Rhetorics of Whiteness: Postracial Hauntings in Popular Culture, Social Media, and Education (2017)—features the chapter,“Color Deafness: White Writing as Palimpsest for African American in Breaking Bad Screen Captioning and Video Technologies English” coauthored by Nicole E. Snell and yours truly—won the 2018 Conference on College Composition & Communication Outstanding Book Award in the Edited Collection category. This award would not have been possible without the steadfast commitment and encouragement of the collection’s editors: Tammie M. Kennedy, Joyce Irene Middleton, and Krista Ratcliffe.
This Southern Illinois University Press publication is made all the more special by the esteemed list of fellow constributors: Sarah E. Austin, Lee Bebout, Jennifer Beech, Cedric Burrows, Leda Cooks, Sharon Crowley, Anita M. DeRouen, Tim Engles, Christine Farris, Amy Goodburn, M. Shane Grant, Gregory Jay, Ronald A. Kuykendall, Kristi McDuffie, Alice McIntyre, Peter McLaren, Keith D. Miller, Lilia D. Monzó, Casie Moreland, Ersula Ore, Annette Harris Powell, Catherine Prendergast, Meagan Rodgers, Jennifer Seibel Trainor, Victor Villanueva, and Hui Wu.
Saturday Night Live had a little fun recently by poking a little fun at the 2016 presidential election. It’s a digital video short—a parodic take on the iconic note card scene from the movie Love, Actually.
All the big punchlines are about Hillary putting in some overtime for the holidays. Hillary’s making the rounds with a particularly persuasive cache of giant note cards, to cajole white female delegates into changing their minds and casting their electoral college votes for her instead of Trump. The note cards’ captioned Black English is a clever comedic prop, a literal gag where she’s not allowed to speak. Rather, she must soldier on, quietly and supportively. You know, the way a nice lady is supposed to behave. And poor ol’ Hills… overachieving as always, giving it her all and trying to keep it “cute and on mute” in her last-ditch effort to win over just enough faithless electors to reverse Trump’s victory.
As a black woman I rarely have the privilege of perceiving nakedness and lack of direction as “freeing”—quite the opposite. The point is not to evoke an essentialist stance, but to caution against the potential for a type of solipsism born of white heteronormative neoliberal paradigms. There’s good reason as to why black churchgoing women’s unique testimony involves being “clothed and in our right minds.”
Compelled to respond in the mode of cyberflâneus—as opposed to the flâneur,her masculine counterpart—the creative and critical endeavors I pursue seek and receive pleasure from visual, spatial, and tactile sensations, as the deliberate fashioning of online and real world personas across the darker parts of the rainbow. The constraints of respectability politics, of course, compel the performance of citizenship of the industrious and productive variety—in other words, that of a crafty black woman whose labor constantly threatens cooptation. Dwelling in this space as a woman otherwise, risks the designation of “digital streetwalker.” Feminine bodies, we’re told, must caution against following blind wanderlust, whether virtual or real.
Rhetoric is the battleground of ideas and budding composition teachers should be encouraged to recognize the stakes in such battles. Intradisciplinary contests between cultural studies and technical writing, now being fought over critical approaches to highly politicized issues, are actually a strong sign of the intellectual vitality of rhetoric and composition education. On either end of the spectrum, digital humanities needs to be applied creatively, as foundational to academic inquiry.
I guess this is why I insist on playing with elements of rhetoric to resist, even antagonize, systemic instances of neoliberal misogynoir at times. At the same time I acknowledge my habits/impulses to respond productively in online spaces. A digital libertine, I am not for being rotten with the Protestant work ethic… and so I think of haiku headlines as another digital composing strategy.
It happened around 1988, not long after Harvey Gantt became America’s first New South “post-race” mayor. My mother, resolving to escape the ramp-up to the impending crack wars, moved us away from the borough of Queens, New York and into the Queen City of Charlotte, North Carolina. That’s when I overheard a white boy call me halfbreed in my twelfth grade Spanish class.
It was a boy that I’d never had problems with before and it caught me off guard. I overheard him talking to another of the good ol’ boys when he referred to me in third person as “that halfbreed gal.” Those were his words, to be exact. I was confused and next hurt. I excelled in languages and the social sciences even back then, which is why his old-fashioned verbiage sounded strange and hostile to me.
My ears perked. “Breed?” I thought, “that’s what they do to animals!”
The categorization implied by his drawl cut to the quick. His enunciation resonated in a place that I was unable to locate. Finally, I was outraged. In my adolescent mind it would have been better had he simply called me “nigger.”
His drawling pronunciation of girl struck me as peculiar and the words that formed a compound had really hit me hard. The one-two of his white maleness bespoke a harsh admonishment. Combined into a single swipe, he cut me down in the most personal terms by figuratively connecting the stuff between my legs to what happens between my ears.
His offending blow reached beyond his Whiteness to strike at the deepest core of my Blackness. It was the cavalier, offhandedness. Not only was he white, but he was male; not only was I black, but also a girl.
