[Guest blogger Nora here. This is an adaptation of something I posted in my personal blog back in June, in reaction to the Supreme Court’s recent school desegregation decision. Occurred to me it might be of interest to folks here, too.]
After hearing about the latest blow to desegregation, I’m feeling something different from my usual jaded weariness. I’m feeling… really, really pissed.
The bulk of my reaction is this: fuck it. Just let all the schools in the US re-segregate. Black students did better academically before integration anyway. It’s a lot easier to achieve when you’re not bombarded with negative cultural messages and social isolation if you do well. When I was in elementary school, I knew a few black and Latina kids who tested into the gifted program around the same time that I did. Most turned it down. I couldn’t understand why — until the day I walked into my first gifted class and realized I was one of only two people of color there. (There weren’t even any Asians; this was Alabama, remember. Though I hear a good-sized Asian population has developed down there in the twenty years since.) The next year I was the only one; the other kid dropped out. I stayed and did fine — academically, at least. Socially… well, there were consequences. My decision to stay in the gifted program branded me a sellout, because I didn’t do what the other kids had done. I was accused of “trying to be white” and worse. I had no black friends until late middle school. Some of the white kids were friendly, but it was a superficial kind of thing — there were certain things we just couldn’t talk about, and there was some inherent objectification that came with being “the black friend”. I got a lot of “Can I touch your hair?” and “Wow, I didn’t realize black people like to read!” Even for the handful who might’ve become true friends, their parents weren’t all that happy when they brought me home (to be fair, neither was my mother, when I brought white friends home). So while I did well in middle and high school, I often wonder how much better I could’ve done if I hadn’t been a treated like a freakish aberration.
These thoughts are triggered/framed by a book I recently read: Beverly Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?. Tatum is the president of Spelman, an historically black women’s insitution down in Atlanta that I almost went to. (I got accepted, but they didn’t offer me as much scholarship money as Tulane, so TU it was.) The book basically summarizes racial identity development theory in the context of US education — i.e., the notion that all Americans go through predictable patterns of awareness and internalization about race. The result of the pattern is, effectively, “becoming black”, “becoming white”, or whatever your race is, though white Americans have the option of not recognizing their identity as “whiteness” — they have the privilege of thinking of it as “universal” because white culture is dominant in the US. Anyway, the pattern of development is relatively similar in whites vs peole of color — for example, both start out in a state of racial unawareness. For white people this is a general sense of racelessness — not so much being willfully “colorblind” as simply not noticing people of color as anything other than background noise. For black people (and Tatum does spend some time on Hispanics, Natives, recent immigrants, and Asians, but her expertise is clearly with African-American non-recent-immigrants), the initial state is called pre-encounter — they’re aware of race because it’s impossible to not notice if you’re black in this society, but they haven’t yet experienced any of the consequences of being black.
I learned about racial identity development in grad school, but my study of it was focused on the later stages, more relevant to college students/young adults. By the time they reach 20 or so, most young people are past this initial stage. Tatum’s book illuminated the earlier part of the process for me, and really resonated in the way it described typical patterns of development in early childhood and high school.
For example. The breakdown of the “racially unaware” state for both whites and PoC is usually some kind of triggering event — a sudden, undeniable confrontation with the inequities of race. For PoC, this is usually their first encounter with racism. By the time black kids get to high school, they’re usually in another phase of identity development — immersion, in which they feel compelled to band together with others of their culture in order to survive an environment newly understood to be hostile. This small group then begins developing a collective sense of identity about what it means to be black. This group sense serves as a kind of protective shield until the individual is ready to develop his/her own personal definition of blackness. After that the group definition can safely be shed.
Tatum confronts the unspoken assumption of the “Why are all the black kids sitting together” question, which is “…and what can we do about this problem?” She explains that it isn’t a problem; that after being slapped in the face with the trauma of racism, kids of color need support to recover from that trauma, and the best people to help them do that is other kids who are going through the same thing. This way, they can reject the wrongness of racism and develop needed defenses against it, such as a stronger understanding of their own culture and its benefits. Because most white kids haven’t yet progressed beyond the raceless stage at this point — they typically don’t until closer to college — they’re no help even if they mean well, because their natural reaction is to dismiss or downgrade the traumatic experience (“Are you sure it was because you were black?” or “But I’ve eaten there all the time, and they’ve always been nice to me…” and so on). So the black kids seek solace from each other.
