Born a Crime is Worth the Time

I’ve been working on the idea of self-care this year. I think, as an activist or so-called activist, it’s easy to spiral down into a vortex of pessimism or wade into non-stop existential crises. One of things that I decided to do this year was to actually read fiction. I’m aiming for two books written by authors of color per month. I’m just trying to balance what I’m inputting into my brain because these anti-racists text are rough on my spirit, ya’ll.

I stumbled onto Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. Even though it wasn’t a fiction book, I went in anyway and found myself realizing that I just had to write about it. For one, I have so much in common with Noah and could really relate to many of his experiences especially that of deciding to become a chameleon. He says, “My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color.” While I don’t necessarily think it truly works, I identified with the feeling the need to do so.

This book is a brilliant look at race and racism through a lens of someone who wasn’t raised in the United States, but was raised in a place that co-opted our system of segregation and racism and made it into a legal way of structuring a society.

I found myself learning so much about apartheid that I did not know and realized how insanely recently it ended. So much of what he states about how apartheid works was, to me, poignant explanations of the machinations of America’s systemic racism such as when he says, “The only way to make apartheid work, therefore, was to cripple the black mind.” The South African government, like ours, recognized that “a knowledgeable man is a free man, or at least a man who longs for freedom” which brought me back to Carla Shalaby’s assertions on literacy as freedom and the power it could give students.

Additionally, when he discusses something his mother called “the black tax” which is where “the generations who came before you have been pillaged, rather than being free to use your skills and education to move forward, you lose everything just trying to bring everyone behind you back up to zero.” This resonated with me in considering the wealth gap in the US and the direction in which black wealth flows.

Even in the concept of making the “status” of white a legal definition, I was reminded of the US. Under apartheid a white person was “one who in appearance is obviously a white person who is generally not accepted as a coloured person; or is generally accepted as a white person and is not in appearance obviously a white person” which reminded me of the variety of legal ways in which the US came to be more explicitly bold and racist in defining who is white through court decisions like Thind Vs Us.

And finally, the way that he picks at the bootstraps myth through analyzing what’s wrong with the saying “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” Noah asks us to consider how that’s even possible if you don’t give the man a fishing rod.

I could go on and on, but just believe me, this book is worth a read.

On Stamped from the Beginning

On October 25, I attended Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s talk at Eckerd College. During this talk, he asserted that, “Consuming racist ideas have literally made us crazy” and that “The racial issue has always been a power issue.” While these two ideas were ones that I have come to believe in all my studies, he said something else that shook me. Dr. Kendi asked, “If education and persuasion can’t change racist power, then what can? What historically has worked is people putting pressure on people in positions of power.” While it was an interesting sentiment, it intrigued me and led to my reading of his book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

In the book, Dr. Kendi reminds readers over and over again that there is nothing inherently wrong with any race. But wow has the US tried to prove otherwise.

I especially like the term “uplift suasion” that Kendi used throughout Stamped. It is the idea that if black people act as “model minorities” then prejudice about them will magically melt away, but Kendi proves this false. In fact, he claims, “As much as black firsts broke racial barriers, the publicity around black firsts sometimes, if not most times, reinforced racist ideas.” This was clear in the media coverage of Obama and even the rise in the popularity of white supremacist groups that came after his election. If Obama’s ascension into the presidency didn’t lead to uplift suasion, then what in the heck ever could? Even now, it is just as true in 2019 as it was in the 1800s.

Like most research related to anti-racism work, this book made me rethink so many things I thought I understood. Since finishing the book, I have a variety of things I need to go back and revisit. For example, is the film Crash as powerful as I thought it was when I watched it? (My guess is not at all. From what I remember about it, it’s a movie about race in America that doesn’t acknowledge systemic racism.) Was Kanye West’s assertion about George Bush after Katrina really so crazy? Is the “Southern strategy” only some historical strategy that Nixon used to win or is it actually a page in a playbook that is used for every election? (Based off the Governor’s race that just happened in my state, I’m going to go with a “yes” on it being a constant and current political strategy.) And isn’t “assassination” a more accurate term for what George Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin?

