Disowning the Lie of Whiteness

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The most vivid memory I have of my great-grandfather is the tattoo on his arm.

 

It wasn’t an anchor or a sweetheart’s name or even the old faithful, “Mom.”

 

It was just a series of digits scrawled across his withered tan flesh like someone had written a note they didn’t want to forget.

 

Beneath the copious salt and pepper hairs was a stark number, the darkest stain on his skin.

 

Gramps is a kindly figure in my mind.

 

He died before I was even 10-years-old. All I really remember about him are wisps of impressions – his constant smile, a whiff of mothballs, how he always seemed to have butterscotch candies.

 

And that tattoo.

 

I think it was my father who told me what it meant.

 

When he was just a young man, Gramps escaped from Auschwitz. A guard took pity on him and smuggled him out.

 

His big European family didn’t make it.

 

My scattered relatives in the United States are all that are left of us.

 

Those are the only details that have come down to me. And Gramps isn’t here to add anything further.

 

But his tattoo has never left me.

 

It’s become a pillar of my subconscious.

 

The fact that someone could look at my kindly Gramps and still see fit to tattoo a numeric signifier on him as if he were an animal.

 

A little reminder that he wasn’t human, that he shouldn’t be treated like a person, that he was marked for erasure.

 

If I look at my own arm, there is no tell-tale integer peeking through the skin. But I am keenly aware of its presence.

 

I know that it’s there in a very real sense.

 

It is only the American dream that hides it.

 

Coming to this country, my family has made a deal, something of a Faustian bargain, but it’s one that most of us have accepted as the price of admission.

 

It’s called whiteness.

 

I am white.

 

Or I get to be white. So long as I suppress any differences to the contrary.

 

I agree to homogenize myself as much as possible and define myself purely by that signifier.

 

White. American. No hyphen necessary.

 

Anything else is secondary. I don’t have to deny it, but I have to keep it hidden until the right context comes to bring it out.

 

During Octoberfest I have license to be German. When at international village I can root for Poland. And on Saturdays I can wear a Kippah and be Jewish.

 

But in the normal flow of life, don’t draw attention to my differences. Don’t show everyone the number on my arm.

 

Because America is a great place, but people here – as in many other places – are drawn to those sorts of symbols and will do what they can to stamp them out.

 

I learned that in school when I was younger.

 

There weren’t a lot of Jewish kids where I grew up. I remember lots of cracks about “Jewing” people down, fighting against a common assumption that I would be greedy, etc. I remember one girl I had a crush on actually asked to see my horns.

 

And of course there were the kids who chased me home from the bus stop. The scratched graffiti on my locker: “Yid.”

 

The message was clear – “You’re different. We’ll put up with you, but don’t ever forget you are NOT one of us.”

 

There were a lot more black kids. They didn’t get it any easier but at least they could join together.

 

It seemed I had one choice – assimilate or face it alone.

 

So I did. I became white.

 

I played up my similarities, never talked about my differences except to close friends.

 

And America worked her magic.

 

 

So I’ve always been aware that whiteness is the biggest delusion in the world.

 

It’s not a result of the color wheel. Look at your skin. You’re not white. You’re peach or pink or salmon or rose or coral or olive or any of a million other shades.

 

Whiteness has as much to do with color as Red has to do with Communism or Green has to do with environmental protection.

 

It is the way a lose confederacy of nationalities and ethnicities have banded together to form a fake majority and lord power over all those they’ve excluded.

 

It’s social protection for wealth – a kind of firewall against the underclass built, manned and protected by those who are also being exploited.

 

It’s like a circle around the wealthy protecting them from everyone outside its borders. Yet if everyone banded together against the few rich and powerful, we could all have a more equitable share.

 

But in America, social class has been weaponized and racialized.

 

You’ll see some media outlets talking about demographics as if white people were in danger of losing their numerical majority in this country in the next few decades. But there’s no way it’s ever going to happen.

 

Today’s xenophobia is a direct response to this challenge. Some are trying to deport, displace and murder as many black and brown people as possible to preserve the status quo.

 

But even if that doesn’t work, whiteness will not become a minority. It will do what it has always done – incorporate some of those whom it had previously excluded to keep its position.

 

Certain groups of Hispanics and Latinos probably will find themselves allowed to identify as white, thereby solidifying the majority.

 

Because the only thing that matters is that there are some people who are “white” and the rest who are not.

 

Long ago, my family experienced this.

 

Before I was born, we got our provisional white card. And if I want, I can use it to hide behind.

 

I’ve been doing it most of my life.

 

Every white person does it.

 

It’s almost impossible not to do it.

 

How do you deny being white?

 

At this point, I could throw back my head and shout to the heavens, “I’M NOT WHITE!” and it wouldn’t matter.

 

Only in a closed environment like a school or a job or in a social media circle can you retain the stigma of appearing pale but still being other.

 

In everyday life, it doesn’t matter what you say, only how you appear.

 

I can’t shout my difference all the time. Every moment I’m quiet, I’ll still be seen as white.

 

It’s not personal. It’s social. It’s not something that happens among individuals. It’s a way of being seen.

 

The best I can do is try to use my whiteness as a tool. I can speak out against the illusion. I can stand up when people of color are being victimized. I can vote for leaders who will do something to dismantle white supremacy.

 

Not because I am some kind of savior, but because I know that my own freedom is tied to the freedom of those being oppressed by a system that provides me certain privileges.

 

But let me be clear: doing so is not the safe way to go.

 

In defending others you make yourself a target.

