Half of a Yellow Sun: Adichie’s Historical Parable of Race, Class, and Politics

In her Author’s Note for Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recognized scholars, her parents, and other family members for helping her fictionalize the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-70; telling, I think, is this: “In particular, Chukwuemeka Ike’s Sunset at Dawn and Flora Nwapa’s Never Again were indispensable in creating the mood of middle-class Biafra.”

Powerful throughout Adichie’s gripping and sharp novel is her weaving together the significance of race, class, and politics—tribalism and race, race and class, and then intellectualism in the context of both race and class.

All of this as well is wrapped in examinations of the power of both language and dialect.

Adichie soars in her deft handling of characterization and narrative against her historical and political purposes.

But the West and especially the U.S. are now probably mostly ignorant of this bloody conflict, although my entry into it is rooted in Kurt Vonnegut’s New Journalism, “Biafra: A People Betrayed,” originally published in April 1970 for McCall’s and then collected in Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons.

Vonnegut tells a story of Biafra as a witness, a white ally of sorts angry in the opening of his piece at slights such as calling Biafra “a tribe” and recognizing how Nigeria/Biafra were pawns in international games:

Biafra lost its freedom, of course, and I was in the middle of it as all its fronts were collapsing. I flew in from Gabon on the night of January 3, with bags of corn, beans, and powdered milk, aboard a blacked out DC6 chartered by Caritas, the Roman Catholic relief organization. I flew out six nights later on an empty DC4 chartered by the French Red Cross. It was the last plane to leave Biafra that was not fired upon.

Despite Vonnegut’s romanticizing, his self-centered report on Biafra carries a recognition of Nigerians and Biafrans as sophisticated people in the way the West likely assumed they were not. But his story is ripe with contradiction:

I admire Miriam, though I am not grateful for the trip she gave me. It was like a free trip to Auschwitz when the ovens were still going full blast. I now feel lousy all the time.

I will follow Miriam’s example as best I can. My main aim will not be to move readers to voluptuous tears with tales about innocent black children dying like flies, about rape and looting and murder and all that. I will tell instead about an admirable nation that lived for less than three years.

There is always something unnerving about Vonnegut’s flippant and darkly humorous tone and his subject matter; in this way, despite his being a white Westerner of privilege, Vonnegut reporting on Biafra seems about right as that circumstance can.

Vonnegut’s WWII bitterness fits the horrors of this civil war: “The Fathers are now being deported forever. Their crime: compassion in time of war.”

As a primer for reading Adichie, Vonnegut’s essay confronts children suffering from kwashiorkor, General Odumegwu Ojukwu, the politics of oil, and “the arrogance of Biafra’s intellectuals.”

Also as in Adichie’s novel, Vonnegut highlighted the light against the dark.

This:

A more typical Biafran family might consist of a few hundred souls. And there were no orphanages, no old people’s homes, no public charities and, early in the war, there weren’t even schemes for taking care of refugees. The families took care of their own, perfectly naturally.

The families were rooted in land. There was no Biafran so poor that he did not own a garden.

Against this:

Palm oil, incidentally, was one of two commodities that had induced white men to colonize the area so long ago. The other commodity was even more valuable than palm oil. It was human slaves.

Think of that: slaves….

What did we eat in Biafra? As guests of the government, we had meat and yams and soups and fruit. It was embarrassing. Whenever we told a cadaverous beggar “No chop,” it wasn’t really true. We had plenty of chop, but it was all in our bellies.

Vonnegut had two agendas, common in his fiction and nonfiction: decry war without being simplistic or naive and champion his great Idealistic dream of large communities, families.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as Nigerian, a woman, and a writer has agendas also.

Unlike Vonnegut’s paternalistic outsider witnessing, Adichie dramatizes her witnessing as James Baldwin envisioned, a lived witnessing as well as a writer’s witnessing to raise the voice of the unheard.

The servant Ugwu framed against the scholar/intellectual Odenigbo and Olanna, from wealth and privilege, draw the reader into the realities and horrors of race, social class, and personal as well as partisan politics.

As in Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State and Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children, Adichie demonstrates that even in the pursuit of good and freedom, the world is mostly hellish for children and women—violent, rapacious, indiscriminate.

Half of a Yellow Sun works as a parable, then, as it works as a historical novel; this story is an enduring and damning story about human failure, the flaws of men and the wars they demand, the addictive and corrosive influence of power and the frailty of the weak in the path of that power.

Along with Gay’s and Yuknavitch’s novels, Half of a Yellow Sun sits well also with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and The Temple of My Familiar—all resonating as parables and historical witnessing.

Beware war and good intentions, these writers implore.

Words matter, they also intone.

Humans are a mess of pain and suffering, they ultimately lament.

