Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Dress Codes and Anti-Blackness

In my experience, school dress codes are a frequent topic of debate, particularly amongst adults and teenagers. I’ve heard stories about girls being asked to change because their shoulders were showing, have seen girls get sent out of class for showing bra straps, and have seen boys get in trouble for sagging their pants (which is an understandably annoying trend, but I digress.)

Earlier today at school, a boy was instructed to take off his du-rag. I was uncomfortable because it was a white teacher ordering a black student, as I have recently begun to examine interactions between white teachers, who tend to hold positions of power because of their race, and their black students. I, having seen family members wear du-rags on bad hair days, initially thought it to be a ridiculous rule. The teacher said the red du-rag could be a symbol of gang affiliation. When I asked about headwraps black women wear, he also said this could be a symbol of gang affiliation. I was angry and also embarrassed, but I couldn’t understand why.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad teacher in my four years of high school, but all but one were white. I specifically coveted my single black teacher and his African American studies class for three years, finally fitting his class into my schedule after changing my lunch period. He often lamented the fact that African American History was an elective half-year course instead of being taught along in “normal” social studies classes. Since I learned so much from him, I agree.

It’s not just what I learned from him, though. I still go back and visit him because of the safety I felt in his classroom. If anyone saw him, they’d probably be afraid, because he’s a big black man with a deep voice. But I knew I could discuss microaggressions with him without facing ridicule, the first time I’d ever been able to do so with any teacher. I could talk to him about snide comments made about slavery or black people or black culture, about white kids who said the n-word, about situations that made me feel uncomfortable even when I didn’t understand why. He understands. White teachers, although they may want to, do see the microaggressions. In fact, they’re often perpetrators.

The teacher who yelled at the student wearing the du-rag is one of my favorites. I’ve had him for four years. But when he talked to me about gang affiliations, I got the feeling I often get when white people say things that make me uncomfortable. My stomach sinks and I grow silent. I don’t say anything because I still want their respect and don’t want to ruin a relationship. However, in the immediate moment, I’m not sure how to articulate why the situation seems wrong to me.
Here’s what felt wrong: a white teacher calling out a black student for a distinctive part of black culture. The idea that I wouldn’t be able to wear a headwrap to school. The fact that this was somehow because of the dress code.

We aren’t allowed to wear hats at school, but du-rags and headwraps aren’t hats. I checked the official dress code, but these accessories aren’t explicitly mentioned. Instead, the code bans “any combination of clothing which law enforcement agencies currently consider gang-related” while acknowledging that “these may change.” After reading this, I became even more uncomfortable. How does this rule work in real time? Do teachers single out students who appear as if they might be affiliated with a gang? Are they relying on stereotypes or old information? And, with the tension between black people and police, I wondered how much “gang related clothing” had to do with clothes black kids like to wear.

According to GQ, the durag’s “existence as a utilitarian marker of black cool loosely parallels the head wraps worn by women in slaver-era America.” Both share aesthetic roots in sub-Saharan Africa, but the different stylings express individuality. For the author and other black men like him, the durag became a symbol of black excellence. Similarly, black women have regarded the headwrap as a “helmet of courage,” and “a uniform of rebellion signifying absolute resistance to loss of self-definition.”

Durags and headwraps are elements of black culture and ways for black teenagers to express themselves while also maintaining a connection to their identity. However, they’re viewed as “gang related.” What does that even mean? I kept asking myself that question over and over again today.

According to Homefront Protection Group, “the leader in reality training for the law enforcement community in the United States,” some types of jewelry, clothing, accessories, and bandanas with certain colors or symbols could be gang representation. To me, this is entirely too vague and leaves too much room for adults, like teachers, administrators, or even police, to rely on their own notions of what gang representation is. Homefront provided their own example: a racially ambiguous (but brown) young person who looks like they could’ve been an extra on A Different World.

At what point do these arbitrary methods of gang identification infringe upon a student’s first amendment rights?

