Celebrity and Shame: Harriet Tubman on a $20 Bill

“I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” ― Harriet Tubman
“Shame is a soul eating emotion.”
C.G. Jung

Today’s topic is shame. And there is much to talk about whether around twerking videos or the new face of the $20 bill. But first a bit about my new blog theme and title.

Most of your know I was trained as an ethnomusicologist and that I wrote a book about black girlhood from double-dutch to hip-hop. The arch of my 20 year career has been spent on the intersectional study of race, gender and sexuality in embodied musical games by girls and that will continue.

The old title “Broadcasting the Bottomlines” worked but the direction of the work I’ve been doing with my undergrads lately is more like the CSI of online black girls. As we qualitatively code and analyze 800 videos of adolescent black girls twerking on YouTube, we examine how their love of dance and expression is overshadowed by shame about their sexuality, shame that comes from the ways their images are exploited by males, by media companies and by mega artists, as well as how the persistence of race and their uploaded content as young girls may come back to haunt their employability in a nation that has no “right to be forgotten” laws about things you did as an adolescent.

You never get a second chance at a first impression.

This blog allows me to share my thoughts about YouTube and digital privacy, about my love of teaching and my interests in empowering online black girls (esp. those ages 13-16 and younger) with digital media literacies. It also allows me to respond to current affairs in social media that intersect with these interests.

So, today’s blog post topic is about a current topic circulating on the web: Raven-Symone’s response to putting the face of Harriet Tubman on a $20 bill.

Celebrity and Shame

A video featuring soon-to-be-thirty-year-old gazillionaire Raven-Symoné has been circulating on Facebook and trending on Twitter since May14th. You, like me, may know her as the adorable child star from the final seasons of The Bill Cosby ShowThe version of the video I saw on FB timeline had over 1.3 million views. Appearing as a guest on ABC’s The View with Rosie Perez and others, Raven gives us her celebrity opinion encapsulated in a caption below the FB video, which read:

America wants Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill—but Raven-Symoné disagrees: “I don’t like that idea… I think we need to move a little bit more forward.”

20-dollar-bill-transfer-transferframe198

I doubt seriously that all of America wants Tubman on the bill. Confederate flag wavers are probably not in that line. I’d rather discuss the culture of shame that seems to lurk behind her comments that is reminiscent of many comments I hear from black youth, and non-black youth, who’d rather dismiss the “dark” past of slavery especially since  it draws us back to race which is also taboo. This cultural of shame was something I once resisted in my own youth as a black teenager. I want to discuss this without demonizing Raven-Symoné but I will use her comments to make my points.

“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson in His Journals

A culture of shame lurks among black people, especially youth or those ignorant of the powerful lives of enslaved persons. Instead the try to brush of the memory that were are descended from “slaves”. We don’t even call them “African” slaves like we are talking about people and not property. I suspect that since Integration in the late 1960s through the 1980s (there was resistance to federal mandates), segregated, under-resourced and undervalued black youth who strive to be upwardly mobile (i.e. gain individual wealth) have rejected the “dark” past of being a former slave like Harriet Tubman. Generations of youth were taught to reject everything African including people and the traces of its culture and biology including our own skin color and hair. It did this as a child and still suffer its psychological wages. When I was a kid it was “You got African hair” said disparagingly to mean that kinky was not desired, was not good like hair that resembled long white blonde tresses. Only straight hair would satisfy that hegemonic norm. We rejected our own natural textures for straightening combs and perms that burn your scalp again and again. We carry shame in our very existence when it’s up against the backdrop of whiteness.

If Media is Entertainment, What is History?

The media taught us these things while our parents were slaving in menial and then lower management jobs to eek out a living in a racist society. The children like me of the lindy hopping teenagers who had access to handheld transistor radios and TV sets were taught to reject the old for the new while also rejecting the darker skinned entertainers for the light. The mediated screen of televisions helped us learn these visual and cognitive lessons. We rejected black and white silver screen movies for the technicolor of television and the soulful sounds of Motown and disc jockeys on the regional radio.

So when Raven says we need to “move a little bit more forward” by choosing Rosa Parks over Tubman, I interpret that to mean we need to get over that slavery thing, those “things” (treating people like objects) of past generations and strive for what inspires today’s youth. The battle in Ferguson rings of this same generational struggle. The past is the past is what Raven is arguing for. Leave that old darker black woman’s past behind for the lighter, more palatable and respectable likes of a Rosa Parks. No disrespect but 14 year old Claudette Colvin and other dark-skinned black girls who took a seat in the white section of the segregated bus were not deemed sufficient role models by the NAACP. So Rosa was not the first. She was the most acceptable. Respectability politics has roots in our struggle.

Claudette ColvinIn my lessons as a student, a teacher and scholar (and I remain a life-long student), I’ve noticed the shame as a mechanism of control around race and slavery. It’s also part of pop entertainment on-stage and off. A Wikipedia entry on the “shame society” reads that shame is

the primary device for gaining control over children and maintaining social order is the inculcation of shame and the complementary threat of ostracism.

