Category Archives: diversity

Rank: Having a foul or offensive smell

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from communications associate at WalletHub.com, identified in the email as “(one of the leading outlets covering the personal finance industry).” The associate wanted me to respond to a series of questions and provide a picture for an article in their “consumer education section” and (maybe?) national media.

Of course, WalletHub is the source of one of the worst and most popular practices around U.S. education—ranking states by educational quality, 2022’s States with the Best & Worst School Systems. I noticed when searching my email, I had been contacted before by WalletHub, but likely deleted without replying. This time I sent a pointed response that since I focus on equity in my work, I would not want to be associated with their harmful and misleading ranking.

The exchange was irritating and frustrating—and just business as usual in terms of how the media, politicians, and the public label education. And then I read this in the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC):

Once again, our schools are ranked 46th out of the 51 public school systems, according to the website WalletHub.

Scores from 2020-21 showed only 31% of our public school fourth graders read competently, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress.

That means 69% of our children cannot read well enough to complete work at their grade level. It would be worse without the many homes where parents teach their children to read.

Part of the responsibility rests with the South Carolina Department of Education.

Where is the accountability for student learning?

Year after year we see the same results on fourth grade reading and math.

W. Edwards Deming, an eminent scholar and teacher in American academia, says that “A bad system will beat a good person every time.”

And South Carolina has a bad system for teaching reading.

The South Carolina Department of Education has at least at least 30 people in the Office of Early Learning and Literacy.

If South Carolina’s children have been failing for the past 40 years, what have they been doing? Why do we have them? Where is their accountability?

Do they not see failing as a bad thing?

The system focuses on the curriculum rather than focusing on reading.

To get everything in, reading is integrated into other subjects rather than given its own primary focus.

In trying to teach so much, school leaders accomplish so much less.

I don’t understand why parents are not outraged over this. I certainly am.

JAMES DANIELS

Lake City

Why does South Carolina seem to care so little for its children?

There is so much wrong here—the data, the claims about teaching and reading, the influence of ranking on how the public views education, etc.—I cannot address it all, but let’s just focus on the ranking and suggesting there are valid ways to label states as “best” or “worst” in education.

The problems with ranking educational quality among states are many, and I recommend simply Googling “Gerald Bracey” and “educational rankings” if you want to explore the granular issues with statistics, etc.

The short version is that the urge to rank is itself a problem since to rank, you must create metrics that will produce a spread among whatever is being ranked. It is a sort of self-fulfilling process that necessitates that some things are labeled “best” and some “worst.”

But at the deeper level, the metrics and data used to rank are always something other than what is being ranked to begin with. In education, rankings often claim to be labeling educational quality while using metrics and data that are mostly about issues of equity—poverty, race, native language, school funding, student/teacher ratios, teacher experience and certification, etc.

Therefore, there is a great deal of overlap in WalletHub’s nonsensical “best” and “worst” rankings and the following:

At the most basic level—and the issues are far more complex than this—note the tremendous overlap of “worst” and poverty:

Here is the ugly truth: State rankings by educational quality are mostly rankings by poverty, race/racism, racial diversity/equity, etc.

Here is an even uglier truth: Schools and education systems tend to reflect, not change or overcome, the inequities of states and communities.

There are many aspects of schooling we should (must?) address, such as teaching and learning conditions and access to high-quality teachers, curriculum (such as content being banned by Republicans), and materials (such as the books being banned by Republicans).

But separate from that, we must reject rankings as, well, rank, having a foul and offensive smell.

Recommended

Brief: The Adequacy of School District Spending in the U.S.

Bully Politics and Political Theater in an Era of Racial Shift

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) recently bullied students about wearing masks as he prepared to give a press conference. DeSantis called wearing masks “Covid theater,” but it seems more likely his petulant behavior is his own political theater since DeSantis immediately turned the embarrassing behavior into a fundraising gimmick.

That a sitting governor publicly and brazenly chastised students—behavior that no student would be allowed toward other students or adults while in school—is a snapshot of the broader attack on K-16 education in the U.S., also driven entirely by Republicans.

Curriculum gag orders, anti-CRT legislation, and book bans all seek to censor any mentioning of race or racism as well as topics related to gender or sexuality (the latter repeatedly identified by Republicans as “pornography”).

Copy-cat legislation across Republican-led states is far less about teaching and learning than about the tremendous racial shift occurring in the U.S.—and the immediate tension in K-12 public education because of that shift.

The 2020 Census has revealed, as reported in USA Today: “The white, non-Hispanic population, without another race, decreased by 8.6% since 2010, according to the new data from the 2020 census. The U.S. is now 57.8% white, 18.7% Hispanic, 12.4% Black and 6% Asian.”

In short, the white racial majority in the U.S. is shrinking quickly, and the future of racial balance in the U.S. is now reflected in K-12 education, where white students constitute less than half of students:

However, K-12 education remains a very white space except for that student population.

Almost 80% of teachers are white, and despite the false claims made in curriculum gag orders and anti-CRT legislation, K-12 curriculum and texts remain disproportionately white:

Research on U.S. history textbooks indicate White, European Americans are featured in over half of pictorials and illustrations. In some cases, it is more than 80 percent. Representation of people from BIPOC backgrounds are rarely featured, with some ethnic groups featured as low as 1 percent.

These racial and ethnic representations do not reflect demographics given in the 2020 U.S. Census, where 61.6 percent of the population is identified as White, 18.7 percent Hispanic or Latinx, 12.4 percent Black or African American, 6 percent Asian, 1.1 percent American Indian and Alaska Native, 0.2 percent Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, 8.4 percent some other racial population, and 10.2 percent multiracial….

In sum, studies on books and other materials reveal that White characters are more prominent than BIPOC characters. The data suggest that it is likely that students who identify as White will see mirrors of themselves more often than students from BIPOC communities.

