Reviewing Django Unchained [SPOILERS]

Preamble: DON’T read this if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to know anything about it or have your reaction influenced by what I’m going to say here. Bookmark the page and come back to it after you’ve seen it. I also don’t suggest reading this if you don’t intend to see the film – and I do hope you will choose to go see it. If you’re looking for THE definitive Black perspective on the movie, I would suggest that you revisit the fact that Black folks are not a monolithic group and consider that this is MY perspective, singular, and not intended to represent the perspectives of any other people of African descent either in the U.S. or abroad. Having said that, the opinions I express here may be seen as controversial and will likely conflict with the perspectives of other Black people you may know and which you, if you identify as a Black person, may hold. Finally, this is also not intended to present the “RIGHT” way to view this film and although I consider myself a pretty thoughtful and reflective person, I’m not a student of film, so I’m not going to get into all the fancy language of film archetypes and genres except by way of referencing other folks who do. Okay, I think that’s enough of that. Let’s get into this. Oh, one more thing: I use the N-word. 

From the first preview I saw earlier this year, I knew this movie was going to provoke a lot of discussion. Indeed, people are talking about it before they’ve even seen it. Take for instance, Spike Lee, who hasn’t seen the move and doesn’t intend to. He is quoted in this HuffPost note (because it’s not really a full article) as saying that the film is “disrespectful to my ancestors.” This “story” (what’s the story here – that Spike Lee doesn’t like it?) has also been run in USA Today and other news outlets. We don’t know on what basis he has a problem with the film, other than I heard it mentioned elsewhere that he didn’t like the liberal and excessive use of the “N-word” in the film. Well, as much as I have enjoyed several of Spike Lee’s films, I don’t regard him as an authority on respect or on restraint against using objectionable language. Maybe his uninformed (because he hasn’t seen the movie) opinion might carry more weight with me if he cares to revisit his films “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Girl 6” and discuss the disrespectful portrayal of Black women or his own liberal use of the “N-word” in most of his movies. Otherwise, Spike can hush and stop allowing himself to be used as handy tool of Black-disapproval for a media more interested in creating sensationalism than provoking intelligent and informed conversation. (Sorry HuffPost, but you messed up here.)

The smartest thing I’ve seen yet about this film though came from someone else who was responding to that link to HuffPost’s Spike Lee commentary shared on my fiancee’s Facebook wall. Ryan Fitzmartin, a film student at Emerson College in Boston, wrote the following in response to Spike Lee:  “I think the objection Spike is making is that Tarantino is making a comedic film about a dark issue. But that’s what Tarantino does. Inglourious Basterds was a dark comedic revenge fantasy against the Nazis. I’m assuming Django will be the same. I don’t think anyone could mistake what’s being covered in Django as reality, and I highly doubt Tarantino will make Slavery look “fun”. I think Spike Lee’s opinion has merit, but he does have a tendency to speak before thinking, and in this case, I think that’s what he did” (emphasis added). I think we all ought to do well to remember Ryan Fitzpatrick’s name – I think we’ll be hearing from him a lot throughout his career.

Having seen a lot of Quentin Tarantino’s films, including Inglourious Basterds (2009) and having thoroughly enjoyed it for exactly what Ryan describes it as “a dark comedic revenge fantasy,” Ryan’s parallel between that movie and what he suspected he would find in Django really resonated with me. Really, in a way, aren’t all of his movies “dark, comedic revenge fantasies?” I mean, the “Kill Bill” trilogy certainly could be described in that way, as could “Pulp Fiction,” at least in my mind. And I enjoyed all those films, bloody though they each are.

So, I went into the movie last night with my fiancee with that in mind. We went to the 9:45pm showing in Bowling Green on opening day and early enough to see the audience for the previous showing let out. The theater had been packed with overwhelmingly mostly White faces – this is Bowling Green, Ohio after all. The 9:45pm showing was no less crowded and no less White. Again it’s Bowling Green and this is a Quentin Tarantino movie after all.

We took our seats at about the center of the theater, slightly forward of the exact middle row, and waited through the dozens of commercials and then innumerable movie trailers (awful lot of middle-aged, practically senior citizen White men starring in action movies these days, wouldn’t you say?). Finally the movie began and my fiancee took my hand and we held hands for almost the entire movie. A gesture that was probably as much about us being sappy as it was recognizing the need to brace ourselves and support each other through watching a film that even Oprah – who produced Beloved and Precious and starred in The Color Purple; she’s no stranger to brutality in movies – said of Django that she couldn’t watch some of its scenes (read this for a good reflection on the film by the director, some of the film’s stars, and Oprah, who has endorsed the film).

As the film began, set in 1858, two years before the Civil War, I began to think about the film Lincoln, opening around Thanksgiving. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to see the connection. A. O. Scott, a film critic for the New York Times, saw the movie and reviewed it. You can read his review here. As a really smart critique of Lincoln by Aaron Bady in the Jacobin commented, slavery was already at death’s door by the time the Civil War started due to increasing frequency of runaway slaves and slave rebellions, the work of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and other abolitionists (across races), and increasing distaste for the brutality of American slavery. I saw in Django a reflection of the decline that Bady references, sans historical realism of course.

Yes, Spike is right, in Django’s screenplay which was also written by Tarantino, the N-word is featured prominently, even enthusiastically. Via the site WhoSay, posting to Facebook, D. L. Hughley’s synopsis of the film was “Went 2 see Django last night it was spectacular! But They said nigga so much n it even Rappers are gonna say Dayuuuum!! #TeamDl” I laughed in response to Hughley’s comment, but let’s be real, shall we? The film is set in 1858. How do you think Black folks were regarded at that time? What language do you think they would have used to talk to and about Black people? They called them all sorts of things that were never meant to be affirming or culturally authentic or relevant: coons, darkies, jimmies, a new term I hadn’t heard before that starts with a “g” but I can’t remember it now, and, yes, niggers. Yes, I wrote the word that shall not be mentioned. Niggers. White people called Black people niggers in 1858, probably more than they called us anything else because we were not considered to be morally equivalent to White folks, we were not considered as human as White folks, and therefore did not need to be regarded as much more than a derivative of the word Negro from the Spanish negro meaning black, from the Latino necro meaning dead. Black people called other Black people niggers in the same way that a child who’s called been called stupid their whole life thinks that Stupid is their name. Here’s the thing, Tarantino uses nigger in its historical context – unlike the plethora of films (including Spike Lee’s), rap lyrics, and other vehicles of so-called artistic expression whose use of the term is divorced from its ugly, racist past (and present, because it’s still a handy pejorative for mostly White people to use against targets that are always Black people). Perhaps seeing and hearing its original usage and intention, will disabuse present-day Black folks and their White friends from calling each other and other Black folks, “niggers.” Even the teenage White boys sitting behind my fiancee and I were quick to comment out loud, “That’s so racist” at the first use of the word by a White character in the film.

And then there’s Christoph Waltz’s character, Dr. King Shultz – yes, “Dr. King” and I don’t think that’s an accident but I’m clueless as to what the commentary might be there. Shultz is a German bounty hunter, pretending to be a traveling dentist, rounding up people wanted by the law for stagecoach robbery and murder, choosing to bring them in dead. He’s quite skilled with his marksmanship and takes on Django – buys him as a slave from other slave traders, while setting the rest of the men chained together free. As Shultz’s slave, Django is treated with respect, seemingly almost as an equal (a redemption perhaps from the German character Waltz plays in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) though no less ignorant of Black people’s humanity than any of the other White slave owners and traders in the film. He expresses surprise and queries “your people believe in marriage?” when Django describes Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) as his wife. Upon witnessing a Black man be torn apart by dogs after being caught trying to run away so that he doesn’t have to forced to fight another Black man to death, Shultz is noticeably queasy. What’s interesting to me about that is that Shultz displays the same kind of ignorance that well-meaning White folks tend to have when they endeavor to “help” Black people fight institutionalized systems of racism, like slavery was in the antebellum South – and not unlike the White college-graduate in the film The Help, or any other movie where White people are featured “saving” Black folk. White folks are often quick to want to “help” but not fully cognizant of what “helping” might need to entail to achieve the end goal and totally unprepared to face the extent of the brutality that will be used to maintain those systems of oppression. Shultz loses his life when he loses his cool after recalling the man who was torn apart by dogs and kills Candy- jeopardizing the lives of Django and Broomhilda who were a handshake between Monsieur Candy and Shultz away from freedom.

