Art and Culture, Politics, Race & Ethnicity

Never Too Much . . .

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I took our semi-regular road trip to visit an acupuncturist whose office is, as the young people say, in the cut–and worth the drive.  Because all road trips need a good podcast, I scrolled through the recent episodes of our favorite shows. The Moth? This American Life? Nah, not today. I wasn’t really in the mood for Ira Glass or coffee-shop story-telling. Racism was, as it usually is, heavy on my mind. We were living through the white supremacist uproar surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s protest against systemic racism and police violence targeting communities of color. And instead of attending to the unfolding disaster in Puerto Rico, the president was being the racist asshat that he is. In the midst of this bullshit, I naturally thought of Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton’s hilarious, thought-provoking and all around brilliant podcast Another Round. I found a recent episode featuring Senator Cory Booker, linked the Bluetooth and happily reclined my passenger seat.

The interview was certainly engrossing. Heben and Tracy peppered their back and forth with the relevant pop culture references, incisive questions and unmistakable shade that keep fans like me coming back for more. But as I listened to Booker, I alternated between curiosity, side-eye, sympathy and revulsion. The Senator is a masterful politician and accomplished manipulator, for sure. Despite my knowledge of his shady record, various corruption scandals and contentious relationship with progressives, I was nonetheless interested in hearing how Booker would interact with Heben and Tracey and what, if anything, he might say about racism.

Politicians are never more dangerous and toxic than when they mix just enough truth with their lies to sound authentic. Even with all of my critique and side-eye, Booker’s emotion-laden talk about his “hope for America” brought tears to my eyes. But even as I teared up, I realized the horror of what Booker had done. Weaving together what seemed to be compelling stories of black pain, Booker was able to emotionally manipulate me (and others) as he weaponized black suffering to portray himself as “woke”.

What unfolded over the course of the episode was a brilliantly jarring tight-rope performance. With aplomb, passion and humor, Senator Booker was able to both acknowledge what he called the “horrible system” upon which the US is based–and also minimize its crimes. Walking that white supremacist tight-rope, he granted just enough acknowledgement of the United States’ ongoing history of racial and class oppression to sound socially conscious to gullible ears while, in the same breath, insisting the US is still a “great country” despite the crimes it perpetuates against its own citizens. Not to mention — and indeed, Booker did not mention — the crimes perpetuated by the US against millions of human beings abroad.

After expressing his grave concern for mass incarceration, Booker unironically (!!!!) quoted Bill Clinton:

There’s nothing bad about America that can’t be solved by what’s good about America.

I get it. Cory Booker is a politician and politicians lie. They especially lie in ways that flatter themselves and keep them in office. But the lie at the heart of Booker’s formulation is that a fundamentally broken and oppressive system can always be redeemed, no matter how many centuries of crimes against humanity it commits. The fact that Booker borrowed a quote from one of the architects of mass incarceration–a policy which helps maintain white supremacy–after claiming to care about systemic racism tells you all you have to know about the convoluted lengths to which some politicians will go to distort social reality, cater to powerful white elites and simultaneously line their pockets.

And this is why that buttery falsetto came to mind: Never too much, never too much, never too much . . .

No matter how horrific the systemic crimes..

No matter how many millions slaughtered, discriminated, left without water..

No matter how many innocent people incarcerated by the state..

No matter how many colored and colonized people abandoned..

No matter how many children killed by police..

No matter how many miscarriages of justice..

No matter how many under-resourced schools..

No matter how many generations of environmental racism..

No matter how many capitalist-produced humanitarian crises..

No matter.
The suffering is never, never too much.

In effect, the function of a politician like Cory Booker is to swoop in, invoke Bill Clinton, and reassure the citizenry that we are a “great country”. The “original sin” is damnable, but never quite damning enough to curtail the possibility of absolution. The body count can never be too high, the death toll never too devastating. The evils of the “horrible system” can be washed away, again and again, with the redemptive baptism of Cory Booker’s Wall-Street-and-Big-Pharma-funded discourse.

The sad reality is that our politics are dominated by two contemptible forces: those who completely deny that the US commits any crimes at all and those who admit some of the crimes but perpetually excuse and minimize them with the language of “forgiveness”, “hope” and “love of country”. Both of these forces are two sides of the same coin: the propaganda needed to justify and prolong US exceptionalism and dominance.

I’m sorry to say that for these forces, there is no bottom. There is only a bottomless pit into which marginalized people can be shoveled, shuttered and shrugged off. Whole populations can be slaughteredleft to die or slowly disintegrate, without resources, without power, without fresh water, without adequate schools, deprived of basic dignity and human rights . . . and the patriotic propaganda continues, unperturbed.

No atrocity left behind.

All the moral and structural wrongs can be “solved” and “fixed” by what’s “good about us”. It’s the neoliberal mantra. The death march song.

There is something very telling and horrific about the political discourse coming even from those brave souls who, following the lead of Colin Kaepernick, decide to take a knee. You will notice how in almost every case, citizens feel compelled to justify their protest in patriotic terms. This is, of course, the compulsory performance of patriotic devotion (“No disrespect to the flag!” “I love this great country!”).

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Continue reading “Never Too Much . . .”

