The comedian George Carlin, famous for his critique of taboo language, performed this routine to explain context (starting at 1:05):
“They’re only words. It’s the context that counts. It’s the user. It’s the intention behind the words that makes them good or bad. The words are completely neutral. The words are innocent!
“I get tired of people talking about bad words and bad language. Bullshit! It’s the context that makes them good or bad. The context that makes them good or bad.
“For instance, you take the word [the N-word]. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the word [the N-word] in and of itself. It’s the racist asshole who’s using it that you ought to be concerned about. We don’t care when Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy say it. Why? Because we know they’re not racist. They’re [the N-word]!
“Context! Context. We don’t mind their context because we know they’re black …
“They’re only words. You can’t be afraid of words that speak the truth, even if it’s an unpleasant truth … I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms, because Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have a lot of trouble facing the truth. So, they invent a kind of soft language to protect themselves from it. And it gets worse with every generation.”
I feel like I need to apologize to Carlin for substituting “the N-word” for the N-word in the above transcription, which gives his routine an almost post-modern quality. To be fair, Carlin’s routine about context also has a context: the large theater where audience members have purchased expensive tickets to see a certain performer, fully aware of the kind of jokes he delivers.
Compare Carlin’s routine to an op-ed piece written for the campus newspaper by a college student:
“I hate the n-word. No, not ‘nigger.’ I hate the phrase ‘the n-word.’”
He follows this with the required preamble, that he writes this as a black man in America, but that he does not speak for all black people, etc. He then continues with his argument that “‘the n-word’ is problematic.”
“We may have claimed ‘nigga’ for our own use,” he writes, “but black people everywhere still suffer the vile word ‘nigger.’ And it is a vile word.”
In spite of its vileness, this student editorialist uses the word “nigger” no less than 13 times in his roughly 400-word column. He does not substitute “the n-word” for the word “nigger” because that would defeat his point. It would also make his piece less powerful.
“‘Nigger’ is so vile,” he continues, “that the American public decided to strike it from the list of acceptable words, only to replace it with the surrogate ‘n-word,’ as if not speaking the word out loud would be enough to move past its evils … ‘The n-word’ is still just the verbal symbol of a concept meant to make black people inferior to whites, but this one is somehow palatable to the general public.”
The student then confirms Carlin’s point about euphemisms.
“I wish people would stop saying ‘nigger’ all together. [But] I wish … that we would stop using a hollow substitute to talk about the word ‘nigger’ when it does come up.” He concludes his essay. “It’s about time to have that hard discussion about what “nigger” really means. So long as we still say ‘n-word’ instead of ‘nigger,’ I don’t think America will ever have that discussion.”
I agree. That is exactly the discussion I was hoping to have with my students before I was yanked from the classroom for reading the n-word aloud when quoting from James Baldwin’s novel, The Fire Next Time. Ironically, this student was one of those leading the campaign against my having that discussion in the classroom.
Episode 1: A story from last month’s faculty meeting
A colleague of mine, a wonderful professor who teaches Spanish at Augsburg, gave the opening words at the March faculty meeting. “Adelante!” she said. “Forward!” She then recounted stories of women fighting for human rights in Mexico and Central America. Her words were very moving to me and all who heard them. Then she said (I paraphrase):
“There’s one more thing I have to say, but I’m nervous saying it. In fact, I’m just an adjunct and I could get fired by saying this, but, Augsburg is a racist institution.”
Of course, she is right. Augsburg is a racist institution and always has been. I personally know this because I have written the sesquicentennial history of Augsburg and in four out of ten chapters of that work I attempt to expose Augsburg’s institutional racism, its anti-Semitism, its misogyny, homophobia and trans-phobia. But she is not right about one thing: she is not right that she can be fired for speaking the truth as she understands it. Academic freedom keeps that from happening. Why doesn’t she understand or believe that?
Episode 2: A story from the Faculty Senate
A colleague reported on the findings of the Equity Task Force, whose task it was to collate all the findings of various listening sessions, meetings and workshops that have been happening this semester around the topic of diversity and inclusiveness. To make sure I understood the report, I asked if I could re-cap the Task Force’s finding.
“First,” I said, “the Task Force determined which items required action, rather than just being comments or complaints disconnected from any action.”
“Second, the Task Force determined which actions should be undertaken by the faculty, as opposed to the staff or administration.
“Finally,” I said, “the Task Force determined that the faculty might educate the greater campus community on issues such as tenure, ranks of professors, etc. Did I get that right?”
“Correct,” said the Task Force chair.
