21st Century Literacies Lecture Series: 25 April 2019, 7 pm CST

Goering, C., & Thomas, P.L., eds. (2018). Critical media literacy and fake news in post-truth America. Boston, MA: Brill.
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Centering Whiteness and “Green Book”: A Reader (Updated)

The Oscars as an event represents the failed obsession in the U.S. with celebrities, but it also has become a powerful and disturbing window into how too often those with the most power are unable to address race except in terms of centering whiteness.

Once I challenged Green Book on social media, several white people rushed to support the film, often, they argued, because it includes excellent acting.

My essential claim, however, was expressed as the following:

Green Book centers whiteness to appear to care about blackness, as a condition of caring about blackness.

Black Panther centers blackness.

This isn’t about being perfect on race but about a fundamental difference.

I also must note that the same white people who rush to support Green Book also embraced equally racially flawed films such as The Help and The Blind Side (see also Radio and Driving Miss Daisy).

Embracing uncritically Green Book and rejecting criticism of the film are the result of “white fragility,” as Robin DiAngelo explains:

White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. Racial stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar. These interruptions can take a variety of forms and come from a range of sources, including:…

  • Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for example, movies in which people of color drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality).

White savior narratives and framing the value in blackness only in relationship to whiteness are, disturbingly, the essence of Hollywood “diversity and inclusion.” [1]

How many white people claiming quality acting in Green Book also rushed to support the Netflix series Luke Cage, also well-acted, notably by Mahershala Ali?

Or Black Panther?

Luke Cage and Black Panther center blackness, mostly resisting to suggest these narratives mattered only in relationship to whiteness.

Blackness must not be rendered invisible or unspeakable, but allowing blackness to be seen and spoken only if and when whiteness acknowledges it is not the providence of celebration, not any real sort of advancement.

Green Book is essentially a film version of Columbus claiming he discovered a land already inhabited by native peoples, erasing them and their narratives, their history and destiny.

I offer here a reader, primarily for white readers of this blog, and ask that those of us who are white learn to listen and see (actually re-see) the world without centering our whiteness.


[1] Or as well the garbled cultural appropriation fetish, such as Whiplash.

Downloadable file

See Also

To Kill a Mockingbird, White Saviors, and the Paradox of Obama and Race

Super Sex: Body Objectification and Superhero Narratives

I want a perfect body

“Creep,” Radiohead

She’s suddenly beautiful
And we all want something beautiful
Man, I wish I was beautiful

“Mr. Jones,” Counting Crows

Superhero comic books have a long and troubling history of xenophobia, racism, cultural appropriation, sexism, and nearly any negative -ism you can imagine.

The comic book industry is obsessed as well with rebooting as an industry mechanism and rebirth as a recurring plot element. Whether reboot, resurrection, or adaptation, however, superhero narratives seem unable to shake the very worst aspects of cliche and reductive storytelling.

The adaptation of The Punisher (Netflix) and yet another rebooting of Daredevil, volume 6 (2019), share even more examples of failing to take advantage of starting over.

Season 2 Episode 1 of The Punisher puts Frank Castle, masquerading as Pete, in a dive-bar in Michigan.

Ever stoic, Frank cannot avoid trouble, interjecting himself between a crude bar patron and the bartender, Beth, who has remained nearly equally as distant as Frank. When the bar bouncer moves to expel both the creep and Frank, Beth intervenes, and despite her protestation that she doesn’t need any help, she ultimately makes the move on her knight in shining armor, offering a nightcap at her place.

As Beth and Frank (Pete) walk to her car, Beth asks Frank to assure her he isn’t an “asshole”; Frank replies, “Isn’t that the kind of thing an asshole would do?”

Soon, Beth and Frank are entwined in Hollywood montage sex, interspersed with some dialogue where Frank confesses his name is Frank, and not Pete as he has told her.

Once again, Beth struggles with a reasonable concern about whether or not Frank is an asshole, just another creep, one whose body is riddled with scars.

And for the second time, Beth just goes with a feeling and accepts Frank is essentially a good guy.

Not blessed/cursed with superhero powers, Frank is one of the mostly human superheroes although gifted with skills and the prerequisite rage-motivation: a well-trained killing machine spawned by the military and then driven to incessant vigilanteism by the slaughter of his entire family.

Castle and Mad Max were cast from the same mold.

The Hollywood montage sex of E1 is much less about the sort of sex people have on one-night stands and more about the objectification of bodies in superhero narratives. And these narratives never stray too far from the unexplainable magnetism of the white male saviors that nearly always sit in the center.

