Race-work, Race-love

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Revisiting Racial Passion In My Dissertation and Race-Work: Thank You, Professor Derrick Bell.

In Higher Education, Latino; Latina, New York City, race work, racism, Uncategorized on May 29, 2012 at 10:44 pm

“Why are you interested in this topic for your dissertation?”

*Sits in front of the computer – for hours.*

It’s my birthday and another year goes by — not just me getting older but also diving deeper and deeper into my dissertation topic.  Last year, I completed a year of emotional cleansing and clearing out the negative influences in my life. And, although one can never completely get rid of this negative stuff (like bacteria) I am learning to live with them and even use them to help me think through my values as a Race–Worker and a race analyst. I am in the process of doing this and probably why I am stuck on the question above and others such as:

Why are you doing what you are doing right now? What brought you to this point?  Why do you want to continue on this path?

This is the year to ask “Why?”


Courtesy of PhD Comics

*Still sitting in front of the computer. Crying my eyes out.* 

So I go back to the end of my second certification exam and the beginning of seriously thinking about a dissertation topic. To help with these memories, I read again a post from my friend Tara Conley who is beginning her search for a topic. 

I remember those days.  Nothing feels right. But you want to do EVERYTHING.  Everything seems so dang interesting.  You’re scared that you may pick the wrong topic.  Like going on a long journey and realizing that you took the wrong train. I thought then that a literature review could be done in a summer.  I pressured myself into finding a topic and getting it done.  There is pressure because you really do believe it can be finished in a summer. But at the institution that both Tara and I attend, this is highly unlikely.  The thought-process to arrive at a topic is a long and arduous one that is exhausting and deserving of a badge of honor – a thinking one that is.  No other process will allow you the opportunity to value “thinking” in the reading, writing, and researching process. One idea follows another like watching one slow moving train after another. And you are just sitting there waiting for the right one to jump on.

Until the day came when it hit me – that big idea that has been afflicting me my whole life:

Why are people so racist?  And what are we doing about it?

That’s the train!!! Music you listened to, movies you chose to watch, books lined up like soldiers in your personal library as if ready for battle when you are ready to say “FIRE!”  all of a sudden begin to make sense. 

YES!  I found it! That’s the train I want to jump in and the path I want to go on. Of course! But it’s a train ride.  We forget that this journey has multiple stops and can be a long one.

The bright side: We are no longer sitting in the station waiting to get on the train. We may now be on that train, but we are still sitting.  Going along for the ride. Because although we think we chose the topic, in reality, the idea chose us.  We are going along this IDEA’s journey. We haven’t mastered learning how to operate the train.


Oh, those days seemed bright…

The topic, like the train journey, obviously is very broad, but as you review the literature you start noticing patterns, like the ads inside the train and the occasional graffiti outside of the train, or the people who come in to stay or leave.  Those patterns become natural to you and if you just stay long enough they push you along.  Noticing these patterns are key to honing down your research agenda.  And guess what? You haven’t even begun to write.

You begin to realize that you will write multiple literature reviews, edit multiple versions, find new literature to include.

Think, review, write. Think, review, write. Version #127

You have your big idea.  Then you marry that with what is missing.  Ideas start to swirl.  Like a baby first learning how to talk, you start verbalizing those ideas.  Sounds crazy at first. Like when you ask a passenger for directions to a particular location but you aren’t quite sure where you are going either.  Those people, the nice ones, sit there patiently looking at you as you start talking, you take back what you said, then start again on your BIG idea.

“That’s too big.”

‘You need to read some more”

“Are you sure you want to do that?”


Then you wonder: Why am I doing this again? Why am I on this dang train, again?

I continue to write.  But as I continue to write and ride this train, I started losing touch with why I am interested in my topic in the first place.  The Race-Worker forgot?  I have a whole blog about this!  My friends thought I was crazy when I told them. “But that’s all you talk about!” they exclaim.

So the next step, for me, is to look to my heroes and talk to the other passengers on this train.  We may be going the same way, I think.  They may be able to help remind me of why I wanted to get on this train in the first place.