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Academic Musings, News, Politics, Race & Ethnicity

War Crimes We Can Believe In

Obama shades

This past week I’ve been trying to understand the political construction of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work in relation to neoliberalism and state violence. Coates is in the news as he makes the rounds to launch his new book We Were Eight Years In Power, a retrospective on the Obama era and the rise of Trump. While I congratulate the widely acclaimed author on the publication of his latest tome, I cannot personally recommend his fundamentally flawed and largely superficial thinking “about race”, for reasons I have outlined elsewhere.

For now, I want to focus on what’s been keeping me up at night for the last several years: the complicity of the Democratic Party (and Obama’s coterie of willfully ignorant fans) in the maintenance of multiple forms of state violence. Because Coates writes so much about Obama–and because of his positioning as one of the most widely read black social critics at the apex of the corporate media and publishing worlds–any consideration of Obama’s presidency must take into account the portrait produced in Coates’ writing. His romantic portrayals of the first black president (and his descriptions of race and politics) play an influential role in shaping (and setting the boundaries of) the convoluted and largely useless national conversation “about race” . In trying to understand Coates’ structural position and appeal to powerful white liberals, it’s become increasingly clear to me that his views (at least, the views he has publicly expressed) are obviously related to the political agenda of at least one of his employers, namely The Atlantic.

I confess that until very recently (as in, the last few days), I knew nothing of the politics of The Atlantic. But a cursory review of the editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, makes a few things quite clear: the man at the helm of magazine is a prison-guard-turned-journalist strongly aligned with the Democratic Party who whitewashes Democrats’ war crimes accordingly, regularly uses his publishing platforms to rationalize state violencedefends the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land (while expressing the appropriate amount of liberal hand-wringing over the settlements), undermines and discredits critics of Zionism, and, predictably, hates Noam Chomsky.

It should come as no surprise that Goldberg is a big fan of Barack Obama and has played a leading role in producing a relatively rosy portrait of the 44th president. Goldberg and some of his colleagues at The Atlantic promote what they view as a “liberal” vision of “democracy” that somehow happily coexists with settler colonialism, massive state violence, white supremacy, systemic racism, poverty, hypercapitalist exploitation and the indiscriminate killing of innocent people, including women and children, who stand in the way of the ruling elites’ determination to acquire absolute hegemony and strategically secure material resources no matter the cost. Of course, even publications that whitewash war crimes, like The Atlantic, have to at least gesture toward a functioning moral compass. And so we see articles like this one covering Obama’s drone strikes (and the lies he’s told about them) alongside popular puff pieces written by the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates. In fact, such “gotta see both sides” coverage functions to bolster The Atlantic’s false appearance of objectivity and fair-mindedness.

Continue reading “War Crimes We Can Believe In”

Academic Musings, Life Musings, Race & Ethnicity

The French Approach to “Anti-racism”: Pretty Words and Magical Thinking

I first came to France twelve years ago during my junior year abroad. I was the first person in my family to get a passport and I could barely contain my excitement. In the winter of 2003, two years before the riots that followed the untimely deaths of 15 year old Zyed Benna and 17 year old Bouna Traore, I landed in Paris bright-eyed and bushy tailed, armed with a very shaky grasp of French and a naive fascination with this beautiful country.

As an African-American, I was vaguely aware that France did not deal with issues of race the way we do in the United States. And when I happened to forget, French white people were keen to remind me. In one of the sociology classes I took at a university in the south of France, I hesitantly raised my hand to ask a question. The white French professor had been lecturing on youth and delinquency. I asked, in my broken French, if the dynamics he described had any relation to racial or ethnic belonging. “We don’t have that kind of problem here,” he said, adding: “This isn’t the United States.” Embarrassed and flustered, I nodded and continued taking notes. After class, one of the only other black students pulled me aside: “We do have those kinds of problems here. Hang out with me and I’ll tell you about it.”IMG_7291

My new friend was from Cameroon and had moved to France along with her sister and brother several years prior. Over the course of the semester, her family basically adopted me, inviting me to dinners, showing me the area and telling me about their lives. I learned that despite the fact that each of them had white French partners and white close friends, they nonetheless experienced racism. But, as I learned in that sociology class that day, many French people denied that racism was actually a problem in their supposedly colorblind society.

Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, two teenagers who died on October 27th in 2005 after being chased by police officers. Photo courtesy of Le Monde.
Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, two teenagers who died on October 27th in 2005 after being chased by police officers. Photo courtesy of Le Monde.

Continue reading “The French Approach to “Anti-racism”: Pretty Words and Magical Thinking”

Academic Musings, Race & Ethnicity

20 Things You Need to Read Before You Talk to Me About Race

Inside of the classroom, my goal is to create a safe space for my students to learn about and explore the uncomfortable and challenging topics of inequality, race and racism. Outside of the classroom, my goal is mostly to maintain my sanity through practices of self-care and spirituality, nurture my creative expression, drink good wine and engage in compassionate action in my relationships and communities.