Let’s talk about Calvin Candy, described as a Francophile who can’t speak French – the slave owner of a Mississippi plantation called Candyland with a brothel/fighting arena in a town five hours away full of Black women – slaves, don’t be mistaken – who were dressed in the grandest finery, schooled in the manners of high class society, flawless English (“luxury slaves”) – not the slave dialect commonly exclusively associated with Black slaves. Calvin Candy and Candyland reflect the cruel juxtaposition of monstrosity and refinery that was typical – yes, typical – of U.S. slavery. He meets his end at the hand of another White man who is refined for real. A statement about the role of education and refinement against the base attitudes and eugenics passing as science spouted by Candy, perhaps?

And then there’s Steven, the head house slave, who has served the Candy family for 76 years. As Samuel L. Jackson says about his character, he will likely become the most hated Black character in movie history. I certainly hated him almost immediately after he made his appearance. Scott’s review describes the character as “imagined,” however Steven was very much real in slavery and modern day racism (where do you think Uncle Tom comes from as a pejorative reference?). Likely born into bondage since his father and grandfather before him all served the Candy family, Steven knew no other life than what he knew at Candyland. He also saw the consequences of rebuttal and rebellion. He also received the benefits of living in the big house. He is thoroughly indoctrinated in racist ideology and colludes with slavery thinking himself spared from its horrors. Steven is a woefully pitiful, if not pitiable, character. In the end of the movie, when Django tells the other Black house slaves – including Sheba, Candy’s apparent mistress – to “get away from all these White people” and say goodbye to their mistress, Miss Sally (again, not a mistake in my view), Steven who is standing closest to the door tries to leave realizing that life as he knew it was coming to an end. Django tells him, oh no, not you, “You’re right where you belong” in the midst of all the White people he served and whose bidding he executed and he is killed along with the evil Whites at Candyland.

Now let’s consider the women in the film, Candy’s sister Sally and his mistress Sheba, the slave women on the various plantations Django and Shultz visit, and of course Broomhilda. The only scene where a woman speaks up to a man, in this case to put a halt to the exposure of Broomhilda’s scars received from the whippings she has received, is reserved for Sally. Sally’s character is a widow with a strange, hinting at incestuous, relationship with her brother Calvin who seems more daft than brave. Yet she has the bravest female moment in the movie – unless you regard Broomhilda’s refusal to be broken, to keep running away, as strength. I am willing to do that. Nevertheless, the women, including Broomhilda (or Hildie as she’s nicknamed), sit waiting for the rescue of a man, Broomhilda for her Sigfried. In this movie, apparently, revenge is a dish best served hot and by a male waiter to boot. Black women’s agency is either absent or shown to be futile. And that ticks me off not only because of its patriarchal sexism, but also because it is historically inaccurate. But then again, this is Quentin Tarantino.

A word about mockery and dark comedy. Again I’m not a film student like Ryan who I quoted earlier, but I think we use comedy to handle difficult subjects. On December 21st, I criticized the mockery of the Mayan’s beliefs, misrepresented as a doomsday prophecy, and I was criticized in turn by one friend for not being sensitive to people’s need to use humor to help them get through stress. Well, I still don’t believe that we should co-opt and twist another culture’s beliefs into humor for our own stress relief. However, I do recognize the power of comedy to get us to see ugly truths that we otherwise would not dare to face. I also believe we mock what we do not respect and what we want to distance ourselves from. And so, we are given the hooded raiders, ala Klansmen, led by Don Johnson’s character in a great cameo, who are mocked and portrayed as disorganized buffoons who can’t even see out of the hoods they wear to mask their identities. What is strong enough to override what would otherwise be a central flaw in executing any kind of activity? Hate, racial hatred to be exact. If not for the preparation of Shultz and Django, the raiders’ hate for Black people and those who support them would have been enough to make the raid on Shultz and Django’s encampment effective. Who needs organization when you have blind hate? Ah, and maybe their blindness in the movie, unable to see out of their hoods, is a metaphor for the blindness of their hatred. There is no mockery of slavery here, just of slavers. Slavery is serious and awful and brutal and we don’t see it made light of in this film.

The other instance of comedy that stands out to me is when Django gets to pick out his clothes for the first time and he goes for an outfit that can only be described as silly. A slave at the next plantation they go to asks him in disbelief, “So you choose to look like that?” I nudged my fiancee and whispered, “black dandy,” being reminded of an article and photo-feature in the Chronicle of Higher Education from several weeks ago. As Stacey Patton discusses, black dandyism actually grew in response to the luxury slaves used in 17th century England. Turning expectations for race, gender, and sexuality on its head, Black dandies, then and now in the guise of academics, reflect an image of Blackness that stands in sharp contrast with how Blacks were expected to look and act. When Django dons his blue dandy outfit complete with white stockings and neck scarf and riding a horse no less playing Shultz’s freeman valet, he disrupts not only what Whites expected of Blacks but also what Blacks expected of each other. But this is missed in the film and Django only looks like a clown. After leaving that plantation, where Django kills 2 overseers in defense of  a Black woman about to be whipped for breaking eggs, 2 for whom Shultz had bounties (the ones that Shultz bought Django to help him find; Shultz kills the 3rd himself), Django purchases a new outfit that is more toned down, more typical of the everyday man in the American South at the time. No longer dressed the part of the dandy, Django no longer openly flaunts others’ expectations of how he will behave, what he will say, and how he will engage Whites and other Blacks. Instead, he continues to flaunt those expectations with his speech – a skill that Black folks have developed and perfected in multiple forms, including satire.

Scott’s NYT review, cited earlier, questions whether part of the criticism of Django’s violence as “excessive” is linked to the fact that it features a Black man visiting revenge upon White people. I think this is a very smart insight. Indeed, this movie is violent and blood literally runs down the walls in some scenes, people are blown away and blown apart by gun fire, blood spouts and spurts and gushes. This is a Quentin Tarantino film; by comparison, the Kill Bill movies were no less violent really, in my estimation.  But, contrary to what Spike Lee said, there’s no gang rape scene, and the greatest brutality is saved for the revenge killings of White people who brutalize Black people. I don’t believe that Tarantino glorified the violence of slavery but he didn’t back away from it either. When Broomhilda is whipped and branded, when the two slaves are embroiled in a blood match to the death, when the runaway slave is fed to the dogs – you hear more than you see and what you see is not gratuitous. Nevertheless it was enough to produce a visceral physical reaction in me, even beyond what I usually feel when I see brutal violence visited upon children or women. I could literally feel my chest tighten, my fiancee and I squeezed each other’s hands, my face felt flush with warm blood racing to my cheeks, water began to form in the corners of my eyes, and just when I thought I couldn’t take another second (beyond the 30 seconds intervals in which you see each of these acts take place) and would scream out in my horror and pain and go running from the theater – just at that moment, the scene was over and my breathing could return to normal and I could release some of the tension in my body. No, the greatest violence and gore is saved for the revenge killings, which caused me no unrest or tension and no small amount of glee. Just being honest, folks.

And that’s really where I think the movie’s biggest point for me comes through. Candy asks at one point why Blacks, who far outnumbered their White slave owners and overseers, never rose up and killed all the White people. Candy recalls how Steven’s father shaved Candy’s father with a straight edge razor 3 times a week every week for 50 years, yet never availed himself of the opportunity to kill him. Candy proclaims with no hesitation that had he been that slave, he would have killed the elder Candy and it wouldn’t have taken him 50 years to decide to do it. So, this revenge fantasy of Tarantino’s then takes on a whole new twist. Perhaps its not so much a revenge fantasy for Black folks, but rather for White folks. Perhaps this is one White man’s projected fears/fantasies of what would have happened had there been a Django in real life – or if the real-life Nat Turner’s raid been successful or any of the other slave rebellions that did occur throughout slave territories in the North and South before the 13th Amendment was passed (there’s that Lincoln film again). Why didn’t more Black slaves in positions of access to both weapons of murder and the opportunities to carry it out take advantage and rise up and kill the men and women who were responsible for brutalizing them and tearing apart their families? Is it because those Africans, brutally enslaved, were just naturally submissive? This was Candy’s rationale in the movie. I don’t think that’s the answer. Is it because they just weren’t as evil and regarded human life more highly than their slavemasters did? I like to think this is a more likely reason. But I think the truth lay somewhere between that and the reality that opportunities to visit revenge violence against their slave owners really were not as easy to come by as any of us in modern times may like to imagine that they were. Although outnumbering Whites on most plantations, the firepower was definitely controlled by those Whites and unlike Django in the film, learning how to use a gun properly is not really a “natural” talent that can be easily picked up. By the time Steven’s slave father would have sliced the throat of the elder Mr. Candy and tried to escape, more than a couple of overseers would have caught and killed him and anyone else trying to escape with him. Slavery lasted in the US for as long as it did, nearly three centuries, not because Blacks were so submissive and not for lack of trying to escape or revolt, but because the system of slavery benefited from a set of laws, both state and federal, social customs, and the intentional disabling of communication and social networks among slaves that were intended to preserve slavery on purpose. The existence of which made the success of the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman’s 300+ trips to the South to rescue slaves remarkable, if not miraculous.