The Representation of Social Groups in U. S. Educational Materials and Why it Matters, Amanda LaTasha Armstrong

DeSantis, then, personifies the resulting bully politics of Republicans as a response to the racial shift occurring in the U.S.

An examination of bullying in academia offers an important frame for understanding the larger phenomenon of bully politics:

What makes bullying an unethical, yet effective, means to rise through the ranks? An emerging body of research suggests that mediocre academics in particular resort to bullying, to remove their competition. Experimental research has shown that when male hierarchies are disrupted by women, this incites hostile behaviour specifically from poorly performing men, because they stand to lose the most.

Members of underrepresented groups report they are the targets of bullying with the intent to sabotage their careers. Some anecdotes suggest that bullies spring into action when their targets become too successful for their liking — and thus viable competition.

How bullying becomes a career tool, Susanne Tauber and Morteza Mahmoudi

This unpacking of bullying in academia fits well into understanding the bully politics of Republicans, often mediocre white men, like DeSantis, who feel threatened and cultivate political capital by stoking racial animosity through misinformation.

As I have noted before, K-12 public education is quite conservative and, as shown above, very white. While curriculum gag orders have characterized teachers and schools as hostile to white students (legislating bans on making students uncomfortable)—without evidence—and rampant with CRT—which isn’t occurring in K-12 schools—few people are directly exposing why bully politics is on the rise—the significant racial shift in society and schools in tension with the static whiteness of teachers and curriculum.

Unlike the ways in which Republicans have characterized U.S. schooling, Ranita Ray has witnessed a much different reality for students:

What I discovered was rampant racism, cruelty, and indifference from teachers working inside public schools. Most of the teachers I observed were not, in fact, teaching about America’s racist history but instead were perpetuating everyday racial violence against their students inside the classroom. While the idea is not prominent in public discourse, I am not alone in finding teacher racism to be an everyday presence in the American classroom. One recent study, for example, found that teachers hold as much implicit and explicit pro-white racial bias as nonteachers do. Education scholar Michael Dumas has written about teacher racism and Black suffering inside the classroom, showing that these attitudes have concrete outcomes. And students themselves know this. Social media is replete with students talking about teacher racism, and they have often taken to the streets to protest it.

It Never Seems to Be a Good Time to Talk About Teachers’ Racism

The irony of the racial shift spurring bully politics lies in ground zero, the backlash against the 1619 Project, which represents not a rewriting of history but a confronting of what history is—stories of the past shaped by who ever has power.

The facts of history do not necessarily change but the power behind what facts are told and why does shift. The 1619 Project changes what is centered in the telling of U.S. history (moving it away from the idealized founding and toward the grim reality of the institution of slavery)—in a similar way to the shifting racial centering of the U.S. in the 2020s.

Republicans are scrambling not to protect history or Truth, but to further entrench a mythology, an aspirational white-washed version of the country.

The impetus behind the 1619 Project and diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts is well expressed in Adrienne Rich’s poem:

I came to explore the wreck.

…the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

“Diving into the Wreck”

The facts of history and even the present—and not the myths—are disturbing, uncomfortable (“the drowned face always staring”).

Some of us, like the speaker in Rich’s poem, accept the discomfort as motivation to work toward a better world for everyone.

Others are petulant, bullies, carelessly grabbing all their toys and threatening to go home.

DeSantis and the other mediocre Republicans are playing political theater but their bully politics is all too real and has devastating consequences for academic freedom and democracy.

Histrionics characterizing masks as “Covid theater” are masking white fear that has reduced the Republican Party to bully politics in the service of a misguided whiteness—and to the exclusion of democracy and basic human dignity.

Gag Orders, Loyalty Oaths, and the New McCarthyism

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.

“Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes

An avalanche of gag order bills are being proposed in South Carolina—H.4325H.4343H.4392H.4605, and H.4799. While my home state of SC often likes to brag about being the first state to secede in order to maintain slavery (an uncomfortable fact many of these laws would ban from being taught), these bills represent the sort of crass copy-cat legislation that is also sweeping across other Republican-led states.

Not only is there nothing original in these bills (or even evidence-based or logical), but also there is a profoundly disturbing repetition of one of the lowest points in U.S. history—the New McCarthyism.

Let’s start with facts, which Republican legislation seeks to censor:

  • “Critical Race Theory” as it is mischaracterized by Republicans does not exist in K-12 schools.
  • CRT as properly defined (a scholarly theory created primarily by Black scholars for the the field of law and adapted in a few other fields such as education and sociology) does not exit in K-12 schools.
  • Systemic racism is a fact of the founding of the U.S. and a fact of the U.S. in 2022, supported by irrefutable evidence that defies simplistic explanations (such as individual racism).
  • Race is a social construct and not a matter of biology.
  • History is a living field for considering the facts of the past; there is no one true history.
  • Intellectual discomfort is often a necessary aspect of new learning when anyone must confront misconceptions or missing knowledge in order to better understand and navigate the world.

The gag orders such as those listed above in SC are blunt partisan politics driven by orchestrated lies that have nothing to do with protecting students or with teaching factual history or excellent literature/texts.

Curriculum and book censorship in 2022 is our New McCarthyism because the CRT veneer is being used to promote ideological agendas aimed at Black people and LGBTQ+ people.

The McCarthy Era, also known as the Red Scare, was confronted in The Crucible by Arthur Miller, who uses allegory to warn the U.S. at mid-twentieth century that McCarthy’s cries of “communism” were partisan lies similar to the Salem witch trials.

There were no witches.

There were no lists of communists.

There is no CRT poisoning U.S. schools.

Yet, in their extreme forms, some gag orders include requirements for loyalty oaths and mechanisms for withholding state funding for a decade. Even for private organizations.

The ultimate horror of these gag orders from Republicans is that by legislating censorship of what history and texts students are allowed to learn, we will be insuring the most damning of ideas about history itself—those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, often the very worst of it.