In Chalifoux v. New Caney Independent School District, a gang known as the “United Homies” wore rosaries at school, causing the school district to ban all students from wearing rosaries to school because they had become “gang affiliated.” However, not all students who wore rosaries to school were gang members. Therefore, a federal court ruled that the rosary ban infringed on the First Amendment rights of students to express their sincere religious beliefs.

Similarly, du-rags and headwraps are methods of expression for black students. Banning them in the name of “gang suppression” is a repression of black culture, and frankly, misguided. Gang violence is obviously a big issue, but research doesn’t support the position that school rules restricting student clothing have any significant effect on safety and security.  

Newspaper accounts and anecdotes are not empirical evidence. Feelings white teachers or administrators may have are not empirical evidence. The lack of evidence supporting the banning of du-rags and headwraps makes me wonder how much skin color has to do with the situation. There are gangs that only wear Ralph Lauren. Will teachers pull white kids wearing Ralph Lauren sweaters out of the hallways and force them to change?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

"The Other Side"

Ever since Trump was elected, there have been a ton of messes. The most recent and horrific is arguably the tragic events at a gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, where a car plowed into a group of counter-protesters, killing a woman named Heather Heyer. 

Because of events like Charlottesville, there has been an emergence of "antifa," short for anti-fascism, a "far left fringe group." One of the reasons I haven't written anything about antifa is because I first heard about the group when Trump mentioned it. During a press conference after the events in Charleston, Trump asked, “What about the alt-left that came charging at the — as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? What about the fact they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem?" 

(Nevermind the fact that several people were injured and a woman lost his life. No, his first instinct was to focus on who to blame first. Anyway, I digress.) 

I didn't really believe what Trump had to say because he's Trump, and also because David Duke endorsed his comments. But, on Sunday, antifa showed up to an anti-racism protest at UC Berkeley, attacking Trump supporters and others they accused of being white supremacists. 

Jelani Cobb, an educator and writer at the New Yorker, wrote a piece where he declared that "the antifa protests are helping Donald Trump." When I first saw the headline, I was confused, because I hadn't heard about the violence and also because I figured that antifa were just that - against fascism. I was still confused and almost concerned when I finished reading. 

Cobb has an influx of people heading to his Twitter account, some calling him a sellout, which seems super dramatic. Nevertheless, I'm torn on the piece. Cobb has gone through a great deal of schooling, way more than me, and I also respect his work and writing. But I found that I disagreed. 

Before I get into it, his overall argument - that punching random Nazis is counterproductive - makes sense. It seems like punching any random person isn't going to help make anything better. It's not a horrible argument. I've seen many people share the same, rather articulately. 

I just don't understand it completely. 

Yes, we all want to avoid as much violence as possible. Yes, attacking people and accusing them of being white supremacists is bad. I don't think that there's a problem with self defense. Neither does Cobb.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">The interesting point here is that I&#39;m not a pacifist. To paraphrase Obama on Iraq, I&#39;m not against violence, I&#39;m against stupid violence.</p>&mdash; jelani cobb (@jelani9) <a href="">August 29, 2017</a></blockquote>
<script async src="//" charset="utf-8"></script>

My question is what constitutes stupid violence. I think that randomly attacking someone when you're unsure of who they are could be considered "stupid violence." But Cobb also references the protests at UC Berkeley that occurred earlier this year, when Milo Yiannopoulos was set to speak there. Protesters smashed windows and set fires, and Yiannopoulos didn't speak.

I don't think that was stupid violence. 

I think that Yiannopoulos is a horrible racist, among other things. He's referred to Leslie Jones as "barely literate," and called her a "black dude." He's called a Buzzfeed reporter a "thick-as-pig shit media Jew." He's harassed and outed a transgender student during an appearance at the University of Wisconsin.  He's called Black Lives Matter a terrorist group that fights "a war on police and a war on white people." He's said that Islam is cancer. He's said that trans people are mentally ill

Long story short, he's hate speech personified. 

