The Colour of Learning?

This blog post is a response / talking point in relation to the upcoming Canterbury Christ Church University Black History Month, 2017 event, ‘The Colour of Learning’. The title is aimed at rendering visible what is usually made invisible, and therefore unspoken and normal. The statement below represents a particular normalised gaze, the problematisation, and pathologisation of black students in a white, Western education system. It is sometimes spoken out loud,  often performed as sub-text, usually falling just beneath charges of explicit racism. The statement symbolises a very old epistemic and discursive destruction, a violence, but is still part of the enduring power of colonial thinking, here with us in the fabric of our political, social and cultural systems.

I have  written this as a talking point, and a personal position statement to support the Staff BME network as we work together to contest these normalisations and the insidious prejudices and discrimination they perpetuate.

This piece does not represent the University, or the Staff Network. It is a personal blog. Its contents might be used – on condition of referencing its source- for educational and knowledge dissemination purposes. In a way, it’s a safe space. In the same way that most of society, for most of modernity, and everything in it, is and has been, a ‘safe space’ for some people.

 

THE COLOUR OF LEARNING

“Black students do not have a culture of learning.”

…In the same way that ‘Asians’ have some sort of innate ability to generate capital profit, and succeed in business endeavours…

…in the same way that ‘blacks’ have a ‘natural’ sense of rhythm and an ability to dance…

…in the same way that ‘Jewish’ people have a disproportionate interest in money…

…in the same way that ‘Scottish’ people are somehow mean with their money…

…in the same way that Asian communities look after their own elderly (thereby ‘solving’ the problem of state-funded welfare systems and ameliorating any need for policy interventions)…

…in the same way that ‘Indian’ characters in David Walliams’ million copy selling children’s book and TV series are confined to…newsagents…

…in the same way that Cartwright in 1851 postulated the existence of Drapetomania, the supposed ‘mental illness’ which ‘caused’ black slaves to flee their bondage…

…in the same way that even now, in 2017, people are legitimated in their vocalisation of ‘don’t get me wrong, I’m not racist, but…’

…in the same way that over the last 10 years, constant government and supporting media discourse has fuelled the xenophobic racist attitudes towards migrants, refugee and asylum seekers, economic migrants, and anyone else who appears ‘different’…

…in the same way that Hegel’s notion of the enlightenment necessitated and justified slavery, because “The negro is an example of animal man in all his savagery and lawlessness…” (Hegel, 1822-1828 cited in Eze, 1997, p.127).

…in the same way that Trump’s entire presidency is based on white supremacy and blatant racism, since he openly stated “I wouldn’t want any blacks counting my money”…(Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2017)…

…in the same way that John McWhorter somehow mysteriously ignores the accumulated, integrated and generational systematic racial and class oppression experienced by millions of people, when he states that black students are ‘infected’ by an anti-intellectual strain

And so I come to the quote which spurred me to write. “Black students do not have a culture of learning.” We could start with the obvious questions, “Black? Culture? Learning? Let’s look at this a little”.

Does ‘culture of learning’ here refer to the kinds of ethical and intellectual destruction meted out by Christianity’s proselytising forces throughout the entire Iberian peninsula in the 15and 16th century? Where ‘cultures of learning’ meant the burning down of the most advanced, fulsome, rich and voluminous libraries in the world at Cordoba because they were built and populated by Islamic reign? Or the cultures of learning that build nuclear technology, arms and chemical warfare used on defenceless populations, in the name of modernity, liberalism and pragmatic democratisation? Or perhaps the cultures of learning that mediated the great Valladolid debates, the central question of which was, do these populations have a soul and are they human?  If so, I’m not sure these cultures of learning that the quote refers to are anything to aspire to.

But there is another level of discursive construction happening here. In operation here is a paradigm of, for want of better phraseology, raciological mischief’, for it seeks to utilise that age old, dramatic irony so beloved of Shakespeare and those who wrote after, before, and away from him. This is the ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ racial stereotyping so popular in 1970s British comedies, extolling the comedic virtues of duos such as The Two Ronnies,  TV sitcoms such as ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ and ‘Mind Your Language’ or perhaps even the comedy of those such as Jim Davidson, whose most famous character, an African Caribbean man, he called, ‘hilariously’, ‘Chalkie’. My how we laughed. And oh how easy it was to overhear conversations about how ‘pakis smell’, ‘Sikhs look strange’, ‘Africans are like a different race’, and ‘black kids just can’t learn’. And oh how the eyes of the originators of these purportedly innocent, ‘neutral’, fact-like observations twinkled with a knowing humour, harmless apparently, and even well intentioned in educators cases, since now that the impossibility of mental improvement amongst black kids had been experienced, something could be done about them, and their ways. That was then, or so we’d like to think.