Superhero sex is a compelling topic when those superheroes have exceptional powers like Superman needing to be human to be with Lois (see the Christopher Reeves films) or the violent and destructive coupling of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage in the Netflix adaptation of Jessica Jones.

But Castle, The Punisher, is all rage and training so the super sex is titillating but mostly secondary to the standard messages being sent about Frank as white male savior and sexually irresistible.

In both the Marvel comic book universe and the Netflix universe, Castle/The Punisher and Daredevil/ Matt Murdock are paired as different sides of the same vigilante coin—Frank the-ends-justify-the-means Castle juxtaposed with Matt Batman-lite Murdock.

With Daredevil being resurrected once again in the comic book with 2019’s volume 6, on the heels of the Death of Daredevil and three seasons of Daredevil on Netflix, we are immediately confronted with super sex and body objectification.

While superheroes such as The Punisher and Batman are essentially humans with super abilities gained through training and trauma, Murdock is a step above since he does possess super powers, although his physical strengths are mostly acquired. In other words, Murdock/Daredevil does not pose the same sexual threats as Superman or, say, the Hulk.

Fresh from the edge of death and the hospital, like Frank in S2 E1, Matt in issue 1 (2019) moves from the bar to the bedroom:

IMG_1892.JPG

The panels preceding these are the comic book version of Hollywood montage sex, but this dialogue is significant for the ways this reboot approaches well and then fails the super sex motif.

In the early episodes of Netflix’s Daredevil, Foggy chuckles about Matt’s being blind but always attracting beautiful women. This adaptation remains uncritical in its use of the blind motif in Daredevil, which the comic book has tended to do since the early 1960s.

The scene above does complicate the blind motif when Matt implores: “Please don’t make my disability your fetish.”

However by the final panels of that page, the dialogue and artwork paint a disturbing, and far too predictable picture.

Matt’s partner in a one-night stand is aggressively establishing her seeking out his body. But she is drawn pencil-thin, and both she and Matt concur—despite her being attracted to Matt’s blindness (“I picked you up with my charm“): “I don’t have to worry if I am pretty enough,” she explains. “And yet,” Matt parries, “you’re beautiful.”

“And yet,” she echoes, “I’m beautiful.”

Superhero narratives remain compelling because they have potential, often underachieved potential, but potential none the less.

The Punisher and Daredevil are characters with moral and ethical imperatives about justice, but also embodiments of vigilante themes that are pursued uncritically.

They share as well the lazy super sex plot elements and body objectification that is reductive for women characters who are equally diminished by their capitulation to the irresistible white savior appeal of Castle and Murdock—stoic, scarred, and chiseled.

Real-life sex is almost nothing like Hollywood montage sex, and superhero narratives could benefit from realizing that as well as exploring the full physical and emotional complexity of humans, even when they have superpowers or especially when they are merely human in the presence of the superhuman.

Some People Call Me Maurice

I’m a joker, I’m a smoker
I’m a midnight toker

“The Joker,” Steve Miller Band

I’m mixing weed with wine

Walk It Back,” The National

The universe occasionally can be quite trippy.

Over coffee I was telling a friend about Don Nelson’s recent admission about what he has been doing lately: “I’ve been smoking some pot.”

Then, I realized the coffee shop was wafting over their music system Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker.” I sang quietly a bit of the lyrics because this song was ever-present during my adolescence spent in the 1970s.

“Man,” I said, joking a bit, “I should have been smoking pot when I was listening to this stuff in high school. I really wasted an opportunity.”

Here’s the irony: It was during high school that I switched to contact lenses from my glasses, but these were some heavy-duty hard lenses of the time. As a result, my eyes were almost always bloodshot.

In the 1970s, this signaled pot smoker. So people were often convinced I was high—although I was never a pot smoker throughout high school or college in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Many if not most of my friends smoked pot. I often was the designated driver for my high friends jonesing for munchies. Trips to Chick-fil-a were common with my red and white 1973 Gran Torino slammed full of giggling and stoned teenagers singing to the Ohio Players, Steve Miller Band, or Pink Floyd blaring over my stereo.

It wasn’t just my eyes signaling marijuana.

Deeply introverted and nearly paralyzed by undiagnosed anxiety (and likely ADHD/OCD), I was mostly terrified of pot as an illegal drug, a fear engrained by my working-class and conservative parents.

Another irony: My defense mechanisms for all this included a reputation for World-Class use of profanity (I was a devoted student of Richard Prior and George Carlin) and an elite tolerance for drinking alcohol.

