Brown M&Ms Are Not Black People: On Making Everything about Race

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Many years ago, when I was attending a community college in Alabama, I was a work study student in the campus bookstore. One day, my manager, her adult daughter, and two other employees were in the bookstore chatting. They were all white women who usually left me out of their conversations. At this particular, we had no customers in the store. We were all standing around waiting to be busy. As usually happened in these moments, the women started up a conversation from which I was passively excluded, but this one got a bit more awkward than most.

Julie, the manager’s daughter, had come into the store eating M&Ms. At some point, they began discussing the candy. Then they were naming their favorite color of M&Ms. Julie said, “I hate the brown M&Ms. I can’t stand them.” She was adamant. And that’s what prompted the change in the tone of their conversation.

The other women in the store began energetically arguing against Julie’s claim that brown M&Ms were somehow less enjoyable than other colors.

Julie’s mother insisted, “The brown M&Ms are good.”

A second woman, a blonde the same as Julie’s mom, said, “I like the brown M&Ms.”

Maybe Julie didn’t see the problem. She stood firm in her conviction that brown M&Ms were particularly odious and defended herself matter-of-factly. Her casual demeanor suggested that she did not know why the other women were making such a big deal out defending brown m&ms.

As they repeated these arguments, their voices became increasingly higher pitched and strained. Julie looked at them, somewhat defiant, with a puzzled expression. “I just don’t like them,” she insisted.

Everyone seemed to be making a point of not looking at me, and noone asked me what I thought about brown M&Ms.

I stood in the room unwilling to speak, paralyzed by the awkwardness of the moment. What could I say? I wanted to interject into the tense shrillness of their conversation, “It’s okay. Brown m&ms are not black people. This is not a conversation about race.”

But they had not made the metaphor explicit.  I could not be the first one to say it aloud. I think we all knew that the brown-shelled M&Ms had transformed into brown-skinned people early in their conversation, and that that fact was responsible for the increasing urgency  and shrillness of their speech. But I, the one brown-skinned person in the room could not I could not be the to make the conversation explicitly about race because my presence there was probably the reason that they had made the conversation metaphorically about race.

I think about this event when I hear racists insist that people of color or anti-racists “make everything about race.” This accusation is meant to perpetuate the narrative that racism is not a problem or not nearly as big a problem as POC claim, and that people who bring up racism as related to specific experiences or events are merely doing so as a way of distracting from real issues. Racism, these people argue, is in the mind of the person who perceives the racism. In fact, “white” people make everything about race, and the accusation that other do is merely a projection.

In certain areas of this country, northern Illinois for example, the locals are fond of claiming that they have moved beyond a time when race mattered. They point to the American South as the last haven of American racism. When I moved to the Northwest Suburbs of Chicago, many “white” people told me that race didn’t matter in their communities. I came to realize that what they were really saying was that the Northwest Suburbs have been so successfully segregated, excluding any significant numbers of African Americans, that the European Americans can go about their daily lives without having to contend with the presence of dark brown skinned difference, and this allows them to pretend that racism was not their problem. They had not solved the problem of racism, they had solved the problem of racial difference.

For those Illinois “white” people, race matters more than they will admit. In fact, I would guess that all aspects of their existences are touched by the mythologies of race in the U.S. Whiteness as an identity construct is not natural, and like anything unnatural, it must be maintained. Whiteness, which signifies both the belief in whiteness and belief in the supremacy of whiteness, must be repeatedly justified and affirmed. Segregation makes this easier. If one is not confronted with real human individuals who represent data a challenge to whiteness as a default identity, believing in one’s exclusive right to humanness is easier. Everything is about race for “white” people because “white” people can not exist  and thrive without the concept of race. This is true for “white” people across the country.

Chances are that, had I not been in the bookstore that day, Julie’s comment about brown M&Ms would have been unremarkable. Perhaps the others would have simply taken her at her word and moved on to a new topic. Perhaps they would have spent a few words discussing it. I doubt their conversation would have taken on the emotional charge that it acquired with me as audience. The shrill insistence that brown M&Ms were just as good as any other seemed to be the older women’s attempt to prove that they were not racist. Their need to prove that was directly tied to my presence there. However, they and not I made the M&Ms about race. When I heard Julie’s initial comment, I thought, “Meh. I never really noticed a difference in the flavors of different M&Ms.” The other women turning Julie’s comment into a serious argument forced me to think about race. They “made it about race.”