Yesterday I saw the following Tweet about the Russia invasion of Ukraine:

While I endorse the sentiment, I have been watching for over a year while most of the U.S. fails to resist censorship right here in the so-called land of the free and home of the brave.

Republicans are running roughshod over freedom, pushing the U.S. toward banning abortion (despite a majority of Americans supporting maintaining Roe v. Wade) and enacting curriculum and book bans (despite large majorities of Americans rejecting censorship):

CBS news poll

Ultimately, gag orders, loyalty oaths, and censorship are un-American and anti-democratic, as ALAN notes in their Intellectual Freedom Statement:

We know that intellectual freedom is foundational to an educated citizenry and essential to the preservation and practice of democracy. We are dedicated to protecting this natural human right, and therefore, we insist on open access to all school reading materials for all students.

Intellectual Freedom Statement

The New McCarthyism exposes the Republican Party as a party of oppression, the exact sort of fact that should make everyone of us uncomfortable.


US Media Consumers Trapped in Both-Sides Multiverse [updated]

Jerry: I’m open. There’s just nothing in there.

SEINFELD S9 E3THE SERENITY NOW

If you want to fully understand mainstream journalism in the U.S., Twitter provided a few excellent examples recently.

The examples often come from the New York Times, a publication either viewed as the paper of record or a liberal rag, but mainstream journalism is consistently equally hollow regardless of outlet.

In a post from December 23, 2021, Twitter exposed the NYT’s use of passive voice, shading the public’s view of police killings by focusing on bullets:

That’s a magical agent-less bullet [1], much like the raging SUVs killing people as well:

Burying the agent, passive construction, is a common practice of mainstream media; for example, not saying aloud a key aspect of a story:

Refusing to acknowledge that the Critical Race Theory attacks are driven by white parents and white politics is distorting the public’s perception of this manufactured crisis in a similar way to the NYT’s coverage of police shootings.

But the primary go-to of the NYT and most mainstream journalism is reducing all coverage to “both sides” false equivalence:

In Enid, both sides in the mask debate believed they were standing up for what was right. Both cared deeply for their city — and their country — and believed that, in their own way, they were working to save it. And it all started as an argument over a simple piece of cloth.

First They Fought About Masks. Then Over the Soul of the City.

Of course, advocating for health and safety based on medical evidence is exactly the same as advocating for endangering people based on nonsense—as long as “both sides” are passionate.

Just like during the Holocaust, we might imagine the NYT’s coverage framing Nazi’s and Jews “believ[ing] they were [both] standing up for what was right.”

While, as I noted above, people tend either to oversell the NYT as having the “best” journalism or to demonize the NYT as absurdly “liberal,” the truth is that the NYT and most mainstream journalism are consistently hollow; “[t]here’s just nothing in there.”

If you pay attention to mainstream journalism, for example, you discover U.S. public schools suck, teachers don’t know what they are doing because teacher educators are clueless (especially when teaching reading), and , of course, poor people are incredibly lazy and horrible with money (notable is the NYT apparently cribbing from The Onion).

Why such baseless and hollow criticism of education and people trapped in poverty? My guess is the mainstream journalism is using deflection to cover for the essential hollowness of mainstream journalism.

And coincidentally, since my fields of experience and expertise include both education and writing (I taught and have written journalism), I believe journalism suffers a similar fate to education, especially elementary education.

Let me emphasize here that I strongly believe journalism and education are robust and credible fields of study, worthy of scholarship and suitable as majors for undergraduate and graduate students. However, when journalism and education are reduced to skills only, the problems noted above occur.

Being well versed in how to conduct journalism or how to teach is important, but not adequate.

Having been a so-called serious writer for about 40 years, I am certain I have the rhetorical skills to write authoritatively about any topic. But those skills would prove to be a mirage, a veneer with quite a few subjects about which I have no expertise.

As I have noted repeatedly about the “science of reading” movement, media coverage of how to teach reading is reductive and worst of all lacking historical context. The SoR problems are examples of Christopher Columbus journalism, a journalist approaching a topic as if they are the first to discover the topic while running roughshod over an existing field.

Being an experienced journalist and having a degree in journalism are of little real value if the journalist doesn’t also have the extensive knowledge of a topic that scholars have.

Ironically, the “both sides” approach, I think, comes in part from admitting a lack of knowledge by the journalist, who then reaches out to people who know the field. The mistake comes when the journalist has no knowledge that would allow them to evaluate who they cite—resulting in far too often journalism that is nothing more than false equivalence.

I was invited once to debate corporal punishment, and the people organizing the debate were perplexed they couldn’t find anyone who was pro-corporal punishment to participate, to which I noted that some topics do not have two sides. The person I was interacting with, a journalist, was completely disoriented by that concept.

People who are anti-racist are not morally or ethically equal to white nationalists or people who oppose anti-racism education; that “both sides” are passionate is a silly equivalence, a hollow equivalence.

Finally, let’s circle back to the Todd/Hannah-Jones exchange. Journalism and education have something else in common—disproportionate whiteness. Journalists are about 70% white (and incredibly under-representative of Black journalists at just over 5%), and educators are about 80% white (also under-representing Black educators at 7%).

Just as mainstream journalism defaults to passive constructions around police shootings, mainstream journalism rarely utters “white” because most journalists cannot see whiteness; whiteness perpetuates itself because it blinds white people to the facts of race.

The manufactured attacks on CRT as a subset of Trumpism are reinforced by mainstream media’s refusal to delineate for readers between credible and false claims. In the early days of Trump, we watched mainstream journalism struggle to call Trump’s lies “lies.”

The simplistic “objective/neutral” pose of journalists is one of the foundational flawed skills of journalism that stands in place of actual expertise.

