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Rightly so, there has been a lot of discussion in recent months about the struggles of full-time academic staff in higher education institutions in our previous posts: Higher education, students, the strikes and me*, The strikes and me: never going back! and Industrial action, knowledge, and blurred lines. For the sake of clarity, this post is not designed to distract from some of the very real problems they face. Instead, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the silent voices in lecturing teams: PhD Students who are also Visiting Lecturers (VL’s) or Associate Lecturers (AL’s). Having been both an AL and VL in the past for various higher education institutions, and simultaneously a self-funded PhD student, the experience of those who have very kindly offered to share with me their stories, struggles and often deteriorating coping mechanisms resonate with my own. I am grateful for the unexpected avalanche of responses I received from VL/AL’s from various universities on this very issue, including current and former colleagues. I should stress that this is neither targeted at any one individual university, nor do I claim that these are universal experiences for those in similar positions.
These students are hybrid beings, often stuck in a limbo of loyalty to their respective graduate schools, their fellow lecturing colleagues and the students they teach. Despite this, or perhaps more appropriately because of this, many VL/AL’s are not fully trained or integrated into the roles they are expected to play within the university sector. Firstly, adequate training is almost non-existent in most universities for new starters, who are often expected to simply jump into the deep end without adequate experience. What is available to VL/AL’s in helping with building knowledge and experience in higher education teaching is the offer for them to take ‘independent initiative’ in signing up to undertaking a Postgraduate Certificate of Higher Education (PGCert/PGCHE) which leads to a subsequent Associate Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). The experience of taking this course and securing the Fellowship was highly positive amongst those who contacted me prior to the writing of this post, though of course this may vary depending on the institution. The problem is, the course is rarely, if ever, offered before VL/AL’s begin teaching and is often treated as a simple tick box exercise to boost departmental or institutional reputation through an increased number of Associate or full Fellowships within their ranks. Secondly, integration into their roles is often stifled by various reasons, including somewhat critical outlooks within their teams on emerging pedagogical research focused on student experience, misguided assumptions that they are ‘more students than lecturers’ and/or the belief by others that they are not likely to remain as permanent members of the teaching team. These issues relating to hybridity lead to VL/AL’s often feeling as though they do not carry the same “worthy status” by colleagues or the department of being co-creators of the curriculum, being included in important communication relating to decision-making which will affect their ability to carry out their teaching and learning sessions, or in generally expressing discontent for various issues which they are facing in their roles.
One of these issues related to low wages, which is a rather common issue affecting employees across most sectors, especially in the current cost of living crisis. It may seem rather trivial to those in higher education institutions tasked solely with ensuring maximum profit by quantifying the experience of teaching, but the struggles faced by those VL/AL’s on 0-hour contracts are widespread and damaging. Though there are distinct differences across institutions in how these contracts are managed, or how their staff are paid, many practices seem to be commonplace, such as for instance paying solely for hours spent actually teaching. In circumstances where academic staff may spend hours on end preparing for teaching and learning sessions, engaging in a subsequent wind-down of emotions potentially triggered from the sessions, and then engage in copious amounts of marking (sometimes as many as 100 scripts at the same time due to the bunching of deadlines), being paid only on the basis of having taught a 1 or 2 hour session, even at what may seem a reasonable hourly wage in other sectors equates to less than minimum-wage if the maths is done correctly. There are nuanced differences of course between those VL/AL staff who are self-funded and those on studentships or scholarships, the latter receiving a flat-rate annual “salary” alongside a tuition fee waiver. Having said that, those on scholarships or studentships tended to face other challenges throughout the payment process, including lack of automatic payments, breakdown of communication with those organising these manually, and the general slowness in being ‘set up’ for all the admin-related tasks expected of them (including email accounts, e-learning, lack of training etc.).
The challenges of 0-hour contracts, although they are not described as such within the contracts themselves, also include a looming sense of dread for VL/AL academics approaching the summer months, when they know that they will be left penniless by their universities. If on a full-time status, those who are self-funded and undertaking a PhD are also barred from claiming any kind of benefit entitlements due to the receipt of a postgraduate student loan from Student Finance England. It is important to note that the maximum entitlement for this loan is £25,000 over the course of what is, on average, a 3-5 year research project. The average tuition fee for research degrees is over £5,000 per year. At the most ambitious end of the PhD completion scale, undertaking a 3-year research project with a £25,000 loan, leaves a £10,000 remainint total which is expected to help the student survive for 3 years. Of course, most PhDs exceed the 3-year mark and, combined with the challenges of not being paid by their universities over the summer months, this takes a serious toll on mental health which paradoxically affects their ability to dedicate full focus on their research projects. It inevitably leads to VL/AL staff scrambling to “take on” additional modules of teaching in an attempt to save enough to make ends meet throughout the summer, which again leaves them with little time or mental strength to focus on their PhD research.
