token – [n] a person – typically belonging to a subaltern group — whose perfunctory inclusion into a social group or organization is meant to create the illusion of inclusivity and social progress.
I do not exist to reaffirm white comfort. My purpose in life is not to teach White Americans the ills of their barren culture, to present in a respectable, palpable way the values of my own. As easy as it is for me to draw a neat line between these two worlds, I do not walk the earth in order to dispel or embolden that line of color, to make my racial existence into a neat presentation for white ears and eyes. When you look at me, you see an amalgamation of what White America expects of Black America. You see education, you see sophistication, you see around me a shell of whiteness into which all of my kind can and should crawl, even if that shell has the potential and the desire to crush us all therein. I do not exist to tell you this, but I am doing it because I have given up on the idea of the residents of the Other side figuring it out for themselves.
A professor of history at Swarthmore once told me that it was not my duty as a Black person to explain my marginalization to White people. Of course I rejected the idea, because I understood, somehow, that white people did not know that they were guilty of marginalization. In my heart it was apparent that the average White person was morally good, yet was nonetheless taught, like me, both explicitly and implicitly, to equate everything about life in the Other’s skin with inferiority. As we progress through the 20th century, the dominant narrative which proclaims Black inferiority seems to transition from being about genetics to being about choice. Black people have chosen to hate themselves, have chosen violence instead of progress, drugs and criminality instead of peace and the American dream. The rhetoric of the choice of Black marginalization, and conversely of bootstrap resuscitation, became the dominant narrative in the mind of millions of Americans, post-Civil Rights Movement, and so began the process of alleviating the wounded white conscience, racked and bewildered by guilt, by shifting the blame of racism completely onto the Other.
“It is not your duty as a Black person to teach White people about their oppression of your people.”
Continue reading define: token
down – (adj.) not identifying directly with a particular struggle because of a perceived difference in identity yet still possessing an interest in a community or in the issues which this community must address.
What does it mean to be down? Downness can be understood as a rendition on allyship, although I don’t really think allyship is a very helpful term, considering that everyone has an opinion of what an ally should and should not do. For one, there is a pervasive notion that allies should not speak unless spoken to, which is inherently false, for many of the people who have been the strongest advocates for the liberation of other peoples had to speak up, for the people who required emancipation either were too marginalized to do it themselves or too fooled by the hegemonic structures that be to care. Downness is a consciousness of one’s own space and the space which is afforded to and denied to others. Let’s use an example: a Korean-American teacher who chooses to instruct a unit on Black History in her predominately black, working-class ninth-grade American history class is potentially helping a group of students better understand their historical relationship to their community and to their country. Her allyship appears in the form of her willingness to educate her students on materials which are relevant to their own understanding of themselves.
This teacher is down in this example, for the teacher has not become lost to the effects of cultural blindness. She operates with the understanding that although her subject matter is at a distance from her – although that distance, ultimately, is up for further discussion – the material is still relevant to the way that a group of people of a different identity perceive their reality, and consequentially, how she perceives her own. She is in no way obligated to teach this information, but her choice to do so, understanding the importance and implications of her decisions, ultimately signals her devotion to the cause, existence and progress of her students.
It seems to be easier for persons of color to be down with other struggles. In the United States, the Black freedom struggle seems to be emblematic for the masses of colored people who similarly seek their liberation from the clutches of white racism. The integration of Black studies curricula into the academy at the end of the 1960s saw the birth of Latino/Chicano studies, Native American studies, Middle Eastern/Arab studies and Asian studies programs, and eventually, Queer/Sexuality studies programs. So often in the creation of POC coalitions, at least at Swarthmore, students of color turn to Black students, who supposedly have a history of organization, of community, of shared and open struggle.
Continue reading define: down
My generation is angry.
We have a lot on our plates, and the true size of the mountain we must climb is heartbreaking. Perhaps what makes this obligation so exhausting is the perception of those around us that our conflict, our burden is but an amalgamation of non-issues. Coming from the outside and the inside, there is this notion which claims that our concerns aren’t significant and that we are fighting for nothing. In being told we have so little to worry about, what persists only grows in its immensity.