Later in life I developed a joke about not being a pot smoker as a teen: I was too often drunk in high school and college and was afraid of holding something burning while intoxicated.

I first saw the Don Nelson clip on ESPN. The typical frat-culture of those sports shows included several mostly white men yucking it up about Nelson and smoking pot. In the clip, Nelson, approaching 80, has long hair, a beard, and gold chains around his neck; a couple black men beside him on the dais howl with laughter at his comment, and his smirk.

Also in the 1970s, I played basketball, loved basketball, and despite my initial disdain for the Boston Celtics (an urge grounded in the natural compulsion to reject anything our father likes), I became a Celtics fan. Over the years, I came to appreciate Celtics legends, notably Bill Russell.

Nelson was a Celtics player before he had a long career as an NBA coach.

Part of me wanted to say that Nelson has joined Russell as models of life goals for aging. I do, in fact, admire Russell for his career and his life in a way that is important to me.

And Nelson seems a happy man; I would never deny him that.

I can’t, however, ignore that as a very wealthy white man, Nelson has made his wealth with and on the backs of gifted black men in the NBA. I can’t, however, ignore that all this yucking up about smoking pot late in life because it is now plentiful and legal in some states takes place along side mass incarceration that disproportionately impacts black men.

How many people are unseen and unheard in our prisons or denied employment in their free lives because they too wanted to smoke some pot but got busted?

More than half of drug busts are for marijuana.

Marijuana usage is about the same for black and white people, but “Blacks Are 3.73 Times More Likely Than Whites to Be Arrested for Marijuana Possession” (ACLU).

I really wish the Nelson clip could be funny, but it isn’t.

The clip is yet another documentation of the fruits of privilege—some people have access to living that other people are denied.

The access and denial are arbitrary and have nothing to do with merit.

The Joker in the Steve Miller Band song is a toker and he swears, “I sure don’t want to hurt no one.”

He seems like the sort of guys I hung out with in high school and college, stoners, all white and mostly insulated from any real harm, especially any fear of the criminal justice system.

“I ain’t hurtin’ nobody, man,” I can hear in my memory’s ear because my pothead friends always wanted me to join in.

I was, however, irrationally terrified.

And a part of me find Nelson’s peaceful easy feeling very compelling.

But I am reminded of a sobering refrain as I watch Nelson:

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. (E. V. Debs: Statement to the Court)

What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: Looking Back to See Now More Clearly

The November 1942 issue of The Elementary English Review (National Council of Teachers of English) included a provocative piece: What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: A Symposium.

The opening editorial comment frames the need for the question:

Editorial blurb 1942.png

This symposium offers answers to the titular question from leading literacy experts of the time: Emmett A. Betts, E.W. Dolch, Arthur I. Gates, William S. Gray (first IRA president), Ernest Horn, Lou LaBrant (former president of NCTE and focus of my dissertation, an educational biography), Holland Roberts, Dora V. Smith (former NCTE president), Nila Banton Smith, and Paul Witty (key figure in the career and life of LaBrant).

Unlike most cries of educational “crisis,” this national focus on reading was nested in World War II—a genuine crisis. But, according to the assembled experts on literacy, this 1942 version of the Reading Wars was a harbinger of how these debates are mostly misinformed, misguided, and driven by ideology instead of evidence.

Betts, in the opening piece, notes an important fact drawn from a report by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt: “One of the students had only four months of schooling, another was foreign born, some came from sections of the country where educational opportunities were meager, and so on. In short, the First Lady’s report emphasized the lack of educational opportunity [emphasis added] rather than the questionable quality of instruction” (p. 225).

Before detailing the problems and the possible solutions—including recognizing shortages and shifts in teacher availability—Betts makes a powerful claim: “In a democracy, the people get the kind of schools they want….In a democracy, the quantity and quality of educational opportunity is a product of what people want, and what they want is to no small degree conditioned by the educational leadership they have elected to follow” (pp. 225-226).

While I recommend reading the symposium responses in full, I focus below on two key answers from Gray and LaBrant.

Gray offers a solid framing of the debate spurred by claims of illiteracy among those called to serve, including this:

Gray second attitude.png

Along with refuting these standard false charges, Gray builds to a powerful closing argument:

A common error on the part of those who modify their reading programs is to adopt one or more reforms, such as the provision of much free reading, and neglect other aspects of reading that are in need of specific attention…

If the discussion thus far has achieved its purpose, it should be clear that current deficiencies in reading are not the product of “pseudo-scientific fumbling” or the use of progressive reforms, as some would have us believe. They are due in large measure either to the continued use of traditional patterns of teaching or to failure to provide a well-balanced [emphasis in original] program of reading activities that harmonize with progressive trends. (pp. 236-237)

LaBrant, in her typical style, takes a much more direct approach:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits that blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods [emphasis in original]. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive” schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs [emphasis in original].