In fact, Django does not set out to liberate all slaves or end slavery. Given an opportunity to set a trio of slaves free who were bound to a cruel life at a quarry breaking stones until their backs wore out (as Steven described it to Django), Django merely asks them to hand over the dynamite that had been put in the trailer with them and rides off back to Candyland. He leaves them without direction or guidance, their slavers dead on the ground, them still chained (?) in the trailer with the door open, and that’s where we last see them. Django doesn’t set anybody free before blowing up the big house, merely tells the house slaves to get away from the house. Django, in fact, is responsible for preventing Shultz from saving the life of the slave who ends up being fed to the dogs. Django is no abolitionist hero; he is only interested in rescuing his wife, Broomhilda, and other women who reminded him of Broomhilda along the way. So Django’s destruction of Candyland stands somewhat consistent with historical reality as an isolated event with little long-term consequence or significance: Even slave revolts that were successful were little more than isolated flare-ups, quickly subdued by even more repressive laws and actions on the part of individual slave owners seeking to ensure that there were no copycats among their slaves.

What does this mean for my opinion of Django? I think it’s a good film for what it is – a patriarchal (my view) and dark, comedic revenge fantasy as Ryan Fitzmartin described it. I am glad I saw it; I was delighted that the “bad guys” got what was coming to them at the end. I think other people should go see it and enjoy it (unless they have a general distaste for blood) for the opportunity to see a Black man getting vengeance against White people – not generic White people, but those directly responsible for brutalizing Blacks, as Scott writes in his NYT review. However, I respect the opinions of those who saw it and hated it and those who won’t go see it. It is a Quentin Tarantino film after all.

Celebrating LGBT History

Follow along with me as I celebrate LGBT History Month with the icon videos produced by the Equality Forum. I’ve inserted the YouTube videos as well as given you links to the videos on Equality Forum’s website.

The overview video for the month:


Roberta Achtenberg: http://www.lgbthistorymonth.com/roberta-achtenberg

Gloria Anzaldua: http://www.lgbthistorymonth.com/gloria-anzaldua

Ann Bannon: http://www.lgbthistorymonth.com/ann-bannon

Katherine Lee Bates: http://www.lgbthistorymonth.com/katharine-lee-bates

(If I manage to figure out how to embed the videos on here so that they automatically update, I’ll do that…)

Rape, Pregnancy, and Non Sequitors

*WARNING: You’ll likely be ticked off by the end of reading this by something I’ve said. If you are deeply wedded to life-begins-at-conception beliefs, you really won’t like this. So, if you don’t like having your beliefs and the ways you’ve always read your Bible challenged, then you should probably stop reading now. And if you are going to be annoyed because they are not a bunch of links to allow you to verify what I’m saying, then you might want to stop reading now also. I figure it’s late, I’m tired, and you are fully capable of Googling all this if you doubt its veracity. I don’t mean to sound mean or hostile, I just want you to be prepared. Smile.*

Rep. Todd Akin, who is running for a Senate seat in Minnesota Missouri and sits on the House Science committee, went on record last week saying that in cases of “legitimate rape” the female body has ways of shutting down to prevent pregnancy – ergo there’s no need for a rape or incest exemption from more restrictive abortion laws. While the Republican Party is fighting like hell to get Akin to drop out of his Senate race and is distancing the party from Akin faster than Usain Bolt from his competition on the track, the reality is that Akin’s ideas are not that different than the Republican Party platform. Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick, co-sponsored a bill with Todd Akin that would drastically redefine rape to be limited only to “forcible rape.” Moreover, the Republican Party platform will announce abortion policy that would make abortion much more difficult to access while NOT exempting rape and incest.

My outrage over this has been building since Akin’s comments went viral over the weekend, but what provoked me to write this post was Mike Huckabee’s, former candidate for president, response to Akin. He has claimed that since there are people who’ve done great things that were the product of a rape, there shouldn’t be a rape/incest exemption because we don’t know what “God” might do with that life to redeem the horrible circumstances under which they were created. Sigh. I’ve got 4 issues with this that I’ll run down right quick. These four issues are in addition to the idiocy and ignorance that led to Akin’s comment in the first place. Basically, I find these comments to be about as ludicrous as the DirecTV commercials but not nearly as comical.

Issue 1: I take issue with the ideology that every conception is a blessing because God is present at every conception. Okay, I know I just lost about half of you. Hear me out, please. In the Bible, it is written that when 2 or 3 are gathered together in my Name [God’s], there am I [God] in the midst. Well, I simply do not believe that rape –any kind of rape, stranger, date, forcible, deception, manipulation, incest, incapable of consenting – sets up the conditions that meet the criteria for God’s abiding presence. Just saying. Therefore, every conception isn’t necessarily a blessing. Besides, blessings don’t just exist inherently. To name an experience, event, circumstance, or situation is a blessing or not is to engage in constructive meaning-making of that experience, event, circumstance, or situation. Basically, what may be a blessing in my eyes, may not be a blessing in yours and I can’t push my interpretation on to you.

Issue 2: I take issue with the ideology that says that the ends justify the means. To make it sound religious, I’ll use a phrase I grew up hearing: “God writes straight with crooked lines.” Now, I just lost about a quarter of the rest of you still reading this. If you’ll bear with me, I think you’ll see what I’m saying. I do believe that good can come out of evil, however, that is not a justification for abetting the evil. You do not use what *might* happen that could be positive as justification for continuing to victimize the woman who’s been raped. She did not consent to the sexual act, she therefore did not consent to the pregnancy, and therefore she should not be forced to consent to give birth. Period.

Issue 3: Now for the other half of what’s wrong with this idea that if you abort the fetus that is the result of rape, you might be depriving the world of its next great thinker, scientist, freedom fighter, etc. I have three words for you: Get. Over. Yourself. Let me expound. As much as I have grown to love the movie, I blame “It’s a Wonderful Life” for this narcissistic belief that the world would be irreparably damaged if you (or anybody else) weren’t born. One thing I do know is that God will find someone else to fulfill your role in His divine plan (if there is such a thing – personally I just think that the grand plan is to get us to treat each other with justice and equity and we experience things that we can choose to allow us to push toward greater equity and justice or push us away from it). Besides, in the movie “The Butterfly Effect,” it’s eliminating someone from Ashton Kutcher’s character’s life that finally sets everything right.

Issue 4: I take issue with this ideology that a woman shouldn’t have the right to choose what happens with her own body and more so that she should not elevate her needs over that of the fetus inside her. In the words of moral development theorist Carol Gilligan, higher levels of moral development centered around an ethic of care, involve women seeing themselves as morally equivalent to others instead of continually sacrificing themselves for others when doing so results in self-harm. What I see in the Republican Party’s anti-choice platform (because let’s be real, they’re not pro-life), is a denial of women’s moral equivalency. And that is just oppressive.

P.S. – I know I’m missing a #higheredWed post, but that will have to come tomorrow. I’m still trying to get the hang of keeping to my writing schedule while I’m doing my archival research. :/

Setting Ourselves Free

I firmly believe that one of the things that keeps oppressed people oppressed is when we collude with the systems of privilege that deny us our full humanity. One example of this is when queer people accept second-class citizenship and agree with practices that say that we and our relationships are not as healthy, secure, and meaningful as those of heterosexuals. We, whether part of a privileged group or not, have all been socialized to believe these fictions and consequently, we, whether part of a privileged group or not, need to consciously, consistently, and courageously confront the fictions that maintain bondage and strive for liberation.

Another way that I believe that oppressed groups collude with their oppression is through creating defense mechanisms that celebrate cultural resiliency and strength, yet still deny people in the group full humanity. Embracing one’s humanity, means recognizing and acknowledging both frailty and strength. One example of this is the oft-repeated line that “black folk don’t commit suicide, don’t get depressed, don’t have mental illness.” I’ve heard variations of this for other racial and ethnic minoritized groups as well.