Mental health is an issue which spans across a variety of challenges faced by VL/AL’s undertaking a PhD. There are intersectional elements which are not taken into consideration by higher education institutions that take a serious toll on their ability to juggle between their roles as facilitators of teaching and learning, students undertaking a PhD, but also human beings with a variety of other important identities in need of comfort, reassurance and support. Many universities fail to recognise nuanced issues arising from increasingly consumer-focused, neoliberal and bureaucratic practices adopted, which leave those who already struggle due to their class status, race, gender, or parenthood, with even less support than one individual characteristic that higher education assumes can be tick boxed away through a single counselling session. Some of the responses I received drew attention to the intersectional nature of class and race, others class and gender, and some even a combination of all three with an inclusion of motherhood or parenthood in general. It seems that experiences have been similar in that many higher education institutions still fail to take into consideration how the challenges associated with each individual identity are exacerbated when combined. These include a lack of acknowledgement that (1) money is a real issue, (2) there are racial, cultural and religious barriers which often mean an increased requirement of attention on family and social life beyond work, (3) certain departments and faculties are still male-centric, (4) motherhood and parenting requires serious review of pay and workload, and (5) many subject or course leaders are failing to recognise their curriculum content and teaching/learning practices are essentially colonising their own colleagues. A former colleague even encompassed all of these identities: an ethnically minoritised working-class mother of two children. One cannot begin to imagine the mental health struggles someone in this position faces during summer months in an ever-failing welfare system.
Academics who have not been through similar intersectional struggles seem to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge even the existence of them and the genuine impact that they have for their colleagues who spend a large proportion of their day-to-day work life trying (on top of everything else) to resist barriers to gender identities, dispel unconscious racial biases within their teams, or simply to provide their children with the level of care, love and support that they deserve. It can lead to a continuous interplay of unconscious gaslighting by one’s own full-time colleagues – some quotes provided to me by respondents were: “I teach more modules than you do, so you’ll be okay”, “yes but we all had the same amount of marking”, “can’t you do it over the weekend?” and “you need to work on your time management skills”. Despite many of us spending years drawing attention to stigma, oppression, marginalisation and social inequality, deconstructing and reconstructing by-gone theories that reproduce hegemony, we seem to allow it to flourish so easily under our noses and within our own institutions. This can perhaps serve as a reminder for all academics within higher education institutions, but also those focused on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, to step up their game by adopting principles of co-creation and genuine participatory change. After all, while the ultimate goal may be the same, the journey must be mapped out by those who have already experienced, and continue to experience, the inclines.
In Honour of my two teachers’ passing (seen together here). Rest In Power, bell hooks (d. 15/12/21) and Thich Nhat Hanh (d. 22/01/22).
If we could empathize with all life, we…
… wouldn’t treat all animals as either food or fodder.
… wouldn’t develop nuclear technology into bombs.
…would never show an interest in making so many guns and ways of destroying life.
…would more genuinely aim to achieve mutual understanding between individuals.
…wouldn’t have so much intergenerational trauma within families, communities, nations.
…would be more neighborly in all our affairs.
…wouldn’t treat trade like a sport, a winner-takes-all competition over natural resources.
…would harness the power of the sun for it shines on all life collectively.
…would cultivate care, and be kinder as a general rule.
… would teach kindness in school, a required class on every campus.
…would not build entire ideologies, systems of government, religions, arts, and culture around patriarchy.
… would not be reduced to binaries, not just in gender, but ‘black or white’ in our overall thinking, because that’s where it came from: A false yet powerful and enduring dichotomy.
Binary thinking produced gender binaries, not the other way around. Knowing this is key to its undoing. Please know that capitalism produced racism, and greed crafted classism. A2 + B2 = C2, still. Racism is exponentially untamed greed; and patriarchy an inferiority complex run rampant and amok. Such cultures of greed can’t be conquered by competition; greed can’t be beat! We need a new dimension.
If we could empathize with all life, we would aspire to be far more fair.
If we could empathize with all life, we would love more.
Fill in the blank.
This post in-part takes its name from a book by the late Whiteness Studies academic Ruth Frankenberg (1993) and is the final of three that will discuss Whiteness, women, and racism.