 

I get threats all the time from racists and Nazis of all sorts. They say they can tell just by looking at me that I’m not white at all.

 

The worst part is I’m not sure what I am anymore.

 

I don’t go to synagogue. I don’t even believe in God. But I’m Jewish enough to have been rounded up like Gramps was, so I won’t deny that identity. It’s just that I’m more than one thing.

 

That’s what whiteness tries to reduce you to – one thing.

 

I don’t want it anymore.

 

I’m not saying I don’t like the protection, the ability to be anonymous, the easy out.

 

But it’s not worth it if it has to come with the creation of an other.

 

I don’t want to live in a world where people of color are considered less than me and mine.

 

I don’t want to live in a world where they can be treated unfairly, beaten and brutalized so that I can get some special advantage.

 

I don’t want to live in a world where human beings are tattooed and numbered and sent to their deaths.

 

Because the Holocaust is not over.

 

American slavery is not over.

 

Neither is Jim Crow or lynching or a thousand other marks of hatred and bigotry.

 

Nazis march unmasked in our streets. Our prisons are the new plantation. And too many of our police use murder and atrocity to ensure the social order.

 

As long as we allow ourselves to be white, there will be no justice for both ourselves and others.

 

So consider this my renunciation of whiteness – and I make it here in public.

 

I know that no matter what I say, I will still be seen as part of the problem. And I will still reap the rewards.

 

But I will use what power is given me to tear it down.

 

I’m burning my white card.

 

I know it’s a symbolic gesture. But I invite my white brothers and sisters to add theirs to the flames.

 

Let us make a conflagration, a pillar of fire into the sky.

 

Let whiteness evaporate as the smoke it is.

 

Let us revel in the natural hues of our faces as we watch it burn.

 


 

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The Alt Right Has a Friend in Common Core

 

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Let’s say you’re a modern-day hipster Nazi.

 

 

You’re bummed out.

 

 

No one wants to hang out with you because of your bald head and your red suspenders and your commitment to the ideals of a defeated and disgraced totalitarian regime.

 

 

What are you to do?

 

 

REBRAND, son!

 

 

It’s simple.

 

 

No more National Socialist German Workers Party! That sounds too pinko!

 

 

Now you’re simply a member of the Alt Right!

 

 

It’s not racist! You’re just committed to traditional attitudes and values — if those traditional attitudes and values come from 1945 Berlin!

 

 

Heck, you don’t even have to call yourself Alt Right.

 

 

You can call yourself a White Identitarian.

 

You aren’t over-concerned with any one side of the political spectrum or other. You just strongly identify with whiteness — and by extension increasing the political power of white people at the expense of all others.

 

 

That’s all.

 

 

It should be obvious that this isn’t merely rebranding. It’s propaganda.

 

In today’s fast paced information age – where every fact is merely a Google away – that can be hard to get away with – UNLESS

 

 

Unless you already have a readymade tool to protect propaganda from the kind of informed critical thought that can pop it like a bubble. Something to insolate the ignorance and keep out the enlightened analysis.

 

 

I am, of course, talking about Common Core.

 

 

What!?

 

 

How does Common Core have anything to do with white nationalism?

 

 

Common Core is just a set of academic standards for what should be taught in public schools adopted by 42 of 50 states.

 

 

Academic standards aren’t political. Are they?

 

Actually, they are. Quite political.

 

Just take a look at how the standards came to be adopted in the first place.

 

The Obama administration bribed and coerced the states to adopt these standards before many of them were even done being written.

 

 

Hold your horses. The Obama administration!? That doesn’t sound exactly like a friend of the Third Reich.

 

And it wasn’t.

 

 

It was a friend to big business.

 

When first created, these standards weren’t the result of a real educational need, nor were they written by classroom educators and psychologists. They were written by the standardized testing industry as a ploy to get federal, state and local governments to recommit to standardized testing through buying new tests, new text books, new software and new remediation materials.

 

 

It was a bipartisan effort supported by the likes of Obama, the Clintons and Bill Gates on the left and Jeb Bush, Betsy DeVos and Bobby Jindal on the right.

 

 

After Obama’s success pushing them down our collective throats, many Republicans vocally decried the standards – often while quietly supporting them.

 

That’s why after all this time very few state legislatures have repealed them despite being controlled predominantly by Republicans.

 

Okay, so what does this have to do with the Alt Right?

 

 

People like Steve Bannon and Donald Trump are engaged in redefining the conservative movement. Instead of circulating ideas with a merely racist and classist undertone, they want to make those subtleties more explicit.

 

Most aren’t about to hop out of the closet and declare themselves open Nazis or members of the Hitler fan club, but they want to make it clear exactly how wunderbar the Fuhrer’s ideals are with a wink and a smirk.

 

For instance, Trump’s campaign slogan: Make America Great Again.

 

 

When exactly was America great? When white people had unchallenged political and social power and minorities and people of color knew their place. That’s when.

 

 

This is obvious to some of us, but we face a real obstacle making it obvious to others.

 

And that obstacle is Common Core.

 

 

A generation of Americans have been brought up with these shoddy academic standards that don’t develop critical thinking but actively suppress it.

 

 

For instance, take the absurd ravings of the Core’s chief writer – and current head of the College Board – David Coleman.

 

 

Going counter to the thinking of nearly every expert on literacy, he emphasized cold or close reading over reading text in context.

 

 

In particular, he said:

 

 

“Do you know the two most popular forms of writing in the American high school today?…It is either the exposition of a personal opinion or the presentation of a personal matter. The only problem, forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with these two forms of writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or think… It is a rare working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.”

