Comedy Is Not Pretty: In Black and White

Mix all the colors of light and we see white; the absence of light is black.

Mix all the colors of pigment and we see black; the absence of pigment is white.

This paradox of how we see color often is the source of debate; I’ve heard students complain about being taught different facts in art and physics classes. But it also serves as a useful metaphor for the problem of color as a foundation of race and racism.

When I was young and still discovering and shaping who I am (and necessarily coming to terms with race in the deep South), I was profoundly influenced by stand-up comedians—George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Steve Martin among the most influential.

Martin’s 1979 comedy album, Comedy Is Not Pretty, is a prescient title for two contemporary stand-up comedians whose routines, viewed together, capture nearly perfectly everything that is wrong with contemporary understanding about race and racism: Dave Chappelle and John Mulaney.

Having recently watched Chappelle’s and Mulaney’s newest specials, I was struck by how many of their bits were similar—both used their wives’ minority status to tread on dangerous material, both depended on meta-jokes based on reactions to their routines, both weaved in political humor with the autobiographical, both worked blue, and each addressed race.

However, these two men and their routines are also profoundly different—Chappelle is very much a black comedian (think Pryor), and Mulaney is very much white (think Jerry Seinfeld).

And I imagine anyone knowing these comedians finds this distinction a bit simplistic, even bordering on crass, but I want to argue here that race becomes the defining element of their work, and as such, exposes a central problem in public discourse about race and racism: Many whites are apt to resist discussions of race and racism with “Why does everything have to be about race?” or “I don’t see color.”

Let’s start with a few clips, a shortened version of Mulvaney’s Trump skit (here on TV, but expanded in his new special) and a couple clips from Chappelle on Netflix:

Mulaney’s political humor is indirect; it is metaphor—in a similar way his profanity is rare and his special includes one direct reference to being white.

Chappelle’s political humor, profanity, and race, by comparison, are direct, even blunt, and pervasive. Consider especially the second clip above.

Because of his whiteness, his privilege, Mulaney is afforded the space of being indirect while Chappelle, even as he acknowledges his wealth privilege, cannot risk these subtleties.

The paradox of race/racism in human behavior is parallel to the paradox of color in light/pigment: For whites, race seems always invisible because white is the norm of U.S. culture (the absence of race is white), but for blacks, race is a constant reality, something always visible (the presence of race is black).

The media rarely identify race for whites, but nearly always do for black and brown people—especially in criminal situations.

Whites, then, watching Mulaney are apt to see the routines as not about race (even though the entire routine is imbued with whiteness) and mostly not political (although, again, his entire routine is a political commentary); those same whites, we can guarantee, would see Chappelle as racial (if not, to misuse the term, racist) and strongly political.

The problem with race/racial/racism as that intersects with political is that everything in human behavior includes both, but the norms make one invisible to the dominant race (white) and omnipresent to the marginalized race (black). And thus, all human behavior is political either by omission (maintaining those norms) or by confrontation (changing the norms).

Mulaney, in his whiteness and the primary state of omission, becomes a seemingly less radical comedian; Chappelle, in his blackness and confrontation, becomes a seemingly more radical comedian.

I include “seemingly” because, as Chappelle acknowledges, both comedians work with wealth privilege—even as Chappelle is not afforded through that to rise about his being black (see his skit about being pulled over by the police while a friend is driving for him).

Almost 40 years past Martin’s visual gag (and he too may seem less political in his whiteness), Chappelle and Mulaney offer by comparison comedy that is not pretty, but is pretty sharp in terms of modeling the lingering problems with race and racism in the U.S.

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The Lazy Libertarian Lie: Paul Ryan Edition

Before the expected Ben Folds’ “Rockin’ the Suburbs” “Let me tell y’all what it’s like/Being male, middle-class, and white/It’s a bitch, if you don’t believe” response can envelope this post, I want to offer a few caveats.

I have strong libertarian tendencies, ones that have drawn me to a Henry David Thoreau sort of thinking grounded in rejecting authority and appreciating that adults should be allowed to live as they please within the constraints (see below) that acknowledge a simple but inescapable truth: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” (John Donne, Meditation XVII).

