’t feel like an insult but an observation. Although most of my real friends were other Black kids from the hood and the cadence of my speech came unintentionally, in truth, I probably thought to talk like a White girl was a preferable way to be in the world. My teachers rewarded it because the speech had been a byproduct of something greater–the adoption of a whiteness-centric lens on the world. A world where invoking the mannerisms and ideologies associated with venerated whiteness is the controlling perspective.
You’ll notice that I won’t mention POTUS much in this post. Comedian Dave Chappelle might have summated my thoughts best: “He’s not making a wave; he’s surfing it.” Mr. Trump is the product of a system that has told him that his life as a rich, White, heterosexual American Judeo-Christian male is worth more than other lives, as are the lives of people like him. Our higher education systems have been structured to imply to students and teachers that they must represent that existence as much as possible for their lives to have worth.
You literally strip our histories, voices, experiences—our proofs of existence—from your knowledge bases, therefore not only racializing the curriculum but also racializing what we consider common knowledge. Natasha N. Jones and Miriam F. Williams remind us that even as, “America perceives itself to be a nation of imaginative thinkers, often the imagining of Black folks is not productively acknowledged, properly amplified, or respectfully appreciated.” So how can we not expect so many of our students and their families to feel, at best, excluded or, at worst, persecuted by the very system meant to acclimate them into an American society that will only induce these attitudes?
In the last three years, The Chronicle of Higher Education published 794 articles and special reports related to issues of race in higher education. To say that racism has permeated the education of our college students long before they enter college classrooms for the first time is a comment on more than the curriculum. The coursework that students complete reflects but one relic of anti-blackness rather than represent the ideology on its own.
While many of our conservative-leaning counterparts in academia, like the author of the tweet above, sing tales of the leftist social justice snowflake warrior university systems blanketed in the liberal values of multiculturalism, most racial justice efforts of the academy come only as far as they reproduce the established order. Most instruction about African peoples in the U.S. begins with ancestors as chattel in shackles at the whim of White citizens. These lessons tell us that the most honored culture of whiteness enslaved us and freed us. As if to insinuate, behave—model our behaviors—or you will remain in shackles. If not physically, then socially and psychologically. And while what has become known as White guilt may manifest some remorse or simply regret in the consciousness of dominant White American racial group, having this point of initiation for the Black American community also defines a racial contract (Mills) in the consciousness. This is a contract that tells a teacher—White, Black, or otherwise—that it’s acceptable, even commendable, to punish Black students for exhibiting common child and adolescent behaviors. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Black American students are suspended at a significantly higher rate than any other racial group in pre-college schools.
It’s the same racial contract that correlates the educated voice to “talking White” and writing White. These imprints on our collective racial consciousness cause teachers, administrators, and education policymakers to accept Black American language patterns in lower scale academic sociolinguistic situations but not in higher scale contexts (Blommaert). This way of perceiving allows White adolescents to streak their hair in blue or green or pink and gets braided up Black young women sent home or suspended. Such a perception gives education institutions—both the system itself and individual sites—license to loot the artifacts of Black cultures that they see fit and to demolish the remaining pieces to cultural rubble. It tells society that the best way—perhaps, the only way—to survive truly is to revere, assimilate into, and practice Whiteness-validated ways of knowing. This innate sense of racial socialization reduces the beginnings of a millennia-long history of an entire rich, abounding culture to only 500 years of presence—to a foundational point of enslavement, subjugation, tragedy, and defeat. Even among the snowflake social justice warrior liberals.
The fact of the matter is that the U.S. culturally and ideologically loots and shoots Black people, as it has for so long, with little to no sustainable alteration in the collective racial consciousness. In popular culture, we can witness this through things like the appropriation of box braids, micro braids, cornrows, afros, and other Black-created hairstyles. The validity of these styles as well as Black-invented dance styles, and even Black American language vernacular only hold cultural capital when they are proliferated through mainstream White American social structures. this approach is true of the higher education system overall as well. There, black American cultural customs and histories are used as a tool to feign ideals of diversity, inclusion, equality, even anti-racism–within the confines of the Euro-Western Judeo-Christian middle-class straight cisgender male power structure. The emblem of the White savior social justice Warrior. But would any of these proponents of inclusion take the time to design a curriculum that teaches the lifestyles of medieval West Africa with the same appreciation of medieval Europe? Are they willing to research and understand Afrocentric or Black-American-centric worldviews the way that Black children and families have to assimilate into whiteness-centric worldviews? How significantly are they willing to even contemplate, let alone address, the ways their ideologies in and out of classrooms and conference rooms might harm Black students, faculty, and staff? As discussed above, mainstream education practices (figuratively) shoot Black Americans by attempting to force the blackness–our original sin–out of us by any means necessary.
If U.S. higher education truly wants its antiracist, inclusive talk to be trusted, and to have meaning in Black American communities, it must systemically address the ways it has and continues to contribute to the ideological loading and shooting of black communities. We are not there yet.
Jamila M. Kareem, Ph.D., is a teacher-scholar researching critical race theory in composition studies. Her research examines the connections between race, discourse, writing, and pedagogy. She is a CCCC Scholar for the Dream, whose work has been published by Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Journal of College Literacy and Learning, JAC: A Journal of Rhetoric, Culture, and Politics, and in the collections Diverse Approaches to Teaching, Learning, and Writing Across the Curriculum: IWAC at 25 and The Good Life and the Greater Good in a Global Context. She has scholarship forthcoming in Literacy in Composition Studies and in the collection Mobility Work in Composition. She teaches as an assistant professor in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida.
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