While my role as an educator and researcher involves teaching and writing on race and social theory, in my civilian life as a writer and regular gal, I have no obligation whatsoever to engage people on issues of race. To the contrary, I have the right to set my own rules of engagement, establish my boundaries and clarify what is and is not acceptable for me. This is especially so given that “talking about race” (and more specifically, anti-blackness and white supremacy) is not merely some sport or hobby for most people of color. It’s a painful topic that speaks to relations of power that all too often result in unarmed black men, women and children being killed by “officers of the peace”, the everyday reality of racial bias and discrimination and the fact that blacks only have access to a tiny fraction of the wealth possessed by our white neighbors, friends and co-workers. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

read_a_book

New Blacks aside, I feel like the average person of color with any degree of awareness already has a PhD in race just from surviving in a racist society. But wide swaths of the population 1) do not experience racial oppression 2) have not reflected on the topic seriously and/or 3) routinely devalue the perspectives and knowledge of people of color. Continue reading “20 Things You Need to Read Before You Talk to Me About Race”

Uncategorized

The Black Precedents of a Black President: White Supremacy and the Killing of Walter Scott

This morning, I woke up in Paris to the terrible news that yet another unarmed black man, Walter Scott, had been shot to death by a white police officer in the United States. While the killing happened over the weekend, it took several days for the story to traverse the Atlantic and reach my consciousness here in France, where I am currently completing a book on French racism and the legacies of slavery.

As I watched the traumatic video of officer Michael Slager shooting 50-year-old Walter Scott — a father and Coast Guard veteran — two questions immediately came to mind:

What kind of a person shoots an unarmed human being in the back, then handcuffs them as they lay dying?

Even more to the point:

What kind of society allows black people to be routinely violated and killed by the state?

While I don’t have an answer to the first question, the second query is more straightforward. Anti-racist scholars have demonstrated that we are still living in a white supremacist society. As historian George Lipsitz (2006: xviii) writes in his brilliant book The Possessive Investment in Whiteness “the power, property and politics of race in our society continue to contain unacknowledged and unacceptable allegiances to white supremacy”. Continue reading “The Black Precedents of a Black President: White Supremacy and the Killing of Walter Scott”

Life Musings, Politics, Race & Ethnicity

What Does It Mean to “Love White People”? On Common and the Absurdity of #HandInLove

It’s sort of beneath my dignity to have to say that I love and have loved quite a few white people, but let’s just put it out there:

Yes, some of my very best friends are white folks.

I’ve spent a great deal of time in predominately white suburbs of predominately white nations, predominately white schools and predominately white organic grocery stores.

By virtue of my minority status and choices, my life involves a lot of working, talking and loving across different types of racial lines. I’m a East-coast raised, Southern-born, multi-generational, multi-racial black woman of U.S. slave ancestry. Unsubstantiated, but persistent, rumor has it that there’s Irish on both sides of my family tree. My family (biological and chosen) includes a diverse array of beautiful people: loved ones from a variety of diasporas, a Haitian godmother, Jews whose families immigrated from Europe.

I have a lot to learn and much room for growth, but I live a relatively cosmopolitan life. I like the fact that my hapa girlfriend grew up between California and Tokyo, spent years in Africa and speaks French with a Senegalese accent. I’ve visited a dozen countries and spent a significant portion of my twenties living in Paris. In my personal life, I have made it my business to consciously learn and explore what interracial, anti-racist love looks like. My spirituality is deeply influenced by Eastern traditions and philosophies, including Buddhism and Hinduism (Advaita-Vedanta). As an anti-racist educator and a panentheistic non-dualist, I know that who we are, on an existential level, has absolutely nothing to do with the social fiction of race.

And yet, I’m also intimately familiar with the social reality of our collective fictions. While I teach my students that our ideas about race are socially constructed, I also equip them to recognize and understand the very real consequences of past and present racism.

What I know for sure is that much of what people say about matters of race and love in public contributes to white supremacy.

Continue reading “What Does It Mean to “Love White People”? On Common and the Absurdity of #HandInLove”

Race & Ethnicity

25 Things That Co-Exist with White Supremacy

For the uninitiated, I’ve assembled a non-exhaustive list of things that co-exist with [socially defined] whites’ collective political, social and/or economic dominance in countries with histories of white supremacy, anti-blackness and racialized terror against people socially defined as non-white:

1. The fact that many whites are wonderful and kind people.

2. The fact that some white people do nice things for some people of color.

3. The fact that white poverty exists [and enriches the white 1%].

4. The fact that some white people are allies.

5. The fact that some white people have sex with people of color.

6. The fact that some (evidently smaller number than those referenced in #5) white people build loving, romantic relationships and families with some people of color.

7. The fact that whites personally and individually experience struggle or disadvantage.

8. The fact that many, many, many whites treat other whites poorly.

9. The fact that after voting for 43 white presidents in a row, some whites voted for and elected a half-white President.

10. The fact that there are people of color who are in denial about the existence and illegitimacy of white supremacy due to internalized oppression.

11. The fact that there are white people who are in denial about the existence and/or illegitimacy of white supremacy due to the psychic and material rewards of white supremacy.

12. The fact that “not all whites” [insert oppressive verb here].

13. The fact that a white police officer hugged a crying black child.

14. The fact that Oprah exists.

15. The fact that people are seduced by narratives of hope and progress even in the midst of on-going oppression.

16. The fact that certain elite social spaces that were previously 100% white are now “only” (!!!) 99% 95% or 90% of 85% or 75% white.

17. The fact that whiteness, specifically, and race generally are social constructs and therefore neither primordial nor essential.

