Race-work, Race-love

Archive for December, 2011|Monthly archive page

Choosing between “The Help” or “Faces at the Bottom of the Well”: On Reproducing Racially-Easy Work or Constructing Courageously

In Uncategorized on December 23, 2011 at 1:22 am

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.” — Frederick Douglass

Writer’s block. This is how I woke up this morning. Confronted with the realities of beginning a dissertation and working full time as a college administrator, I came up with two words:

Writer’s Block.

I write about race and education. I research racial incidents on college campuses. Every day, in my inbox, I see some article about another racist incident, form of harassment, example of violence – I go to sleep with this, I wake up to this, I eat with this racial narrative.

I wonder about those folks who are color-blind. How do they wake up every morning?

So this morning I woke up with writer’s block. And I read on my twitter-feed that The Help received five Golden Globe nominations – a story about a young white woman who desires to become a writer and focuses her writing on her Black female housekeepers/maids.

Historians, sociologists, educators, and other writers have all critiqued the book that has turned into a movie. They have pointed out facts versus the fiction that one sees in the movie. Two very important critiques can be read here and here.

Essentially, The Help is a story about a color-blind, white woman who wants to be a writer. Someone who tells the story of Black women who are domestic workers. This is not the story of Black female domestic workers.

One need not look too far to see how the author’s standpoint affects her work. The movie’s title is a great example of the author’s perspective. An author who talks about Black women from a color-blind perspective wouldn’t be able to see her own white privilege in constructing the title. A color-blind author who writes about Black women won’t be able to see how she continues to reproduce a racist narrative.

She didn’t call it the ‘The Black Help”. She called it The Help. And I will add that when I caught a quick glimpse of a preview of the film and saw that the first person in the preview was a white woman, I thought “Wow. A movie about white female domestic workers. How interesting.”

Wrong. The Help implied The Black Help. Similar to using terms such as “disadvantaged”, “urban”, “Inner city” and “at-risk”, the title The Help is a manipulation of language to replace racial specifics. We use coded terms to mark bodies, construct race to make some bodies deficient (Black/Brown bodies) and others the norm (White).

This author, like many, is getting paid and rewarded to continue a cycle of racist reproduction. We are all involved in this kind of racist reproduction in one way or another. The Help is a great example of this: nominate Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for their roles as maids in addition to having the author of the book get accolades, a movie deal, and a pat on the back for seemingly being racially conscious.

These kinds of stories reinforce the need to maintain a racial narrative that is pleasing for and thereby dumbs-down the audience. To see Black women, really wonderful actresses, reprise the role of Mammy from Gone with The Wind, and receive awards for it, is disturbing, but all too familiar. We are all in collusion with racist reproduction of who Whites are and who People of Color are. But some of us are more willing to fight this than others. These stories also lead some of us to think that racial progress is occurring, leading to a bifurcated understanding of racial progress. In fact, Richard P. Eibach and Joyce Ehrlinger (2006) found that there is a difference in perceptions of racial progress held by Whites and People of Color. They write:

“…White Americans tend to spontaneously think about racial progress as movement away from racial injustices of the past instead of thinking of progress as movement toward a system of full racial equality. In contrast, ethnic minorities seem to spontaneously think about racial progress as movement toward fully realized racial equality, and their assessments of progress accordingly take into account the distance we have yet to traverse to reach that goal… our results reinforce the point that a balanced assessment of progress needs to consider both the distance we have come and the distance that remains as we travel along the path to a truly egalitarian community” (Eibach & Ehrlinger, 2006, p.76).

And, I want to believe that maybe Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer have more choices than Hattie McDaniel did over 70 years ago, but nominations for this film tells us “not really”.

We have been fooled. They SEEM to have choices, but maybe they really don’t. The work that they have to choose from, work that reproduces racist perspectives is work that people will rely on for learning history. This kind of story is privileged. Why? Because it is easy.

And here I wonder why I have writer’s block.

Of course I have writer’s block! Writing against a racist system, such as the one that would dupe people into thinking The Help is great, accurate work means that I have to constantly fight what is normal.

It is easy for people to write books and produce movies like The Help. We all know the story like the back of our hands. Any of us could have written it! It is probably why some women love it so much. It is too damn familiar! We all know this racist narrative too well. It is in our novelas, it is in our history books, it has been made into law in Alabama – they have made concessions to allow for undocumented immigrant women to work as The Hispanic Help while making it illegal to go to school, drive, have utilities in their homes if there are no papers to prove US citizenship.

