I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, I’m not a racist.

It only took a few weeks after a student coined the word “hiphopocracy” for me to realize that I wanted to write a book of essays collected under this name. This one word evoked connotations of community, democracy, and hypocrisy that all seemed so central to the way I was beginning to read and teach hiphop texts and culture. It took a tip from a tech-savvy friend to re-envision this project as a blog, and then I had to find my sea legs – that is, my voice.

It’s interesting to me how central the question of my own whiteness is to this blog. Back when I imagined this as a book of long-form essays, I’d envisioned the emphasis as being on a critical reading of rap texts coupled with reflections on education and the possibilities for a hiphop pedagogy. But transitions in conceptualizing my own work have parallels in how I’ve learned to understand my role as a teacher. When I first designed College Writing on The College Dropout, I imagined that this rap-centric course material would fill my classroom with students of color. In fact, out of more than 100 students so far, I’ve had two African American students, both women, a significant minority of Asian and Asian-American students (both East and South Asian), and a huge majority of White students, mostly from Michigan. With this demographic makeup I’ve come to reenvision my teaching from an earlier (more self-aggrandizing) model that saw me appealing to African-American students “on their own terms” (whatever that means) to a more realistic vision that has me modeling to White and Asian-American students how to talk about race, gender, popular culture and urban space in a way that is intellectually critical and, most importantly, respectful.

As you might imagine, one book that was really instrumental to my self-concept as a teacher was Mark Naison’s memoir White Boy, which I discovered in David Leonard”s reflection on the subject on Mark Anthony Neal’s blog, Left of Black. In his memoir, Naison, a white professor of African-American studies at Fordham University, charts his journey  from a Jewish kid growing up in Brooklyn through his time as a history student at Columbia and his activism in Harlem to his present position at Fordham. Naison writes like an historian, focused on events rather than ideas, and so as I read I felt myself wishing he would say more about the content of his academic work and how he felt it related to the spaces in which he was teaching and learning it. Instead, much of the value of this book for me was reading the history, via Naison’s life, of radical leftist movements through the sixties and seventies and the way racial politics shifted during that period.

This term, for the first time I am also teaching a different class, an Advanced Argumentation course structured around Dr. Neal and Murray Foreman’s reader That’s the Joint! To keep us rooted in the primary sources, we spend Friday’s class each week listening to and close reading a rap song. To get us started off right, we began this schedule last Friday with Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.” As I set up the speakers, one of my (white) students asked, “Do you usually listen to this song?”

“Sure,” I answered. “Don’t you?”

I think one of my most important roles in the classroom is to show my students that rap can be enjoyed as more than a minstrel show. This is directly related to my recent critique of Cecil Brown and Tricia Rose’s views of white listeners, casual disbelief of valid motives that is not uncommon to these two thinkers. Because I have to ask: how are white listeners supposed to take hiphop seriously if they can’t take themselves seriously as fans, true fans? Teaching hiphop has taught me to take myself more seriously as a fan because I have to model respect and appreciation to my students.

Chapelle’s Show: “I Know Black People” w/ Dr. Mark Naison

In White Boy, Dr. Naison talks a lot about his relationship with a Black woman and how that experience both personally and socially connected him with Black people and heightened his awareness of race’s role in American society. My own formative experience with the Black community was in my high school choir in Chicago. I’d often enter the choir room to see students grouped around the piano, singing gospel songs they all knew and I didn’t. Like Naison on the basketball court, choir was the place where I was the racial outsider, where my academic success meant nothing and I had to bust my butt to keep up. It was the space where I learned to sing “Precious Lord” and “Elijah Rock” and where I came to understand that in other parts of the city, my Black classmates participated in a rich community life that it would have been just as easy for me not to see.

In a recent guest post on Left of Black, Mark Naison writes about the role of love in good teaching. Next week in my Argumentation class, we’re talking about a chapter called “No Time for Fake Niggas: Hip Hop Culture and the Authenticity Debates,” which probably means it’s time for the class talk on whether we can use the word “nigger” and, if we’re lucky, larger questions about authenticity in hiphop scholarship.  Naison writes, “It is precisely the importance of building trust which is absent from the dominant discourse about education today. ” Responding to my occasional discipline issues, my mom recently suggested I pull back from my class, separate myself from them. “I can’t,” I said. “Community and relationships are so important to what I’m trying to do.” When it comes to questions of authenticity and good intention, we need not only to trust and love our students, but also ourselves.

4 thoughts on “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, I’m not a racist.

  1. Hi Tessa, I found your blog recently when I was spending some time on Facebook, and I have a question for you about this entry: I work at Latin now and today Toure (Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness) came and gave a talk to the faculty about race. About 20 minutes of the Q&A was dominated by discussion of who can and can’t say the n-word, spurred by one teacher recounting how she’s had to deal with a couple middle schoolers saying it. I was really struck by how much power this word has and I’m wondering what you and your students say about it in your class.

  2. Dorothy! I would love to hear more about this. Well, it’s obviously really hard and I dread having this conversation with my students every semester. I have noticed that my kids this year (barely any of whom are African American) feel more comfortable with this word than past cohorts did, which surprises me. What’s most important to me in class is that everyone feels comfortable and people aren’t using disrespectful language. My personal guidelines are that I use the word when I’m quoting something or when I’m referring to the word itself – but I would never characterize anything or anyone with this term and I ask my students not to, either. I never make anyone pronounce the word “nigger” even though I kind of hate the term “n-word” and I feel on a personal level that it’s censorship and white people being almost physically unable to pronounce this word impedes meaningful inter-group dialogue from taking place.

    I actually had a tough experience with the issue yesterday in class when we had this convo in my Advanced Argumentation course. It seemed that all my students except my black students had opinions or pontifications on how this word–even varying by pronunciation viz. “nigga” or “nigger”–was accepted or not accepted in their high schools, on the football team, etc. etc. I try never to call out individual students based on their race, but I was a little disturbed that my African-American students didn’t speak up because it avoided the principal issue of making sure that they feel comfortable and respected in class. I still feel a bit uneasy about it…

    How was Toure???

    • Toure’s talks were, obviously, incredibly thought provoking. I wish, though, that he had chosen a different topic to discuss with the students than he did. He talked about what nigga/nigger means, differences in how different generations use the words, and when it’s ok to say them (in academic discussions). A teacher and student both said how in class discussions about the word, like when they’re reading Huck Finn, it’s easier to talk about when there are only white students in the class. Student questions were generally some variation of, “is it ok for me to___?” Which sounds a little like they were taking Toure as the Authority on Blackness, which I think is a problem, but given the context that Toure set up, I don’t know what other questions they could have asked.
      My opinion is that Toure should have talked about what Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness is about: his struggle to make his own identity. He writes a bit about going through this process during high school, which I think would have really resonated with the students. He says, “if there are 40 million Black people in America, then there are 40 million ways to be Black.” I felt this more strongly when one Black girl prefaced her question by saying, “I talk white, I act white…” Talking about people’s expectations of him based on his race, and how he confirmed or subverted those—or actually, how he didn’t want to acknowledge those expectations in the first place—would have been relevant to the students, who are all thinking on versions of that subject. Maybe I’m being that’s too sentimental, though. Also I think that his way of handling race is difficult to execute when racist people and institutionalized racism are around.

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