Our relationship to history around entertainment as popular culture has been as a vehicle for a lot shame of artists we no longer wish to see or hear anymore.

In my informed analysis as a scholar, I remember how black folk rejected jazz vocalist and actress Ethel Waters who could sing circles around Lena Horne. Horne was favored because she was lighter and “prettier” though Waters was, for a significant moment in the 1930s into the 40s, much more powerful and prestigious in the entertainment world. Waters, who came from abject poverty in Chester, PA, was the first black entertainer with her own show on television (not Nat King Cole). She integrated Broadway and produced her own shows there. She became the wealthiest woman in Hollywood and on Broadway (notice I did not say “black” woman). Maybe Raven-Symoné would prefer Ethel Waters as the new face of the $20 bill but I wonder if she even knows of her legacy. Because Waters played maids at the end of her career in the advent of television, she was remembered by youth like me not as a legend in entertainment but as a stereotypical role. Whites get stereotyped in a profession of acting. Blacks are stereotyped in all of life. Like black girls twerking on YouTube, they are robbed of their full humanity off-screen.

For Symoné, Rosa Parks is probably a more palatable choice than Harriet Tubman, although Raven and her sympathizers might be convinced if they had had Tubman as a Barbie Doll figure during her youth. Imagine a Nickolodean commercial for Black Moses Barbie (“freedom oars” sold separately). Click the previous link for some humor and critique!

Ethel Waters in fur

Power: Wealth Alone Won’t Do

Raven take note: History of the past is not self-perpetuating but the cultural biases of human interactions sure seem to be. The meme of racial and sexual bias continues unabated as does naïveté. Ethel Waters was the wealthiest woman in Hollywood (not unlike Raven herself might be today) but was eventually rejected because of her age, race and sex despite her social prestige and her wealth. Back then Waters was arguably one of the 1%. The shame comes in when you realize that Ethel Waters was rejected from black cultural memory because of the roles she had to play to survive in the industry at the end of her career. This same pattern is why we don’t really know Paul Robeson.

In the 1954 Edward Murrow interview, Waters recites lines from the play Mamba’s Daughters, based on a novel of the same name written by DuBose Heyward (watch the interview here on YouTube). Waters used her economic capital to produce and star in the play on Broadway circa 1939. I can’t think of a dramatic Broadway play produced by a black woman since then. (H/T to Sara Jones who might fit this category but I don’t know that arena well. If you know, do tell!)  Waters recites these lines in the interview and likens their message to her own life as an entertainer:

Listen, Lissa. We black folks have one thing over white folks …  and that is…there ain’t no problem so big we can’t sing ’bout ’em. Best thing for trouble, honey, is singin’ … and werkin’. And when your werk is singin’, then you is holdin’ a charm against trouble.

The cultural shame about which I write here comes from not knowing these rich details of the lives of black people as people not as characters or roles from our past. Harriet Tubman is a stereotypical slave to someone who has not had much education in how the people we call slaves, or actors (pardon the analogy), really are.

The advent of television meant that skin color privilege would be valued and celebrated in celebrities not the community’s cultural narratives of ethnic power and change. I heard Dhoruba bin Wahad of the former Black Panther Party say that Huey Newton said, “Power is the ability to define phenomena and make it act in a desired fashion.” Of course, in our capitalist economy, money empowers such an ability.

Within black cultural memory over time we have rejected actors for acting, musicians for musicking their inherited traditions and ghettoes (and its people), the products of environmental racism, as personalized problems enacted against us. There will be shame. The young and naïve often collapse the characters celebrities portray on screen with who they might actually be in real life off screen (from buffoons and maids to, for your consideration, Sasha Fierce aka Mrs. Carter). This kind of context collapse disallows the complexities of black lives and their multiple selves.

The Chains of Bondage Remain

Here is a more chilling example.

Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (May 30, 1902 – November 19, 1985) was a comedian who became the first black actor to become a millionaire of film, but he is stereotypically remembered as a buffoon over early television known by the stage name Stepin Fetchit.

Lincoln Perry

In my youngest years I never learned about Perry’s wealth–a wealth that surely came with no power in the film business of 1940s and 50s, I was simply embarrassed by his portrayals on the television screen. His public identity on screen trumped any knowledge of his humanity as a millionaire or his family life as a father. The logic of shame found in the filters of cognition was borne out to me in a conversation with a colleague at the University of Virginia in my first years of teaching. Prof. Angela Davis, not the black power activist and prison abolitionist we all know, but a former HBCU student who attended college with Perry’s son, told me that Donald Perry made headlines when he killed three people and then committed suicide on the NJ/PA Turnpike. She said he left a note saying he was embarrassed by his father’s image as Stepin Fetchit. We collapse what’s on stage with what’s off and those collisions have repercussions well into the future. That was 1969, decades before his father’s own death.