In this case, one of those passengers is Derrick Bell.  Derrick Bell is the ultimate Race-Worker.  He responded to the lack of faculty of color at Harvard University by giving up his own position.  His TENURED position! At Harvard!  Who responds that way to institutional racism?

Derrick Bell did.  

His response to racism was one of the reasons why I was inspired to delve into my dissertation topic.  I research responses to racism particularly by colleges and universities. I wonder about the ways we choose to respond to racist incidents. How do we confront racism?  How do we teach others to do so?  I wanted to talk with him about this and other things.

Unfortunately, my hero died on October 5, 2011.  Having never had the guts to meet him personally, I thought I could at least attend his memorial in New York City. Image

At his memorial, Professor Derrick Bell was remembered as the “last of the race men”, “climate changer”, “a hero for choosing principle over prestige”, “teacher”, “father”, “confessor”, “mentor”. He was best known as someone who “always brought blankets” for student protesters, someone who believed in “radical inclusivity” and a man who’s alter ego was a woman named Geneva Crenshaw.

His teaching was described as “student centered” – someone who always put every single one of his students at the heart of his classes, someone inspired by Dewey and Freire, who taught classes up until the last week before he passed away. His students denounced anyone who called him a pessimist, explaining that his insistence on the persistence of racism actually provided him with the kind of humanity that allowed him to never run away from a struggle. He was described as a man who deeply loved his students and enjoyed karaoke.

His students one by one began speaking with strength but ended up tearing, some crying, almost as if the realization that he was no longer physically with them really hit home. Many of them said “I do what I do because of Derrick Bell”; “I am a law professor because of Derrick Bell”; “I study and think about race because of Derrick Bell.”

In the end, he taught others how to be Race-Workers, too. The ultimate response to racism.

His courage, along with others, made me seek that ingredient, that antidote to racism and inject that to our colleges and universities. I want to help in the fight against racism by figuring out who is doing this well – and perhaps helping colleges and universities with these lessons.  The stories I heard at Professor Bell’s memorial made me wonder, in the hustle of writing and producing and conferencing and all that other jazz, how are future scholars, future administrators being taught to fight against racism, to develop anti-racist values?

I am still on this train ride – the train ride a Race-Worker jumps on hoping to find ways to confront racism every day. One of those ways is hopefully through this dissertation.  And, while everyone talks about the good dissertation being the “finished” one – which I completely agree with – as a Race-Worker and Race Analyst my values are linked to this dissertation.  I was never told that fighting racism was easy – that it would be one of the most difficult fights that I would take on – but I guess I and Race-Workers before me wouldn’t have it any other way.

I think I remember why I jumped on this train.

Racial intimacy and the Rainbow: Is love just love?

In African American, Hispanic, Latina/o and race, Latino; Latina, New York City, race and Latinos, race and love, race work, race, love, Uncategorized on November 30, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Racial intimacy. Intimacy in general is such a scary word. Deep knowledge about race. Familiarity. A knowing glance. A look of affirmation. A deep understanding that there is a common and shared experience occurring. How does racial intimacy affect who we choose to love? Is it necessary?

Racial intimacy, I think, can often cloud the emotional lives (and loves) of women of color. A friend of mine and I were talking about dating not so long ago. We wondered why it seemed so much easier for men of color to date outside of their race than it felt like for women of color. As women of color we are simultaneously accused of being silly and lauded for historical racial understanding because we tend to be more loyal to men of color than men of color seem to be toward us. The feelings come up as a metaphorical slap in the face, punch in the stomach, or strike in the heart when we see men of color date outside of our particular race. At least, for some of us this is our initial reaction.

Some men of color report that love is love. But how can love just be love when we inherit very real trends in cross-racial desire? Policymaking prohibiting cross racial love, at one point made these decisions a very conscious one – sometimes actions that have cost the lives of Black and Latino men. Did they forget? Do they not know? Today, these actions seem to be more unconscious, aside from the stares or maybe even questions from our friends or families – there are fewer consequences to dating and loving across race. Hence today’s “love is love” theory.