18. The Emancipation Proclamation.

19. Affirmative Action.

20. Black millionaires and billionaires.

21. Beer summits.

22. White House meetings with Ferguson protesters.

23. Cameras on cops.

24. OWN.

25. Eric Holder.

It should really go without saying, but none of the aforementioned is capable of negating white supremacy.. in the same way that the existence of really awesome heterosexual people does not negate the social and historical reality of heterosexism, in the same way that Ellen’s individual success does not negate the on-going realities of homophobia, in the same way that the existence of women CEOs does not negate the social reality of unequal pay, in the same way the existence of generous, compassionate and kind-hearted men does not negate the social and historical reality of patriarchy, in the same way that the existence of loving and compassionate cis people does not negate the social and historical reality of cis-sexism and transphobia, in the same way that the existence of inter-ethnic friendships and relationships does not wash away the legacies of ethnocentrism and privilege on the part of the dominant group(s), in the same way that the “philanthropy” of the 1% does not erase the horrid realities of capitalist exploitation..

And so on, and so forth.

Academic Musings, Gender, Race & Ethnicity

Pathologizing Black Folks is America’s Religion, Or: A Few Thoughts on Roxane Gay’s ‘Bad Feminist’

I spend nearly everyday writing and reading about global and local configurations of white supremacy and anti-blackness, with a special emphasis on the U.S. and France. This subject is the topic of Resurrecting Slavery, one of two books I am completing this year while on leave with a Career Enhancement Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.

I made a decision to use this year to begin a conscious process of decolonizing my scholarship. This is a process that I began a few years ago, inadvertently, as I increasingly embarked upon a journey of mindfulness and well-being. As I prioritized my own self-awareness, I also found it necessary to liberate myself from harmful things in my personal and professional life, including and especially unexamined dynamics of white supremacy, anti-blackness, heteropatriarchy and other forms of insanity that pervade the power structures within which we are all conditioned.

For me, decolonizing myself from these forces means becoming increasingly aware of my own ignorance as well as the power relations that shaped and produced that ignorance. Decolonizing my scholarship means increasingly coming to see so much of what I have been socialized not to see. This is all difficult, emotionally challenging work that also requires me to accept things about myself and my socialization that I would rather not acknowledge, while also speaking difficult truths that, by their very nature, offend people in positions of power.

And so, it was with this intention that I decided to expand my intellectual horizons and read more widely and deeply within and outside my field(s). I was especially interested in gaining a better understanding of the history of anti-racist (and racist) thought within sociology and the social sciences more broadly. I also wanted to engage feminist, black feminist, intersectional and critical race theories — schools of thought that had been downplayed or downright ignored in most of my professional training in elite white settings.

What all of this reading has shown me is that there are exceedingly few books written about race, ethnicity and/or gender that do not make me want to throw up. I say this with all humility — and as someone who is writing a couple of books that will probably make someone else want to throw up. When I say that most of what I read about racism and sexism makes me sick, what I mean to do is draw attention to the actual, lived conditions of knowledge production that a queer woman of color is, by the nature of this work, forced to contend with. For the reality of my work means that I must engage with “theorizations” and descriptions of social realities that take, as their premise, my inferiority and/or the inferiority of others who are ascribed non-white, non-male, non-able-bodied, non-heteronormative status by hegemonic notions which were themselves produced by historical processes of violence and immorality on the part of people with power seeking to consolidate that power through the imposition of narrow, abhorrent definitions of worthiness and humanity.

As all of us are wherever we are in our own imperfect processes of decolonization, we inevitably produce work that reflects the blind-spots we possess at any given point in time. And, given that most of the scholarship produced about inequality is written by people who have not committed themselves to a public or private process of decolonization, I find myself reading the work of colonized minds.

Perhaps the saddest thing of all, however, is that unprocessed and undertheorized colonization persists even in the work of well-meaning, ‘liberal’, anti-racist, queer and/or feminist scholars. That is, even some of our most thoughtful, well-read and down-for-the-cause thinkers — including people of color — are nonetheless producing work that makes it very clear that they (we?) have yet to fully embrace an appraisal of black and brown life that has been decolonized from white supremacy, from anti-blackness, from the varied and intertwined forms of insanity that have produced the ‘modern’ societies in which we all live, work and try to survive today.

I say all of this as a very long and labored preamble to the on-going reactions I am having as I try to make my way through Roxane Gay’s widely lauded Bad Feminist. In the text, she makes it very clear that she “embraces” the possibility of being a “bad feminist” because she is human, because she knows she is imperfect and is simply trying to understand the world in which she lives. And I have to say, there are many things I admire about her writing – including the care and courage with which she tells her own stories, the telling of which requires a willingness to be vulnerable about things that are very difficult to reveal.

There is a danger, however, in buying into individualistic notions of imperfection without also grounding our analysis of self and society in a historically and sociologically informed understanding of the power relations that have produced the world into which we were born as well as the world we all contribute to constructing in our everyday lives. And this danger, I think, is on display in Gay’s text, especially insofar as she tries (or fails) to connect her own experiences to broader questions of race and inequality.

Continue reading “Pathologizing Black Folks is America’s Religion, Or: A Few Thoughts on Roxane Gay’s ‘Bad Feminist’”

Academic Musings, Gender, Politics, Race & Ethnicity

Spirituality, Rape Culture & the Denigration of Harriet Tubman

change.orgYou may have heard the recent story of Russell Simmons’ endorsement and marketing of a “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape”, an astoundingly awful attempt at satire which instantly drew the formidable ire of concerned citizens across social media.   The video is appalling for more reasons than I can summarize here — the contribution to rape culture, the denigration of Harriet Tubman’s monumental heroism, the disrespect of women broadly, African American women in particular and the enslaved ancestors of diasporic people everywhere. Truly, I could go on and on.  It was that horrific.