“Chains and Things” (by BB King, 1970, No. 6 on Billboard R&B)

This week, we lost BB King at the age 89. Shame was registered in a NYTimes article announcing his death. When the blues went out of fashion with young black audiences in the early 1960s, he was booed at the Royal Theater in Baltimore by teenagers who cheered the sweeter sounds of Sam Cooke. As reported in the NYTimes, “They didn’t know about the blues,” he said 40 years after the fact. “They had been taught that the blues was the bottom of the totem pole, done by slaves, and they didn’t want to think along those lines.” (see NYT link above for more).

cartoon3 on abolition and mother

Getting back to Raven and her comments on the $20 Bill and the shame of being descended from the old black Joe news attached to the chains of blackness, what strikes me as an educator is how 29 year-old Symoné (with a cosmopolitan “e” added for stylish flair) uses the characteristic adverbial phrases of twenty-somethings who like to say “super organized” or “super lazy” or when they are not so sure “a little bit more forward.” This kind of discourse among my students tends hide in plain sight their insecurity about their opinion or their desire to find others among them who might back them up–cuz we all know the adolescent or naïve thinker loves to prop up the “underdog” in the fight. This is a common and individualistic approach to personal views in arguments that rarely reflect being informed or demonstrate critical thinking.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking offers a rich definition of critical thinking, which I intend to use more often from now on. It’s super good! Thanks Google! It reads: “Critical thinking varies according to the motivation underlying it. When grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skillful manipulation of ideas in service of one’s own, or one’s groups’, vested interest.” It goes on to add: “everyone is subject to episodes of undisciplined or irrational thought,” and let me add, celebrities as well as scholars are prone to these episodes.

While I’d bet money on the latter, scholars are rarely invited guests on The View. We are the wrong age demographic in the wrong cultural climate; news as entertainment is not our bag; sound bytes on talk shows, not our fortés. So today, they offer us Raven-Symoné as commentator on the feminist politics of treasury bills, civil rights agendas and slavery.

shame children cognition

The networks that permit such remarks knowing it’s entertainment news for Twitter water-cooler sessions and social media banter.  But what are we learning culturally, asks the anthropologist in me, about thinking and cognition as a result? What lessons are we being taught? Increasingly, it seems as if celebrities have the answers that circulate, but they never have any questions about their own thinking. We all need this modelled more than ever in a noisy social media landscape of mostly entertainment news. And we all need to practice examining our own logic and our own uninformed thinking…from celebrities to scholars but particularly youth in the fast-pace of social media and globalization online.

The kind of “logic” I mean might be called A Private Universe (1987), to borrow the title of a favorite short academic documentary (see clip below). The narrative of the documentary is about science but it’s really about objectivity or informed thinking and the barriers to it in our learning environments, in the very educational institutions that are supposed to help us be more informed citizens and better human beings. The Harvard grads and professors interviewed in the start of the documentary hold onto a fallacy about the earth’s orbit and without a second thought confidently give the wrong answers and justify them by stating the courses they passed as evidence. I got an A, therefore I am know. This is a form of cognitive bias known as the overconfidence effect. Raven’s comments could fit the description of cognitive bias known as “The Semmelweis Reflex” which is summed up as “if the facts don’t fit the theory, throw out the facts.” (Aside: Found a disconcerting yet provocative blog post about the Semmelweis reflex called: “I’m not gay no more!”)

 

The kind of “logic” I mean might be called A Private Universe (1987), to borrow the title of a favorite short academic documentary (see clip below). The narrative of the documentary is about science but it’s really about objectivity or informed thinking and the barriers to it in our learning environments, in the very educational institutions that are supposed to help us be more informed citizens and better human beings. The Harvard grads and professors interviewed in the start of the documentary hold onto a fallacy about the earth’s orbit and without a second thought confidently give the wrong answers and justify them by stating the courses they passed as evidence. I got an A, therefore I am know. This is a form of cognitive bias known as “the overconfidence effect“. Raven’s comments could fit the description of cognitive bias known as “The Semmelweis Reflex” which is summed up as “if the facts don’t fit the theory, throw out the facts.” (Aside: Found a disconcerting yet provocative blog post about the Semmelweis reflex called: “I’m not gay no more!”)

On Cognition and Thinking

I often tell my students there is a difference between thinking and thoughting. The former takes more glucose or energy and tired and lazy intellectual practice resorts to thoughting or opinions, fallacies, faulty logic, and over erroneous common knowledge.

Thinking (vs. thoughting — using knowledge you already knew but not incorporating the new things you are not so skilled at using yet in a course) requires more glucose. Without the real thinking, we often resort to stereotypical, short-hand thoughts. The brain does this to preserve glucose, to save you energy. It’s just biologically efficient and your brain knows this. You don’t! The more arrogant or naïve you are, the more likely you are to not realize this and the bigger tendency for you to speak your private universe of opinions to the world. Those thoughts can be costly to you and to others, esp. when you have a microphone that broadcasts to the world called “celebrity”. And you may never know it. This is bigger than you having your own opinion. Everyone does have that right.

