Over the weekend I had the displeasure of reading some of the most insulting, patronizing collection of words penned by a man of supposed higher education.
In an LA Times op-ed Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor at NYU, and judging by his photos, decidedly not Black, deemed it necessary to take to a national newspaper to tell Black students how to behave and advise university faculty and administration on how to treat them. Not only did he step out of his lane to admonish America’s least favorite ethnic minority, he had the nerve to use the name and highly regarded words of Black writer Ralph Ellisonto do so.
Here we go again.
It’s almost inevitable that after each Black Lives Matter protest (or any protest where the majority of the faces are Black), particularly those which the news reports as “violent,” sanctimonious White people will finger wag at Black people, twisting the legacy of Reverend Dr. King to fit their narrative with some variation of: “Dr. King would be appalled by this behavior.”
In fact, there is such a history of white people talking down to their Black peers the same way one speaks to a child, that there’s a term for it: white paternalism. What Jonathan Zimmerman wrote in his needless piece – without irony – smacks of this, no matter how academically he couches it.
Ellison would be appalled by our current moment on American campuses, where the damage thesis has returned with a vengeance.
The arrogance to presume one could know how Ralph Ellison – born only two generations after slavery was abolished – would view today’s Black student rights’ movement. A growing movement with a should-be simple request – to be treated with the same respect, and afforded the same opportunities, as their white classmates.
Zimmerman goes on to say:
I don’t doubt that African American students — and other minorities at our colleges — experience routine prejudice and discrimination.
[But, now I am going to undermine what I just said by dismissing the students’ grievances as simply a matter of hurt “feelings.”]
If we let ourselves be governed by feelings, we’ll go down a rabbit hole of competing grievances and recriminations.
It’s about the same thing it’s always been about: Black people having to fight white systems tooth and nail to get access to the same opportunities and see equitable treatment.
If there’s a competition, Black people have always been at the back of the pack, and the US has a long history of doing everything it can to keep us there.
This isn’t just about “hurt feelings.” This isn’t a game. This is about survival.
This is about people having to demand they be treated as human beings.
It’s about having to prove to people whom – subconsciously or not – think less of you, that you deserve to be where you are.
It’s about having to repeatedly to explain your experiences to those in the dominant racial group whom are all too willing to dismiss them because it makes them uncomfortable to consider.
It’s about having to shout “Hey! Stop talking over us and telling us how to live. WE ARE EXPLICITLY TELLING YOU WHAT LIFE IS LIKE FOR US IN THIS RIGGED SYSTEM.”
To reduce these students’ harmful experiences on college campuses to nothing more than “hurt feelings” greatly underestimates the impact repeated racial macro- and microaggressions have on the mental and physical health of Black Americans.
We are not fragile people, that is true. We have survived centuries of oppression and inhumane treatment. So, if students are “complaining” about the atmosphere at Predominately White Institutions – and so.very.many are speaking out, including alumni – perhaps there’s something to it? Perhaps folks should listen to them.
Why does Mr. Zimmerman weigh his words above those of the students who are telling their own stories?
It concerns me that this professor, someone whose words are consumed by the most malleable minds, seems to have such little interest in listening to (and absorbing) the lived experiences of university students. He is not someone who I would trust as a professsor.
Like Ellison, I “am compelled to reject all condescending, narrowly paternalistic interpretations of Negro American life” from someone who has no idea what it’s like to be Black.
I will never have the honor of meeting Ralph Ellison, so I cannot presume to know how he’d feel about Mr. Zimmerman’s opinions. However, when I consider The Invisible Man, in which Ellison heartachingly details the hard-to-describe, yet nonetheless wholly isolating experience of being a Black American living in world not built for us – I somehow can’t see Mr. Ellison appreciating a white professor using his very personal work to belittle the experience of Black college and graduate students.
Is this the competition Zimmerman means?
What do you think about the recent Black student protests and their demands?
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Stone Mountain, Georgia is where I lived when I first realized I was “black.”
By that I mean, I realized that people would see my skin color, make up all kinds of prejudgements and adjust their behavior accordingly.
It is the place where I first felt the weighty isolation of being the only black kid in a class full of white kids. It’s the place I lived when I was first teased for my hair type, my nose size, my round, protruding butt that’s now considered trendy, and of course my skin color.
It’s where my white teacher told me that in the “old days” some white people thought our skin color would rub off on them. That by touching us they’d become black. The horror! This sounds as ridiculous to me now as it did as as a 10-year old.
It’s the location of the former headquarters of the KKK, that bastion of white supremacy that’s terrorized black Americans for decades.
