Just because you’re magic: A love letter to minoritized faculty in your first year

This fall begins my 16th academic year as a faculty member in the field of higher education and student affairs. I do so having attained promotion to the rank of full professor and serving in significant leadership roles in both my department and my profession. I have “made it.” Yet, as I have become known to say, I am #fullbutnotsatisfied. Attaining status and professional accolades is meaningless to me unless I can help to bring others alongside and after me. I am intent on doing what I can to help other minoritized faculty not only persist but thrive in this profession.

Toward that end, I am mindful of making evident the hidden rules of the academy, helping early career faculty to avoid fault lines, and using gatekeeper roles to both multiply the voices at the table but also expand the table’s capacity. So, I was provoked to consider what words of encouragement and caution I could offer to new racially minoritized faculty, as well as those with minoritized identities of sexuality and gender (both in addition to and apart from racial marginality), when I was contacted about a week ago by a mentee, who is a cisman with marginalized identities of both race and sexuality in his first year in a faculty role. My mentee had texted me after his first week in the classroom to share that one of his students, a cishet White man, had reached out after the first class session with a request to schedule a time to talk further so that this student might expand his awareness and knowledge, believing my mentee to possess special insights given his social identities. Immediately, alarm bells went off in my mind, but I have learned to be slow to offer unsolicited advice that can come across as paternalistic and undermining of others’ capacities to recognize dangers and their agency to make their own decisions about whether to move ahead. I probed what my younger colleague was thinking about this request and how he planned to respond. He shared that he was fine with meeting with the student, realizing that given the regional context of the institution, the student would not likely encounter anyone else like him. After reading his text, I simply replied, “Okay, just remember you have the right to set boundaries.”

My mentee shared that no one had ever said that to him before. He had never considered that was an option. I realized that no one told me that in my first year either. In fact, I was nearly tenured before I learned that lesson through the combination of hard experiences and wisdom from racially minoritized senior colleagues. Why did it take so long? Partly, lack of proximity to senior minoritized faculty. Partly, not knowing what questions to even ask until I had already had several years of experiences that confirmed that yes, there is a pattern here, and no, the problem was not me. This post then is a “love letter” to other minoritized faculty (across multiple dimensions of marginality) in an attempt to harness some of what I have learned over the last 15 years and what I hope to reflect and perfect in year 16 and beyond.

*****

Dear Colleague,

First, congratulations and welcome to the faculty ranks! You have already accomplished a significant feat by earning your doctorate and attaining a faculty position. You are now a member of a very privileged group and the opportunities and burdens of that privilege should not be taken lightly. Nevertheless, that privilege may yet be undermined by the relative visibility of the minoritized identities you hold. If sometimes you feel as though you are living two different lives – perhaps received with awe and respect in one space but greeted with disdain and rebuke in another – it is true, you are. Some days it may seem as though there must be some veil that falls from your face when you leave campus to carry on the mundane business of your daily life. In one life you are smiled at and called Dr. So-and-So. In this other life, you are cut down by disgusted double-takes and driving-while-Black, catcalled “hey girl” walking down the street, or “fucking sissy” coming out of a local bar, or simply some foul slur any given moment. These are your two lives and sometimes that second life doesn’t respect you enough to get out of the way of your first life and remain hidden. Some days, that second life will show up in the midst of an academic triumph. It is a singular achievement, living two lives at once while not succumbing to the incoherence of it all.

Living this dual-life requires some cautions, some encouragement, and some blessings. I offer these humbly, knowing that they may miss the mark, come too late, or be too early to be understood. Use what you can, throw away what misses the mark, save for later that which doesn’t make sense now. Let me know what you do with this and what lessons you have learned, so that I can learn from you.

I hope that you will set boundaries around your dual lives. No, I urge you to set boundaries. Although your life may inform your teaching, you do not have to teach your life. Your body is not a textbook. Your heart is not a 16-week curriculum for others’ to attain their learning outcomes through the toil of your devastations.

There are likely other minoritized faculty on your campus, senior faculty, who share your particular marginalities. However, they don’t necessarily understand you or see the world the same as you. The world was different (and yet the same) when they became faculty. The academy was different (and the same). They were different (and the same). The survival strategies they adopted may not be meant for you. Their worldview may not mesh with yours. Their persistence may have required compromises you are unwilling to make. They may not know what to do with you. They may be toxic. Be patient with them recognizing that their toxicity is the inevitable result of learning to swim in a toxic pool. Learn what lessons you can about the institution you have joined. But, please, keep your distance from the toxic ones.

