Watch and offer your thoughts about film, especially as it relates to your own experiences. Push yourself and engage the film (make sure you talk about specifics from the film, providing details and examples from the film). Think about history, privilege, inequity, etc. – 25 points. 400-500 words Last day to participate: April 1
We all entered the classroom with assumptions and thoughts about race in contemporary society. Write about these ideas and how they might have changed during the course of the semester. Give at least 5 examples and discuss how this information has impacted you focusing on how you think about race, racism, and inequality now.
READINGS AND COURSE SPECIFICS
Last day to participate December 15
A lawsuit filed yesterday in United States District Court by five former workers at the original Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare stands to sink the reputation of the lauded restaurant and its soon-to-open Manhattan counterpart. The plaintiffs are being represented by Maimon Kirschenbaum, the same lawyer who has carved out a name for himself over the last decade going after Le Cirque, Le Bernardin, Daniel, Bouley, and Babbo in wage-dispute lawsuits.
With its three Michelin stars and past accusations of Ramirez’s allegedly mercurial behavior, Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare certainly fits the profile of the kind of restaurant that would draw Kirschenbaum’s attention, even though anyone who’s been to the restaurant knows that the operation is spartan and service is conducted by just a handful of employees. The former sous chef, prep cook, back server, and two servers who say they were underpaid would seem to represent a proportionally large number of staff members.
But while most of Kirschenbaum’s suits focus on finances, this latest one includes more troubling allegations leveled by Emi Howard, an Asian-American server, against chef César Ramirez. Howard claims that Ramirez was racist toward Asian customers — and, strangely, “Upper West Siders” — making particular demands and treating them differently. Here’s a passage from the lawsuit:
36. Defendant Ramirez routinely referred to Asian customers as “shit people.”
37. Defendant Ramirez many times instructed Ms. Howard not to place “shit people,” i.e., Asian customers, at the parts of the kitchen counter that were closest in proximity to his own place, the center.
38. When a large piece of meat was cut into many pieces for the guests, Defendant Ramirez instructed Ms. Howard to give the worst pieces of meat to the “shit people,” i.e., Asian people, and to “Upper West Siders.”
Brooklyn Fare owner Moe Issa responded with a statement that reads, in part, “We pride ourselves on the diversity of our staff,” and, “we welcome everyone who comes through our doors.”
As is typical in cases like this, it’s a case of dueling accounts — a situation that Kirschenbaum relies on. Industry advocates and restaurateurs say the lawyer’s M.O. is now practically a template for a financially devastating nightmare: Announce a new suit with a press release — this one (which he sent to Grub) was billed as “Explosive” — then add-on any additional plaintiffs who come forward. As things drag on, it becomes clear that the prime option for restaurateurs is often to simply settle out of court and make it go away. This brings up an adjunct issue Grub Street pointed out last year: “Are the restaurants being sued really doing anything illegal, or has Kirschenbaum identified a legal gray area that he can exploit?”
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to “settle” charges of alleged racism. Ramirez, who is notoriously private to begin with, told the Post last night that he had no comment on the claims. The problem is that as a result, only one side of the story is being told — with flamboyant headlines that are sure to stick in diners’ minds. (As you might expect, the Post’s headline plays down the fact that these are allegations: “Chef at ritzy eatery served the worst meat to Asians: suit.”)
For all we know, this might very well be the case. Then again, it might not. Ramirez shouldn’t opt to sit silently while the media speculates — he needs to address these claims for the sake of both his restaurant and his own reputation.
My grandmother was born in the 1930s, the seventh living child of black sharecroppers in Greenville, South Carolina. She spent her adulthood raising four children, caring for her husband, and working 30 years on factory lines to help pay the mortgage on the family home in Manchester, New Hampshire.
More than her job on a line assembling delicate aviation instrumentation, she was most prideful of a position in a garment factory screen-printing images on T-shirts.
Even after she had to quit working in order to take care of her grandchildren, she would judge the T-shirts she bought us at K-Mart by the quality of their screen-printing. She would recount the variety of visual calamities that could overtake an image if you weren’t careful enough when lifting the ink-filled screen. She even kept old T-shirts she had made to illustrate how and why I should always avoid ruining my own work.
Like my grandmother, my grandfather did factory work. He was a leather tanner, and when I was about 12, he came home from work extra heavy. At the dinner table, he told my grandmother, brother and me about a work accident that happened.
“I try to teach these young kids how to mix the acids and chemicals together the right way,” he told us between bites of chicken-fried-cube steak and instant mashed potatoes. “Today, some kid was running with some acid and poured it into another bucket, and it splashed back in his face and on his hands. He’s done for!”
Even at the age of 12, I could see buried within my grandfather’s story the lesson that a young, inexperienced white man was burned because he refused to listen to my more knowledgeable black grandfather.
