An Addendum to “Let’s Get Some Things Clear”

A little over six months ago I wrote a post about Whitman and his exposure to slavery and how it affected his writing. I ran across some new information about Whitman that I thought was pertinent to that discussion:

The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not: always so far inexorable—always to be. Someone proves that a superior grade of rats comes and then all the minor rats are cleared out.

The problem in this is not so much that Whitman thinks races as we know them will disappear (although his language is harsh), but that he places value judgments on the races. The idea that some races are minor is scary.

Being Silent

I’ve been following the backlash from the media coverage of the Steubenville rape case pretty closely. I’ve read all the important articles and blog posts. I’ve read all of my friends’ statuses and comments. I’ve seen my friends’ anger, their commitment to rationalism, and their frustration with patriarchal systems.

I’ve always struggled with what I should be saying about things where I don’t resemble the victim. What should I say about male-on-female rape or sexism or racism? I like to talk about these issues but am I limited to parroting what female, minority, and/or LGBTQ friends and/or scholars say about them?

My friend, Tyler Borchers, pointed me to “Dismantling whiteness: Silent yielding and the potentiality of political suicide” by a professor here at Ohio University named Dr. Jungkunz.

Jungkunz writes:

To reiterate, part of what privilege has involved in garrulous contemporary settings has been a monopoly over speaking. We have witnessed this surrounding sex, sexuality, race, class and gender. Masculine, white, ‘heterosexual’, wealthy men are privileged speakers. So, to engage insubordinate silence along any of these components of intersectionality is to engage several transformative contestations and participations. First, silence can demonstrate a protest against racism. Such protests can entail: silence instead of an encouraging laughter as a response to a co-worker’s racially offensive joke, or an organized silent protest involving duct tape over one’s mouth to call attention to oppressive quiescence. These silences can cut off the air (speaking) that gives life (via racist stereotyping) to white supremacy. Block de Behar notes, ‘that only silence can offer a means of avoiding the automatism of language’ (1995, p. 4). Second, silence can act as a democratic yielding. This yielding is insubordinate as it challenges norms that try to dictate who should and should not speak – so, to remain silent as a way to allow the ‘other’ to speak is inherently resistant to a whiteness-speech configuration of power. This is a silence for empowerment and transformation. Finally, silence as a refusal can seek to end one political existence – whiteness – only to open up the possibility of an alternative to a racialized polity for the future. This silence as refusal can involve the following: not claiming a race on the census questionnaire, remaining silent when someone asks for racial identification over the phone or upon a personal ad and not engaging an entire array of racially offensive names, topics, movies, songs, discussions and so on. At an even deeper level, this silence can be an active refusal of aspects, characteristics – white personality traits if you will – that slowly but importantly begin to kill off one’s whiteness. For instance, the urge to speak up and out can be refused; the exuding of confidence can be refused; and even the lack of racial self-consciousness can be refused.

I am really bad about this. I am really bad about being okay with silence. In fact, I’ve found myself knee-deep in discussions about Steubenville the past couple of days. And every time I get frustrated with one of those discussions, I try to move to a discussion with someone who I know will agree with me. This, I think, is both incredibly prideful and incredibly damaging.

Too often, I start to believe that the only way to affect political action is through speech. Through action. But that’s not true. Often, the way I can be most subversive in my privilege is to yield my voice to oppressed groups. My voice is not unimportant or worthless. It’s just that there is nothing of value my voice can add to the debate. I am not a survivor. I know survivors, but I know them as friends. And I think they are far more qualified to talk about their experiences than I am. My role should be to encourage other non-survivors to listen. To listen. To be silent.

I think of all the times I’ve laughed at a rape joke in the presence of other people. That’s not alright. Or all the times I’ve agreed when someone calls a girl a “slut.” That’s not alright. Or all the times I’ve been part of a community that encourages people to make decisions about sexual partners while under the influence of alcohol. That’s not alright. Silence would have been better.

Silence is probably better now.

Note: When I typed “silence” into Google to try to find a picture, I most often found pictures of women being silent. Yikes. Then when I typed in “silence man,” I got photos of scantily clad men sneaking up on sleeping women. um wut.

