Letter to HSED660 Class:
July 30, 2020
A great deal occurred during and after our Men & Masculinties class, and we appreciate those of you who have since reached out to express allyship or learn how to be better allies. However, we are deeply concerned about how misguided these expressions of allyship have been.
If you are interested in learning how to work with people of color, which include your fellow classmates and instructors in the Human Sexuality program, we ask that you read this letter in its entirety. We ask that you put aside whatever it is you think you know or understand about racism, white supremacy, and what happened in our class. We ask that you be willing to learn and, above all, to listen.
The decision to send this letter has been conceived out of solidarity between Angelica Thorne, D’Nise Williams-Braswell, Natasha Singh, and faculty of color. While this letter has been written in parts—and each of us speaks truth to power—the spirit behind this communication is rooted in our shared understanding of what happened in our class and its aftermath. It is rooted in our stance as co-resistors and co-creators.
The part that immediately follows is written by Natasha Singh.
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Living in a sea of white supremacy makes it impossible not to breathe in that toxicity and unwittingly perpetrate it and/or be in reaction to it. None of us, regardless of our respective locations, histories, and racialized experiences and traumas, is immune to the effects of living in this sea. Those effects creep into our relationships to power and how and when we use our voices; how we inhabit our bodies; how we choose to locate and position ourselves; our understandings of time and space; our ideas of beauty; our relationships to land, knowledge, and ancestral knowing; our belief systems, and so much more. Certainly, part of my work and my commitment to decoloniality means not only examining the ways I have responded to living in this sea, but also unearthing and returning to epistemologies of the South. It is work that I welcome. It is work that is required for my own liberation and the liberation of others.
I (Natasha) come from countries with their own particular relationships to colonization, genocide, and white supremacy. My racial traumas, which include racial violence and being called the n word for the first 17 years of my life, are rooted in very different historical contexts and landscapes that inform how I see the US and participate in conversations about race, colonization, imperialism, and white supremacy. While this in no way takes away from the impact of my choice of language during my presentation in class—and I will be more mindful going forward—it is nevertheless the ground on which I stand. It is also the ground from which I build solidarity with other people of color.
I grew up in a time and place where racism was not hidden behind veneers of politeness and performances of white allyship. I grew up seeing rocks thrown through our windows, with the n word attached to them. Skinheads used that word when they beat up my little brother within an inch of his life. My sister was attacked in broad daylight, and clumps of her hair were pulled from her head because a white person felt she was that word. Even though she had two degrees, my mother worked as a maid cleaning up after white people because they refused to believe her capable of more due to the color of her skin. White kids used to follow her around town, pointing at her bindi with imaginary guns like she was a walking target. An animal. My family’s experiences of racial violence and dehumanization may be rooted in different landscapes, times, histories, and systems of oppression. But they are no less valid.
Unfortunately, many of my fellow classmates seem incapable or unwilling to conceive of racial realities as being anything other than Black or white. This US-centric and dualistic way of looking at manifestations of white supremacy insists on the erasures of experiences both inside and outside of the US. These erasures not only absence Indigenous peoples and peoples from the Global South, but also non-white ways of knowing and being. The US is not the center of the world, and nor is it the only place where injustice lives. Many people around the globe (and those of us who have lived in other countries) share experiences of dehumanization, suffering, and resilience, albeit in different ways and often times in response to US imperialism. While I recognize the word I used in class has a particular history and resonance in the US that runs deep, it also has its own history and resonance in other countries where it continues to be weaponized against Black and Brown folk. Ignorance about “other” racial and transnational realities makes it easy for my classmates to cast me as the new face of racism while simultaneously ignoring the worlds I inhabit, the color of my skin, and my lived experience. To align with their perspective is to participate in my own erasure. I refuse to do this.
I also refuse to erase the critical differences between myself and the Black students in the room. I understand that the word I used has had a long and particular history of being weaponized in the US against Black folk—and that it is inextricably linked to white supremacy and chattel slavery and all the forms of slavery and dehumanization that have followed. I understand, too, that it is not just that word that has been weaponized with impunity. Black life itself has been treated with the utmost carelessness with impunity in this country. As someone who carries racial trauma, I honor the pain of everyday dehumanization that lives in the body and cellular memory. It is passed through the generations, and it does not take much to activate pain portals. I recognize that I—as a differently located person of color—uttered an activating word within a US context and am committed to doing the necessary repair work with the Black folk in the room. However, the depth and richness of that work—and the love and honoring that attends it—will not be made available for white consumption and distortion.