I am the first woman in my family to ever attend college, the only person in my family with a PhD. I’m thankful that my grandparents imagined and worked for a less physically dangerous workplace for me. Yet, after a decade of work within the ivory tower, it seems to me that it’s people of color—and particularly black women—who get figuratively burned at the workplace.
Just a few days before Michael Brown was murdered for jaywalking in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, I stepped down from being one of the youngest Associate Deans of Faculty at an “elite” liberal arts college in the U.S. I left my position because the kind of institutional leader I have to be is one critical of white supremacy and her own complicity within it. As a black woman and a scholar of black literature, history and culture, I grow less convinced, however, that this position is compatible with many American institutions—small and large, corporate, non-profit, or governmental.
My stint in college administration began shortly after my tenure, when I was approached to take on the role of Associate Dean of the Faculty at my institution. I took the position in part because I was interested in the sort of professional mobility administrative experience might offer. I was also interested in finding a way out of the sort of indignities that I had been suffering at the hands of many of my colleagues for years. For instance, just weeks after I joined the faculty as a new professor, a senior black female colleague told me that members of my department would never support me for tenure because I was a black woman and had nothing to offer white people.
During my second semester at the institution a white senior colleague broke confidentiality and protocol in order to give me details about departmental deliberations regarding my hire. And just last spring, I sat in a room as a group of men discussed whether or not I had suffrage—me, a tenured faculty member who was, at that time, serving as Acting Dean of the College. These are just sprinkling of instances among countless others, all issued with the intent to diminish my right to be a black woman with full-citizenship rights at the institution.
The reigning discourse is to call these sorts of interpersonal violations “micro-aggressions,” but I prefer workplace hazing, because it captures the power relations and institutional tradition that such violations constitute. Moreover, hazing suggests the violence many black and brown faculty, particularly those of us who are women, encounter as we run the gauntlet of life within the academy. Attacks from faculty colleagues, students and administrators leave many of us scarred and fatigued. And in some instances, some faculty of color and women so internalize this violence that they become the worst perpetrators of workplace hazing on other less powerful, marginalized community members.
When I accepted the position as Associate Dean of the Faculty, I told myself this role might also allow me the opportunity to shift the culture of faculty hazing at my institution. What I didn’t tell myself is that I had so internalized the presumptions of my inadequacy that had been produced by years of hazing that I would work myself beyond my job description in order to prove my institutional worthiness. And of course, the institution benefited.
Throughout my time as Associate Dean I taught a course each semester, which was not part of my job description and, thus, uncompensated. I told myself that teaching was fulfilling in ways administrating wasn’t, and that faculty-administrators must remain tied to the primary work of the institution (educating students) in order to truly know the institution.
But these were partial truths. I continued to teach because I knew many of my colleagues didn’t trust that I was up to the work of the office and would use any evidence that didn’t entail my excessive excellence and institutional service to suggest I wasn’t fit to hold my position. I ended up teaching a year’s worth of courses during my two-and-a-half years working administration, giving a year’s worth of work (salary) back to my institution.
When a lower-level administrator left her post, I was asked to take on the duties of running her area in order to support institutional salary savings. I took on that work without asking for any extra compensation. At the same time, I continued to advise students, serve as an informal mentor to the students of color and give lectures and speeches when asked by students and offices around campus. I routinely had groups of black students over to my tiny faculty apartment to remind them that they were welcomed and valued at our institution.
I wanted to give them a feeling I rarely had.
I’m not complaining. I said “yes” to all of this work. But like many black women, I carried the internalized burden of trying to outperform negative gendered racial biases in order to prove my institutional worth. The institution benefited, and in many ways, I did too. I was entrusted with more institutional responsibility and opportunities to grow my administrative skill set—the key assets to the administrative mobility I had hoped for.
So when I was asked to serve as the Acting Dean of the College, I jumped at the opportunity. During that semester, I got to help facilitate the work of many tireless administrators who provide very necessary student support services. Together we worked to create safe trans-student “friendly” bathroom access, increase counseling support for students, create better sexual assault protocols, and consider ways to be more inclusive of a diverse student population.It was important and good institutional work, and I am thankful for the opportunity to do it.
Yet the higher one climbs up the administrative ranks, the more forward thinking one must be. It’s captivating to think you’re laying the foundation for the future of an institution. But what happens when larger principles of social justice—and the lived lives of all of our students—seem out of the purview of the state of the endowment 30 years into the future?
For me, the tension between present and future priorities made itself most apparent when campus security called the local police to campus to detain and question a group of black male teenagers without identification. The kids were reported to have been horsing around in the campus library on a Sunday afternoon during quiet hours. Within minutes of the call, a town police car pulled up on the library lawn. The college students watched as these four black teenagers were questioned by police.
