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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de-colonising the young mind

I often find that so much of modern day parenting is about managing the guilt of imperfect, impossible, and out-of-reach, liberal, privileged Western, media constructions of what it means to be a ‘good parent’. And yet in between these angst ridden moments (fortunately few for me, given my belligerent and firmly held belief  belief  – always expressed in the exaggerated Lancashire accent that emerges when there is cause for concern – that no bugger can tell me how to parent…), those temporal gems that can only be described as sheer labour of love, are as enduring and full of impact as they probably always have been. I’m referring to those moments when the simple acts, those ones that cost nothing (how often have we heard this phrase? it’s easy for middle class people to refer to these ‘free’  moments, as if every parent, regardless of status, education, money, privilege, heritage and material wealth was able to mobilise ‘quality’ time with their children…) yield nigh infinite satisfaction.

Simply sitting with my child and playing alongside them, not necessarily talking, or guiding, or instructing, but simply being with them in that moment, has always been something quite magical, in an almost Disney-like sense (more of this in a minute). It speaks volumes to the child who notices, is aware of every bodily gesture, movement, twitch, and can detect restlessness, impatience, pseudo-play, and any other form of adult-generated falsity, that you and they are together, in a moment of activity and engagement that often requires no words, rules, instructions, or guidelines. These moments afford me an opportunity to learn about myself, and my relationship to the world, as well my relationship to my child. It demands of me that I focus on the relationship not as that which is to be performed, adorned, utilised, implemented, or instrumentalised. It demands the relationship be of a simple truth (oh yes, post-structural and constructionist versions of all-but-the-sink be damned, here there is a truth), and that is the truth of this relation-in-moment. Children are perceptive, as we all know (and as countless child-centred horror films keep reminding us…), they have a way of detecting sincerity, and true engagement, though can often be distracted by loud funny noises, colours and shapes).

Given this magical quality to the relation-in-moment then, reading to my children was and is always the point at which imagination, creativity, intellect, morals and values all converge in a process that is often seen as fundamental in shaping young minds and lives. So often we hear that yet another research study has proven that above all, reading to children, may well set the most pivotal conditions for intellectual development in early years. And when this process is so evidently powerful, what about WHAT we read to them?

Princesses, dressed in flowing dresses, princes, dressed in muscle enhancing costumes, blond hair, blue eyes, and the one constant, defining, over-arching, all encompassing-yet-invisible dynamic of all: whiteness. It is not just the presence of whiteness in children’s stories that mark the issue – it is the combination of all the above plus the differential and hierarchical representation of all that is non-white in the stories.  Try as we might, and by ‘eck, we’ll keep trying (there’s that accent again), the white-Disneyisation of humanity seeps into the relation-in-moment as an aspiration: ‘Can I be like Princess Elsa Daddy?’ ‘Can I have blond hair Daddy?’, ‘When I grow up I want to be a princess like …’ – and this despite the respectable efforts of team Keval (who lets face it are not alien to radical and critical thought…)

So, de-colonising the mind (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decolonising_the_Mind and especially the brilliant workshops at http://www.decolonizingthemind.org/) is not an abstract conceptual, linguistic process, or limited to an impossible structural revolution where the constraints of neo-colonial power are dismantled…it is an emotional journey. For me it started a long time ago when I noticed that my so-called ‘heroes’ in works of fiction neither looked nor sounded like me, and represented, ultimately, the oppression and injustice meted out to entire sub-continents. What’s this go to do with reading my children bed time stories? Absolutely everything.

All around them, non-verbal messages, adverts, utterances, moments of being noticed or ignored, forms of acceptable dress, heroes, heroines, role models, all dominant narratives that silence notions of being, of self, of truth, and work constantly to erode layers of cultural, linguistic, psychological identity, and replace them with…well, take a look at children’s stories, adverts, TV, toys, and films. Its pretty clear what kinds of identity are being reinforced for all children…but for some children, for some people, the impact is far more substantial than others.

The challenge is in providing substance to the alternative narratives, images, pictures, stories, messages, utterances, codes, cultural facets (I call them alternative because they are in that moment of an alterity yet to be moulded into a feasible and equal possibility). This needs to be done sufficiently so the child can engage with the notion of difference that does not demand hierarchical value. It is possible – it happens all the time in large, cosmopolitan, mixed urban cities. The key is to be able to somehow recreate that syncrecy of lived multiculture within ones home, and importantly within the psyche (for one’s self and ones’ children).

There is a weight that bears down, and which must be resisted, and that weight is made up of the history of colonial and imperial power. It is here with us in every second of our lives, and in the very fabric of our lived, social and cultural lives. Raising children within the folds of such a fabric is complex, difficult, contingent, and momentary. It is also joyous, because it generates the possibilities of creativity and thinking through dialogue and discussion. It is revealing, because when children are given the opportunity to talk about difference – in body shape, skin colour, size, accent, language, dis/ability, age, sexuality, religion, it is in these moments of engagement that de-colonising the young mind starts. And when this happens, their sheer, utter ability to transcend raciality gives one the hope that actually, its all possible in this lifetime. Helping to build coherent, stable, psycho-social identities that may just withstand some of the many and multi-faceted impacts of modern, racialised, global capitalism is a labour of love.