“You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.”
Harlan Ellison

I can only imagine why the cosmopolitan and individual Raven-Simoné (and her accent) prefers Rosa Parks and not… Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Anna Julia Cooper or a Mary McLeod Bethune much less someone like Harriet Tubman who is so directly linked to slavery. It also directly links our of black people (not black skin) to the effects of capitalism on our labor and humanity. I think young people feel feel chained to the past and cannot quite understand esp. given all the state violence we have been witnessing in social media (that black folks have known all our lives), videos that remind us of an era of lynchings and centuries of subjugation by overseers in sharecropping, on plantations and on slave ships.

Mary McLeod Bethune with her students at the Dayton School

Mary McLeod Bethune with her students at the Dayton School

Young people in the black community (and any community) have the most limited vision of our culture, history, memory and ontology–the science of knowing. That is no fault of their own or anyone else’s. It;s how youth works. But they also can be some of the most impulsive and self-centered beings without critical thinking as they attempt to assert their self identity in a larger public. Wisdom soon tells us that we must also learn to defer and collaborate so we all thrive intergenerationally. Specialized understandings of this take time.

I grew up like a neglected weed – ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it.  ― Harriet Tubman
America wants Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill—but Raven-Symoné disagrees: “I don’t like that idea… I think we need to move a little bit more forward.”

Forward past slavery, in my opinion, would mean confronting the biggest wealth inequality gap in the history of our nation that also must be read against the reality of black women’s economic lives today in America.

Small changes like putting the face of Harriet Tubman, a black woman, on a $20 bill is seemingly small but a powerful gesture. The circulation of images in many ways can be a primary tool for instituting ideology and may instigate change over time. Think of all the images that have affected us from billboards to bedroom posters, from TV and  personalized mobile webcams and photography.

Net Worth vs. Negative Worth

Yet, and still, the substantive changes that give rise to access to those very dollars in an age of the most extreme wealth inequalities is a matter not so easily transacted and gained. Women and children, esp. black women and their children, are among the lowest paid, lowest valued and have the lowest examples of net worth — zero net-worth often called “negative net worth” — as demographic groups. From the ages 18 to 64, black women have less than $150 in savings after deducting their debt.
 
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It is possible that women and children seeing Tubman’s face on the $20 bill might “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” more, not something I’d bank on as a solution, but the bigger challenge is not individual net-worth. Leverage comes from systemic change — how black girls and women, as well as women in general, are valued in a patriarchal society. That fact will not change by putting a historic black woman’s face on our currency. It’s more like entertainment than news in that light.
Harriet Tubman took slaves by gunpoint at times to force them out of their mental slavery. The UGGR, an acronym used by enslaved and formerly enslaved people like my great, great grandfather in his emancipation letter of 1855, stands for the Underground Railroad. No one else as Bob Marley sang can free you from those chains and from the chains of shame. The same ends as the colonized mind learns the reality of our lives with full humanity. I never learned that slaves actually had the skills to read and write to a larger degree than I could ever imagine. These 19th centuries media literacies surely contributed the end of the institution of chattel slavery.  Perhaps a similar read/write/create revolution is needed in the 21st century such that once emancipated from our lack of access to digital media literacies (read write create curate develop), would make it hard to maintain control over people with agency. Digital tools can help us organize their lives and adapt to our new online and offline environments and identities. In biology, the process of adaptation to an environment is known as “ecological fitness“. This is what I am after for myself and for online black girls and women.
And all this writing from watching a video of Raven-Symoné.  Thanks Raven!!
 
I’m supposed to be at a friend’sbarbeque right now. Please excuse my typos or any jumbled sentences. Drop me a note if something is illegible.  And if you made it this far and like something you read, THANK YOU!! Why not leave a comment??!!PLEASE comment!
Tell me what you’d like me to write about next or what you like about my blog or this post. Suggestions are welcome!

Haikus for a tr…

Haikus for a true revolution
(or a software glitch)

I

Teaching college sucks.
Textbooks might be wide open
But not the adults.

II

Cognitive threats hold
biological stockholms.
These lectures don’t stop.

III

Will your teaching touch
on more than autotron-ing?
Would you pass their test?

IV     (...What the hell are we fighting for?)

When knowing makes so
little difference,
cld touch offer more?

Poetry by kyra0city

Separate But Equal. Debt Slaves.

“To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” – Chief Justice Earl Warren in Brown v. Board of Education, 1954.

Integrated School of Girls

May 16, 2013 by

On May 17, 1954 [59 years ago today], the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision, ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation in public educational facilities was unConstitutional. The case was brought on behalf of Linda Brown, a black girl from Topeka, Kansas, who had been denied admission to her local elementary school on the basis of her skin color.

At the time, public facilities were segregated based on the justification that a 1896 Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” accommodations in railroad cars conformed to the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. But in Brown’s case, the all-white school she wanted to attend was closer to her home and was far superior to the all-black school that other children of her skin color and from her neighborhood were required to attend. For more read here.