 

 

Later, he added:

 

 

“The most popular 3rd grade standard in American today…is what is the difference between a fable, a myth, a tale, and a legend? The only problem with that question is that no one knows what the difference is and no one probably cares what the difference is either.”

 

And finally:

 

 

“This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students.”

 

 

However, Coleman was dead wrong on all counts.

 

 

What you think and feel IS important. The requirements of the corporate world ARE NOT the only reasons to teach something. Being able to distinguish between similar but different concepts IS important. And context is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to understanding!

 

For instance, today’s spin doctor Nazis soon realized that you can’t go goose stepping down main street blindly espousing how much better it is to be white — better than, say, being black or Jewish.

 

 

But you can hang up posters in college campuses that say the same sort of thing in a cutesy, passive aggressive way. For instance: “It’s okay to be white.”

 

If we look just at the text, as Coleman advises, we see a rather innocuous statement.

 

 

There’s nothing racist here. It’s just a simple statement that being white is also acceptable.

 

 

However, if we add back the context, we find an indirect racial undertone.

 

These posters weren’t put up willy nilly. They were hung on college campuses where white nationalists wearing MAGA hats were recruiting. They were pasted over Black Lives Matter posters, accompanying drawings of Donald Trump.

 

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In context, then, this statement doesn’t just mean “It’s okay to be white.” It means “It’s okay to be pro-white supremacist, to be pro-white power.”

 

 

And that brings up two other examples.

 

 

MAGA – Make America Great Again.

 

Take it out of context and it’s innocuous. It just means to increase the abstract greatness of the country to what it was at some unspecified time in the past.

 

However, if we put that statement in the context of the Trump campaign and its xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, transphobia, etc. — then it’s meaning becomes clear. As noted above, it’s an ode to white power and nostalgia for greater white privilege.

 

 

And “Black Lives Matter”? Why do many of these same Identitarians take exception to that slogan and the movement behind it?

 

 

The Alt Right says BLM is reverse racist. They claim the name BLM means “ONLY black lives matter.”

 

 

Context tells us differently.

 

 

The BLM group was formed in response to the indiscriminate murder of people of color and those who committed these crimes not behind held accountable. Officer Darren Wilson not indicted for killing Michael Brown. Officer Daniel Pantaleo not indicted for killing Eric Garner. Officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback not indicted for killing Tamir Rice. And on and on.

 

 

Yet the Alt Right is allowed to mischaracterize a simple call for peace as if it identified a terrorist organization.

 

 

Why? Because context has been banished from the building.

 

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I’m not saying that Common Core has caused these problems, but it has allowed them.

 

I doubt this is what Coleman, who is Jewish, intended.

 

 

But whenever you water down critical thinking – even if it’s for purely practical ends – you end up hurting everyone.

 

 

The best societies praise intellect and tolerance.

 

 

For all their faults, our founders knew this. That’s why they emphasized the importance of public education.

 

 

If we had ensured everyone in the country had access to the best possible education, this modern Nazi subculture wouldn’t be able to make as much headway as it has.

 

 

This is yet another way that our obsession with unrestrained capitalism, neoliberalism and plutocracy has put us on a road that may end in fascism.

How to Oppose White Supremacists Without Becoming a Monster, Yourself

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There is a danger in opposing white supremacists.

 

In confronting such an odious set of beliefs, you can justify suspending your own strongest held moral convictions as a necessary end to defeating their prejudices.

 

It’s easy to see how this might happen.

 

When hearing an ignorant troll like Richard Spencer arrogantly spouting warmed over Nazi propaganda, it is quite natural to wish to issue a rebuttal in the form of your fist.

 

You can follow the logic all the way from your heart to your knuckles.

 

Your thought process might go something like this:

 

This fool is so enamored with violence, let him suffer the consequences of it.

 

But that is conceding the point.

 

That is giving the white supremacist his due. It’s entering his world and playing by his rules.

 

Oh, I’m sure it’s satisfying, but it’s the wrong way to respond.

 

However, on the other hand one can’t simply smile and nod during Spencer’s tirade and then expect to reciprocate with an academic treatise.

 

No cogent, logical, professorial come back is going to counter the purely emotional arguments made by white supremacists.

 

They are stoking fear and hatred. Logic is useless here.

 

So what are anti-racist anti-facists like ourselves supposed to do when confronted with people like this?

 

We have to walk a razor’s edge between two poles.

 

On the one hand, we can’t tolerate intolerance.

 

I know that’s paradoxical. But it’s true.

 

As Vienna-born philosopher Karl Popper put it in The Open Society and Its Enemies, unlimited tolerance leads to the destruction of tolerance.

 

If we tolerate the intolerant, if we give them equal time to offer their point of view and don’t aggressively counter their views, they will inevitably resort to violence and wipe our side out.

 

This doesn’t mean immediately punching them in the face or violently attacking them. For Popper, we should let rationality run its course, let them have their say and usually their ideas will be rejected and ignored.

 

However, if this doesn’t happen and these ideas start to take root as they did in Nazi Germany (or perhaps even today in Trump’s America), then Popper says we must stop them by “fists or pistols.”

 

In short, Popper writes:

 

“We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

 

Popper believed in the free expression of ideas, but when one of those ideas leads to violence, it is no longer to be tolerated. Then it is outside the law and must be destroyed.

 

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What then do we do with our commitment to nonviolence?

 

Do we reluctantly agree to push this constraint to the side if push comes to shove?

 

No. This is the other pole we must navigate between.

 

On the second to last day of his life, April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech stating his unequivocal commitment to the principal of nonviolence:

 

“It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.”