Many students were shocked by the sight of the a police car, an officer and four scared young black boys on the lawn of a campus considered to be a progressive bastion. As with most predominantly white institutions, black teenagers are, sadly, a rarity on our campuses. And many students within these sorts of elite spaces have been sheltered from racial violence due to their whiteness and/or socio-economic status. The students who haven’t been sheltered often escape into these “liberal,” liberal arts colleges expecting a respite from the violent face of anti-blackness that plagues our nation.
Yet racial profiling often intensifies rather than relents in elite, predominantly white institutions located in cities and towns that are predominantly black, brown, and poor.
In the face of this incident, as the singular, young, black female high-ranking administrator, I found myself a part of a crisis that had been brewing decades. For years before my six-month time as Acting Dean, black faculty and students had raised racial profiling as an issue. Little had been done over the decades to address their concerns. There wasn’t even a formal mechanism in place to acknowledge these incidents.
After talking with impacted students, I worked to put into place a system for documenting racial profiling incidents on our campus. Unlike the classroom, which can breed critical self-reflexivity, there was no space within the administrators’ managerial function to reckon with a history of racial profiling writ large on our campus community, city, or nation. All of my work around racial profiling was a loose-fitting Band-Aid that came too late and too little.
Living in the wake of the deaths of so many black and brown, cis- and trans- men and women around this nation, I remember my grandparents’ lessons in quality work and the willful neglect of black voices and knowledge. The national reckoning on display in the wake of the Ferguson grand-jury decision illustrates that decades-long racial problems can’t be treated with Band-Aids. They, and we, require thoughtful structural overhauls.
We—from the highest ranking administrator to faculty, staff and students—have to be vigilant in bending ourselves toward equity and care for the most marginalized members of our communities. We cannot avoid implicating ourselves in the way we have contributed and benefited from race and gender inequity and inequality.
These issues must be seen by administration not singularly, but as part of the institutional fabric, formulated within a national fabric sickened by white supremacy, misogyny, heteropatriarchy, and old-fashioned elitism. It’s a matter of having a leadership and communities able to wrestle deeply with the fact that racial and gender violence are foundational to all American institutions and, as such, must be driven out through constant, caring vigilance.
When I called my grandfather to tell him that I stepped down from being a dean and went back to being a faculty member, his first question was, “Why would you give up such a good opportunity?” His second question was, “Were they racist?” The two questions haunt me. I wonder if my grandmother were alive, if she would have told me that I’ve ruined my work.
I’m sure my grandparents never imagined the academic factory. It’s a space where preparation, attention to detail and precision can only work when all institutional players are prepared to accept and work for radical change, especially when it comes from bodies with bodies of knowledge historically undervalued. Pushing these issues down the line for the next administrator or next administration does long-term personal and institutional damage.
Though my grandfather’s experience at the tannery happened decades ago, the warnings and calls for improvement issued by people of color are still being ignored. I refuse to be one of those administrators ignoring those calls, and I refuse to be another unheard black woman. “Social justice” and “social responsibility” are not tags in a course catalogue, or what happens after social unrest. They are the living and breathing bedrock for a compassionate and thriving community. They are utterly attainable goals—when leaders of powerful institutions actually listen.
Eve Dunbar is the author of Black Regions of the Imagination: African American Writers Between the Nation and the World. She is an Associate Professor of English at Vassar College.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby, Image via Shutterstock.
What did you learn from the film that you didn’t know already? How has it changed your perspective? How does this film connect with our reading about restaurant industry and our discussions about privilege and stereotypes? What can you do to change how food is produced, the privileges evident in both consumption and production of food, and the consequences of these inequalities?
Last day to participate 12/10
They showed people a photograph of two white men fighting, one unarmed and another holding a knife. Then they showed another photograph, this one of a white man with a knife fighting an unarmed African-American man.
When they asked people to identify the man who was armed in the first picture, most people picked the right one. Yet when they were asked the same question about the second photo, most people — black and white — incorrectly said the black man had the knife.
Even before the Ferguson grand jury’s decision was announced, leaders were calling once again for a “national conversation on race.” But here’s why such conversations rarely go anywhere: Whites and racial minorities speak a different language when they talk about racism, scholars and psychologists say.
The knife fight experiment hints at the language gap. Some whites confine racism to intentional displays of racial hostility. It’s the Ku Klux Klan, racial slurs in public, something “bad” that people do.
But for many racial minorities, that type of racism doesn’t matter as much anymore, some scholars say. They talk more about the racism uncovered in the knife fight photos — it doesn’t wear a hood, but it causes unsuspecting people to see the world through a racially biased lens.
It’s what one Duke University sociologist calls “racism without racists.” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, who’s written a book by that title, says it’s a new way of maintaining white domination in places like Ferguson.
“The main problem nowadays is not the folks with the hoods, but the folks dressed in suits,” says Bonilla-Silva.