For the white people who want to be shielded from hearing that word: it is true that language is powerful, but un/safety does not live in a word alone. It lives in what animates that word. It lives in the ongoing perpetration of white supremacy and the persistent refusal to reconcile with how it continues to serve white folk at the expense of Indigenous, Black, and Brown folk. I know we find ourselves in a climate where it is currently trendy to perform white allyship. But from where I sit, the easiest and laziest thing for white students to do is to get upset at hearing that word but remain silent, unmoved, and complicit in the face of the white supremacy that underpins and enlivens the word inside and outside the Widener bubble. It is far easier for my white classmates to scapegoat me than to distinguish between when a word is being weaponized and when it is being used by a person of color to offer a critical analysis that vehemently critiques the erasure of the effects of such weaponization against Black folk.
These distinctions are important. Without them, students and faculty fall prey to reductive, reactionary, and binary thinking. Indeed, it is not lost on me that after my critique of white supremacy and Kimmel’s casting of angry white men as victims in his book, Angry White Men, the angriest white man in our class (a man who has since identified himself as having a long history of working in the military and law enforcement) was permitted to hurl expletives in my direction without being called out for violating classroom norms. Even after his shouting and cursing, he was able to recast himself as the "unsafe" victim in the room whose "day was ruined" because he had to hear me use the n word, never mind that I had used it in the context of describing the lived experience of Omar Thornton, a Black man whose lifelong experience of racism Kimmel (a heralded Masculinities scholar) had tried to erase. From where I sit, this kind of permissiveness in a classroom becomes the handmaiden of white supremacy. It centers white fragility, entrenches white male power/violence, and allows for the most insidious microaggressions to pass by unnoticed.
I am not willing to give our white male professor a pass on this one. Unlike Black guest speakers like Brother Rob (and the many speakers from marginalized communities who continue to do the labor of educating students in our program for little to no compensation), professors in our program get paid to teach and facilitate. As far as I am concerned, our professor did not facilitate that conversation. He watched it. Nor did he—or has he since—utilize(d) his position to help students re-frame the conversation in ways that could help them attend to complexity, nuance, and context.
He permitted the angriest white man in our class—someone who has participated in systems that enact violence against Black and Brown bodies in the US and the world—to dominate the space and turn my critique of white supremacy into a focus on his feelings of unsafety. White students have since followed suit by centering themselves and their hurt feelings/confusion rather than the feelings of people of color. Even if it is true that white people were triggered in class (and were perhaps reminded of their own experiences of triggering words/moments), conversations about race frequently become hijacked by white folk in this manner. I refuse to participate in the myriad ways that white people continue to hijack and distort conversations about race in order to re-center themselves. I refuse to be cast as the enemy in their script that seeks to not only erase context, but also my lived experience.
Sanctioned and encouraged by our professor, white students in our class now feel entitled and eager to engage in public discussions on Canvas about how best to call out people of color, as if white people calling out people of color is the urgent work required to dismantle white supremacy. Here’s where white supremacy becomes even more pathological: Performances of white allyship these past weeks have included invitations to the Black students in our class to participate in getting me kicked out of the program. Clearly, the white students employing such tactics do not realize that trying to harm a person of color (who is an anti-racist/anti-imperialist) and trying to destroy solidarity between Black and Brown people through the time-honored tactic of divide and conquer are not answers to ending their own racism. They are simply signs that their unexamined racism exists.
Mismanagement of conversations about race do real and lasting harm: I am now giving serious thought to dropping out of this program in spite of the considerable financial investment I have made in it. The possibility of subjecting myself to yet another professor who is woefully unskilled at navigating conversations about race seems tantamount to disrespecting myself. So, too, does being in yet another learning environment with racially illiterate “woke” white students who eagerly perpetrate microaggressions and binary thinking of right/wrong and bad/good through their words, silences, and performances of righteous indignation. What I know for certain is that I will never pursue a doctorate in Human Sexuality at Widener. I have spent my days moving between grief and outrage as I have reflected on times that I and other people of color have been under attack or unsupported in predominantly white spaces. I have remembered and revisited racial traumas I would rather forget. I have watched, nauseated, as white classmates have shown their eagerness to learn how to call out people of color without any awareness of self/location. I have watched our professor sanction this conversation—and continue to offer absolutely no informed guidance or intervention whatsoever. I have found myself second guessing people I once considered friends and respected colleagues in the making. I have watched white classmates get on with the work of completing their final paper while I still find myself contending with the toxic aftermath of this class.