Yes, you will have to be better than and do more than the others. You may have heard this already as you were growing up. It’s a common mantra of parents to children in racially minoritized households. If you have minoritized identities of sexuality and/or gender and are White, this may be a new and unwelcome expectation. Yes, it is unfair. It is still truth. The best anecdote to ambiguous standards and biased systems is excellence. Be excellent. This is not a call to assimilation, but rather to doing the work, consistently, thoroughly, and at such a high level of quality that your haters must be silenced. This is also not a call to loudly proclaim how hard you’re working to everyone in your department. They don’t deserve to know that. They don’t deserve to see you sweat. This leads to the next point:

Everybody has not earned authenticity from you. Ancient wisdom cautions casting your pearls before pigs. Pigs eat everything and process it all as waste. Don’t allow others to make waste of your transparency, your authenticity, or your vulnerability. Wear Dunbar’s mask, but don’t forget that it is a mask. I implore you to find spaces and people with whom you can take off the mask so that it neither suffocates nor adheres to you.

Yes, you belong here. You. Belong. Here. Even in 2016, you may be “the first” or “the only” one of your kind of “diversity” in your department. You will survive. You can thrive. Do professional and civic service that has clearly defined tasks, a specified term of service, and which can keep you grounded in the communities that birthed you. You are needed to be a “possibility model” (L. Cox) for someone else. All the while, I hope that you will grow, learn, and expand the borders of your mind. You are as limitless as you will allow yourself to be. You cannot be contained by the boxes others will attempt to put you in due to their small imaginations. And, having found just the right sized box, it can be tempting to snuggle down and stay there. I hope that you will instead continue to take risks, to scare yourself, to throw yourself off new cliffs in your research, teaching, and service trusting that your wings will grow on the way down.

Finally, be clear about your values and where you come from. Find people and spaces outside the academy whom you can trust to check you in love. And yes, as Jesse Williams has asserted, you are magic. Find the people who will remind you of your gifts and encourage you to walk in them even when you are afraid. Yet, as Brother Jesse also said, you are real. Honor your body and your heart. Take care of it. Love on it. Allow it to be loved on. You will not last if you do not. We need you to stick around for a long time. We are better with you than without you, but you must value your health and wellness over all else. Don’t let this work define you. Live a full, expansive life. Live the life your ancestors could not have dreamed of. The fact is that neither side of that dual-life I referenced earlier is real. They are both constructions of oppression, the flip sides of fetish and repulsion. Don’t buy into either. Create a life that can transport you beyond.

In love; in hope; in solidarity,

D-L

Before, During, After

I have avoided saying much these last few days, since the announcement of the non-indictment of the White police officer whose actions resulted in the murder of Eric Garner, a Black man, a father of 6, an instigator of peace. I spent most of these days just numb, with more and more information about somebody else’s Black child/mother/sister/brother/cousin (John, Ezell, Rekyia, Tamir, Akiya, Dashawnda, …) being murdered by those who are meant to “protect and serve” pooling like quick-dry concrete around my feet. I could not breathe. I don’t mean that as a rallying cry, but as a very real statement of what it felt like to be in this body. And so I have been mostly silent because the words were sounding emptier and emptier and emptier, but now I have found my voice again.

I am standing in what Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian seer and writer, has called the Aleph – that space where present and past and future become one, where time knows no measure. So much of what has been happening in the last 2 weeks is interchangeable with events already entered into the historical record. In this before, during, and after moment, I needed to reclaim a sense of purpose, a motivation to continue. In this blog post, penned before I have agreed to colead a call with a dear companion/kinfolk for student affairs colleagues, I want to reflect on standing in the aleph that has visited all of us. Spiritually, personally, professionally – these are the areas (admittedly hard to distinguish) in which I have wrestled since Wednesday afternoon.