I feel no need to walk through Adichie’s novel here, but I do want to stress that along with its historical significance, Half of a Yellow Sun speaks eerily to now for those of us in the U.S.

Adichie recognizes the chasm between intellectuals and so-called common people while she is deft at exposing the hypocrisy and foolishness found in all people; she does not demonize or idealize any of the many ways people are distinct in this novel, how people truly were separated in the years of the war: within and among races, educated and superstitious, idealistic and cynical.

As I often do now, as I read Adichie I heard James Baldwin’s warning about the great human failure:

This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.

Adichie’s novel is bursting with “refusals”—political propaganda, interpersonal dishonesty and infidelity, and self-delusion—all of which confront today an already free people who are careless with that freedom and insensitive to suffering on our own soil and throughout the world.

I do not here wish to cross the line Vonnegut may well have crossed, making the plight of Biafra about him.

Adichie’s novel deserves your time as a novel, it deserves your time as a powerful unmasking of an ignored moment in history, but it also can serve you as you navigate the U.S. in the present.

After almost dying as a conscripted soldier, Ugwu exclaims to another servant: “‘There is no such thing as greatness.'”

Damning and bitter, yes, but a warning we should heed none the less.

Rethinking “A monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity” (Melissa Range, poet)

Separated by about a 2-3 hour drive on I-26 through South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee, but also by about 10 years, Joe Kincheloe and I were born in the rural South, both destined to become aliens in our home land.

Joe proved to be a key person in my scholarly life quite by accident when a colleague at the university where I found myself after almost twenty years teaching high school English was working on a book for Joe and asked me to write a response for her to include.

From that, Joe offered me my first academic book contract, leading to co-authoring a volume with Joe as well as a now-long list of scholarly books and a career as a writer I was certain would never happen for me.

My relationship with Joe is bittersweet since we never crossed paths in person and had only a few phone calls, the first of which elicited from Joe when I spoke, “Why you are from the South, aren’t you!”

Laughing his words revealed a joy and kindness that were who Joe was in his soul, in his bones.

I recalled this phone call as I was reading On Poverty, Justice, and Writing Sonnets of the South, an interview with poet Melissa Range:

This sudden interest in so-called “rural identity” is amusing and frustrating to me, honestly, because I don’t think most of the country actually has much real interest in rural people. They just are horrified (as am I, as are more than a few rural people I know) about the election results. Had the election gone another way, would the non-rural parts of the country be seeking to know the “rural mind”—whatever that is? I don’t think so.

I say this as a card-carrying bleeding heart pacifist leftie socialist who comes from working class white rural people who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, most of whom have always voted for Democrats, or not voted at all. Yes, my dad voted for Trump. He always votes Republican no matter how I try to convince him to do otherwise. My old aunts and my mom have been stumping for Clinton since 2008. My brother-in-law, another one of those “white males without a college degree,” is repulsed by Trump, is on disability, has PTSD from his time in Bosnia, is an accomplished cook, hunts and gardens, and reads the Qur’an in his free time. My sister, who is 41 years old, never went to college, and has lived in the same place her whole life, doesn’t understand what the big deal is about transgender bathrooms in North Carolina. We were driving around in Boone, NC, this past spring when I was visiting her, and I remember her exclaiming, “Why can’t those who make the law just let people do as they please? Who cares what bathroom anybody uses? They ought to be ashamed for passing that law.” You can find rural people with these beliefs, with sophisticated conspiracy theories about UFOs, with unexamined beliefs about race and gender, with a passionate commitment to union organizing and to environmental activism. You can find rural people who are passionately pro-life and just as passionately pro-choice, who love their guns and who don’t believe in guns. In other words, rural perspectives are diverse, like perspectives of people everywhere. There are so many kinds of rural people. And I would like to add that they’re not all white and not all poor and not all working-class and not all intolerant. Of course some are intolerant. Of course some are resistant to change—like people everywhere. There are a lot of rural spaces in America, and everyone who lives outside of cities isn’t the same. A monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity is nothing new, but it’s as false now as it ever was.

I can’t and don’t want to speak for all rural people, but my people, at least, in East Tennessee, don’t expect the government to care about them and don’t expect the rest of the country to care about them, either. What they expect, and what they typically get, is either derision or dismissal. I’ve been hearing educated, liberal people throw around terms like “white trash” and “redneck” and “hillbilly” ever since I left East Tennessee. They say these words to my face as if they are not insulting my people and me. How can liberals and progressives forget that class exists? Maybe they just like having someone else to foist some blame on. I will say that my part of the country (I call it that even though I haven’t lived there in 25 years) has an inordinate number of people who are truly beaten down. In my hometown, there used to be textile factories that employed hundreds of people, and now there aren’t. One shut down in the 1970s, another in the 90s. Nothing much has come in to replace them except meth and other drugs, so there’s a lot of poverty and a lot of substance abuse and not much industry. Poverty and despair go hand in hand; it’s not hard to imagine this (and obviously this isn’t just a rural phenomenon). And when you see yourself on television and in movies being stereotyped and mocked, well, it doesn’t make you feel any better.