Today, students of color and poor whites in industrialized countries like the UK or the US still struggle for access to the right to an education but it’s not skin color that limits most anymore. The film DEBT SLAVES gives us a view into the problems college students are facing today. I wish I could an embed it here but trust me — you want to what this short but engaging film by young film-maker Makeda Mantock in association with the Guardian and the National Union of Students

In the US it is said that there remains a 60% drop out rate for high school and 40% drop-out for college. Students today, who are emerging adults, have “money on our mind” and cope with being “burdens on parents and the state.” There’s little time to focus on a higher education that could solve the needs of society and dreams of our societies — the next generation.  Who would have thought Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign would include college students?

Wonder if there will ever be a National Union of Students here in the “Untied” States of America (where separate but equal remains in higher ed in subtle and not-so-subtle ways)?

Please watch the short film DEBT SLAVES from the Intergenerational Foundation Young Film-makers’ short film competition.

marshall-quote-1What I love about this short film is its use of a personal poem (written and co-directed and co-produced by Havana Wellings-Longmore, performed excellently by several actors). It’s got a hip-hop and spoken word feel though in reality it’s scripted and performed with veracity. The flow and the passion is palpable and speaks to issues college and university students around the world are struggling for. #powertothepeople #educationforall

We just ended our spring semester at Baruch College-CUNY on Wednesday. After engaging and empowering 33 diverse emerging adults in my political sociology course to “go public” — to plan and launch public speech acts around issues they cared about for at least 20 people —  I noticed we never once considered working together as one group, as a collective on one collaborative act. That would have been social power in a social setting. In any event, the class tracked over 400 courageous acts throughout the semester. Many if not all now feel empowered to express their freedoms and practice their civil rights like never before.

Unionizing efforts may seem long gone in higher ed but I just bet eventually these emerging adults are gonna surprise us all. I’ll be waiting!

No More Debt Slaves! 31525_20121106_204725_bored_quotes_03

Up with the Learning Revolution!!!

What If Higher Learning Was All About Remix? (On Foucault)

“People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.”
Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason

For about 4 years now, I’ve been experimenting with an assignment of remix in writing and other practices in my classroom where students emulate and replicate being consumers of their own productivity inside a given text or framework. I was in a course exploring how one can be empowered by ANY communication, verbal or non-verbal. It was not an academic training, thankfully, but it was a 10 month course with a weekend long training in Los Angeles once every two months and meetups with local participants here in NYC every week for, yes, 10 months. The meetups were practice sessions for completing homework between the five weekends. The course was called Partnership Explorations.

If anyone knows me personally, they know that for years I’ve said that academia beat my love of reading out of me. Perhaps it started earlier when being book smart and “talking like white people” made me assign a separation from my people to reading. I loved Shakespeare as a teen and wanted to read Freud by my mother thought it was taboo for some reason she never really explained back when I was 14.

By the time I reached the Partnership Explorations course in 2004, I was eight (8) years into being a tenure-track professor. I taught at NYU then and I hated reading books and never read anything outside of work needs. I loved the Internet and probably read as much online as some do from hardback novels. But I resisted reading. Always fell asleep. LOL. I read from cover to cover one book in maybe 10 years, a confession no self-respecting professor should probably make, but it’s true. [The book was The Funeral Planner by Lynn Isenberg, a womanist entreprenurial comedy based around my alma mater, University of Michigan. It was mature, sophisticated Chic Lit.]

So when the course instructor of Partnership Explorations said there were 5 recommended books I confronted my bias. I loved the course but reading books… Each of the weekends involved sharing individually to a group of 300 participants about what you were learning about yourself and your conversations with 20 people we were expected to track in our lives.

I read one book completely. Dire Mastery: Discipleship from Freud to Lacan and I read the first 50 pages of The Order of Things: The Archeology of the Human Sciences by Michel Foucault. Not unlike in the halls of academia, everyone in the course found the book confounding and many hated it. Though I had exposure to Foucault’s work on sexuality and liked it in grad school, this was different. I LOVED it. But still didn’t finish it. My habits were then not servicing any interest in reading more. But the preface of that book wOw-ed me.

Thus began an experiment with slow learning for me. Teaching students to replicate the preface of the book (found here: The Order of Things, 1970) in my African American music courses, my jazz course and my hip-hop courses. I have them do it early, the first weeks of class, to throw them into the world of their own thinking and sorting – reordering the mental maps of the subject they are about to encounter newly and in new ways hopefully.

In all the years since 2005 when I began assigning it, I have never written my own version but I have meticulously edited over 200 versions, I’d say. Often rewriting it for them to see other ways of thought,  to instigate and agitate their thinking (vs. thoughting). Yesterday I wrote my first draft. Today my second.