Then a colleague chimed in, directing her comment to me.
“Please don’t say ‘educate,’” she said. “It’s condescending.”
Wh- What?! To use the word “educate” is condescending?! As someone who has long thought of himself as an educator, I was gobsmacked. I cannot think of appropriate commentary, so I’ll just leave you with these select lines from Augsburg’s mission statement:
"Augsburg University educates students to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders … An Augsburg education is defined by excellence in the liberal arts and professional studies …"
“What is the responsibility of an educated person in a democracy?” This is the central question of one of my courses, which we begin by playing a game: The Threshold of Democracy: Athens in 403 BC.
The Threshold of Democracy, or "the Athens game," as we call it, was developed at Barnard College. It is one of an ever-growing series of historical role playing games called Reacting to the Past, which have been developed over the last twenty years and which are played at more than 300 college campuses across the country.
The Athens game includes debates on a range of topics that seem eerily familiar: should Athenians allow foreigners to participate in their democracy? Should Athens increase military spending or use more funding for education and the arts. Should the Athenians build a wall to protect themselves? But the most revealing part of the game, in terms of how students revealed their attitudes, was the trial of Socrates.
Historically, the Athenian assembly levied two charges against Socrates. The first was impiety against the gods. For Socrates, the gods described in Homer and Hesiod, with their passions and pettiness, were as flawed as humans and offered no guidance for a moral life. He chose instead to listen to a voice inside his head, which we might call his conscience, but which Socrates called God. For failing to acknowledge and worship the Athenian pantheon of gods, and for replacing the pantheon with his own single god, the assembly charged Socrates with what the Greeks called asebeia, impiety. Because he was a teacher who expounded such radical ideas to his students, Socrates was also charged with the better-known crime of “corrupting the youth of Athens.” In 399 BC, jurors chosen by random lot found Socrates guilty on both charges and sentenced him to death.
We played the trial of Socrates in the penultimate game session. On the side of the defense, there were passionate arguments from Socrates’ supporters. Many of them advocated for the rights of free speech—a concept that was actually foreign to the ancient Greeks. (More on that later.) Like their counterparts in ancient 5th-century Athens, the student jury in our 21st-century classroom again found Socrates guilty. When it came time for sentencing, some of the students playing the game stuck to the views of their characters and argued for the death penalty. The character of Gorgias the Younger, a rhetorician, spoke against death, but only because he feared that Socrates might become a martyr and hence more popular and influential than before. Ultimately, the students chose to ostracize Socrates, to banish him from Athens for a period of ten years with no opportunity to return—at least not until long after they had graduated. Clearly, the historic verdict of death by hemlock offended the students’ liberal sensibilities (and rightly so). The students did show mercy, in a way, but they still chose to punish the teacher who had offended society with his words.
In the final game session, students chose to abandon democracy and elect a tyrant. Lithicles, one of the characters in the game had a secret mission. Throughout five weeks of the game, the student playing Lithicles made backroom deals with other players in the game. When one faction supported education for democracy, Lithicles claimed to support it, too. But he said the opposite to the faction that opposed education for democracy. Lithicles supported those factions that wanted militarization, but also those who wanted to support the arts, even though the Athenian coffers could not finance both. He flattered and made promises that could not be kept, told our 21st-century “citizens of Athens” what they wanted to hear, and in the end was elected as a tyrant, with absolute authority to make all decisions for the city-state.
None of the students in the class were old enough to vote in the 2016 election. Yet as high school students, most of them would have been torn between supporting the first female candidate for president, Hilary Rodham Clinton, and the socialist idealist Bernie Sanders. Very few, if any, would have backed Donald Trump. I say this with some confidence because that’s the kind of student that Augsburg attracts: liberal, progressive, activist, sometimes radical. So why did they choose to elect a tyrant as their final act in the Athens game? This might have been ironic, just to game the game, as it were, to do something outrageous just because they could. But I think there was more going on here. I think that, having tried direct democracy, with its muddiness and conflict, its frustrating slowness and disappointment, they chose in favor of getting things done with as little friction as possible. It didn’t matter that the tyrant who promised this life likely could not deliver. Unlike 2016 America, the game was over and no one would have to wait around to find out.
The Athens game is truly a work of genius. It energizes students to take charge of their own educations and I only wish that I had been clever enough to invent it. I don’t know if anyone has ever tried to link the game’s outcomes to the moral and political sensibilities of its student players. It would be interesting to see a longitudinal study of the games outcomes over the last twenty years. Would students in the George W. Bush era have supported remilitarization in ancient Athens? Would students during Obama’s presidency have supported payment for civic duties so that more citizens could participate in democracy? I acknowledge that my interpretation here might be a load of crap, influenced by the events that recently happened in my classroom. I am definitely looking for answers, for an understanding of what happened. I could be wrong here, but the hypothesis is at least interesting.