On August 14th 2013, the same night that the video was released on Youtube, I authored a Change.org petition which gathered over 1,000 signatures in less than 24 hours, demanding that Simmons remove and apologize for the video. After pressure from many corners, including the NAACP, Simmons did in fact pull the video and issue a (highly problematic) apology. The petition was covered in more than 100 media & online outlets. You can read about the video and the campaign against it on MSNBC, Washington Post and, even the Daily Mail.

I also did an interview with emPower Magazine that you can read here.

While I alluded to compassion and spirituality in the interview, I didn’t delve into the relationship between my outrage and my spiritual practice.  In fact, my views on the importance of respecting our ancestors are inspired, in part, by Thich Nhat Hanh’s work on being a Buddhist and a person of color.  In his fabulous book “We are One: Honoring Our Diversity, Celebrating our Connection”, he reflects on the significance of embracing not only our cultural heritage, but also our ancestry.  This is also a theme he develops in this speech, given from Plum Village in 1997: “We Are the Continuation of Our Ancestors“.  He states, in part:

“I always feel that I am the continuation of my ancestors. Every day I practice touching my ancestors. In my country every home has an altar for ancestors, blood ancestors and spiritual ancestors. An altar is just a table, but it is very important. You place that table in the central part of your house and you focus your attention on the table as the point of contact between you and your ancestors. Usually every morning we come and offer some incense to our ancestors. Our ancestors do not need to smell incense, but we want to light a stick of incense to our ancestors because the practice of lighting incense focuses our attention on the presence of our ancestors. During the time you strike the match, you light the stick of incense, you offer the incense on the table, you have an opportunity to touch your ancestors within yourself. You realize that your ancestors are always alive in you because you are the continuation of your ancestors.”

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I do not have an altar for my ancestors in my home.. or anywhere else.  But consciously honoring and remembering my inherent connection to all those who came before me has become, over the years, an increasingly important part of how I recognize and celebrate the Divine.  As Thich Nhat Hanh states – the point is to focus attention on the presence of our ancestors.  To honor our ancestors is to also honor the Self.  Doing so requires our loving awareness.

That said, I don’t think it’s necessary to be a descendant of slaves to find offense in the video Russell Simmons’ media venture produced. There are many folks of diverse backgrounds – including white Americans – who shared my outrage and discontent.  Truthfully, all it takes is wisdom, insight and compassion to respect the dignity of other human beings, those who are living now, and those who have passed on.

The challenge, I think, for all of us — and the vital importance of humanistic principles and enlightened spirituality — is to overcome the limitations of our experience and the boundaries we erect between “us” and “them”.  In so doing, we consciously embrace our solidarity with the whole of humanity, past and present.  When we demean each other, it is because we have a broken and incomplete understanding of ourselves.  When we think we are defined by our ego – the limited idea of who we think we are – we are inexorably led to have a limited idea of the “others” we identify with.  As conscious, compassionate people dedicated to making this world a more loving place, we must commit to living beyond our ego and our conditioning.

What does this have to do with Russell Simmons and his video?  Well, first of all, I won’t even really touch the ridiculous contradictions inherent in the fact that he frames himself as a spokesperson for enlightenment, writing books on spirituality and tweeting about the Bhagavad Gita — while also calling the “comedic” portrayal of the rape of an enslaved American hero “the funniest thing” he’s ever seen.   The point I’m making here is that fundamentally, Simmons’ misstep revealed a lack of awareness – an inability, in that particular moment, to fully recognize and honor the humanity of women generally, Harriet Tubman in particular, his own enslaved ancestors and survivors of sexual assault and rape.  In one fell swoop, he denigrated a huge swath of humanity — and that kind of denigration can only happen when we allow ourselves to lapse into ignorance — ignorance about who we really are.  If Russell Simmons had truly been in touch with the fullness of his own humanity, the incredible power of his own divinity, the enlightened consciousness of his interconnection with all living Beings, past and present, he could not have acted from such a place of profound disrespect.

I say this not as someone who knows Russell Simmons personally, but rather as someone who knows human nature, beginning with my own.  I know that it is only possible for me to disrespect someone else when I am ignorant.  And I also know that it is possible to grow in awareness and love, for myself and others, if my heart’s intention is to do so.  For that reason, I sincerely hope that Russell Simmons – and indeed, all of us – use this moment to pause and reflect on how we can rise in consciousness.

In the updates to the petition, I included a number of resources for folks who want to learn more about the history of women, slavery, sexual trauma and violence against African-Americans.  This was not just for his benefit – but mine as well.  We all have a lot to learn about these issues.  But I must say . . . book knowledge can only go so far.  And lots of folks with less education, less life experience and less exposure to social and cultural capital than Russell Simmons knew that video was in incredibly poor taste.