From my non-academic training,  I often challenge myself to do the work that I assign in my classes. It should be a requirement, I have learned from this practice.  It was my students’ experimenting this winter intercession that inspired me to share my own version. I’ve learned so much from my students in this and other assignments about the “sociology” of people’s experiences with black women in hip-hop. It’s like taking a sociological sampling of culture.  I wrote them earlier today: “It’s your mind each of your need to consider learning more about and intervening in the social constructs you simply inherited that were begun by people long dead and gone but that we transmit and carry on unthinkingly about race, gender and music-making. This is your opportunity to shine! Here is mine…”

Prof. G’s Foucault Remix (2nd draft):

This began as a riff off a intellectual rhymebook not well known, nor understood, inside the ivory towers of its social commons where even PhD students front in abstractions, wastin their breathe on what they “took away” from some book as if they were jookin on a basketball court (not!). It began out of a non-academic course I took on discourses and the partnership of language to uncover what’s unsaid and unknown. It arose out of the pain that shattered, as I read my participation in academia, all the familiar landmarks of my former thought — black and female thought, the thought that brands the video vixen of our hip-hop age and our corporate geography — breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which I as a black woman, a performer, and a scholar had become accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing racist and sexist things students carried with them, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse their age-old distinction between desire and ambition.

This riff quotes a ‘certain true mathematics encyclopedia’ contributed to by the fellowship of Bernice Johnson Reagon (If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me), Audre Lorde (The Uses of the Erotic read here in her own words), Tricia Rose (Black Noise and Hip-Hop Wars), Jeff Chang (Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of a Hiphop Generation), Joe Schloss (Making Beats and Foundation), and many other oracle mathemeticians, an encyclopedia in which it is written that ‘humanity in hip-hop is divided into: (a) true to Rha Goddess not Gangsta, (b) masculine masoleum, (c) domesticated pornography sold to the white masses selling black behinds, (d) Sucka MCs, (e) a Blige(d) or Beyonce(d) , (f) Fiiiiiine!! (with an extreme nasal sound to intensify meaning and syncopation), (g) rhyme retreatists, (h) not included in the present classification = invisibilified, (i) dope fiends diggin in the crates, (j) bounce, bass, snap, house, (k) Is that your real hair cuz I can’t get a comb through it?, (l) whatevah, (m) just breaks on the Billboard charts that won’t last long if they hear its a female, (n) that from a long way off look like I got fries to go with dat shake and imma reach out and take that junk in the trunk public violence.

In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing black women, women and girls everywhere as well as conscious fathers, apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of a rhyme and a video screen, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of patriciarchal and post-colonial system of hegemonic thought, is the limitation of our my own thinking, the stark impossibility of ever being without that.

The source of my remix/sample is the “Preface” from Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things (1970).

“Knowledge is not for knowing: knowledge is for cutting.”
― Michel Foucault, The Foucault Reader

A Crisis of Privilege (and an Opportunity)

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.”
Helen Keller

“I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 to 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. That is their attitude, not ours.” (builders had no say over the resale of houses)

“The rock, weighing less than an ounce carried tons of hatred with it.’

(Aug 1957 Quotes from NYT  during integration of first suburb in Levittown, PA.)

This past semester, as I do every semester, I confront the unconfrontable of Jet 2nd Family Levittownrace and racism whether I am teaching ethnomusicology, sociology or a racism course. Being a black woman professor means dealing with race as well as gender politics.

In early December 2012, a Facebook friend named Suzanne Broughel insisted I post a Facebook thread and dialogue on race and privilege about my final weeks teaching two intro to sociology course last semester .

The question reprinted below led to such a great discussion – which yielded so many great resources. Suzanne was so captivated by the conversation that she pulled all the comments from my Facebook wall and archived the resources mentioned for easy use. Thanks Suzanne!! And now I share it with you all here on my blog.

This thread includes sociologists, museum curators,filmmakers,  and a host of other folks from different occupations but all who are committed to the transformation of conversations of race and other “differences” just as I am.

December 7th, 2012 – A Crisis of Privilege

On Dec 7th, I asked a question of my social network on Facebook after a long day of teaching. I asking just a week after another colleague ethnomusicologist Joe Schloss, Ph.D. had asked a professional question about teaching and race matters that also solicited a great deal of interaction. So I was following Joe’s lead when I posted the following knowing I’d get a response at least from sociologist David J. Leonard, Ph.D. and historian Mark Naison. Ph.D..

I knew there were a number of scholars and interested intellectuals who might reply. Sometimes being a black woman talking race incurs a shot the messenger phenomenon and my white male colleagues’ voices were useful to bridge a gap I was sensing after an extrememly long day of teaching. Their comments as well as others’ saved me hours of hand-wringing.

Here’s how I led up to my question:

In the last section of my Intro to Sociology course, two white students — one a 20 y/o 2nd gen Russian man and the other a 2nd gen Irish woman whose in her late 50s — voiced their discomfort with the ‘privilege’ part of white privilege as a term. The male student said he could understand that minorities are disadvantaged but he doesn’t like the term ‘privilege’ for whites. How would you handle this educational moment? Would love some suggestions. I have some but I could use some outside insight into how this black woman professor might help them see, feel, and understand what is meant by white privilege. The textbook we used is stellar in discussing it. I already shared a video of Peggy McIntosh. I am sharing this video with them today (EHL: Little Rock Nine – Elizabeth Eckford http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAPOvdOEYE8) but I realize these historic images keep it at a distance for contemporary thinking. Any video suggestions or exercises you use that I might borrow?