Chapter III: Your Problem but not Your Problem
Despite women’s investment in football, at least socially, in terms of Women’s Football (much better than the men’s game in my opinion), it was interesting to observe the reactions of White men that positioned themselves as progressives when I challenged the national response to racism in the game. When we realise that ‘football hooligans’ all have jobs across sector, I would bring people to consider this is not just a working-class issue, as football is a game that transcends socioeconomic lines. This post isn’t necessarily about the violence White women have commited against me but is certainly their problem, and they could have a deciding voice of how White men act at football matches. When we consider racial hiearchies, I am reminded of the gendered components of colonialism where White men are at the top of that hierachy followed by the White woman. In spite of White women’s complicity in those histories of racism (Ware, 1992), logic dictates that White women’s privilege will have some sway when White men act in hostility to people of colour. That said, still today I find White women all too happy to take on misogyny / patriarchy but not racism / White supremacy. In this blog, I will start with a Twitter encounter where I dared to say there isn’t a “racism-in-football-problem” but a more societal issue of White supremacy. Until we start thinking about White supremacy as a political system, just as women have done patriarchy (DeBeavoir, 1949; Friedan, 1963; Davis, 1981; hooks, 1991; Adichie, 2014) and others have done class (Marx and Engles, 1848; Chomsky, 1999; Tom Nicholas, 2020), we will never solve this racism issue.
When I challenged the concept of “racism in football” in July 2021, a local BBC journalist claimed I could make it both about ‘racism in football’ and in society. The problem with this is, dominant media discourses have already stitched it all up by relegating racism to specific spaces somewhat divorced from a global system of violence. At this time as well, I saw the term ‘football hooliganism’ being used as double talk for ‘working-class thuggery’. However, to understand how football got to where it is today, we need to know how football was not originally made by the working-class.
Much alike my favourite sport cricket (Tre Ventour Ed, 2021), football started as a sport for characteristically ‘English gentlemen’. It was made for the rich by the rich to really celebrate themselves. Their game by their rules. When the working-class started to advocate for players playing for money, in its day (so the late nineteenth century), it was thought controversial. Yet, the rich controlled the boards and they could afford to play for free, taking days off for matches. The proleterians could not. Here, then you see that it came down to money, where a game made by the wealthy for them and their friends was then changed forever by working people, no less than mill and factoryworkers.
Actions that society most associates with the working-class majority today – including public fights, vandalism, brawls, and riotting in Britain are not new phenomena but has a long history going back to even before 1900 uncoincidentally coinciding with the construction of London Metropolitan Police Service in 1829 (Storch, 1975). Following the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, for example, so-called ‘race riots’ took place in no fewer than nine port communities between January and August 1919 (Jenkinson, 1996: 92). However, media footage and pictures of British riots before the Second World War have rarely been seen by the public but “…individual memories of civil disorder [in those days were] surprisingly widespread” and when riotting did happen, “governments often denied they had, and censored the newsreel pictures” (Forbidden Britain). Historically speaking, these uprisings grew out of a response to state-sanctioned violence frequently mass unemployment and poverty. Under the threat of poverty, homelessness, or even death, groups will attack shops and other structures to acquire food where “the turbulence of the colliers is, of course, to be accounted for by something more elementary than politics: it was the instinctive reaction of virility to hunger” (Ashton and Sykes, 1967: 131). Yet, the male violence that occured at the England v Italy Euro finale football match in London July 2021 has a precedent going back to the days of Walter Tull where his biographer historian Phil Vasili writes:
“In 1919, working-class Britain was in a rebellious state. Whether the war created the mood of revolt among workers – sometimes taking a horribly distorted and misguided form as we saw with the race riots – or merely speeded up the process that had been years in fermentation, is not for debate here. The fact is it happened. Families, individuals, veterans were changed by the war, including Tull, his eagerness to enlist souring to a hatred for carnage.”Vasili, 2010: 229
On the morning of the final, I saw evidence of local Northamptonians heading to the pubs to get their fill as early as 8AM before the game that evening at 8PM (@cllrjameshill). In London, however, White (let’s be honest of course dominantly heterosexual cisgendered) patriarchal violence, was in full swing on Leicester Square, described as a “fanzone for thousands of England fans” before even two o’clock. Furthermore, according to Hutchinson (1975), “riots, unruly behaviour, violence, assault and vandalism, appear to have been a well-established, but not necessarily dominant pattern of crowd behaviour at football matches, at least from the 1870s” (p11). Whilst football today has united people across racial and class lines, many Black men of my dad’s generation (born 1971) would not find themselves anywhere near a match when they were my age or even as teenagers purely for the fact that these crowds were frequently racist and the risk of violence was significant. Today, while racism in football is largely in response to the actions of White people against Black players, there is a further history of White racism against Black fans too.