After dismissal from Spanish, I found myself trailing behind him to his next class period, loudly demanding he explain himself. I was determined not to be ignored and, once outside, in utter frustration and within full view of teachers and everybody in third period lunch, I got his attention. Hurling an empty can of Welch’s grape soda, I yelled, with the utmost attitude,
“Excuse you, but I’m black on both sides!”
Aluminum pinging off his head forced him to acknowledge me.
He laughed nervously.
Realizing he was at the center of an ugly scene, he took back his words and apologized before scurrying off to class with his buddies. He decided, wiselythat a public altercation with the weird black girl from New York, wouldn’t be earning him any cool points, plus he probably thought I was about to whup his ass.
I don’t quite remember what else I said that day. I’m sure it was a lot. Whatever I said must’ve been articulated well enough to escape suspension and avoid my mom getting called into the principal’s office over my foolishness on a workday. That would’ve be a definite no-go! Thankfully, I checked my behavior in the immediate aftermath and quickly remindes myself to keep my hands—and projectile objects—to myself.
I made peace. A year later, in fact, the same boy who made the offending remark was assigned as my lab partner in Biology class. We managed to get along okay and were even somewhat friendly, but I never forgot what he said. Apparently, neither did he. My reaction made a memorable enough impression to have taught him to behave himself in my presence from then on… at least not if I was in earshot.
Looking back, I can guess this young man was probably a bit jealous of me. My academic abilities earned high marks with comparatively little effort. I must have seemed annoyingly anomalous according to his more familiar context. Perhaps it was his only way to express the disjunction he perceived about my book smarts. As a working-class white having only attended North Carolina public schools his whole life, how could he have known any better? How else was he to interpret the obvious cultural advantage I leveraged? As a Southerner and a white male, he’d more than likely internalized a belief in prevailing assumptions about racist presuppositions alleging the inferiority of black intelligence.
I was lucky. Northern school bussing afforded me the opportunity to enjoy certain regional advantages relative to my native Southern classmates, both black and white. The edge created by New York City politics enabled my mother to enroll my twin sister and me in a couple of Little Neck-Douglaston’s best elementary and junior high schools. As a top district for education, the schools I attended were well renowned for producing the highest scores in the city on state regents exams. The good fortune of our social circumstances allowed me to squeeze my way into excellent schools and make the most out of an unfair situation. My primary and early secondary schooling was flanked by the best teachers, many of whom were first, second, and third-generation Jewish residents of adjacent Long Island communities in Nassau County. No doubt due in part to their own experiences with the Holocaust, many of my teachers nurtured a strong commitment to liberal principles by enacting critical democracy in public education on every level. It was a mission they took seriously.
Our classroom lessons were enhanced by weekly outings to the world’s finest cultural institutions. Visits to the Museum of Modern Art, American Museum of Natural History, the Bronx Zoo, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York Stock Exchange, and the like were par for the course. Additionally, my teachers had the flexibility to let us have 30 to 40-minute stretches of free time. They understood the soothing effect it had on their more rambunctious students. A break from the rigmarole of everyday class work allowed us to daydream by the window or bookcase and afforded me the freedom to slowly leaf through encyclopedias and unabridged dictionaries at leisure. For kids like me, it created just enough space to calm down before the stress of a 2-hour commute back home to my Southside neighborhood and granted teachers the luxury to focus proper attention on the creation and design of lesson plans so students might receive real practice in the art of learning.
I was often perplexed upon thinking back to how I reacted that day almost 30 years ago. I mean, really? I don’t even like “purple drink” for cryin out loud! For the life of me, I couldn’t fully grasp exactly why his words stung to elicit such rage. In addition to the discomfort of having some boy talkin’ up under my clothes like that, I can now understand my response better. The enormity of my outrage had as much to do with the personal and institutional attitudes that conspired to expose and set loose my innermost insecurities. Acceptance from my black peer group was something I desperately sought and it was exactly this kind of event that highlighted the problem. Not only was I afraid the black kids would think I was “acting white” because of my grades, I was equally uncomfortable with being viewed as what I was: the green-eyed, light-skinned chick with a funny-sounding accent.
The implicit assertion of his racial remark was about how I potentially look in the eyes of many whites. Embedded in his put-down was innuendo about my humanity and the social value placed on me due to my skin, based largely on the unconscious view that if not for some strain of European heritage I too would be deemed uneducable—as though being bright is naturally derived from being light. White perceptions about the visuality and intelligence of race wield tremendous damage on countless lives. More painful, is the way words such as “halfbreed” speak to another sad truth: the inescapable fact that I’ve been at times the unwitting beneficiary of this destructive form of racial bias. Crystallized in that moment is the agonizing reality I’m forced to accept. I am the recipient of unwanted light-skinned privilege at least so far as the white masculinist gaze is concerned. I work to balance the scales without appearing to overcompensate. I’d like to think I’m over it, but I know I’m not. I still feel some kind of way about the racial logic that posits Blackness and intelligence as mutually exclusive. The impact of events like these on my personal and professional journey over the decades cannot be underestimated, nor should they be.
Our histrionics are our history. The fallout surrounding colorism, racial discrimination, and Whiteness has become the prevailing subject of my life’s work. They inspire within me the need to heal myself and others from the wounds of racism and help frame smarter, more constructive conversations. Rhetorical race studies chose my body as a discourse, and not the other way around. It’s an all too necessary vocation. I wish this was not the case, but so it is.
