Smells Like Teen Spirit

I was in line at T.J. Maxx in the gauntlet–you know the line that’s lined with socks and kitchen gadgets and stuff you don’t need but are likely to buy if you’re stuck looking at it long enough–and I saw this little gem:

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I saw this candle with no frame of reference for how “ivy league” would smell  but like cops and presidential politics, the old Ivory towers have faced their own waves of upheaval over the last two years.   So maybe it smells like old money and racists S.A.E. frat boys? Perhaps it smells like a mattress worn by the girl next to you to bring attention to the lack of administrative response to sexual assault.  Or is it the heady fragrance of pepper spray and banner paint.  It certainly doesn’t smell like sunshine and roses.

Higher ed is a microcosm of the wider society–and if done right, should be first to incubate, test and perfect new ideas and ways of being.  Campuses roiling with tension need real solutions that–when developed thoughtfully–can help the rest of society follow into post-apocalyptic paradise.   And they’re full of young people fired up and ready to go.

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This grey candle of college sure didn’t smell like like America’s shiny future, but it’s not too late to cook up some new scents–humility and transcendent humanity? superstrings and singularity? Let’s just start with the simple scent of justice and love.   Anyone have a match?

New Walls, New Ways

How many words can you hurl at the behemoth of hate before your arm falls off, or worse yet, you come to despise the futility of your own meager weapons?

2015, by any measure, was pretty shitty.  Unless you don’t watch the news, you know the past month season year has been intense–full of bad news, real tragedies and a world wide wrestling match with the most difficult issues humanity faces. I teach about media and race so this is my wheelhouse–writing about it all the time should be a given with so much to address.

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But this year has tested even those of us who are comfortable in the challenging arena of isms.  How many times can you explain that yes, racism exists, and no calling out racism does not make you a racist.  How many words can you hurl at the behemoth of hate before your arm falls off, or worse yet, you come to despise the futility of your own meager weapons?

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Tucked in between 1,134 black men killed by police, racism also made a come back in higher ed:  remember the threats at University of Missouri, racism at fraternity SAE in March and at a different chapter in November and, in case you missed it, a heated debate in higher ed around professors’ using the n– word in class.  Between writing, teaching about race and media, and fighting the local battle in my own tower, I ended the year despising more than just the futility of my weapons.

As an nontenured faculty of color at a predominately white college that focuses in part on social justice I believe I have a duty to prepare students who will combat structural inequality with a solid understanding of systems of oppression.  Not surprisingly, our little community is not unlike many of the other higher ed institutions “dealing” with diversity issues.

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I have been reminded that to speak out against racism, to name that racism exists in our community is a brave thing to do.  The unspoken flip side to this compliment is that to name racism at the institution is  dangerous business. I work on a contract, and can be released from my job of 10 years at the end of the year with no reason given.  A decade of good teaching evaluations or hard work will not protect me.  Each time I open my mouth and call out the racism I see, I am at risk.  And I have felt at risk.  Every time. Break came just in time to retreat and lick my wounds.

But every day is a new day, and a new year?  Well, that’s a time for magic.  I needed to clear the deck to get writing.  Since the year has been so heavy, this isn’t any average clear the deck–I’m in my writing room stripping shit down to the bare walls.

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Something about working on a household project unlocks a way of working on yourself.  Stripping wallpaper is a junior high level metaphor for cleansing for a new year, so no surprise  as I do I’m thinking about letting go, razing the ground to grow something, anything untainted by this years infestations.

But I’m also learning about how to pull down wallpaper that has been stuck to the wall since the 1950s.  While hacking away with water and an ice scraper, I learned something surprising.  the best way to pull it down is gently, softly and with love.  Sure the wallpaper was coming up with the scrapper in resistant tight crumpled rows, begrudgingly, and an inch at a time.  but if I spray it lightly, wait patiently and pull gently at the decay it comes off in long lacy strands that fall apart at the slightest touch.

While having drinks with my parents, my father said he always wished he could be forgiving.  I was surprised: I reminded him that he had indoctrinated me with a pathological ability to let go. So many days coming home from being bullied at school, he would simply tell me, “Not everyone’s going to like you.  Let it go.”  When I gnashed my teeth and plotted revenge he would rustle his paper, fanning away the evil deeds of the world with a terse, “Get over it.”

He laughed when I reminded him.  “I may have told you that, but that doesn’t mean I did it.  I’ve never been able to forgive.”  Quick to reinforce the old lesson, he added, “It’s good to forgive.  Then you’re free and you don’t carry it your whole life.” I’ve spent years forgiving and this year more than any, trying to be free of the pain of racism big and small.

The promise of forgiveness is freedom.  But when people refuse to acknowledge your humanity, much less take responsibility for trying to diminish you, forgiveness starts to feel too much like granting permission.  I have been pained to learn that sometimes forgiveness means you carry the memory for those who forget they victimize you, and it is them that goes free, unburdened by having to confront their own small mindedness and bad acts.

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Google wallpaper removal and their are lots of choices: chemicals to burn it off, machines to blast steam to disintegrate it off, paper tigers to shred it off.  I thought that ripping off the wallpaper would give me a chance to rip something up, to release the burden of all I have forgiven, but instead I find just another reminder that this slow gentle relentless attack, for me, is the only way.   Two days later I am still in there, peeling it off, rubbing it gently with water and then easing it off, sliding it to the floor and patting the wall clean.

Why?  I want a clean room but I care about the wall underneath–I don’t want to be left with holes to fill and scratches to heal.  My soft strategy rewards me. At the cost of checking my desire to destroy, the wallpaper comes off in long strands still holding the memory of all it saw. The war that I thought I wanted turned out to be a long moving mediation–both on the walls and in the work.

So I’ll scrape the walls slowly, and when they and my mind are clean I can return to the larger battle.  With each strand in the pile I remind myself of the reasons to keep scraping away at racism. Fuck forgiveness and the risk of raising your fist. I speak out anyway.  Because that’s who I have chosen to be.  Because the students deserve teachers willing to advocate for their dignity.  Because that is the job of a teacher–to provide a space for students to learn and grow.  Because I have a responsibility to model what I teach. Because I will not be silent when something must be said. Because with no justice then can never be peace.  Because racism hurts white people and they deserve to know the truth. Because hate will not eradicate itself. Because I believe that we can be better. Because I am black. Because I am human.  Because we the people are still trying to form a more perfect union.

Because the moment is now. Happy new year.