Writing and Race

Here’s what was important this week…

I spend a lot of time writing, but it never seems like enough. Partially because I spend so much time reading the writing of others, and partially because a lot of the writing that I do is IT documentation for my job. I feel truly accomplished when I manage to finish a blog post (there are at least 11 partially completed, with an entire doc full of more ideas). A lot of the time that I spend working toward a blog post is spent reading, tweeting, and tumbling (how I archive the articles I read). I tell myself it’s like research, and I do find it to be valuable network-building especially when I find a rich creative environment lacking at times. Writer Emily Gould told herself many of the same things, until she had a realization:

“For many years I have been spending a lot of time on the internet. In fact, I can’t really remember anything else I did in 2010. I tumbld, I tweeted, and I scrolled. This didn’t earn me any money but it felt like work. I justified my habits to myself in various ways. I was building my brand. Blogging was a creative act—even “curating” by reblogging someone else’s post was a creative act, if you squinted.”

She was trying to write a book, but only spent time on the internet. (Jacobin has more on the literal labor of social networks online).

Another writer finds a similar issue in a different way. As Neil Gaiman puts it to Edward Nawotka, “Use your blog to connect. Use it as you. Don’t ‘network’ or ‘promote.’ Just talk,” He goes on to clarify, “It’s much more important to write than to blog, so only blog if it makes you happy and if you have something to say,”

I’ve enjoyed writing for a long time, but never really thought I would have a job where most of what I do is write. I suppose one clue could’ve been an ongoing fascination with words and language. When I was younger I would flip through the dictionary and find words that caught my eye, like the idiosyncrasy between the main definitions of sanguine and sanguinary. Alexis Madrigal, senior editor at The Atlantic, finds a similar interest. As he details in an interview about his own newsletter:

“I love how people talk, strange and slangy. I love when people make up words. An old friend’s father was Persian and used to just drop random the syllable ‘anj’ onto the ends of words when he liked how it sounded. You always knew what he meant, but the rhythm and feel changed: candelanj, afaranj, timeanj. I love when rappers play with the language and bend it into shapes you didn’t think were possible. I’m for a mongrel language, a people’s language, a perpetually created and destroyed language."

As I’ve written about before in an earlier newsletter, the idea that there is only one way to interpret language leads to an enforcement of literary privilege, and this can extend easily into racism against those that can’t “speak English right”. As observed by Lynne Murphy writing for the Oxford Dictionaries blog, this interpretation is primarily American, because we ascribe so much meaning and prescriptive power to the dictionary that we view word definitions as key to court decisions, unlike the British. (This holds at least for English, there may be other languages/cultures that do the same).

The alternative, of course, is to encourage bilingualism. Canada is has two official languages, and thus enforces bilingualism–and recently extended that enforcement to social media posts. Bilingualism is more common, however, in families in which the parents are from a country but are raising their children in another, or when the parents are from different countries and speak different languages. Ben Faccini writes about the challenge of attempting to raise bilingual children after growing up with a French father and an English mother.

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently learned French, and recognized the value of knowing another language.

“It turns out that means more than talking to people, reading books or watching movies. It means understanding the difference between a definite and an indefinite article, the deeper meaning behind “Prêt A Manger” or “Le Pain Quotidien,” or the fact that the language you take as foreign is actually “everywhere”—on the buses and trains, on the lips of mothers remanding children, out the mouths of cab-drivers yelling at each other. “

His recognition that a language does not seem to be present until you learn to speak it parallels his further comments about how lists of the greats, “like “Geniuses of Western Music” [were] written by people who evidently believed Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin did not exist.” because they did not bother to learn about more than was familiar to them, they ignored the accomplishments and contributions of such phenomenally successful artists as Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin. As he concludes, “Here is the machinery of racism—the privilege of being oblivious to questions, of never having to grapple with the everywhere; the right of false naming; the right to claim that the lakes, trees, and mountains of our world do not exist; the right to insult our intelligence with your ignorance.”

The erasure of people of color, and an emphasis on the value of being white, was so strong that some people went so far as to move across the country (usually at the insistence of family members) and pass as white in order to find more success. A Stanford professor is researching their experiences, and points out that she is “not as interested in what people gained by being white, but rather in what they lost by not being black." Racial identity is a strong and valuable element of one’s personal identity. The college newspaper at University of Michigan, perhaps stirred by the controversy of the #BBUM movement, began a daily opinion column called Michigan in Color where people of color can write about their life experiences. They are adding voice to a traditionally voiceless minority. Some of the best (all short, I promise) are:

Even powerful people of color, like Kanye West, struggle with this. But as he points out in an interview with director Steve McQueen:

“Too many people are scared. But it is my job to go up every night and talk about this kind of shit. It is actually my job. I’m like a broadcaster for futurism, for dreamers, for people who believe in themselves. We’ve been taught since day one to stop believing in our own dreams. We’ve had the confidence beaten out of us since day one, and then sold back to us through branding and diamond rings and songs and melodies—through these lines that we have to walk inside of so as to not break the uniform or look silly or be laughed at. So I hope that there are people out there laughing. Laugh loud, please. Laugh until your lungs give out because I will have the last laugh."

When other people define your experience, through stereotypes or microaggressions, it can have a serious effect on your life. As one man recounts in an excellent long essay about mercy:

“I’ve had to struggle not to absorb those stares and questions and traffic stops and newscasts and tv shows and movies and what they imply. I’ve been afraid walking through the alarm gate at the store that maybe something’s fallen into my pockets, or that I’ve unconsciously stuffed something in them; I’ve felt panic that the light-skinned black man who mugged our elderly former neighbors was actually me, and I worried that my parents, with whom I watched the newscast, suspected the same; and nearly every time I’ve been pulled over, I’ve prayed there were no drugs in my car, despite the fact that I don’t use drugs; I don’t even smoke pot. That’s to say, the story I have all my life heard about black people — criminal, criminal, criminal — I have started to suspect of myself."

Typically, the best place for people to learn about race and racism is in school. But as Tressie McMillan Cottom points out, “When colleges and universities become a market, there is no incentive to teach what customers would rather not know. “ And the majority of customers, being white, would rather not learn about race. As she continues:

“A white student may feel discomfort when it’s pointed out to him how he has benefited from structural racism, but to compare that discomfort to discrimination is a false equivalency. Hurt feelings hurt, but it is not oppression.

But hurt feelings can be bad for business. And a lot of powerful people think colleges should act more like businesses. When they do, students act more like customers. And our likely customers might not be amicable to discussions about structural racism. If the customer is always right, then the majority share of customers is more right than the minority.”

This is a clear trend in higher education, student as customer, higher education as business or even country club.

An Inside Higher Ed article from yesterday asserts, “We are undeniably in an era where the governing model of education is one that conceives of students as customers."

Thinking about what (if anything) can be done to reinvigorate higher education makes me a bit despondent, so let’s turn right to the music. The Vaccines have a great song that I somehow only found yesterday called Norgaard.

Give it a listen, it makes me want to call it surf punk but who really understands genres anymore. A calmer version of surf punk would be surf-wop. I’m just going to call The Drums that because why not.

A bonus song because I’ve been listening to oldies for most of the formation of this newsletter is going to continue my mini-nonexistent-theme of surfing. For the more sedentary among us, here is Otis Redding with Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.

Feel free to comment with your favorite oldie/doo-wop/soul song, and/or your theories for fixing higher education. As always, thanks for reading!