But undocumented women have permission to work as The Hispanic Help in Alabama. Walking around without papers is not legal. Being an undocumented immigrant domestic worker is legal.

As a race-worker, I have to constantly write against that kind of system that makes it legal to be racist. I have to reconstruct, re-write, and develop a new racial narrative. To be constantly conscious of this takes time and effort. Where the hell are the awards for that?

How do you interrupt the reproduction of racism? Luckily, we have our heroes. People who rarely get as much attention as do writers of racially-easy work. Critical race narratives like Professor Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well written precisely in the spirit of racial justice by interrupting our post racial notions of race relations in the US. Geneva Crenshaw, a prophetic lawyer, does the interrupting by questioning, guiding, and empowering a young lawyer into thinking outside of the subtle racism that has come into existence since the Civil Rights Era. Could she be made into a movie heroine? Could an actress like Viola Davis play that role and still get a Golden Globe or Oscar nod?

Or will people say “That’s not real enough.” Not real enough that some have described critical race narratives as “sci-fi”. The “other-world-liness” of powerfully analytical People of Color is fascinating but not as fascinating as the description of Black maids by a color-blind woman.

There are people who are writing against the “Nostalgia Movement (Code for When we were Openly Racist)”. While some are desiring for The “Good Ole Days” (as some of our presidential hopefuls have freely expressed) there are others who are reminding us that a racist narrative is powerful to and desired by a mass audience because it is racially easy and nice (for more racially-easy work, go watch The Help).

Race–workers, race researchers, race educators remind us that the first step is to be racially conscious and aware – but this is not enough

They remind us that we have to provide racial critique.

But this is not enough.

They remind us that we have to think, write, and share about a racial narrative that isn’t deficient, deleterious, and disappointing.

They use Critical Race Theory, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, Testimonios, Street Lit, to construct a more robust racial narrative.

Work like The Help is racially-easy. And we all know the recipe: Develop code words and people may call you complex. Add “heroic” Black characters and you will be applauded for being well-intentioned. Add a couple of white characters that then find their souls and you just may get a movie out of it. Tell a sanitized Black story through the eyes of an innocent White woman — will get you an Oscar.

So is being a race-conscious writer/researcher really writer’s block? Or is it constructing courageously, constructing outside of the racist narrative that we inherited, that we continue to privilege, that we continue to reward? What some like to call “thinking outside the [racist] box?”

I think I prefer writer’s block now than to be racially-easy. Any day.

The challenge throughout has been to tell what I view as the truth about racism without causing disabling despair. ~ Derrick Bell

Prince Charming or the Racial Justice Warrior: Choosing Race Work as a Core Value

In Uncategorized on December 16, 2011 at 4:39 pm

ImageNo one has made more sacrifices to realize the completion of this work than Leith Mullings. For more than a decade, she has been my constant companion and intellectual compass as I have attempted to reconstruct the past.  This work is hers.  ~ Manning Marable, 2011.

Swoon.  Intending to read another analysis on the life of Malcolm X, a long awaited work by Dr. Manning Marable, I found this.  I really love reading dedications. But this one took me by complete surprise. The ability to support another in their life’s work is a tremendous attribute.  The ability for two souls like that to meet and like each other – seems almost miraculous.Image

The miracle, I think, is in understanding one’s own values ranging from the general to the specific, and sharing that with a life partner.  For people who truly value racial justice – or social justice in general – this can often be a hard find.

For the fourth time this week, I was told by a friend about a new love interest.  And what excited them was the value of social justice my friends saw in their potential new love interests.  Instead of hearing the following:

“He is so smart!”

“He is so kind!”

“He is just wonderful!” 


I was told this:

“He fights for racial justice!”

“He believes diversity is important.” 

“He is involved in issues of social justice!” 

“I don’t have to explain why I hate “The Help” so much”

Tall, dark, and handsome are what we are taught that we should look for.  Prince Charming also had to be rich and willing to help poor girls out of their socio-economic misery.  Novelas (both in the US and Latin America) taught us the same. Not much more was known about Prince Charming, well, he also had to be wanted by many women. And he may have dabbled with those women, too.

