In Defense of the Classroom

January 12, 2018

The first time I ever taught a college-level class was as a graduate student at Atlanta’s Emory University in White Hall, probably the fall 1986. I was the teaching assistant of renown criminologist Robert Agnew. He was out of town at a conference and left it to his 22-year-old TA to give a lecture on some crime theories that were to be covered that day. I spent a week preparing, including jokes and pop culture references I thought the undergrads would appreciate. When it was time to shine, I just froze. Like Cindy Brady on that game show, I was frozen, nailed to podium. My main memory was the realization that I can see my own cheeks. So much for the dazzling young professor.

It wasn’t long before I got my 10,000 hours of teaching in. As a grad student, I was teaching at private Emory, urban community colleges, and rural universities up in North Georgia. All my peers were musicians and I had found my own performance platform. Give me a topic and I was ready to rock it. I had found what I was good at.

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My inspiration for my whole approach can be blamed on the British film, To Sir With Love. The 1967 classic stars Sidney Poitier as Mark Thackeray, an American teacher thrown in with a bunch of working class “unteachable” students. It’s the racial opposite of all the American white savior pics, like Dangerous Minds, where a rebellious white teacher shows all the minority kids why they should value education. Thackeray is black and his students are white and he soon realizes a traditional curriculum isn’t gonna a work with these hoodlums so he throws their school books in the trashcan and takes them out museums and shit for some real-world lessons. Cue greatest theme song ever.

I had a similar moment at Emory when I realized that not only were my bourgeois students not doing the readings, they weren’t really taking my class seriously. Channeling Sidney (who shares my birthday), I threw all the books out of the classroom window in the Candler Library. I cancelled all the quizzes and exams and told them that now the only requirement was that they come to class and participate. They were always bugging me, on nice days, to have class outside on the grassy Emory quad. I told them we would now have every class outside, no matter what the weather.

That little tantrum paid off because that was the most engaged I had ever seen students on that campus. They read, discussed, and did a lot of the work for me. There were days when it was a brutal Georgia thunderstorm and we’d be sitting in the grass, soaking wet, discussing semiotics and doing class analysis of subcultural phenomenon. People must have thought we were crazy but I still hear from those students.

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There are two general ways of thinking about teaching at the university level, what we call pedagogy. One is the “sage on the stage” who stands up there and shares his or her knowledge with the lucky students. The other is the “guide on the side” who facilitates the learning process, building on the student already accumulated knowledge. As I began to fashion myself as a feminist educator, the guide on the side made much more sense. I could assign a book, like The Beauty Myth, but, the real learning came from the testimony from female students. Similarly, I would tackle race by assigning a classic like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but the students of color would have the real authority on the topic. I just sit there with my coffee taking it in.

My teaching style over the years has been a bit more like a grand performance art piece. Once, on the first day of my Youth Subcultures class at Portland State University, I walked in the classroom and asked to the students to follow me. Like the Pied Piper, I led them outside to Southwest Broadway, the main boulevard that runs through campus. I asked the students to lie down in the street. They did, stopping the busy traffic across three lanes. It looked like a protest but I was trying to make the point about the street as a multi-facet metaphor for youth in America. We were literally on the street. That one got back to the dean.

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I’ve been mourning my exit from PSU and sad that my program at the University of Oregon was defunded, throwing a lot of committed teachers out of work in favor of some “on line learning” alternative. There is nothing that matches the magic that happens in the classroom. So I couldn’t be more exited to finally be back in the classroom teaching sociology. I started my adjunct position at Portland Community College on Wednesday with a discussion of how the sociological imagination liberates us from the boxes that we have been shoved into. Like getting back on a bike, I was right back in the zone. This stuff matters.

In a time when universities are shedding tenure track faculty in favor of websites, the vitality of the classroom is the last fortress of our shared Enlightenment values. Online education is a hoax. Research demonstrates that online students retain less information. (There are some effective online classes and, for some students, it is their only access to higher education.) The student who is registered for the class may not be the one who is actually taking it and the professor who is listed as the instructor may not be the one who is actually teaching it. It’s a money making fraud. So back I’m there in the classroom. I don’t need a Powerpoint slideshow or any fancy technology. I just need students who are ready for an adventure. I’m back, let’s go.

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Look out, I’m about to use the “N” word. Appropriately???

December 15, 2017

So much of this year has been about checking myself instead of wrecking myself. Maybe 90% checkin’ Donald Trump, 10% checkin’ myself. Is my implicit bias in play? Am I playing my male privilege card? Am I making heteronormative assumptions? Is my allyship performative? Am I expressing internalized racism? It can drive a nigga crazy.