 

The next day he was shot to death. These are among the last words he spoke in public.

 

That King was to be martyred in the cause of justice would not have surprised him.

 

He had already received several death threats and attempts on his life.

 

He knew that his continued efforts to fight for human dignity would probably result in the premature ending of his life someday. He knew all that yet he still prescribed nonviolence.

 

There was simply no other way for him to exist.

 

Mahatma Gandhi, who influenced Dr. King and our American fight for civil rights with his own nonviolent revolution in India, went even further.

 

At the start of WWII, he wrote that the British should lay down their arms and let the Nazis invade the United Kingdom without offering any violent resistance. They should even let themselves be slaughtered if it came to it. He made similar remarks to Jews facing the Holocaust.

 

That’s pretty extreme.

 

But can you imagine its effect?

 

No one followed Gandhi’s advice. We fought the Germans in WWII and won. We crushed their pathetic thousand year Reich and threw their prejudiced ideals on the trash heap of history.

 

And yet here we are today. In Charlottesville. In Portland. In Washington, DC.

 

The scared and ignorant have rooted through the trash and recycled those same odious ideals.

 

The war ended, but the battle goes on.

 

Would that have happened had we met violence with nonviolence?

 

I don’t know the answer. No one does.

 

But it respects an important point – we can’t ultimately fight our way to peace. Not without killing everyone else. And then why would the solitary survivor wish to live?

 

There is an inherent flaw in humanity that continually incites us to kill each other.

 

We can never have true peace unless we find a way to stamp out that flaw.

 

Nonviolence is the closest we’ve ever come to finding a solution.

 

So there you have it, the Scylla and Charybdis of our current dilemma.

 

We must try to navigate between them.

 

We must not tolerate the intolerance of the white supremacists. But we must also not allow our opposition of them to change us into that which we hate.

 

I know it sounds impossible. And I certainly don’t have all the answers about how we do it.

 

To start with, when white supremacists advocate violence of any kind, we must seek legal action. We must use every tool of the law, the courts, and law enforcement to counter them.

 

This requires political power. We must organize and keep them politically marginalized and weak.

 

We must take every opportunity to speak out against white supremacy. We must continue to make their ideal socially and culturally repugnant. At the same time, we must also reach out to them in the spirit of healing and love. We can’t give up on them, because they, too, are our brothers and sisters.

 

Yet if they resort to violence, we can feel justified in protecting ourselves and those they wish to victimize.

 

But the keyword here is “protect.”

 

We should go no further. We should not attack.

 

I know that is a hard line to walk.

 

Maybe it’s not even possible. Still, we must try.

 

It might feel satisfying to punch a Nazi. Heck! I’m sure it would. But we cannot allow ourselves to become like them.

 

Because the real enemy is not them.

 

It is their fear and ignorance.

 

And if we’re honest, we hold the same disease deep inside our own hearts.

 

We cannot defeat racism and prejudice unless we overcome our own flawed humanity.

White Privilege, Public Schools and Ugly Christmas Sweaters

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This is one of those stories that’s been bothering me for a while.

 

I won’t say it happened recently or at my current district, but after teaching in the public school system for almost two decades, you see a lot that most people never hear about.

 

So it was almost Christmas break and my middle school students were shuffling in to homeroom.

 

One of the girls turns to me and says, “Mr. Singer, am I okay to wear this?”

 

Hold up. I teach English.

 

I am not a fashionista or even particularly clothes conscious. So this question took me by surprise.

 

In the split second it took me to comprehend what she was asking and focus my eyes on the girl, I was expecting she might have on something too revealing or perhaps had an inappropriate slogan on her shirt or a marijuana leaf.

 

But no. She had on a simple blue long sleeve sweater with a red Superman symbol in the middle.

 

I was about to say that what she was wearing was perfectly acceptable, but then I remembered the dress code.

 

It was a new directive from the school board, and it was – frankly – a horror show.

 

We used to have a perfectly fine dress code that only made students refrain from clothing that was dangerous, inappropriate or sexually explicit. But then someone on the board heard about a neighboring district that modeled itself after a private school academy – so they had to do the same thing here.

 

It was beyond stupid. Only certain colors were allowed. Only certain kinds of clothing. No designs on t-shirts. And on and on.

 

I frankly paid no attention to it. But administrators did.

 

Though they rarely punished students for being late to class, improperly using cell phones or dropping an f- bomb, they swept through the building every morning to make sure every student was undeniably in dress code – to the letter.

 

And if a child was wearing a verboten item of clothing! Heaven forbid! That child was sent to in-school suspension for the remainder of the day unless a parent brought a change of clothing.

 

The same students would sit in “The Box” for days or weeks while their education was in suspended animation because they just couldn’t figure out which clothes the school board considered to be appropriate. (Or more likely they wanted a vacation from class.)

 

So when this girl – let’s call her Amy – asked me about her outfit, it was a pretty serious question.

 

And a difficult one.

 

 

Normally the Superman symbol would violate dress code, but I remembered that since it was only a few days before the holiday break, as an extra treat, students had been allowed to wear an “ugly Christmas sweater.” It was either that or conform to the usual dress code.

 

 

So all around me children were wearing fluffy red and green yarn creations sporting snowmen, Christmas trees and Santas.

 

But Amy was wearing a big red S.

 

By any definition, that’s not a Christmas sweater, and if the administrators wanted to take a hard line on the rules – and they usually did – she was out of dress code.

 

I told her what I thought. I said I had no personal problem with it and wouldn’t report her to the principal, but if she had a change of clothes, she might want to consider using them.

