(Response to “White Girls at the Table,” by Lynn Steger-Strong)
Dear Lynn, I am writing because there is something in your offering that is worth responding to. You sound like you are trying to be a human, and to rise above whiteness. It is one of the crosses we humans have been given to bear by a power greater than ourselves.
I was moved by the fact that your Black charges experience you as someone who will, “off-rip” throw down for them, fight for them. I love White teachers like that. I had a White mother like that. She was always “down the school,” fighting for her Black son. This was in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s. We call that kind of mother and that kind of teacher internationalists, because they have risen above whiteness.
I don’t have a particular order to this feedback, so I’ll start where the last point ends: As a Black man and a revolutionary, I am not allowed to teach in the Boston Public Schools (BPS). I began my teaching career in the 1970’s, when ghetto (Boston Public) schools did not have books for their students. It became routine for me to take my entire class, with their parents, on a “field trip” to BPS headquarters to demand books. We were not going to conduct class without books. It was normal to not have books. My class was never normal; we never went without books.
Not only did we always get books — through this method; that of staring down the 100% White administrators until they made the “budget allocation” — but, we chose the books. Lynn, as you endeavor to interrogate you, to honor you, and at the same time try to be present to others, please hear that the books we chose were stalwarts such as: How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Walter Rodney), Soledad Brother (George Jackson), Assata, (Assata Shakur), Black Jacobins (CLR James), The Bluest Eye (Toni Morrison), The Planet of Junior Brown (Virginia Hamilton), Eurocentrism (Samir Amin), Push (Saphire), Return to the Source (Amilcar Cabral). One of the measures for whether I had connected with my students was whether or not the books were stolen by them: Soledad Brother and Push were both entirely stolen, I had no copies by the end of the year! If my charges are going to steal, let them steal a book! These are the kind of books my White mother brought me up on!
My 20-year career in BPS was defined by like efforts such as school take-overs, sit-ins at the Research Department (7th floor) of BPS headquarters, and other anti-social behaviors until they had enough of me. I’m banned. The large majority of teachers today in BPS — with a population of over 90% of-Color students — are White Americans. Your story is focused much on personal identity. For this person, I am an African American man and banned: these two presences of being are identical.
You say, “We need diverse books, says everybody…” In this, your “everybody” is White Americans. “Diversity” has become the rage in the context of White Americans (3% of humankind) being forced more than ever to be in the midst of the rest of humanity — in their workplaces, in their neighborhoods. Diversity is for the purpose of making White people feel safe in these new circumstances. The vast majority of humankind is much less tribal. Internationalism is a natural way of being for most people.
Having said this, Lynn, I need to add the importance of the concept social class: While in 21st century US, class and nationality are largely coincident (at least greatly overlapping) — the White American nation and the economic ruling class of this country coincide; while working class, on one hand, and African America, Puerto Rican, Chicano, Hawaiian, Chinese, Dominican, Haitian, and Native Nation Peoples, on the other, are also synonymous in this country; at the same time there are millions of poor working class White people whose circumstances of life parallel that of their minority nationality counterparts. This section of the US population is either invisible or wholly stereotyped in the dominant culture narrative.
Ok, Lynn, this brings me to another “pet peeve”? When you talk about “races,” I am nonplussed that so many otherwise intelligent people are insisting on something that 100% flies in the face of biological reality: there is only one race. There are no sub-species to the human race. Race is a biological concept: to call White people “Caucasians,” and Asians “Mongoloid,” is an entirely racist project.
White people get to have respectful heritages in this racist narrative: Y’all come from countries like France and Germany, and you have heritages and national cultures like British and Swedish. The rest of us are “ethnicities,” “racial sub-groups,” “minorities” (I love that one: the 3% calls the rest of us — 97% — “minorities”??? This is called violence to the English language).
International Law (United Nations) knows of no “races,” sub-species of humans. International Law affords nationality and peoplehood to all peoples on the planet. Nations and peoples are social, not biological constructs. The “race” narrative leaves 97% of us out. The “race” narrative is racist. International Law knows of countries, nations, peoples and racism.
I do think you are onto something when you describe the table White women are allowed to sit at. As White America tries to exclude the rest of us from economic and political power, they exclude themselves from the rest of humanity.
It is in this connection that while most of humanity is suffering from certain definite deprivations of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the perspective that “white women have had it better than almost everyone,” has its own limitations, which much of your story implies. Being “on top” deprives those “on top” of the gift of humanity. Achieving genuine humanity is, after all, the goal for all of us.
And, given this goal, “the table” you speak of - the “on top” I speak of - is deformed, ugly, and not “the goal” of the liberation movement. Those books my mother gave me, the books I give to my charges and to my children teach us that we do not want to be at that table. We are building, in our daily efforts, a new table.