As I do not doubt that there is racism in women’s football (there is racism at every level of society), I wonder why women’s sports (especially football) is not associated with violence. Heck, other men’s sports do not have these connotations attached. We do not see it in cricket, nor do we see it in rugby to these extremes or tennis. Looking at the conversations in what happened following the game, it seemed to me that people were trying so hard to divorce this male violence from the rest of society, as if it is only specific to football. I would argue this is Britain’s soul, an unfiltered and grandiose example of the gendered racial privilege that comes with being a White man in the UK. It is very easy to stigmatise the working-class in this instance and call them “thugs”, but when we know football unites across class divides, it would do us well to consider how lots of the perpetrators were also probably middle-class as well, with jobs that permeate every level of British society: from accounting to education to sports, unions and more. That while it is incredibly easy to scapegoat them as there are histories of working-class responding with riots against state violence (no less than sports riots), we must think about how for some reason, football in particular, turns lots of men feral.
I was talking to one family member who claimed this is where men get to claim their base instincts, that violence seems to come naturally. I would need to think more on this, but it must be said that many social settings condition violence out of us, from school to the workplace. Even so, that in schools violence is punished, many students (especially boys) being placed pupil referral units. Whilst society brutalises in many ways, the pugilistic scenes we are witness to at football matches is one that is considered unsavoury by most. Men gathering together at the football … does this flick a switch? In the late nineteenth century, polymath Gustave LeBon writes about what he called “the collective mind” (1896: 2) whilst another scholar later states “the natural crowd is the open crowd; there are no limits … it does not recognise houses, doors, or locks and those that shut themselves in are suspect” (Canetti, 1962: 16). Football matches may be an apt site to discuss what the psychology profession now calls ‘crowd theory’ which was further developed on by psychologist Neil Smelser analysing the American ‘race riots’ in the first half of the last century (1962: 253, 260-61).
In my last post, I talked about ‘Karen’ in relation to racist middle-aged White women that harrass Black people minding their business. Yet, one does not see White women congregating like this together in mass as instigators of violence, where if at all in my experience violence from White women has been more individualistic or covert. Though, if women friends/colleagues disagree and know more, I’m happy to be put right from their personal experience (and do more reading). Rioting, however, is frequently often hypermasculine (Gary Younge in: DDN, 2020) and so is the violence around football. The role of White women in racism can be more insidious but my encounter on Twitter with this White man comes after my many encounters with White men that think they know more than Black people about racism.
Both White men and women are complicit in White supremacy as aggressors and bystanders. To keep this on topic, every time a White woman watches a White man’s racism but stays silent, they are as bad as they are really showing how White supremacy is the symptom and racism is the problem.
Now, you have three entries. Have a think on them.
Adichie, C.N. (2014) We Should All Be Feminists. London: 4th Estate.
Ashton, T. S., and Sykes, J. (1967). The Coal Industry of the Eighteenth Century. 2nd ed. New York: A. M. Kelley.
Canetti, E. (1962) Crowds and Power. London: Gollancz.
Chomsky, N (1999) Profit over People. New York: Seven Story Press.
Davis, A. (1981) Women, Race, and Class. London: Penguin.
DeBeauvoir, S. (1949) The Second Sex. London: Vintage.
[DDN] Double Down News (2020) Black Lives Matter & The Question of Violence | Gary Younge. YouTube [online].
Forbidden Britain (1994) Riots Episode 3 [via YouTube]. London: BBC 2.
Frankenberg, R. (1993) White Women, Race Matters. MI: University Press.
Friedan, B (1963) The Feminine Mystique. London: Penguin.
hooks, b (1991) All About Love: New Vision. London: HarperCollins.
Hutchinson, J. (1975) Some aspects of football crowds before 1914. In. The Working Class. University of Sussex Conference Report.
Jenkinson, J (1996) The 1919 Riots. In: Panayi, P (ed) Racial Violence in Britain in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Leicester: University Press, pp. 92-111.
Le Bon, G (1896) The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. London: T. Fisher Unwin.
Marx, K and Engels, F. (1848/1967) The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin.
Smelser, N. (1962/2011) Theories of Collective Behaviour. New Orleans, LA: Quid Pro.
Storch, R.D. (1975) The Plague of the Blue Locusts: Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England, 1840–57. International Review of Social History, 20 (1), pp.61-90
Tom Nicholas (2020) Whiteness: WTF? White Privilege and the Invisible Race. YouTube.
Tre Ventour Ed. (2021) 22 Yards of Whiteness: ‘You Don’t Have to be Posh to be Privileged’. YouTube.
Vasili, P. (2010) Walter Tull, (1888-1918), Officer, Footballer: All the Guns in France Couldn’t Wake Me. London: Raw.
Ware, V. (1992/2015) Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History. London: Verso.
Whilst the current weather may not imply it, we are into the summer months! At this time of year staff and students begin to take a much needed and well-deserved rest after the challenging academic year we have all faced. With this time, holidays, day trips, meals out, picnics, walks and many more joyful pastimes begin to fill up the calendar, although many of us find ourselves quite restricted due to the ongoing pandemic. Nevertheless, we should all make the most of the time off to re-charge and spend time with our loved ones. For myself and my partner, this meant a day trip to Whipsnade Zoo!