The Trouble with Gaps

There was a moment this summer, while I was teaching a room full of high-achieving, and in my mind, at-risk students, where I faltered. I don’t remember the lesson or what made me privately freak out in my mind, but I remember the feeling… the American dream is a lie, “at-risk” is a stupid term, students are students are students, and teaching students so they can live up to a white, wealthy ideal is pointless.

But I didn’t let the feeling take hold of me. I pushed it away. It got lost in the stress of lesson plans and grading papers.

Several weeks later I returned to Ohio University, where my main extracurricular commitment revolved around education reform, a nebulous term that means many things to many different people. And because I am someone who enjoys a good discussion, I made sure I was immersed in the literature of people who are critical of the reform movement.

It is within this literature, that I first read Dr. Camika Royal’s argument against the use of the term “achievement gap.” A term I had used countless times myself, achievement gap had become, for me and many of my peers, a shorthand way of articulating the problem we saw in education. Upon my first reading of Dr. Royal’s piece, I thought this was the problem with the term–that achievement gap did not accurately portray the complexity of the problem.

And organizations I am a part of changed; instead of using achievement gap, both Students for Education Reform and Teach for America have adopted “opportunity gap” as part of their lexicons. Dr. Royal suggested the term in her first piece about the achievement gap on Good.

Several days ago, however, Dr. Royal began suggesting that this simple substitution of the terms is insufficient.

Image

At first, I was taken aback by this. It seemed like organizations were listening to Dr. Royal. Why was she still frustrated?

And then I thought about her piece, again. This time, though, I thought about my summer experience, specifically the feeling I had had one day in class and ignored, and then some things clicked.

Dr. Royal is not frustrated about the term with a linguistic concern. She is frustrated with the power struggle that gets buried in language.

I asked my friend the other day how I can avoid a white savior complex. And he told me I had already fallen prey to it just by believing there was a group of people, categorically different than me, who needed my help. By dividing the world into white and black, I had already named difference, and by naming difference, I had already committed oppression.

This, I think, is what we do when we talk about gaps. Because when we acknowledge a gap, we set up a situation where things are better. And it’s not necessarily racial. Like we assume that wealth is better than poverty, that a Princeton degree is better than a GED, or that scoring in the 99th percentile is better than scoring in the 61st.

But here’s the rub. Oppressors have always chosen the grading stick. Oppressors have always been the ones who get to decide what we test, how we test it, and what background knowledge we test. Oppressors have always been the ones who decide what is better. And that is the issue.

If we ignore this problem, we risk, at the very least, pretension–the kind that claims you are not allowed to talk about a problem because you aren’t well-informed enough.

I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to talk abut the issues we need to talk about. But I know that lumping entire of populations of students into one “at-risk” category is trouble. And that’s exactly what gaps do.

“Hip-hop started off on a block I’ve never been to”: Why Conscious Rap is a Farce

I really like hip-hop. I listen to a lot of it. I listen to the stuff on the radio. I listen to the stuff not on the radio. I listen to old stuff. I listen to leaked stuff. I listen to whatever I can get my hands on.

My two favorite albums from 2012 are Macklemore’s The Heist and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. I like them for different reasons, and both are gaining a lot of attention from the online world. Lamar, by some, is being heralded as the face of a new age of hip-hop. Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation argues that Kendrick is the Pied Piper of the post-hip-hop generation.

The underlying message behind the positive reception for Kendrick is concerning, though. gkmc is good, apparently, because it’s smart. Chang calls it “conscious.”

Hip-hop critics understand this problem, though. Chang is quick to point to other leaders of the post-hip-hop generation, like the much-more-mainstream Kanye West. And when Jon Caraminica from the New York Times reviewed gkmc, he did so alongside a review of traditional radio smash rapper Meek Mill’s Dreams and Nightmares. This juxtaposition, however, only serves as a temporary band-aid to a growing divide in today’s hip-hop.

A generation of artists who can trace their genealogy back to gangsta rap are dominating the airwaves, while the Kendricks of the world struggle to get airtime or intentionally scoff at the radio (many of Kendrick’s songs on his new ablum are over 5 minutes long). The popular conversation surrounding this divide is that the Kendricks of the world are too smart, too conscious to be played on the radio. “They don’t play real hip-hop on the radio anymore.”