In the end, the book doesn’t have an uplifting message, so I have to hold onto something else Dr. Kendi said at the Eckerd talk, and that is “The first step of being an activist is believing in the fundamental possibility of change.”

So here’s to believing in that change.

White Fragility: A Book Review

A part of evolving into an anti-racist that I had not anticipated was realizing how much I would have to do to unlearn the internalized racism my country socialized me to walk with. With that in mind, I want to write about a book by Robin DiAngelo titled, White Fragility, which I read as a part of Dr. Val Brown’s #Cleartheair book chat on Twitter, a book that I think could help educators unlearn some stuff, too. What follows is a Facebook post that I wrote extended here as a blog post. I also apologize in advance if I misquoted DiAngelo at all as these were the quotes I took down when I first listened to the audiobook.

Throughout White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo writes with a measured, matter-of-fact tone even when delivering gut-wrenching statements like this: “I believe that the white collective fundamentally hates blackness for what it reminds us of, that we are capable and guilty of perpetrating immeasurable harms, that our gains come from the subjugation of others.” The way it is written, she is speaking from the point of view of a white progressive woman who is speaking to other white progressive people. To them, she acknowledges that whiteness is a social construct, “a fiction…, an agreed upon myth that has empirical grit because of its effect, not its essence… it is a category of identity that is most useful when its very existence is denied. That’s its twisted genius.”

She forces readers to think about the harmful effects of housing segregation on our inability to really know people across racial lines. This idea makes me think particularly about educators who assert the fact that they have worked mostly in majority-black schools means they are immune to exhibiting racism and prejudice.  I wonder if reading this book would help poke holes in that logic. The fact is that we were all “raised in a society that taught [us] there was no loss in the absence of people of color, that their absence was a good and desirable thing to be sought and maintained, while simultaneously denying that fact.” Thus, in the case of those afore-mentioned educators who work with black children, it is likely that is where their interaction with black people stops.

Beyond thinking about historical legacies of race relations in the US, DiAngelo helps us to think about their implications on our ability to have meaningful discussions about race. She says that we have to be brave in our conversations about race, that “niceness is not courageous” and that “telling me to treat everyone the same is not enough to override… socialization.” For white readers, she goes in depth with particular reactions to conversations about race that make dialogue impossible and “pushes [people of color] back into silence.” She looks at the reasons why it is so difficult to talk to white people about race, particularly that it comes down to misunderstanding what racism even is. She says, “For most whites, racism is like murder. The concept exists, but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen. This limited view of such a multi-layered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism, and in fact, perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicate them.” Throughout the book, she offers ways to move away from this incomplete understanding of racism.

I highly recommended White Fragility if:

  • you are white
  • you want to engage in conversations about race and racism with other adults or colleagues
  • you are a POC who has tried to confront white people or POCs about race or racism and was met with resistance or denial
  • you are a white person who, when confronted with conversations about race or racism, have countered with any variations of the following:
    • Italians or Irish weren’t always white.
    • Just treat people right.
    • Just love people.
    • Racism is taught at home.
    • I have a [insert relative or friend] who’s [insert non-White descriptor].
    • Racists are mean.
    • I grew up poor and had a hard life.
    • Share examples of a POC who accomplished the thing (I.e., Obama or Oprah or a rapper or Ben Carson or an athlete)
    • Well, there’s no White Entertainment Television or White History Month

In the end, DiAngelo states that “Racism hurts, even kills, people of color 24/7… so consider racism as a matter of life and death, as it is for people of color, and do your homework.” Therefore, educators should remember that “When we are mired in guilt, we are narcissistic and ineffective.” So instead of walking in defensiveness, consider walking in awareness and reading White Fragility.

(And/or watch all things DiAngelo.)