But here’s the thing. Immersion is, in its own way, incredibly superficial. Kids in immersion have no real clue how to be black; they’ve been whacked with a societal interpretation of blackness as “bad”, but they’re not yet sure how to counter that interpretation. So they cobble together their own definition of blackness, drawing on what they know and what society tells them about themselves. If they’ve been exposed to positive knowledge about their culture, they embrace positive manifestations as the norm. But when they’re bombarded with stereotypes and negativity about their culture, they end up embracing that as their standard. This is what I fell afoul of as a child — the kids around me had absorbed the racist notion that black people weren’t smart, were lazy, didn’t “talk proper”, etc. Because I rejected this, I was deemed insufficiently black.
I saw a different example of immersion when I went to college. Tulane was a predominantly white school, but it had a large (for a white school) black population, mostly because New Orleans was majority black and the school accepted a lot of bright local kids. Apparently that population reached a kind of critical mass, because the instant all of us stepped on the yard it was like some kind of racial Singularity — we were somehow all drawn together into a weird gestalt consciousness. There was a series of benches in front of the student center, and this one corner bench suddenly became “the black bench”. Everyone knew it and gathered there between classes. In the cafeteria — yeah, it happened in college too — one black person couldn’t just sit by herself. It was as if her solitude triggered some kind of disturbance in the Force; suddenly a dozen other black people would just appear and come sit with her. One time I was walking through the experimental psych building, humming “Summertime” by Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and I heard the same humming from the labs on either side of me, and two other black students poked their heads out and said something like, “Whoa, I was just thinking of that song.” And they became my study partners.
I swear this is true. It sounds creepy as all hell now that I think about it, but it was also kind of cool. =)
Most of these other black students had come from the same background as me — these were the smart ones of their respective high schools, the isolated achievers, the geeks whose blackness had been questioned as incompatible with their interests and drives. So naturally when this subculture formed at TU, it incorporated “smartness” as one of its defining norms. Suddenly for the first time in my life I was pressured to achieve by other black people (besides my parents). Whenever there was more than one black person in a large class, it was understood that we would sit on the front row, where we could not be overlooked by the professor, and where we would feel compelled to ask questions and pay attention. For those like me who drifted toward liberal arts majors, there was heavy pressure to shunt into the sciences — so heavy that I strongly flirted with it for my first year. (Didn’t, though. Glad I didn’t — I’m happy with my current dayjob career — but sometimes I do wonder.)
Better still, there was reinforcement of other “norms of blackness” that were equally positive. Social-consciousness rap was OK, misogynistic rap was not. It was OK to do geeky shit like roleplaying, video gaming, and watching anime, because so many of us liked to do these things that we couldn’t label it non-black. Also, activism was strongly encouraged. It wasn’t enough to be black, we had to prove our worthiness to be black through political action. So I did things like organize a voter-registration drive at the Million Man March, and ran a school lecture series on Afrocentric interpretations of history.
This was just as superficial as the immersion shown by the kids in high school, note. I didn’t even know what Afrocentrism was before I started working on that festival. We were still trying on different ways to be black. We defined blackness by deeds and adherence to the group norms, not in an internalized, personally-defined sense. But a group norm which says “black people must be high achievers and politically active” is soooo much better than a norm which says “black people aren’t supposed to achieve or appear intelligent”.