 

Those of us who, as Sivanandan wrote, “wear our passports on our faces”, can sense the mischief just as we can see and hear it. There is a long standing utilisation of highly problematic, and racialised as well as gendered and classed productive forces in the interactions of those who are charged with educational responsibilities. It is for good reason we have the Unconscious Bias agenda highlighted in so many of the UKs university strategies for creating equality and diversity filled environments. As is often the case, the good intention out-moralises the resultant perversion of outcome. Unfortunately, neo-liberal, corporate and bureaucratic machineries have assimilated this into their modus operandi, and it may often function as yet another exercise in self-reflective, self-congratulatory, administrative hokum that reveals little but the vacuity of these ideas when stripped of any experiential depth. The ‘raciological mischief’ I refer to above underlines the quote very importantly, because in the same way that many homo-phobic conversations rely on an unspoken, hyper-masculine, hetero-normative expression, whilst protesting moral innocence and virtue (“I’ve got nothing against any of them, but not in front of my kids”), so the variations on a theme continue when applied to black students across the educational board (“Come on, you know what I’m talking about, right?”).

 

There is a quiet, unspoken vocabulary of understanding ‘difference’, and the various intellectual inferiorities and deficits ‘proven’ by the racial thinking systems of the West. This reflects the great Order of Nature (Von Linne, 1735), and the way in which Enlightenment and modernity constructed, through its philosophical narrow-ness, the only possible nature of being – linear progression of civilizational development, including intellectual, physical and spiritual. Guess who was barely at the bottom of this civilizational ladder? And let’s take a guess who was at the top, with nowhere to go but to maintain a position of absolute power? The quote reflects this thinking; I imagine this to be an example of what Gilroy called ‘raciological thinking’. It invokes inviolable orders, which ironically although speak to us ostensibly about ‘culture’, or ‘black culture’, indicating that which we experience in culture as dynamic, hybrid, and moveable – actually serves the purpose of mischief. It’s interesting how the word ‘culture’ is used flexibly by knowledge makers to serve particular discursive, ideological functions. The mischief occurs between sets of prejudice activating groups who believe that these ‘cultures’ are actually, immoveable. They are still at the bottom of the civilizational ladder. (I have written elsewhere about the racial politics of constructing, and therefore reifying ‘other’ cultures using discursive systems).

 

The quote magically ignores the vast scholarly evidence base of the inextricable relationship between race, ethnicity, class and privilege – a cursory glance at critical race and education scholarship throws up countless studies and publications. Even a  superficial knowledge of the 1977 publication of Paul Willis’s ground-breaking ethnography of working class cultures and education shows the way in which material location and cultural reproductive forces play roles in how agents, actors generate meaning around them, in specific ways. It is these ways and behavioural mechanisms that popular consciousness and media outlets so adore reducing to essentialist, pseudo-factual components (‘chav’, ‘black gang’, ‘benefit sponger’, immigrant ‘waves’ etc).  And so the quote involves spotlighting so-called ‘black culture’ (ill-defined and riddled with racial and socio-political baggage), whilst rendering ‘white class cultures’ invisible (why not ask the same questions about ‘white culture’? Instead, white ‘working class’ cultures are seen to be somewhat a priority (left behind, as if the majority of materially oppressed people had somehow managed to hitch a ride on the great austerity gravy train) where the intersection of white identity and class are intimately sociologically linked. The relationship between Race and Class especially with reference to black experiences (there has been a journal dedicated to this since 1959) has been at the forefront of fighting racial oppression since Toussaint Louverture led the anti-slavery revolution in Haiti in 1791, CLR James’ work on the Black Jacobins, and Cedric Robinson explaining the corrosive multi-layered degradation of ‘Racial Capitalism’. And yet still, the emphasis on ‘black cultures’.

 

There are countless scholars and activists, campaigners and educators who will have, and continue to combat these racialised symbolic and practical manifestations of what Mignolo calls, Colonial Modernity. I simply want to point out the sheer weight of this statement. What does it actually mean to make the statement, ‘they don’t have a culture of learning” ? Lewis Gordon, a philosopher, incisively writes about Epistemic Racism. Racialised others, blacks, simply receive the world through their physical connection to the world; it is only the power of the civilised white mind that can make sense of these experiences. Therefore, the location of philosophy, intellect, sense-making can only be at the site of the advanced civilizational order – the Westernised, white intellectual. And so we have an interesting juxtaposition: the limited black student – with a limited ‘culture’, values, morals, beliefs, abilities, intellectual and social repertoire, versus the Enlightenment’s Universal centre of all progress – the unlimited White, modernity driven intellect. That is the resultant dark order crystallised by this quote, and is far more insidious and dangerous than my use of the word ‘mischief’ implies. I use this particular word because there is a quality of normalised prejudice about it that appears undeniable. When people in positions of power and privilege, in the 21st century in Western Universities, can make proclamations about inherent abilities or dispositions of groups of people wholly defined by a categorical nomenclature system defined in the 16th century, then there is a mischief amongst them. But social, economic, and psychological disadvantage lie on the other side of this mischief and are felt, dramatically, generation after generation by those who are all too familiar with this system.

 

In summary, the statement symbolises the inner world of the speaker, not the cultural or emotional world of the subject.

 

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