“The more we assume that the problem of racism is limited to the Klan, the birthers, the tea party or to the Republican Party, the less we understand that racial domination is a collective process and we are all in this game.”
As people talk about what the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson means, Bonilla-Silva and others say it’s time for Americans to update their language on racism to reflect what it has become and not what it used to be.
The conversation can start, they say, by reflecting on three phrases that often crop up when whites and racial minorities talk about race.
‘I don’t see color’
It’s a phrase some white people invoke when a conversation turns to race. Some apply it to Ferguson. They’re not particularly troubled by the grand jury’s decision to not issue an indictment. The racial identities of Darren Wilson, the white police officer, and Michael Brown, the black man he killed, shouldn’t matter, they say. Let the legal system handle the decision without race-baiting. Justice should be colorblind.
Science has bad news, though, for anyone who claims to not see race: They’re deluding themselves, say several bias experts. A body of scientific research over the past 50 years shows that people notice not only race but gender, wealth, even weight.
When babies are as young as 3 months old, research shows they start preferring to be around people of their own race, says Howard J. Ross, author of “Everyday Bias,” which includes the story of the knife fight experiment.
Other studies confirm the power of racial bias, Ross says.
One study conducted by a Brigham Young University economics professor showed that white NBA referees call more fouls on black players, and black referees call more fouls on white players. Another study that was published in the American Journal of Sociologyshowed that newly released white felons experience better job hunting success than young black men with no criminal record, Ross says.
“Human beings are consistently, routinely and profoundly biased,” Ross says.
The knife fight experiment reveals that even racial minorities are not immune to racial bias, Ross says.
“The overwhelming number of people will actually experience the black man as having the knife because we’re more open to the notion of the black man having a knife than a white man, ” Ross says. “This is one of the most insidious things about bias. People may absorb these things without knowing them.”
Another famous experiment shows how racial bias can shape a person’s economic prospects.
— Doreen E. Loury, director of Pan African Studies at Arcadia University
Professors at the University of Chicago and MIT sent 5,000 fictitious resumes in response to 1,300 help wanted ads. Each resume listed identical qualifications except for one variation — some applicants had Anglo-sounding names such as “Brendan,” while others had black-sounding names such as “Jamal.” Applicants with Anglo-sounding names were 50% more likely to get calls for interviews than their black-sounding counterparts.
Most of the people who didn’t call “Jamal” were probably unaware that their decision was motivated by racial bias, says Daniel L. Ames, a UCLA researcher who has studied and written about bias.
“If you ask someone on the hiring committee, none of them are going to say they’re racially biased,” Ames says. “They’re not lying. They’re just wrong.”
Ames says such biases are dangerous because they’re often unseen.
“Racial biases can in some ways be more destructive than overt racism because they’re harder to spot, and therefore harder to combat,” he says.
Still, some people are suspicious of focusing on the word bias. They prefer invoking the term racism because they say it leaves bruises. People claiming bias can admit they may have acted in racially insensitive ways but were unaware of their subconscious motivations.
“The idea of calling it racial bias lessens the blow,” says Crystal Moten, a history professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
“Do you want to lessen the blow or do you want to eradicate racism? I want to eradicate racism,” she says. “Yes I want opportunity for dialogue, but the impact of racism is killing people of color. We don’t have time to tend to the emotional wounds of others, not when violence against people of color is the national status quo.”
‘But I have black friends’
In the movie “The Godfather,” the character of Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, hatches an audacious plan to kill a mobster and a crooked cop who tried to kill his father. Michael’s elders scoff at his plans because they believe his judgment is clouded by anger. But in a line that would define his ruthless approach to wielding power, Michael tells them:
“It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.”
When some whites talk about racism, they think it’s only personal — what one person says or does to another. But many minorities and people who study race say racism can be impersonal, calculating, devoid of malice — such as Michael Corleone’s approach to power.
“The first thing we must stop doing is making racism a personal thing and understand that it is a system of advantage based on race,” says Doreen E. Loury, director of the Pan African Studies program at Arcadia University, near Philadelphia.
Loury says racism “permeates every facet of our societal pores.”
“It’s about more than that cop who targets a teen while ‘WWB’ (walking while black) but the system that makes it OK to not only stop him but to put him in a system that will target and limit his life chances for life,” she says.
Racial bias is so deeply engrained in people that it can manifest itself in surprising places, says Charles Gallagher, a sociologist at La Salle University in Philadelphia. He gave a hypothetical example:
“A white police officer in Ferguson may be married to a black woman and have black and Latino friends, but that doesn’t mean the officer is above racial profiling,” Gallagher says.
These old and new ways of talking about racism can be seen in how some whites and blacks perceive the events in Ferguson.
Many have already looked at them as something beyond a personal interaction between a white police officer and a young black man. They point out that two-thirds of Ferguson’s population is black, yet the mayor, police chief and five of six city council members are white — as are 50 of the 53 people in its Police Department.