Perhaps for these reasons, women of color feel that love cannot just be love. For women of color, we understand that we are the carriers of racial truth, of our cultures, of our histories. We desire love but, for some of us, our love has a racial dimension. Through our race, through our culture, we carry the stories of our mothers, our fathers, our ancestors, their languages, their sadness, their marks on their backs, their desires in their hearts. We inherit the stories of triumph, our very own cultural wealth, that remind us that we are the survivors of conquest and slavery. We bear a lot before we even have our own physical children.

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.

In an article written by Jill Scott, she explains why there is an initial reaction when we see men of color dating white women. She describes that inner gut reaction that makes us wonder why? She got a backlash for describing this feeling – but it is so much more than a feeling. It is a tradition we see replayed over and over again in a world that is not racially conscious, where we have to live under the love is love credo because otherwise we all go crazy wondering, is he only dating me because of my skin color? Are we only dating men of color because of theirs?

Nothing is ever that simple. Especially love.

Being a race-conscious Latina, means that I am also race-conscious about dating and loving. Although I identify as a woman of color, I also am looked at oddly if I date outside my race-specific culture. But my race-consciousness is not just skin-deep. It is the race-connection, race-love, race-work that sometimes comes along with the skin color that I consciously choose. Can we engage in a conversation about race? Do you get just as hyped as I do when we see movies with racist themes, overt or subtle? Can we share that knowing glance, the shared sigh over coffee, or a joking nudge about race? Can we be racially intimate?

Some of us seek racial intimacy in our friendships, too. Being racially intimate with White allies begins with their understanding. They listen and learn and don’t say things like “It’s all in your head”. Perhaps the working on racial trust is a way to build racial intimacy.

Racial trust can be tricky. Even for race-workers. During a time I was dating an African American man, a colleague asked “How do you deal with the language issue?” The assumption here was that since I was raised by immigrant parents from a Spanish speaking country, that I also needed for my partner to be of the same linguistic background. I replied to her that while language was important to me, I did not feel it necessary for my partner to speak Spanish. As long as my partner was ok with me being who I am and he was willing to take the time to also learn some words in the language I grew up speaking, I was just fine with “the language issue”.

I thought this was a pretty healthy response. Until I told my partner about it.

My partner (at that time) was offended by the question and was even more confused by my answer. He could not understand why language was important to me. He explained that he had no idea that this was a value that I held. All I thought was, how could he not? I spoke in Spanish around him sometimes because that is the culture in which I live in. Going back and forth between Spanish and English was just the kind of world Latino New Yorkers grow up in. I thought he was fine with it until we had to be more specific and open about it. Racial trust wasn’t fully developed within this Black-Latina binary.

So racial intimacy is multi-dimensional. Skin-deep is just surface level conversations. Language, immigration status and other factors come into the mix. How do these factors shape our value for racial intimacy?

I wish love could just be love. But for some of us, specifically race-workers, we are very conscious of the history behind race-love, the consequences to our families, the conquest written all over our faces and skin color sometimes…all of this gets translated into the knowing glances, that nod of affirmation, that familiar sigh on the other end of the phone line when we describe the racist encounters at school, at work, on the train ride home…but is this enough? Or even necessary? Within our conversations, between women of color, we encourage each other to not stop ourselves from loving because the person who wants to love us happens to be outside of our particular race. But can we do this without that racial intimacy? Could these individuals be carriers of racial intimacy too?

Lady in purple: My love is too sanctified to have it thrown back on my face.
Lady in blue: My love is too magic to have it thrown back on my face.
Lady in orange: My love is too “Saturday Night” to have it thrown back on my face.
Lady in red: My love is too complicated to have it thrown back on my face.
Lady in green: My love is too music to have it thrown back on my face.

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf — Ntozake Shange

That is race-love. Some of us wish love could just be love. My hope is, like my friend Elizabeth Bella Tarpley reminds me, that my rainbow is enuf.

When did Kanye West become a racist?

In African American, Latino; Latina, race work, race, love, racism on November 15, 2010 at 12:30 pm

Something is rotten in the world today. Something is racially rotten when we can shame Black and Latin@ people to think they are racist for making racial accusations. How is it possible that Matt Lauer was able to shame Kanye West into believing he was racist because of the temper tantrum thrown at Taylor Swift and at the same time apologize to George Bush for stating that Bush doesn’t like Black people?