Stone Mountain, GA is also where high school principal Nancy Gordeuk singled out black audience members during a recent high school graduation. Gordeuk made the mistake of ending the ceremony before the Valedictorian’s speech. When audience members filed out thinking it was over, Gordeuk – who is white – said, “Look who’s leaving—all the black people.”
After first apologizing for her “racist comment’ in an email to parents, Nancy later backtracked saying: “I didn’t know ‘black people’ was a racist term. I didn’t say the N-word or anything like that ’cause that isn’t in my vocabulary.”
She continued sticking her foot all the way in her mouthwith: “People always think the worst, you know. You say the word ‘black,’ you know. Was I supposed to say African-American? Were they all born in Africa? No, they’re Americans.”
Just because “the n-word” is not in your vocabulary, doesn’t mean you’re not racist, hold racist beliefs or that you didn’t make a racist comment.
Just because you don’t say “nigger” or use other racial epithets doesn’t mean you aren’t racist.
Just because you’re a “good” person, doesn’t mean you can’t be racist.
Just because you have a Black friend or friends, doesn’t mean you aren’t racist.
Just because you “don’t see color” doesn’t mean you aren’t racist.
Just because you listen to rap or hip-hop, doesn’t mean you aren’t racist.
Just because you are nice to the Black person at work, the grocery store or in school, doesn’t mean you aren’t racist.
Just because you say “African-American” instead of “colored,” or “negro” doesn’t mean you aren’t racist.
Just because you voted for President Obama, doesn’t mean you aren’t racist.
People sometimes refer to the regressive racism of their grandparents and sometimes their parents, while at the same time, dissociating themselves from such inane views. I wonder: what did their grandparents think of their grandparents beliefs?
What makes some people think they’re the magic generation that’s suddenly stopped racism in its’ tracks?
What will your grandkids say about your beliefs?
Can you think of other examples of present day racism? Have you experienced covert or subtle racism?
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I’ve written before how I get sick of talking about racism. I just want to live my life. Wake up, do what I do and keep it moving like many other people have the privilege of doing each day. I do not have such privilege, however. Just going to the corner drugstore some days ends with me wondering when the day will come when I won’t have a clerk unsubtly follow me around the store as I shop.
Over the course of my 35+ years I’ve engaged in so many discussions about race, whether I’ve wanted to or not, I should get life experience credits toward a PhD in the subject. I voluntarily attend seminars and talks and I choose to read books on the subject. On my blog I discuss it in hopes of making continued progress, opening minds and presenting a different perspective.
Involuntarily, I’ve been dragged into race discussions with some of my fellow Americans who happen to have paler skin. I’ve fielded questions from those friends along the lines of “Why do black people ___?” as though I am a black American ambassador. I’ll never forget the time a white classmate in high school asked me, “Why do black people have the same color palms and feet bottoms as white people? Why aren’t they brown?” From her question, I extracted the subtext, “My body is normal, yours is different.” Am I responsible for the design of the human body? My birth certificate didn’t come with a guide to “understanding your black body.” How the hell should I know? I hope she attends discussions about race.
So what caused the downturn in my mood on Friday? I read a blog post on race and segregation, called Al Sharpton I Hope You See This, written by a white man, that sent my heart racing, got my hands shaking and my mind reeling with various responses to the elementary logic. This excerpt particularly troubled me:
“Segregation is real. We see it every day without realizing it.
Like a “Miss Black America” that excludes white people. Or a college fund for blacks only. Or a blacks only television channel. Or blacks only magazine. Oh wait…uh oh. I thought we did away with segregation back in the 1960’s? That’s odd, seems segregation and racism are very much alive and thriving. Only difference is, if white people mention it they’re racists. Interesting turn of events. So what if we had a White Entertainment Television? Let’s face it, WET sounds like a fun name for television. “
I decided to respond to the post because I noticed a few people praised the author for his observations and I couldn’t just let that mess of thinking sit there unchallenged.
Below is the exchange. It’s unedited, so please forgive my grammar imperfections, incomplete thoughts, and lack of citations.
Please share your (civil) thoughts below, I’m curious what others think.
Oh, the Talib talk was incredible, insightful and engaging. I’m glad I went and happy with the diversity of the crowd. I hope minds were opened.
“Like a “Miss Black America” that excludes white people. Or a college fund for blacks only. Or a blacks only television channel. Or blacks only magazine. Oh wait…uh oh. I thought we did away with segregation back in the 1960’s? ”
These institutions exist largely because black Americans were expressly excluded from these predominately (or exclusively) white institutions, not from a desire to self-segregate. In other words, segregation of black people prompted the formation of this things.