Ferguson is like countless multiracial communities, they say: calm on the surface but seething with racial disparities beneath.
But those disparities are invisible to many whites, who often see themselves as victims of discrimination, writes Jamelle Bouie of Slate magazine in a recent essay, “The Gulf That Divides Us.”
“Median income among black Americans is roughly half that of white Americans. But a narrow majority of whites believe blacks earn as much money as whites, and just 37% believe that there’s a disparity between the two groups. Likewise, while 56% of blacks believe black Americans face significant discrimination, only 16% of whites agree,” he writes.
“Many whites — including many millennials — believe discrimination against whites is more prevalent than discrimination against blacks.”
But as Nicholas Kristof recently pointed out in The New York Times, the U.S. has a greater wealth gap between whites and blacks than South Africa had during apartheid.
— Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, author of “Racism without Racists”
Such racial inequities might seem invisible partly because segregated housing patterns mean that many middle- and upper-class whites live far from poor blacks.
It’s also no longer culturally acceptable to be openly racist in the United States, says Bonilla-Silva, author of “Racism Without Racists.”
Overt racism is so widely rejected in America that a white supremacist in Montana recently announced that he is creating a new inclusive Ku Klux Klan chapter that will not discriminate against people because of their color or sexual orientation. Instead, according to one report, the chapter’s new mission will be to prevent a “new world order” where one government controls everything.
Another recent article revealed how white supremacists in America are facing such hostility at home that some have moved to Europe in an attempt to link up with far-right groups.
“The new racism, like God, works in mysterious ways and is quite effective in maintaining white privilege,” Bonilla-Silva says. “For example, instead of saying as they used to say during the Jim Crow era that they do not want us as neighbors, they say things nowadays such as ‘I am concerned about crime, property values and schools.’ “
‘Who you calling a racist?’
When protests erupted in Ferguson after the shooting this summer, various white and black residents tried to talk about race, but such discussions didn’t bear fruit because of another reason:
People refuse to admit their biases, research has consistently shown.
Ross, author of “Everyday Bias,” cited a Dartmouth College survey where misinformed voters were presented with factual information that contradicted their political biases.
There were voters, for example, who were disappointed with President Obama’s economic record and believed he hadn’t added any jobs during his presidency. They were shown a graph of nonfarm employment over the prior year that included a rising line indicating about a million jobs had been added.
“They were asked whether the number of people with jobs had gone up, down, or stayed about the same,” Ross wrote. “Many, looking straight at the graph, said down.”
Ross says it’s even more difficult to get smart people to admit bias.
“The smarter we are, the more self-confident we are, and the more successful we are, the less likely we’re going to question our own thinking,” Ross says.
Some of the nation’s smartest legal minds aren’t big believers in racial bias either, and that could complicate efforts in Ferguson to reduce racial tensions.
Some say they could be eased by hiring more officers of color in Ferguson’s police force.
But the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, has been suspicious of efforts to achieve diversity in workforces, believing that they amount to reverse racism or racial preferences, legal observers say.
Some fear the court is about to get rid of one of the most effective legal tools for addressing racial bias.
The court recently took up a fair housing case in Texas where the conservative majority could very well rule against the concept of “disparate impact,” a legal approach that doesn’t try to plumb the racist intentions of individuals or businesses but looks at the racial impact of their decisions.
Disparate impact is built on the belief that most people aren’t stupid enough to openly announce they’re racists but instead cloak their racism in seemingly race-neutral language. It also recognizes that some ostensibly race-neutral policies could reflect unintentional bias. A disparate impact lawsuit, for instance, wouldn’t have to prove that a police department’s white leaders are racist — it would only have to show the impact of having all white officers in an almost all-black town.
Roberts distilled his approach to race in one of the court’s most controversial cases in 2007. The court ruled 5-4 along ideological lines that a public school district in Seattle couldn’t consider race when assigning students to schools, even for the purposes of integration.
“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Roberts said in what is arguably his most famous quote.
Roberts has equated affirmative action programs with Jim Crow laws, says Erwin Chemerinsky, author of “The Case Against the Supreme Court.”
“Chief Justice Roberts has expressly said that the Constitution and the government should be colorblind,” Chemerinsky says. “He sees no difference between government action that discriminates against minorities and one that benefits minorities.”
What that means for Ferguson is that any aggressive attempt to integrate the police force could be struck down in court, says Mark D. Naison, an African-American Studies professor at Fordham University in New York City.
Unless a lawyer can find smoking-gun evidence of some police department official saying he won’t hire blacks, people won’t have much legal leverage to make the police department diverse, he says.
— Daniel L. Ames, UCLA researcher
“Once the doctrine of disparate impact is weakened, you have to prove discriminatory intent in order to declare a practice discriminatory,” Naison says. “Huge racial disparities in law enforcement can be tolerated if they are the result of policies which are race-neutral in how they are written in the law even through the implementation is anything but.”