And I know some self-declared Libertarians who are somewhat evangelical about their ideologies but, none the less, routinely demonstrate that they have souls—even as they haven’t rectified the disconnect between being a soulless Libertarian (a redundancy) and living life in any sort of humane way. And thus, I am not really holding forth below about those Libertarians who ultimately do not live by what they profess.

The lazy Libertarian lie depends on several failures of logic.

One is the “damned government” argument such as those who refuse to wear helmets while driving a motorcycle or rail against the shrinking areas allowing people to smoke (although laws still permit adults to smoke in their homes and cars while under-age and non-consenting children are present, and are thus inhaling the toxic smoke that the law prevents them to inhale by purchasing cigarettes).

This argument is, at its core, a fundamental cluelessness about individualism—in short, the lack of awareness, see Donne above, that individualism simply does not exist.

Taking risks—no helmet, smoking—never has consequences only for the risk taker. Trauma and illness resulting from this risk taking stress unnecessarily a health care system that impacts everyone else.

Despite these “I did it my way” risk takers’ choices, EMS and medical staff are ethically obligated to keep them alive, often a tremendous drain on their time and at great costs (trauma care in the ER and after, cancer treatment, etc.).

Another of the great logic fails is the “I built this” crowd, the ugly but enduring lie of the self-made billionaire.

All individual wealth in the U.S. is built on other people’s labor and facilitated by (brace yourself) the “damned government”; for example, there are no business ventures possible at the degree experienced in 2018 without the road and highway system in the U.S. (brace yourself: publicly funded).

And the entire free market fetish for property and personal property is possible only because of the legal and justice system that monitors a relatively high level of property safety.

And this brings us to poster boy Paul Ryan, an incredibly dishonest Libertarian (when it suits him) who cherry-picks his Ayn Rand adolescent rants.

Like the political Rands, and the cartoon Randites like Rush Limbaugh (who pronounces her first name as “Ann”), Ryan has profited handsomely from his white man Teflon and his American mythology sound bites grounded in lazy Libertarian lies.

Ryan lies about his athleticism.

And as James Fallows has documented, Ryan lies “in ways large and small.”

Behind the hairdo and the suits, Ryan has been trafficking in the racism and poverty-hating that some think was created by Trump.

Like Ayn Rand herself, Ryan has announced the end to his career in politics (brace yourself: Ryan is the “damned government”) and is poised to received $79,000 annually for life (brace yourself: tax dollars just handed to him for doing nothing).

Ultimately, Ryan embodies the great big pile of excrement that is the lazy Libertarian lie: My ideology is mostly about what I want for you, but not at all what I want for me.

You see, there simply are no rugged individuals. Not a damned single person who has pulled themselves up by the bootstraps.

Like the horrible literature and vapid philosophy of Ayn Rand, these are not enduring American myths, but calloused lies in no way grounded in reality.

They are designed to aggrandize the wealthy and demonize the poor; yet they are lies about both.

The sinister irony of these lazy Libertarian lies is that the wealthy and privileged are more likely to be the immoral and unethical class in the U.S. than the working class and poor.

My libertarian urges of boyhood, grounded in Thoreau and Emerson (not Rand), ended with my boyhood.

I grew up, physically, intellectually, and morally.

I recognize and appreciate collectivism, community, and collaboration.

A turning point for me was John Dewey’s pragmatism, an argument that either/or thinking fails humans. In short, Dewey argued that it is a false choice between individualism and collectivism—that they are symbiotic, not antithetical.

Any libertarian urges that remain—and they do because I certainly fear totalitarianism and regret that so little of life in the so-called “free” U.S. is actually free—are always tempered by what has come to be for me the greatest acknowledgement of the moral imperative of collectivism that grounds me, by Eugene V. Debs:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

My freedom is inevitably bound to everyone else’s freedom—and this is the great moral truth denied by the lazy Libertarian lie.

Beware Adversity Porn

With the current high-profile coverage of Stormy Daniels in mainstream media, the public is bombarded with subtle (“adult-film star”) and not-so-subtle (“porn-star client”) attempts to slut-shame Daniels through her profession in the porn industry.

