Friday, May 20, 2011

White Studies

A white South African colleague asked me how I dealt with race and racism in my professional life over lunch today and I nodded through the answer he prepared for me.

"We should not dwell on race too much.  It can be dysfunctional.  Just do your work and meet your targets.  The color of the person does not matter.  It is irrelevant," he said.

But is it really?  There are a lot of race assumptions hidden in the few pearls he offered above.  The need to move on and not to dwell - who does that kind of thinking serve?

And work?  How many white people are racially defined by their relationship to work?

Whiteness has its escape mechanisms all set up to hover above the race essentialism that is used to ascribe value to racism (having the historical power to do so).

A lazy white person or a white rapist, for example, is not an indictment on whiteness or the white race.

An 'Eastern-dressed' person, on the other hand, could be treated like a terrorist and removed from a plane for no other reason but being associated by racist design (racism).  See for example 'Dressing Like a Terrorist".

A white man will never be asked to get off a Kenyan Airlines plane because some of his racial ancestors were genocidal murderers on the continent and elsewhere. 

The white man and woman are individuals.  Exempt from the kind of racializing that defines/confines the Other of the racial kind.

At the end of my time at PSU a white colleague I respected started teaching a course on White Studies from inside of the Department of Black Studies where I had spent 7 years.

He asked me to recommend his class and I did because I knew it would be about deconstructing whiteness in much the same way that I had been engaged for most of my time there.

I did not hear much about the class until a week or so ago when a former student of mine at another institution came across the commentary below and forwarded it to me (don't you just worry about Google? ;)

The student, a young woman I remember by her initials (not shown here), wrote the following paragraphs in a class blog at the end of 2008:
Reflective Assignment 1

White studies… white studies… white studies… what the f**k is up with that???

I am a Black studies major so when first hearing the concept of “white studies” in my Racism class this past fall, I was thinking to myself, what the heck is white studies and why the hell am I learning about it.  Isn’t white studies just basically considered to be every other class outside of Black studies classes in academia?? Well I came to find out that this was definitely part of white studies, but that it is so much more.  After my professor went on to explain about the other aspects of white studies, including white privilege, I started to realize that I already know waaaaaay too much about white studies, thanks to the melanin in my skin.  White studies is my everyday life.  It is the white woman who moves to the back corner of an elevator when I step on; it is the white man who looks at my body when I walk into a club; it is the white students who sit next to me in my classes everyday, stunned to hear that I had a private school education, yet also questioning how I paid for it… white studies is my day to day living.

So when I found out that there was going to be a class on White Studies, I decided I had to see what it was all about.  Ridwan Laher, the professor who taught my Racism class (and is probably the most influential teacher I’ve had in my life), suggested to a fellow student and myself, that this class would further develop some of the issues and discussion we had in our class.  Now the one thing about Ridwan’s class that I truly loved, was the fact that people expressed their raw emotions.  People weren’t trying to be “politically correct” or worry about being judged of their lack of knowledge or opinions.  Yeah some of the discussions were definitely heated and there was some tension, but we worked through it as a group of diverse individuals, and not a single person left there feeling like they had been attacked.  Ridwan also wasn’t afraid to bring up “touchy” subjects, for he felt that discussing those things was the only way people could grow. 

Now in the third week of our White Studies class, I wonder if I am going to experience the same passion and raw feelings that I experienced in my Racism class.  Our class is full of people who seem way too guarded, and worried too much about saying the wrong thing.  And as I sit there in class I think to myself, do I want to drop this class?? It is not anything of what I expected.  I found it interesting that in one class, I was asked to play the devil’s advocate in order to get people to open up and start talking about things, yet in another class we are told not be “devil’s advocates”.  WTF is up with that?? I do agree with the fact that we shouldn’t start stuff, just to start it, but in a class where NO ONE speaks up about things, or is afraid to vocalize their thoughts,  the conversation has to get started somehow.
Reading through these paragraphs made me realize that not too long ago I was never off-guard for too long in conversations or interactions that induce race.

I believed then as I do now, that whiteness must never be allowed the option to define race spaces by exempting itself from its inherent bias and f*cked-up history.

I allowed the interaction over lunch today because I have social graces at times and disinterest in most personal issues of the white kind most all of the time.

But whiteness is so much more than just white people now and the struggle terrain is very different and challenging indeed.