I can imagine Range joining in with Joe and me—aliens of academia and the literary world. Also reading Range’s comments, I thought about how often we Southerners are stereotyped as illiterate, in many ways because of how we sound (which is what tipped Joe off to my Southern roots).

The South is, from my lived experience, a heaping mess of social class, race, and god-awful mangling of the English language—all wrapped in the flag and lots of bible thumping.

But none of that is as simple as people want to believe, want to claim.

As Ralph Ellison confronted in 1963 when speaking to teachers:

Some of us look at the Negro community in the South and say that these kids have no capacity to manipulate language. Well, these are not the Negroes I know. Because I know that the wordplay of Negro kids in the South would make the experimental poets, the modern poets, green with envy. I don’t mean that these kids possess broad dictionary knowledge, but within the bounds of their familiar environment and within the bounds of their rich oral culture, they possess a great virtuosity with the music and poetry of words. The question is how can you get this skill into the mainstream of the language, because it is without doubt there. And much of it finds its way into the broader language. Now I know this just as William Faulkner knew it. This does not require a lot of testing; all you have to do is to walk into a Negro church.

But if you want to feel particularly out of place, out of kilter, academia can be that for you if you are working class or from the working poor. As Vitale and Hurst explain [1]:

Both academia and the DNC have a class problem. They don’t know anything about the working class because they have isolated themselves from working-class people. We have been struggling for years to change this within academia….

Discussion of social class has always been relegated to the margins of academia. In turn, public discourse about class is muted. By denying the opportunity for social class to be a valid academic subject in itself, or to be considered an authentic form of social identity, educated folks (academics, pundits, campaign managers, and journalists) didn’t just silence the voices of the poor and working-class, they also denied the possibility of critically engaging the problem of affluence.

Rurality, being working class or working poor—these have become another form of marginalization in many contexts, and with the rise of Trumplandia, the mischaracterization and fetishizing of working class/working poor whites have accelerated, as noted by Range and seen in the popularity of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.

However, the mainstream media’s misreading working class/working poor white angst is ironically reflected in Vance’s deeply flawed work, as noted by Sarah Jones:

Elegy is little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class. Vance’s central argument is that hillbillies themselves are to blame for their troubles. “Our religion has changed,” he laments, to a version “heavy on emotional rhetoric” and “light on the kind of social support” that he needed as a child. He also faults “a peculiar crisis of masculinity.” This brave new world, in sore need of that old time religion and manly men, is apparently to blame for everything from his mother’s drug addiction to the region’s economic crisis.

Vance’s thinly veiled conservatism and simplistic “aw shucks” cashing in on his background feels very similar to an experience I had years ago when my university chose Timothy B. Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name as the incoming first-year students’ common book, which faculty also read to discuss with those students.

From Tyson’s work to Vance’s and currently with all the bluster about working class whites across the rural U.S., I cringe at the ways in which many people treat any sort of Other as if they are visiting a zoo—oh-ing and ah-ing at the exotic, but keeping their distance all the while.

There is an insensitivity of distance that Henry Giroux, an academic from a working class background, has identified:

Being an academic from the working class is, of course, impacted by many registers, extending from ideology and cultural capital to politics….

My father had just died of a heart attack, and I had returned to the campus after attending his funeral. My Dean at the time was a guy named Bob Dentler, an Ivy-League educated scholar. I ran into him on the street shortly after my father’s death and he said to me, “I am sorry to hear about your father. It must have been difficult settling his estate?” Estate? My father left a hundred dollars in an envelope taped behind a mirror. That was his estate. I was immediately struck by how out of touch so many academics are with respect to those others who are not replicas of themselves. But as I began to understand how class was mapped onto academia, I was determined not to play the role of the subservient, aspiring-to-be-middle-class professional. I had no intention of letting myself morph into a golf-playing suburbanite living a politically irrelevant academic life. I viewed myself as being on the left, and my politics provided me with the tools to be not only self-reflective but also critical of the cultural capital that dominated the academy and passed itself off as entirely normalized. I had no interest in narrowly-defined, almost-choking specializations, stifling forms of professionalism, appeals to positivism or a politics that largely removed the university from the broader society.

But just as academia as well as mainstream media, politicians, and the public have garbled a romanticizing of working class whites, there are in these dynamics much uglier problems concerning stigmatizing and reducing any Other.