Beyond building knowledge, I also encouraged Simmons to engage in face-to-face discussion and dialogue with women and men who have survived rape.  I know in my own experience, these kinds of conversations have been life changing.  Having people trust me enough to share their stories of surviving and overcoming sexual assault has been an incredible gift that pushed me to grow and become more compassionate and thoughtful about a social reality that affects nearly 1 in 3 women.  The fact is, I have loved women who have been raped.  And I have loved men who have experienced sexual trauma.  We are all connected to survivors of rape, whether in our immediate circles or in our family trees.  We must all do more to practice love and care in how we think about this issue.

In terms of moving forward, I include below a list of some of the suggested readings produced in consultation with black women scholars (especially Dr. Koritha Mitchell (@ProfKori) and Dr. Christina Sharpe (@hystericalblkns).  These are just a few excellent sources we have in scholarship on women, race, slavery, sexual assault and post-slavery violence against blacks.

– Angela Davis (1972) “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves”

-Crystal Feimster (2011): “Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching”

-Saidiya Hartman (1996): “Seduction and the Ruses of Power”

-Koritha Mitchell (2012): “Living with Lynching:African American Lynching Plays, Performance and Citizenship”

-Dorothy Roberts (1997): “Killing the black body : Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty

-Christina Sharpe (2010): “Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects”

Additionally, you might consider reading Ida B. Wells’ pamphlets as well as “Six Women Slave Narratives”.

Finally, I should say that this is all a bit surreal for me, given that 1) I’ve never done a change.org petition before and 2) the actual subject of my scholarship is the way in which folks throughout the diaspora interpret the history and legacies of Atlantic slavery.  Right now I’m working on a book that takes stock of recent commemorative movements in France that have drawn greater attention to French involvement in the slave trade while also transforming the contemporary meanings of blackness in French politics and culture.  Some of my work also explores how African-Americans imagine the history of slavery.  You can read more about these projects here.

Interestingly, I didn’t begin this line of work with strong opinions about whether or how the history of slavery should be represented.  When I went to Paris years ago to interview activists, officials and ordinary people of African descent, I did so with a very open mind about the relative merits of various ways of relating (or not relating) to the past.  In fact, I still do make a practice of understanding – with some degree of detachment – the various frames people use for underscoring the relevance or irrelevance of slavery in our contemporary moment.  As a social scientist, my job is to unpack not only the different perspectives articulated by social actors, but also the conditions of possibility that shape those perspectives as well as the broader consequences of those views for the way folks see themselves in relationship to society.  In order to do a good job of that, I need to be attentive to how my own positionality shapes my scholarship — but I cannot be overly invested in a particular view.

When I began this work, I was not deeply spiritual, nor was I particularly interested in honoring my ancestors.  But I was deeply interested in exploring how other people in the diaspora grappled with the intersecting stigmas of contemporary anti-black racism and the historical legacies of chattel slavery.  As I had not yet come to fully embrace any particular stance, I wanted to use my fieldwork in France to not only generate scholarship about contemporary French politics and practices of blackness in Europe, but also to produce knowledge about the range of logics people draw upon when trying to make sense of history and its impact on the present.  In the process, I eventually came to define and embrace my own views on this question, even as I held firm to my desire to understand and respect the perspectives of the people I interviewed, even – and especially – when I disagree with their claims.

In any case, when I started my fieldwork in 2008 – as an observer in a foreign country with the pretense of detachment – I would never have predicted that I’d one day start a petition to protect the memory of an enslaved American heroine, or write blog posts about the spiritual importance of honoring our ancestors.  How interesting it is to come full circle in this way.

Race & Ethnicity, Spiritual Musings

Why The Negro Problem is a Lost Cause

I want to be very clear about a few things up front before I lay out these ideas, because what I’m going to share is a bit complicated and my argument is probably unlike most of what you have heard and read – possibly ever, and certainly in the wake of the countless reflections on “the race problem” that have emerged in our collective efforts to grapple with what happened to Trayvon Martin.

So here are my caveats:

  1. This is not, in any way, a minimization of racism and its very real consequences for millions of people who have lived and died in this country – or en route to its shores – since its inception.
  2. This is not a post-racial post.
  3. This is not a hopeless story.

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In the days following the Zimmerman verdict, I found myself moving about the world in a heightened state of racial awareness.  Going about my business, I observed anxiety as I interacted with strangers I categorized as white — and/or Latino. “What are they thinking? Do they care about the trial? Are they racist?” Walking into a grocery store, I glanced at a pile of newspapers, with a smiling Zimmerman and the verdict in bold letters. And then I glanced at my white neighbors, pushing their carts and picking through cantaloupes.  “Are they happy? Are they disappointed? Are they indifferent? Are they allies?”

Beyond words, I observed the emotions caught in my chest — the fear, fatigue and frustration.  The relief I felt in the middle of aisle 6 when my eyes met those of the one other black person in the store — a woman with graying hair who took a moment to smile at me.  I smiled with gratitude in return, but I imagined that she knew it was not a smile of happiness.  It was the smile of survivors acknowledging with simple defiance that “We are still here.” It was a smile, tinged with pain and resistance, that black women and men have been wearing in the wake of tragedy for generations.