It wasn’t until the late 60s/70s that some universities even “let” black people enroll. The first black model didn’t land the cover of a fashion magazine until the mid 1960s. That was less than 60 years ago. If I pick up an Elle or a Glamour magazine for beauty and hair tips, I’d look like a clown because usually the tips given work for pale skin and straight hair that hangs down. It has to be pointed out to the editors of these magazines that part of their readership has darker skin tones and different hair textures. Even the PGA is notorious for excluded black golfers.
People like to bring up the example of “WET” or white history month a lot, but they are false comparisons. When it’s no longer a big deal that there’s a black director, a black lead in a TV show (or Asian or Latino), or a first black President, then channels like BET (which is watched also by non-black Americans), HBCUs, and history books that highlight non-white contributions to the development of America would not need to exist. It’s 2015, we have a diverse America, yet Congress is made up of mostly white males, who are incredibly over-represented.
I could spend most of the day listing all the shows, magazines, movies, books or economic realms where white Americans are represented, but for non-white Americans, the list is quite short.
None of the “black versions” of these institutions exclude anyone by race. What they do provide is an opportunity for black Americans to have a space to see themselves recognized and accepted. You’ll see non-blacks on BET, magazines marketed to black audiences that include white and Latin (and black Latin) people and white student at HBCUs. (One young white student actually wrote a great essay about how welcoming she found her fellow classmates at the HBCU she attends). Meanwhile, just last week the young white men of the SAE fraternity at OU delighted in singing about how they would never welcome a “n—.” Doesn’t exactly make a black person feel welcome.
A desire to be included as part of the fabric of America, recognized for your contributions, not devalued, not immediately thought of as suspicious or less than, in a society where you’ve been excluded and treated like the scum of America for hundreds of years, is not segregation.
No black American wakes up and says “Gee, I think I’ll start labeling myself, hyphenating my identity.” We get labeled first, treated as minorities rather than equals and then we adapt. Then we get called racist for it.
Lastly, we hold no meeting of American blacks. So no one elected Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson as king of the black people. I wish the media would stop running to them every time they want a black spokespiece. Most of us don’t care. It’s so 1985.”
I do agree that there was a movement to incorporate black people into these institutions. It was called desegregation.
However, the very act of having institutions such as these that excluded individuals based on color was the very point in desegregation. Integrating society was the reason for it. And society has since integrated. Yet we still have forced segregation.
There were schools and other institutions in which blacks weren’t permitted. A movement was led to end that. So why do we still enforce segregation if it was made illegal? So in the 60’s it was wrong but now that “color exclusive” things exist in the favor of blacks it’s ok?
There is no forced segregation. Comparing the legal, government condoned exclusion of an entire “race” of people from opportunities to forge a livelihood to the creation of a school to educate those segregated people is a not valid comparison.
If a white person isn’t on BET (which is not the case), a white person can check one of at least 30 other channels to find a variety of white people to watch. That’s not exclusion.
Perhaps it’s not that white people are excluded from these forums, but rather that they choose not to include themselves. White students are welcome to attend largely black colleges. They choose not to. It’s like the term “white flight.” Black people do not necessarily choose to live in all black neighborhoods. The term “white flight” exists because once black people moved in, the white people left.
No one has banned white people from anywhere. No white person is in danger of facing meaningful, systematic discrimination from a black american.
Desegregation is a long term process. Surely you’re not saying the day a law passed that everything became okay? Not in a country where it took some states decades acknowledge that slavery was illegal. In a country where people enacted laws via loopholes to ban black people from living, working and exiting in certain areas? Some of those states didn’t remove those laws from the books until decades after the Jim Crow era. These things didn’t occur hundreds of years ago. People alive today are still living with the affect effects.
Everyday, I exist in a world that is largely white. I’m surrounded by white people. It’s unavoidable. Once, I invited a white friend to a largely black church (mind you, white people were welcome, just chose to attend the largely white church instead), my white friend said to me with no irony, “It’s so weird to be the only white person in the room.” “Welcome to my everyday,” I told her.
She said it made her uncomfortable. Had never thought about what it might feel like to live that way everyday.
I think instead of placing the blame on black people for creating opportunity in the absence of inclusion, ask why people feel these institutions still have a place in the world. I’d ask why polls show that white Americans think we talk about race in this country too much, but black Americans think the complete opposite. And it seems that white people expect that to be the end of the conversation. Are we once again being told by white people what we should and should not be doing?