What is meant by real hip-hop remains to be seen. Most people probably think back to Tupac or Biggie Smalls or Nas (who is still dropping new albums).  But what is remembered is a golden-age of hip-hop that never really existed. In that golden age, all rap was “smart.” Tupac never rapped about girls or drugs unless he was doing so with some deeper meaning. But that’s simply not true.

Enter Macklemore. Macklemore, first off, is white and middle class (which means that we can’t compare him to Eminem, even though it’s tempting). But he can also spit. Like really spit. Macklemore is a suburban parent’s dream. He raps about getting clean and the harsh realities of drug culture. Expletives are kept to a minimum. And Macklemore’s songs about women are love songs in the most traditional sense of the genre.

And so Macklemore has been lauded by a lot of people. He has songs about marriage equality–“Macklemore bring[s] rap back to its political roots,” says Thought Catalog contributor Madison Moore. The assumption, of course, being that rap left its political roots, and thankfully, this white suburban dude was able to reclaim them.

This, of course, is balderdash. All hip-hop is political. It’s a requisite of the genre. Kendrick, Meek Mill, Macklemore, it doesn’t matter. Hip-hop, like jazz and rock and roll before it, is necessarily disruptive.

Perhaps the most criticized genre of rap is the brag rap. Brag raps are the ones that are filled with tales of sexual conquests, lots of expletives, and threats to rivals. They also tend to be the singles off albums. The “intellectual” perception is that the stupid common man can’t deal with the real themes presented on some rap albums and so brag raps offer a mindless entertainment. But, brag raps may be the most political of any rap. Brag rap has the most complicated genealogy of any rap genre. It begins with slaves. James C. Scott in Domination and The Art of Resistance writes about “the dozens”:

Compare, for example, the aristocratic tradition of the duel with the training for self-restraint in the face of insults found among blacks and other subordinate groups. Nowhere is the training in self-control more apparent than in the tradition of the ‘dozens’ or ‘dirty dozens’ among young black males in the United States. The dozens consist in two blacks trading rhymed insults of one another’s family (especially mothers and sisters); victory is achieved by never losing one’s temper and fighting, but rather in devising ever more clever insults so as to win the purely verbal duel. Whereas the aristocrat is trained to move every serious verbal insult to the terrain of mortal combat, the powerless are trained to absorb insults without retaliating physically. As Lawrence Levine observes, ‘The Dozens served as a mechanism for teaching and sharpening the ability to control emotions and anger; an ability which was often necessary for survival.’ There is evidence that many subordinate groups have developed similar rituals of insult in which a loss of self-control means defeat.

Brag rap, then, started as a coping mechanism, not for the rapper but for the listener. And it is this tradition that exists in rap music today. And it is for this reason that Meek Mill is just as political as Macklemore. To suggest otherwise is to ignore hundreds of years of racial oppression that have led to a very specific celebratory musical genre.

Macklemore, interestingly, answers many of these questions about “conscious” rap in his song “White Privilege.”

He raps:

Now I don’t rap about guns so they label me conscious
But I don’t rap about guns cause I wasn’t forced into the projects
See I was put in the position where I could chose my options
Blessed with the privilege that my parent’s could send me to college
Now who’s going to shows the kids on the block starving
Or the white people with dough that can relate to my content?
Marketed the music now adapted to the lifestyle
What happened to jazz and rock and roll is happening right now
Where’s my place in the music that’s been taken by the media
With white corporations controlling what their feeding ya
I brought up aesop rock but I’m not even dissing dude
We love hiphop and what do you think caucasians are listening to
And I speak freely when I write this
If a black emcee examined race there goes half their fan base, white kids

Macklemore sees himself as a peer of all other emcees. Earlier in the song he mentioned Aesop Rock, but in this verse he qualifies what he said. He’s not dissing Aesop. He’s not dissing contemporary mainstream rap. He’s dissing a system–a system that has made a spectacle of the slave trying to grow a thick skin so he won’t lash out when his master berates him. A system that makes this spectacle and then accuses the slave of being out of line, of saying too many bad words, of being too angry. A system that simultaneously fetishizes the sexual prowess of the slave while punishing him for talking about sexual conquests. A system that celebrates blackness as long as it is only an extension of whiteness.

All this to ask the question: can we please drop the conscious/non-conscious distinction in hip-hop?