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States [emphasis in original]. (pp. 240-241)

In her conclusion, LaBrant is passionate and unyielding:

lack of drill

Within five years, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

The question about reading raised in the 1940s suffered from the same failures to recognize the problem in order to shape effective and credible answers that we are confronting in 2019.

The fumbling today of the Reading Wars is yet another snapshot of a tired truism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana).

 

Teaching and Learning: The Dysfunctional Celebrity Couple

I am deeply torn about the obsession with celebrities in the U.S. because seeking to be a celebrity brings with the rewards of fame a sort of 24-hour surveillance that no human deserves, or can survive.

When I see a media report on Celebrity X finally finding the love of their life, I immediately anticipate the cheating or break-up coverage to come. And then, the next story years later about Celebrity X finally finding the love of their life.

There exists in the U.S. a fundamental misunderstanding about the causal relationship between celebrity and happiness—that celebrity causes happiness.

I think teaching and learning suffer from both an over-exaggerated media and public focus as well as the same misunderstanding.

Let me share here that over the first few years of my becoming a high school English teacher I was racked with doubt about my work as a teacher because I routinely noticed that despite my teaching student often failed to demonstrate learning.

But something else bothered me as well.

Those first years in the early and mid-1980s included a common practice of issuing to students and then teaching from Warriner’s grammar text. Although I knew isolated grammar instruction was at least problematic, if not harmful (which George Hillocks showed within a decade of this experience), I tried to somehow follow the expectations of my department (use the grammar book!) and teach well my students to write.

Here’s the concern: Students were driven dutifully through, for example, “who/whom” chapters of Warriner’s, exercises and tests, from about 5th grade through 12th grade.

I watched as my students scored poorly on the “who/whom” assessments, waded through the worksheets.

Looking back, I connect this “who/whom” foolishness with my own high school adventures with “shall/will” exercises and tests.

First, “whom” is nearly dead, soon to join dear-departed “shall.” In a weird way, student ambivalence about “who/whom” will eventually be justified—just as those of us who failed to care about “shall/will” have won out.

More importantly, however, I realized in those first few years of teaching that there is in fact a very weak causal relationship between teaching and learning.

That I teach cannot guarantee learning, and students demonstrating (or not) learning often is not proof they have or haven’t been taught.

I have been brought back to this because so much of the current phonics fundamentalism I witness on social media is grounded in two deeply flawed premises.

Phonics fundamentalists are mired in anecdote. Broach the topic of reading on social media and legions will weight in with “I know a student” or “I have a child,” which leads to the second problem.

Phonics fundamentalists are trapped in weak evidence that students can’t read and then are convinced that lack of reading ability is caused by a failure of teaching.

A middle schooler reads poorly, they argue, and it is because that middle schoolers has weak decoding skills—because nobody teaches phonics anymore!

This resonates with me because as a literacy educator focusing mainly on the teaching of writing for 35 years and counting, I hear regularly the “nobody teaches grammar anymore” refrain—posed similarly by those making rash claims based on flimsy evidence.

Both phonics and grammar fundamentalism suffer as well from a serious lack of historical perspective.

Since at least 1900, roughly a beginning point of broad formal public education (although that promise was marred for about 7 more decades by all sorts of failures in assuring racial and gender equity), there has not been a moment when the media and the public was not lamenting that “kids today can’t read or write.”

When intensive phonics had its heyday: The media and public screamed students couldn’t read.

When isolated grammar was all the rage: The media and public screamed students couldn’t write correctly.

In this fourth decade of being a teacher, I am weary of fundamentalism and missionary zeal.

I have little patient for adults who have lower standards for themselves than the children and young people they claim to be serving.

I also have a heaping helping of humility.

I am a teacher.

However, teaching is no guarantee of learning.

Students failing to demonstrate learning is no proof they haven’t been taught before they entered my classroom—or while they have been in my classroom.

Teaching and learning are a dysfunctional celebrity couple.

We must stop staring and expecting them to fulfill some idealistic vision we are imposing on the universe.

And we would all be better off checking our fundamentalism and missionary zeal.

You know, kids today, they are wonderful, and to be perfectly honest, they make me happy to be alive to witness their becoming.

They can do without the worksheet, phonics and grammar rules. Maybe patience and adults who are kind and attentive.

You see, I, too, dwell in idealism, of a different kind.