By passing mental illness and clinical depression off as the luxuries of privilege – something only White people can afford to deal with – people of color deny ourselves our full humanity, which still colludes with the systems of oppression that undermine our humanity. The denial of our humanity shows up in the prison industrial complex, in the hypersexualization and asexualization of our bodies, in the deficit thinking that says we can’t raise our children to be successful without intervention from others. It also shows up in the “superwoman” complex that allows others to continue to put more and more work on our backs until we become, like Zora Neale Hurston’s “Nanny” spoke in Their Eyes Were Watching God, “the mules of the world.”

Strength is not the denial of weakness. Strength is  not the absence of complaint. Strength is admitting frailty and vulnerability and seeking help with those frailties threaten to overwhelm us. I’m not an expert on depression or suicide, but I have dealt with both throughout my life. At critical junctures when my mind’s inability to self-correct, to restore the delicate balance of hormones and chemicals in its brain, threatened my well-being, I reached out. And I’m glad I did. I wouldn’t have the strength that I have today if I had denied my full humanity – a humanity that includes frailty and vulnerability.

Check out this video clip from a group of folks who are trying to help Black folks get free, really free:

Black Folk Don’t: Commit Suicide

See you Monday!

#higheredWed: Top 10 Don’ts for Diversity Workshops

This week’s #higheredWed blog post is about the diversity trainings and workshops that are going to be part of incoming students’ orientation experiences during their first few days on campus and mandatory elements of most trainings for new and returning residence life staffs. I’ve participated in a number of these trainings either as a student, RA, or professional staff member and have had to plan and facilitate a fair number as well. From my own experiences and conversations with friends and colleagues who facilitate these sessions, I’ve learned a number of pitfalls that seem to beset a lot of these trainings. I’m hoping this short list of cautions might make these important and necessary sessions better and more effective for all involved.

10. DON’T ASSUME KNOWLEDGE. Many of us who work in higher education and student affairs talk about issues of diversity, inclusion, and social justice on a regular basis. We are familiar with the terms, know the lingo, and are comfortable with the concepts regardless of whether we are of like-mind regarding how to implement them. However, as I was reminded this summer teaching the students in our university’s leadership scholars program, most other folks don’t share this familiarity with the language of social justice. Concepts such as pluralism, social justice, and inclusion, as well as distinctions between sex, gender, gender identity, and gender expression are not part of most folks’ everyday conversation. Take the time to explain what terms mean and how they are being used in the context of your institution.

9. DON’T FORGET TO MAKE CLEAR, REASONABLE LEARNING OUTCOMES. Start with the purpose of the session and your institutional context. Are you working with incoming first-year students on a residential campus who will need to learn how to live together effectively across lines of differences which may be unfamiliar to most of your students? What have been the major fault lines around diversity at your institution and in your local area in recent history (the last 5-10 years moreso than the past 25-30 years)? Are you training staff who will have to do educational programming and be prepared to mediate conflicts around issues of diversity? What are the specific foundational skills the RA staff need to effectively serve as first-responders and to build awareness and foundational knowledge through active and passive programming? For RA staffs, keep in mind that you’re asking them to do a lot of cognitive development and emotional maturity by putting them in the position of educating their peers and mediating conflicts about issues that they themselves may have only been introduced to a year ago. Meet them where they’re at, not where you need them to be; build the bride that will get them there. And then remember that people in your group, even that incoming class, may be at different places in their knowledge and understanding. Know what you need to accomplish with the group in this session and then plan to build on it later through successive workshops and programs.

8. DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE EMOTIONAL LABOR INVOLVED. For first-year students, this may be the first time they have ever been asked to think and talk about issues of race, sex, gender, sexuality, ability, social class, and/or religion and faith in a formal setting. For some students, their college experience may be their first real, extended engagement with others who don’t share their race, gender identity, sexuality, social class, ability, or religious beliefs. Remember what it felt like when you first had your paradigms about what you had been taught and had assumed to be “normal” challenged and upended. These conversations bring up feelings of confusion, frustration, anger, sadness, guilt, shame, doubt, fear, and anxiety. As Sherry Watt has discussed about difficult dialogues and privileged identity exploration, people’s egos are often threatened in the midst of these discussions. You must prepare for that and make room for it in your learning outcomes and as you plan structured experiences.

7. DON’T SHORTCHANGE TIME FOR REFLECTION. I remember being formally taught this in class with Dr. Bob Rodgers during my master’s program at The Ohio State University. I remember really learning the value and importance of applying this caution after failing to apply it more than once in diversity workshops and trainings. I would have the group of students, or staff, do an activity and only leave 15 minutes to process it when usually at least 45 minutes were needed. This goes along with #9 and #8. If you only have two hours, you can’t try to squeeze in 2 activities that are going to be not only cognitively challenging, but also emotionally fraught and expect to get through them both effectively and with people’s hearts and minds still intact. If you only have two hours and can’t extend the time, you probably have just enough time to do some kind of short introduction activity and one structured experience.

6. DON’T GIVE IN TO THE BLACK-WHITE BINARY. I think particularly in predominantly White universities in the U.S., race and ethnicity easily become the lightning rods for diversity workshops. Racial and ethnic diversity are typically the most easily visible differences within a group and because racism is embedded in the foundations of this country, race easily takes all the focus. Moreover, discussions about race, especially in certain parts of the U.S., become only about Blacks and Whites, while other racially marginalized groups are ignored. Latin@s, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Native American and indigenous peoples, and multiracial folks all share histories of racial segregation, exclusion, and discrimination in the U.S. Moreover, systems of oppression affect myriad people on the basis of other social identities other than and intersected with race (e.g., sex, gender, sexuality, ability, age, social class, language, nationality and immigration status, convictional belief systems, to name just a few). There is no value in running an oppression Olympics; there’s no prize for being the “most oppressed” group and every system of oppression is equally unjust, hurtful, damaging, and destructive to developing and sustaining inclusive, pluralistic communities. Helping students understand the dynamics of oppression generally also helps avoid the next don’t, #5…

5. DON’T FORGET THE INTERSECTIONS OF PRIVILEGE AND OPPRESSION. Another consequence of getting trapped in the black-white binary or only discussing racial oppression, is that the White folks get the message that they have not experienced any form of oppression and the people of color in the room tune out of the conversation. First of all, as my friend and social justice mentor, Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington says, “just because you are doesn’t mean you understand.” Everybody has a learning edge in these discussions; people of color are not inherently more sophisticated about how privilege and oppression work just because they may be more likely to be recognize and acknowledge the affect of racial oppression. Second, most everybody in your workshop or training session is the member of one or more groups who receive privilege (i.e., unearned advantages and conferred dominance ala Allan G. Johnson), including people of color. ALSO, most everybody in the room holds group membership in one or more groups who are targeted by systematic and structural oppression, including white folks. The result is that everybody has privilege that needs to be examined and challenged and everybody can probably connect an unfamiliar knowledge about one system of oppression to another system of oppression with which they are more familiar. You may have to help folks see their privilege by getting them to reflect on ways they are NOT privileged first. Being transparent about your own intersections of privilege and oppression as a facilitator can go along way toward helping everybody understand on a deeper level.

4. DON’T MAKE GETTING ALONG AND HAVING FUN THE ONLY GOALS. Educating for diversity and social justice and teaching people about privilege isn’t about labeling some people bigots and other people victims (see #5 above). It’s also not about challenging whether people are “nice” people who can “tolerate” difference. You can be a nice person, donate your time and money in the service of others, bake a mean apple pie, and show civility to everyone in the room and still collude and enable systems of oppression to hurt, harm, and demean others. Moreover, getting people not to use offensive language and to hang out together in diverse groups is not the end goal of social justice. Multiculturalism is not achieved because you’ve got mixed race friendship groups in your residence hall or the jocks came to the Safe Zone Workshop and signed the pledge to be allies. I would hope our goals in higher education would be a little higher. We need people who are able to recognize and challenge oppressive practices and systems, advocate and make change, and to do so while building and sustaining relationships across lines of difference by practicing building trust and rapport founded in the active belief that every person is worthy of dignity and respect. Just because people seem to “get along” doesn’t mean that they are committed to pursuing equity. And, yes, I’ll say it, using “celebrate diversity” paradigms that put the focus on type-cast food, music, dancing, and festivals while ignoring education about structural inequality won’t lead to substantive, enduring change for social justice.