I can say with some certainty that a high percentage of my students would not have voted for Donald Trump. Augsburg University began as a Lutheran seminary. It was pietistic in its faith and conservative in its values, for example, supporting prohibition of alcohol. Through the early part of the 20th century, many at Augsburg believed that movies were sinful. Social dancing was forbidden on campus until 1963. As one Augsburg professor put it, dance was “the vertical expression of a horizontal desire.” But the late 1960s changed the politics at Augsburg, whose students protested U.S. involvement in Viet Nam and civil rights abuses against blacks. Since then, Augsburg has moved increasingly to the left. This fact creates some tension with older more conservative alums, who are capable of making large donations to the school, but who no longer see their values reflected on the campus. For students and faculty, however, this creates an even bigger problem: living within a bubble of political thought.
Diversity at Augsburg has increased dramatically over the last ten years, with an entering class in 2018 with 45% students of color. Diversity of ideas, however, has not kept pace. We have a liberal administration, a largely liberal professoriate, and a largely liberal student body. For their part, the students don’t seem to see a problem with this. They feel more comfortable around those with similar political views. I share many of their liberal views. But living in a bubble—with no exposure to other points of view, where the few conservative students on campus are afraid to express their opinions—is dangerous. It is especially dangerous when so many of our brothers and sisters have opposing views and we are unable to speak to each other.
This is why I assigned William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale.
In 1951, when Buckley was only twenty-five years old, he published this first book, which he dedicated to “God, country, and Yale, in that order.” In it, Buckley critiqued what he considered to be religious and political biases at his alma mater Yale University. He called out professors whom he felt were disparaging to religion, even in the religion department. He exposed professors he saw as promoting collectivism, discouraging individualism, and forcing students to embrace liberalism. He reviewed course reading lists for signs of indoctrination toward Keynesian secular socialism. The book received mixed reviews, but it launched Buckley into the public eye. He became an intellectual celebrity in the days when such a thing existed—think Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and yes, James Baldwin. Buckley started the National Review, an important conservative editorial magazine, and eventually hosted the public affairs show Firing Line. Some suggest that Buckley started the modern conservative movement. He was certainly its herald.
Although I disagree with almost everything in Buckley’s book, there is no denying the importance of his work, especially for understanding American conservatism. God and Man at Yale still resonates almost 70 years after its first publication. The 50th-anniversary edition has an opening essay by the conservative intellectual Austin Bramwell, an introduction to the 25th edition by Buckley, a foreword by the conservative journalist and economic historian John Chamberlain, and a preface by Buckley, all of which account for almost 60 pages. The book itself is only 180, not counting the appendices. This is all to say that the book is worthy of our attention, especially for a group of liberal honors students living in the bubble of a liberal-leaning liberal arts college like Augsburg.
To a person, every student in the course hated God and Man at Yale. The one exception was an exchange student who had grown up under a dictatorship, who said that they loved Buckley’s work. Interesting that such a student should love a book by the founder of America’s conservative movement. I have no idea what to make of that.
The students who disliked the book are close readers, and they quickly assessed many of the flaws in Buckley’s arguments. They noted his cherry-picking of evidence and at times his lack of evidence at all. As students at a Lutheran university that is welcoming to all faiths and no faith, they pointed out the hypocrisy of Buckley’s desire for Yale to return to its “true Christian” roots, by which he seemed to mean Catholic, though Yale had been founded by Protestants. Students also noted how frequently Buckley made accusations from his class lecture notes, which would be impossible to verify.
Students showed the most clarity in their critique of chapter 4 of God and Man at Yale, which is entitled “The Superstitions of ‘Academic Freedom.’” To begin with, they recognized that Buckley is all over the map in his attempts to define academic freedom, though he largely sees it as a tool to protect liberal professors, i.e. those identified as anti-religious and/or anti-capitalist. My students recognized the hypocrisy in Buckley’s argument against “laissez-faire education,” where all sides of an argument get an equal hearing and students get to decide the views they want to hold on their own. For Buckley, academic freedom exists only up to the point that it challenges the orthodoxy of Christianity and capitalism. The students uniformly balked at this notion. But did this mean that they saw academic freedom as absolute? If they didn’t accept Buckley’s limits on academic freedom, did they have limits of their own? Where the matter of “trigger words” is concerned, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”
Mid-morning on a Wednesday. I am riding the 21 down Lake Street, and the bus is only about 1/3 full—a rarity. I’m sitting in the front seats, so I can see down the length of the bus. A Muslim woman dressed in a black burqa that barely reveals her eyes and nothing else is seated in the front-facing seats on the aisle, two rows away from me. Next to her is an empty window seat.