Let’s Get Some Things Clear: Whitman, Slavery, and White Privilege

I observed a HS English class today. The students were learning about Walt Whitman and were using a biography from poets.com. It had this passage in it:

It was in New Orleans that he experienced at first hand the viciousness of slavery in the slave markets of that city.

Let’s get something straight: Whitman could not experience “first hand” slavery. Because he was not a slave. He may have “seen” it or known slaves. But he could not experience it.

Now this may just be poor writing and bad wording. But we don’t question this kind of thinking. If I go live in a low-income neighborhood, no one will question me if I say I “experienced” poverty first hand. That’s part of my privilege. Likewise, no one questions the fact that the wonderful poet Whitman had first had experience with slavery. Because he was white and well-off.

Not all of the literature we teach in schools has to be about race. But let’s not make Leaves of Grass into a treatise for racial equality. It wasn’t.

Langston Huges says it best when he responds to Whitman’s “I hear America singing”:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
Then.

Besides, 
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Why I SFER

Recently, there has been a lot of alarm about an organization I am a part of – Students for Education Reform. I think this alarm mostly started with this post by a really smart girl from Rutgers named Stephanie Rivera. Diane Ravitch, a prominent player in the education reform conversation, then got hold of  Rivera’s post, and applauded her and took a stance against SFER. And next thing I knew, my Twitter feed was blowing up. I have been thinking about this the past week or so, and I think it would be helpful to explain why I, a student, started a chapter of Students for Education Reform at Ohio University. This is going to be a long post so I thank you in advance for your patience.

My name is Spencer Smith. And I SFER because I think that every child deserves a great education right now.

I went to school K-12 in Springboro, OH. Springboro is the ninth richest school district in Ohio. Our graduation rate is over 97%. Of those 97%, most go on to college. I tell you this knowing full well that if critics want to throw the privileged spear at me, they can do it now. But better I come out and say it then someone think they are digging up the information. 

I didn’t get into my top choice universities. I landed at a great honors program at the very public Ohio University. OU is routinely ranked as the number one party school in America. When I would tell my high school friends where I was going, they would wrinkle their noses. But really, OU is a relatively good school. It holds its own against the much bigger Ohio State University and the slightly more prestigious (maybe) Miami University. The middle fifty percent of admitted freshman are a good bunch. They are good students. Not great students. But good students. Probably B students, most of them. Additionally, because of its location in Appalachia and its middle-of-the-line tuition, it’s home to many first generation college students.

For my first two years at Ohio University, I didn’t think much about education. I had made it to college. I figured that everyone who wanted to be at college was there. It was a done deal for me. I grew a beard, and started thinking about things like racism, sexism, and heteronormativity the way only a white straight dude from the ‘burbs can – theoretically. Then, at the end of my sophomore year, Teach for America invited me to be part of a series of leadership seminars. I heard about the achievement gap for the first time. My world was rocked. There were places where only 8% of students graduated from college? This was huge news for a kid coming from a place where it seemed like 80% of students were going to graduate from college. (This is probably an exaggeration, but that’s what it felt like).

I stayed in contact with Teach for America. I participated in a summer book club. One night, I was on a call discussing Mike Johnston‘s In The Deep Heart’s Core. Mike Johnston was on the call and he offhandedly mentioned Students for Education Reform. I sent an e-mail to Alexis Morin that night. Because she was listed as a co-founder on the website, I didn’t expect to hear back from her. But I heard back almost immediately. That summer I learned a lot about the organization. I learned how it started in a dorm room with e-mail blasts between the early members. I learned how it was infectious. And certainly, Alexis’s and Catharine Bellinger‘s enthusiasm and optimism is infectious. They come from a tradition of thought that says when you believe something, you do something. You don’t sit on the sidelines. You get up and say something. I wanted to do something, too.

So I did. And for the past year I’ve been the Chapter Leader at Ohio University. In that year, my knowledge of the education crisis in this country has grown more nuanced. I used to think that there was someone to blame for the whole thing. And that wasn’t anything SFER taught me. That was just me being a dumb college student. Thanks to SFER and other opportunities, I had the chance to study ed policy more in depth. Through Chapter Leader training and the weekly discussion series our chapter held on campus, I was able to approach issues from multiple angles. A lot of the members of our chapter are future teachers. (I’m a future teacher, too!) We aren’t calling for the abolition of teacher unions or the privatization of education. What we are calling for is conversation. We want to put everything on the table. We want options.