Political hand wringing about working class whites has, once again, ignored black and brown marginalization—including excluding working class black and brown people from that debate.

But the most corrosive aspect of the rush to appease working class whites is that the carelessness of this discussion has served only to further divide through race those among whom race is a commonality.

Recognizing that the poor, the working poor, and the working class have more interests in common than differences due to race is actively muted by those sharing class and race privilege.

We need ways to reject “monolithic and stereotypical understanding of rural identity,” as Range notes.

But that is a public and political conversation too often ignored in academia (increasingly as we seek ways not to upset students-as-customers) and possibly too complicated for the world beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower.

Yes, white working class and working poor angst is real, but those groups still benefit from white privilege—and many white working class/poor do not want to hear that while they are suffering.

And too often, among these groups of whites racism, sexism, and xenophobia remain too common, too powerful, and working class/poor whites certainly do not want to hear any of that.

Let us, then, not fetishize working class/poor whites, and not demonize black and brown people; let us not romanticize rurality or poverty, and not ignore the very real plight of rurality and poverty.

When Range writes about “our kind/of people,” I hear and see from my lived experience in an often self-defeating South.

It’s a complicated mix of love and embarrassment that Joe and I shared—one echoed in Range and Giroux.

I remain troubled, then, by how we can see and how we can listen, without the poisoned ways that have gotten us where we are now.


[1] See also A.L. Hurst & S.K. Nenga (Eds.), Working in class: recognizing how social class shapes our academic work.

What Trumplandia Confirms about Republican Party, Christian Right, and White America

I just want to ask a question:
Who really cares, to save a world in despair?
Who really cares?

“Save the Children,” Marvin Gaye

I was born and have lived my entire life in the cesspool of hypocrisy that is the Bible Belt—where conservative Republicanism and Christian values are thin veneer for hatred, bigotry, sexism, gun-lust, and enduring racism.

That hypocrisy failed me and then as a young adult and throughout my life I have been taught critical love and kindness by great writers and thinkers: Kurt Vonnegut, Eugene V. Debs, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, and the greatest witness of all, James Baldwin.

With the election of Donald Trump as the U.S. president, the entire nation has before it this reality: Trumplandia confirms that the Republican Party, Christian Right, and white America have abdicated all rights to any moral authority.

First, despite efforts by mainstream media and pundits to argue otherwise, Trump and his rhetoric are continuations of central efforts by the Republican Party reaching back at least to Reagan: “tough on crime” as code for racist beliefs about blacks and Latinx, “build a wall” as just more xenophobia, and anti-government ranting as code for denying “free” offerings to the “lazy” people of color and “illegal immigrants.”

Trump’s Republicanism is directly in line with Reagan Republicanism. The only real difference is Trump’s outlandish and brash admissions aloud of the very worst of the Republican Party, such as calling Mexicans rapists and murderers. Traditional Republicans only hint at such.

Even more important is that the overwhelming support for Trump by the Christian Right is stunningly damning:

For eight years, Barack Obama and his family—despite a history of being practicing Christians, despite Obama himself offering several eloquent and Christian speeches and hymns in times of tragedy, and despite Obama and his family living essentially good (read: Christian) lives—the Christian Right, and Trump, have refuted Obama’s Christianity and used accusations of his being a Muslim as a slur.

Yet, Trump’s hedonism, adultery, sexual assault, profane discourse, hate speech, sexism, and rapacious behavior as a business man and pseudo-billionaire [1], for the Christian Right, prove to be just fine.

Trumplandia has exposed there is nothing “Christian” or “right” about the Christian Right.

Finally, however, the most damning and least addressed consequence of Trumplandia is what it has exposed about white America, who overwhelmingly supported Trump:

As expected, Trump did best among white voters without a college degree, beating Clinton by the enormous margin of 72 percent to 23 percent. Trump also won among white, non-college women 62 to 34 percent and white college-educated men, 54 to 39 percent. Among white voters, Clinton only won among women with a college degree by a 51 to 45 percent margin. Interestingly, among white voters, there is no evidence in the exit poll that income affected the likelihood that they supported Trump.

The conventional wisdom being promoted by whitewashed mainstream media is that the working and middle class have been abandoned by Democrats and the U.S. government; yet, exit polls show that the two lowest income categories chose Clinton by a slim majority (certainly skewed, however, by people of color over-represented in these groups, revealing how the media is mostly worried about “working class” and “middle class” only as that relates to whites):

Both sets of exit data from CBS and NYT, then, suggest that Trump’s support has more to do with race than disgruntled working class whites being ignored and disenfranchised.