Whilst the weather app assured us it would not rain, we spent a fairly windy and wet day walking around Whipsnade Zoo viewing the animals and all in all having a fabulous day. The schools are not out yet, therefore most visitors were adults on annual leave, individuals who I assume are retired, or parents with small children. We had plenty of space and time throughout the day to see the animals, read the information plaques and enjoy a wet but scrummy picnic. I dread to think what it would have been like in the height of the summer holidays!
But where am I going with this other than to brag about my fabulous day at the Zoo and what has this got to do with checking our privilege? Well, it begins with the cost to entire said Zoo. I have not been to a Zoo since I was in my school years. We used to visit Colchester Zoo most summer holidays with the Tesco Clubcard vouchers, which in a nutshell meant you could exchange Clubcard points for vouchers/tickets which included the Zoo. Therefore a trip to the Zoo when we were younger cost petrol money and a picnic (which was always done on the cheap). This is an affordable day out, but we were only a family of 3 (1 adult and 2 children), so not that many Clubcard points required, and quite a minimal picnic. Also we were fortunate enough to have a car which is not the case for all families. So even with the vouchers and picnic I cannot help but reflect and think how privileged we were to be able to visit the Zoo.
The Zoo trip this week cost just short of £50 for a student admission and an adult admission. I did think this was quite a lot. I think about what the cost would be for 2 adults and a child (or multiple children). Already this is gearing up to be an expensive day out. The Zoo has lots of interactive parts for children to engage with and learn from, and of course they have animals. But is the Zoo really aimed at educating all children or is it only those children whose families can afford it (E.I children belonging of a certain socio-economic status)? Once we arrived at the Zoo and looked around the carpark we couldn’t see a Bustop. What about the families who cannot afford a car? The food outlets were extortionate: £4 for a coffee!! Its cheaper in the West End! The same statement although different prices applies to ice-cream. I feel good that we have taken our makeshift picnic and flasks with us: but what about those who cannot?
The long-winded and verbose point I am trying to make is that even everyday things require us to check our privilege. I spoke to my partner on the drive home about the beauty and wonder of the Zoo and how we are fortunate to be able to go and how I was fortunate to go most summers as a child. But once the Clubcard vouchers stopped, so did the trips to the Zoo. There are many who are unable to enjoy the Zoo, to gain from the educational experience of learning about the animals, what they eat, where they live etc. And I can’t help but reflect and wonder is this establishment really inclusive to all? Is there something society can do to break down the class barriers which appear to be present when planning a trip to the Zoo?
In the second grade, I started in a new school that was designed as a progressive environment where students, teachers and administrators were all on a first-name basis. Radical, even in ’82, our school was forward about gender, race and class diversity. Despite this, I only had one Black teacher in my elementary school years – the amazing music teacher. As kids, we could see few other Black adults: the assistant librarian, a handful of the lunchroom ladies, as well as the Black middle- and high-school teachers we saw in the same building. This meant that the Black adult we most consistently interacted with was Miss Saundra, the janitor.
Miss Saundra appeared around corners, could surprise you out of a closet you hadn’t even noticed was there. She was always on hand should there be any major mess or spill. Best of all, our school gleamed from top to bottom, every classroom, every hallway, every bookshelf, every restroom – every desk! It felt lovely to go to school every day, the floors shined, the windows sparkled, and even the banisters were pristine. I am certain this level of hygiene must have taken a team, but I remember Miss Saundra, probably because she was friendly to me. I can still see her, unbending her back to look at us, and speak face to face.
If I ever had to come to school early to play in the gym or have breakfast, or stay late for an after-school activity, Miss Saundra would likely be there, tidying up. She always took time to greet us. She was even there for school dances, and asked nothing in return, and we knew nothing of her outside the labor she devoted to us in the background. She was our school’s magic negro.
Other than the school guard who was not armed with anything but charm, Miss Saundra, might have been the first at school, followed by the ladies making breakfast. These were our essential workers – like the air we breathed in the heart of our city. I like to think because of their personalities we felt at home in our environment and therefore enjoyed school more fully.
Kids carry on.
When I was in the third grade, our teacher – a tall, grey-haired white man of grand stature who taught me I could master math even though it wasn’t easy for me – sent all the girls ahead to music class. He held the boys back for a chat. Apparently, someone had urinated in the second-floor boys’ bathroom, and they’d worked out that only our class had taken a break between cleanings. Since teachers had separate restrooms, I thought it must have been Miss Saundra who’d discovered the mess, and so I wondered what that conversation was like with our teacher, who was now accusing us! Though he didn’t demand we rat out the culprit, he called it “nasty,” and said we could get electrocuted, because “electricity travels through water,” wagging his index finger like it was on fire. With that, he sent us off to music!