For a while I believed that this world was colorblind. I am not sure what this racial shame is about though. When for almost 30 years, we have now heard cries from dominant populations about reverse racism and today media shames Black people into believing that in fact Black people are racist. A racial accusation turned into a racial boomerang. Who ever smelt it dealt it kind of deal. Playground antics. If I accuse someone of racism, then that must mean I am a racist too. And I should be ashamed of pointing out Racist Truths. Or even implying them. A psychological and emotional lynching, when now Black, Brown, and White allies can be hung for pointing out the simple and plain Racist Truth. What strange fruit will we see hung in today’s age of racism?

Our miner’s canary here is found in the media. I take examples in media because my students, as many of us, are in touch and receive messages from this medium. They tell me what they see and I go out to investigate. The examples provided in this post come from The Real Housewives of DC, Matt Lauer’s interview with Kanye West, and The View.

On the Real Housewives of DC, a cast member — Stacie Turner — implies another white female cast member, Cat Ommanney, of being racist because of Ommanney’s discomfort around Black people. However, this is not the only reason. The host of this event, Andy Cohen, also asks about Ommanney’s description of Black people as “colored people”. All the while, Turner, a Black woman, defends herself and retorts that she never accused Ommanney of being “that word” (i.e. racist). Turner keeps saying “that word” as if saying the word “racist” would imply that Turner is the racist for accusing Ommanney of being one.

Real Housewives of DC — on Ommanney and Turner conflict

In the Kanye West example, Matt Lauer asks West about his (and many others) frustration over the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. West stated that Bush does not like Black people. Five years later, Lauer reminds him of this incident, tells West of an angered Bush who did not “appreciate” being called a racist and says to West the following: “You did take it across the line and you said, you made it a little more sinister that the federal response to Katrina was because of race”. While West grapples with this question Lauer continues to shame West by telling him and later showing him how affected Bush was by West’s statement that Bush doesn’t like Black people. West replies he knows how Bush must have felt because he was accused of being a racist because of his temper tantrum toward Taylor Swift. Lauer shames. West takes. West tries to retort. Lauer shames again. Having his morning show as his podium, Lauer continues to explain his perspective and magically makes it “our perspective”.

How did this happen? When did Matt Lauer become the authority on race?

While not specifically abut race, in a similar instance, Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar walked off the set of their show “The View” after Bill O’Reilly accused Muslims of murder in the World Trade Center bombings. This rationale, O’Reilly believes, is the reason why there shouldn’t be a mosque in the area. Hearing this anti-Muslim rhetoric caused for Goldberg and Behar to walk off their set. Barbara Walters immediately chastised Goldberg and Behar saying that should never have happened in their show.

In the latter two instances, the people doing the chastising were the journalists. The ones with the mics. The ones who could perhaps sympathize with their brethren being accused of racism.

And in today’s day and age, they are the media – the ones with some power.

West, Goldberg, and Behar all had to defer to them because after all the show belongs to Lauer and Walters. In the first example, Turner had no idea how to handle the accusation that she accused someone of being a racist. Despite Andy Cohen bringing in more support for Turner’s response, Turner is too ashamed to even use the word “racist”.

There is something more that just the physical symbol of power (i.e. Matt Lauer and Barbara Walters) going on here. And it goes beyond White people fear of being accused of being racists. Not only do they fear being accused of being racist but now some people are shaming those who accuse them.

What kind of racial hunt is this?

On the one hand, I think it is healthy for White people to feel remorse or guilt or fear of being accused of racism. Racism is not a good thing, to put it mildly. So being accused of being one should not feel good, either. But for these individuals in power, those accused of racism, have allies who can help them shame their accusers. So Bush does not have to go on a rant about how bad he felt for West’s accusation. Instead he has Matt Lauer, a journalist who is respected and viewed by millions to do it for him. Bill O’Reilly could say that the walk out was great because Walters after all did her share of shaming her co-hosts too.

Then we hear the backlash – should Kanye West retract his statement? Should Goldberg and Behar have walked off? Should Turner have accused Ommanney of not being comfortable around Black people?