Mainstream journalism does not suffer from a liberal bias, but mainstream journalism does suffer from a hollowness that is reflected in journalists defaulting to passive constructions and erasing the most essential elements of the topics they are covering.

Unlike Jerry on Seinfeld, journalists have yet to come to the awareness that when you confront their reporting “[t]here’s just nothing in there,” like, as the many Black folk I follow on Twitter noted, the meals white folk prepared at Thanksgiving.


[1] Updated coverage; note the passive voice in the subtitle:

Key information from the coverage:

Surveillance video showed the suspect attacking two women, including one who fell to the floor before he dragged her by her feet through the store’s aisles as she tried to crawl away.

Multiple people including store employees called police to report a man striking customers with a bike lock at the store in the North Hollywood area of the San Fernando Valley. One caller told a 911 dispatcher that the man had a gun. No firearm — only the bike lock — was recovered at the scene….

In bodycam video, armed officers entered the store and approached the suspect. The victim was seen on the blood-stained floor and the suspect was on the other side of the aisle. At least one officer opened fire, striking the man.

The 24-year-old suspect, Daniel Elena Lopez, died at the scene. Also killed was Valentina Orellana-Peralta, 14, who was hiding with her mother inside a dressing room….

LAPD officers have shot […] 38 people — 18 of them fatally, including the shooting Sunday of a man with a knife — in 2021, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Those figures mark a dramatic rise in cases where officers shot or killed people in either of the last two years — 27 people were shot and 7 of them killed by LA police in all of 2020. In 2019, officers shot 26 people, killing 12.

Los Angeles Police Video Shows Officer Shooting That Killed 14-Year-Old Girl

Stranger Things: The Eternal Whiteness of the Pop Culture Mind

South Park has Token, and Stranger Things has Lucas Sinclair.

Having come (very) late to Stranger Things, this was one of my first thoughts when Lucas sets off on his own to find the gate (S1E6).

stranger things 2016 - Cheap Online Shopping -

Since Stranger Things is a pop culture referential series, my experience includes immediately thinking of WandaVision (also referential and driven by pastiche) and how Stranger Things includes more than a passing debt to superhero narratives, along with gaming culture as well as the broader 1980s TV and movie references.

I am a child of the 1960s and 1970s, but the love affair Stranger Things has for the 1980s speaks to vivid elements of my young adulthood spent navigating marriage, fostering a career, and fathering my only child in 1989.

The power of this series and the enduring elements of pop culture in the U.S. have been confirmed for me as I continue to make asynchronous connections (Stranger Things as the child of The X-Files and Mayor of Easttown).

Even though I haven’t watched the show until mid-2021 (I just began Season 2), I do have a good deal of fringe knowledge about the series and essential spoiler knowledge that likely dulls some of the tension created in the show when watched in real time.

I know, for example, certain characters persist even when they are put in serious danger in the first season. In S1E6 mentioned above, whether the show’s creators intended this or not, having a lone Black character placed in danger triggers one of the worst aspects of pop culture, linked to Star Trek (redshirt characters) and the use of “throw-away” characters that are too often Black and other racial minorities.

Lucas isn’t sacrificed, however (Barbara isn’t so lucky).

And like Mare of Easttown, Stranger Things represents a much larger problem in the U.S.—the eternal whiteness of the pop culture mind.

Also like Mare of Easttown, Stranger Things has a white people gaze that is strongly linked to white people dysfunction and the ever-creeping danger surrounding children (mostly white).

Eleven is remarkably frail (the camera work shifting from her intense face to her full-bodied spindly self is excellent), and fantastically powerful (at great expense to herself).

Stranger Things but true: the US Department of Energy does human  experiments, searches for The Upside Down

But the white problem in Stranger Things (Indiana) also sits beside the superhero genre obsession with white Middle America (see also the whiteness of South Park in Colorado and Mare in Pennsylvania).

Superhero narratives in the world of comic books are grounded in (and recursively obsessed with) origin stories, and the origin story of the superhero narrative serves an important purpose as I navigate Stranger Things.

Michael Chabon beautifully fictionalizes who and how superhero comics came to be in his The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

I was a comic book collector throughout my teen years, the 1970s, and although the rise of the MCU is relatively recent, I have always felt comic book narratives have been incredibly important contributors to and reflective of pop culture in the U.S.

Those original creators, as Chabon dramatizes, were often Jewish and/or immigrants (Joseph Shuster and Jerry Siegel [Superman], Jack Kirby and Stan Lee [Marvel], Joe Simon [with Kirby, Captain America], and Bob Kane [Batman], for example).

These origins are steeped in a singular American Dream by men of aspirational backgrounds, and they seem to have chosen white Middle America as their only template; just think of Superman, an alien expelled from his home planet and landing in the Great Farm Land (Smallville) to be raised by an earnest working class white couple.

Kurt Vonnegut—a pop culture icon referenced in Stranger Things—writes on the first page of Mother Night:

This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don’t think it’s a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. (p. v)

Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut

I think Vonnegut has a point not only for anyone (especially children and teens) existing in the so-called “real world,” but especially for those imagined worlds, the ones that seem struck in time and place—and race.

The many powerful themes of Stranger Things driven by the stellar acting must not be reduced to the simplistic “universal” praise—although childhood and the dangers of being a child or teen are shared among viewers regardless of race, etc.

Nancy Wheeler, for example, is yet another spindly white girl/young woman (like Eleven) who directly personifies Vonnegut’s warning; Jonathan Byers confronts her about pretending to be someone she isn’t in Season 1.

Her experiences are valid, and even compelling—although they pale beside Eleven’s.

Ultimately, I am left uncomfortable that Stranger Things has fallen into the well-worn rut (from Superman to Mare of Easttown) because too many people continue to believe the viewing public has empathy primarily for the frailty of whiteness.

The Politics of Childhood in an Era of Authoritarian Education

While on vacation, a friend and I were discussing the paradox of parenting.

