Talking Racism and Reconciling History

by Nicole Plyler Fisk

My fingers have been been itching to write one of my vent-posts since Mike Brown’s tragic shooting on August 9th in Ferguson, MO. August is a difficult month for writing, between an annual summer trip (to, of all places, MO), two family birthdays, and the always hectic start of the school term.

So, I’ve shared things, rather than write them; I’ve had conversations; and I’ve been especially grateful for friends who have picked up the figurative pen (kudus, especially, to friend Elizabeth Broadbent, whose amazing blog post went viral).

As is often the case in such tragedies, those of us who feel sick to our stomach at the thought of losing yet another young black man are sickened further by the response of those who say:

“Look at that photo — Mike Brown, looking all innocent and young. I want to see a more recent photo, of the huge, scary man he was.” < yep, that’s an actual quote

or

“They’re not talking about the fact that he’s a thief!” < and another actual quote

or

“Poor Officer Wilson. They’re really wanting to crucify him.” < and another actual quote

or

“Have you seen Mike Ojo’s ice bucket challenge? He’s black and he tells other black people that they should pull up their pants and stop looking like criminals, if they don’t want to get shot on the street. If you ask me, Mike Ojo is a smart young man.” < apparently, this ice bucket challenge has 30,000 Facebook shares.

The retorts to such statements roll easily enough off the tongue. You’re not allowed to shoot a person, because you think he looks “huge” and “scary.” You’re not allowed to shoot a person, even if he stole something. (I remember watching Disney’s Aladdin as a kid and shrinking back in horror at Princess Jasmine’s near loss of her hand as punishment for theft. I was grateful that we don’t have punishments like that here, not realizing at the time that young black men sometimes get much, much worse).

We should be able to trust our officers, trained professionals, to keep their temper and fear in check and to neither instigate nor escalate fights with the civilians they’ve sworn to protect (e.g. an officer may get angry at the teenager who punches him in the face, but that officer should not retaliate by putting a bullet through the teenager’s head). And, rather than dubbing a young black man “smart” for urging other young black men to dress differently in order to be perceived differently, we should rail against the fact that people of color have to live by a set of rules [that includes the bagginess (or lack thereof) of one’s pants] in order to freaking survive. This, of course, is reminiscent of the equally wrong “don’t wear a miniskirt if you don’t want to get raped” argument — another classic example of blaming the victim.

As sickening as these racist comments are, I expected them, especially since so many of them are parroted back and forth between Fox News pundits. What I didn’t expect were the comments I received both publicly and privately on Facebook, after posting an article about a brilliant video, entitled “See The Stripes [Clemson University]: A Poem by A.D. Carson,” recently nominated for the University of South Carolina Museum of Education’s Charles and Margaret Witten Award for Distinguished Documentary Film in Education.

A.D. Carson’s poem, and the accompanying video, convey both his (overall positive) experience as a young black student at Clemson University and also his fervent wish that Clemson University will one day own its complete history (i.e. the ‘university grounds as plantation, peopled by slaves’ part of its history). Carson argues that we’re better and stronger by acknowledging “the stripes” — the good and the bad. Most, if not all, institutions only highlight the good moments, and it would be nice if that wasn’t the commonplace or the expectation. Imagine if, instead, institutions of higher learning were encouraged to educate current and prospective students more responsibly, to model thoughtful discussion of difficult topics, to discuss how to create better futures by learning from past mistakes.

Facebook friends, both conservative and liberal, denigrated Carson’s argument, insisting that he should be celebrating his university rather than airing particularly old and dirty laundry. At first, I thought they misunderstood. I always forget that Clemson (of which they’re alums) and USC (of which I’m an alum) are “rivals.” I’ve been at USC for over a decade and have never been to a football game. I drive an orange car (Clemson color) with a paw print (that’s meant to be a dog’s but could just as easily be the Clemson tiger’s). I half-heartedly stuck a USC sticker on the car when my students complained, but — really — I affiliate myself with institutions of higher learning, because I value education, regardless of the color (orange or garnet) through which it’s filtered.

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^ that’s my “solid orange” car in the background ^

My friend and colleague, Graham Stowe, thought they misunderstood too, and hastened to explain: “This isn’t a case of ‘USC people’ bashing Clemson . . . Both schools have a tendency to whitewash (pun intended) the more despicable parts of our history. Why can’t both schools become leaders on this? There are smallish projects on this happening, but why not make these things center pieces of our stories? Can’t reconciliation with our own history be part of healing and good for these important public institutions?”

Yes.

Because here’s the thing:

Racism.

It’s a problem, and it’s at least partly a problem, because we ignore talking about things that embarrass us. Example: I was watching the John Adams series, and I was shocked by the image (in Episode 6) of the White House being built by underfed slaves. And then I felt like an idiot. OF COURSE it was built by underfed slaves. But that’s not anything I ever heard on the tour when I visited DC as a child, and that did a disservice not only to me (by limiting my understanding) but also to all those earlier lives — lives that *mattered* and that should be remembered and honored.

The White House is beautiful, as is the Horseshoe at USC, as are the buildings that make up Clemson university. But we neither talk about the African-American artisans who contributed to their beauty nor the fact that they were able to do so under unimaginably trying circumstances.

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^ a happy, recent DC duck tour, in which I did not hear about slaves building the White House ^

I can’t help but think that this omission, this erasure of others’ humanity, has a chilling effect. You see it in “blackface” parties, like the one Clemson alum, Coby DuBose describes; or in the fact that within walking distance of USC’s campus, the confederate flag still flies in front of the South Carolina State House.

Making slave narratives a centerpiece of our university stories may not put an immediate end to “blackface” parties, and the confederate flag may still fly for awhile, but as more and more incoming students hear the voices of previously silenced people of color, and understand how devoted we are to hearing and appreciating those voices, I suspect that they’ll be less likely to ignore and/or ridicule. Enough of Gilderoy Lockhart, university edition. Let’s be honest, transparent, and thoughtful about our histories, please.

This and this = a good start.

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