Am I Making My Students More Racist?

Sometimes I worry that my course reinscribes racism. My students come in with frequently racist assumptions about how closely the content of rap songs mirror the totality of Black life in America, which come out in our class discussions, and then, these Stereotypes, Misconceptions and Caricatures, just hang there, floating around. Somewhere between Elijah Anderson’s ethnography of North Philly in Code of the Street and James Cone’s exploration of slave theology in The Spirituals and the Blues, the notion that violence is part of the African-American cultural inheritance entered some of my students’ minds.

“Don’t be racist, guys.”

I never say that. Usually the only indication I’ll give if I think a student is wrong is that I’ll ask if anyone else has another opinion on the subject. Ask for additional thoughts enough times and a more subtle, complex notion will emerge from the swirling misconception that constitutes the early moments of many in-class conversations.

Why the patience, TB? How can there be an excuse for letting such comments go unchecked? As I mentioned to my students yesterday (on an unrelated note), there is a method to my madness.

1. The funny thing is, my students LOVE Kanye West. More than one of them has called him “in my opinion, the best rapper and definitely producer of all time.” This is funny because they have never heard Illmatic, Ready to Die, or Paid In Full. They are not joking when they refer to Kanye as gangster or street or to his hard-core urban upbringing. They were toddlers in the ’90s. Meaning, we have a lot of work to do, context-wise.

2. I am anti-censorship. I believe there is value in all of us airing our opinions in the interest of a civil discourse that actually gets us somewhere, moves forward, instead of conversation crippled by political correctness. My presence in the classroom is like the market: guiding discussion forward with the invisible hand of my (not-so) innocent inquisitiveness.

2a. When I’m quoting lyrics that use it, I say the word “nigger.” I hate, I really hate, that horrible hyphenate,  “n-word.” Did anyone see  Zooey Deschanel (in character) use the word “M-Word” on SNL last Saturday to describe the middle finger? That’s how “N-word” makes me feel: like I am participating in ridiculous censorship that is anti-antiracism in its preclusion of a productive conversation about racism. I mean, this is a college classroom. And while not all my students use this word–and I never make anyone, or chastize n-worders–I want my classroom to be a mature, safe enough space that we can quote the lines we’re analyzing. I have a sneaking suspicion that the white folks for whom this word makes them the MOST uncomfortable–all the censors out there who don’t listen to rap but jump down rappers’ throats, Al Sharpton included–are the ones who have this word inside of them, who might use it, maybe who have used it in private, and so they don’t want to hear “nigger” because it freaks them out–not for Black folks’ sake but their own.

2b. On a related note, on a concluding note: I think a teaching platform of anti-racism, anti-censorship and anti-secrets coincide in a classroom space where students feel safe to work out their cognitive kinks out loud. Race is so taboo in this country, for white kids especially, that many of my students seem to be fessing up their sense of America’s racial landscape for the first time. And whatever little closet those opinions and memories lived in before, if it doesn’t get aired out, that’s where racism grows. I’m convinced of it. We’re sweepin’ out the dust mites–and as all you housekeepers know, dusting can get dusty. But then, you know, it gets clean.

…or at least that’s what I tell myself.

POSTSCRIPT. When I was in college, the two standout cross-appointed professors between my home department, Religion, and the African American Studies Program were Dr. Cornel West and Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr. (Not a bad lot.) I never studied with Professor West, but I took a seminar with Dr. Glaude my senior spring that laid the foundation of so much of my reading of African-American culture today and was a total inspiration viz. the possibilities of course planning. The course moved from Michael Walzer’s Interpretation and Social Criticism at the beginning to Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual at the end. But then, through the interim, Dr. Glaude deftly wove in texts about the African-American tradition of civil discourse, how it darted in and out of mainstream cultural mores, criticizing dominant trends with two eyes open. As African-Americans said of the so-called New Israel that was the USA, “Pharaoh’s on both sides of these blood-red waters.”

And so, tucked in the middle of the semester, between the poles-not-poles of Walzer and Said, was James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Many times since then have I heard Glaude and West refer to that book and this author. And though upon first read I was too stricken with truth to think much else, I have been struck since then with the great love and strategy of Drs. Glaude and Wests’ appeals to this text from the halls of Princeton, that whitest of institutions, wherein I surely was not the only white student Glaude, West and Baldwin welcomed into his reconciliatory, honest arms. Baldwin writes of the end of his meeting with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad:

It was time to leave, and we stood in the large living room, saying good night, with everything curiously and heavily unresolved….Elijah and I shook hands, and he asked me where I was going. Wherever it was, I would be driven there–“because, when we invite someone here,” he said, “we take the responsibility of protecting him from the white devils until he gets wherever it is he’s going.” I was, in fact, going to have a drink with several white devils on the other side of town. I confess that for a fraction of a second I hesitated to give the address–the kind of address that in Chicago, as in all American cities, identified itself as a white address by virtue of its location. But I did give it, and Elijah and I walked out onto the steps, and one of the young men vanished to get the car. It was very strange to stand with Elijah for those few moments, facing those vivid, violent, so problematical streets….The car arrived–a gleaming, metallic, grossly American blue–and Elijah and I shook hands and said good night once more. He walked into his mansion and shut the door. (78-79)

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