Earlier this week, at George Washington University, a class of high school students took part in a college advisory workshop about stereotypes and race. The students are Black and Latino from Washington D.C. The facilitators, two college aged TAs, asked the students, “So, with all these stereotypes about you and us, what can you do about it? What can be changed?”
“Nothing” said one junior, a 16 year old Black female. “It doesn’t even matter, people are going to think of you whatever way they want”
Another junior, Black male, said, “All you gotta do is stick to your own lane, do you, and nothing else”
The rest of the class agreed. The TA continued to ask what can be done, but after two more tries, they moved on to wrap up the class. The following day, my colleague asked a student, “what did the TAs talk about?” The student replied, “we talked about race, AGAIN, for the 100th time”
When I’m not sharing sounds or pretending to be a DJ, I work as an educator. In two months, I will be laid off from this really cool job as an Academic Advisor for an Upward Bound Program at the Latin American Youth Center in Columbia Heights D.C. For those who may not be familiar, Upward Bound is one of several national federal TRIO programs, developed during the Affirmative Action/War on Poverty programs of the sixties, dedicated to addressing the lack of minorities in higher education. This Upward Bound is unique as it is housed in a Youth Engagement Center in one of the most “diverse” yet disastrously gentrified locations in Washington D.C. The center resides along a street that you can find bodegas, carry outs, and 7-11s with methadone clinics, subway stations, and huge Target/Best Buy/Staples megastores… there is also traces of corny “progressives” with vegan bakeries and what not. There is a huge underbelly of gangs, drugs, and section 8s that make this a very unique take on “development,” hence the need for a youth center.
With all this context and history, I was a bit surprised of the students’ reluctance and complacency in dealing with stereotypes and racism. I imagine these students entering college classrooms, tackling current issues and people, and keeping their mouths shut and stories hidden. Without an ability to speak up, and rattle the cage a bit, what is the point of sending them to school? Financial stability? Opportunity? To get a job they want? While valid reasons, they do not address the very reason why one goes to college, to learn.
There has always been passivity among us when it comes to race. There are many Black and Latino folk who’d rather not deal with it, because they deal with it too much or because they don’t know how to articulate these experiences. We now exist in a time where there has been over 50 years of race-talks, good and bad; bus boycotts, student movements, TV shows, national news, Hip Hop, educators, activists, etc. But this passivity takes a new twist for me as we now live in a “Post-Race” perception of mainstream Black music, President Obama, and the ability to hide behind avatars and Facebook anonymity. Besides the rise of Hip Hop as the musical genre of a generation, I cannot think of any other social or cultural movement that has any impact since the power movements of the late 70s. We also have thousands of college students who have bitten the apple of Teach for America, Americorps, Intergroup Dialogues, Civic Engagement, Alternative Spring Breaks, Diversity requirements, multicultural offices, cultural months, and so on and so on and so on…The benefits of this work should all be handed down in a nice clean platter… but somehow, the kids don’t want to eat what we serve.
As I mentioned earlier, not everyone wants to get down with this type of talk. What hurt the most was when my student complained that this was talked about “again” for the umpteenth time. Did we go too far? Were we so thirsty that we overwatered our youth? Did our lack of representation deprive us so much that we decided that every street needed a sticker or a tag all over it? Did we make too many mistakes?
What happened is we have not given our youth any motivation to become activists, fighters, and rebels. We have spoken about race and identity too much and with little consistency. Not everyone likes the word “diversity” not everyone agrees on what that means. We have highly unqualified people speaking on it and we have experts who cannot connect to their audience. We are overzealous to highlight how everything sucks, numbing folks away. Our measures of what success is, in regards to when we feel something went well to dispel myths and stereotypes (i.e. the election of Barack Obama) is inflated.
The biggest challenge is that we deal with a topic so ubiquitous in U.S. society that becomes completely unusable in the space of criticism and justice. Racism is the greatest gift and export this country produced; it is woven through media, law, government, education, culture, and so forth. Yet, I have sat in dozens of race conversations where audiences and participants are left in that awkward silence of wonderment because we really do not know what to do about it. Race becomes that decoration in your room that looks nice, but really has no place or space in your living room… we know its nice, but it just doesn’t go with anything.
Furthermore, the common assumption of race is that it is a passive construct; there is no practical application of race and diversity work. In my previous life as a higher education administrator, race resided in the world of demographic variables; percentages, retention, graduation, and satisfaction; static representations that handed over to mainstream people in power to only say “try harder” or “try something else.” So why would anyone really care about race when the work of protesters, marchers, speakers, rebels, thinkers, and educators have become regulated to deficit-based percentage points and long-winded rants with no solution presented? This piece I am writing is another drop in a bucket of complainers. We are socially conscious complainers with no tools to change the world.
Then, what would be beneficial for a 16 year old black male? What can we do to give this young person the urgency to address racism? First, is to curve the bombardment of deficit-based discussion and lenses when writing about race. Second, we need to provide our youth with more tangible successes than a protest, a soundbyte on the tv, or a pamphlet with statistics. The benefits of this work must be something worth aspiring to. We the race-fighters are a bunch of complainers who still end up paying the bills, complaining of our bosses, and acting like anyone else. How can our own youth want something that we are not benefiting from ourselves?
A quick sidebar, yes, things have gotten better… but look at the lack of social consciousness we see in our youth. Look at the attainment levels of Blacks and Latinos in education. Look at the overrepresentation of Black males in the prison system. Look at D.C. gentrification. Tell me it has gotten better.
What we are missing is follow-through, discipline, and tools. Our ability to see beyond the myths must also springboard new ways of walking, talking, behaving, and thinking that reap unique and wonderful tools. These benefits must be embedded into our work with youth, our education system, and our standards of a positive and just society. So often, I see “activists” use the same tools of hierarchy, linearity, power, and privilege to accomplish social justice goals. We have not changed. We left ourselves wasted and wasteful.
To my students, I worry we did not give you a good reason to join us. I’ll try my hardest for you to be proud of me, of the work we have done… so we can share and benefit together.