This obsession with Daniels, reducing her always to porn star in order to keep our eyes on here and not Trump, reveals much about the inherent sexism and Puritanical love-hate relationship with sex that characterize Americans.

While the evidence is not as clear as many think about the dangers of pornography, something else insidious confronts the U.S. in our media and pop culture—adversity porn.

ESPN’s E:60 episode, “Letterman,” offers but one example of what I mean by adversity porn:

As TJ Cotterill reported when the episode premiered in 2015:

The first-year Lincoln coach said the inner-city schools – one in Tacoma, the other Los Angeles – share similar issues with drug abuse, poor grades, low incomes and single-family homes. Only Lincoln has a support system that didn’t exit at Bernstein.

But his endeavor to change Bernstein’s culture – symbolized though emotional letters of love he asked parents to write to his team’s players that they were surprised with and read on their own before the team’s practice – will be featured at 5 p.m. PDT Wednesday on ESPN’s “E:60.”

Viewers meet and come to empathize with several boys and men of color who all share some highlighted characteristics—the absent father, socio-economic hardship, struggles to succeed in traditional settings such as school.

In one moment, a featured boy at half-time of a football game implores his teammates to play like inner-city players; he is shouting, much as the coach, who the episode stresses has a similar background to his players, does throughout footage of his coaching.

This is adversity porn, the romanticizing of people who find themselves in adversity and then demonstrate the nearly super-human will to scream at and fight their way above that adversity.

The Coach plays the role of “I have overcome” and proceeds to be the savior for the boys and their parents, who are framed as passively negligent or unaware until the coach asks them to write letters to their sons.

Designed to be inspiring, adversity porn such as this (and examples can be found almost daily across the U.S.) depends on and perpetuates some ugly messages about people of color and people trapped in poverty; they are flawed people who need to be changed, and that problem is cloaked in code (“culture”).

Adversity porn accomplishes what much of mainstream media and pop culture sell constantly by keeping the public gaze on individuals, those who bend to adversity and those who somehow rise above adversity.

But isn’t this just a feel-good story about these boys, their coach, and their families?

The “feel-good” part is the problem because it is the soma, the Novocaine that numbs us to the real problem that adversity porn helps avoid—the adversity itself.

Adversity porn is about flawed people, and it normalizes the outliers who seem to overcome adversity. Adversity porn matches well the urge to turn our schools into fortresses instead of addressing the larger gun culture that threatens our students’ safety.

This is our rugged individualism myth that is both a lie and a distraction.

Of course, heroic and exceptional people are compelling. We love the gods of our mythologies and the superheroes of our Marvel and DC universes.

But those expectations imposed onto all humans serves only to erase any recognition of our shared and individual humanity. To live in adversity is shamed, and then to fail at rising above that adversity is more shame.

Adversity porn’s focus on the individuals and not the adversity is its ultimate corrosive influence.

New stories that acknowledge and unmask the adversity and then create hero narratives about the people in privilege who use their privilege to end the adversity, not to shame and “fix” the people who are victims of adversity—this is what we need.

No white saviors or white-savior stand-ins, no finger wagging at parents who labor under the weight of poverty, no romanticizing abusive behavior (screaming, berating) and toxic masculinity masked as “tough love.”

“Porn,” broadly, represents that which we are in some compelling and possibly even obsessive way drawn to, attracted to. The porn content itself may not be the problem, but the obsession and the distorting impact that obsession produces are likely the real problems.

Adversity porn creates overly simplistic pictures of the people trapped in adversity; then it callously ignores the adversity itself, sending a deformed message about the fatalism of adversity and the lottery that is surviving or thriving.

Ultimately, adversity porn argues that we need to instill in people trapped in adversity the grit and tenacity to overcome, but a more humane goal would be to seek ways to end the adversity itself, a goal that may be less sexy because it would require the sort of grit we demand of the poor and oppressed in those with privilege who rest on the fact of adversity themselves.

Make America Great, Finally?: The Archeology of White People (Redux)

America has never been great. Including now.

The problem with such a claim is that a blanket statement  leaves too much room to discredit the argument, and of course, we must all agree on the definition of “great.”