This was probably the first time that I’d been explicitly asked to identify as a gender, and it was over THIS! I knew that whoever had done it would have needed an audience. So not only did some fool piss on the wall, some other fool(s) stood around and watched! I thought, what bastard did this! Didn’t they know Miss Saundra would have to clean it? Didn’t she greet them, and ask them how they’re doing like she does me? Did they ‘see’ Miss Saundra everyday like she saw us? Why would they piss on her parade? Why give Miss Saundra the blues for your pissing contest!
I stopped by the bathroom on the way back from music class. Sure enough, Miss Saundra had been done had it squeaky, bleachy clean! I could never have imagined girls’ doing something like that.
I knew that like me, Miss Saundra was an outsider in a space where I belonged. I knew people like Miss Saundra, so she was not a stranger to me. I had no ambitions of becoming a janitor, but I certainly knew women, in my family and in my community, who did this sort of work. And those women I knew who did that sort of work encouraged people like me to do well in school, so I could take advantage of the kinds of choices they didn’t have. I had no reason to think Ms. Saundra less of me. What’s more, even though I felt strange in my own body, she treated me as human, especially. The gratitude I feel for her sounds like a tambourine in my own theme song.
Thus far, this has been the only time someone has called the cops on me – excluding those late-night noise violations at university for my 21st birthday parties. Plus a few routine traffic stops back home, two of which involved routine racial profiling. I’m lucky. There are far too many stories when these police encounters didn’t go well.
What if Ms. Angie had notified the guard, and he’d then decided to take things into his own hands? What if the police had come in pointing guns as they are want to do? What if my mother weren’t clasping tightly to my hand – as far as they knew – a senior citizen in need of (their) protection, a long-time customer of the bank discussing the mortgage on my grandparent’s old house? I have to wonder about these possibilities, to be sensitive and aware :-(. To be Young, Gifted and Black :-).
Like Charles Ramsey, “I knew something was wrong” when I saw two cops circle the bank and enter from two different directions. They weren’t there for banking and there weren’t any other customers. This was hubby’s (then boyfriend) first visit to my hometown, so I’d explicitly warned him to sit down while we waited in the lobby for my mother to handle her business. It was a small branch, yet still, like many banks at the time, the safe sat wide open, as if for inspection. Hubby was hovering. I even gave him change so he could get a lollipop from the charity pot sitting on several teller stations. You’d think someone would come over and offer a tour.
I had entered the small office once or twice. I greeted the agent speaking with my mother, then let momma know where we waited. Meanwhile, hubby insisted on wondering around – he’s generally restless. He was looking at all the posters promoting the bank’s services. Incredibly high-interest rates! Few savings options! He’s fascinated with the levels of credit exploitation permitted in America; the average German has net assets while most all us Americans have debt! He couldn’t even understand how a nation would let its population not have access to a basic bank account – as a right. He measured everything by good German standards.
How do people in America live with such instability! At that time, all this was totally foreign to him. At least in our neighborhood most folks were homeowners, so hubby and I understood one another on that. We’d both grown up taking care of our family’s homes and helping the neighbors. We’ve mowed many a lawn and trimmed many a hedge. We still do now.
Angie Smallwood’s branch has now closed. After being heavily frisked, ID-ed and having the car license plates checked, the manager told us that Angie Smallwood had been involved in “5 or 6 armed robberies.” He explained – in that managerial tone where you know you’re being handled – that Angie had become suspicious because of hubby’s foreign accent. I found that part hilarious and yet most plausible then and there, in Louisville, KY. In spite of their constant romanticization of their European roots, they couldn’t communicate with one actual F.O.B. standing right in front of them. As a European, hubby needed this education about his own whiteness.. He even came up with his own phrase for the phenomenon “those are not my white people.”
I suppose the manager was suggesting that Angie Smallwood was trigger happy. Or, perhaps he was just trying to elicit our sympathies. It’s not as if we were going to cause a scene, the cops were still standing menacingly by. Of course, my husband blurted out why they’d placed someone so traumatized on front desk duty anyway? I am also not certain if they expected my mother to continue her business with them, or if they even cared, but the cops did ask hubby and I to leave – as if my mother was just going to go back inside. At least the manager could have apologized to my mother. He could not.
“Like I said, we just got a call about a potential crime.”
What if my mother didn’t have outstanding credit, or relationships with other banks, and therefore didn’t have other options? Angie’s antics would have just ruined that. This was the most disrespectful part – their staunch, comprehensive reminder that there’s systemic power behind their individual prejudices. Their silences. My silence.