Here’s the thing. Tatum makes the point that what I experienced at Tulane is common in HBCUs like Spelman, and in other environments in which a sufficiently large population of black students come together and are encouraged to positively express their blackness. This kind of thing used to be common, in fact, before integration. Once upon a time, academic achievement was as much a cultural ethic in the black community as it still is in the Jewish and some Asian communities. (Note that this hasn’t faded in more recent African immigrant communities, either.) It’s the sense of community that’s key. Many Asian communities seem to achieve this through the reinforcement of the extended family; many Jewish communities do the same, plus stuff like Hebrew school. But when integration ended, black communities fragmented; we stopped living in black neighborhoods, stopped patronizing black businesses. Black families, already fragile, fragmented as well, for a whole other set of reasons that’s a different rant for a different day. But perhaps the greatest loss was black schools, because that meant a whole generation of black children — my generation, and the ones just before and just after — grew up with no clear sense of who they were or what they were capable of.
Tatum doesn’t suggest resegregation, note. She believes that it’s possible to create a positive community environment for students of color (and white students too) within any educational environment through the use of inclusive policies, multicultural curricula. i.e., The more all students are exposed to nonwhite positive achievements and role models, the more quickly those students will form positive perceptions of themselves and other races.
But as the systematic dismantling of Affirmative Action, school desegregation, multiculturalism, etc., have shown in recent years, Tatum’s approach may be a pipe dream. There’s simply too much political and social will arrayed against this — everything from threatened white guys hollering “reverse racism”, to the most dangerous kind of racist, the outspoken “intellectual” who would rather hum loudly and hope racism goes away. These people can’t commit to the necessary positive community-building; they can barely even acknowledge that a community needs to be built. So given all this, I can’t honestly blame the white parents who don’t want their kids to go to school with kids of color. If all I knew about black kids was what society and the media told me, I wouldn’t want my kids going to school with them either. Obviously the Supreme Court agrees.
So fine. Fuck ’em. Let those white parents take their kids off to nice well-resourced schools. Let them leave the kids of color (and the white kids too poor to get away) in the run-down underfunded schools. Let segregation return. It certainly can’t hurt people of color any more — and it may very well have a positive impact. Either way, I’m sick of this backhanded bullshit: diversity but not too much diversity, equality but only if my taxes don’t pay for it, opportunity but only if my kid gets into Yale first, end racism but only if we don’t talk about race. Either we all need to be in on the effort to improve our society, or we just need to go back to the days when each group did its own thing.
::takes deep, calming breath::
Okay. I’m not seriously advocating an end to integration. Too many people, black and allies, have shed too much blood to get this far. And there’s lots of evidence to show that Tatum’s model of education does work — I wouldn’t be here if it didn’t. It just takes time, money, and persistence. We’re beginning to understand now just how dangerous it is to leave children isolated and ignorant about their own and other cultures; Tatum and other educators like her are doing something about it. But with this Supreme Court decision, once again I have been confronted with the greater American society’s unwillingness to do what’s necessary to solve a problem, and I won’t pretend not to be angry — furious — incandescent with rage — about it. I’m furious with this country as a whole; we’re weak, weak and pathetic, if we give up on the effort to solve these problems. I’m furious with our national leaders and media personae, who’ve turned our children’s future into sensationalist rhetoric to get votes and ratings.
But I think maybe I’m feeling especially angry with myself, because I can’t think of what to do about this. And I have to do something, even if it’s just something small. Even if it’s just blogging about it. My parents fought dogs and firehoses and corrupt police to get me the education I got, flawed as it was. I can’t stand idle while evil people dismantle it, or turn it into something even more flawed.
It is my hope that those of you reading this who are parents will take action to protect your children’s future. Hell, those of you who aren’t parents too, if you can. For my own part, I haven’t registered to vote since moving to NYC. It seems I can do that at the library, so I’ll head there on Saturday. I haven’t gotten involved with the local Big Sisters’ — I actually did submit an application back in February when I first moved here, but no one’s called me. I think I’ll get pushy and go to their offices sometime next week. Or maybe I’ll try the Girl Scouts; maybe I can become a troop leader in my (predominantly black) neighborhood. God knows what kind of role model I’ll make, but what the hell. I’ve got to do what I can. [7/18 insertion: it looks like I’m going to be volunteering for the FIRST Robotics competition instead — still waiting to see. I hope it works out; I would love to be able to inspire more young black geeks!]
You should, too.