Spiritually – I am tired, dog-tired, of superficial religiosity, of fervent calls to “turn back to God” or “God will fix this” or “I’m God’s Property; can’t nobody harm me.” I have decided (again) that this theology is not life-giving for me and is inconsistent with the call of the Divine for how I am to show up in this world. I think I understand why the Old Testament – the Hebrew scriptures and its metaphors and characters were so galvanizing for African peoples enslaved in this country. Unlike too much of the New Testament outside of the Gospels, the Hebrew scriptures put responsibility for creating just conditions squarely on the backs of the people living in their communities. They were not allowed to pass it off on G-d to “fix” but instead were called by G-d to get their house in order and then, then, favor would come. We have work to do that is our work to do as members together in this community. We have lies to unlearn, systems to tear down, money-changing tables to overturn, and a new kingdom to bring to pass. I think some of us want to use religion like a badge on our respectability sashes, as though we were some kind of scout. Our respectability, our sanctimony won’t save us and Jesus’ harshest words were reserved for those who thought that simply taking care of me and mine would do.

Personally – as in how do I show up as a friend, as a parent, as a child in this moment. What do I say to my child, my Black child, who wants to go into law enforcement as a career? I have felt like an inept parent at times, to be honest, confronted with her career choice – hardened it seems by the events of the last 2 weeks. But then I had to ask myself if I sat in a space that was less compromised and conflicted? Truthfully, I do not. As an educator, an academic, I make my living in institutional spaces, benefiting from and reproducing institutional systems that relied on the oppression of others by race, class, sex, gender, sexuality, ability, nationality, on and on and on. We have our own Fegusons and Staten Islands and Clevelands and LAs on our college campuses in the forms of institutionalized oppressions and violence in many forms. I work within these spaces even as I attempt to disrupt those same institutional systems to bring about greater equity, greater justice, greater liberty. Like one of the Chinese acrobats I saw perform last night, I roll about and slide and jostle the plank on which I unsteadily balance these competing interests. If I dare to do so, then why can’t she? Indeed, she must.

Professionally – Although discounted as less meaningful in the hierarchy of faculty work, teaching and service are at the core of who I am and how I am called to show up in this world. As the parent of one of my doctoral students shared with her in recent days, I must realize that I am here today because others before refused to give up, give in, to submit to the numbness and the pooling concrete around their ankles and keep fighting. Had they abandoned their vision of the future, I would not be where I am today. The world that I imagined is yet to be realized and therefore I am yet to sit down. If I stop, then what of the world my daughter will grow up in? If I stop, then what will be of the world of the generations yet unborn? I fight and go on fighting for them. I do not have the luxury of defeat, of surrender, of dwelling in the numbness. Someone is counting on me and I will not let them down.

#Black(MenWomenTrans*)LivesMatter

Racism is not an “Accident”

Oh my.

A friend of mine told me on Facebook that people have been eager to see me respond to the new Brad Paisley/LL Cool J mash-up, sorry I mean, hodgepodge, sorry I mean country/hip-hop duet, no wait, sorry, I mean the new white man lead-black man sidekick musical impersonation of a Mel Gibson-Danny Glover Lethal Weapon buddy-flick.

So, begrudgingly, I consented. Fortunately, my friend, Dr. Natasha Croom, an assistant professor of higher education at Iowa State University, directed me to a link that spared me the trouble of having to actually listen to the song: Accidental Racist: Read the Lyrics So You Dont Have to Hear Them | TheWrap TV.

SMH takes on new meaning after reading these lyrics.

Old heads like me know that LL Cool J stands for “Ladies love cool James.” Well, this (not)lady isn’t loving James and he ain’t cool. Which is a real shame because I love his character Sam on NCIS:LA. Brad Paisley I don’t know; never heard of him before this. I have no expectations of who he is or should be. And quite frankly, what I know of LL doesn’t predispose me to expect socially conscious activism from him either. His forthcoming tour with Public Enemy notwithstanding, LL isn’t my go-to for conscious rap.

Yet, despite that, I’m disappointed but not really surprised. The lyrics to this song (stop now and click the link from The Wrap above to read them for yourself) display some pretty common attitudes about race relations, racism, and the Civil War (aka, The War Between the States, Northern aggression, etc.).