The courts may ignore colorblind racism, but ordinary people ought to be aware of it when they talk about racism, others say. Ross, author of “Everyday Bias,” says being biased doesn’t make people bad, just human.
He says people are hardwired to be biased because it helped keep our ancestors alive. They survived, in part, by having to make quick assumptions about strangers who might prove threatening.
“We need to reduce the level of guilt but increase the level of responsibility we take for it,” he says. “I didn’t choose to internalize these messages, but it’s inside of me and I have to be careful.”
Part of being careful is expanding our definition of racism, says Bonilla-Silva, author of “Racism Without Racists.”
Racism has evolved, but our language for describing it hasn’t, he says.
“Colorblind racism is the new racial music most people dance to,” he says. “The ‘new racism’ is subtle, institutionalized and seemingly nonracial.”
How long before another Ferguson erupts is anyone’s guess. But if and when it does, the knife fight experiment suggests that before people look at videotapes, read police reports and listen to radio talk shows to form their opinions, they should do something else first:
Look within themselves.
Complete coverage of what’s happening in Ferguson
The fourth time a Poughkeepsie police officer told me that my Vassar College Faculty ID could make everything OK was three years ago on Hooker Avenue. When the white police officer, whose head was way too small for his neck, asked if my truck was stolen, I laughed, said no, and shamefully showed him my license and my ID, just like Lanre Akinsiku. The ID, which ensures that I can spend the rest of my life in a lush state park with fat fearless squirrels, surrounded by enlightened white folks who love talking about Jon Stewart, Obama, and civility, has been washed so many times it doesn’t lie flat.
After taking my license and ID back to his car, the police officer came to me with a ticket and two lessons. “Looks like you got a good thing going on over there at Vassar College,” he said. “You don’t wanna it ruin it by rolling through stop signs, do you?”
I sucked my teeth, shook my head, kept my right hand visibly on my right thigh, rolled my window up, and headed back to campus.
One more ticket.
Two more condescending lessons from a lame armed with white racial supremacy, anti-blackness, a gun, and a badge. But at least I didn’t get arrested.
Or shot six times.
My Vassar College Faculty ID made everything okay. A little over two hours later, I sat in a closed room on Vassar’s campus in a place called Main Building.
In the center of my ID, standing dusty orange and partially hidden by shadows of massive trees, is a picture of Vassar College’s Main Building. Black women students took the building over in 1969 to demand, among other things, that the administration affirmatively reckon with its investment in anti-blackness and white racial supremacy. A multiracial group of students led by Cleon Edwards occupied Main again in 1990, after Daniel Patrick Moynihan reportedly told a Jamaican Dutchess County official, “If you don’t like it in this country, why don’t you pack your bags and go back where you came from?”
I sat in a room in Main that day with a senior professor and two high-ranking administrators. We were having one of those meetings you’re not supposed to talk about. Near the end of the meeting, this senior professor affirmed his/her commitment to “African Americans” and said I was a “fraud.”
I tucked both hands underneath my buttocks, rested my left knuckle beneath my ID as tears pooled in the gutters of both eyes. I’d been hungry before. I’d been beaten. I’d had guns pulled on me. I never felt as pathetic, angry, and terrified as I felt in that room.
I came into that meeting knowing that the illest part of racial terror in this nation is that it’s sanctioned by sorry overpaid white bodies that will never be racially terrorized and maintained by a few desperate underpaid black and brown bodies that will. I left that meeting knowing that there are few things more shameful than being treated like a nigger by—and under the gaze of—intellectually and imaginatively average white Americans who are not, and will never have to be, half as good at their jobs as you are at yours.
I sat in that meeting thinking about the first day I got my ID. It was nine years earlier and I remember walking to the gym, maybe 100 yards behind Main Building and being asked by a white boy in yellow flip-flops if I could sell him some weed.
I just looked at his flip-flops.
And he just looked at my black neck. And when I told him that I taught English, he contorted his bushy brow, said “Word,” and trotted off.
Later that year, maybe 30 yards to the left of Main Building, security routinely entered my office asking for my ID despite my name on the door and pictures of me, my Mama, and them all over my desk. In that same building, one floor lower, after I got my first book deal, I was told by another senior white member of my department that it was “all right” if I spoke to him “in ebonics,” Later that year, a white senior professor walked in at the end of one of my classes and told me, in front of my students, “Don’t talk back to me.”
I wanted to put my palm through this man’s esophagus and burn that building down, but I thought about prison and my Grandmama’s health care. So I cussed his ass out and went about the business of eating too much fried cheese and biscuits at a local buffet.