A parent often feels a tension between fostering and supporting a child to be the person they want to be as that contrasts with dictating what is best for the child (knowing as adults do that children, teens, and young adults often make decisions necessarily without the context of experience that would certainly change many decisions).

That paradox, that tension has existed for me as a teacher/professor, parent, grandparent, and coach.

I am constantly checking myself in roles of authority to determine if I am imposing my authority onto children and young people (authoritarian) or if I am mentoring and fostering those humans in the cone of my authority in ways that support their own autonomy and development along lines they actively choose for themselves (authoritative).

This is a dichotomy examined by Paulo Freire, and a central concern for any critical educator.

The current misguided attacks on anything “critical” is particularly frustrating for critical educators since these attacks are designed to fulfill the demands of authoritarian systems, partisan politics and formal education.

It has occurred to me recently that I have been in roles of authority for a very long time, beginning with working as a lifeguard in my mid- to late teens. My role of authority literally began, then, with the expectations that I would guard human life—any human life that came into the sphere of the pool where I was charged with monitoring swimming and the safety of not only individual swimmers but all of the people in the pool.

I was a very good and capable swimmer, and for a teen, I was reasonably responsible (although I cringe thinking about being a head lifeguard when only 17 or so). But having the level of authority and responsibility that being a lifeguard entails was quite likely asking far more of me that I deserved.

Those days of lifeguarding set me on course for being the responsible person for the next 40-plus years, exacting a significant toll on me psychologically and emotionally.

Maintaining a critical authoritative pose when in positions of authority is extremely hard, much harder than being authoritarian.

Way back in the 1980s and 1990s, I was practicing in many ways the sort of critical teaching that is coming under attack in 2021, even resulting in a teacher in Tennessee being fired:

At issue was Hawn assigning the essay “The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates to students in his Contemporary Issues class in February, and later in March, playing a video of “White Privilege,” a spoken word poem by Kyla Jenée Lacey to the same students.

A Tennessee teacher taught a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay and a poem about white privilege. He was fired for it

Many conservatives see the work of Coates, for example, as radical, while those of us on the left would argue Coates’s work is quite mainstream and accessible—but far from radical. This is the same dynamic around Barack Obama, for example; Obama is a moderate and an incrementalist, but certainly not a radical leftist or Marxist (as conservatives like to suggest).

While I taught high school English in the very conservative rural South, I was mostly allowed to teach texts with only occasional complaints from parents. What looks quite odd now is that I included Howard Zinn in my classes for many years without a peep from anyone (Zinn is a key target of the ant-CRT movement now).

But I also included Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology in my classes in order to help students navigate metaphorical approaches to narratives (a key skill needed in the Advanced Placement course I taught and as preparation for college).

Including Campbell did cause problems since his work complicated the literalism many of students experienced in their religious lives. Fundamentalist Christianity was the background of nearly all my students, and Campbell’s casual claims that all religions and mythologies told similar archetypal stories stepped on the toes of arguments that accepting Jesus was the only way into heaven.

I aroused similar complaints by including Gandhi in my Emerson/Thoreau/MLK unit.

The parental challenges to Campbell and Gandhi were grounded in a type of insecurity that had never been examined critically by those parents, all of which was the result of having been raised in authoritarian environments.

I did have my students interrogate that Sunday school and preaching were not places where they were encouraged to ask questions or challenge any of the “lessons” they received.

So in 2021, I cannot stress too much that the Republican attack on critical race theory and how history is taught is simply a battle for the integrity of the mind of children, teens, and young adults.

Learning and knowledge—especially if we genuinely believe in human autonomy and democracy—are not simply about accumulating facts determined to be true or important by some authority, but are about learning how to know what we believe is true and why.

Human freedom is most threatened by unexamined beliefs, not by the act of questioning itself.

Authority doesn’t just resist questioning, but entirely rejects it as an act.

Republicans and the conservatives drawn to authoritarianism do not trust human agency, do not believe in the free exchange of ideas, and do not believe in the essential power of questioning, especially when the questions are aimed at their authority.

Nothing is as simple as “both sides,” and certainly we should never fall into traps of “only know this.”

There can never be free people, however, without free minds cultivated in the guarantee of academic freedom.

And the free exchange of ideas will never be spaces without discomfort, which now seems to be a smokescreen used by Republicans in their pursuit of securing authority.

Suddenly, Republicans are concerned about uncomfortable white students, but seem oblivious to the discomfort, for example, of thousands and thousands of Black students experience reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird.

Teachers must now tip-toe around the uncomfortable texts and conversations about race and racism because of the possibility of white discomfort (note that Black discomfort about Huck Finn has been repeatedly swept aside under the guise of “classic literature”)—a stance once again disregarding the daily discomfort of Black children experiencing racism.

Intellectual discomfort (what texts and discussions prompt in formal schooling) is often necessary for learning, but existential discomfort (what targets of racism and sexism experience) are not necessary and are essentially harmful.

Authoritarian education is willing to sacrifice the existential comfort of marginalized children in order to shield some children from intellectual discomfort.

Even more disturbing, however, is that what is really being protected is the frailty of those students’ parents and those people in authority who are not willing to risk being challenged or questioned in any way.

There Can Be No Equity without Community and Empathy

[D]espite overwhelmingly good intentions, most of what passes for intercultural education practice, particularly in the US,
accentuates rather than undermines existing social and political hierarchies.

Paul Gorski, Good intentions are not enough: a decolonizing intercultural education

A split second of awareness kept me from stepping into my apartment’s elevator, the floor covered in vomit, recently.

I thought about this moment yesterday while standing in that same elevator filled with an unpleasant smell as I also noticed a new orange-brown stain on the floor.

A week or so ago, I was unloading two bicycles from my car rack, going up and down the elevator and walking through the enclosed garage of the complex a couple of times. I encountered twice a women with her small dog on a lease, and in both cases, she paused while the dog urinated on a steel beam in the garage.

