A Meditation on Whiteness
By Beth Connors-Manke
October Featured Essay
Note: in August The Whole Horse Project published Jeff Gross’s “Into the Caldron: Neoliberalism, Ideology, Education and Life Itself” which discussed, in part, the controversy over social media posts by sociology professor Zandria F. Robinson. Below is an extended reflection sparked by one of Robinson’s tweets.
“Whiteness is most certainly and inevitably terror.” –Tweet by Zandria F. Robinson
An assertion like this—an assertion so sweeping—troubles me. Many categorical statements, like this one, aren’t true. They need qualifiers; they need limits set on them.
Like this: Whiteness is most certainly and inevitably terror when a man walks into a church and kills nine church folk during Bible study.
Or, like this: Whiteness is most certainly and inevitably terror when a police officer shoots a 12-year-old boy dead in a park.
My family was visiting St. Louis on the first anniversary of Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson. We were going to visit an aunt and two uncles, to spend more time in the city my mother hails from, the place where my uncle, who died four years ago, is buried in a cemetery near Ferguson.
On the long drive over, we listened to a recent episode of This American Life. The podcast featured New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who chronicles school reform. She hails from Iowa, like me, but from a different Iowa: working-class, African-American, small-city Iowa. As a kid, Hannah-Jones lived through the challenges of school integration in a predominantly white and agricultural state.
The long and short of the episode is that—according to Hannah-Jones’s research—racial integration of schools has proven to be the most educationally beneficial condition for African-American students from impoverished neighborhoods. It helps poor black kids like other things have not: between 1971 and 1988, the achievement gap between black and white students was cut by half. That number dropped from a 39-point disparity on standardized tests to just an 18-point difference. And, as the podcast points out, this marked difference didn’t just occur with bussed kids—it was across the entire country. But then, Hannah-Jones says, we threw in the towel: “We somehow want this to have been easy. And we gave up really fast.”
One case in particular, the Normandy school district in St. Louis, settled the issue for Hannah-Jones. This is the district that Michael Brown’s mother alluded to when she cried just after his shooting: “You took my son away from me—you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many!” As Hannah-Jones found out, it was true that too few students graduated from Normandy; the high school “didn’t graduate about half of its black boys,” she says.
When the entire Normandy school district failed in 2013, it was also true that a large number of families were willing to bus their children to another school district. They sent their kids far up the highway to predominantly white schools in another district. One thousand students opted out of the collapsed system.
Bussing was what my working-class grandparents were not willing to do when my mother was five.2 Sitting in my aunt’s kitchen in a suburb west of St. Louis, we talked about Hannah-Jones’s report and about the history of St. Louis schools as my family has known it. From my aunt’s viewpoint, the lack of faith in St. Louis public schools is broadly shared and historic, making private Catholic school preferred over public.3 Mark my grandparents’ refusal around 1956 or 57, and then remember this: the Little Rock Nine attempted to integrate Little Rock Central High School in September 1957 amid soldiers and an angry white mob.
In the podcast, we hear what a white crowd angry over integration sounds like today as Hannah-Jones follows the story of Mah’ria and her mother Nedra. When the opportunity arose to leave Normandy and be bussed to the Francis Howell school district, mother and daughter were elated. Mah’ria is a strong student who likes learning but could see that Normandy was in shambles. So much so that Nedra had been researching ways to get Mah’ria out before the Normandy announcement. Brimming with excitement about the transfer, Mah’ria went to the town hall meeting about the transfer students at Francis Howell.
Some comments by Francis Howell parents at the town hall seem pragmatic:
“My question is when a child who is coming from an under-performing school with low test scores comes into a math class at Francis Howell, how will they ever possibly cope?”
In an age of ridiculous federal policy and high-stakes testing, this question isn’t out of line. But if you listen closely to the comment, its tone betrays the fear this parent has over the change. And then there are the comments—and reactions—that border on rage:
“So I’m hoping that their discipline records come with them, like their health records come with them.” (The crowd applauds.)
Another parent: “This is what I want. I want the same security that Normandy gets when they walk through their school doors. And I want it here. And I want that security before my children walk into Francis Howell, because I shopped for a school district. I deserve to not have to worry about my children getting stabbed, or taking a drug, or getting robbed because that’s the issue.”4
This is when I stopped listening to the podcast the first time, which was a week before the trip to St. Louis. Stopped listening because I had started crying. To think of young Mah’ria, so excited about her opportunity, listening to that.
Here’s the thing: we can always choose the point of view from which to enter a story, to enter a situation. Part of me was surely listening to that town hall as a fearful parent, maybe fearful in the way those white parents from Francis Howell were.5A bigger part of me, though, chose to listen as a teacher, as someone whose heart is open to young people, their hopes, and their fears.
“White Terror Too” by Brian Connors Manke
My first day of teaching was September 4, 2001, one week before the twin towers came down. History determined that my first semester would be one of great fear, uncertainty, confusion; the textbook assigned for use didn’t make my work easier. It included bell hooks’s essay “Killing Rage: Militant Resistance,” which opens with this line:
“I am writing this essay sitting beside an anonymous white male that I long to murder.”