3. DON’T CONFUSE BEING SAFE WITH BEING COMFORTABLE. Also related to #4 is this caution about safety and comfort. We talk a lot in student affairs about “safe spaces” and creating such spaces for learning to take place. But being safe doesn’t mean you’re going to be comfortable. In fact, if you’re really learning anything, you’re going to feel pretty damn uncomfortable at some point in the process. Learning provokes discomfort, especially when the learning concerns diversity and social justice (see #8). Safety is about creating an environment where people feel that it is going to be okay for them to be vulnerable, to feel afraid, to experience discomfort and know that’s not going to be mocked, held against them, or judged by another participant in the session or by the facilitator. Safe spaces, yes. Comfortable spaces? Let’s hope not.

2. DON’T FORGET TO TAKE TIME BEFORE AND AFTER TO PREP AND RECOVER. This one is for those of you facilitating these workshops and training sessions. Even if you’ve done these trainings for a dozen years or more, it’s better to take the time to get yourself in a space to function as a tutor, mentor, guide, and support for these conversations. As another friend and mentor, Dr. Kathy Obear has discussed, you need to manage your triggers. What are the things that set you off? Prepare yourself ahead of time to deal with that trigger effectively so that the learning goals for the session are wrecked because you didn’t have yourself in check in advance. And then, once it’s over, give yourself time to recover. After I’ve taught a class session or run a workshop about these issues, I have learned that I must take time before and after to get centered, to remind myself of who I am and what I know, and to allow myself to feel whatever hurt, pain, or offense may have been inflicted unintentionally during the course of the session by a participant or co-facilitator. And that reminds me, if you’re working with someone else and facilitating the session together, take some time – a good deal of time – beforehand doing prep together, sharing each other’s triggers, and developing strategies to help and support each other during the session. After, schedule a time to debrief the session and again, help and support each other’s recovery process.

And finally, the #1 DON’T for diversity workshops…

1. DON’T FORGET THAT THIS IS JUST ONE STEP IN A LIFELONG PROCESS. You’re not going to transform that group of green first-year students into powerhouse social justice activists in one session. That group of RAs is not going to be able to effectively develop a diverse community on their floor, design compelling and provocative educational programs, and resolve every conflict like a thirty-year veteran after your day-long training. This is step one, or step two, or step ten, but it’s just one step. Becoming competent with diversity and social justice is a lifelong process. I’m still on my journey. So are you. And so will they. Use this session to plant a seed, or water the baby shoots, or do some weeding, or prune the branches. And then trust that another experience will come along to keep the process going; trust that they will seek opportunities to grow and learn more.

Sounding Off about Coming Out

About a month ago, it seemed like folks were coming out left and right, first was Diana King – yes, she was FIRST – then came Anderson Cooper‘s almost-confessional like acknowledgement via Andrew Sullivan’s blog, then third was Frank Ocean. As I watched reactions via Facebook and Twitter, I had a blog post forming in my mind, but too many other things were hot and it seemed like everything worth saying had already been said. And then Sally Ride passed away a little over a week ago and “came out” in her obituary, acknowledging that she was leaving behind a woman partner of 27 years and it all started all over again.

In the last month, I’ve heard praise and celebration as well as criticism and frustration. One blogger , Cathering Lugg went so far as to tell White queers to get over themselves, suck up their White-middle-class privilege, and be visibly out as queer. Another blogger, Emily Manuel for Tiger Beatdown, chastised folks who didn’t think Anderson Cooper’s coming out was really news since it was commonly suspected already that he was gay, because it takes courage to come out and everyone journey toward coming out is different and it’s really quite heterosexist of people to require that queer people reveal their queerness when straight people don’t have to “come out” as straight. Various commentators on Facebook and Twitter forwarded and shared both of these perspectives and other iterations of them. However, I think there’s another perspective in this conversation that borrows from both seemingly oppositional perspectives and creates a third place to stand.

Let me share what informs my perspective on all this. First of all, I am queer (a masculine-of-center lesbian kind of queer) and didn’t come out to myself, let alone anybody else, authentically as queer until I was in my mid-30s. That means I spent most of my adult life as I’ve lived it so far passing as heterosexual.  Since then, I think I’ve been on a steady march of increasing transparency as I’ve gotten settled and clear on who I am, what that means for me, and steady in defending myself against the typical attacks and questions that always come when sharing that with folks who think they know more about me than I know about myself. Second, I am a student, teacher, and scholar of identity development. That means my knowledge base is built on established research literature as well as autobiographical and anecdotal evidence. Third, I engage in multiple networking circles, several of which are ever-expanding, so I am constantly confronting people who don’t know, assume, or think they know what my sexuality is. In other words, like most queer people, I live coming out as a daily experience and as an evolving process, not as a one-time event. When I first came out, I used to wish that there was some way I could just come out to everybody who I’d ever known, all at once and be done with it. But even if that worked and I didn’t keep running into people who knew-me-when (go back to “first of all”), there would be all these new people that I keep meeting everyday to whom I would have to decide how much my queerness is salient to who I am in relationship with that person in that moment.

It’s really quite exhausting. It’s also a lot more nuanced than what I usually see in average discussions about coming out.

Underneath most of these discussions has been the presumption that publicly, continually, and consistently coming out as queer is necessary for positive, healthy, and mature development as a queer person. An example of this is in Lugg’s blog post, where she equates silence about one’s sexuality to keeping a secret and secrets are akin to pathology. This way of thinking has been around for a long time and can be traced back at least to Vivienne Cass’ model of homosexual (that was the wording she used for that era) identity development  for gay men published in the 1980s. Coming out is stage 1 and a healthy gay identity is  not fully resolved until one actively engages in activism on behalf of LGBT issues at stage 6. This model has been heavily criticized as too linear and hierarchical and not reflective of the complexities of people’s lives or of coming out. Other theorists, like Anthony D’Augelli have pictured identity development for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals as more of a sequence of processes that are neither linear nor hierarchical, but which still include exiting a heterosexual identity as the first process and later includes the process of entering LGB activism.

The paradigm that one must come out to be psychologically and socially healthy and mature as a queer person isn’t really disrupted in identity development models until Ruth Fassinger’s work more recently. In her research, particularly in her studies of lesbian women, identity development includes two developmental processes, one intrapersonal the other interpersonal, that parallel each other. Intrapersonal and interpersonal development processes may be happening simultaneously, but could also happen off-cycle so-to-speak. Although coming out to oneself is necessary, coming out publicly may not be necessary for healthy identity development and resolution.

So, let’s go back to Diana, Anderson, Frank, and Sally. Diana and Anderson, based on their own words, seem to have come out in response to persistent questioning  about their sexuality by others who had already assumed they were queer. If you read both their statements, you’ll be struck perhaps as I was, by the similarity of the language they used. Both of them say that the reason they were finally openly saying that they were queers was because not saying so was giving people the impression that they were ashamed of their sexuality, thought it was wrong, or were deliberately hiding it for some other reason. Both Diana and Anderson deny any such feelings saying only that they felt it was “private” and for Diana, the added layer of concern about how fellow Jamaicans would react (more on this later). Although he was also responding to rumors and questions, Frank doesn’t take such an apologetic approach. Reading his open letter on tumblr really sounds more like he’s just sharing something with others who matter to him; there’s no defensiveness about the timing of his announcement or explanation of why he didn’t say anything before. Sally, we know now, never said anything publicly about her sexuality, but allowed her obituary to speak her truth for her. However, comments from her sister (who is also lesbian and is publicly out as one), suggest that Sally never consciously “hid” her sexuality – she was just really a “private” person.

Private – that word pops up a lot in these discussions and why shouldn’t it? Who I sleep with is my business isn’t it? Well, yes and no. I think it all turns on how people view their sexuality as part of their identity in the first place. If sexuality is just a matter of sexual behavior then by all means perhaps we all should keep it to ourselves! But if you view your sexuality as a core anchor for the self, as a lens through which you see and understand the world and want to be understood by it, then that’s another matter entirely. Sexuality as bedroom behavior behooves privacy. Sexuality as life rudder or philosophical standpoint behooves public acknowledgement.
How one moves from one to the other is a personal matter, possibly an issue of development, but not seeing one’s sexuality as bedroom-only relevant should not be assumed to also reflect an immature or less developed sexual identity.

A similar distinction is sometimes made for other social identity facets. I’ve known African Americans, for example, who have viewed their racial identity as a mere accident of melanin, as nothing more than skin complexion. I’ve known others who see their racial identity as a fundamental and orienting aspect of their personalities and worldviews. Students who I have interviewed have held both opinions (Stewart, 2002, 2009). I’ve heard women discuss their sex and gender identities in the same fashion.

Perhaps someone who views their identities as biological facts would be less likely to be politically active around those identities than someone who views their identities as worldview portals. Maybe. I haven’t done research around that and if you know of something out there, share it please.