It isn’t uncommon to see dog droppings scattered down the hallway carpet in this complex either.

Having lived almost four decades in my own homes before becoming an apartment dweller, these experiences are new but not shocking, and they remind me of the general lack of concern for others I experienced in dorm life in college. I also recognize these behaviors are typical of the American character, one grounded in rugged individualism and lacking any real sense of community.

It is the trash carelessly tossed out of car windows or dropped on the sidewalk.

It is the “I got mine so you get yours!” ethos of the good ol’ U.S. of A.

As I stepped out of the elevator yesterday, I was thinking about #TransDayofVisibility and about why people are so antagonistic about diverse sexualities and races, about gender fluidity and transexuality.

A type of awareness for me that helped move me past the bigotry and intolerance of my upbringing was coming to peace with my own self-awareness, being able to articulate that I did not make choices about my gender identification or sexuality but that I came to recognize my gender identification and sexuality.

To be blunt, I cannot fathom denying other people that recognition because I want my awareness to be honored. I also had to come to terms with differences being simply different and having nothing to do with right or wrong, or normal or abnormal.

What is “right” or “normal” for me is not in any way a template or commentary on anyone else, and vice versa.

While this may not be uniquely American, it is certainly true of Americans that we have a fatal lack of community and empathy.

And that “we” is statistically white Americans who exist in a sort of fear that if the “normal” white America has constructed isn’t the only way of being then maybe it isn’t “right.”

Rugged individualism is a significant part of the enduring presence of racism, sexism, homo-/trans-phobia, and all sorts of bigotry in the U.S.

But the negative consequences of rugged individualism are more than the narcissism inherent in racism and other types of bigotry (the provincialism that leads a person to see themselves as “right” and “normal” and people unlike them as “Other”).

What may be worse is that a society that centers the individual maintains inequity even when trying to expand diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) if the centering remains.

I have been involved in DEI initiatives at my university for many years, and since I actively incorporate anti-racism/anti-bias elements in my scholarly and public work, I find myself regularly confronting the misguided “good intentions” of my colleagues, my progressive white colleagues.

My first rude awakening about DEI in colleges and universities came early on when I discovered that my department and DEI structures across campus used the strongly debunked “framework of poverty” promoted by Ruby Payne.

Payne’s work is steeped in racist and classist stereotyping, and it suffers from the centering of whiteness and an idealized middle-class “normal.” When I challenged using Payne’s workbooks, I also encountered the other level of centering: “But it works,” I was told, “with our population of students.”

“Our population of students” happens to privileged and white.

Almost twenty years later, I faced the same situation and same justification again.

An event was held for students examining the storming of the U.S. Capitol in January 2021. The featured speaker was a former white nationalist. When I raised concerns about centering a former white nationalist, I heard the exact same justification I heard in my first weeks of coming to my university—but our (white) students.

What if we created opportunities for growth in DEI by centering those people experiencing the unfair weight of inequity? What if we considered a Black student sitting in the audience while a former white nationalist was given center stage and honored as an authority?

If we were organizing an event on sexual assault would we invite a former rapist to speak to that audience? If not, I imagine some of that decision is grounded in considering those people who have experienced sexual assault.

I included the central point from Gorski above this blog because I am disheartened by DEI efforts; I am witnessing Gorski’s recognition that “good intentions” often still perpetuate inequity by refusing to confront it, not resisting the urge to center whiteness and privilege.

While I no longer see Payne’s materials around campus, many still eagerly guide students through poverty simulations, poverty tours, and “pretend to be a minority” activities; these are all dehumanizing and offensive approaches that are grounded in stereotyping while continuing to center the sensibilities of the “normalized” group.

No one needs to pretend to be poor or minoritized is they are willing and eager to listen to people with lived experiences in poverty or being a minority.

Days ago I avoided stepping into that elevator because I was looking beyond myself instead of assuming the world was centered on me.

That elevator would have been clean and safe to enter, however, if everyone else lived with a sense of community and empathy.

Imposter: Whitewashing “By Any Means Necessary”

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,” but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.

James Baldwin, On Language, Race and the Black Writer (Los Angeles Times, 1979)

I have these very deep feelings that white people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their consciences. By visibly hovering near us, they are “proving” they are “with us.”

Malcolm X, “What Can a Sincere White Person Do?”

I grew up among oafish racists in my white family and community. This was upstate South Carolina in the 1960s and 1970s.

As a teenager, I stood in the pro shop of the golf course where I worked while one of the grounds crew carefully explained to me that once Cain was banished from the Garden of Eden, he mated with apes and that’s how we have Black people.

This horrific moment aside, one of the most stark lessons I learned living among people with grossly simplistic views of race was that any person’s relationship with race is incredibly complicated.

Each summer as a teenager, I moved from working in the pro shop to working as an attendant and then a lifeguard at the country club’s pool. There, white Southern women arrived daily, many with unnaturally bleached-blond hair piled high, and rubbed themselves down with baby oil to sun bath from midmorning until mid-afternoon.

These women were as blatantly racist as their husbands routinely were on the golf course—a white person’s sanctuary that explicitly banned Black people from joining.

I have a very vivid memory of one woman, a wife of a long-time employee of the golf course. She had the most cartoonish bleached hair, maybe the tallest, but she also was tanned to beyond brown; with the lathering of baby oil, her stomach glistened black.

And my mother often joined these women. She also sunbathed in our yard when not at the pool. Like her father who sat outside barefoot in only cut-off blue jean shorts any sunny day, she was olive complexioned and tanned deeply.

Harold Sowers, my maternal grandfather, was my Tu-Daddy; here, in his later years, he sat outside fully clothed and in the shade.

What compelled these white women who so openly loathed Black and brown people to render themselves dark every summer?