Media, like education and religion, has become a powerful tool in letting us know who has authority. Journalists embody and share the values embedded in media. Like dictionaries, journalists like Lauer and Walters can reinforce beliefs, state definitions, reproduce inequalities, and now even shape who is a racist and who is not. And the viewing audience adheres to their authority rather than question these journalists own racial intentions. If they can shame others into calling people racists or walk off stages for making racist comments, then they themselves are in some way protected from being called racists too – because then NO one can be called a racist.

What is the Racial Truth here?

I will venture to say that these journalists don’t even know what racism is. Additionally, neither do people like West and Turner. If they did, perhaps they would reflect on how the phrase is used and may not be scared to use or defend the term. Many of these people understand racism to be a “feeling” and not an action. They do not understand that racial systemic power is held by White people in power. Those who look like them but feel they have no power sometimes subconsciously contribute if they are not racially conscious.

So here Lauer is going by the feelings – “I want you to look at his face…this is the most emotional he [Bush] got .. just asking you if you look at his face what would you say to him?” It is obvious that Lauer is determined to shame West and castigate him into an apology. Even though West already gave one.

It is highly important to problematize West’s response and Turner’s comments and Goldberg’s and Behar’s actions. But I believe that is as equally important, if not more so, to problematize Lauer’s interview, Walter’s response, and Turner’s castmate ‘s reactions as well. These are people in the position to authorize who is a racist and who is not. Why? Because we, as an audience allow them to without ever questioning these journalists. And if we do, it is in the comfort of our own homes. Or we think, who is going to listen to them anyway? But many people do. Journalists, regardless of racial consciousness, are respected.

Still among this group, there have been journalists who have engaged in truth-telling. Some journalists are race-workers. But rarely do these journalists get the opportunities that people like Lauer and Walters do.

Lauer’s racial castigation of West, masked as journalist protocol, is more difficult to problematize or dissect. Lauer is under the veil of professionalism. Lauer is protected by his continued presence in the lives of many directed in many homes. Lauer is responsible for racial shame – what he calls “hub-bub” at the end of the interview.

Racial shame. Racial castigation. On Black and Brown people? On White allies? What is happening here?

Folks being accused of racism can’t just say you know what let me think about that for a minute. Let me talk to some people who study race, who talk about race, who understand this a bit more than I do and see why they think I am being called a racist. If you heard this accusation once, maybe it is not a big deal. But if you heard this accusation a couple more times after that, perhaps there is something to inquire about, don’t you think?

And for my Brown and Black brothers and sisters and White allies in the struggle for racial justice, it is time we help lift this veil of racial shame and talk to each other openly about what race means in America. We need a Ghetto Messiah

We need race-workers to work with our brothers and sisters in journalism, the media, film, etc to help them understand what the terms race and racism really mean and not what they think these term can mean. We have to educate people like Kanye West to help him explain his stance back in the day without having to completely depart from his original statement. We have to stop hiding within this veil of “diversity” and “multiculturalism” when some of us really mean race! To have a racial lens does not mean you have a negative perspective. KKK members and subtle racists have ruined our ability to see that a racial lens is a lens, a perspective, a way to encourage others to think a bit more about how we identify ourselves and each other — how this society structures our opportunities and our outcomes. The Racial Truth, the Racial Divine is what we seek to make our society more whole. Rather than evade it, we should use it to better understand all people in this society. We all have the racial lens – we just don’t know how to use it, have been shamed into seeing through it, don’t understand it, and continue to scratch it out.

Scholars and writers, even Chief Justice Sotomayor have been shamed into adding their racial/cultural perspective into their work. There is a fine line between hiding and feeling ashamed (see Portia de Rossi on Oprah) and those of us who are interested in understanding race and talking about it need to help others not feel ashamed to do the same things. In order to confront racism, we have to know what it is before we dismantle it, live with it, change it, endure it. In so doing, we continue true race-work, engaged by Black, Brown, and White allies not the kind of racial shame that Matt Lauer is imposing on the likes such as Kanye West.

My final question: Did you hear Lauer do the same thing to Bush?

And you won’t either.

There is a lot of race-work to be done out there gente. Let’s get to it.

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