In this time, I have also reached out to Black professors, the Black students in my class, and to my support systems and family members comprised entirely of Brown and Black folk. It is us who have had to do the labor of being in spaces with white students who earnestly believe they get it—but don't. It is us who have watched white students offer to harm or call out a person of color as a form of allyship, and think we don't notice the pathology behind it. It is us who have watched self congratulatory white students offer to harm one of us while presenting themselves as the saviors in whom we should trust. It is us who have checked in on one another, grieved, mobilized, and worked to unpack and name what's really going on here. People of color who are in solidarity with each other have long held each other up. This is work that has been done for generations, and it traverses the globe. Regardless of white attempts at allyship that seek to divide and conquer, our solidarity cannot be undermined by insidious performances of white allyship or by the paralysis of a complicit professor. With all this said, the work of undoing the damage that results from white ignorance, white paralysis, misdirected white anger, white microaggressions, white distortions, and white silence should not be ours to do. It's yours.
No student of color should ever have to go through this. No white students should feel emboldened in the ways they now do to "call out" people of color. No Black and Brown professors should have to do the unpaid labor of managing conversations about race and dealing with their aftermath while white professors remain paralyzed but paid. No white students should attempt to undermine the solidarity between Black and Brown folk or weaponize their whiteness to harm people of color. No classroom space should center white fragility at the expense of people of color. No Human Sexuality professor at Widener should be permitted to teach any student—or be in any classroom—without first learning the requisite skills to navigate conversations about race. And, certainly, no Human Sexuality student should graduate from this program without being racially literate. While classrooms are learning spaces—and I gather we are all learning—that learning can no longer come at the expense of people of color. The price is way too high. And I—we—will no longer pay it.
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*The part below has been written by D'Nise Williams-Braswell and Angelica Thorne
A lot has transpired since our final class meeting, and we (D’Nise and Angelica) feel that D’Nise’s response to the class was misinterpreted in ways that are very problematic and that need to be addressed.
1) Let us be clear here: context and positionality are important. The world we live in does not merely exist in black and white. Natasha’s personal experiences as a Person of Color with racism, white supremacy, and the n word itself, lend to her perspective and traumas that are unique to her, and that are valid. While the usage of the word can be problematic for obvious reasons, she is not a racist, and nor was she using the word from a position of power or privilege. The word itself is merely a word. It holds little power without attention to the context in which it is used and the positionality of the person using it.
2) We want to be clear that the reactions you witnessed from Angelica were rooted in something much bigger and deeper than the word that was uttered. The fall-out spiraled fast due to both lack of clear communication and skillful guidance on the part of a professor who remained paralyzed. This conversation could have ultimately been productive with proper facilitation and navigation. Instead, it quickly derailed. Though our professor has since acknowledged his failure in this regard, he has done nothing to rectify the damage.
3) The misguided anger and rage that has been directed at Natasha since then alongside student attempts at solidarity and allyship have been counterproductive and harmful. This negative portrayal of her attempts to negate and invalidate her experiences as a woman of color in much the same way that Angelica and D’Nise have felt invalidated in most Widener classes.
4) We are deeply troubled that white students felt compelled to start a thread in attempts to foster discussions and display pseudo-allyship as they contemplate ways to effectively call out people of color. While this is unacceptable and alarming for a variety of reasons, it is immensely disappointing that THIS is what was interpreted as a worthy takeaway from the email that was sent out by D’Nise.
5) White allies should be devoting their time and energy to doing the work to dismantle white supremacy in themselves and affect change within the power structures that they have access to, and exist within. Not only is policing people of color counterintuitive to this mission, but also it serves as a harmful extension of savior-based ideologies.
6) Relationships matter: This energy would be better spent calling out the misogyny, racism and anti-Blackness in the circles and institutions that you navigate, with the people with whom you have relationships, including yourselves, through introspection. Rest assured, the results of this well-placed energy will be very little time, energy, or desire to police communities of color.
It is likely that this letter and the situation in our class have created some feelings of discomfort. We ask that you all sit with it. Process it and be mindful of the harm you may have caused. Following the incident, several of you reached out to Angelica and D’Nise requesting information on how to address issues surrounding racism against Black folks. We recognize these questions and concerns came from a genuine place, as concerns for our emotional labor and mental health were mentioned. But these requests further drain us both. Not only is this exhausting non-compensated labor, but it also reinforces the mammification of Black femmes in this program. After enduring harm, we are expected to coddle our white classmates and make them feel better about the harm that we’ve endured. We are oftentimes asked and expected to share our Black experience. This is extremely insensitive. Our experiences are not a sport for your “woke” consumption; nor are they a spectacle.
We demand that you do better.
Angelica Thorne, D’Nise Williams Braswell, and Natasha Singh