Large-scale evidence that America has never been great is obvious: slavery, lynching, the Japanese internment, the Trail of Tears, the Tulsa massacre, and the bloody litany of mass and school shootings that characterize America in a way distinct from all other democracies.

At any moment in the history of the US, what can be called “great” for any group of people, when unpacked, can be exposed as the consequence of some other people’s suffering. It has always benefitted the winners in the US to keep everyone’s eyes on the winning so that we can conveniently ignore the necessary losing.

That is part of the message in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

That is what I confronted in the last stanza of my poem “the archeology of white people“:

Ignore the body in the road
we whisper in their tiny innocent ears
Isn’t that golden car spectacular?

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, America is great for Tom and Daisy, but if we refuse to look the other way, that comes at the expense of Myrtle, ripped apart and dead in the road; of George, dead at his own hand; and of Gatsby, perversely shot in his opulent pool.

This is America: “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth” (“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich).

Or as Langston Hughes’s speaker challenges: “(America never was America to me.)”—the too often ignored voice of those who live the fact of America not being great.

To rally around “Make America Great Again” is a perversion of hope; it is delusion.

Delusion is not the result of a lack of knowledge, but a refusal to listen, to see because you are driven deaf and blind by a fear of acknowledging the truths that refute your beliefs.

The delusion of clinging to guns, instruments of death, as a symbol for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

On social media, I witness this daily—those for whom proof and evidence mean nothing, those who shout the loudest, know the least, and listen not at all.

While there is no credible greatness to recapture in America, I do not deny yet the possibility of greatness. In fact, I can rally myself around “Make America Great, Finally.”

Greatness is certainly a worthy aspiration, although that too requires that we agree on exactly what “great” is.

Let me pose two examples we may want to follow.

Teachers in West Virginia, a right-to-work (non-union) state, have demonstrated a quest for greatness by recognizing and then acting on the power of striking. If citizens would more commonly recognize and then act on the power of mobilized groups with common interests, unresponsive government and political leadership could be eradicated in the name of the greatness we claim to seek.

Students across the US, prompted by Parkland, Florida students, have also demonstrated the potential for the powerless to organize and assert power with the nation-wide walk outs demanding action on gun control. Even before the walk out, student activism had prompted large corporations to change gun sale policies without any policy changes from political leaders.

WV teachers without the legal right to strike along with children and teens with almost no direct political power have demonstrated that power exists where it appears absent and that greatness springs from community and not individual zeal, not necessarily reduced to a zero-sum gain.

The choice in the US does not have to be between Daisy and Myrtle, in fact.

That American dream is only a dream for some because it is a nightmare for many.

There is nothing great about wealth or the wealthy; there is nothing great about coaxing most Americans to develop the grit to overcome adversity.

Great is the absence of poverty, not the presence of wealth.

Great is the absence of adversity, not the presence of grit.

Teachers in WV and students all across the nation have played great first hands.

Your turn.

 

Changing the Odds So No Child Has to Overcome Them

There are several challenging, and therefore uncomfortable, scenes in Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later (2007); however, when I show this documentary in my courses, few students recognize those scenes as either challenging or uncomfortable.

At one point, several black men from the Little Rock, Arkansas community are gathered outside the school, and they speak directly about the need for blacks to take care of their own, clean up their own communities. These men directly mention the damage of black-on-black crime (which is about the same as white-on-white crime, although the latter is almost never mentioned).

Throughout the documentary, as well, a number of black students confront how hard they work and how some of their fellow black students simply do not try—echoing a rugged individualism and personal responsibility narrative that a white teacher/coach and her white golf team members express.

I use these scenes as teachable moments about the negative impact of respectability politics on marginalized groups:

What started as a philosophy promulgated by black elites to “uplift the race” by correcting the “bad” traits of the black poor has now evolved into one of the hallmarks of black politics in the age of Obama, a governing philosophy that centers on managing the behavior of black people left behind in a society touted as being full of opportunity. In an era marked by rising inequality and declining economic mobility for most Americans—but particularly for black Americans—the twenty-first-century version of the politics of respectability works to accommodate neoliberalism. The virtues of self-care and self-correction are framed as strategies to lift the black poor out of their condition by preparing them for the market economy.