There’s something else here though also. Lugg talks a lot about privilege in her post and I think that’s a really important factor to consider in this discussion. Just about everybody has at least one social identity (race, ethnicity, native language, citizenship status, sex, gender identity, gender expression, economic status, education, religion, ability/disability, age, body size, etc.) that is privileged in this society. And just about everybody has at least one social identity that is targeted, disadvantaged, or oppressed in this society. Allan G. Johnson, in the 2nd edition of his book Privilege, Power, and Difference, discusses the paradoxes of privilege. That one can be privileged in one facet of one’s identity and never recognize that privilege, especially if one has a salient identification with another social group that is oppressed. A member of an oppressed social group also may not recognize their oppression because it hasn’t personally affected their lives in a tangible way. How could that be relevant in this situation? Well, it’s possible that Sally Ride, for example, didn’t see her lesbian sexuality as oppressed. Despite the absence of the 1400 state and federal unearned advantages (i.e., privileges) that heterosexual couples face, Sally and her partner Tam, likely had the economic privilege to buffer against that. (Although it’s been touted heavily on Facebook, I seriously doubt that Tam is going to become destitute without Sally’s social security death benefit.) On the other hand, Anderson Cooper may be more aware of his targeted group membership as a gay man, thus fostering the perceived need for silence, than he is of his many privileges as white, male, and upper-class (see Beverly Tatum for a great discussion of identity awareness and privilege). And for Diana and Frank, who also have racially marginalized group memberships, the complications increase as one considers what it means to come out as a marginalized person within a group that is already marginalized. Diana was cautious. Frank appears not to be and maybe he didn’t come out enough, according to some.

This has gotten really long – sorry – so I’ll wrap it up. In a nutshell, having a public forum to come out is a privilege – most of us have to do it the old-fashioned way, one conversation at a time. But coming out is also a declaration of identity and how one sees the world. And it’s always, always risky. Whether someone has enough other privileges stored elsewhere to buffer against the risk, really can’t be determined by counting up privileged statuses. It’s not a math problem. As intersectionality theories of identity discuss, people’s identities aren’t additive and unitary. You can’t amass privilege the way you can amass wealth and losing privileged status is much easier than gaining it. The costs of both silence and transparency are more complex than either is given credit for. As a mentor and friend, Dr. Cynthia Dilliard has said, we’ve got big work to do.

Racing the Olympics

Today’s opening ceremonies launch the 2012 London Olympics. For nearly two weeks, fanatic and occasional sports enthusiasts will watch the world’s best compete for the title of THE best athlete in their event and nationalists across the world will keep track of the medal count for their country’s athletes. It is heralded as a time when political squabbles take a backseat to international cooperation and camaraderie. Of course that’s not always the case and the Olympic Games have often served as a stage for political rivalries, David-Goliath dichotomies, and whether one way of life will win the day over another.

As a critical race theorist (CRT) (click here for a summary of CRT), I recognize the prevalence and pervasiveness of race and racism in daily life and so I have paid attention, or tracked, issues of race and racism in this year’s Olympic Games. For some reason though, issues of race haven’t been hard to notice at all. They’ve been practically screaming even before the games began this week. First was the controversy over London’s logo for the Olympics that has included concerns over insensitivity to people with epilepsy, whether the logo is part of an Illuminati conspiracy and concerning race, earlier iterations of the logo have been criticized (ironically) for both harkening to Nazi symbolism in one iteration and by Iran for covertly supporting the Zionist movement in another form. It’s also the 40th year since 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and murdered in Munich during the Opening Ceremonies of the games in what was clearly an ethno-religious hate crime and the IOC has refused to hold a moment of silence in remembrance of this horrific act that violated not only the spirit of the games but human dignity and equality. Most recently, on Thursday, it was reported that a Greek Olympic athlete, Voula Papachristou, a member of their track and field squad who was to compete in the triple jump, was expelled from the Olympics by her home country for a racist tweet that when translated read, “With so many Africans in Greece… At least the West Nile mosquitoes will eat home made food!!!”

Clearly that is a WTF moment.

Elsewhere, the presence of race and racism (and suspicions of it) are less obvious. Also this week, the Huffington Post reported that British weight-lifting Olympic athlete, Zoe Smith, was taunted via Twitter with bullying tweets disparaging her and her teammates for being female weight-lifters. Smith fired back with some truly excellent zingers and wrote further about it on her blog as reported here by Yahoo! News. So what’s this got to do with race, you wonder. Well, one of the tenets of CRT is a recognition of the intersections of racism with other forms of oppression. Zoe Smith appears to be a young woman of African descent, and although not unique to Black and other women of color, the hateful comments targeting her take on the same look as those that have been used to brutalize women of African descent in the U.S. and globally since Europe colonized Africa. I was reminded instantly of South African track athlete Caster Semenya, who was accused in 2009 of being a man for her very muscled body and undeniable dominance in the 800m event, supposedly not natural for someone born female. Semenya was ultimately required by the IAAF, the world athletics organization, to take a gender test to prove she was female. Although not as extreme as Semenya’s case, the bullying Smith endured is very reminiscent of the ways that pan-African women have long been de-sexed and made anti-feminine by White European standards of hegemonic femininity and heteronormative sexual desire.

Yet there is another way in which race plays a subtle, often overlooked role in the Olympic Games and in sports in general, through what bodies are on the playing field for any respective sport and which bodies are expected to win. Racialized expectations for performance outcomes in the Olympics have become trite: an African will win the long-distance running events, particularly one from Kenya or Ethiopia; the Chinese will do best in diving; the Central Europeans excel at gymnastics, while South Americans are the key threat in soccer on the world stage.

Meanwhile, for as much progress as has been made in racial equality and opportunity through athletics, we will still see most of the Black athletes on the track, the long jump, the soccer pitch (outside the US), and the basketball court, especially when they’re from the US (the football field is another place but that’s not an Olympic sport – yet). People of African descent and darker complexion will be noticeably far fewer on swimming, gymnastics, golf, and tennis teams, for example (with equally notable exceptions in 2012 like Gabby Douglas and John Orozco for the U.S. gymnastics squad, and Lia Neal, who is one of 3 Black swimmers on the U.S. swimming team). Latin@, Asian American, and Native American athletes are few and far between in the sports that get the most press coverage in the U.S.

Is this a problem? What difference does it make that there isn’t more racial diversity in our Olympic cycling, rowing, or lacrosse squads? Isn’t this just a matter of preference and talent? Well, putting the eugenics tone of the last question aside, I guess it doesn’t matter – unless we care about the intersections of racial and economic inequality. The marginalization of people of color from higher-income employment sectors depresses the economic mobility of people of color and their access to a wider variety of leisure activities, including sports. What I’ve noticed is that sports with a lower entry fee, so to speak, are the sports where you’re likely to see a higher proportion of people of color. When all you need is a ball, or a pair of sneakers, or both those things and a hoop, and when you can play anywhere – the middle of the street or somebody’s schoolyard, the sport is more economically accessible. If the sport you play requires not only pricey equipment, but also many acres of manicured grassy lawns, access to a natatorium (even public pools are few and far between in most economically challenged areas), an ice rink, gymnasium, long trails to ride, or a lake AND coaching supervision to prevent injury inherent in the sport (thinking about gymnastics especially), you’ve changed the complexion of the sport. Basically, the price to play structurally and systematically excludes significant numbers of people of color from playing the game on the basis of the ways that race and social class intersect. The result is fielding an US Olympics team that doesn’t reflect the total diversity of our multicultural, multi-ethnic nation, but does reflect the racial segregation that still marks our daily lives from Sunday morning at 11am (tip of the hat to MLK) to the playgrounds and backyards of our children’s lives.

One thing I know is that the ability to play together is fundamental to creating bonds of loyalty, mutual care and respect, and cooperation. We see it in groups of young children, the best of our intercollegiate athletics, and through the boardroom deals that begin on the golf course or squash court. Maybe we’re stuck in this quagmire in our nation because we don’t know how to play together and don’t seem to want to. What do we do about this? Honestly, I haven’t a clue. But another thing I know is that in order to get to an answer, we’ve got to start talking about the question.

Monday: Coming Out as both Risk and Privilege

On Being an Angry Black Woman

Yes, I am an Angry Black Woman and I’m not sorry for it. Last Monday, The Root featured an article from Clutch Magazine by Shayla Pierce titled, “Sorry to Disappoint You, But I’m Not an Angry Black Woman.” This immediately piqued my interest and I read both the short excerpt on The Root’s website and the full article online at Clutch Magazine with a fair bit of wary curiosity.