My silence: I had already policed myself. I dressed for success, sat calmly in a visible area, not made any noise and not touched anything save for the flyer next to me on the table. I used my best diction and inside voice when I made sure to smile and greet every staffer I could see. I showed them my teen as if to announce “I’m not a threat.” If all that hadn’t disarmed them, it occurred to me – yet again- that they could not be appeased.
No level of respectability would protect me in public – we were all a part of a system, and as far as they were all concerned, everyone was just doing their job. Imagine, not only could the cops not offer any apology, they couldn’t even stand down from their hostile posture and tone. I actually felt sorry for them – as big, armed and trained as they were, they acted threatened by us!
At the time I thought they’d refused to de-escalate the situation, perhaps pride? The cops had no kind words for my mother whom they’d found out was there on legitimate business. Naw, they escorted us outside and menacingly watched us drive away. Sometimes I feel that even screwball ‘Police Academy’movies from the 80’s showed more emotional intelligence than that.
Though hubby usually drives, momma insisted that she take the wheel under the cops’ eyes, worrying they’d then challenge the foreigner’s right to drive. Yet, now I’m convinced they couldn’t have de-escalated the situation. Cops’ weeks of training doesn’t routinely include conflict resolution. They don’t know no better. They just got a call, and so they could no longer be human.
Educate cops. Arm them with de-escalation tools so that the public sees their power. Arm cops with non-violence so that they model this behavior for our society. Teach cops to be able to identify emotional distress as much as any professional would. Don’t let a weapon be their only peacemaker.
A song for Terry.
Terry was just six when he died.
Not a long time spent on this Earth,
But enough to make himself known to the universe.
There were many obstacles in life waiting for boys like Terry.
If life is a vast ocean, then he only sailed a meager ferry.
Terry was born in a place, in a time and
In a body that didn’t count much –
A poor, southern Black boy and such.
He was loved, for sure,
I’d see his grandmother kiss him every morning,
As she sent Terry off to school.
Terry’s household didn’t look like those on TV.
None of ours did.
There weren’t any of those Cosby kids.
But Terry was like my brother, my dear friend.
I looked forward to walking to school with Terry each day.
He always had something interesting to say.
Terry and I were in the same class.
He lived across the street,
And our school was just a few blocks away.
There and back,
I wanted to be by his side.
Sometimes I would walk to my grandparents’ after school,
And momma would pick me up after work.
No sooner did we get home and settled did I ask to go outside and play,
Our story was short-lived.
Two kids on the block,
On the poor side of town,
We lived cocooned in a world of luxury:
We were cared for and we were safe.
Everyone on the block looked out for all the kids;
There were no strangers around home base.
But, we also lived
In a time and place of misery,
Where things like poverty,
Would determine your destiny,
And all the dreams we would dream,
Would have to fight the sun to live.
A handsome little brown boy,
And a finely picked mini ‘Fro.
An easy smile,
And an easy-going way about him.
Terry was a nice guy.
And did I mention he was loved?
He was not the most popular kid in class –
Naw, everybody feared that guy!
Terry was the one everyone liked.
For Valentine’s day,
The whole class exchanged heart-shaped candies and notes with one another-
All in pink, my favorite color.
My one time of year to shine!
I was so excited to choose one especially for Terry, my brother:
Will you be my Valentine?
Even the teacher got along with him.
Terry never got in trouble.
He got sad-eyed when any of us got marched off to get paddled.
At lunch, I’d always sit with Terry.
Terry got free lunch, and
Peanut butter and jelly is what I got when momma packed mine!
We’d hurry to the front of the line,
And finish our food quickly,
So we could go to the play area the rest of the time.
I didn’t like milk, but Terry did.
And he didn’t care for apple sauce, but I did.
Sometimes we’d split:
Half a piece of pizza for half my sandwich.
We didn’t keep score, but
We were always even.
There, right in the middle of the cafeteria,
Smack in the middle of the school,
Was a large, carpeted recreational area.
There, we’d play and everything was cool.
After lunch, but also before and after school,
We could climb and crawl,
Spin and jump,
Run and hide,
Seek and find,
And holler as loud as we’d want.
Teachers would monitor from nearby, but
They left us alone and took their break-time.
Our teachers would even rotate who had this monitoring job to do.
We weren’t a rowdy bunch,
So, there were no fights to break-up.
There were neither hoops nor balls to tussle over.
No nets, no bats –
No competition and all that.
Just a space…
Where us kids could be free.
We were free.
Terry died in the middle of first grade.
We had found out from our teacher that Terry was sick,
We’d all heard of sickle cell, many in our own families, like mine.
But none of us knew what it means.
We knew Terry was not always sturdy.
One time he’d had a bad bout with asthma.