If one’s entire existence and sense of worth depends upon the mythologies of race, then those ideas will be hovering in one’s mind at all times. Whiteness requires of its performers that they both repeatedly affirm the notions that prop up whiteness and perpetually pretend to be unconcerned about doing so. Both sides of that performance, on display in that bookstore that day, become even more necessary when a non-”white” person is watching. This performance, this struggle, must be overwhelming.


Reflections On Nominal Diversity In Academia By Victor Ray

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Conditionally Accepted

victor rayVictor Ray is a PhD Candidate in sociology at Duke University. He will begin as an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville this fall. His research is on organizational responses to racial and gender discrimination. You can follow Victor on Twitter at @victorerikray

Below, Victor reflects on his frustration with his department’s award-winning level of diversity, at least on paper, that contradicts the otherwise exclusive department climate, norms, and practices.

My department just won the inaugural Dean’s Award for Inclusive Excellence, an award that is meant to reward the department for “extraordinary achievements” in promoting diversity in its graduate student body.  I was surprised by the news, as my experiences as a student of color in this department have been less than inclusive and other than excellent. Although students of color are indeed admitted to the graduate program, and even make it through to the…

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“Maybe You’re Overreacting…?” — On Emotional Control

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Conditionally Accepted

Let me start with the premise that I, as a sociological social psychologist, recognize emotions as socially constructed non-verbal ways of communicating a feeling or thought.  Sure, I know there are biological and physiological explanations.  Blah blah blah — as a social scientists, I am always asked to concede room for the “real” science fields to explain the social world.  (Can we start asking chemist, “have you considered that this may be socially constructed?”)  However, I stand by my point because emotions are 1) regulated by social norms and 2) used in the context of labor or work.  For example, we have tacit rules about the emotions one should convey at a funeral or wedding.  And, some jobs demand specific emotional expressions as a part of one’s labor (e.g., flight attendants).

It seems, like everything else we study in sociology, there is an aspect of emotions and how they are…

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On Teaching “White” Literature in a “White” Classroom as a Person of Color

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Every single time that I have taught the work of an early European or Euro-American writer whose characters or texts express racist beliefs or use racist words (Twain or Conrad for example), at least one pale-skinned student will speak up to defend the author’s racism on the grounds that racism “back then” was just part of the culture. We can’t blame Thomas Jefferson for his racist assessment of African people because “everyone was racist back then.” Some students have actually argued that the n-word cannot be considered a racist term in the context of texts such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Heart of Darkness because “back then” that was just the word everyone used to describe black people. To call Marlow’s (in HOD) use of the n-word “racist,” these students argue, is to unfairly impose upon that character a contemporary, “politically-correct” morality. I have to remind them that the n-word has always been a negative term and was never ever neutral. I also inform that that at no point in human history have all “white” people or all indigenous Europeans been racist. In places and times when oppression of others (any kind of Other) was the dominant ideology, there have always been dissenters.

The fact that these supporters and defenders of racism use the falsehood that all white people are or were racist in a particular time period or location to try to defend against the accusation of racism seems to be in direct conflict with the fact that often the same people will froth at the mouth in fury as they accuse antiracists of assuming that all white people are racist. Of course, a true antiracist would never assume that all “white” people share the same set of thoughts or behaviors, but this fact is apparently irrelevant in the face of the paranoia of the Euro-American student sitting in my class who assumes that any unfavorable representation of any European (even if it is of that European’s own construction) is an indictment by me of all people of European descent and especially of any people of European descent who happen to be in my classroom.

What I find exceptionally odd about this phenomenon is that so many people of color are overtly and covertly accused of paranoia on a regular basis whenever they discuss their experiences of racism with their “white” acquaintances. Shortly after I moved to Auburn to start my PhD program, one of the professors in my department decided to welcome me by telling me where I could find “soul food restaurants” in town. He concluded his list of restaurants and locations by saying, with a shrug of his shoulders, “Well, we eat that kind of food too.” A few years later I told a pale-skinned redhead this story, and she was quick to let me know that it was in fact not a story about racism but a story about a kind man who was just trying to be helpful. Now, this kind man did not ask me what type of food I liked to eat so that he could point me toward the best burger joints or sushi restaurants in town. Nope. He made the assumption that I would be on the lookout for “soul food” because that’s what people like me eat. His final statement, using the plural first person rather than the singular, only served to prove that he was thinking in terms of group behavior, group identity and had failed to see me as an individual, a person. It also demonstrates that he was not assuming that I would need to try soul food because I was new to the South or that he assumed anyone living in the south would need to know where to find soul food. If he viewed soul food as linked with Southern identity rather than “black” identity, he would not have needed to say “We” eat it “too.” He was from the South.