How do I get them from the personal view of “privilege” to a sociological view of it? — exercises or websites are welcome.”

That was my plea. I never shared the Eckford video with them because one of the sources below trumped it for me. I showed the episode of the documentary Race: The Power of Illusion titled “The House We Live In” about the history of redlining and housing discrimination in the U.S.. The next day of classes went extremely well AND I learned so much more from the unique demographics of Baruch College when we did the privilege line exercise. More another day on that.

Here’s a short list of resources from the online conversation.  But scroll down below this list for the actual comment thread (edited), which Suzanne urged that I blog and she (as I do) strongly recommend reading for a more nuanced view of this challenging topic and more tips on how to approach it.

A CRISIS OF PRIVILEGE RESOURCES:

The Privilege Walk Exercise

Article: “Dying While Black” by Dr. Mark Naison, Fordham College

Graphic on Intersectionality: here and the same graphic on another website: http://judge-me-not.weebly.com/fancy-terminology.html

Film: Cracking the Codes: The System of Inequity http://crackingthecodes.org/news/ or http://world-trust.org/mirrors-of-privilege-making-whiteness-visible/

Book: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander  http://www.newjimcrow.com

Article: white privilege and definitions  http://www.mpassociates.us/pdf/WIWP.pdf

Film: Jane Elliot, The Angry Eye

Book: Dalton Conley’s untextbook “You May Ask Yourself
AN INTRODUCTION TO THINKING LIKE A SOCIOLOGIST

Film: Documentary “The House We Live In” part of Race: The Power of Illusion

Here’s the Longer Comment Thread from Dec 7th that followed my update (an edited version):

Some of these people I only knew via Facebook. In fact many. I do know Kendra Hamilton from my former days at the University of Virginia, Ali Garrison from grad school at Michigan’s School of Music,  and Liz Marley from a conference for global transformation hosted by the Wisdom division of Landmark Education. I recently met David at a speaking engagement in NYC this past year for the first time. So this conversation thread is a mix of people giving freely to help me solve my dilemma.

Kyra: In the last section of my Intro to Sociology course, two white students — one a 20 y/o 2nd gen Russian man and the other a 2nd gen Irish woman whose in her late 50s — voiced their discomfort with the ‘privilege’ part of white privilege as a term. The male student said he could understand that minorities are disadvantaged but he doesn’t like the term ‘privilege’ for whites. How would you handle this educational moment? Would love some suggestions. I have some but I could use some outside insight into how this black woman professor might help them see, feel, and understand what is meant by white privilege. The textbook we used is stellar in discussing it. I already shared a video of Peggy McIntosh. I am sharing this video with them today (EHL: Little Rock Nine – Elizabeth Eckford http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CAPOvdOEYE8) but I realize these historic images keep it at a distance for contemporary thinking. Any video suggestions or exercises you use that I might borrow?

How do I get them from the personal view of “privilege” to a sociological view of it? — exercises or websites are welcome.”

Mark Naison Kyra. See if this short piece I wrote a couple of years back might help http://withabrooklynaccent.blogspot.com/2009/07/dying-while-black.html

David J. Leonard Have you done the privilege line exercise where they take 1 step forward and backward? It sounds like you have already presented it to them; resistance is evidence of their privilege

Mark Naison I think one of the problems is that not all whites are equally privileged and if you don’t account for class you can get moralistic on them. Nevertheless, white have a huge advantage even when they are working class, even when they have been in trouble with the law. You might want to look at statistics on the black white wealth gap and discuss why it is so great. But this is a very tough subject under the best of circumstances.

David J. Leonard I think any exercise has to account for race, gender, class, geography, sexuality; to echo Mark’s point, statistics are always a good place to start and end with

Kendra Hamilton Try talking about intersectionality–most people don’t like talking about privilege because they feel disadvantaged in one way or another. Talking about interlocking systems of advantage and disadvantage allow them to “add up” the privileges they enjoy vis-a-vis others. I back channeled you the graphic I use on your kyraocity account.

Taleta Jones Perhaps you could assign an “essay” using the simple textbook definitions of the words “Black” & “White”… Perhaps this will induce that “Moment of Clarity” for your students, Professor…

Jackie Peraza Kyra – They have a different map of reality. It’s rare to be able to get someone to expand their map unless you can get them to question their own belief systems. Have you tried asking what ‘white privilege’ might look like to them *if* it existed?

Karyn Beth Berger Discomfort is a part if the learning process….