Not wanting this person speaking at the school I intend (especially since he outed a trans student at a college appearance) is understandable. I remember having a conversation about this with my teacher. He worried that, if the "other side" couldn't share their views, we would soon lose this ability as well. 

"But what do you do," I asked him. "If their views are that you aren't a real person? That they hate you? That you shouldn't exist?" 

He didn't have an answer to me. 

It's because of this that I can't partake in this "both sides are at fault" argument. Perhaps Cobbs and I disagree, but I believe that merely having someone like Milo speaking at my school is an instance of violence. 

I don't think that black people or queer people or any marginalized person should have to bear the weight of hatred in order to help the "greater good." A student at UC Berkeley shouldn't have to listen to someone like Milo spew racist or transphobic ideas at their place of schooling. 

"Well Camryn," you say. "They don't have to listen. They can just sit there. They don't have to go. They can get up and leave."

But what does this say about the school that I'm going to? The mere fact that people refer to hateful ideas as "different opinions" only legitimizes them. When people support Trump, they back up his actions. When people identify as white supremacists, they don't believe that I am a real person. It's not a different opinion than mine. It's hatred, even if they don't physically attack me. 

Cobb referred to the both protests at Berkeley as "morally wrong." I can understand labelling the actions at the second protest that way, but not the first. What's morally wrong about starting fires and breaking windows when my school is fine with committing violence against me? To take it a step further, why should hateful Trump supporters or white nationalists be treated with non-violence when they don't offer us the same? 

Furthermore, I don't care about morals anymore. Heather Heyer has died. Because Trump reinstated the pipeline that gives military weapons to local police, more unarmed black people will die.  Because of Trump's actions and spot in the white house, more hate crimes will occur.
Because of white supremacy, more black people will be faced with violence. 

What I'm trying to say is that Trump supporters and white supremacists do not care if we fight back with violence. Well, that's false. I'm sure that they care, because it makes them upset. I agree with Cobb's point that these instances will be used to defend Trump, his supporters, and white supremacists. But so what

Martin Luther King was nonviolent and they killed him.

Anyway, the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s was accused of inciting violence. Eight liberal white clergymen accused MLK of being too aggressive and counterproductive (his response, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, is a must read.) People opposed the March on Washington because they thought it could create more violence. People called his demonstrations "excessive." 

In 1968, a black man wrote to King stating, "After knowing the honest truth about this and many other deaths caused by your calm riots, we as a body had rather not have any thing else to do with you or your so called righteous riots or better, righteous murders.”

No matter what happens, these people aren't going to be nicer to us. They won't play fair just because we do. I mean, before the American revolution, Loyalists were all, "Guys, stop throwing tea in the harbor. It's making us no better than us. We don't want to be stupid about this." And sure, our country is horrible to a lot of people of color, especially Native Americans, and didn't give us freedom or anything, but I digress. 

Cobb wrote that people like Nelson Mandela used "violence when it was efficacious, nonviolence when that was effective. Power came from understanding that." But when do we reach that point? How long do we suffer in silence, allowing people to spread racist and hateful ideas? 

To me, if a white person calls me a nigger, that is violence. If that white person gets hit, I think it's justified, because that is self defense. 

When white nationalist Richard Spencer was punched during an interview, I thought it was self defense. 

Of course, there are actions that antifa have made that I don't agree with. I generally don't want violence in general. But the fact is that it's here. When slave riots happened on plantations, slaves were blamed, even though it started with slave owners. When riots started in Ferguson, black people were blamed, even though the violence started with the police.

We face violence when we are non-violent. We face violence when we say nothing. We face violence when we fight back with violence. No matter what we do, they will always find something wrong with it. Even though I always think we can do better, I also know that people will find problems with everything we decide to do. 

White nationalists and white supremacy have started the violence. Their ideology is inherently violent. The core of their ideology is violence. I can't say that I blame those who fight back with violence. Survival is an essential aspect of the black spirit. 

Sometimes survival means fighting back.