I had the opportunity of attending a demonstration to show Swarthmore’s solidarity with Black students at the University of Missouri. The past two weeks have made their Columbia, Missouri home into a hellhole as the secret racism which so many Americans bear surreptitiously and unknowingly exposed itself in social media, in terror-inducing comments and in gut-wrenching “expressions” of hatred. How poignant that this comes in the wake of tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, France and Beirut, Lebanon. White Americans are the first ones to decry the very brand of explicit fearmongering which has sustained this country for centuries when exercised by a different, browner people. I will not talk about Paris and Beirut, for those discussions deserve a far more intimate and detailed description of my feelings, the likes of which are evolving as the issue is further discussed. I will however talk about Mizzou, Yale and the incident which happened last week at Dartmouth.
Continue reading disquiet
In my dream home, there is a two-car garage, a sizable backyard with a magnolia tree which is always in bloom, a million and one channels on the TV, all of which are educational, a room with nothing in it but forty thousand books organized neatly on mahogany shelves, a grey armchair and a Persian rug I do not like, and zero mirrors.
I’ve been growing my hair for almost a year and a half now. I started with a taper cut in August 2014 and have been growing it ever since. I realized in October of that year that I didn’t know what I was doing for my hair had become dry and difficult to manage. There is a sort of culture behind the maintenance of Black hair which I had sort of ignored for a multitude of reasons. I hadn’t grown my hair since I was 8 years old, and then it was not actually me taking care of it. Now that I was *pseudo* on my own, I was responsible for making sure I didn’t look crazy.
So I bought all the ingredients to be truly “natural.” I rejected store-brand products for the organic stuff – yellow Shea butter, castor and jojoba oils, and more essential oils that I’ll ever use. And I suppose I took some sort of pride in finding a way to be avant-garde – c’est-a-dire annoyingly different – while also being, in my own head, different. Few other men at Swarthmore had grown their hair, and those who did were doing something different with it. Similarly, the way my hair blended with my aesthetic created a deep enough rift with other Black men rocking similar haircuts. I took pictures on my computer – too terrible to share – and watched my hair get longer and longer.
Continue reading vanity
I was graciously offered a free copy of De-Leveling the System, Cris Thorne’s documentary whose snippet served as the basis for my previous piece “The Elephant”. After watching the entire film, I’ve determined that there is something deeper to this question, other than an issue of merely race or class, which is the result of the dangerous and destructive mélange of the two in the American conscience in the form of something which seeks to posit itself as disinterested in both – intellect.
You are a youngish professional who has moved to the town of Maplewood, New Jersey because of a number of factors. The train station makes the commute into New York, where you inevitably work easier, for it seems, at least with eyes almost-open, that no one conducts their business in New Jersey. The neighborhood is quaint, a word which is often condescending, and you use it condescendingly at first, too, until you begin to love your new home and hate yourself for loving it. But most of all, the school district is progressive. You find it odd that it is so diverse, a word which means nothing in this situation, for diversity comes only with the realization that the school district is not all white or all black. As you tour the elementary school, you smile at the young black girls who play with the white boys in an image of racial progress which makes your liberal face break out into a capricious grin. America, the promised land, is finally ours.
It is a lie, of course. Those children are playing together at that age because the institutions which are always at work, always invisible, have not yet triggered them into realizing who they are. Black boys and white girls and Latino girls and Asian boys play with one another in post-racial bliss because they are not yet aware. Like so many young mammals, children manage to function without opening their eyes.
Continue reading race, class and “intellect”: a follow-up
When I was in high school, a conversation gripped the entire school for a number of months. It concerned the issue of course leveling, which, more visibly, revealed itself to be an issue of race. Yet, as I delve further into my studies, I’m beginning to realize that very little in life has to do with solely race.
I have never experienced in the United States a place which is more simultaneously homogenous and heterogeneous as the land in which I was raised. New Jersey, that armpit of a state – how so little is known about the Garden State, the narrow strip of land between rivers which once cradled the young and ignorant youth of the American film industry, which has sustained the lives of two great American cities with its sweat and its anguish. How it reeks of both inequality and the promise of advancement, the city skyline – which is different depending on where you live – an image of all our dreams, of all our fantasies and all our fears. It is here that I found myself clutching towards a consciousness which is still underdeveloped and raw, and it is here, among the trees and the broken pavements, where my soul will likely be bound.