Ok. So, by your reasoning there, segregation is ok so long as it’s condoned by the government. I’m not saying that’s double standard but, well, yeah it is. Which is the point. We passed laws to prevent segregation. Now it’s ok so long as it’s “condoned”. A fight was made for “equal treatment” so long as it means “preferential treatment” as well. I live in a predominantly black neighborhood. I’m literally the only white family within several square miles. I don’t feel out of place. I deliberately bought that house. As such, however, I’m a “minority” in my neighborhood. I don’t expect special reliefs or organizations as a result. Nor do I get offended if someone uses a word around me that’s only “ok” for other white people to use. I honored the laws regarding equality. So what’s equal about “color exclusive” organizations?
“So, by your reasoning there, segregation is ok so long as it’s condoned by the government. I’m not saying that’s double standard but, well, yeah it is. ”
Never did I say this. If that’s what you’ve extrapolated, then you’ve misunderstood what I’ve stated several different ways and provided examples for which did not get addressed in your reply.
I’ve stated multiple times that I don’t believe what you’re pointing to is segregation. Segregation does not exist when people aren’t excluded. You keep saying “color exclusive” as I provide examples that no white people are being excluded. No white people are banned from BET. No white people are banned from being spoken about during Black History Month. No white people are banned from enrolling at historically black colleges. No white people are banned from being in magazines that target black audiences. Where is this exclusion you’re insistent exists for white people?
If white people choose to exclude themselves from environments that aren’t predominately white, that is a separate situation. YOU may live in a majority black neighborhood, but you are in the minority of white Americans, who largely CHOOSE to live in the same enclaves.
Most white Americans only have white friends. Few question this. However, when a group of black people get together, it’s assumed they’re segregating themselves, DESPITE the fact that black Americans are have more white friends than whites have black friends (or friends of any other ethnicity for that matter).
If white people want to say the “n-word’ they can. They invented it for use against black people. That’s kind of why it’s offensive to begin with. No one is banning any white person from saying it. There are now just greater social consequences when one chooses to do so.
The additional points that you’ve added, I never stated. Please don’t make the mistake of assuming all black people are looking for handouts. We fall all across the economic strata. We just want the road to opportunity to not be paved with bombs, traps and ditches.
Have a blessed day!
I believe he replied, but I didn’t read it because I decided it was bad for my health.
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Earlier this year I was lounging at Starbuck’s with my friend V, who is Chinese-American. A friend of hers, also Chinese-American, was getting married to a half-white/half Japanese-American man.
She told me, with some sheepishness, “You’re going to kill me, but I bought a card for ___ and ____ with white people on it.”
“Why would I kill you? It’s not like I’m some militant “black power” chick. ‘You must only buy cards with people of color on them!'”
She chuckled and nodded.
“But, let me ask you this,” I continued, “would you give one of your white friends a wedding card with a happy Asian couple depicted?”
She thought for a beat and answered, “No. No, I wouldn’t.”
“That’s all I’m saying. You can do what you want. But, if you would think twice about giving your white friend a card with a non-white person on it, why wouldn’t you think twice about the reverse?”
The answer is pretty simple. In our country, the dominant culture is white, of European ancestry. White is considered “normal” or the “default.” To not be white is to be different, other, a minority.
When The Hunger Games movie was released last year, a subset of moviegoers were less than thrilled to discover that two of the characters, Rue and Thresh, were played by black actors. One particularly warm-hearted malcontent tweeted, “Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad.”
Well, damn. To me, that comment suggests that this person doesn’t see a black life as valuable as a white life. Seems pretty racist to me.
As Anna Holmes rightly identified, in her article in The New Yorker on the “The Hunger Games” tweets, “…the heroes in our imaginations are white until proven otherwise.” Again, white is the default. Some people assumed Rue and Thresh were white. It should be noted, as people who read the books (including me) pointed out, the young adult novel explicitly mentions Rue “has dark brown skin and eyes” and Thresh has “the same dark skin as Rue.” Why shouldn’t there be black characters in The Hunger Games (or Asians or Latinos)? We exist too and we should also be represented, and not superfluously to fill an invisible quota or to simply play the sidekick propping up the white hero. Also notable about the book, is the fact that Rue and Thresh’s skin color was explicitly mentioned. Often when characters are white, their color isn’t addressed. It’s often only when a character is a person of color or otherwise “different” that their ethnicity or race is explicitly stated.