This, I think, is the complexity of anyone’s relationship with race—especially when white and especially when trapped in baseless, simplistic views of race that serve the interests of white people.

In the first six years of my life, before we moved to the golf course, I remember vividly that my mother often suggested she had some Indian heritage; with hindsight, I suspect she spoke with something like a garbled romantic longing because she had exoticized the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina from briefly living in Lumberton, North Carolina growing up.

My mother also adored Cher, whose own jumbled heritage and flourishes of cultural appropriation helped fuel the very worst aspects of my mother’s racism.

Wikipedia offers how complex race and celebrity are (not the used of “claimed”): “Cher was born Cherilyn Sarkisian in El Centro, California, on May 20, 1946.[3] Her father, John Sarkisian, was an Armenian-American truck driver with drug and gambling problems; her mother, Georgia Holt (born Jackie Jean Crouch), was an occasional model and bit-part actress who claimed Irish, English, German, and Cherokee ancestry.”

These white women tanning and my mother’s fantasy of having Lumbee blood somewhere in her veins are my first experiences with white women imposters, who are increasingly being exposed in higher education:

This year alone has seen the unmasking of a handful of white academics who have posed as nonwhite: BethAnn McLaughlinJessica Krug, C. V. Vitolo-Haddad and Craig Chapman.

Whereas Chapman and McLaughlin impersonated women of color online only, Krug and Vitolo-Haddad wove their false ethnicities into their personal and professional identities day in and day out. This kind of living a lie is perhaps most infamously exemplified by Rachel Dolezal, former head of the NAACP in Tacoma, Wash., and part-time professor of African American studies at Eastern Washington University. Dolezal identified herself as Black but was revealed to be white in 2015.

White women passing as not white has become a multi-layered offensive whitewashing of “by any means necessary,” since this act of being an imposter seems designed to manipulate a genuine problem in academia, the lack of diversity.

The paradoxical aspect of these layers includes that women are one of the areas of need in many universities dedicated to increasing diversity and inclusion and that white women suffer the negative consequences of being women even as that is tempered by their proximity to white men’s privilege (something that we have abundant evidence a majority of white women will cultivate, notably that more white women voted for Trump in 2016 than for a white woman, Hillary Clinton).

White imposters of race who are women are not only doing harm by taking away the very small spaces afforded Black and brown faculty candidates, but by spitting in the face of the very real and very harmful effects of imposter syndrome often experienced by minoritized people.

As a faculty member on our presidential committee for diversity and inclusion, I have spent many years specifically serving on and chairing a committee that participates in the hiring process so that the university implements best practice to increase diversity among our faculty (which is deeply underrepresented by race as well as gender).

Since my university has now faced a recently hired faculty member accused of being a race imposter, I am witnessing in proximity (as I did with my mother) that this deception has many negative consequences, mostly suffered by the people this event has impacted directly (the department, students, etc.) and indirectly (candidates not hired), but also impacting the process of recruiting and hiring diverse faculty.

Academia is a complicated environment, even culture, in which many things must not be spoken while other things are discussed to the point of no return (with no action).

Legal restrictions and tradition have created circumstances whereby universities seeking diverse faculty can discuss diversity needs and set up policies and practices aimed at increasing diversity, but not explicitly address any candidate’s race, culture, gender, etc.

There are also spaces in academia (not all of them) where everything works under a veil of good faith, but the sort of good faith that has existed forever among the privileged, the sort of wink-wink-nod-nod that existed among the all-white members of the golf course of my youth.

Higher education is not the world of Leftist indoctrination imagined by conservatives, but it is populated by progressives with good intentions who are more than counter-balanced by a willful naivete that comes with being the white progressives Martin Luther King Jr. warned about.

As I mentioned above, academia can often be more words than action. I do not doubt that many who speak often and eloquently about the need for diversity and inclusion are genuine in their rhetoric and their intellectual commitment; but I also know for a fact that most who offer the rhetoric balk at taking any actual steps on the road to equity.

Don’t want to step on any of the wrong toes.

There are few places where “talk is cheap” (and safe) is more telling and complicated than higher ed.

Academia, then, is ripe for deception by those who are willing to whitewash “by any means necessary” even at the expense of people who have no choice but to live lives tinted every moment with racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.

My life has transitioned from the oafish racism of my childhood—good country people—to the elegant racism of higher education—well-educated people with good intentions.

Each faculty member unmasked for being a race imposter sends me back in time to my mother playing Cher records or sun bathing with the regulars at the golf course pool.

I have been reminded in recent days that people with grossly simplistic views of race reveal that any person’s relationship with race is incredibly complicated—and ultimately dangerous.

Confronting DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” in the Time of #BlackLivesMatter

For a book on racism written by an academic, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility has experienced a level of popularity over the last two years that is interesting, if not surprising.

With the #BlackLivesMatter movement re-ignited after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer, DiAngelo’s book has also experienced another significant boost in readership, primarily by white Americans seemingly having a long-overdue come-to-Jesus moment with their whiteness and complicity in systemic racism.

On social media, however, blog posts and Twitter threads have warned “don’t read White Fragility” and “don’t worship DiAngelo.” These warnings come from Black scholars and advocates for anti-racism activism, creating a powerful and important tension in that fight to eradicate white privilege and racism in the U.S.

There is also an insidious challenge to DiAngelo and White Fragility that comes from and speaks to white denial and white nationalism; this denial is grounded in a dishonest use of “science” calling into question DiAngelo’s statistics, methods, and scholarship.

This rebuttal is ironic proof of the existence and resilience of white denial and racism. It has no credibility and is a distraction.

Black voices, however, challenging the centering of DiAngelo in the conversation about race and racism must be acknowledged by anyone—especially white people—claiming to be anti-racism.

Having been raised in a racist home (with parents who embraced white celebrities such as Elvis Presley whose celebrity erased Black entertainers) and community throughout the 1960s and 1970s, I have documented that my journey to awareness about white privilege, white denial/fragility, and systemic racism has been grounded in Black writers and scholars.