I had assumed that anyone with a functioning brain could see why what he said was racist, but apparently that is not a fair assumption. I have so many stories like this: I present a narrative of racism, and a pale-skinned person tells me that I’m being “paranoid,” “hypersensitive,” or just “determined to find racism everywhere.” Or they provide a narrative of the events that But now, interpreting course content about racism as an attack on “white” people is definitely not paranoia. My brown-skinned, female instructor is talking about what King Leopold of Belgium did to the people of the Congo in the nineteenth-century? Clearly, she is attacking me, a person in her class in the 21st century, and clearly she hates all white people in the 21st century. Again, this is definitely not paranoia. This is Fox News logic. If I feel that I am being attacked, then I am being attacked even if the instructor has not indicated any connection between the characters in the text and the people sitting in her class at the present moment. What she actually says is not important, because I know what she really means.

An odd thing about the way that Euro-American students glean evidence of my alleged racial hatred from the texts I teach is that this same process never seems to work for the positive or non-racist representations of people of European origin. In one semester for an early literature class my students discuss the works of several authors representing a variety of perspectives and issues. I will teach, for example, William Bradford, Anne Bradstreet, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Ralph Emerson, Nathanial Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Lydia Sigourney along with, of course several writers of color.  But when students complain that I am “bashing white males,” representing “white” men as evil, or attempting to make “white” people feel guilty, they are only talking about some (and not all) of our discussions about Bradford and Jefferson. For these writers I choose selections from their large texts that deal with the historical significance of these writers—Bradford’s explanation of why the “pilgrims” left England or Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence—along with some of the excerpts that represent their racist attitudes. Of all the authors I teach in a semester, two authors who express racist notions are viewed as my attempt to color all “white” people as racist and make my students feel guilty for being “white.” Students take my teaching of Bradford’s classism, racism, and homophobia as an affront to white identity. They take my acknowledgement of Jefferson’s racist attitudes about Native and African Americans as an affront to “white” identity. But they do not take my teaching about the feminism of Bradstreet or the poetic innovation of Whitman as compliments paid to “white” identity. They do not take personally my enthusiasm for Dickinson, nor do they assume that I am secretly trying to convince them that all “white” people write great poetry.

It is clear to me that the way some of my European-American students respond to my curriculum is determined by their own expectations rather than by what actually goes on in my classroom.

What Should “Racism” Mean?

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The Weekly Sift

There’s a type of faux scandal that’s been happening … well, I haven’t exactly kept track, but it seems like there’s a new one every month or two. They all fit this pattern: President Obama does something that symbolically asserts his status as president, and the right-wing press gets outraged by how he’s “disrespecting” something-or-other related to the presidency.

So, for example, in January, 2010 this photo caused FoxNation.com to ask whether Obama was “disrespecting the Oval Office” by putting his feet up on the antique desk.

Of course, it didn’t take long to uncover similar photos of previous presidents, none of which had raised any particular outrage at the time. But everybody forgot again, and so we had an almost identical flap last September. “This just makes me furious,” one woman tweeted. “He was raised so badly.”

Or remember last May when marines held…

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Teaching and the Power to Disrupt: Notes on Shannon Gibney

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The story of Shannon Gibney continues to serve as representative of many other less publicized cases like it. We must hold universities accountable when they seek to coddle and perpetuate the prejudices of those students most in need of education.

2 Dope Sistahs

Image courtesy of criminlatt/FreeDigitalPhotos.net Image courtesy of criminlatt/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

disrupt– to interrupt the normal course

If someone were to ask me why I teach, I would probably have a two-part answer. First, I have always loved school, so teaching just comes naturally to me. It provides me with an opportunity to do the things that I love–research, reading, and writing. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I love the fact that education has the power to disrupt. In fact, I think it is my job to disrupt students’ thinking.