…Today’s politics of respectability, however, commands blacks left behind in post–civil rights America to “lift up thyself.” Moreover, the ideology of respectability, like most other strategies for black progress articulated within the spaces where blacks discussed the best courses of action for black freedom, once lurked for the most part beneath the gaze of white America. But now that black elites are part of the mainstream elite in media, entertainment, politics, and the academy, respectability talk operates within the official sphere, shaping the opinions, debates, and policy perspectives on what should—and should not—be done on the behalf of the black poor.

Respectability politics works in conjunction with seemingly innocuous narratives (rugged individualism, lifting yourself by your bootstraps, personal responsibility) to keep the accusatory gaze on individuals and away from systemic inequity. In other words, political and economic elites are more secure if the majority of people believe all success and failure are primarily determined by individual traits and not by privilege and disadvantage beyond most people’s control.

This semester that discussion has coincided with Laura Ingraham attempting to publicly shame LeBron James to “shut up and dribble,” a not-so-clever self-promotion for one of Ingraham’s vapid books.

Along with Kevin Durant’s heated response, James (see video in the link above) stressed, “We will definitely not shut up and dribble.”

Watching James, however, and listening carefully present us with the dangers of his “defeating the odds” motivation (listen to about minutes 1:50-2:15), his own powerful and impressive rise to being King James.

I am not criticizing James, however, and fully support his response, refusing to shut up and dribble.

But a message that suggests anyone can or should be able to achieve what an outlier, James, has achieved is ultimately harmful, speaking through and to the most corrosive aspects of respectability politics.

This call to teach children to beat the odds, in fact, is shared all along the political spectrum from right to left.

The ultimate flaw in a beat-the-odds mentality is, again, that it suggests success and failure lie mostly or solely in the individual, a matter of choice and effort—like having “grit,” a growth mindset, or a positive attitude (all ways to fix inadequate children).

This is a terrible message for children especially since success and failure are mostly determined by systemic forces—except for rare outliers—and the message allows those with the power to change the odds to escape accountability.

LeBron James, I believe, is right about his importance as a role model, as a stellar example of what black success looks like despite the odds being unfairly against him in the form of racism and economic inequity.

And as long as we as a society choose to ignore the odds, choose to allow racism, sexism, and classism to exist, I suppose we should find humane and supportive ways to encourage children to work so that a few of them may hit the life lottery and beat the odds.

But to be blunt, that’s a pretty shitty cop-out for the adults who could, in fact, change the odds so that no child has to overcome them.

It is ultimately a heartless and ugly thing to see children as lacking the drive to beat odds that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

It is political cowardice and public negligence to remain fatalistic about the odds as we watch those odds destroy the hopes and dreams of our children.

If anyone should shut up, that would be Ingraham and her entire cadre of right-wing know-nothings who shovel the very worst narratives that help guarantee those odds will remain in their favor.

And as we listen to James instead, let’s resist demanding that he or any so-called racial minorities somehow erase racism and then begin to demand that those who benefit the most from the odds use those privileges to dismantle those odds.

That, I know, is a powerful ask, but it is one that certainly holds more credence than asking children to be superhuman because we have James dribbling across our flatscreen TVs.

Scholarship, “Lived Reality,” and “the Validity of a Thing”

In the beginning of my experiment as a public intellectual, I was a lowly high school English teacher who on occasion had a letter to the editor in the Herald-Journal (Spartanburg, SC).

These brief efforts at speaking to a general public as an informed voice taught me some valuable and enduring lessons—one of which included feedback from that general public.

My letters to the editor prompted long, rambling messages on my phone answering machine and incoherent typed letters mailed to my home and the high school where I taught.

Many of the phone messages were irate retired people who proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had no real understanding of Social Security or the workings of government and the free market. The typed letters (some on manual typewriters) were often single-spaced with almost no margins and punctuated with slurs and threats.

One frequent letter writer opened his diatribe with “Dear African American Homosexual”—all meant as slurs, and none accurately identifying me.

These early experiences with being misunderstood and ineffective were mostly interactions with anonymous and angry readers.