In the article, Pierce recounts an encounter with a waiter while having lunch at a restaurant. There was something amiss with her soup, a foreign body floating in the broth, and Pierce called the waiter over and asked for her soup to be replaced. Pierce says that the waiter then became very tense, asking her to calm down, and everything would be taken care of. Now Pierce doesn’t recall getting loud, being contentious, or doing anything that would have provoked such a defensive response on the part of waiter. In her estimation, the waiter responded to the stereotype of an Angry Black Woman, instead of to the dissatisfied customer who was in front of him, who happened to be a Black woman. I recognized this in my own life; I have been told usually by White women that they find me “intimidating” and even that they were “afraid” of me. Like Pierce, I am pretty sure I’ve never given a public display of rage or even a level of impatience that would justify that kind of reaction. Granted, I don’t mince words often and I enunciate when I speak so that I can be heard and understood clearly; I don’t let my voice rise at the end of a declarative sentence as though I were asking a question and I don’t get easily intimidated by someone cutting me off while I’m speaking. None of this has to do with me being “angry” and I think a lot of it comes from being born and raised in New York City, attending high school at an all-girls school (Convent of the Sacred Heart), and being socialized in Black rhetorical styles on the playground, at church, and foremost in my own house. All of this upbringing has shaped my personality such that I’m usually somewhat stern at first glance and speak clearly, directly, and don’t take anyone’s b.s. Guilty as charged.

However, Pierce’s key point was to assert a certain way of being as a Black woman. As the title indicates, she’s sorry to disappoint those who expect her to become enraged at the slightest provocation, the epitome of what I guess she thinks it means to be an Angry Black Woman. She says, not necessarily incorrectly, that the Angry Black Woman is a myth, a stereotype, and she proactively and assertively disputes the stereotype through deliberately refusing to display anger, especially when White people are present. I heard a mid-level student affairs professional, a Black woman, express a similar sentiment in a training I did last Monday. She confessed that sometimes, many times, she would hide her authentic reaction to a situation fearing that if she were to show up authentic in that moment that she would be seen as the Angry Black Woman and lose her credibility as a professional working with a staff of predominantly White people. Pierce also acknowledges that Black women’s anger is often dismissed, causing real, substantive issues to be ignored while folks focus on the display of anger being performed and judge it to be a farce.

Hmmmm.

Anger does make people awfully uncomfortable, especially when they and their actions are the target of that anger. When marginalized groups get angry about their oppression, dominant groups tend to get jittery. In the same vein, anger is not always the appropriate response to every situation. As Pierce recounts in her article, something floating in her soup that wasn’t on the menu wasn’t much cause for rage. However, there are many issues and situations in life where anger and rage are not only appropriate and justified but are demanded.

I find it interesting that anger has been used to negatively stereotype Black women, “saucy” Latina women, Asian women, indigenous women, lesbian women, PMSing women – do you see a trend here? Yup, they’re all WOMEN who are systematically oppressed because they do not fit into the ideal trope of hegemonic femininity. Women aren’t supposed to be angry apparently and when they are angry, it’s a farce, a ridiculous display of inappropriate emotion. Moreover, women aren’t supposed to clearly and directly express the changes they want to see in their lives and in the lives of those around them (I’d like a new bowl of soup please). Women must control themselves and not be intimidating (read strong) otherwise people (read people with power) won’t take them seriously (read won’t be able to see them as cute anymore).

Oh please.

Several years ago, I read a book by bell hooks* called Killing Rage. When I first saw the title, I thought killing was meant to be a verb and assumed the book was going to be about squelching rage. Consequently I read it with a fair amount of apprehension; this was meant to teach me how not to be angry and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that. But no, killing is being used as an adjective in the title and as a verb. Once I realized that, reading the book became very transformative for me. In her book, hooks justifies the need for what she calls a killing rage – a rage that is inspired by recognition of oppression and a passion for justice. This kind of rage should be stoked, not for the purpose of destructive violence, but rather to maintain one’s fire when you want to give up. But that’s just half the lesson of the book. hooks also documents the ways in which dominant systems try to squelch, or kill, the rage of marginalized groups for the purposes of maintaining the status quo. The first step to maintaining power and control is to diffuse people’s anger.

So, sometimes, when it’s warranted, I am an Angry Black Woman and I am not sorry for it. I am angry in response to systematic oppression and privilege, not because there’s a fly in my soup, Aldo’s doesn’t carry men’s size 6 in stock in Toledo, or even because somebody stepped on my foot in a crowded line outside the World of Coca-Cola. I am reclaiming the Angry Black Woman because her anger is useful and historically and presently justified as a fitting response to the killing and maiming of her sons and fathers, the raping of her daughters and sisters, the drying up of dreams like Langston Hughes’s raisin in the sun, and the constant threat of horror upon horror unleashed by an oppressive state.

I am not giving up my anger. As that participant said by the end of the training, it’s time to stop caring what everybody else thinks and show up authentic. Being angry doesn’t mean that I could be subject to psychotic rage at any given moment – that’s the stereotype, the farce that makes for high ratings on reality TV. Real anger, bell hooks’ killing rage, is fuel for action. Bayard Rustin didn’t school Martin Luther King, Jr. in nonviolent protest tactics because they weren’t angry, but because they knew how to use their anger as fuel, as motivation. Anger isn’t the absence of love, either. Both anger and love are rooted in passion, but moreso, anger is an outgrowth of loving something so much that you can’t stand to see it fail to fulfill its promise. Anger is also a sign of hope and faith that says you have not resigned yourself to the inevitability of the outcome. As Popeye used to say, “I can’t stands it no more!”

I think we all need to get angry so that we can all make change happen on behalf of justice.

Next time on #higheredWed, my response to the Penn State controversy.

*bell hooks intentionally does not capitalize the first letters in her name and so neither am I.

Introducing Higher Ed Wedesdays: A Giver-Centered Philanthropy

To help focus my blog and help readers decide what content may be of more interest to them, I’m adding a new feature to my blog beginning this week. My interests in societal issues are broad and varied, including politics, faith and religion, and higher education primarily and my blog reflects that breadth. My social identities as a Black queer masculine-of-center woman with ADHD who practices a progressive Christianity also get reflected in the many kinds of topics and issues that attract my attention and show up in my blog. At the same time, I know that many of you who have heard about my blog and are following me on Twitter and friends with me on Facebook know me through higher education and student affairs circles; I want to acknowledge that audience and develop a way for you to know when topics related to higher education and student affairs will be featured in my blog. So to do that, I’m dedicating the Wednesday post on my blog to higher education and student affairs issues. You can use the hashtag “#higheredWed” on Twitter to comment and pass the word on. Mondays and Fridays will be dedicated to a broader range of topics and issues with a social justice bent and especially dealing with issues of race, gender, sexuality, faith/belief, disability/ability, and social class.

So, let’s kick off this first #higheredWed with a reflection on philanthropy in higher education, particularly alumni giving. An article by Elise Young in Inside Higher Ed yesterday, reviewing the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education’s (CASE) annual meeting, spoke to the need for alumni giving officers to connect with alumni from the Millennial Generation in ways that reflect the trends on that group. In particular, using technology and social media to more effectively connect to alumni and tell the college’s story were more effective than traditional solicitation techniques like cold calls and postal mailings. However, the article also pointed out the need to help Millennials see where their money was going tangibly; comparisons were made to other fundraising campaigns that told donors that a certain amount of money made it possible for this activity to occur, while another amount enabled something else. Millennials want to see where their money is going and connect to a larger story, not just give into a generic annual fund campaign.

I’ve argued a similar point myself in a white paper I wrote in the spring for Kalamazoo College’s alumni and development staff and our Alumni Association Executive Board of which I am a member. Using a generational perspective, informed by the work of Strauss and Howe and others that have characterized trends in approaches to careers and family and views of authority, loyalty, and education, the crux of my argument was that a one-size-fits-all approach to engaging alumni as donors would likely be less effective than tailoring one’s approach to fit the needs and attitudes of smaller groups of alumni. These distinctions may be done according to generational characteristics as argued in Inside Higher Ed and my paper. However, other social identifiers may also be considered as alumni and development officers seek to more effectively engage different groups of alumni.

