Introduction: Talking Back to Tokenism
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been used as the “face of diversity.” Everywhere from the brochure for the local summer camp to US News and World Report, I’ve found my smiling image being deployed as the visual representation of someone else’s commitment to racial equality, a face present but no words spoken, none of my input relevant, my body all that was required and asked for. This was always good for a chuckle in my teens and early twenties, the price black folk pay for upward mobility. It was perhaps because of the banality of it all, internalizing how socially accepted it was for me to be seen as a commodity, that it took me so long to realize this diversity stuff, both figuratively and literally, had the potential to kill me.
I should have seen it earlier, but I didn’t, almost certainly because I didn’t want to. I didn’t see it in my teens, on a debate trip to Europe when a roving band of masked men accosted me and a companion while we walked down the streets of Ljubljana, Slovenia. I didn’t see it when I first arrived at a small liberal arts college (recently revealed in a New York Times ranking as dead last in diversity on a list of elite private universities), when I was called a nigger within two weeks of landing. I couldn’t see it when my roommate and his friends dressed up in blackface, or even when the desktop background picture in the college debate team’s office was switched to a picture of a naked black man with a laptop computer hanging from his penis. It wasn’t until I was riding my bike to my dorm and I heard a shotgun being racked behind me. To this day I’m not sure of the reality of that situation; I just pedaled as fast as I and never looked back, appreciating the ironic possibility of escaping inner city Baltimore only to be shot in Walla Walla, Washington. But I know a hunter was unloading some hunting gear, including a gunshot, and perhaps was just removing the slug from the chamber. He could, however, have been intentionally cocking the gun the scare the lone Black man in this small, homogenous town, or perhaps he truly had a notion to add me to the ever expanding list of black men shot down in America. In that moment I realized that my status as the perennial black friend, the designed ambassador for “urban” America, and proof of the benevolence of white liberals was more than just an issue of tokenism, but potentially an issue of life and death.
This is the personal context from which I write to address a recent update of the Whitman College debate team’s webpage. It is perhaps understandable, given the school’s recent diversity crisis, that despite my not having attended the school in five years and although I quit the debate program in a very public protest of its team culture my face has now reappeared on the page promoting the school’s debate team. I’m shown standing and laughing, doing the trademark debater “pen flip” next to a seated young woman (who quit the team after few months) and a smiling young white man (who ended up transferring after clashes with the administration). Out of context, we all look happy, and I don’t blame the person who put the picture online. After all, that is, as I’ve learned, how racism often functions. A well-meaning web designer scans a group of old pictures and simply wants to put the school’s “best faces” (one of which, in this case, happened to be MY face) forward. Another case of good intentions producing bad results. It presents me, however, with a moment to reflect on how far I’ve come and explain why and how I left the school’s debate team, Whitman College, the academy, and my attendant status as diversity token, behind.
Black Skin/ Whit(e)man College
Whitman College is a monument to the archetypical “good liberal arts” education. Located in the rural Eastern (aka Idaho-esc) portion of Washington State, 1,500 young people are taught, in splendid isolation, concepts from the classic academic canon, and are made to believe that, like St. Augustine in the schools required “Common Core” class, through reflection they can reach higher levels of understanding which will allow them to take their proper place as leaders in the knowledge based economy or nonprofit sector. This vision is presented as the secular equivalent of a religious revelation (their mascot is, after all, the Missionaries, in honor of the namesake Marcus Whitman’s exploits on the Oregon Tail) .
In class I was taught the rules of “liberal political theory,” most importantly that one’s identity was to be check at the door of the ivory tower. My attempts to theorize the realities of my experience of black life in America were dismissed as “antiquated.” After all, there was no “black life” in America, only a collection of individual people “coded” as Blacks with unique experiences, hopes, dreams, and life stories that could not be theorized collectively. I didn’t have the words then to explain how ridiculous this was, only seething anger and a knowledge that the poor white man who called me a nigger in Walmart, or the cops I saw when I went home for the summer who were prone to sweep entire streets of young black men into jail as an “information gathering” tactic, knew something this professors could not learn, or perhaps had unlearned through years of schooling. Outside the ivory tower black life was being theorized collectively whether the professors liked it or not.