When I first read DiAngelo’s essay, I found nothing new or surprising, except that a book existed and that people seemed to be reading it.

If anyone had wanted to understand white America or white fragility, James Baldwin unpacked all that often, for example in 1962’s “Letter from a Region in My Mind”:

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My reading and scholarship on race, whiteness, and racism began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Carter Godwin Woodson, bell hooks, Paulo Freire, Martin Luther King Jr., Nikki Giovanni, Frederick Douglass, Nina Simone, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, Bayard Rustin, and others.

I cannot emphasize enough the essential role social media has played in my evolving racial awareness through my being able to connect to an invaluable wealth of Black and multi-racial scholars, academics, writers, and creators whose voices drive my own commitments to anti-racism: Natalie Hopkinson, Jose Vilson, Chris Emdin, Trina Shanks, Camika Royal, Theresa Runstedtler, Nikki Jones, Mariame Kaba, Robert Jones Jr., Mychal Denzel Smith, Andre Perry, Ernest Morrell, Seneca Vaught, Michah Ali, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Rhondda R. Thomas, Jay Smooth, Greg Carr, Imani Gandy, Lou Moore, Simone Sebastian, Yvette Carnell, Asadah Kirkland, Venus Evans-Winter, Roxane Gay, John Ira Jennings, Jacqueline Woodson, Cornelius Minor, Stacey Patton, Jessica Moulite, Chenjerai Kumanyika, Brittney Cooper, Lisa Stringfellow, Angela Dye, Sherri Spelic, Bree Newsome Bass, Zoe Samudzi, Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Jonathan W. Gray, A.D. Carson, Terrenda White, Clint Smith, David E. Kirkland, Dereca Blackmon, Alondra Nelson, Teju Cole, Colin Kaepernick, Morgan Parker, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Crystal Fleming, Eve L. Ewing, Johnny E. Williams, DeMisty Bellinger, Imani Perry, Josie Duffy Rice, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Etan Thomas, Ijeoma Oluo, Natalie Auzenne, Ja’han Jones, Howard Bryant, The Root, Jemele Hill, Ibram X. Kendi, Nnedi Okorafor, Jason Reynolds, Jamil Smith, Valerie Kinloch, Michael Harriot, Bomani Jones, Rashawn Ray, Walter D. Greason, Hanif Abdurraqib, Sarah Thomas, Joshua Bennett, Marc Lamont Hill, Sarah J. Jackson, Clarkisha Kent, Robert Randolph Jr., Peter Darker, Tanji Reed Marshall, Sil Lai Abrams, Sami Schalk, Bianca Nightengale-Lee, Jessica Owens-Young, Andre M. Carrington, Christena Cleveland, Christopher Cameron, Val Brown, Kim Pearson, Kim Parker, Nicole Sealey, Margaret Kimberley, Malaika Jabali, Lisa Sharon Harper, Benjamin Dixon, Tade Thompson, Maria Taylor, Terri N. Watson, Zaretta Hammond, Shea Martin, and Kim Gallon.

There simply is an enormous wealth of Black voices historical and contemporary that white people should read and listen to, often easily accessible online, in fact.

DiAngelo is finding a place in mainstream and fragile America in a similar way that Ta-nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander have, the latter two Black writers having also received criticism from Black scholars and public intellectuals for appeasing whiteness even as they confront racism.

I have included DiAngelo’s book as a choice reading in my courses as I have introduced students to Coates and Alexander—with caveats and in the context of required reading from critical Black writers, thinkers, and scholars.

White privileged students have admitted openly in class sessions that they finally listened to DiAngelo, even though they have heard and resisted claims of white privilege and systemic racism before.

DiAngelo’s White Fragility and her celebrity from that work fit into what I have called the paradox of centering whiteness to de-center whiteness (a paradox of which I am a part).

DiAngelo represents centering whiteness, acknowledging racism and Black suffering only in proximity to whiteness, and Black voices given space because of white approval; these all work against anti-racism and are in fact racism.

Simultaneously, and paradoxically, DiAngelo represents the importance of and power in white-to-white confronting of and naming racism as well as white denial and fragility.

Yes, we should all feel skeptical about celebrity status and capitalizing from racism, just as we should resist monetizing and career-boosting that surrounds poverty studies as well as poverty workshops and simulations.

White people must not worship DiAngelo or her book, and no one should be recommending that white people read only White Fragility or read it instead of Black voices.

My students who have been introduced to DiAngelo know that dozens of Black writers, thinkers, and scholars made the case against whiteness and racism over decades starting at least a century ago (in terms of the works I offer as required reading).

I take the warnings of “don’t read DiAngelo” from Black scholars very seriously, and find compelling without qualifications the alternative offered—read Black voices, listen to Black voices, and believe Black voices on their own merit.

I also think there remains a place for DiAngelo’s work—even as it has one foot solidly in centering whiteness—as long as it is an element of de-centering whiteness and eradicating white privilege and racism.

My critical commitments make me concerned this caveat is a mistake, yet another concession to that white fragility which DiAngelo is naming.

Is a contextualized place for DiAngelo necessary as white people continue to wrestle with racism? I think that is likely true.

“Don’t rely on only white voices about whiteness and racism” is the goal, the ideal.

Since we find ourselves in the midst of the paradox of centering whiteness to de-center whiteness, at the very least white people committed to anti-racism must reject calls for reading only DiAngelo or reading DiAngelo instead of Black voices.

White celebrity and white authority can no longer be allowed to rise on the backs and instead of Black labor and experiences, as that whiteness occupies spaces that erase or bar Black voices.

There simply is no place left for approaching the work of anti-racism while tip-toeing around the delicacy of white people.

Ultimately that is the sort of white fragility we must recognize, name, and check.


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