Much of the work in 2017 has been confronting the rise in “polite racism” in the mainstream, from the “white nationalist” bullying by the alt right to the plantation talk of our more orange-than-whte president. But some of it has been done in the mirror. I’ve been thinking a lot about the use of the “N word,” not by Trump supporters or racist skinheads or rappers, but by me. I don’t ever us it as a pejorative. I was called “nigger lover” often enough as a white kid in Georgia who refused to board the cracker train to know when that word is used to hurt. But just the fact that I could use it in that sentence I just wrote, points to the shield of my white privilege.

There’s also a lot of talk this year about “triggers.” I’ve discussed it with regard to rape culture. A rape victim is not going to watch Saturday Night Fever (or Game of Thrones) the same way a non-rape victim will. We are better now at understanding the reality of collective trauma holding people back in their footsteps. Assholes call people who care about such things “snowflakes.” Decent people understand that being aware of triggers is practicing empathy. Well, I’ve been a bit slack with the n****r trigger. My white privilege says it’s not my problem. It’s just a man-made word.

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Because I’m an academic who studies racism and, specifically, white supremacism, I assume people know my anti-racist agenda and that that somehow permits me to use racist language when I am “making a point.” I remember one time in a criminology class I was teaching at Portland State when I was going off on how horribly sexist and misogynistic it was that the term “pimp” was being exalted in pop culture. This was somewhere between the time of Jay-Z’s “Big Pimpin’” and “Pimping” your MySpace page. I was trying to make the point that the sexual exploitation of women by pimps was not that different than the dynamic of slavery. So I said, “Pimps have their ho’s, just like slave masters have their niggers.” Yep.

Two young African-American male students looked at me like I just pushed a TNT plunger. Now, aside from the fact that there is a world of sociological difference between a poor black street hustler and a wealthy slave-holding plantation owner, I thought I had carte blanch to use that word, because I’m, you know, down. In my Intro Class at Emory I’d make students mix tapes with The Last Poets’ “Niggers are Scared of Revolution” or would bust into random lyrics from NWA’s “Fuck the Police.” “A young nigga on a warpath, and when I’m finished it’s gonna be a blood bath.” Because I was making a point. About racism! John Lennon and Patti Smith recorded songs in the 1970s using that word, why couldn’t I use it too? (Answer: They were established artists making powerful statements to large audiences. I was a grad student.)

The thing is, I have never heard that word the way my black students heard it. And they were hearing it from the mouth of a white man. It’s gonna sound different. It’s gonna carry more historical and cultural weight. It’s gonna hit harder. Somebody on Facebook can call me an idiot and whatever. If my father calls me an idiot, it’s gonna be a gut punch. Context matters, even if you are a dope-ass woke white brotha. You don’t get a pass. Even if you went undercover to study racist hate groups, you don’t get a pass. Even if you voted for Obama (Twice!), you don’t get a pass.

I would justify it by saying these obviously smart black students understood the role of context, the point I was trying to make. I make a similar case about the “F word.” If I say, “F word,” nobody is thinking, “Gee, which F word does he mean? Fellatio? Feminism? Furby?” No, it’s fuck. So if I say, “the N word,” the word “nigger” is magically placed inside people’s heads, so why not (in the proper context) just say it? The reason is that is sounds differently in one’s head when it came out a white man’s mouth first.

 

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I always loved the bit from comedian Lenny Bruce from the early 1960s about the “N word.” It was recreated brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman in the 1974 movie Lenny. Bruce just starts using the word in front of a live audience at a comedy show. Then he starts adding other racial slurs, kike, mick, wop. His point is that it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power to hurt and maybe we should take those words away from the racists.(Paging Dr. Foucault.) Comedian Richard Pryor did that as well. When I was a kid in Stone Mountain, we’d secretly listen to his comedy albums, including That Nigger’s Crazy and Bicentennial Nigger. The difference was Pryor was black, Bruce was not. Then, in 1979, Pryor went to Kenya and wrote, “There are no niggers here. … The people here, they still have their self-respect, their pride.” And he vowed never to say the “N word” again.

A lot of white people wonder why black people can use the word when they can’t. They want to rap along to the same Kendrick Lamar songs but they might have to censor themselves if in mixed company. “I’m the realest uh huh after all. Bitch, be humble.” Again, context matters and it’s complicated. Part of if is black people reclaiming the word from racists and getting a slice of privilege because whites can’t say it. Lenny Bruce was right. You can reduce it’s power to hurt, but you can’t remove it. The other thing is that things are different inside the family. I used to call my little brother names all the time, but if you called him names, oh, we were going to have a problem. Whether it’s “nigger” or “nigga” (Tupac turned it into an acronym for Never Ignorant About Getting Goals Accomplished), context matters. Whose mouth it is coming out of matters. Intent matters.