Shiree Dyson [curator of MOADSF.org] Kyra show them the film Cracking the Codes: The System of Inequity http://crackingthecodes.org/news/ or http://world-trust.org/mirrors-of-privilege-making-whiteness-visible/

Liz Marley [from U.K.]  I think the work of Michelle Alexander: The New Jim Crow i.e. the war on drugs / that there are more African-American males in prison now than were ever slaves in 1850. That 34- 36% (I think) African-American) males have permanently lost their right to vote in some states due to ‘convict’ status. This is not even on a ‘white’ radar. And not even knowing it is difficult to get a taxi (until you shared and others since). And when I was 20 or so I had to digest the term ‘white’ and in last the few years ‘white privilege’. I just never had to think of myself as ‘white’ i.e. childhood in NE Enger-land or ‘priviledged’. Period. And get individuals who have experienced extreme abuse not ‘privileged’ (regardless race). Think important TWO WORDS are read together i.e. it’s not privilege as we ‘know it’. May be place to come from. Use if useful. Let me have feedback if anything inaccurate/off the mark. Thanks.

Kyra Gaunt Thanks David, the privilege line exercise is perfect. Karyn, discomfort is already there because as a black woman I don’t always have the privilege of talking about race without it turning back on me (that I am being racist). So there’s discomfort and yes I use it all the time but it’s always a dangerous place for black professors. I had a white student try to sue me after teaching my first racism course. Thankfully we resolved it before the last day of class but for 6 weeks it was hellish.

Kyra Gaunt Great article on white privilege and definitions: http://www.mpassociates.us/pdf/WIWP.pdf

Mark Naison Someone should film a Black woman professor and a White male professor teaching the same subject, with the same material, in demographically similar classes. It would be very interesting to compare student responses.

Natalie D. A. Bennett “white” people aren’t born that way, they become that. You have to show the students how they become white and are assigned privilege. Being 2nd generation Irish and Russian means something; you can’t dismiss it or hide it under “white” or they will not get the message.

William ‘Fridge’ Franklin What helped me understand that I had male privilege while being black was to mull over the notion that all other things being equal, your life will probably be easier as a male of any group than as a female. When you are talking about large numbers of people, that probability becomes a privilege. It doesn’t always work out at the individual level.

Ali Garrison (a white Canadian whose partner and father of her child is a black African) You’ve probably already thought of it, but just in case… for me, the white mother of a black child, a tough but a crucial perspective on the healing and teaching of empathy is the work that Jane Elliot has done. Can you show some of her work to them? She is a ruthless and brilliant warrior for the cause. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=neEVoFODQOE

Kyra Gaunt Thanks to everyone who offered guidance, material and exercises. I used the privilege line that David J. Leonard suggested and a great graphic on intersectionalities the Kendra Hamilton sent me from women’s studies. Used in both of my sections. Learned that focusing simply on the male student’s question was less divisive than tackling all kinds of privileges. As Mark Naison said all whites are not equally privileged – a critical point to highlight as a black professor for students who are triggered by my very presence as the authority. This was a needed insight to have become evident in a highly diverse immigrant and citizen student population at Baruch College. That particular student really appreciated it and others did too. I tackled Eurocentrism, heterosexism, colorism (in one section I gad them line themselves up by color light to dark) and class. We spent alot of time on that and discovered that Asians sre thriving economically in ways I wouldn’t have imagined at at public school. It was quite effective. The exercise also allowed the Jewish immigrants from Russia to share their privilege and lack of it (antisemetism) and an Asian looking student (that’s what “others” see) who wears a Mohawk share his embarrassing times when his mother would speak Spanish in public (Anglocentrism and a great moment of complexifying race/ethnicity) and add in a Latina like him shared how that privilege caused conformity to the norm. They both no longer show their multilingualism in dominant public settings.

Kyra Gaunt I’ve been using Dalton Conley’s untextbook and it does a fabulous job at complexifying the issue of race as one nowadays of white vs. nonwhite rather than white vs black. Highly recommend the text.

Denise J. Hart The documentary “The House We Live In” (part of Race: The Power of Illusion) is superb! Highly recommend it for this discussion. Clear, contemporary in examination with history to support the contemporary contextualization. Good luck!

Aishah Shahidah Simmons Kyra, thank you for this post. While I haven’t had this same exact experience in my classes this semester, it is something that I’ve had to face. There are so many wonderful suggestions. I use the word privilege and I also struggle its use. I believe I struggle with it because it doesn’t always get at the heart of the matter which is white supremacist structures, which marginalizes so many, including disenfranchised white people… Simultaneously there are other structures in which traditionally marginalized people benefit from even in the midst of their marginalization. What I try to do is discuss all of the ways that so many of us most especially in the U.S. occupy many spaces of privilege while simultaneously (possibly inadvertently) marginalizing others. When students (people) are occupying spaces/places of power and are resistant to it, I ask them to interrogate their resistance and explain why/how they don’t think they have power… These are not easy conversations to have at all and yet they are so necessary…. I’m still processing and learning. Again, thank you for this post.

Ali Garrison I think with something as important as empathy, we can try to be academic and intellectual about it, but nothing will teach us to feel what others feel like experiential learning. Hence the efficacy of Jane Elliot’s work. (The Angry Eye).

What a brilliant exchange!!

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