In my last post I made an appeal to forgive Paula Deenfor her use of the word “nigger” because I was feeling a sense of charity given that my general attitude toward her was already one of low expectations. I glossed over key points also due, in part, to generate a post with brevity and levity. The mild sense of sympathy I felt, however, was countered by a generalized snark and outright cynicism that comes from living as an African American woman living in the South and being a frequent observer (and occasional target) of some individuals behaving like rude, misanthropes all up, in, and through the public sphere. Granted, Southerners are generally very polite people — profusely so, in fact. Southern hospitality is an ethos that most strive to uphold. Though let us not forget, by its very definition, hospitality is a stance that is meant for dealing with strangers or outsiders. Southern hospitality is only an outward appearance; something I call, bless your heart and watch your back. Therefore, for the most part, feelings of snark overtook charity — Christian charity — Southern style.
At any rate, it’s the thing I’ve learned to cope with, dealing with all the craziness of living and working in the South. My first instinct to blow off the gravity of Deen’s actions is the result that comes from years of battle fatigue while trying to avoid bitterness, hypertension, and the gout. For years, I’ve been teaching, learning, working, and living with folk who are oblivious to the privileges and luxuries they derive from inadvertently creating the range of minor inconveniences and insurmountable disasters in the lives of the people of color surrounding them. It happens regularly, without thought, as a simple matter of routine habit. It’s something you simply become accustomed to when you’ve been living in the Carolinas for as long as I have. But of course, as we all know, feelings are emotions. And emotions have a tendency to distort clear thinking. So I write this post to say that my last post (June 25, 2013) is wrong… or at least not entirely correct. That’s right. McFarlane was wrong.
Forgiveness is a good thing, but redress is too. The reason my earlier post missed the mark is because I, like most others, was focused on the media hype. Whereas attention to the more sensational aspects of Paula Deen being politically incorrect and quite possibly rude is one thing, the fact of the matter still remains that Deen was engaging in flat out employment discrimination, which far exceeds the problem of poor interpersonal skills or bad manners. The deposition that brought Deen’s behavior to light involves sworn testimony about Deen using the power of her corporation to place white employees in the front of her business while keeping black employees in the back. In other words, Deen practiced racially discriminatory institutional policies as a matter of workplace procedure. What this means is that Paula Deen actively assigned people to differential labor categories on the basis of race — if not soley, at least partially. In so doing, Deen actively made the decision to foreclose on people’s lives, thereby limiting individual employees’ economic and social chances in life — both long and short term — including (and by no means limited to) their ability to secure reasonable housing, attain decent educational opportunities for themselves and their children, as well as achieve dignified retirements free from poverty. This is the significant issue at hand and flaws in Deen’s individual personality are only tip of the ice burg.
To look at the case of the Paula Deen, here is racism and this is how it works. It works through the material benefits and tangible privileges received by one phenotypical group at the expense of another, wherein you work other folk to death and hurt their children and their children’s children into perpetuity . However, the claim of employment discrimination is seen as altogether different from proving it, says the U.S. Supreme Court. We can thank Clarence Thomas for this little nugget of injustice. Back before Thomas was on the Supreme Court, he headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (through the auspices of a Ronald Reagan affirmative action appointment, no less) it became federal policy to disregard claims of racial discrimination based solely on outcome. Merely demonstrating (statistically, or otherwise) that all the employees who happen to be African American get assigned to the back kitchen is irrelevant. The burden of proof demands more than that. Recent politicization of the judicial branch has resulted in numerous close split decisions. This was the EEOC policy that was legitimized once Bush 40 appointed Clarence Thomas to the high court. From the SCOTUS bench, Thomas continues to rule with other conservatives. Thomas’ record of decisions for key racial discrimination cases tends to favor the accused/offending parties. Burden of proof rest with victims. The plaintiff/victim must not only show damages or unfavorable outcomes, but must prove it’s being done on purpose. Paula Deen’s funny little nigger jokes show how she intentionally disqualified black employees from receiving fair labor compensation. The point is this: it does matter that Deen used the n-word, but not for the reasons the media would have us believe. The outcomes of personal and symbolic racism, such as the derogatory language used by Deen in the institutional context of a public, corporate establishment effectively translates into actual and real institutional racism and substantively proves intent to discriminate. In this particular context, Deen’s use of the word “nigger” equals the kind of racism that causes infant mortality and malnutrition, premature death from stress and overwork, destroys families, shatters dreams, perpetuates intergenerational poverty and social unrest, and fundamentally undermines what it means to live in a civil society based on democratic values. Therefore, if we really care about what we allege America to be, then we have no choice but to hold Paula Deen accountable for saying nigger— even if it was in the context of telling stupid jokes.
When all is said and done (and I think we can all agree at this point that a lot was said and even more was done), the bottom basic point is that Paula Deen ought not be allowed to use the power and wealth of corporate systems to institutionalize social caste groups—not if we are to live in an ethical, fair, and meritocratic society.