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When I was in grad school, I read the the late great Dick Gregory’s 1964 autobiography, Nigger. It’s about the struggle to overcome the worst Jim Crow America had to offer. In it he writes, “Those of us who weren’t destroyed got stronger, got calluses on our souls. And now we’re ready to change a system, a system where a white man can destroy a black man with a single word. Nigger.” I began assigning another autobiography to my students soon after that, Malcolm X’s. One of the most powerful lines in that 1965 book was when Malcolm asks a black audience, “Do you know what they call a negro scholar? Ph.D.? Professor? They call him a nigger.” This is not just a slur. You can’t even compare it to “kike” or “wetback” (also assaultive words). It’s a word with centuries of brutal oppression woven into its six letters. You just don’t throw a word like that around.

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In 1990, my roommate and I went to go see Public Enemy perform in Atlanta. (Opening acts: Heavy D & the Boyz and MC Hammer). Two white guys at the Omni Colosseum in a sea of black hip hop fans. We heard, “Hey crackers!” a few times. My first thought was, This what it must be like for a black guy to be at a Garth Brooks concert. But then I realized those two words are in no way equivalent. One word was sort of classist, and the other had centuries of genocidal violence and institutional disenfranchisement behind it. There were no black nightriders burning down the homes of cracker families to discourage then from getting too uppity.

I’m teaching two sections of Intro Sociology at Portland Community College this winter and I’m assigning The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I thought that, in the wake of Black Lives Matters and Trump’s racist plantation rhetoric, it was time to return to its vitally wise pages. But I won’t be using the “N word” to make any points. People of color are experiencing enough collective trauma right now in Trump’s America, enough deja vu, with out me adding one more pin prick to the daily tally of micro aggressions and macro assaults. They’re not snowflakes, but enduring humans. My apology for using that word, even in “context,” doesn’t make up for the cumulative impact of the result. I’ll quote a white guy who once said, “Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.” I know there are some white people who are just so sad they can’t say it. It’s complicated. If you can’t figure it out, best leave it alone. Just don’t say it. Now about that “B word.”

NOTE: I’ve already gotten shit from well-meaning white people for using the “N word” in this post. I’m gonna guess that 100% of African-Americans reading this will get the point. White radicals, I’m shooting for a 65% comprehension rate.

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Donald Trump as the Slave Master of the Black Athlete Plantation

September 29, 2017

Sports can reveal so much about where we are in American racial progress: Jackie Robinson, the Mexico City Olympics, Derek Jeter dating white women. White sports fans have made themselves the referees for what black athletes are allowed to do to move the racial equity ball down the field. And they’ll be more than happy to shut down a spectacular rush. And that’s the end of my sports metaphors.

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Enough has been said about Trump’s weird obsession with “ungrateful” NBA players and “ungrateful” NFL players. Except for white people who are in deep denial, anyone that has followed Donald Trump from his Central Park 5 ad, through his relentless Obama birtherism, to his comments about the “fine people” in Charlottesville, knows the man is a racist. He’s the modern kind of racist who says, “I’m the least racist person on earth. I have black friends!”

The way to frame the “I’m not a racist, but…” racism that is flowing down from the White House and across the Facebook feeds of white America is to think historically. They want to make America great again. And for “again,” let’s choose 1857. This was a time when one in four white families in Virginia owned African slaves. And, like the NFL, the best team owners made the most money. There were over a hundred planation owners who owned over a hundred slaves each. The slave labor on those plantations generated millions of dollars in revenue for the white elites, and it wasn’t just cotton sales.

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First, let’s get this out of the way. The NFL kneeling protests have nothing to do with the flag or the anthem. They are about the persistent problem of racism in America, especially with regard to policing. Trump and his army of racist overseer trolls can try to spin it anyway they want, but it’s about racism. (Trump lamented that white NASCAR drivers don’t bother us with this nonsense.)  They can act all butt-hurt about how much the flag means to them, but it’s not about the flag. It’s a common racist trick to make any unwanted racial protest an “attack on America.” Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights activists of the 1960s were routinely called “communists” who wanted to “destroy” America. Trump’s pathetic attempt to make this about the flag only reinforces the fact that this is about racism. “It’s not what the black people say it is. It’s what I say it is.” And I could spend thousands of words talking about how we disrespect the flag on a daily basis. Ever seen a Kid Rock concert?

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President Trump has fashioned himself as the ultimate plantation owner and these negroes better get back to work. He (and white America) owns them.  Black players are chattel. Trump’s Treasury Secretary,  Steven Mnuchin, made that clear on ABC’s This Week when he said, “They have the right to have the first amendment off the field.” As if the Constitution is suspended when the beasts are on the field. I guess these black bucks should be “grateful” that Trump is giving them their first amendment right when they aren’t picking cotton.