 

She didn’t.

 

And even if she did, it was too late. An administrator barreled into the room and proceeded to examine each child’s clothing.

 

Amy took her backpack and put it on backwards so that it covered her chest and the offending S.

 

Even that didn’t work.

 

When the administrator got to her, he asked to see what was under her backpack. She sighed and showed him.

 

But miraculously he said, “Okay,” and moved on.

 

Amy and I both breathed a sigh of relief. She was saved and wouldn’t have to spend the rest of the day in our school’s version of prison.

 

Before we could get too comfortable though, the hushed silence was broken when the administrator started screaming at another girl in the back of the room.

 

“That is not in dress code, and you know that’s not a Christmas sweater!” he screamed, cords standing out on his neck.

 

“How many times have I told you, but you think you can get away with anything…” and he continued to yell at her as she stomped out into the hall and presumably her locker.

 

And as she left, I saw that he was right. The girl he was yelling at – let’s call her Jada – was not wearing a Christmas sweater. She was wearing a plain gray and white flannel shirt. I don’t know how or why, but I guess that violated the dress code.

 

And for this offense she spent the day in in-school suspension.

 

I guess that’s not really Earth shattering, but it really bothered me.

 

It just seemed so unfair.

 

Jada was by no means a perfect student. But neither was Amy.

 

They both frequently broke rules and did pretty much what they wanted. They both could get an attitude, be catty, and mean.

 

However there was one distinguishing difference between them that immediately jumped to your attention – the color of their skins.

 

Amy was lily white. Jada was chocolate brown.

 

Now I’m not saying this administrator – who was white, by the way – was a virulent racist. I don’t know what went on inside his mind or heart.

 

In fact, I’d always thought of him as a fair-minded person who did his best to be impartial and treat students equally.

 

However, here was a case where he got it dead wrong.

 

Did he let Amy go because she was white? I don’t know. Did he come down on Jada because she was black? I don’t know.

 

My guess is that he was moving in a fog. He went to at least half of all the homerooms in the building checking each child to make sure they were in dress code. For some reason, when he looked at Amy, what he saw didn’t set off alarm bells. When he looked at Jada, it did.

 

Perhaps he remembered that Amy’s dad was a local cop and he didn’t relish having to call the police station to tell the officer that his daughter needed a change of clothes. Perhaps when he looked at Jada he was reminded of all the times she had been written up or defiant.

 

I say again – I don’t know.

 

However, there is little doubt in my mind that this is an example of white privilege – in action if not in intent.

 

The administrator gave Amy the benefit of the doubt because of her whiteness and came down on Jada because of her blackness.

 

This may not have been at the forefront of his mind – it probably wasn’t – but I believe that somewhere in his subconscious, racial attitudes and preconceptions played a part in this snap decision.

 

If I had taken him aside and mentioned it to him, perhaps he would have reconsidered. But probably not since I was just a subordinate.

 

Perhaps later after school over a few drinks he might have thought better of it.

 

 

But this kind of thing happens all the time.

 

White people make snap decisions about people of different races based on these same shadowy, unexamined racial preconceptions.

 

And in each case, the beneficiary is invariably the white person and the loser is the black person.

 

That’s white privilege. People like me and Amy get the benefit of the doubt, while people like Jada and the majority of my other students don’t.

 

It’s something we, white people, need to acknowledge.

 

I’ll say one more thing about dress codes.

 

I accept that they are necessary in a public school setting.

 

It’s difficult to teach if students parts are hanging out, if they’re displaying coded messages on their chests, have advertising or rude statements on their clothing.

 

I once reported a girl for wearing a shirt that said “WTF.” She didn’t realize that I knew what the acronym meant. Another time I reported a student for wearing flip-flops. They were dangerous because kids could trip and fall but also the incessant slapping of plastic against heels drives me bonkers.

 

 

But other than that, I rarely get involved in dress codes.

 

Frankly, I think too strict a restriction on what students wear and too stringent enforcement of such policies does more harm than good.

 

It’s the school equivalent of broken windows policing. Instead of lowering crime by cracking down on the little stuff, too punitive severity in a dress code teaches kids that rules are arbitrary. Moreover, it creates fear and distrust of authority figures.

 

And – intentionally or not – it is a mechanism for enforcing white privilege.

 

Anytime I’ve had to oversee in-school suspension, there have been a disproportionate number of students of color in there for dress code violations than white students.

 

I know that’s not scientific, but it’s the data that I have.

 

In fact, I strongly suspect that discipline based on dress code enforcement is rarely reported to the state or federal government because it would show a major uptick in discipline against black students. It would further prove that minorities are written up more than white kids and get more strict punishments.

 

Standardized dress is as bad as standardized tests. We shouldn’t demand all our children dress alike and conform to a nonsensical norm.

 

Especially when the norm is whiteness.

 

Ugly Christmas sweaters, indeed!

 

I mean how white can you get?

Black Progress Does Not Come At White Expense

People of different races hold hands as they gather on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. bridge in Charleston

 

Relax, white people.

 

Take a breath.

 

It’s okay.

 

America survived its first black President.

 

You didn’t have to freak out and elect a neo-authoritarian-pseudo-populist!

 

Holy Crap!

 

Donald Fucking Trump!

 

Talk about an over-reaction!

 

But I get it.

 

You’re scared.

 

You’re used to the faces of authority being white and male. Yet for eight whole years you had to endure Barack Obama – a far from perfect neoliberal politician, who none-the-less gave the U.S. the most stable two terms in decades.