Actually, mainstream media has its argument backward because Trumplandia confirms that white America has abandoned commitments to equity for all—not that any political party or the U.S. government has abandoned white America.

The problem with the hurting working/middle class white argument is that this is racially inequitable America:

And this is racially inequitable America:

The America where race and gender create exponential inequity:

As a powerful contrast to the white male and female support to Trump, note that black women were by far least likely to vote for Trump—and they have the greatest reason to be disenfranchised (the lowest wages at every level of education, above):

The ultimate problem with the suffering working and middle class white argument for Trump’s rise is twofold: (1) white suffering may exist, but by comparison to black/brown suffering and gender suffering, white suffering remains relatively less significant, and (2) if whites are hurting, that fact should have spurred solidarity with historically marginalized groups, not the antagonism being heard from white America.

If white America ever really believed in the melting pot, believed in a country of immigrants, believed in equity for all, that may have existed in some distant and idealized past when white America saw that pot melting disparate whites into one homogenous white: equity for all who look like us (white).

Trumplandia is a white response (whitelash), not from working and middle class suffering, but against rising demands by oppressed groups (#BlackLivesMatter, Colin Kaepernick, gender neutral restrooms, marriage equity, immigration reform, etc.) for equity for all.

The only thing whites are poised to lose is their unearned privilege, but the rise of white support of Trump confirms that whites see their privilege as more important to preserve than equity for all is to attain.

“Make America Great Again” is slogan-as-code for maintaining white (and male) privilege.

#

In the tumultuous world faced by Marvin Gaye—especially war torn—he sang:

But who really cares?
Who’s willing to try?
To save our world
To save our sweet world
To save a world
That is destined…to die

Trumplandia is a defiant “Not us” from white America—and efforts to whitewash that callousness as economic angst is further proof that the dirtiest word in the U.S. to utter is “racism” because of the delicate sensibilities of the most powerful people in the country.


[1] Matthew 19:24: Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

“History proves that the white man is a devil”

The public career and life of Malcolm X are fraught with contradictions and controversy—often complicated by the Nation of Islam and its discredited leader Elijah Muhammad.

Malcolm X’s infamy—as it contrasts with the idealizing and misrepresentation of Martin Luther King Jr. as a passive radical—lies often in his sloganized “By any means necessary” and “History proves that the white man is a devil.”

While Malcolm X himself confronted some of his more controversial and confrontational stances, in 2016, the U.S. is faced with the prescience in what seemed to be hyperbole and racial anger; however, there is much to consider about the evil capacity often behind the face of white men.

Living just across the highways from my neighborhood, Todd Kohlhepp has confessed to vicious murders after police found a woman chained in a storage container for two months.

Kohlhepp represents to a disturbing degree the classic profile of serial killers and sex offenders, central of which is being a white male.

At the University of Wisconsin:

The 20-year-old student, Alec Cook, has been arrested and appeared in court on Thursday, charged with 15 crimes against five women, including sexual assault, strangulation and false imprisonment. His modus operandi, according to police and prosecutors, was to befriend fellow students and eventually entrap and viciously attack them, while keeping notebooks detailing his alleged targets.

Kohlhepp and Cook, white males of relative affluence, are no outliers. Yet, political leaders and the media persist in characterizing for the U.S. public much different images of who to fear: Mexicans, black males, Muslims.

Daily violence—including sexual aggression and assault—is a real threat in a way nearly opposite of these political and media messages; each of us should fear people who look like us, and family, friends, and acquaintances deserve nearly equal scrutiny.

Political race-baiters and the mainstream media rarely stray from the black-on-black crime message, but also always fail to add a key fact: crime is almost entirely intra-racial as the white-on-white crime rate (86%) is nearly identical to the black-on-black crime rate (94%).

Malcolm X’s rhetoric may still seem inflammatory, but James Baldwin’s more measured charges confront the same racial masking and tension:

White Americans find it as difficult as white people elsewhere do to divest themselves of the notion that they are in possession of some intrinsic value that black people need, or want. And this assumption—which, for example, makes the solution to the Negro problem depend on the speed with which Negroes accept and adopt white standards—is revealed in all kinds of striking ways, from Bobby Kennedy’s assurance that a Negro can become President in forty years to the unfortunate tone of warm congratulation with which so many liberals address their Negro equals. It is the Negro, of course, who is presumed to have become equal—an achievement that not only proves the comforting fact that perseverance has no color but also overwhelmingly corroborates the white man’s sense of his own value.

White men control the political and media narratives, and thus, white males are bathed in the compassionate light of the white male gaze of power—everyone else becomes the feared Other.