Many of my friends have heard me rant about the fashion industry’s use of the words “nude” and “flesh” as colors. Those colors are basically tan or beige, maybe peach. When I look at my flesh, it’s brown and decidedly not tan. When I am nude, I am still brown, not beige. Those color terms, as innocuous as they may seem, represent just a slice of how pervasive the dominant culture is in our country. “Nude” and “flesh” are normal. If I want an article of clothing or an undergarment that closely matches my skin tone, the color won’t be called “nude”, it’ll be “chocolate” or “deep brown” (and likely there will only be one dark shade, but many more lighter shades).
Concerning oneself with the lack of ethnic diversity in greeting cards, or taking umbrage at the terms used to describe colors in fashion may seem trivial to some. I very much disagree. It’s all too easy to internalize the idea that you are somehow inferior to the majority or the dominant culture, when you don’t readily see representations of people who look like you. When people who look like you are considered abnormal – outside of the norm.
I cannot count the number of friends of color who have shared with me stories of “the time they wanted to be white.” Their reasons varied from they “wanted to be like everyone else,” to they “wanted their family to be like the white families they saw on TV.” More harmfully, however, there were expressions of the desire to be more “conventionally attractive.” There were fears their nose was too wide, face too flat, butt too protruding, hair too nappy, skin too dark, eyes not large enough and so on. We, the “different ones”, should not have to live in a society where we feel excluded or somehow less than. The prevailing standard of beauty in this country is a European standard of beauty that more often than not, doesn’t include people of color. Yes, there are exceptions, exceptions some are all too quick to name when they want to avoid acknowledging potentially discomforting realities. However, these exceptions prove there’s an issue.
The famous “doll experiment” from the early 20th century aptly demonstrated the internalization and implicit acceptance of a white standard of beauty. A group of black children were given two dolls: one brown with dark hair and one white with blonde hair. They were asked questions such as which doll they’d prefer to play with, which was nicer, which doll had a nice color. The kids showed a clear preference for the white dolls. When the study was repeated in the 21st century, obviously with a different set of children, the results were sadly, quite similar.
I remember being told once as a kid, by a black female relative, “Don’t stay out in the sun too long; you’ll get too dark!” The subtext of that warning was, of course, that being “too dark” would make me less attractive. Internalized racism is real.
I don’t want to take anything away from anyone. I want to be equal. I should be able to feel good about the body I was born into. I deserve to feel good about the body I was born into. It’s real work to feel secure in a society that tells you that you aren’t normal. As much as I’ve built up my self-esteem, I still find traces of that internalized racism lurking down deep from time to time. It horrifies and disgusts me. Even a black woman, who is aware these issues exist, I am not impervious to their power.
It’s not just about a card (or a doll, or birthday decorations, or “nude and “flesh” colors) to me. It’s so much more.
The idea that we’re living in a “post-racial nation” is a bad, bad joke. We are still not equal. As long as these minor, but cumulative signs and symbols of racial power and subversion continue to exist, we are not and will not be equal. In the same way that women fought and continue to fight for equality, including challenging existing male-centered, patriarchal language, we have to do the same for people of color. This is a call to everyone to examine the ways in which our society still doesn’t acknowledge and include all of its citizens and work to change it.
You can find greeting cards for purchase online that encompass diversity. However, it would be nice to be able to walk into a standard drugstore or greeting card store and have a varied, diverse set of greeting cards to choose from. There areSpanish-language greeting cards. Further, Hallmark has a separate line of greeting cards specifically for African-Americans. This is progress. However, these “speciality lines” are segregated in store displays. There are the “normal” cards with images of inanimate objects and / or white people and then there are the “other cards.” Segregation, even among greeting card displays, doesn’t demonstrate inclusion. It should be considered “normal” to have diverse sets of people represented on greeting cards, whether those people are black, white, Asian, Latino, multi-racial, gay, disabled, etc. The faces of Americans are ever-changing and our societal artifacts should reflect as much.
A few days after our greeting card conversation, V and I visited Papyrus. V wanted to find a more suitable card for her friends. I’d picked up some Christmas cards there, one batch of which featured a tall, thin, brown-skinned woman, with long-flowing hair in a fashionable outfit. She didn’t look anything like me other than the brown skin, but it was a close enough representation for my satisfaction. We weren’t able to find a card representative of her friends, unfortunately, so she ended up purchasing a card without people on the front flap. Problem solved…for now.
I'm Keisha ("Kee-shuh", not to be confused with Ke$ha). I am a (later) thirty-something, non-mommy, non-wife, who lives in San Francisco, California New York and has lots of opinions on lots of things.