An African-American guy, mid-thirties, boards the bus and, for whatever reason, wants to sit in the seat next to the Muslim woman. This will require her to move, either to scoot toward the window so he can sit on the aisle, or to shift her body to let him pass so that he can sit next to the window. Neither of these things happen.
The African-American guy becomes offended by what he seems to perceive as rudeness. He takes a seat right behind the Muslim woman and begins to complain at a good volume to assure that his lament is shared with his fellow riders.
“You don’t want to sit next to somebody, don’t ride the bus. People on the bus have the right to sit anywhere they want. Won’t even move over to make room for somebody else.”
He goes on for a bit, sometimes talking into the Muslim woman’s ear. Other African-American passengers take up his cause.
“Yeah, that’s just crazy,” one woman says. “It happens to me all the time.”
“You don’t want to sit next to other people,” a man chimes in, “get a damn car.”
Keep in mind that there are plenty of empty seats on the bus. Many of them do not require climbing over another passenger or asking them to let you pass. Then things escalate. The original man almost yells at the woman in the burqa.
“You dress like a terrorist on this bus, you see what you get. People in my neighborhood dress that way, we take care of business.” Other passengers echo these comments. The Muslim woman, staring intently toward the front of the bus, doesn’t respond.
The question is, what should I do?
My university-provided, intercultural awareness training, as well as decades of experience, have taught me that a white dude stepping in and telling the black dude to back off won't go well. Who do I think I am to tell him what to do? And there isn’t just one African-American passenger persecuting this woman, but three.
That same training, and my own natural inclination, tells me to stand up when someone is being bullied. That’s what I really want to do, but my confidence is low. Can I intervene without escalating the scene even further? Plus, I have to get off at the next stop or I’ll miss my appointment. I try to make eye contact with the Muslim woman, to offer a supportive glance, but she continues to stare straight ahead.
My stop. The best I can think to do is tell the driver to watch out for the Muslim woman, that other passengers are ganging up on her.
I step off the bus, feeling worried and ashamed.
“Our long national nightmare is over.” The provost has resolved Augsburg’s “N-word controversy.”
I chose Gerald Ford’s famous line, above, without hyperbole. The story of the N-word at Augsburg has indeed felt like a nightmare for me, and I imagine for others in our community.
It garnered national and international attention. A Harvard law professor criticized Augsburg in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Stories appeared in Copenhagen’s Kristelig Dagblad and in London’s Spectator.
Most of the public discourse favored academic freedom. Yet whether or not students feel included and able to participate fully in classroom discussions is also important. Not more important than academic freedom, but this need not be an either/or choice.
Feel free to oppose this idea: to see my pedagogy as wrong, to take sides, to set arguments in stark contrast rather than nuanced tones, to get angry, to protest. The only thing not allowed is to shut down debate.
The provost has resolved that Augsburg will not pursue my formal dismissal. This makes me happy. She further resolved that I should no longer serve as Honors Director. This makes me unhappy, but I resolve not to appeal her decision or to seek legal remedy against the school I love.
Not everyone will like the provost’s resolution. Some will think she went too far, others, not far enough. But she has taken action, which is what concerned students insisted that she do.
I harbor no ill will toward any member of Augsburg’s community. I hope we can all continue to discuss concepts like academic freedom. Even when we disagree, I hope such disagreement occurs with mutual love and respect.
The year 1967 seems to have been a big one for my encounters with racism. At nine years-old, my mom remarried and we moved out of my grandparents’ house and into a small, single-level ranch home on a cul-de-sac at the corner of Green Acres Street and Robin Hill Drive. It was a 12-minute walk to Colonial Hills Elementary School. The layers of meaning in that school’s name only now occur to me: Colonial Hills = colonialism = white folks. Was the school board, or whoever named the school, conscious of all those layers? No matter. In only three generations, my previously non-white Italian family had made it, happily ensconced in an upper-middle-class, white neighborhood.