The hatred spewed by Donald Trump is not solely what should be feared in this context, but that he personifies and speaks to “the white man’s sense of his own value” that seeks to erase that Other, as Astra Taylor reported from a Trump rally in North Carolina:

A few months ago Trump had rallied in Wilmington, North Carolina, the site of America’s only and largely forgotten coup. In 1898, in the waning days of Reconstruction, rioting white supremacists overthrew a multiracial progressive “fusion” government, deposing democratically elected leaders of both races and killing black citizens mercilessly. After that, populism in North Carolina, as in the South more broadly, was a white affair. At his rally near the site of that historic, shocking savagery, Trump suggested “the Second Amendment people” do something about Hillary.

The Trump narrative is essentially racist, and almost entirely false, Jason Stanley explains:

The chief authoritarian values are law and order. In Trump’s value system, nonwhites and non-Christians are the chief threats to law and order. Trump knows that reality does not call for a value-system like his; violent crime is at almost historic lows in the United States. Trump is thundering about a crime wave of historic proportions, because he is an authoritarian using his speech to define a simple reality that legitimates his value system, leading voters to adopt it. Its strength is that it conveys his power to define reality. Its weakness is that it obviously contradicts it.

And thus, Trump has public support from the KKK and Nazi groups for a reason; and that support is distinct from public support for any of the other presidential candidates, none of which draw hate groups into the light.

In A Dialogue between James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, Baldwin argues, “The reason people think it’s important to be white is that they think it’s important not to be black”:

It’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself. You become a collaborator, an accomplice of your own murderers, because you believe the same things they do. They think it’s important to be white and you think it’s important to be white; they think it’s a shame to be black and you think it’s a shame to be black. And you have no corroboration around you of any other sense of life.

Yes, we must be vigilant about the white gaze and the male gaze, both of which, as Baldwin witnessed, corrupt the agent and object of that gaze, but we must be as vigilant about the white male accusatory finger designed to keep everyone else’s gaze somewhere other than where the most power, and too often, the most evil reside.

The False Cult of Effort, the Gender Gap, and K-12 Teacher-Bashing

While the U.S. presidency is rarified air, the presidential election often reflects the best and worst of the American character.

As the country sits in the cusp of the end of the first black president’s administration and the likelihood of electing the first female president, what does the current election show about the lingering privilege of being white, male, and straight in the U.S.?

Being black, brown, female, gay, or transgender requires perfection while being white, male, and heterosexual allows any transgression to be excused.

Hillary must be perfect (her email controversy is oddly identical to millions of erased emails from private servers under George W. Bush, although that is of no real concern to the public or the media, for example), but Trump’s admitted behavior as a sexual predator is swept aside as just a man being one of the boys.

Yes, the glorious sanctity of the office of president must not be sullied—although the Republican Party has elected Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and W. Bush, a who’s who of unethical personal and political behaviors?

And in this dynamic of privilege we find the cult of effort—the implication that all these powerful white males are in power because of effort, because they deserve the success, earned the success.

Recall that Trump built this off the pittance of an inherited few million. …

On a smaller scale, then, is the K-12 teacher, a profession trapped in the cult of effort and the gender gap.

Having spent my career in part as a K-12 public school teacher and now as a tenured full professor, I have witnessed first-hand a powerful and ugly dynamic.

First, let me work backward.

My university has only about 30% female faculty, which reflects a male norm (linked with a white norm) of university professors:

profs-gender

Few professions have greater professional autonomy that being a professor. I can assure you that rarely do people even bother telling a professor what to do—and among those few, virtually none have any real influence.

The profession of being a professor is a white, male world of autonomy and significant prestige.

As above, there is also a false cult of effort among professors—the professorate, so goes the message, is mostly white and male because of the hard work of those white men.

And if you doubt that, listen carefully to the white male response to initiatives for increasing the diversity of professors: We must maintain our rigorous standards for hiring! they shout.

The cult of effort, the cult of rigor—these are codes for maintaining privilege.

The inverse of this dynamic is at the K-12 level of teaching, a work force still dominated by women:

k-12-teachwrs-gender-2

For K-12 teachers, historically and especially over the past two or three decades, the cult of effort has imposed on the American public that schools are failing primarily because of a slack teacher force (read: a mostly female teacher force), and the way to reform that lazy work force is to raise standard! and demand more!

Let us imagine for a moment that gender divide between the supreme autonomy of mostly male professors and the nearly absent professional autonomy and ridiculous accountability leveled at mostly female K-12 teachers.

The entirely inexcusable “no excuses” model implemented in high-poverty schools serving mostly black and brown students has also become the default environment of being a K-12 teacher: high demand, nearly superhuman demand that erases all professional autonomy and most of the human dignity of teaching.

Yes, teaching K-12 is very hard, but the cult of effort is mostly a lie, and the current high-stakes accountability paradigm is a central cause for driving away teachers.