I came to school seeking to ground my education in a relationship to the world, to gain tools to understand and eliminate the violence that was so prevalent in my life. What was taught instead was that only by freeing myself of myself and seeing knowledge as abstract and universal could I achieve enlightenment (and academic advancement). My “parochial” commitment to tying my life in Baltimore, my cultural identity, to my education was holding me back and preventing me from becoming a “real” (read academically respected) political theorist. What was beyond their understanding was that Baltimore wasn’t holding me back, but “holdin’ me down” (a slang phrase I grew up with that expressed support and grounding) and giving me guidance and orientation beyond the limits of what the school’s curriculum could accommodate.
Tokenization breeds a kind of spiritual death. In order to access the material benefits of the white world, black students are forced, figuratively and literally – linguistically and culturally, to leave their communities behind, isolating them from (and often turning them actively against) the people and communities that nurtured them and offered them the cultural and psychological resources that shape their lives.
My experience with the school’s debate team demonstrates the reality of this dynamic. The team was made up mostly of young, middle class, academically accomplished white men, who in their own minds had worked hard to master the language of power that would bring them upward mobility and respect. They thus considered the increasing wave of debaters of color who used alternative styles of debate (to critique the norms of debate and talk about racism and social justice) as goldbrickers taking unethical shortcuts to success and preying on white liberal sympathy.
As the brown debater more familiar with alternative debate styles, I was recruited as the team’s designated researcher on these new types of debate. This role often put me in the position of writing briefs on issues of race and inequality (issues that had defined my life and which were the entire reason I had come to this school) that would be used to argue that they should be off the table for discussion. Instead, I was to help the team support a focus on the hypothetical worst case scenario war planning framework that passed for “traditional” debate. The style used by debaters of color, many of whom I knew and even grew up with in Baltimore, were framed as cheating, and the black and brown people who produced these styles “cheaters.” The team’s culture reflected this standpoint. Voodoo style effigies of brown debaters we’re displayed throughout the squad room, where shirtless white men did comical impersonations of the impassioned pleas these debaters made for recognition of the importance of discussing social justice. I eventually quit the debate team, sending a letter detailing how the team culture was not conducive to my personal health and growth. I warned that the team would not survive unless serious conversations were to be had about this white, hyper-masculine culture. These concerns were largely brushed aside by the team’s leader, a professor who taught classes on, among other things, communication theory and identity. This experience started me on the road of social isolation and frustration which led me, despite having a 3.5 GPA, to leave school during the last semester of my senior year.
This is but one example of what many people of color experience; “diversity” is often a tool that organizations deploy against people of color rather than to respect or empower them. In my experience this was very clear. I was used literally as a spy, sought out for my knowledge on the “dark arts” (pun intended) of how these brown debaters schemed to steal rhetorical victory. But now I ask myself in how many corporate board rooms, planning meetings, or social functions are black and brown bodies used to validate the preconceived racial notions of their white benefactors? The violence of diversity is not an exception, it is the unspoken rule. The psychological and cultural break one undertakes in such a situation can be accurately understood, as professor Patricia Williams did when she wrote of “spirit murder”, a social death rendered upon black and brown bodies who attempt to negotiate these settings.
Conclusion: What’s in a Smile? Seeing Beyond Diversity Toward Justice
The Whitman debate team was eventually forced to be restructured after a sexual harassment/sexual assault scandal. It’s this new era of the team that leads me to my final point. The team has hired a new leader who has shown a commitment to gender and racial diversity. They have changed the culture of the team to address hyper-masculinity and have incorporated critical theory into the team’s culture. But despite this, or perhaps because of it, it is even more important to me to make clear that I cannot abide my face being used on the team’s website.
Seeing my face there returns me to my scene of subjegation, where I was an accomplice to the act of denigrating people who spoke truth to power, people whom I have come to love and with whom I’ve built the community I so desperately sought at Whitman. The laughter shown in the picture is not the sound of my Whitman. In my Whitman I hear a cocked shotgun clanging in my ears; the bike tires rolling on the ground as I wonder whether I would feel the shot hit my back; and the deafening silence in response to my calls for understanding and recognition. Far from empowering me through representation, as liberal multiculturalism would suggest, this picture perpetuates the long standing trope of the smiling black man. Algerian theorist Franz Fanon references a quote from Bernard Wolfe, and says of the image of the black mile smiling that:
“It pleases us to portray the Negro showing us all his teeth in a smile made for us. And his smile as we see it—as we make it—always means a gift. . . . Gifts without end, in every advertisement, on every screen, on every food-product label Golliwog toilet water and perfume. Shoeshines, clothes white as snow, comfortable lower berths, quick baggage-handling; jazz, jitterbug, jive, jokes, and the wonderful stories of Br’er Rabbit to amuse the little children. Service with a smile, every time.”