 

And then you were asked to vote for a white face (sigh!) that unfortunately was attached to breasts and a vagina! Oh the horror!

 

Seriously, white people. Sit the fuck down and listen to some sense.

 

You don’t need white supremacy.

 

You don’t need male supremacy.

 

You can function just fine in a world where people of color and women have the same rights as you and yours.

 

I know. Sounds crazy! But it’s true.

 

Think about it.

 

Let’s say unarmed black people were no longer killed by police at a higher rate than white people.

 

Would that hurt you?

 

I don’t think so. In fact, it might actually help, because then we could focus on the fact that police in this country kill far too many unarmed people – of any race – than they should. In most countries, they make lots of arrests but kill almost no one. Here, they kill hundreds – thousands!

 

We need to demilitarize law enforcement. We need new training programs that emphasize de-escalation of violence – not a shoot-first-ask questions-later mentality.

 

And it’s hard to focus on that when racism and prejudice get in the way. We need to fix racism first. Only then can we address the root issue.

 

Here’s another example.

 

Let’s say we had truly integrated public schools.

 

No run down under-resourced schools that just happen to serve mostly students of color and yet across town we’ve got the Taj Mahal with marble columns and a broad curriculum that just happens to serve the best and whitest.

 

Instead we’d have schools that serve everyone – a broad mix of cultures, races and ethnicities all properly resourced and offering a broad range of curriculum and extra-curricular activities.

 

Would that hurt you?

 

I don’t think so. In fact, it would actually help because every child would get what he or she needs to succeed. Crime would drop, and even prejudiced and racist attitudes would begin to disappear because it’s harder to hold xenophobic views about people who you actually know because you’ve learned everything with them since you were in kindergarten.

 

There’s one thing you have to understand. Racism isn’t an ideology. It’s a sickness. It’s a virus that blinds people to real truths about the world and makes them more prone to holding views that are just plain wrong.

 

The same with sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and a plethora of modern day maladies that should have gone the way of small pox and polio.

 

Inoculating yourself against prejudice will not hurt you. Living in a society where everyone has the same rights doesn’t impinge on those you already have.

 

Yes, it will mean dismantling white supremacy. But that’s a good thing. You don’t really want the world to prize you just because of the color of your skin.

 

Do you?

 

Do you want to get into college just because you’re white?

 

Do you want to get a job just because of the hue of your epidermis?

 

Do you want the sum total of your value as a human being to be dependent on the way light reflects off your skin?

 

I don’t.

 

I’m white, and I don’t want that for me or my posterity.

 

I want people to judge me for me – not some preconceived notion of who I am based on culturally received generalities and the amount of melanin in my outermost cells.

 

Fuck that shit.

 

I’m me. And if that’s not good enough for anyone they can just go and jump in the river.

 

I don’t need white supremacy. And I don’t want it.

 

I refuse to sit back and accept things I don’t deserve while others are denied what they do deserve just so I can get some free stuff.

 

I refuse to let my society continue to be built on a foundation of prejudice and cruelty.

 

We’re all human beings. It’s time we treated everyone as such.

 

That means everyone gets the same human rights.

 

To paraphrase Oprah – YOU get human rights, and YOU get human rights and EVERYONE gets human rights!

 

For white people that means losing a certain sense of normativity.

 

White will no longer be considered normal. Neither will male.

 

It’s just another way to be – no better or worse than any other.

 

That doesn’t mean being ashamed of your whiteness. Hell. We can revel in it.

 

Imagine reconnecting with all the messy ethnicities we’ve plastered over to claim this homogenous white overclass! Imagine being Polish again, and Czech and German and Scandinavian and so many other nationalities that we barely connect with because we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves as anything other than white — That’s me. Just white. Plain white. Nothing to see here. White.

 

We’ve had to sacrifice a whole lot to get that status. But we don’t have to keep sacrificing. We can be who we are, too.

 

The Alt-Right Nazis are out there in the streets chanting, “You will not replace us.”

 

How about we replace ourselves.

 

Why don’t we redefine who we are as – who we are.

 

Not homogenous. Not white. But specific human beings belonging to various cultural, ethnic and religious groups and societies.

 

Human beings all taking part in the symphony of homo sapia, engaged in a robust love of all things people and a recognition that all people are human.

 

Think for a moment what that truly means.

 

Take a deep breath.

 

Let it in. Let it out.

 

It means letting go of this irrational fear that anti-racism is anti-white.

 

So, let me say it again – no. Black progress will not come at white expense. Nor will female progress or anyone’s progress.

 

Because we go through this life together.

 

We are one race. We are one people – though we are also many – and we will survive or perish together.

 

Take my hand and let’s build a better world for all of us.

 

Let us all benefit.

 

Let us all progress.

 

Together.

Surprised by Charlottesville? You Haven’t Been Paying Attention

 Charlottesville-neo-Nazis-alt-right

 

America is a funny place.

 

On the one hand, we’re one of the first modern Democracies, a product of Enlightenment thinking and unabashed pluralism and cultural diversity.

 

On the other, we’ve built our entire society on a cast system that is the basis of our economics, politics and cultural mores.

 

We’re the land of Benjamin Franklin, the Wright brothers, Duke Ellington, Toni Morrison, and Sandra Day O’Connor.

 

But we’re also the land of Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis, Charles Lindberg, Bull Connor, and David Duke.

 

Tolerance and love are as American as apple pie. But so are racism, sexism, prejudice and anti-Semitism.

 

“It is not as though the United States is the land of opportunity, or a hypocritical racist state,” says sociologist John Skrentny. “It is one or both, depending on context.”