The essay details a litany of mundane, but very trying, racist episodes that hooks and her friend have on the way to the airport. The ordeal culminates with the public humiliation of hooks’s friend over the first-class seat that the white man now has.
hooks never kills the guy, but nor does she relent on the issue of rage. Frustrated with a culture that labels black rage “pathological” in order to explain it away, hooks takes a very different stance. She urges the reader to see “black rage as something other than sickness, to see it as a potentially healthy, potentially healing response to oppression and exploitation.”6 Borrowing from Cornel West, hooks adds another layer: black rage can be seen as “great love for black people”—that is, if the rage is channeled into work for justice.7
Imagine the difficulty of teaching this essay to what could have been—probably was—an entirely white group of students. As I remember, my freshmen said very little during discussion, perhaps because hooks’s list of racialized slights, insults, and injustices didn’t merit “killing rage” in their eyes. Or, perhaps they kept quiet because they had, in fact, learned that they aren’t allowed to honestly discuss race in public. Either way, I wanted to salvage the discussion—or rather, non-discussion. My solution, entirely bumbling, was to tell a personal story set in Detroit. One in which I was the guilty party. I don’t remember that admission rectifying my problem.
The longer I’ve contemplated how best to teach students to discuss race thoughtfully, and the more I’ve watched general public discourse over race either stall or fan the flames of discord, the more convinced I’ve become that my pedagogy was entirely wrong. In many conversations (can we even call them that?) about race, I don’t think most of us can see the forest for the trees.
In that classroom mostly full of white students, I should have taught the forest first, not the trees. The trees are all the banal and grinding episodes that hooks and her friend endure just to get across town and seated on a plane in first class. The forest, though, is justice and humanity: “Racial hatred is real,” writes hooks, “And it is humanizing to be able to resist it with militant rage.”8
I can and should teach students (of any background) that a rage for justice in the face of violent and enduring injustice makes one more human. As importantly, I can and should teach them that if they want something good and true and just for themselves, they should want it for others, too.
In fall 2001, in the wake of 9/11, engagement with big, moral issues in the classroom was ok. History had come knocking at our front door, and Americans needed to reckon, to grapple with that visitor. Pedagogically, it was pretty messy, mostly because I was caught in a balancing act. On one hand, I needed to help students (and myself) face the new, radical sense of national vulnerability. On the other hand, I wanted to preserve some sense of security so that students could function in the face of such adversity.
As uncomfortable as that liminal space was, it was probably the most authentic moment of education that I’ve experienced. To borrow from William Deresiewicz’s recent article “The Neoliberal Arts,” it was “a real education, one that addresses [students] as complete human beings rather than as future specialists—that enables them…to build a self or (following Keats) to become a soul.”9 Or as hooks taught me, to make them (and me) more human.
Deresiewicz believes that much of higher education fails the criteria for real education. He blames neoliberal thought and policy, which push us to view education as the method of “produc[ing] producers.”10 This is far from the moral education that all people need in their youth. The concept of a moral education (one that helps students “build a self, become a soul”) is scoffed at by some inside and outside academe, but many other voices affirm the broader value of education.
However, if we understand moral education to be disciplinary pursuits poised to address the most difficult issues of being human in our time, we’ve landed far (I hope) from wooden or pious curriculum that silences minorities or elides social difference. Poised is the key word: we need curriculum ready to respond to history as it unfolds, not just to the economy as it evolves. And that calls for flexible curriculum, shaped by knowledgeable and, at best, wise guides. By teachers.
I don’t know Zandria F. Robinson, but maybe she’s one of those teachers, responding in grief and rage, responding humanly, to this historical moment. Responding to the past year, which has essentially become one long list of African-Americans—young men, young women, children, church folk—dying at the hands of white people.
Some of her defenders seem to think she’s one of those teachers:
Degan Hubbard: She is an amazing professor and scholar. She is not racist. She is not wrong.11
JoAnna Boudreaux Hamadeh: Dr. Robinson is a tremendous loss to the University. She is an amazing scholar, writer, Professor, and mentor. Those of us who know her and have taken classes from her recognize that she has been slandered and unfairly attacked.
Jeffrey Lichtenstein: Dr. Robinson is an excellent scholar. Her public comments, which are uplifting and educational, take place against the real-world background of structural white- supremacy in this country.
In “Killing Rage,” hooks writes that “We live in a society where we hear about white folks killing black people to express their rage…White rage is acceptable, can be both expressed and condoned but black rage has no place and everyone knows it.” She follows this statement with a list of examples: Emmett Till. Bensonhurst. Howard Beach. Today’s litany would be different, and longer. Michael Brown’s name would stand out on that list as a catalyst for rage, grief, and action.
When we drove east out of St. Louis after our visit, little had happened. We knew nothing of the turn the weekend would take for those mourning, and acting, on the first anniversary of the shooting of Michael Brown.
A day or so later, a text message from my aunt told us that we’d left at the right time. The highway had been blocked later that night, and the city was in a state of emergency. As passers-through, we unknowingly escaped the turmoil. Residents of Ferguson, though, were still—a year later—mired in it. Scanning news online to fill in the gaps, I came across a picture of an “Oath Keeper” who had trucked up to Ferguson. He was a big white guy in tan camouflage with a huge gun. Oath Keepers showed up in Ferguson last year, too.12
Seeing that photo, here’s what came to mind: Whiteness is most certainly and inevitably terror.
That picture was the definition of whiteness that made Robinson’s tweet ring true. And even if all whiteness is not that man, ready to deputize himself, confident in his guns and anti-establishment views, it doesn’t really matter.13
If black friends, neighbors, fellow citizens experience this terror, the statement is true enough to be a call to justice.
Editor: Jeff Gross
Copyediting by Jordan Wick
Featured Image: “Mars Rover Postcard” by Brian Connors Manke