The most impactful moment in my life came when I was 14 or 15 years old. The summer had just ended; it was the first day of classes. In my honor’s English class we were turning in our summer reading assignments. There was one book we were all required to read and then three books from which we could choose for our second reading assignment. That year, I chose Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin. Only 3 or 4 other students elected to do the same. When we went to turn in our reports, the other kids—all white—began to beg the teacher for mercy. They went on about how difficult the book was and how hard they tried but simply didn’t understand the book…
I thought for certain she was going t give them a lecture, or at the very least shrug it off and ignore the comments. After all, with the exception of a few, the class was full of middle and upper middle class kids who could have afforded all four books and/or a membership to the local library. We had from the beginning of June until late August t read the books—if a person started at a reasonable time it would be quite simple to switch to a “less challenging” read. I know, because most years I managed to read all four of the books, selectively choosing which I would report on. So, I expected commentary about procrastination or something.
What I did not expect was what actually happened. My teach took the reports, looked these kids straight in the eye, and with full sincerity said, “It’s a cultural difference. I’ll take that in to consideration when I grade.”
The Official Complaint
Right now, some 20 years later, Florida is banning an AP African American Studies class. After I read what exactly they took issue with in the proposed curriculum, I felt like I was standing in front of my high school English teacher again. From what I understood, they take issue with the topics of intersectionality, homosexuality, Communism and Marxism, and the mentioning of white supremacist systems. It is that last point I want to discuss.
To highlight their issue with the class, they quote from the included reading and one of the quotes they take issue with is reproduced below:
Every day, black people produce and unquantifiable amount of content for the same social media corporations that reproduce the white supremacist superstructures that oppress us.” 👤 Leslie Kay Jones
What’s Wrong With Her Statement?
Everyone is entitled to an opinion and the right to voice a complaint. After all, in the same document, the Commissioner of Education complains that the section on reparations isn’t balanced because it only provides one view. By that logic that means if you want to teach that there are not white supremacist superstructures oppressing minorities, you should also give voice to those who say otherwise.
That being said, I want to provide an example that illustrates the quoted author’s point. I’m not an expert on social media because I don’t follow influencers, however I distinctly remember Pepsi releasing a commercial featuring one of the white Jenner twins bringing peace to a protest with a Pepsi. This occurred after the death of a black man and during the Syrian refugees were looking for a place to stay; riots were breaking out all over the country, much like during 2020. At that time black celebrities and social media influencers were in fact being vocal and producing content to discuss police brutality and the treatment of black people during seemingly routine interactions with police. There are so many issues with the commercial, but even as is, there are black influencers and celebrities they could have hired to shoot that commercial, but they chose a white woman instead.
The same principal occurs in sports. People pay to see black athletes, like Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James, who still make less money than team owners (who are largely white); but when said athletes voice a concern that affects them, there’s a problem. People pay to see musicians, like Beyoncé, and then get upset if she takes a stance on issues affecting the black people. People pay for the entertainment, but they don’t care about the entertainers.
White Supremacy in Education
There were a few quotes that the only guess I had about what the complaint was is that white supremacy as a system is mentioned. Let’s go back to teenage me, hearing my teacher excuse my classmates’ “shortcomings” due to their whiteness. At the time, I was enraged; it seemed self explanatory why I was enraged, but it took a while for me to be able to articulate exactly why this moment hit me so hard. I’m going to condense my relevant cultural experience in school into some bullet points:
- A white kid tells me I’m black when I’m four
- A white adult tells a white child I’m a “nigger,” also when I’m four
- I learn about my family’s history
- how people tried to swindle my grandparents out of their land
- the fact that my dad was one of five people to integrate the high school in my hometown
- the fact that none of my paternal aunts and uncles were legally able to attend integrated schools
- heard stories about how my dad, aunts, and uncles use to “crop” tobacco growing up
- heard stories from a family member who lived to be 113 but the town wouldn’t give him credit for being the oldest man in town since as a black person born in the 1800s, he didn’t have a birth certificate. Newspapers referred to him as being “allegedly” or “approximately” 113. He was missing an ear—some white men cut it off.
- A white child at my after school program called me a nigger; I punched her. The school didn’t want to punish the white child for calling me a nigger, but realized the statement it made if there was absolutely no punishment for her with punishment for me, so they chose not to do anything at all. Essentially they made no attempt to dissuade the use f the n-word and reluctantly chose not to dissuade violence t avoid being sued.
- An elementary school teacher chose a book with the n-word in the text as required reading. She used a sharpie to mark out the word and made us read aloud in class. The white student responsible for that paragraph read the word anyway. He was not disciplined.
- My school took us on a field trip to a plantation in third grade; when we saw the decrepit shacks the slaves lived in, one of the white kids pointed at us (the black kids) and said “that’s where y’all would have been” while laughing.
- In 13 years of K-12 education, the only required reading by black authors was Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, The Glory Field, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. In college, Ethnic Lit was 300 or 400 level class with prerequisites making it off limits to satisfy the general education lit requirement. I took American lit; we didn’t read any non-white authors. We did however read Huck Finn which contains the n-word.
- In my high school British Lit class we read Heart of Darkness, which uses the n-word extensively. I failed the exam on it because I burned the book in my family’s fireplace after the first 30 pages.
- A white classmate said he didn’t want to learn black history because he didn’t like thinking his ancestors might have contributed to slavery—this statement literally means he thought his feelings and the reputation of his ancestors was more important the feelings of black students and the history of our ancestors.
There are many more experiences, but I think you get the point. I experienced racism first hand and was raised by people who survived the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights Movement. Yet in school I was constantly in situations where I was the only or one of three black students in a class where the n-word was tossed out casually. We read books where white authors took the liberty of using the n-word, so even if it wasn’t said aloud, it was written to be read. We didn’t read black authors who wrote about things other than oppression of black people, so every book that had a black character, that character was oppressed, enslaved, or otherwise discontent.
And yet, no one ever suggested that I might not see Heart of Darkness as a literary masterpiece because there is a cultural difference. In fact, no one gives anyone any leeway in British Lit, which is culturally very different from America and American Lit. Why is this? Because whiteness is considered a default. We’re all expected to understand white culture because it’s the default culture. If you don’t assimilate to that culture—speech, writing styles, etc.—you don’t succeed. Is that not the definition of a white supremacist system?
I really wish the people who are so bothered with hearing the phrase “white supremacist system” were equally as outraged at their children calling black children the n-word in hallways and to our faces. I wish they were equally outraged that a lone black child has to sit in a classroom and hear their white children laugh and sneer when the n-word is read aloud. I wish they were equally outraged that the curriculum of most English departments suppresses minority authors. Honestly, I wish they cared about black people and our experiences as much as they did the reputation of whiteness…
- Manny Diaz, Jr tweet from Jan 20, 2023 (see image below)
- “Full Kendall Jenner Pepsi Commercial”. Youtube; visited February 2023
- “Here’s why Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad is so controversial”. Washington Post, via YouTube; visited February 2023
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