Marybeth Gasman, alone and in collaboration with including Nelson Bowman most recently, have focused on issues of race in college philanthropy, particularly for Black students at our nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).  From her research on the history of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) to a blog post in Diverse Issues in Higher Education, Gasman has noted that the dominant model of philanthropy that is focused on wealth and economic privilege is not relevant or suitable for developing philanthropy among Black college alumni. A review of the research by Pascarella and Terenzini (How College Impacts Students, 2nd ed.) on the conditional effects on quality of life after college demonstrates the lower earnings of Blacks with a college degree relative to Whites. These differences likely reflect the pervasive and intersecting structures of racism and economic inequality. Moreover, in Bowen and Bok’s study of Black and White graduates from highly selective colleges (published in their book The Shape of the River), they found that Black students were also more likely to pursue careers in sectors that didn’t typically have high earning potential (e.g., social work and education) or focus careers in law and medicine on lower-income clientele and economically depressed neighborhoods. Consequently, large amounts of excess disposable income are not available to give to their alma mater, regardless of their satisfaction with their college experience or loyalty to the institution. Gasman argues in her blog post linked above and in her recently published text with Nelson Bowman, Fundraising at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: An All Campus Approach (2011, Routledge) that a broader concept of philanthropy that incorporates “time, talent, and treasure” is necessary to effectively engage Black college alumni in institutional philanthropy. In addition to alumni financial contributions, alumni who devote time volunteering to assist with recruitment and retention efforts and who donate their professional expertise also make valuable philanthropic contributions to their alma maters. As Gasman notes, this is useful and relevant for all alumni, not just Black alumni, and for all institutions, not just Black colleges.

Student status, whether undergraduate or graduate, is also important to consider. Also covered in the Inside Higher Ed piece was the challenge of connecting with graduate alumni versus undergraduate alumni. Advanced degree holders have different needs and interests than undergraduate alumni and their experiences on campus as graduate students were very different from most traditional undergraduate students. These distinctions need to be accounted for as college advancement officers plan their institution’s annual fund drive.

The old marketing principle, know your audience, must be sensibly and intentionally applied to alumni and development activities in higher education. Traditional models of alumni engagement and philanthropy, although perhaps more financially efficient, won’t necessarily work to effectively engage a broad diversity of alumni across generations or social identity groups. After all, I would argue that the goal of alumni engagement is not just to increase financial giving to the institution, but to also build on and sustain the sense of community membership and sense of belonging that (hopefully) was developed during the student’s

Personally, as an alumna of a private high school and two higher education institutions, as well as a faculty member at a higher education institution, I get multiple appeals to give every year. Frankly they’re quite overwhelming. If all you want from me is money, you’re not likely to get a lot and you’re going to force me to make decisions about who’s going to get the little bit of money I have. If you expand my opportunities to give back to include more than just financial contributions, then I’m more likely to want to donate my time or talent in some way – and then also find a way to throw at least a few dollars your way. Just saying. Consider who I am as an alum and engage me appropriately. It’s a giver-centered approach to philanthropy, instead of the institution-centered focus that has seemed to dominate in higher education traditionally.

Thanks for joining me this #higheredWed – hope this helps you get over your hump day!

A Fair Balance

It’s only July, still about four months before the November elections, and I’m already tired of the political ads from both sides. Contrary to much of the current discourse, this isn’t new. Check out this 21st century retooling of the negative campaigning that happened in the 1800s where candidates attacked each other’s physical appearance, sexual appetites, and questioned their biological sex (yes, “hermaphroditical” was used to describe John Adams by Thomas Jefferson): Attack Ads, Circa 1800.

Ugh.

Another thing that isn’t new is the debate over how much tax the wealthy should pay, support for the poor and working classes, and the rights of corporations to pursue unlimited profits – at the same time, the purpose and value of higher education was questioned as proponents of a classical curriculum emphasizing breadth of knowledge meant to “discipline the mind” defended themselves against those advocating for a more utilitarian curriculum that would be directly connected to training for specific trades, particularly mercantilism (aka, business); see the Yale Report of 1828 and this article by Jack C. Lane in 1987. These same debates were also seen in the 1800s as neo-republican ideology swept the country advocating for the freedom to pursue individual success without the constraints of government. Wrapped in what Frey has called a mis-reading of Puritanical ethics, neo-republicanism was as much a religious ideology as it was a political one.

Frey argues for a closer reading of Puritan ethics that would reveal that individual success was always meant to be constrained by investment in the common good. Perhaps, but a close reading of the Bible itself would reveal that the current polarization of the right to pursue wealth against a populist support of poor and working class is far afield from the Christian ethics preached by the religion’s earliest followers.

The Common Lectionary for July 1st used in many liturgical denominations, including Episcopalians and Anglicans worldwide, Lutheran churches, and Catholic parishes used Paul’s second letter to the Christians in Corinth as the epistle reading for the week. Here’s a portion of the passage (if you want to read more – the selection begins at verse 7 – click here):

“For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’” 2 Corinthians 8:12-15, New Revised Standard Version

The passage is about voluntary giving or donations, not taxes imposed by the government in fairness to biblical exegesis, but I think there’s a larger point that is transferable between the two contexts. In Paul’s time, the government couldn’t be counted on to take care of the poor. In fact, poverty often led to enslavement. So the new communities that were forming to follow The Way – that’s what the earliest Christians called themselves as they attempted to practice the way of life that Jesus lived on earth – had to create their own structures of organization and oversight – what some might call government. There were leaders and representatives, folks (like Paul) who traveled to spread news about new policies and practices to be adopted. And during this time, the government – Rome – did impose taxes on its citizens and surrogates and typically the surrogates were under a heavier tax burden than the citizens, even though the citizens were usually far wealthier. So when Paul writes this letter to Corinth, pleading for them to give more because they had more, so that they could help the Christians in Jerusalem, he’s trying to teach them another means of following The Way. Later in this letter, Paul cites the Macedonians’ giving, which was greater than that of the Corinthians even though they were poor themselves. Again, Paul wasn’t asking for the Corinthians to become destitute in order to help some other folks, so that everybody would be poor, nor so that those being helped would end up with more than them. Paul wasn’t even asking for everybody to have the same amount either in a communistic (different from communitarian) economy – a common accusation by those who reject calls for higher taxes on the wealthy. Equal (a = b) and fair are not the same thing. Fairness and justice don’t always call for things being the same (sometimes they do though). Neither hard work nor inherited gain give anyone the right to hoard their wealth. What is the fair balance? I don’t know, but I know we don’t have it when there are people who are going into bankruptcy due to healthcare costs, who don’t have enough food to eat, who are living out of cars or on the street, while others have so much they literally don’t know what to do with it.

For me, it’s just that simple. I’m not asking for our government to be run according to my Christian ethics (we aren’t a theocracy you know), but I do allow my Christian ethics to guide my political stances and how I vote.1 I also want others who claim to be using Christianity to guide their political stances and voting records to think carefully and reasonably about their orthodoxy using the best biblical scholarship and thinking we have access to. I don’t hear that from most of the folks who are howling over how unfair it is to raise taxes on the wealthy and on highly profitable corporations.

This premise that no one has too much or too little isn’t unique to Paul and Christianity; indeed you can find it as a central premise in any communitarian ethic across religious and secular traditions. It’s also an ethic this country has practiced at times throughout its history and during those eras, we were a stronger nation that began to realize some of its greatness (see my thoughts about being a great nation in my earlier blog post from July 5th).

I want the “fair balance” that Paul calls for to become a reality in this country and right now, we don’t have it. We have a lopsided balance that I sincerely believe will threaten the future of this nation if left unchecked. Paying attention to European history (amongst other places around the world) will show that when things get so lopsided, the poor and working classes revolt and some folks in power lose their heads. Just saying – something to think about. I happily pay my taxes (although I don’t happily fill out the forms because those things are a headache) and would happily pay more if I earned more. It’s my responsibility to the common good, to be invested in the success of my whole community, not just myself.

“A rising tide lifts all boats” – at least it should anyway. But more so, when some boats are allowed to run aground while others sail on, safe harbor for anyone becomes hard to find.

A fair balance for our nation and a fair balance for our world. That’s what it means to live in community with one’s neighbors, whether down the street or across the ocean.

Notes:
1 If you think you know what those are based on what you hear in the media, think again. I am comfortable identifying myself as a “progressive Christian.” For a short clip on what that means, check out Fred Plumer’s explanation (7:16 clip) or go to the website for The Center for Progressive Christianity.

References:
Frey, D. E. (1998. Individualist economic values and self-interest: The problem in the Puritan ethic. Journal of Business Ethics, 17(14), 1573-1580.

Lane, J. C. (1987). The Yale report of 1828 and liberal education: A neorepublican manifesto. History of Education Quarterly, 27(3), 325-338.