A few summers later, right in front of Main Building, two security guards stopped me for walking past the President’s house without identification. They threatened to call the Poughkeepsie police on me. I told the officers, “Fuck you” and “Show me your ID” for a number of reasons, but mostly because I’d sold one of them a car a few years ago, and Vassar’s security officers don’t carry guns.
Like nearly every black person I know from the deep South who has one of these faculty ID’s, I anticipated reckoning daily with white racial supremacy at my job.
I didn’t expect to smell the crumbling of a real human heart when I went to the police station to get my student, Mat, who had been missing for days. Mat was a beautiful Southern black boy suffering from manic depression and bipolar disorder.
I didn’t anticipate hearing the hollowed terror and shame in my student Rachel’s voice at 2 in the morning after she was arrested by Poughkeepsie police for jaywalking while her white friends just watched.
I didn’t expect to feel the cold cracked hands of administrators when we pushed the college to allow Jade, a black Phi Beta Kappa student from DC, back into school after they suspended her for a full year for verbally intimidating her roommate.
I didn’t expect to taste my own tears when watching three black women seniors tell two heads of security and the Dean of the College that they deserve to not have security called on them for being black women simply doing their laundry and reading books on a Sunday afternoon. I didn’t expect the Dean of the College and the heads of security to do absolutely nothing after this meeting.
I didn’t expect to have to wrap my arms around Leo, a Chicano student who stood shivering and sobbing in front of Poughkeepsie police after getting jumped on Raymond Ave by kids he called “my own people.” Didn’t expect to take him to the police station and have the questioning officer ask Leo, “Why do you use the term ‘Latino’? Can you tell me what country the boys who jumped you were from?” The officer told Leo that his partner was Colombian and could tell where a person was from just by looking at them. Leo told me that he felt “most Chicano, most Latino, and most like a Vassar student” that night.
I didn’t expect that.
I didn’t expect to see my student Orion, a black boy from Boston, sitting palms down on the sidewalk in front of a police car a few Thursdays ago on my way from the gym. I got in the face of the two interrogating officers telling them, “He didn’t do nothing” and “Leave my student the fuck alone,” when I found out he was being accused of trying to steal a security golf cart.
I didn’t expect the same two security guards who’d stopped me for walking in front of the President’s house to tell the officers interrogating Orion that the golf cart was theirs and Orion was “a good kid, a Vassar student” who was just going to get a slice of pizza.
By the time one of the heads of Vassar security, in the presence of the current Dean of the College, told one of my colleagues and me that there was “no racial profiling on campus” and that we were making the black and brown students say there was, I expected almost everything.
I expected that four teenage black boys from Poughkeepsie would have security called on them for making too much noise in the library one Sunday afternoon. I expected security to call Poughkeepsie police on these 15 and 16-year-olds when a few of them couldn’t produce an ID. I expected police to drive on the lawn in front of the library, making a spectacle of these black boys’ perceived guilt.
A few days after Vassar called police on those children, a police officer visited one of the boys while he was in class and questioned him about some stolen cell phones and iPods at Vassar. When the kid said he didn’t know anything about any stolen cell phones, the officer told the 15-year-old black child, who might have applied to Vassar in three years, to never go back to Vassar College again.
I didn’t expect that.
Vassar College, the place that issues my faculty ID, a place so committed to access and what they call economic diversity, did its part to ensure that a black Poughkeepsie child, charged with nothing, would forever be a part of the justice system for walking through a library without an ID.
There is no way on earth that a 15-year-old black child visited by police officers at school for walking through a library while black is going to be OK.
And neither are we.
My Vassar College Faculty ID affords me free smoothies, free printing paper, paid leave, and access to one of the most beautiful libraries on Earth. It guarantees that I have really good health care and more disposable income than anyone in my Mississippi family. But way more than I want to admit, I’m wondering what price we pay for these kinds of ID’s, and what that price has to do with the extrajudicial disciplining and killing of young black human beings.
You have a Michigan State Faculty ID, and seven-year old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was killed in a police raid. You have a Wilberforce University Faculty ID and 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by police for holding a BB gun. I have a Vassar College Faculty ID and police murdered Shereese Francis while she lay face-down on a mattress. You have a University of Missouri Student ID and Mike Brown’s unarmed 18-year-old black body lay dead in the street for four and a half hours.
“We are winning,” my mentor, Adisa Ajamu, often tells me. “Improvisation, Transcendence, and Resilience—the DNA of the Black experience—are just synonyms for fighting preparedness for the long winter of war.”
Adisa is right. But to keep winning, to keep our soul and sanity in this terror-filled coliseum, at some point we have to say fuck it. We have to say fuck them. And most importantly, we must say to people and communities that love us, “I love you. Will you please love me? I’m listening.”
We say that most profoundly with our work. We say that most profoundly with our lives. The question is, can we mean what we must say with our work and our lives and continue working at institutions like Vassar College.