Eventually, mostly because I moved to higher education after earning my doctorate (although only a lowly EdD), I have been afforded a larger stage—Op-Eds in local, state, and national publications as well as a well-read personal blog, invited public and university-based talks, and a substantial collection of published work.

Responses to my public claims, now, are typically not as often public, but those responses continue to teach me valuable lessons—mostly how often and how easily words and claims can be misunderstood and even work in ways that are the opposite of my intent.

Here I want to examine two experiences, one from 2014 and another recent, that help shape who I seek to be as a person, a writer, a teacher, and a scholar.

First, some context.

As a redneck from rural South Carolina who had working-class parents, attended state universities, and has embraced critical pedagogy as my scholarly self, I am regularly marginalized in scholarly and academic contexts because of those identities; my writing is brushed aside as “polemics,” and my Southern drawl is noted with passive-aggressive disdain.

In personal spaces with family and friends as well as in my public writing and speaking, I am there marginalized as “just a scholar”—another pointed-headed intellectual with no real-world experience.

Let me stress here that as a white man with an advanced degree and a prestigious position at a universities, I am acknowledging these experiences but in no way suggesting they are nearly as consequential as simply being a woman, a person of color, or gay (for example). This is not a whine-fest, but I am trying to discuss the challenges of navigating public spaces as a perceived scholar.

Several years ago, I was invited to speak at the University of Arkansas by good friends who are professors there; I had written a book on poverty, and they were kind enough to ask me to speak at a week-long focus on poverty and education.

The University of Arkansas happens also to be home to a Walton-funded graduate department that is staffed by faculty who universally reject my scholarly perspective, and in some cases, me specifically.

Based on that talk, some of those antagonistic professors mentioned me in a piece for Education Next. In their defense of “no excuses” ideologies (specifically KIPP charter schools, both of which I reject), they openly mischaracterized me in order to discredit me:

Like all charter schools, KIPP schools are chosen by parents, but critics fear that disadvantaged parents do not know enough to choose wisely, or else do not have their children’s best interest at heart. Leaving aside whether the critics patronize the people of color KIPP schools serve, we propose that KIPP and similar schools are not nearly as militaristic as critics, who may have never been inside them, fear.

Recently, Andre Perry has confronted that charter advocates tend to smear critics of charter schools as “against parental choice,” something I have examined critically as well.

Even though I am skeptical of most charter and choice advocates, I learned an important lesson, and was confronted with a real dilemma: How do I challenge charter schools and “no excuses” ideologies in the context of black, brown, and poor families voluntarily choosing them?

Michelle Alexander offered me a solution in her confronting of The New Jim Crow:

This last point – that African Americans seem to support both the war on crime and “no excuses” charter schools – presents the most problematic aspect of charges that mass incarceration and education reform are ultimately racist, significant contributions to the New Jim Crow.

For example, Carr reports that African American parents not only choose “no excuses” charter schools in New Orleans, but also actively cheer and encourage the authoritarian policies voiced by the schools’ administrators. But Alexander states, “Given the dilemma facing poor black communities, it is inaccurate to say that black people ‘support’ mass incarceration or ‘get-tough’ policies” because “if the only choice that is offered blacks is rampant crime or more prisons, the predictable (and understandable) answer will be ‘more prisons.’ ” (p. 210)

New Orleans serves as a stark example of how this dynamic works in education reform: Given the choice between segregated, underfunded and deteriorating public schools and “no excuses” charters – and not the choice of the school environments and offerings found in many elite private schools – the predictable answer is “no excuses” charters. (Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era)

As a result, I now try to frame my rejecting of charter schools and “no excuses” by clarifying that all parents regardless of social class or race deserve high-quality schools without need to choose or compete; I also confront directly how choice advocates tend to embrace a false choice (as exposed by Alexander).

My second example happened just yesterday on Twitter when Angela Dye and I interacted about the “word gap,” which I have often rejected.

I consider Dye a comrade, virtual colleague, and someone whose public voice informs my own; in those ways, this experience was not like the one above, but it forced me once again to confront how good intentions are not enough, especially when that intent is perceived as silencing or ignoring the exact people I seek to support.

