For #BlackHistoryMonth, I am reflecting on the moments in my life where I have observed white supremacy operating in my immediate environment.

White folks have the privilege of being able to exist unaware of it as a fish in water. Being unaware or inactive is indeed being complicit in it, whether we want to think of ourselves as accessories to the crime or not. This is true even if we’re women, even if we’re poor, even if we are queer.

I’m sharing 28 very short stories as starting points for challenging ourselves. I’ll also be embedding articles with critical reflections. As we do the work to dismantle white supremacy internally and in our immediate environments, we heal ourselves. All forms of oppression are tied together at the roots.

FEB 1:

I’ll start simply and in my childhood. In 4th grade, my school in Appomattox, VA passed out paper copies of January’s calendar, which listed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as “Lee Jackson King Day”. Confused, I went home to ask my mom and learned that my school was choosing to insert the names of two Confederate generals in front of the federal holiday for the black civil rights leader. (Thanks Mom for helping this 9-year old dissect that one.)

FEB 2:

Today’s testimony is a time I directly benefitted, monetarily, from white supremacy (while still being broke as hell).

I moved to New Orleans when I was 18 and I found a job waiting tables. It quickly dawned on me that all the tipped, front-of-house positions were held by white people, many college students with access to some financial support. The back-of-house jobs were almost entirely held by black men of all ages. I began to notice this was true of almost all restaurants.

Today’s federal minimum wage is $7.25, around $11,000 a year if you’re scheduled for 5 six-hour shifts per week. At 19 with a high school degree and no skills, I earned about $22,000 a year in tips for the same number of hours. If the Fight for $15 wins an increase in the minimum wage, someone working in the service industry today would begin making about $23,000 annually.

FEB 3:

I worked at a job with all white women coworkers. One day, a coworker came in smiling and began talking about her day as she took off her coat. She had just been walking into work when she heard someone calling out to her.

“I turned to look, and it was this black guy in a truck,” she said and paused, “but I decided to go over and talk to him.” The story ended with some surprisingly pleasant exchange that I can’t quite recall, maybe he told her she had dropped her wallet or something.

Now, a lot of women have a reflex defensive reaction when a man in a car calls out to them. But I got really hung up on why she chose to mention the fact he was black, which seemed immaterial to the story. But the truth is it wasn’t immaterial, it was her subtle admission that on top of the anxiousness she felt when a man called to her from a car, she felt an additional threat from his blackness.

And, thus the “surprise” ending.

This is an example of how white womanhood is used as a tool to enforce white supremacist narratives that restrict the behavior of black men. This short story is one manifestation of the same conversation I have heard over and over again (and you won’t have to look hard to find if you’re being honest).

FEB 4:

TK TK TK

FEB 5:

When I started getting invitations to attend the newly-formed tenants’ union meetings, I knew that this would be a loaded situation. The building is in the process of gentrification, most of the building is families that have lived there for 20 and 30 years, all African-American and predominantly West African immigrants. Recently, the building has been modernizing apartments and marketing them via agencies to attract tenants that can afford higher rent, mostly white folks.

The disparity in treatment by management was predictable and immediately evident. When the tenant organizer asked people what issues they were having with the building, new residents complained about wanting the entryway and hallways to be cleaner, while the long-term residents complained about terrible neglect — kitchen appliances that had been broken for months, unrepaired leaks causing ceilings to fall and other serious problems.

There was one issue that everyone was unhappy about — every so often when you got in the elevator, there would be a puddle on the floor that appeared to be urine. Our building allows dogs, and so my roommate and I had an ongoing game of trying to deduce which dog it could be, criticizing the theoretical owners for abuse.

But during the tenant’s meeting, it was revealed that some of the white residents thought that the culprit was kids in the building.

Despite the presence of dogs, who need to be walked, they assumed that the CHILDREN of the original (mostly African) residents in the building were peeing in the elevator.

FEB 6:

One of the core myths of white supremacy is that Europeans are the only group of people in history who have built empires and “advanced” civilization. In grade school, my world history classes reinforced this notion, drawing a straight line from Ancient Egypt (the white-washed version) leading to the Mesopotamian, Greek and Roman empires, and then exclusively European history for the rest of the year.

As a child, my grandmother bought me a subscription to National Geographic every year, and through this I learned about the historical empires of east Asia, Central America and the Andes in South America.

But I never, ever heard about the major empires of Africa (ancient Egypt aside) until I was 26 years old and took an elective course on African history at my college. There were a number of sizable kingdoms, with riches, international trade, art, literature, music and even amazing castles — why, I asked myself, did I never hear of any of these before?

FEB 7:

My goal is to keep these testimonies short and about my direct personal experience of noticing white supremacy in operation, particularly times when the perpetrators were unaware of their complicity. Today I am going to make an exception to share a bit longer story about an institution perpetuating it, because yesterday I posted about how I received an important education on the ancient empires of Africa from an elective college course.

That course was in Cornell University’s Africana Center, an independent school dedicated to the study of Africa and people of African descent around the world. It was established in 1969 after black students staged a 36-hour occupation of a central campus hall during Parents’ Weekend. The takeover was one incident in a national wave of student activism that resisted racist school policies and led to the founding of ethnic studies programs at U.S. colleges.

The Africana Center was established as a program independent from any of Cornell’s seven undergraduate colleges, thanks to the successful negotiation of the students who lead the Willard Strait Hall takeover.

In 2010, Cornell Provost Kent Fuchs made a shocking announcement that Africana would be ‘relocated’ under the leadership of the College of Arts & Sciences. This move destroyed the fundamental concept of the Center and stripped Africana faculty of their ability to self-govern and determine curriculum, hiring and tenure after 40 years. It prompted the resignation of the center’s director, student protests, alumni petitions by the thousands, rebuke from academic professional organizations and public intellectuals, and even prompted the town of Ithaca to pass a city resolution formally requesting the University reconsider the move.

Instead of filling the vacant director’s position with a faculty promotion or external hire from the Africana field, Cornell appointed two new co-directors who had never held a position or taught a class within any Africana Studies Department. Cornell’s Provost, the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and many university administrators used incredibly trivializing language to describe this appointment, saying it would help “guide the department as it develops” (after 40 years of existence) and give it the “best opportunity to thrive”. They denied this was divesting Africana faculty of their autonomy, but insisted it was helping them “flourish.”

Writing this today, I decided to look for the course that had such an impact on me in 2009, in the current Africana department’s course listing. I did not find it nor any similar one. Almost every single course offered today appears to be cross-listed under other departments, the only “pure” Africana courses left appear to be language courses in speaking Swahili, Yoruba and Zulu. I am not suggesting this fact alone is an assessment of the value of the current listings, but it is in line with the critical predictions I read in 2010 about the school’s likely fate under the control of Arts & Sciences.

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