One morning last week, I sensed myself do a double-take when seeing a Latino brother who, to my mind, looked like Zimmerman.  In a flash, self judgment and shame: “This man has nothing to do with Zimmerman.”  And yet there it was – the ugly seed of prejudice.   I saw it in my heart — the heart of an antiracist, a woman who is highly committed to living beyond her own conditioning, with multi-racial, multi-ethnic family members, friends and loved ones of every hue.  If this seed can exist in my heart, then it can exist in any heart.  In fact, Buddhists teach that the seeds of consciousness and unconsciousness exist inside all of us.  We can either choose to water the unconscious seeds or we can choose to wake up to our true nature.  Looking at my Latino brother, I saw Zimmerman.  I saw Trayvon.  And most importantly, I saw myself.  In that moment, I knew that part of my spiritual practice in a time of racial crisis must be a renewed decision to water the seeds of compassion, to consciously acknowledge the seeds of prejudice and to be very clear about the core of the human problems that ail us.

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I’ve always been a big fan of W.E.B. Du Bois.  I like to joke that he actually attended my dissertation defense.  (This is also a litmus test for determining whether someone actually knows who Du Bois is.)  In fact, my defense was to take place in the department’s main seminar room, where Du Bois’ portrait hangs on the wall – the only black face in a sea of whiteness.  At the last minute, I was told that we’d have to move to another room.  This was so distressing to me that a friend secretly arranged to temporarily steal remove the portrait and place it in the seminar room where I defended my thesis, directly across from my seat.

Du Bois’ sociological work has always been near to my heart because he spent so much time thoughtfully and creatively meditating on what he termed “The Negro Problem”.  In fact, he wrote (1898) not simply of the Negro problem, but of Negro problems as a multifaceted set of complex social conditions with historical roots and myriad consequences:

“A social problem is the failure of an organized social group to realize its group ideals, through the inability to adapt a certain desired line of action to given conditions of life. If, for instance, a government founded on universal manhood suffrage has a portion of its population so ignorant as to be unable to vote intelligently, such ignorance becomes a menacing social problem. The impossibility of economic and social development in a community where a large per cent of the population refuse to abide by the social rules of order, makes a problem of crime and lawlessness… Thus a social problem is ever a relation between conditions and action, and as conditions and actions vary and change from group to group from time to time and from place to place, so social problems change, develop and grow. Consequently, though we ordinarily speak of the Negro problem as though it were one unchanged question, students must recognize the obvious facts that this problem, like others, has had a long historical development, has changed with the growth and evolution of the nation; moreover, that it is not one problem, but rather a plexus of social problems, some new, some old, some simple, some complex; and these problems have their one bond of unity in the act that they group themselves about those Africans whom two centuries of slave trading brought into the land.”

As a social scientist, Du Bois concerned himself with the social dimensions of the problematic features of black life in the United States. In The Philadelphia Negro – the first significant urban sociological study in the history of American sociology – Du Bois argued and empirically demonstrated that whites’ anti-black discrimination resulted in reduced opportunities for blacks, limiting where they could live, the jobs they could occupy, their social environments and the even the functioning of their families.  While his work was largely ignored by mainstream sociologists during his life, over a century later, his insights into the dynamics of race, discrimination and opportunity are highly influential and have been so for several decades.  And Du Bois’ related meditations on the subjective dimensions of oppression, as seen for example in The Souls of Black Folks, continue to shape our understandings of race in America.

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At some point in my 20s, a startling and depressing thought occurred to me: The Negro Problem is a lost cause. In long discussions with friends, activists, teachers and family members, we would always come to a point where we’d throw our hands up in resignation to the seemingly eternal nature of the bullshit.  I began to suspect that the mutlifacted and institutionalized problems that Du Bois and so many others have explained could be improved — but only to a point. Like many students of race, I found myself struggling to imagine that racism could ever be eradicated.  And more than this, it also seemed that the black/white wealth gap — which is only one dimension of racial oppression — would in all likelihood never be erased.  Over the years, it became increasingly clear to me that while our society certainly can and has become more tolerant, there are certain features of our history that have produced path-dependent effects — effects that will probably linger, in some way, shape or form, for a very long time to come.

This feeling – which first emerged in the classroom – was reinforced when I went into the field and began interviewing nearly 200 people of African descent in the United States and France.  As I probed their views on race and racism, I heard that many of them believed that the problem of race cuts to the core of something fundamental about the human experience.  In the voices of many black people I met, on both sides of the Atlantic, was an acknowledgment that the struggle against racism feels interminable because its really a struggle against the human condition.  It is a struggle at the core of the human heart.  The question is: Can this problem be undone?  Or will we forever be undone by it?

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If we try to solve our race issues by nibbling around the edges of oppression, by making superficial changes, by merely signing petitions, taking to the streets, by engaging in political movements, by becoming more entrenched in our racial identities — if this is all that we do, then yes, I am arguing that the Negro problem is indeed a lost cause.  We might as well go home now.  Game over.

But if we begin to acknowledge that the Negro problem is not really a Negro problem at all, then there may in fact be hope for us.  What we really have is an Ego problem — and yes, it is at the heart of the human condition.  But this is not a death sentence.  Another way is possible, but it will require that we transcend the ordinary ways in which we’ve been conditioned to think about ourselves and each other.  It will require us to see the N(eg)r(o) problem not simply as a social problem, the way Du Bois did, but rather as a special form of something more universal, something more pernicious, something more intimate than “structural discrimination” or “the system”.  Undoing the N(eg)r(o) problem is not even primarily about other people.  It must begin with each of us getting real about how we see ourselves and the consequences of these beliefs for how we interact with others.  So what does the ego have to do with the Negro? And what does any of this have to do with bringing about a more just society?