At Salary Hell this week a person whose desk has authority over me and mine took it on herself during a meeting to explain to me what "emotional intelligence" meant in the workplace.

As she ummmed and ehhed through her checkout stand literature she stopped to say emphatically that "this is a new way of getting the workplace to work efficiently and colleagues to work right."

"You must mean work white," I said to her with tables of colleagues giggling in my direction.

"You need some of that emotional intelligence training," she replied looking flustered and angry.

The content and questioning that was apparent to me and a few others in the room was totally lost on the managers and their attachments who have BMWs to pay for and a taste for the Sushi lifestyle that has brought so many to confusing working right with working white.

I bet the young lady in the paragraphs above will not be so easily fooled and for that reason there is still hope that resistance will keep more than just a few of us from being reductive subjects of whiteness and White Studies.

I really miss the classroom :0)



Angela said...

Awww I miss being in your classes!!!!! Come back brother!!!!

Love ya

Erica said...

On the "plantation" (job) we have two new hires one black one white. We also have two college kids working for the summer one black one white. I was given the option of training the college kids or new permanent hires. Of course I chose the college kids. I knew the young lady was selected because she "knew" someone, so she pretty much started with a self righteous attitude until I had to put her little ass in her place. I saw that the young black kid was "confused" as to why she was able to basically get away with murder with the other supervisors but yet have a totally different demeanor when she's working with me. Evidently this kid wasn't taught or prepared to deal with "whiteness" in the work place. I had to explain to him that being a young intelligent black male in this neck of the woods didn't mean a damn thing. I had to give him a lesson in Laherism 101. He was taught that working here on the "plantation" meant that the mentality that "white is right" runs like the plague, and that you can't do what Suzy do, and that he would have to tap into or learn that with him being a young black male working (even if it is a summer job) you'll have to be able to acknowledge the fact that while working with "whiteness" means that you can pretty much expect that you'll constantly be under the radar. Never give them the advantage with their "subtle" language. Learn to decipher their "subliminal" stupidity and most importantly, sarcasm is your best friend. Ridi this kid is my responsibility, he's beginning to see the differences and I think it's overwhelming for him. He told me that he was taught that "everyone is the same!" But since working in such an environment, he's quickly seeing that that shit ain't true at all! The poor child has a long way to go in terms of dealing with "whiteness" in the workplace. I made sure to warn him that this is the beginning and he hadn't seen anything yet. Oh, since the world will be ending tomorrow, what type of festivities do you think The Guru will partake? Just in case he reads this....."Hi Guru!"

Ridwan said...

Hi Angela:

Great to read you on the blog again my little sista.

I will see you and Little Man soon. Can't wait.

Oh by the way thanks for giving Dubie my number.

You be good and have great weekend.

Much luv,

Ridwan said...

Hi Erica:

That mess sounds so tiredly familiar. Didn't Obama solve race and racism in US?

Just jiving I can see you frowning in my direction :0)

I am happy that you are there to keep that heffa in check. You know though that they are calling you names behind your back and a lot of those names/labels are drawn from a caste of fictional racial characters of the white mind.

Did you ever get around to reading Toni Morrison's "Playing in the Dark" by the way?

What you think?

White folks like the Aunt Jemima/Oprah type. The cry-at-a-drop-of-a-hat type that will sit through rounds of listening to their sh*t about their needs and wants.

Black women who are principled enough to stand for what they see as a "play" are made to be troublesome or at the very least cordoned off as "un-collegial".

Black men are mostly in prison (those who don't play the game - one out of every four black men are in prison at this very second!)

I am glad that you are there to guide the young brother. America is no meritocracy and the rules that apply for white folk do not apply for blacks.

Oh by the way, the Guru's world ended a time back (metaphorically). He is on the DL playing asexual uncle at 46!

He does not read comments because he claims not to know how to hit the comment button.

I'm about to give up even if the world does not end tomorrow.

When you coming to visit if the world does not end?



Ridwan said...

Hey again Erica:

I just realized that your today is our tomorrow ;)

I mean that it is in fact the 21st already here in the Republic of Mimicry.

So dammit the world did not end! :)

Geez and I was so looking forward to hanging with Wendy in that playground in the sky (this being the month that she rose two years ago).

The Guru did respond:

He said: "Tell her that the world can't end because energy can't be destroyed. We merely change form."

Ummmm. OK.

I need to end now and get onto a treadmill before my form changes.

Peace and luv,