Obviously, racist whites don’t like any type of black protest about the persistence of racism, whether it’s a football player peacefully kneeling during our national anthem, written by a slaveowner, or Black Lives Matter protestors peacefully marching down a street. Racist whites didn’t like it in the early 1950s, when Trump said America was “great,” and they surely don’t like it now, after a black president. Racism has been solved and these blacks are just being ungrateful, right? They should be grateful “we” freed them, right? (Does “we” include the white guys waving Confederate flags? Post-racial America is so confusing.)

I spent some time on sports discussion boards this week, trying to get the pulse of the hard core sports fans. There was a lot of anger at Trump for inserting his weird version of patriotism into a multi-racial game, loved by many demographics. (Ask some of my Mexican family members about the role the Dallas Cowboys plays in their lives.) Many even recognized that when Trump referred to the protesting black players as “sons of bitches” to a roaring crowd of white supporters in Alabama, he grabbed a third rail. The mothers of football players are beloved, much more than ratings-obsessed politicians. There were obviously a lot of racists posts that moderators were working overtime to delete. However, plenty of “I’m not a racist, but…” posts slipped through.

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A trip through Twitter was more revealing. Not that these knuckleheads are actually going to do it, but a survey of #NFLBoycott posts was pretty harsh. Plenty of discussions of “ungrateful niggers.” And how much “we” pay them to entertain, not annoy, us. One white Facebook friend said she almost walked out a restaurant because they had an NFL game on. Of course she didn’t and if she did it would have had zero effect on the NFL or the need to solve America’s racial issues. But the blatant racism on Twitter has certainly been given a green light by Trump and his call to have these ungrateful negroes fired from their jobs.

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The term “ungrateful” is key in this issue. White men earn their income. Eli Manning earns his $21 million dollar salary. Black men are given their income. They should be grateful for their millions. I don’t have millions. Who are they to complain? (The average player in the NFL makes $1.9 million, so there are a majority of players who are not getting payed millions to cover Matthew Stafford’s $27 million dollar salary. If fact take a look at the 15 top paid players in the NFL. Thirteen are white guys,)

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Another friend on Facebook, who was angry about these “ungrateful athletes” said, “But we pay them millions!” (Something one of the indigent white hosts of Fox & Friends also claimed.) I asked, “Who is ‘we’?” Nothing. But the message was clear. White people pay them and the team owners own them. The don’t own Ton Brady, but they own Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, and any other black player raising a fist or taking a knee when they should be picking cotton and swearing allegiance to the the slave owner’s anthem.

In my nearly thirty years of research on white supremacists, one of the recurring themes is the anger directed towards African-Americans who made more money than them. In my original study of skinheads in Orlando, Florida, racists were completely obsessed with the fictional middle-class Huxtable family on The Cosby Show. Their parents had been laid off from a Florida textile mill, but every Thursday night there was this black family on TV that had everything they thought they deserved. “What’s wrong with this picture?” I remember one saying in 1988. During that study, the movie Mississippi Burning was released. There’s a powerful scene in it which Gene Hackman’s character is trying to explain the racist white mentality to Willem Dafoe’s character. It perfectly summed up the skinheads I was living with and many of the NFL fans burning Colin Kaepernick jerseys (who, apparently, has not punished enough).

Donald Trump clearly has a number of personal issues wrapped up in this circus act, including his legacy of driving the USFL, a football league meant to rival the NFL, into the ground. His Twitter barrages rile up his under-educated white base while distracting the country from his numerous legislative failures. Perhaps there’s also some admiration for Rocket Man Kim Jong Il. Nobody takes a knee during the national anthem in North Korea. Trump doesn’t have his dictatorship (yet), but if he can get enough of his knuckle-dragging followers to demand that these ungrateful savages be fired from jobs they’ve worked their entire lives to have, he can call it a win.
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Ratings for all sportscasts have been on the decline for the last few years. It’s because young people would rather watch YouTube videos instead of sports, not because a handful of athletes want to make a peaceful statement about the race problem in America. Watching these idiots burn their sports crap in protest reminds me of the same idiots who burned their Beatles albums 51 years ago because someone told them the Beatles believed they were better than Jesus. (John Lennon had just tried to make a valid point about the declining role of religion in young people’s lives, but DJ’s in Southern U.S. states and the KKK didn’t care about context.)

Racism is real and continues to traumatize Americans on a daily basis. A black millionaire football player is still a black man in America. Malcolm X once said, “You know what a white man calls a black man with a PhD? A nigger.” And here we still are. Those who are peacefully protesting racism by kneeling are honoring the flag and the men and women who died for the right that gives them the freedom to do it. They are the patriots, not Trump and his racist cult.

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