“The idea of falling in love with a good man still lingers. But now I look forward to falling in love with a man whose goodness brings out the goodness in me. The rest is insignificant.” ~ Doris Tan

About a year ago, I wrote about racial intimacy.  In this post I revealed the importance of race-work and racial justice as core values for me.  I am very aware that this should not be the only value I seek in future partners.  But, it is just as important as kindness, desire to learn, ambition, and self-love. It is a mutual understanding and knowledge about a particular value that many have or may have the desire to build:

“Some of us seek racial intimacy. We seek that understanding, that racial/cultural specificity, that knowing glance, that sigh on the other end of the phone line when we describe the racist encounters at school, at work, on the train ride home. We seek that strength to be passed on to our children when they come to us and ask “Why did (insert racist encounter here) happen?” We hope that we won’t have to be alone to answer this question. But some of my sisters are.”


How important is racial justice as values we seek in a potential partner? For journalist and activist Almena Lomax (1915-2011),this value was very important. Lomax was founder of the Los Angeles Tribune and reported on the Civil Rights Movement. Lomax is a woman who can be identified as a race-woman, a race-worker. Her husband, Lucius Lomax, disapproved of her trip to cover the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. After realizing over time that her husband was not only un-supportive of her choices but that he also exhibited some qualities of being disinterested in racial justice, she chose to divorce him.  In her words:

“I faced it at that moment: Montgomery meant nothing to my husband. He hadn’t heard the signal to rise. “The brother” meant nothing to him. He didn’t feel the emotion pulsing rhythmically under his skin when the halting, crippled words of a front-line fighter like Moses Wright, the ancient uncle of Emmett Till, were lined out like a hymn at a mass meeting…He could only say pedantically that it was all part of the ‘struggle against man’s inhumanity to a man’. But he could not exult in the struggle.”

 A race-worker — so committed to her values that she divorced her husband who did not share the same passion for the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Probably those of us who value racial justice also have a tough time finding compatible educational institutions and work places.  During a talk I gave on racial incidents, a young Master’s student asked me a question that continues to linger in my consciousness. We were discussing the inappropriate ways students often behave when hearing about race.  When these topics are raised, students roll their eyes, laugh, or exhibit some type of exasperated behavior.  Exasperated about the topic. As if they hear “it” all the time.

 She asked “How do you change people so that they become interested in discussing race in the classroom?” I honestly did not know how to answer.  But I did respond as best as I could at that moment: “You can’t.”

She said “You can’t?  But there has to be a way to stop them from rolling their eyes or laughing or get them more interested in the topic.”

 I said “You can only control your own behavior.  Racial justice is a value of mine. It is part of my everyday life, a value that I uphold in my public and private spheres. Because of this, I will continue to bring it up in discussions even at the risk of being mocked or laughed at.”

 But that evening, I realized that my response was not enough. I realized that our institutions, Imagealthough espousing commitment to “diversity” in their mission statements, do not admit students or hire faculty and staff whose values are aligned with these public declarations. Their programs may or may not have core course requirements ensuring that students engage in classroom discussions about racial justice. So the few that do have a commitment to racial justice – will encounter a hostile racial environment. And we are left to think “We can only control ourselves.” This is how we heal ourselves and each other in the same predicament.

This kind of passivity never sits well with a race-worker. And why I was so bothered that I even said that publicly.

The truth is there are not many institutions with a cultural value of racial justice. They may say it, write it up in their mission statements, but these good intentions do not translate into action, into race-work. 

Similarly, we pick partners who may not have a commitment to racial justice — so, we end up creating and producing more environments, both personal and public, that do not foster or nurture racial justice or race-work as core values.

How many of us can say that our value of racial justice is that strong that we could leave our partners, our jobs, our institutions that do not stand just as strongly for racial justice?

On the other hand, how many of us are all too willing to stay with a partner who’s only compatible value is racial justice while all other values – are not ? 

Slowly raising hand…

ImageI must admit – I do not have much faith that many people include racial justice as a core value in their value systems. Men like this, I think, are very few.  Institutions and programs who strongly espouse racial justice and race-work as values are very few.  In my humble opinion, anyway.

But I have hope. I find it very heartwarming that my friends are finding social justice warriors – or at least – partners with social and racial justice as core values. They don’t just say they have this as a core value, as in the superficial “like” that has been popularized by Facebook.  They actually do work to create environments that are infused with racial justice values. 

So I dedicate this piece to my friends – my friends who are brave enough to choose racial justice as their core values – and are braver to wait for their racial justice warriors – even at the risk of being alone.

This is for those racial justice warriors, those race-workers, who continue to pressure institutions and organizations to include racial justice as a value.

This is for those of us who do not sit well with the notion that you can’t change anyone or anything, but who understand that in order for others to see race-work and racial justice as important values, that we must work at these values in ourselves, too.

And that, my friends, is race-love.


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