The accountability era has intensified the historical marginalizing of K-12 teaching as just a woman’s profession; the stakes have been artificially increased while teacher autonomy has been even further eroded.

As a result, K-12 teachers have their work scripted and then are badgered for poor outcomes from the practices they didn’t even choose to implement.

The public and in-school environments for K-12 teachers are toxic—unprofessional and dehumanizing. Administrators who can go to the restroom any time they please demand teachers remain at their doors between classes and never leave a class unattended—relegating basic bodily functions to 20-minute lunch periods (if they are free of students) and planning time.

This reality cannot be disentangled from the gender gap reflected between professors in higher education and K-12 teachers—as well as the current presidential campaign.

K-12 teacher bashing is nested in sexism—assumptions that women are unable and unwilling to make the effort needed to educate children; and thus, K-12 teachers need to be scripted and held to high standards of accountability.

In the political and educational worlds, however, those demanding that accountability and driving the criticism are often far above the standards they espouse.

And that is the ugly truth about women, so-called racial minorities, and gay/transgendered people who must be perfect while white, straight men are forgiven for any and every transgression.

Our democracy suffers under that inequity of privilege and the profession of K-12 teaching is on life support because of the essentially nasty environment surrounding day-to-day teaching.

Democracy and K-12 teaching both require and deserve an atmosphere of patience, compassion, and kindness—traits marginalized by toxic masculinity and white privilege in order to maintain the unearned status of power in the U.S.

At the very least, no one should have to be perfect or everyone should have to be perfect.

Immediately, then, let’s confront how terribly flawed white, straight male leadership has been and is currently—disturbingly personified by Trump himself.

Next, the false cult of effort must end, replaced by the acknowledgement of privilege as central to who has power and why.

With the false cult of effort unmasked, the gender gap can then be erased as well.

From political leadership to the teaching of children in K-12 schools, we will all benefit greatly from the rich diversity of who can and will lead and teach us—especially if that leadership and teaching are rooted in patience and kindness, especially if basic human dignity and autonomy are promised to all.

It’s Just How Men Talk—And That’s the Problem

In the friendly banter scene from Notting Hill, several men are sitting at a restaurant having a lewd and boisterous conversation about Meg Ryan and then Anna Scott, the fictional world-famous actress featured in the romantic comedy and who coincidentally is sitting out of sight but nearby with William Thacker:

The scene is intended to match the mostly humorous but semi-critical subtext of the film about the pressures of being a celebrated actress in Hollywood: being famous isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially if you are a woman.

However, the scene isn’t funny at all, but it is a reflection of how men talk—of the normalized culture all Western men have been raised in and tolerate and/or participate in, which is the male gaze and the objectifying discourse that is an extension of the male gaze.

This has allowed Donald Trump to brush off his 1995 hot-mic bragging about physical and sexual assault (we have no way to know if he is exaggerating, but he has never disavowed his story) as “locker room talk”—it’s just how men talk.

However, like much of the 2016 presidential campaign, allowing this excuse is yet more false equivalence.

Trump’s language and the behavior it represents are rape culture, not merely objectifying discourse from the male gaze.

This distinction proves to be as unsatisfying as the false equivalence because the male gaze/objectifying discourse as normal is the context within which rape culture thrives.

Many men sit just as the men in the Notting Hill scene do—with a jovial tone no less—sexualizing women, especially women who are famous, and women who dress in a way that men have deemed sexual.

The male gaze and the objectifying discourse grounded in that gaze, probably, rarely extends to assault—but even among men who consider themselves good people, many men, if not most men, have also coerced sex with women they considered just an opportunity for sport sex, a one-night stand, and even with significant others, lovers, and spouses.

And even among men who consider themselves good people, many men, if not most men, have also made women feel uncomfortable, threatened, because all women live with the prevalent awareness of not only the male gaze but the capacity for male physical and sexual aggression.

And thus, it is a real but ultimately pointless line between “friendly banter” (male gaze, objectifying discourse) and rape culture because it isn’t a line; rape culture is a very real and very horrible subset of friendly banter.

As in all situations within which some have power over others, it is the responsibility of men to confront and end both the male gaze/objectifying discourse and rape culture.

Those men who participate cavalierly in the male gaze and “friendly banter”—most if not all men—have an urgent responsibility to name and reject the uglier rape culture represented with disgusting glee by Trump and by serial celebrity rapists such as Bill Cosby.

But men must also begin to disassemble the falsely characterized “friendly banter” culture as well.

It is entirely valid for those men who believe themselves to be good men to claim they are not Trump, his bravado and predatory behavior are not them, and to admit their own culpability in the culture that has bred and allowed Trump and other predatory men to exist.