In the face of this, I see on the screen my body taken from me and rendered as an object of enjoyment for the spectator, assurance that Whitman debate offers laughs, interracial unity, and, as Fanon might say, above all, sho’ good eatin.’ Only it’s not barbeque, but my body on the menu, rendered digital for the consumption of the website’s intended (white) viewers. I am produced not as a person, but as a promise, making me a tool for the perpetuation of a lie, not only a misrepresentation of my experience at Whitman, but a denigration of my body as my property.
I will almost certainly get an email from Whitman thanking me for notifying them of this “oversight,” and referring me to an address for a private email correspondence on this issue. Since leaving Whitman I’ve worked with a community organization started by debaters of color called Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, and through coaching young people of color on how to apply critical race theory in debate and advocating for policy change on social justice issues, I’ve received an education from experience that my schooling at Whitman could not provide me. There I learned the logic of liberal theory, here I’ve reflected on my experience to write a chapter in a book on Liberal (Academic) White Supremacy. There I was trained to work at a nonprofit, to put my suffering on display for liberal sympathy and foundation grant money, now I am part of an independent institution that critiques the nonprofit industrial complex, which funds our work raisings money 15$ at a time from everyday people. This evolution has taught me a few things about discussions on racism, one of which is that the standard play when issues of racism are raised with “good liberals” is to make the issues about individual political correctness and not structural racism, handling it privately to avoid potentially embarrassing missteps (and for that matter, public accountability).
But in the context of the diversity article I feel the need to make my concerns public. The predictable, reactionary push will have the school recruiting for more diversity, and while the article was specific to economic diversity, the solution will almost inevitability be framed largely in the context of racial diversity, as this is the “politically correct” thing to do. Students of color will likely soon be receiving materials about Whitman’s “opportunities,” materials that could potentially have my face on them. In light of this, I propose that, before the school goes out on a shame-inspired search for a new “best” faces (read brown faces) to put forward, and before any alumni or administrators support such an effort, they ask themselves whether this action is really in the best interest of the education of these students or instead merely an attempt to rehabilitate the image of the university.
To be clear, I’m not saying Black people should not go to Whitman College for fear of violence. I am saying that violence, physical and psychological, is always on the table for black people in the United States of America, and in some places more than other. As someone who attended Whitman and engaged many different educational institutions in my works with college and high school youth, I don’t think the people at Whitman are any worse than any other school, but I do feel it is an especially difficult environment for black students, one that the school has yet to prove it has gotten serious about addressing. Any school, before it starts to recruit for racial diversity, must make a fundamental commitment to be responsible in the face of systemic racial violence in America, lest it risk, even in the face of good intentions, becoming an accomplice to or even a purveyor of that violence.
The policy analyst in me is obliged to give recommendations. Engaging a conversation on faculty diversity (or lack their off); ensuring students of color have sufficient room and board/travel arrangements in their financial aid packages so that they are not able to reconnect with home during breaks; establishing connections with institutions and community organizations with a “critical mass” of people of color that Whitman can coordinate with; adding critical whiteness training to the required freshman orientation (including revamping the schools “Core Curriculum” class to discuss issues of racism and whiteness/white supremacy directly ); and addressing the school’s town/gown relations in the context of harassment against students of color would be all be good steps.
The optimist in me truly hopes that Whitman can make such a commitment and seizes this opportunity to fundamentally change how it understands diversity in order to leverage its substantial resources and actually further diversity in a respectful, intelligent way.
But realist in me is not sanguine at the possibilities for change, and the student in me understands through experience the importance of mentors, cultural connections and a critical mass of fellow students who share your background and experience to a young person’s academic success. As such, the educator in me, who loves the young people I work with too much to put them in a potentially unproductive or even dangerous situation, is holding off on recommending Whitman to most of the Black students I work with.
And the debater in me would like to restate, for the record, my desire to be removed from the Whitman College debate website and any future promotional materials.