Because I am from New Jersey, I feel qualified to judge her, and to do so ruthlessly. For only a person from the armpit can truly know of the inner machinations therein, of the insidiousness of class conflict and the brutal visibility of race.
Continue reading the elephant: a response
For those who enjoy reading Dostoevsky in the original Russian but trip over spoken Russian like a toddler.
- First, understand that you will not reach fluency in strictly a collegiate environment. There are kinds of fluency which are more attainable in academic spaces, but speaking and listening are likely skills you will need to improve in the field, not in the classroom.
- Take a moment to figure out your strengths and weaknesses. If you have trouble doing this, consult your professor. It is helpful to know where you need improvement when studying languages lest you focus on one particular section and flounder in another. Unless you only need that particular section… so if you are learning Igbo so you can speak back to your grandmother when she talks to you, you may not necessarily need to know how to write or even read Igbo.
- Don’t be a prick – everyone has a reason to study a language and some people’s reason is that they simply want to explore a new culture. Just because you are studying Mandarin so you can be a better job candidate does not mean that your interests are more legitimate or deserve more esteem than the student studying Quechua or Icelandic or Chilean Sign Language.
Continue reading x’s tips for learning languages
Du Boisian double-consciousness applied to writing narratives.
I have been reading James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone for the past three days now. I’ve been absorbing such heavy doses of the stuff that my mind is spinning around literary questions. In this book, Baldwin is actually speaking from the perspective of a Black narrator, unlike Giovanni’s Room, where the narrator is a white man. Yet, I wonder if there are any Baldwin books – I have not read them all, sadly – where the narrator is not a Black or White man. A Latina woman? A Black woman? An Asian man?
It is striking to me to think of the various first-person narrators throughout literary history and to see how closely their race reflects the race of their writers. Nick from The Great Gatsby, Yunior from The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Janie from Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jim from My Ántonia – all of these characters belong to a specific racial narrative, the likes of which is hardly crossed… and perhaps for good reason.
What does it mean for a white man to write from the experiences of a Black man? Of a Black woman?
Continue reading why I can’t write an asian narrator
Three years ago, if you asked me what I would be minoring in, I probably would have said History or Black Studies or even Film Studies. I most likely wouldn’t have said… French?
I’ve been studying French for two years now. My first semester at Swarthmore I did not take a French class and sort of just trained myself using all sorts of online resources. I was able to skip the first level of Intensive First-year French from learning the language in a way which to me can only be described as inorganic. Computerized voices uttered words which to me sounded more like garbled tv noise than human language. Questions, likely generated randomly, tested how well I could put together the jagged, undefined pieces of the puzzle which was my comprehension of French grammar and syntax. Rote memorization of words which were ciphers for English.
Continue reading inorganic
Reflections on blackness, class and privilege.
Anyone who sees me around campus is likely to see me in this navy “Pace University Alumni” t-shirt. This t-shirt is one of my favorites, not only because its comfortable and well-worn (that is, it fits my body well from me stretching it out just enough so that it doesn’t lose its shape or look sprayed-on) but because of the symbolism behind it. I never really paid attention to the fact that my parents had both graduated from college until I arrived at Swarthmore. It was an unspoken part of my reality, an unseen privilege which was only made apparent to me when I realized that other people didn’t have it as well. And I suppose it may have been due to the fact that I was embarrassingly naive in high school or simply out-of-touch with the world around me, suspended in the little bubble that is my town.
And it didn’t really mean all of this to me when I started wearing the shirt around the house, at that time during this weird weight loss journey of mine when the shirt was still too tight for me to wear it in public. It didn’t even dawn on me when I noticed for the first time that I really liked the way I looked in that shirt, or when I realized how upset I was when I found a hole in the armpit. It wasn’t until this summer that I sort of became cognizant of it all, to be honest.
Continue reading the middle