Trump’s language and predatory behavior—that is not just how men talk and act, but in the grand scheme of things, that distinction really doesn’t matter because how men talk does create a world in which women’s lives too often do not matter beyond their being objectified, sexualized, and reduced to their relationship statuses.

Most men, I hope, do not want to be or be considered a monster, a predator. Trump has outed himself as a predator, a part of rape culture, an active and cavalier aggressor.

Among many other examples, these facts of his true self disqualify him for being a serious candidate for any credible position in society.

Men must and can distance themselves from rape culture, but that must not be used as a shield for the many ways in which men are uncritical and unconscious participants in the male gaze and “friendly banter.”

Yes, it is urgent for everyone to reject rape culture, and the newest face on that, Trump, but it is well past time to admit that the male gaze and objectifying discourse strip women of their human dignity and sully every man’s humanity as well.


See Also

Emily Ratajkowski: Baby Woman

Deplorables Unmasked

Something deplorable happened on the way to claiming the U.S. is a Christian nation of free people where everyone regardless of race, creed, religion, or gender has the same opportunities at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

And it wasn’t Donald Trump. Or better expressed, it wasn’t only Donald Trump.

Once Trump secured the nomination for president of the Republican Party, many scrambled to caution about condemning Trump’s supporters, not painting them with too broad and negative a brush.

Especially in the mainstream media, few, nearly none, would venture to utter words such as “racist,” “sexist,” “xenophobe,” or even “lie.”

Trump and his running mate have skated along literally piling lies on top of lies—including lies about not saying provable things, including Trump opening his most recent apology with lies.

But what is truly deplorable is Trump both represents and has unmasked the ugly truth about the U.S.: we are a nation of deplorables, not as outliers, but as a substantial population of our country.

As I was driving down I-85 in South Carolina on the morning after the suddenly shocking* recording of Trump being exactly who he has always been, I saw a large, black SUV in front of me with this bumper sticker:

deplorable

It has become conventional wisdom to brush off Trump’s obnoxious bravado as part of his reality show persona, while adding that his supporters are more nuanced in their support for his candidacy.

But the harsh truth is that Trump is deplorable and so are his supporters—and so are many so-called decent Americans.

Cliches become cliches often because they are true, and one truism seems quite important at this moment: when someone shows you who they really are, be sure to pay attention.

And people often reveal who they really are when they think they are in private, when they think they are among their own kind.

Men hanging out with other men often sound like the Trump comments being rebuked now as if this isn’t common language and attitudes.

Having been born, grown up, and now living in the South, I can assure you when whites are in seemingly safe environs, the racism rears its ugly head in subtle and blunt ways.

But it is even worse than that.

Now that we have yet more evidence of who Trump is, who his enablers are, the carefully prepared political backpedaling tells us just as much as any hot mic:

“I am sickened by what I heard today,” [Paul] Ryan said through a spokesman, about five hours after The Washington Post published a 2005 recording of Trump boasting of groping women and trying to have sex with a married woman. “Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified. I hope Mr. Trump treats this situation with the seriousness it deserves and works to demonstrate to the country that he has greater respect for women than this clip suggests.

Gross, pig sexist being chastised by his more well-groomed but equally clueless sexist—as part and parcel of who the Republican Party has always been, as part and parcel of who many in the U.S. remain to be:

When Trump vilified Mexicans and Muslims, when Trump repeatedly stirs racism and caters to openly racist groups, the mainstream political response remains trapped in respecting human dignity only by close association—currently the hot take in the mainstream press is to speak with reverence about mothers and daughters.

A people has no moral compass, no ethical grounding if the only way anyone can respect human dignity is by association.

If you have to know or be related to people with other statuses than yours to care about their human dignity, you are deplorable.

Some may now try to burn at the stake the Frankenstein’s monster, Donald Trump, but to do so without acknowledging Dr. Frankenstein is misguided and shallow political theater.

Trump as bogus billionaire entrepreneur, as con-man reality star is the white male prototype of what it means to be an American: America built this.

And, as much as we wish to deny it, we are America.

The America who tells Colin Kaepernick not to sully our sacred football with politics—while failing to see that opening every football game with the National Anthem is political.

The America who responds to #BlackLivesMatter with All Lives Matter—while refusing to admit that guns matter more than any lives.

The America that polices how some people raise their fists—while “land of the free and home of the brave” proves to be false on both counts.

Something deplorable happened on the way to claiming the U.S. is a Christian nation of free people where everyone regardless of race, creed, religion, or gender has the same opportunities at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Something deplorable is right there in the mirror.


* One must ask, I think, why now? See More Than 150 Republican Leaders Don’t Support Donald Trump. Here’s When They Reached Their Breaking Point.