Let’s start with the song’s title: “Accidential Racist.” Let’s be clear on one thing before we go any further. Racism is not an accident and people are not “accidentally” racist. They may be unconsciously or dysconsciously racist (ala Joyce King), but even that is not accidental. Racism is the intentional byproduct of social systems and institutional structures that were intentionally designed to value one group of human beings as more worthy than others based on the slippery biological fiction, yet social reality, of race as displayed through phenotypical features such as skin complexion, the width of nose and lips, hair texture, and mythological yet longstanding presuppositions about differences in genitalia. This country was founded on many things, one of them being white supremacy, as evidenced through the slave trade, the Constitution, the economic fact that without race-based chattel slavery, this country’s prosperity would have likely never materialized and the U.S. probably wouldn’t have effectively liberated itself from Great Britain. In order to maintain this system of White supremacy, White people socialized each other, their children, AND anyone else who could be forced to listen (Africans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and immigrants from all over Europe and Asia) that racial pedigree was 1) real, 2) White was on top, 3) Black/African was on bottom, and 4) that to practice systematic discrimination, bias, and economic, psychic, and physical terror against Black people was an act of compliance with a divine, cosmic, yea, even natural order that would be disrupted only at one’s own peril and the downfall of this country first and global humanity next.

So, no, Brad and LL, there is no such thing as an “accidental racist.” Racism is the blood that runs through the veins of this country and makes its heart beat. Oh well, I just lost 1/3 of you reading this. Keep reading, I’ll tick the rest of you off too.

Everyone, regardless of one’s racial status, in this country is introduced to racist socialization (the philosophy that White people are supposed to be in charge and other people are supposed to serve White people) through schools, churches, media, and sometimes, the home. Sometimes it happens at home first. What this means is that White people are introduced to racial dominance and people of color, including multiracial people, are introduced to racial oppression.

Now, after that introduction, whether or not this socialization is internalized and the degree to which it is internalized as real, right, and relevant for oneself and one’s relationships with others is a matter of what other socialization one is also exposed to at home, school, church, the media, etc. One does not internalized racist attitudes and exhibit racist behaviors “on accident;” it happens systemically, intentionally, albeit usually unconsciously. I know, it’s a paradox.

To title the song “Accidental Racist” is to adopt a philosophy that denies personal responsibility for the ways that racism is STILL practiced and CONTINUES to be manifested in the systems and structures of this country (and throughout the world thanks to colonization).

So, relatedly, the song goes on to have both Brad and LL talk about how we need to let the past be the past (LL) and refuse to accept responsibility for past injustices. Sorry, guys, as my good friend the Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington says in his Diverse Community Foundations, it may not have been our fault but it is our responsibility. And, for the record, a beer and a conversation is not going to rectify 400 years of racial oppression, notwithstanding President Obama for the “Beer Summit.” (If I rolled my eyes any harder, they just might actually get stuck like that.)

Further, do-rags and the confederate flag are not equally innocuous, nor are they equally terrorizing symbols. The only reason that some white folks are scared of black men in do-rags is because of their own racist fears of black rage and propensity toward violence. The reason a lot of Black folks (they are of course some who aren’t – one who even put it up in his residence hall room – look it up on YouTube), actually a good number of White folks, and folks of other races and mixed race are suspicious, afraid, resentful, bitter, and downright bothered by the Confederate flag is because it literally was the symbol of the Confederacy’s refusal to give up slavery. The whole states’ rights argument centers and is founded on states’ rights TO KEEP SLAVES and refusal to enact emancipation and abolition of slavery. Slavery was the foundation of Southern wealth and it was at the center of Southern social norms and codes. “A proud rebel son” sounds pretty innocuous until you consider what the rebellion was all about – keeping Black people in iron chains.

So, no, LL, I will NOT forget those iron chains, and neither should you. White resentment of Black entertainers’ wealth displayed by gold chains (usually hocked, debt-ridden, and owned by a music company) is really displaced anger over the fact that their economic supremacy has not manifested for them as individuals and a transference of anger that is more rightly placed at the feet of the .1% (even less than a full 1% according to one FB meme recently) who happen to be almost exclusively White by the way.

One last point, we will not, cannot, and should not move on until we fully and honestly deal with the issues of race, racism, and the role of racism in this country’s origins. It’s the lack of historical awareness that produces a song like “Accidental Racist.” Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.

Where do I get my perspectives and information from? Read the following folks just to get you started:
John Hope Franklin
Molefi Kete Asante
Patricia Hill Collins
Angela Davis
Marimba Ani
Tim Wise
Allan G. Johnson
Any critical race theorist

As another friend of mine said, Dr. Claire Robbins, superficial interracial friendships don’t help to deconstruct racism and undo racist attitudes. It takes more than contact with diverse others to understand racism and learn how to competently engage it and moreover to disrupt it. That is work that must be done deliberately by EVERYONE regardless of race.

 

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.

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.

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