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Years ago when I read Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now”, I noted with pleasure the fact that he acknowledged — albeit briefly — race in his work.  In describing the endlessly varied dimensions of egoic identification, he writes:

“Since the ego is a derived sense of self, it needs to identify with external things. It needs to be both defended and fed constantly. The most common ego identifications have to do with possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, knowledge and education, physical appearance  special abilities, relationships  personal and family history, belief systems, and often also political, nationalistic, racial, religious and other collective identifications. None of these is you.”

What does it mean to say that you are not your egoic identity?  Does it mean that your identities do no matter? That the way others identify you has no consequence? Absolutely not.  To say that we are not the ego is to bring attention to the fact that we go through life believing that we are the ideas we have of ourselves — so much so that most of us don’t even realize that we are acting upon this core belief.. what Mooji calls our belief in the “I-entity”.  We take our self-concept for granted, as though it actually, concretely, represents who we are.

Tolle is simply stating that logically, this cannot be true.  To say that you are not your ego – that you are not your identity – is to gently point out the incontrovertible truth that you cannot be any idea that you have of yourself.  “You” – your presence, your consciousness – must precede everything else.  This isn’t even about spirituality at all – it’s simple logic.  Think about it for a moment. Can you be an idea? Or do you have ideas? And if you have ideas, Who is it that has it?  Does that Who have a gender, a nationality, status, sexuality, height or weight?  Does that Who have an age?  Does that Who have a race?

* * *

Sociologists are very good at describing our social problems and — sometimes — proposing some measures of improvement.  But we cannot solve them with empirical studies and well-couched policy implications alone.

In fact, we cannot solve the race problem inside the race problem.  Does this mean that we should simply transcend race?  Of course not.  Why?  Because it is not possible to transcend something without first acknowledging it!  Biases based on appearances are hardwired into our social conditioning through our interactions with others and our absorption of language.  Bias is not something we can simply choose to let go of or disregard without first becoming acutely aware of how it has shaped — and continues to shape — the way we live our lives.

bell hooks teaches us that one of the key mechanisms of racial oppression is convincing human beings to see themselves primarily as racial subjects.  I concur and argue that we must see racialized thinking for what it is — a particular form of a more general phenomena — the socially reinforced habit of thinking that we are defined by the thoughts we have about ourselves and others.  Effective antiracist activism will require acknowledging race and racism from a place beyond race and racism.

When we think that we are our racial identities and our racial thoughts, we perpetuate systems of inequality – not only out there in the world but also and primarily inside of our own experience.  As long as I think I am merely my ideas, then those ideas are dependent on validation, either from other thoughts of my own, or thoughts from others.  As long as I think I am merely my ideas, I cannot be totally awake and alive to my full humanity.

This isn’t woo-woo-woo spirituality . . . it’s simply a fact. The tendency to reduce ourselves and others to thoughts of any kind blinds us to our inherent worth and the worth of others.  And it is impossible for us to make truly positive change in this world, change that will last, if we are not aware of our inalienable worth, beyond thoughts, beyond social conditioning, beyond what we have learned to believe.  Prejudice of all kind stems from a human being mistaking themselves for an idea (egoic identity) and seeing others they interact with through the lens of that delusion.  Thus, instead of interacting with other human beings, in their full presence, the unconsciously prejudiced person interacts with them as stereotypes — as mere ideas… ideas that can be ranked, negated, diminished and disregarded.

So what can we do?

The Negro problem, as traditionally defined, may be a lost cause, but the Ego problem is not.  I don’t have the secret of how we will once and for all solve these pernicious problems, but I know for sure that we cannot do it without sustained awareness, honesty and transparency about our egoic impulses and the ways in which we have all been influenced by the biases we’ve absorbed through socialization.  Being biased is part of what it means to be human. Living beyond those biases, in the light of awareness and compassion, is what it means to be Divine.

Part of unpacking the ego is becoming more (not less) aware of our own racial lenses.  We must see ourselves beyond ego, yes, but we must also pay attention to the way our conditioned mind reacts when we encounter others – and take responsibility for living beyond the bullshit. What expectations and prejudices do we have when we interact with people we perceive as different? What thoughts — good, bad, or otherwise — arise when we see folks we categorize into “groups”?  What feelings do we experience when we encounter “one of them”?  Can we witness these thoughts and feelings without judgment?  In so doing, can we become more alive to that part of ourselves that witnesses our social conditioning but has Itself never been conditioned?  Can we become more alive to the Presence that is at the core of ourselves and every other living being?

When we are faced with racism, it is very tempting to be unconsciously dragged down into racializing others in return.  But this is a terrible mistake.  If we are going to help others wake up to their own racism, we must first wake up to our own racial concepts and in so doing, see beyond them.  From that place – in the racial world but not of it – we can rise in consciousness, inflecting our activism for social justice with wisdom and compassion, empowered with an unshakable confidence in Who we really are.  For, as bell hooks writes:

“To move beyond race is not only the goal of critical thinking, it is the only path to emotional longevity, the only true path to liberation.”

What I’m trying to say here is that we don’t, in fact, have to move beyond race, because what we really are has always been beyond it.  What we have to do is consciously realize what is already the case, by waking up to the part of ourselves that has never been defined by ideas, racial or otherwise — the part of ourselves that is Consciousness Itself.

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