Several of Dye’s comments are powerful checks on how I have examined the “word gap”:

This Twitter moment also serves to prove John Warner’s point about the value of social media.

Dye’s challenges asked me to reconsider how my work perpetuated the voice of a scholar that uses research to “invalidate” “lived reality”—especially since I in no way sought to have that impact.

Just as I have afforded a fuller context to my rejecting charter schools and “no excuses,” I must seek ways to examine the “word gap” with Dye’s powerful concerns in mind.

Rejecting the “word gap,” I must clarify, is not rejecting the lived reality of significant and consequential differences among the social classes in terms of literacy. Yes, people living in poverty are denied access to and marginalized by privileged language.

Too often formal education works to perpetuate that equity gap resulting in the so-called “word gap” that works as a term and in reality similar to the “achievement gap.”

This lived reality in which some people due to race and social class are excluded from life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness through formal gatekeeping of who has access to privileged language and who does not, I think, is what Dye is speaking for and through.

So as I navigate still how to express more clearly why I reject the “word gap” as a term and how it works against marginalized and vulnerable populations, I offer two contexts for what I am rejecting.

First, Virginia Eubanks confronts in The Digital Poorhouse:

The most marginalized in our society face higher levels of data collection when they access public benefits, walk through heavily policed neighborhoods, enter the health care system, or cross national borders. That data reinforces their marginality when it is used to target them for extra scrutiny. Groups seen as undeserving of social support and political inclusion are singled out for punitive public policy and more intense surveillance, and the cycle begins again. It is a feedback loop of injustice.

And, Annette Lareau unpacks in Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (see online)

The differences are striking….

Neither the approach of concerted cultivation or the accomplishment of natural growth is without flaws. Both have strengths and weaknesses [emphasis added]. Middle-class children, for example, are often exhausted, have vicious fights with siblings, and do not have as much contact with their extended families as working-class and poor children. But when children enter institutions such as schools and health care settings, the strategy of middle-class child rearing of concerted cultivation is far more in compliance with the current standards of professionals than is the approach of the accomplishment of natural growth. There are signs that middle-class children gain advantages, including potentially in the world of work, from the experience of concerted cultivation. Working-class and poor children do not gain this benefit.

Therefore, I argue that the “word gap” fails for the following reasons:

  • Literacy is reduced and distorted to quantifying vocabulary (data collecting) as the sole proxy for literacy. Literacy is far more complex.
  • That use of data serves to frame poor children and their parents as having incomplete or inadequate literacy and idealizes middle-class and affluent literacy without acknowledging that this imbalance is an issue of power.
  • The “word gap” keeps the evaluative gaze on children and their parents (how to give the children more vocabulary and how to blame poor parents for literacy-deficient homes) and allows education and education reform to remain focused on “fixing” children and their parents and in-school reform only while ignoring the larger and more powerful social inequities reflected in schools and homes.
  • Research confirming the “word gap,” notably by Hart and Risley, is compelling not because of the quality of the research but because it confirms race and class biases in both conservative and liberal narratives. Media/journalists, pundits, and the public rush to cite Hart and Risley for reasons that must be unpacked—even as we acknowledge the inequities of literacy correlated with social class.

Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), vulnerable populations of students have been mis-served through reductive vocabulary drill-and-kill, narrow high-stakes testing, and the lack of political will to address their access to rich literacy in their homes, communities, and schools (experiences afforded middle-class and affluent children that results in their identifiable vocabulary differences).

Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), poor children and families are characterized primarily through deficit lenses that ignore their literacy strengths that simply do not match privileged literacy.

Because of an uncritical embracing of the “word gap” as a concept (not the acknowledging of the inequity of literacy among social classes), the barriers to literacy, academic, economic, and judicial equity remain mostly unexamined—out of sight, out of mind.

By confronting scholarly debates about the “word gap,” Dye has exposed the problematic relationship among scholarship, “lived reality,” and “the validity of a thing.”

I must do a better job with that dynamic if I want to be the sort of voice for social equity and justice that I seek to be.

UPDATE

Angela Dye has taken the exchange above and examined how our Twitter interaction confronts a tension around public discourse and elements of power and privilege; see Pissing on My Pee.