 

 

So this week when people saw Nazis marching openly in Charlottesville, Virginia, the only thing that was really so surprising about it was how surprised so many people seem to be.

 

“That’s not my America!” they seem to be saying.

 

To which I reply, “Hell, yes, it is! Where have you been the last 241 years!?”

 

We base our salary scales on genitalia! You think we’re really so freaking advanced!?

 

The shade of your epidermis determines the likelihood of police arresting you, charging you, even killing you regardless of your having a weapon, whether you resist arrest or simply lay on the ground with your hands in the air.

 

Regardless of the evidence, if you’re convicted, the length and severity of the sentence are all partially determined by the amount of melanin in your skin. The cultural derivation of the name on your resume determines the likelihood of employers calling you back for an interview. In many places, your rights are legislated based on whom you love.

 

Our schools are segregated. Our taxes are levied most heavily on those with the least means to pay. Our prisons house more black people today than did slave plantations in the 1860s.

 

Yet a bunch of white dudes carrying Tiki torches shouting hate filled puns (“Jew will not replace us”? Seriously?) somehow doesn’t compute?

 

Come on.

 

This is America.

 

Racism and prejudice are not threats smuggled in past border security. They’ve always been here. At least since Europeans came offering trade and peace with one hand and guns and smallpox with the other.

 

The land of the free was stolen from the Native Americans. Our national wealth was built on the backs of slaves. Our laws and electoral system were built to empower one group at the expense of others.

 

Yet reformations in this process are rarely met with celebration. Instead of memorializing the end of slavery, we embrace the institution with fond remembrance.

 

Nor did prejudice and bigotry end when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, after Brown vs. Board, the Voting Rights Act, Freedom Rides, sit-ins or civil rights protests.

 

America has always been a place hostile to the under privileged, the second sex, religious dissenters, the brown skinned.

 

At most, we had become less confrontational in recent years, but we never really changed our core values, our social structures, who has power and who does not.

 

During my lifetime, people started to equate having a black President with the end of racism. Somehow they ignored the everyday reality for most black people.

 

They ignored the constant prejudice against the poor, the continued bigotry against LGBTs, the Islamophobia, the increase in hate crimes.

 

If there has been any change during the past eight months, it hasn’t been with the degree to which Americans are prejudiced. It’s the degree with which we’re willing to hide it.

 

Whereas before racists would claim to be colorblind, that their actions were completely devoid of racial bias, today they sigh and repeat the dusty slogans of Jim Crow Alabama or 1930s Berlin.

 

And somehow people are actually surprised about this.

 

It’s because too many of us have swallowed the lies about living in a post-racial society.

 

You thought we were beyond all that. It was a brave new world, morning in America, and we were finally treating everyone equally – unless you looked at what we were actually doing.

 

Mainly this is the reaction you get from white people. They rub their eyes and just can’t believe it.

 

You don’t see this too often from people of color, Muslims, LGBTs and some Jews. Why? Because they never had the luxury to ignore it.

 

That’s what we white folks have been doing since the beginning.

 

Whenever these issues come up, we have a knee jerk reaction to minimize it.

 

Things aren’t that bad. You’re just blowing it out of proportion.

 

But, no. I’m not.

 

That’s why you’re so damn shocked, son.

 

You haven’t been looking reality square in the face.

 

So when we’ve got undeniable video footage of angry white males (mostly) marching through Southern streets brandishing swastikas and assault rifles, it catches many white folks off guard.

 

They’re not prepared for it – because they haven’t been doing their homework.

 

We’ve been living in a bubble. Especially those living in major metropolitan areas.

 

That kind of thing never happens around here, right?

 

Of course it does!

 

Just because you live above the Mason Dixon Line doesn’t mean you’re safe.

 

You have a black friend, you like authentic Mexican food and you laugh while watching “Modern Family.”

 

But you haven’t opened your eyes to the reality outside your door.

 

You send your kids to private school or live in a mostly upper class white district. You have an exclusive gym membership that keeps out the riff-raff. You work in an office where that one token person of color makes you feel sophisticated and open-minded.

 

You’ve got to wake up.

 

You’ve got to educate yourself about race and class in America.

 

Because those people you saw in Charlottesville aren’t an anomaly.

 

They are an authentic part of this country, and if you don’t like it, you have to do something about it.

 

You can’t hide behind denial.

 

You have to take a stand, pick a side, and be counted.

 

Because one day soon, the torches will be outside your door.

 

You have to decide now – do you want to brandish or extinguish them?

Let’s Hear It For Black Girls!

Natural-Hair-600x398

 

“Sisters are more than the sum of their relative disadvantages: they are active agents who craft meaning out of their circumstances and do so in complicated and diverse ways.”

-Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen (2011)

 

 

Let’s hear it for black girls!

 

They are beautiful, bold, irrepressible and – above all – so incredibly strong.

 

Black girls will outlast any struggle, face down any adversary, and – more often than not – triumph in the face of adversity.

 

I know. I’m a public school teacher, and many of my best students are black and female.

 

That doesn’t necessarily mean they get the best grades. Some earn A’s and some don’t. But when it comes to pure willpower and the courage to stand up for themselves, no one beats a black girl.

 

Those are rare qualities nowadays. Sometimes it doesn’t make these girls easy to have in class. But think about how important they are.

 

As a teacher, it sure makes your life easier when students do whatever they’re told. But in life, we don’t want citizens who simply follow orders. We want people who think for themselves, people who question directives and do only what they think is right.

 

In short, we need people who act more like black girls.