Listening to our people and producing rigorous, soulful work are not antithetical. My teachers: Noel Didla, Paula Madison, Brittney Cooper, Rosa Clemente, Osagyefo Sekou, Eve Dunbar, Imani Perry, Darnell Moore, Kimberle Crenshaw, Mark Anthony Neal, Mychal Denzel Smith, dream hampton, Marlon Peterson, Jamilah LeMieux, Luke Harris, Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein, and Carlos Alamo show me this everyday.
They also show me that though there’s an immense price to pay in and out of so-called elite American educational institutions, the depth of this price differs based on sexuality, gender, race, access to wealth, and the status of one’s dependents.
I paid the price of having sorry gatekeepers at Vassar question the validity of my book contracts, question my graduation from undergrad, question my graduation from grad school, question whether or not I was given tenure as opposed to earning it. And like you, when questioned so much, of course I outworked them, but scars accumulated in battles won sometimes hurt more than battles lost.
I gained 129 pounds. I got sick. I kept hurting someone who would have never hurt me. I rarely slept.
I kept fighting. And praying. And I got my work out. And I worked on healing. And I taught my kids. And I served my community. And I got hit again. And I swung at folks who weren’t even swinging at me. And my best friend, who was also reckoning with the “Vassar” part of her Vassar Faculty ID, and I took turns lying to each other, sealing off our hearts in favor of arguments and unpaid labor. And when I earned leaves that I should have spent at home in Forest, Mississippi, with the 85 year-old woman who gave me the skills of improvisation, transcendence, and resilience, I stayed at Vassar College and guided tons of independent studies, directed flailing programs, and chaired hollow committees.
My family needed me home. My soul needed to be there. But I was afraid to be somewhere where my Vassar College Faculty ID didn’t matter worth a damn. I was afraid to let the Mississippi black folks who really got me over see all my new stretch marks, afraid they’d hear the isolation and anxiety in my voice, afraid they’d find the crumpled bank receipts from money taken out at casinos. I was afraid to show my Mama, Auntie, and Grandma that I felt alone and so much sadder than the 27-year-old black boy they remember being issued a Vassar College Faculty ID 12 years ago.
A half an inch below my name on my bent ID is a nine digit identification number, and in the top left corner, hanging in the blue sky, is a 27-year-old black boy wearing an emerald green hoodie. An army green sweater-hat cocked slightly to the left is pulled over my eyes. A black book bag is slung across my right shoulder.
When I took the picture of that ID, I felt so healthy. I felt so worthy of good love. I didn’t feel delivered but I felt proud that I could take care of my Mississippi family. I felt that every beating I’d gotten with shoes, extension cords, switches, belts, belt buckles, fists, and the guns of police officers was worth it. I knew that our mamas and grandmamas and aunties beat us to remind us that there was a massive price to pay for being black, free, and imperfect. I knew they beat us partially so that we would one day have a chance to wield ID’s like mine as a weapon and a shield.
Twelve years after getting my Vassar College faculty ID, I sit here and know that the nation can’t structurally and emotionally assault black kids and think they’re going to turn out OK.
Vassar College can’t structurally assault and neglect black kids and think they’re going to turn out OK.
I think about time travel and regret a lot. If I could go back and tell my Mama anything, I would tell her that I love her, and I thank her, and I see her and I know that white racial supremacy, poverty, heteropatriarchy, and a lifetime as a young black woman academic with a hardheaded son are whupping her ass, but black parents can’t physically and emotionally assault their black children—even in an attempt to protect them from the worst of white folks—and think they are going to turn out OK.
We are not OK. We are not OK. We have to get better at organizing, strategizing, and patiently loving us because the people who issued my Vassar College ID, like the people who issued Darren Wilson and Robert McCulloch their badges, will never ever give a fuck about the inside of our lives.
I have a Vassar College Faculty ID. I write books that some people care about. I teach my students. I take care of my Grandma. I have more access to healthy choice than most of my cousins. And I, like a lot of you, am not OK. I am not subhuman. I am not superhuman. I am not a demon. I cannot walk through bullets. I am not a special nigger. I am not a fraud. I am not OK.
Unlike Mike Brown and Aiyana Stanley-Jones and Tamir Rice, I am alive. We are alive.
We are so much better than the sick part of our nation that murders an unarmed black boy like a rabid dog, before prosecuting him for being a nigger. We are so much better than powerful academic institutions, special prosecutors, and the innocent practitioners of white racial supremacy in this nation who really believe that a handful of niggers with some special IDs, and a scar(r)ed black President on the wrong side of history, are proof of their—and really, our own—terrifying deliverance from American evil.
Kiese Laymon, born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, is the author of How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and the novel Long Division. He has two new books, a novel called And So On and A Fat Black Memoir, forthcoming from Bloomsbury. He is currently an Associate Professor of English at Vassar College.