Our teacher helped him take his inhaler,
That she’d showed us where it was kept in her desk drawer.
Now, she was telling us that Terry was just spending a few days in the hospital.
The whole class avidly awaited Terry’s return.
She didn’t know more than that,
I needed to know when Terry’d be back.
I knocked on his door, one day
On the way home from school,
To tell his grandmother I hoped Terry’d be ok.
I knew my grandmother would be heartbroken if anything like that happened to one of us.
Kids that little aren’t supposed to die.
Not here, and not of diseases we can’t even see.
Even at that age, I knew this just shouldn’t be.
And yet turn on the TV,
Every day we see signs and symptoms of little Black boys’ morbidity.
Whether from war or starvation in distant lands, or
Dilapidation and disease on these burning sands.
Just like what was happening to Terry:
A casualty of a neglectful society.
I didn’t get to mourn Terry,
Didn’t have some cathartic corral with our classmates about
The fun times we had or how much we missed him.
There was no school counselor coming to our class –
No one explaining the cycle of life, nor
Asking us about our feelings.
I knew how I felt.
I loved Terry, and knew the way I loved him was seen as peculiar;
I couldn’t let anyone know about this one-sided affair.
I was sad, and all this was unfair.
What would I say?
We were only 6 years old, and
Terry was the first boy I ever loved.
In memory of Muhammed Ali, another Black boy who survived those same streets and corridors.
Originally written: 26 November 2001
I wanna be like Mike. Mike is filthy rich, in great physical condition, is well perceived by not only his fans, but also the wider public, and he’s even faithful to his monogamous relationship. Mike is generally agreeable, and you almost never see him expressing aggression towards others outside of the game. Mike has never been ‘exposed’ as gun-totting, neither bashing women nor gays, and he’s even pretty articulate. Rumors spread about his philanthropic efforts the same low-income communities where he grew up in a hard-working family. His best friend and biggest fan is his dad, and Mike is so sensitive and secure with his manhood that he wept before the nation upon his dad’s death. Mike’s at the very top of his craft yet never brags and never rests on his laurels. Mike’s humble and certainly a team player. “Nothin’ but net.” Mike works hard.
This is what America tells the world, and outside of this country (which is neither the center of the universe nor even this tiny planet) many believe that Mike is wholly representative of the American dream. For sleuths of Americans, he’s likely representative of the ideal American. I mean, I am not a sports gladiator nor was I born with a trust fund. Hence, in order to be like Mike, I am in school. I work hard. Thus far I’ve earned a degree from an elite university and am currently enrolled in another. I estimate that so far, my education itself has indebted me over one hundred twenty thousand; and I am nowhere near done. There’s little guarantee that I’ll be wealthy, or even employed. There’s absolutely no guarantee, and in fact, factors are working against me finding a lifelong stable monogamous relationship.
And I am quite privileged. Imagine if you will, most of the world. Most of us have received that chain e-mail which looks at the world population scaled down to one hundred folks. Imagine if this entire Earth’s population were composed of just one hundred people, there would be less than one person with the opportunities I’ve had. So then, how many would have those opportunities like Mike?
Don’t e’rybody wanna be like Mike?
Imagine now, that you have a happy, humble life. You work hard. You live in the south of France and you attend to the vineyard, just as generations upon generations of your ancestors have done before. What are your chances of ever being like Mike? Imagine that you’re a social worker in Kazakhstan with few resources to offer those who present themselves before you, regardless of their destitute. You work hard. Imagine you’re a child soldier in Sierra Leon who was forced to burn his village to the ground after being forced to massacre several relatives. You cling to the drugs your captors make you take numb you when they rape your mother and sister. You work hard. Imagine that you’re sitting with a doctor in Botswana as she tells you that you are HIV+. You join a quarter of Botswana’s population who live with HIV/AIDS. You work hard, but the monthly medical costs of a person living with AIDS is much more than a year’s salary for you and your husband, who is also positive. Now imagine you are their kids. You like basketball, too. And you practice every day with the plastic carton nailed to the tree out back. You work hard. Imagine you’re the same kid, with the same circumstances, only you’re in the ghettos of America, just like Mike. If you work hard, wouldn’t you become an Olympiad? Wouldn’t Obama present you the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the White House with the Gates? Couldn’t your image become a logo?
What are your chances of ever being like Mike? You work hard. Would it anger you that these images bombard your life? This world is big, but Mike’s dream persists…and penetrates every market on Earth. We’re all sold that version of that dream – that anyone, even a kid as regular as Mike, could be like Mike. If he can do it, anyone can (and you can with this can of cola, sports drink, burger, apparel, underwear, or other consumable… be like Mike) Don’t it inspire you? No rim! Don’t you want to be like Mike?