When you mentally wrestle with a difficult topic–whether it is calculus or philosophy–it may blow your mind at first. Once you begin to understand, you can pick up the pieces of your mind and rearrange them, but you are never quite the same again. This thinking process can be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary exercise in order to learn.

disrupt–to interfere with an activity

I have been thinking about these…

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On “Black” and “White” and Law Enforcement

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Some time ago I was awakened at 2:00 a.m. by the sound of people brawling outside of my house. I walked toward the sound, peaked out of my front window, and saw a large group of people in the middle of the street in front of my house.  I heard more yelling, breaking glass. Someone kept screaming, “I’ll fucking kill you! I’ll fucking kill you!”

I dialed 911.  I described to the operator the things I had seen and heard and asked her to send someone out to break up the fight. But she needed more information.

“What color are they?” she asked.

“What?” I said.

“Are they black or white?” she said.

“Why does that matter?” I asked.

I was confused and annoyed. I think my tone of voice reflected this. The operator hung up on me. I waited inside my home for an hour, unable to sleep, listening to the people outside shouting death threats and expletives at each other. The noise moved up the street away from my house, died down completely, started up again with only a couple of voices, and ended up in my neighbor’s yard.  I peeked out the side window and saw my neighbor stick his head out of his front door and speak sternly to the two or three men standing near the bushes next to his front porch. The men walked away, and things were quiet for the rest of the night. Before I went back to sleep, I checked the time. It was 3:35 a.m., and in the time that had passed, no police officer had shown up on the scene. This was particularly odd because I lived within four blocks of a police station.  I still wonder if the 911 operator decided to disregard my call because I refused to play the “black/white” race-labeling game.

I had not meant to be difficult. When she asked about the color of the angry mob, I was truly confused. Partly due to the fact that I was drowsy from being awakened prematurely and partly due to the fact that it didn’t even occur to me to take note of the ethnicity of members of the angry crowd, I truly didn’t understand what the operator meant. When she clarified “black or white,” it occurred to me too in that moment that I had not noticed the skin tone of any of the people. In order to answer her question I would have to go back to the window and try to ascertain what skin tones I could see under the eerie glow of the streetlamps and then, based on that info, determine if the police would categorize these guys as “black” or “white.” It also occurred to me that the information that was necessary for helping the police to identify the group I had already provided. When one considers that this was a group of at least ten people, standing in the middle of the street, standing directly in front of my house (I had provided my address), and screaming obscenities at each other, the skin color or ethnicity of the individuals seems irrelevant. I doubt that if I had said “white” and the men turned out to be “black,” the police would have driven past them in search of a “white” mob. Their color did not matter, so why did she ask the question?

Why is it important for law enforcement to racialize suspects? One might argue that determining whether a potential suspect is “black” or “white” is just practical. Cops need physical descriptions of people in order to know whom they’re trying to find. This explanation is unsatisfying when one considers that “black” and “white” are not physical descriptions of any human being. Notice the difference between the two questions posed by the 911 operator. She first asked for “color,” which would be a physical description. She then asked if the people were “black or white,” no longer asking for a physical description. Humans do not come in those colors.

Human beings can be described as having a range of skin tones: very dark brown, dark brown, medium brown, light brown, dark tan, tan, light tan, peach, pink, beige, and everything in between. “White” is the color of copier paper or the dry-erase board in a college classroom or snow. “Black” is the color of the space between the stars in the night sky or the fur of a panther. “Black” people do not exist. “White” people do not exist.

On college campuses, when someone is assaulted by a brown-skinned assailant, the reports will warn the campus community that the assailant was “black.” On one campus, bulletins were posted in the campus buses describing an alleged rapist as “black” and accompanied by one of those police sketches that manage to look simultaneously like everyone you’ve ever met and no one you’ve ever met. Once I heard a campus police alert about a “black male wearing a yellow sweatshirt.” This seemed to me highly ineffective because the suspect could simply dispose of the yellow sweatshirt in order to merge inconspicuously into the larger group of “black” males on the campus and in the city. Of course, this is not how such a description really works for law enforcement. It is not intended to identify an individual but rather to point the finger at the group. This type of race-labeling as a substitute for actual physical description is used to justify the harassment of scores of African-American and Latino men who have skin any shade of brown.

How do we stop this?