Those professors among us who teach from the perspective of the oppressed are often tasked with un-teaching what our students learned prior to entering our classrooms. As we know, the education system is a crucial site of social (re)production, fully complicit in the art of domination. Children learn that our American hands are clean and our rule is just. To inculcate each new generation of patriots, Cowboys (or Cubs) fight Indians, “good” guys are pitted against bad hombres, super-predators, terrorists, the axis of evil. A children’s textbook in Texas refers to African slaves as migrant “workers.” Hegemony is secured in the rewriting of history. The original sin has been erased.
So this becomes a dilemma. It is difficult to talk of a shared heritage that celebrates victories of subjugation and extermination when one is not herself of the lineage of the conqueror, but to do otherwise contradicts the stories we as a collective – “we the people” – tell. This collective worldview endows on the conquered the Hegelian double consciousness of master and slave that W.E.B. Du Bois so eloquently extended to the black American. The master can only be shocked, angered, or insulted when Beyoncé gets in formation or when Colin Kaepernick takes a knee. The master is not repulsed by the portrait of Andrew Jackson, who once offered $50 and “ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred” for his runaway slave, that hangs in the Oval Office.
The slave, by contrast, cannot but know the horror, for she embodies our original sin.
The historical record is contested because its narrative pervades our lived present. It is ongoing. And while the “alternative facts” of the 45th Administration are so flagrant as to seem abnormal, our standard education is one of alt history, alt economics, alt politics, and certainly alt race relations. The “alt right” is brought to us courtesy of our alt education.
Power is a shape-shifter, and, with every gain of the subjugated, it manifests anew. So when Jim Crow at home and colonial rule abroad became untenable, racism came to be depicted not as a systemic or structural force but rather a problem of the racist individual. Being stripped of the institutions of racial domination, in other words, necessitated the erasure of their structural legacies. It pushed the problem of racism to that of racists, easily denounced in the collective purge of racist offenders. A generation is raised on this erasure, and claims colorblindness with the same surety as its sibling claims of neutrality, objectivity, and universality. What’s wrong with All Lives Matter, the master asks? Doesn’t Black Lives Matter simply perpetuate these false divisions?
What’s all the fuss over a banana?
The personal aberration, the defective racist, finds her corollary in personal responsibility. So after a half century it becomes legitimate to dismantle affirmative action, when research shows that it would take 228 years for black families to close the wealth gap with white families. When last year The Washington Post declared, “Net worth of white households in D.C. region is 81 times that of black households,” and described a “racial wealth gap” that, while frequently attributed to “individual character flaws,” in fact represents “an extensive history of the structural barriers in local and national policies, Supreme Court rulings, programs and practices that created wealth for many white families and prevented wealth accumulation or stripped wealth from many Black families.”
The myth of personal responsibility is built on the erasure of America’s original sin. Thus it is with no small irony that I write as a professor at American University in Washington D.C., the belly of the beast.
The education system, a crucial site of social (re)production, cannot but be complicit in the art of domination. We are the intelligentsia, engaged in a war of position, which is all too often the intellectual production of revision and denial.
How then might we make agency of our double consciousness?
In reaction to the May 1st racist hate crime in which bananas in black nooses were found hanging in several locations on American University’s [AU] campus, occurring just as Taylor Dumpson became the first black woman president of AU’s Student Government, and against the national backdrop of the police murder of fifteen year-old Jordan Edwards and the failure of the Justice Department to prosecute in the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling, the Faculty Senate proposed a Permanent AU Commission for Anti-Discrimination that aims to “develop the most advanced model in higher education for anti-discriminatory policies and accountability in the nation.”
The measure is a noble one. But we must go further, to the heart of our mission as an institution of higher education: let us decolonize. Let AU and every university reeling from toxic climates of campus racism strive to be the most advanced model for teaching truth to power. When “diversity” and “inclusion” are superfluous add-ons, seminars and weekend workshops separated from the “real” work that “serious” scholars do, our students take the cue. In 2017, an AU student can still graduate without learning that this country and this world looks the way it does for reasons that make “we the people” look bad. Moreover, the classes that teach these truths are too often set apart as less stringent scholarship or posed as alternative readings of what is otherwise a normative reality. Is this what we want from the next generation of informed citizens in a multicultural world?
Responding to systemic incidents on AU’s campus and elsewhere, the belated conversation around curricular change has begun. May our double consciousness galvanize a movement. It is only when we un-teach the lies of the past that claims to a shared heritage will mean something other than the art of domination.
*This article first appeared in The Eagle.