Do we get it right all the time? Dont be daft. Parenting is 50% trying to avoid handing your children the psychological baggage you have been carrying round, and 50% feeling guilty for failing miserably to do that. But going through (and still on) my own intellectual, bio-graphical, academic and personal journey has taught me a thing or two about this arena, this process, and that it is a journey I might just, as a parent help my children with. Maybe.  Its also sometimes just great fun to play with Lego and read silly stories. Lets no forget that.

Migrant workers – enduring relevance

Seventh Man

 

From the brilliant Verso Publishers website: http://www.versobooks.com/books/533-a-seventh-man

‘I have to turn this prize against itself’—John Berger on accepting the Booker Prize for Fiction, 23 November 1972

In 1972, John Berger won the Booker Prize for Fiction for his novel G. He shared half of the proceeds with the Black Panthers, “the black movement with the socialist and revolutionary perspective that I find myself most in agreement with in this country”. The other half funded A Seventh Man, his study of migrant workers in Europe.

Making a direct link between Booker McConnell’s involvement in colonial exploitation of the Caribbean and the modern poverty of the region, Berger declared his intention, “as a revolutionary writer, to share this prize with people in and from the Caribbean, people who are involved in a struggle to resist such exploitation and, eventually, to expropriate companies like Booker.”

Given the current pre-occupation with ‘migrants in motion’, and all the related constructions of risk that discourses are utilising (terror, economic and cultural drain, problems in ‘over-crowding’, more terror), it seems wise to remember that this world we occupy is, has been, and continues to be built on migrant labour. The very victims of global politics and economic decisions (usually underpinned by agendas related to the long term financial and political ‘stabilisation’ of Eastern folk), are on the move, eventually becoming ‘migrant’ labour in whichever country they settle, for however short or long a period. To strip their experiences of humanity, and reduce them to numbers, ‘movement’ statistics indicated by diagrams with arrows ‘coming in’ and arrows ‘going out’ is reducing the full capacity of the human spirit. Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil in relation to the holocaust and in particular the trial oin Jerusalem of Adolph Eichmann (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil) and as the world watches millions of people risking lives, moving, falling, crying and dying – just to seek safety, the world is at risk of perpetuating a type of banality.

Berger’s book (and other work) perhaps reconstructs that breakage for us – the disruption in ethical-biographical continuity (a play on words borrowed from Bury and Glaser and Strauss’s medical sociology terms). Putting it bluntly, there’s been a breakage in how we connect with populations undergoing suffering – it is neither new nor surprising. In fact, as Sociologists have constantly told us, we are living in an era of unprecedented rate of social change, and so we have in the middle of deep social, emotional, psychological and personal turmoil, become rather immune to those issues that don’t directly impact us.  However, our connection with suffering populations is not extinct or impossible – it is selective. We select, choose, opt to connect with lives similar to ours, not because ‘thats human nature’ – that would be playing into the cold, sociologically limp hands of cultural essentialists who argue hey, “we prefer our own kind…” (see my article at “New Diversities”). No, we choose these selective modes of connection because of a two way, dialectic: it requires less emotional energy to connect with suffering experienced by people who are similar to us in a variety of ways, and the discursive formations around which these representations are produced make them more salient, are hurled at us in specific ways.

 

When I read the sentence “Europe is literally the creation of the third world” (Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth”), I don’t simply see the vital resistance and empowered self governing machinery being articulated in the identification of first world riches generated (literally) on the backs of slaves; I read the on-going generation of capital, suffering, and constant repetition of bonded lives, generation after generation, and the many blind eyes whose averted gaze perpetuate the misery. Migrant labour is still creating the lives of people the world over who enjoy the pleasures of safety, stability, and the luxury of being. 

 

Plot to kidnap 300 youngsters revealed – the middle classes say “we wont stand for this.”

News agencies in the UK today reported alarming news of a widespread plot to kidnap 7 to 12 year olds from several locations in the South East. The plot apparently came to light after a you tube video was leaked to news agencies in Surrey and Kent. The video containing disturbing and graphic language contained threats made by a masked man, holding a dummy of a 7 year old. The man whose identity is yet to be revealed insisted that his group of activists were acting on the “orders and wishes of a higher power, as written in the holy text”.

Concerned citizens in Kent and Surrey were interviewed last night as news of the kidnap plot came to light. One alarmed citizen said “we wont stand for this. Its an abuse of rights. They’re so young, they have their future ahead of them, and then someone comes along, out of the blue, and trashes their future. We, as a people wont stand for it, and we must do something. Its the right thing to do, its the Christian thing to do.”

Other concerned dog owners of animals between the ages of 7 and 12 have formed local activist groups to try and maintain a vigilance against any future threats of kidnapping dogs in the region.

Other news today, some young girls, somewhere else, were taken and sold into lives of torture, slavery, sexual abuse, and life long domination. The president of somewhere else, Mr Goodnight William, speaking from his presidential palace, said it was not nice. Major supermarket chains today have reported a 28% increase in the sale of Organic and Free Trade products, with Nigerian products showing a marked increase in popularity in Surrey and Kent.