Because of SFER, I have done and seen things that I would have otherwise never done or seen. I organized a school visit to KIPP Journey in Columbus. I learned that whether or not you agree with charter schools, there are kids who are benefiting from them. And those kids can articulate that. They know that they are going to college. And they know that precisely because of the school they are going to. I was so impressed that I interned with them for a while.

SFER hosted a national summit for all the chapter leaders. By the time the summit rolled around, there were almost 100 chapters. I was struck by our diversity. Sure, I was a dude from the ‘burbs. And sure, there were Ivy League schools represented. But there were also chapter leaders who were mini-miracle stories. They had beat the odds in low-performing school districts, made it to college, and were now working to make sure that more students had that same opportunity.

Additionally, because of the SFER national summit, I learned about the Breakthrough Collaborative. I applied to Breakthrough, got accepted, and spent my summer teaching ninth grade English. I learned that 30 high school and college students can alleviate summer drain for over 100 middle schoolers.

Because of SFER, I believe that education reform is not just a conservative thing, a liberal thing, a union thing, a student thing, a teacher thing, a parent thing. Education reform is all of those things. We aren’t going to get anywhere by eliminating each other from the conversation. Maybe you don’t agree with SFER or Teach for America or Democrats for Education Reform. That’s fine. You don’t have to. But don’t be against them. Be against the achievement gap. Be against the failing education system. I promise you we can work together.

Three Conversations Ed Reformers Need to Move Past

I made a Tumblr last week for ed reform. I want to talk about education from a global platform, but I don’t know how. The Tumblr is my first step in that direction. But right now, it doesn’t have the kind of audience this blog has.

I’ve been talking about education a lot the past couple of days. I was at the Statehouse for a while listening to legislators talk about it. And I’m frustrated. I’m actually beyond frustrated. I’m angry. We never get to talk about the good stuff, the stuff that will change kids’ lives because we are so busy misunderstanding things and phrasing questions in the wrong way. Here are three things we are doing wrong in the education conversation in this nation:

1. Whose kids are going to go to the trade schools? Legislators love to talk about how it’s not that we don’t have enough jobs to go around, it’s that we don’t encourage children to learn trades. We are always going to need electricians, they say. That’s true. We  will always need electricians. But no legislator would encourage his or her child to be an electrician. Their  children are too smart for that kind of job, right? And that’s where we run into a wall. In this country, not every student has the option of going to college, even if he or she is achieving at the requisite level. And so encouraging kids into trade schools starting in the ninth grade is a form of forcing complacency. Give these kids a trade in which they will be earning $40,000 a year, but don’t give them the education my children get, the legislators say. And so while we masquerade the trade school solution as the thing that’s going to decrease the gap between the haves and the have-nots, it’s actually just a way to make it bigger. Senators’ sons will turn into more senators, and electricians’ sons will turn into more electricians until those two worlds hardly ever talk. So let’s put the trade school conversation on hold until we are sure that every kid, no matter of their zip code or parent’s income, is getting the option of going to college.*

2. Liberty and equality are not opposites. I heard a speaker the other day that was trying to tell me that they are. But they aren’t. If I have a penny, and I want a bagel, but the bagel costs $2.50, I can’t buy that bagel. I’m not free to buy that bagel. That’s how education works. If I have a second-rate K-12 education because I grew up in inner city Detroit, and college expects a first-rate education, I can’t go to college. I’m not free to do the things that I want. Equality is not (as some people like to put it into metaphor) about making sure everyone is on the same starting line or about putting some people in front of others for the start of the race. It’s about making sure that no one shoots any of the runner’s in the leg, while they are running.

3. If you get rid of standardized testing, what do you put in its place to evaluate schools, teachers, and students? Look, I’m no idealist. I don’t think standardized testing is perfect. And if I could come up with something that took more of the learning process into account, I totally would. But we can’t just keep saying “Get rid of standardized testing.” That’s not helping the conversation. Come up with an alternative. Then we will talk.

Please, when we talk about education, let’s stop having the above conversations, and let’s start talking about how we are going to save the kids.

*I want to point out that I don’t believe that being an electrician or having any other trade is anything to be ashamed about. All I’m saying is that when a senator’s kid is good at math, that kid is encouraged to become an engineer, not an electrician.