For Further Reading

What These Children Are Like, Ralph Ellison

If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?, James Baldwin

False Equivalence in Black and White

It is well documented that marriage has many benefits for any person, including economic, health, and longevity [1]. Divorce, then, should pose a question about the consequences to both parties.

Even in cases of 50/50 settlements of divorce, an important dynamic exists:

Ultimately, the overall economic quality of a man’s life, based on earnings and amount spent on living expenses, increases after his divorce. He continues to earn more but bears fewer family expenses. The overall economic quality of a woman’s life, post-divorce, decreases. (Rosen, 2009)

While the factors in this inequity are complicated, they are all under a clear difference in gender: after a divorce men retain male privilege and women continue to suffer the consequences of misogyny and sex discrimination (both of which may be mollified or masked while a woman is married).

This example allows us to wade into how people often assume equivalence between two situations or arguments that appear superficially equal; that assumption is a logical fallacy known as false equivalence.

Discussions of logical fallacies, I believe, often feel as if they are much ado about nothing, or merely academic—the stuff of college composition, rhetoric, and philosophy courses.

However, the careful naming of ways people think and communicate are witnessed daily in how we live; currently, the destructive power of false equivalence is on display in the wake of the violence spurred by a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA.

One of the most bitter aspects of the U.S. as a current state of Trumplandia is the racial animosity emboldened by Trump, what has been characterized by the mainstream media as white pain or white angst (often oversimplified and whitewashed as working-class pain and angst).

Just as gender distinguishes the consequences of divorce, in the U.S., socially constructed race distinguishes pain and angst.

To be blunt, white pain simply is not equal to black pain since blacks carry daily the inequity of race through their lives while even struggling whites maintain some aspects of white privilege—just as men carry their male privilege even in challenging situations such as divorce.

The false equivalence, then, created with political and public speech about “all lives” or “both sides” or “many sides” fails to address the substantive differences, for example, in Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests (or Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling) from the white nationalists’ rally in Virginia over the removal of a Confederate monument.

BLM and Kaepernick are protest against inequity and calling for integrating all people into the same privileges that whites experience. White nationalists are railing against a false loss (symbolized by the removal of an offensive statue that represents oppression) and promoting racial inequity and segregation.

Again, simply put, two protests are not equal simply because they are protests, and one (BLM) has a moral imperative and a goal of expanding equity while the other (white nationalists) is clinging to an inequitable status quo and a romanticized oppressive past.

Just as expanding the marriage equities to gays never took anything away from advocates for so-called traditional straight marriage, expanding the promise of a just and equitable U.S. to everyone regardless of identity is not some assault on or removal of America but a long overdue path to fulfilling of America.

White nationalism in all its forms—from “Make America Great Again” to the most virulent Neo-Nazis and the KKK—is a plague on the U.S. It must not be equated to demands for equity in our justice system and liberty for all, which are the goals of BLM and counter-protests to white nationalism rallies.

The only thing whites are at risk of losing is their privilege, the false advantages of race that currently disadvantage people of color, the “peculiar benefits” Roxane Gay confronts that work invisibly to those who enjoy them:

We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy and because life is hard for nearly everyone, we resent hearing that. Of course we do. Look at white men when they are accused of having privilege. They tend to be immediately defensive (and, at times, understandably so). They say, “It’s not my fault I am a white man.” They say, “I’m working class,” or “I’m [insert other condition that discounts their privilege],” instead of simply accepting that, in this regard, yes, they benefit from certain privileges others do not. To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. To acknowledge privilege is not a denial of the ways you are marginalized, the ways you have suffered. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult but it is really all that is expected.

White nationalism is a denial of white privilege and a calloused clinging to the injustice and inequity that are represented by the monuments and flags white nationalists protect and flaunt.

Black Lives Matter and white nationalism are both bound by race, but they are in no way equal—the former is a call for equity and justice for all and the latter is the gross necrophilia clutching the ideologies that bred the Holocaust and American slavery.

False equivalency is a master’s tool, a rhetorical lie to distract a people from the hard but good work recognizing the unity of all humanity.


[1] Note that this may also be more about gender inequity, however.