To My White Colleagues Who Wonder How to Appease Them:
Here’s my take. No filter. No edits. A prime reason we keep spinning over initiatives like affirmative action, laboring over problems like abhorrent state sanctioned violence in schools and society, struggling with equity issues across groups and communities, and myriad other manifestations of racism, sexism, ableism and all types of phobia is because of what my friend and colleague Uma Jayakumar says in her Harvard Education Review blog:
They’re just not that into them.
They are the white power structure and its members. They are the centralized, valued, and credible majority…with nearly all of the authority in schools and society. They have the social capital to be believed. They are taken-for-granted as reasonable, credible, and trustworthy. They have the financial means to be respected and deferred to. This happens particularly when access and distribution of resources are being planned. (An aside: The reality of this implicit, dichotomous power dynamic, in and-of-itself, breeds contempt that is not named.) They have the cultural capital to set tones and timelines, drive processes, and determine the neat, simple, clean, quantifiable products of “diversity initiatives.” They can decide to listen to them when, if, and however they feel like it…or not. They are the ones that have to be convinced of need, and persuaded to act, on behalf of them.
And, in all honesty, they’re just not that into them.
If they were into them, there would be deeper discussions about the actual and virtual lived experiences of underrepresented minorities and marginalized people in schools and society. Continuous, regular, cogent articulations of the microaggressions and macroaggressions endured by them would be normalized and protected by the base of authority. In addition to that, parallel discussions focusing on ways to out and deconstruct white power structures (which depends on various iterations of supremacist patriarchal ideology and enactments to survive) would be prioritized. But, that would mean they would have to face trauma, humiliation, anxiety, depression, stress, rage, confusion, sadness, and fear…for starters. It would mean that they would need to accept structural and individual culpability in perpetuating political systems and social practices that hinder the rights and humanity of their neighbors, friends, teachers, students, lovers, strangers, and all other constituents in a(n education) community. It would mean that they would experience what it’s so often like to be them…ever displaced from innocence, centrality, and authority.
It would mean that they would need to move past their white fragility and develop the kind of radical, nearly instinctual psychological awareness and emotional stamina that people of color, particularly Black people who are girls and women, develop over the lifespan. It would mean understanding why the immediately preceding sentence needed to be written like that, especially right now. It would mean looking squarely at the garish, ugly, terrorizing truth of white supremacist patriarchy, seeing one’s self as a perpetuator of it, grieving that reality, and doing the work required to change the toxic, internal ideological subtext holding up the toxic, external institutionalized pretext of social, academic, political, cultural, and financial systems. It would mean feeling really, really shocked and being really, really upset, and inconvenienced…for a long time. It would mean demonstrating, through personal tenacity and organizational sacrifice, a commitment to recognizing and upholding the humanity, integrity, value, and power of “those people.” It would mean seeing them – the “othered” members of humanity – as real, instead of as cartoons, prime time fictions, and news tag lines. It would mean hearing the voices from the margins, learning the stories they hold, and honoring them by practicing belief and conviction in relation to them. It would mean to regard them lovingly…with respect and with deference.
Of course, this is a stretch. As you read this, you know it is. Because doing these things would also include talking about whiteness as a phenomenon and entertaining accountability for its construction and reproduction. It would include sharing responsibility for a whole lot of pain. It would mean dealing with the loss of what one of my students in the Philadelphia Urban Seminar – my course that coaches anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-ableist pedagogical frames for pre-service teachers interested in teaching in urban contexts – called “blissful ignorance.” It means giving up color-blind ideology altogether. It means opening up one’s eyes to color, texture, tone, light, darkness, movement, and stalling…all the stuff of humanity, of humanness, of life…and calling them sister, brother, mother, father, daughter, son, cousin, auntie, grandpa, grandma, neighbor, lover, friend. That’s a lot to ask of people who struggle to be in a room with them. That’s a lot to ask of people who find it hard to imagine looking them in the eyes. That’s a lot to ask of people who have no experience being like them or engendering the kind of willful, surviving, magical power cultivated by them.
Why? Because of them. The “others”…the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the exotics, the annoyances, the hypervisible and yet invisible tokens, the weird, scary, threatening, animalistic, barely capable, curious, crazy, lazy, dirty, funny, nasty, entertaining, sexy, infantilized monstrosities…the merely tolerated or highly romanticized “others”…are not really known. Them are the ones that must be limited and put in their places. Them are the ones that need to be counted to make the quotas and maintain the politically correct, shiny, smiling pictures for the “diversity” brochures.
I know all this because I am one of them.
Incidentally, I am very aware of how vitriolic I sound. I am aware that my tone will probably be used to dismiss my take on the exhausting rotation of “diversity” initiatives. I also get that my tone may be used as a justification for why it is too difficult and unhelpful to talk to “them” because their surprising, unsettling, (unfounded?) anger gets in the way. Perhaps some future students might think twice about taking my classes, fearing that I am overly sensitive, a live wire, an incorrigible, unwinnable, Angry-Black-Woman with too much power (as a tenured professor), regulated to her by the power base.
To this, I say, think again. Get into me. You will feel pain, but I won’t hurt you. Get into my space, my experience, my thoughts, feelings, ideas, research, and courses. Get into me as much as I am into you…ever learning and knowing full well the ins and outs of white supremacist patriarchy…understanding its nuances and rules as the shifting, elusive, infuriating, murderous, disrespecting, double standard ghost in our collective machine.
Try being a student of my life and the lives of millions of other Black girls, women, boys, men, and those who are particularly them, in the multiple ways we are students of your life, your world, your matrix-paradise. If you get into me, you’ll find a wealth of worlds you do not now imagine as even remotely possible, worlds you cannot know exist…worlds that will affect yours sooner or later. If you get into me, I’ll believe you care. I’ll believe I can trust you to get in this fight with me…sincerely…and undo this damage for real. I’ll believe when it’s time to take breaks that you won’t abandon the effort, using your white privilege to your advantage, and my detriment. If you show me that you’re down, I’ll consider trusting the university-wide “diversity” initiatives, the push to re-educate politicians, administrators, industry leaders, educators, media pundits, and officers of the law. If you show me that you’re attempting to fully see and really invest, I’ll work to have patience with your efforts; I’ll even guide them toward real paradigm shift, real culture change, using my voice and stories and those of my sisters, brothers, and them everywhere.
If not, I’ll go back to the drawing board with them while they talk that cheap talk. I’ll focus on not taking it personally, on not making it about you and me. I’ll just scale back from the intimate, closer view I want to have and want to share with you. I’ll pan out, go wide, and see the far-reaching dichotomy again, in grand scope. I’ll watch things run the way they’ve run for generations, for centuries. I’ll just keep remembering the status quo and go back to telling it like it is:
They’re just not that into them.
Jeanine Staples is Associate Professor of Literacy and Language & African American Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. Her book, The Revelations of Asher: Toward Supreme Love in Self, is an endarkened, feminist, new literacies event (Peter Lang, spring 2016). In it, she explores Black women’s terror in love. She produces research-based courses and methodologies that enable marginalized girls and women to realize internal revelations that fuel external revolutions.
Dr. Staples’ next book details the evolution of her acclaimed undergraduate course, The Philadelphia Urban Seminar. In it, she explores Supreme Love in schools. She shows how she generates curriculum and methodologies that incite anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-ableist pedagogical stances among teachers interested in urban education and equity for all people in schools and society.