 

As a white male, it’s taken me some time to come to an appreciation of black womanhood. But after about 15 years teaching in public schools serving mostly poor, minority students, appreciate them I do.

 

Think of the challenges they face and often overcome. Not only are they subject to the same racism as black males, they also have to function under the burden of male patriarchy and the quiet sexism that pervades American society.

 

According to a study entitled Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls by the NAACP and the National Women’s Law Center, African-American girls suffer from higher rates of sexual violence and intimate partner violence than white women, high rates of sexual harassment in school, and they are more vulnerable to sex trafficking than any other group.

 

In addition, more than one-third of black female students did not graduate on time in 2010, compared to 19 percent of white female students. However, there has been progress. Despite a lingering graduation gap, black girls have actually increased their graduation rate by 63% in the past 50 years, according to the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. Unfortunately, this hasn’t meant they’ve built up more wealth. In 2010, single black women’s median wealth was just $100 compared to single white women’s wealth, which was $41, 500.

 

And it only gets worse the closer we look at it. Black women are the only group whose unemployment rate remained stagnant at 10.6%, while the overall rate for workers in the United States dropped from 7.2% to 6.1% between August 2013 and August 2014, according to a National Women’s Law Center report on jobs data. More than a quarter of black women live in poverty, according to the Center for American Progress, despite making up a larger portion of the workforce than white and Latina women.

 

Despite such problems, black women start businesses at six times the national average, according to the Center for American Progress. And this is even more startling when you realize they are also more likely to be denied small business loans and federal contracts.

 

It’s one of the reasons black girls are so special. Those who somehow survive the incredible pressures society puts them under often become super achievers. They can do almost anything.

 

Perhaps it’s an internalization of the advice black women often get from their mothers. They’re frequently told they have to work harder and do more just to be noticed, and they often do. In my classes, I’ve had more black girls achieve grades over the 100% mark than any other group. And that’s not easy to do. But it’s typical black girl power – they try to be more than perfect.

 

However, it takes a toll.

 

They are more likely to die of breast cancer than any other racial group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The reasons are complex, but include the fact that black women experience delays in diagnosis and treatment. Like many oppressed people, they often internalize that oppression – they don’t take care of themselves and the stress can be a killer.

 

And for those who can’t overcome the unfair pressures we place them under, the results are even worse. In school, I’ve seen precious and valuable girls thrown into a sometimes cruel and uncaring disciplinary system – a system from which it can be hard to extract yourself.

 

Some teachers and schools when faced with the independence and forthrightness of black girls don’t know how to handle them. In such cases, these girls are often disciplined out of all proportion to their population size in school districts. For example, in New York City, black girls made up only 28% of the student body during the 2011-2012 school year, but were 90% of all girls expelled that year from the city’s schools, according to the “Black Girls Matter” report by the African American Policy Forum. Similarly, black girls made up only 35% of the Boston public school population that same year, but accounted for 63% of all girls expelled.

 

In short, we’ve got a lot of work to do to dismantle a national system of racism and white privilege. But even beyond that, as a society we need to recognize and appreciate black girls. A little bit would go a long way.

 

We need to acknowledge the unique talents and skills of these amazing young women. And so much of it starts with a matter of conceptualization in the white adult mind.

 

Instead of seeing them as defiant, we need to recognize their independence. Instead of seeing them as challenging your authority, you need to see them as asserting themselves and standing up for their beliefs.

 

Those are all such positive qualities. How many times do adults complain that kids today don’t care enough about things – their apathy, their entitlement, their indifference. As a group, black girls are nothing like that! They are exactly the opposite! But instead of praising them for it, instead of valuing them, white adults often feel threatened and respond by trying to crush what they perceive as a rebellious and disruptive element in their classrooms or in society.

 

That’s why I love the Black Girl Magic movement.

 

It was created by CaShawn Thompson to celebrate the beauty, power and resilience of black women. It started as a simple social media hashtag – #BlackGirlMagic.

 

It embodies a theme I’ve already touched on – the irrepressible spirit of black women, how they are faced with an overwhelming mountain of challenges but somehow manage to overcome them and become tremendous overachievers! It’s a celebration of everything good and positive about the black female experience.

 

I think it’s just wonderful.

 

How can you not look at someone like Misty Copeland and not appreciate her success? She’s the first ever black principal at the American Ballet Theatre. She has shot to the top of one of the whitest, wealthiest and most elitist arts you can pursue.

 

Or how about Gabby Douglas? You can’t watch videos of the amazing Olympic gymnast, who at only 17, absolutely wowed the world with gold medals despite internet trolls hating on her hair.

 

And if we’re talking undue hate and criticism, no woman in recent memory has suffered as much as Michelle Obama. Whatever you think of her husband’s Presidency, you have to admit Michelle was a model of grace under pressure. How many times did haters pick apart her appearance while she just got on with the business of making school lunches healthier and being a tremendous role model for children of color and women of all races and creeds.

 

Or Ava DuVernay, the amazing director snubbed at the Oscars for her film “Selma.” What did she do? She made another amazing film “13th” about how the 13th Amendment ended slavery but opened the door to the prison industrial complex.

 

That’s Black Girl Magic. And it’s actually pretty common.

 

So come on, fellow white people. Let’s celebrate black girls.

 

Stop trying to touch their hair or compare them with Eurocentric standards of beauty. Stop, pause and actually see them. See them for who and what they are.

 

Black girls are amazing and make the world a better place.

 

Here’s to all the incredible and irreplaceable black girls in my classes and in my life!

 

You go, girls!