San Antonio’s residents of Mexican decent have always been the majority. The latest numbers show “Hispanics” (excluding black and Asian Hispanics) at about 63% of the total population, with about 90% of that number claiming Mexican descent (the rest are Puerto Rican, Cuban, or South American). White (non-Hispanic) residents make up only 25%. In spite of being a clear numerical minority, whites live in more affluent neighborhoods and, because schools in most parts of Texas are financed by property taxes, their kids go to better schools. My family lived on the north side, and I attended Colonial Hills in the very well-funded Northeast Independent School District. I most definitely did not attend school on the south side, which was poorer and (in my mother’s mind) overrun by gangs.
The city of San Antonio grew up around the site of the Spanish mission of San Antonio de Valero. Franciscan friars named the mission for their patron, Saint Anthony of Padua, a thirteenth-century friar whom my grandfather claimed was Italian, though he was really Portuguese and only died in Padua. My grandfather was just like Michael Constantine’s character in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who thought that every great person in history had been Greek, except that for my grandfather it was Italian. Saint Anthony of Padua was Italian, which you knew from the Venetian city in his name. Anthony Quinn—who was Mexican—was Italian because he had been in a Fellini movie. Alexander Graham Bell was Italian because he was played in the movie by Don Ameche, who was Italian, which, according to my grandfather is why people used to say, “I’ll call you up on the Ameche.” But Don Ameche was actually only half Italian, the other half being a combination of Scottish and German, just like me. I hope to God my grandfather was kidding about Alexander Graham Bell, but I never got to ask him.
The mission of San Antonio de Valero is also known as the Alamo, as in “Remember the—,” etc. I think I must have been ten when grandpa and my two brothers went downtown to watch the filming of a comedy called Viva Max!, which was released in 1969. It’s the story of a contemporary Mexican General who marches his men into modern-day San Antonio to retake the Alamo for Mexico. Hilarious premise! We looked all around the Alamo but we didn’t spot any film crews. Later we learned that the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) had protested the film and did not want to allow it to be shot in or around the Alamo.
The DRT were descendants of those who “rendered loyal service for Texas” prior to February 19, 1846, when the Republic of Texas ceded its power to the state of Texas, now the 28th state in the Union. They were also the caretakers of the Alamo, saving it from certain decline by managing the narrative of Texans fighting to win independence from Mexico. When I was growing up in Texas, every eighth-grader was required to study Texas history, which in my case was taught by the basketball coach. The Battle of the Alamo was likened to the ancient Battle of Thermopylae, in which Leonidas and “the 300” defended Greece from the massive Persian army for days, but were ultimately wiped out. The DRT opposed the film because they found it to be “a mockery and a desecration of our heroes who died for our liberty there.” To my knowledge, no Chicano/Latino activists protested the film’s portrayal of Mexicans.
Lead actors Peter Ustinov and John Astin (who are not Mexican) adopted comical accents and portrayed stereotypes of bumbling Mexicans. Since the 1990s, critics have referred to this kind of casting and portrayal as “whitewashing.” In the late 1960s, the Mexican-American Anti-Defamation Committee (MAADF) did not protest the portrayals in Viva Max, even though they were very busy at the time protesting comedian Bill Dana’s character of “José Jiménez”—a hapless Mexican who failed at every job he tried, including NASA astronaut. Dana, the descendant of Hungarian Jews, retired the character after learning that Mexicans found it offensive. Around the same time, the MAADF also protested the “Frito Bandito,” a cartoon advertising mascot based on the stereotypical Mexican bandits found in every Western: big sombrero, gold tooth and stubble, pistolas packed into his belt.
The premise was simple. The “Frito Bandito” went around robbing people of their Fritos corn chips, a snack food invented in San Antonio, as every kid growing up in the Alamo city knows. (The original recipe for Fritos was created by a Mexican-American named Gustavo Olguin, then bought for $100—stolen!?—by Charles Elmer Doolin, a gringo confectioner in San Antonio during the Great Depression who later made millions off the recipe.) The “Bandito” was voiced by Mel Blanc, of Bugs Bunny fame, with roughly the same accent he used for the cartoon mouse “Speedy Gonzales.” Following protests, Frito-Lay did clean-up the “Bandito” character, removing his gold-tooth and stubble. After the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968, the “Frito Bandito” no longer wielded a gun. Frito-Lay retired the character in 1971. Nowadays, if you happen to find “Frito Bandito” commercials posted to YouTube, they come with trigger warnings: “Politically Incorrect Ad from the 70s. This was when stereotypes were okay and children’s cartoon characters shot guns at each other.”
All of this, but no protest from people of Mexican descent about the Mexican caricatures in Viva Max! The Daughters of the Republic of Texas were outraged, but no one else seemed to be.
San Antonio’s city council allowed filming in front of the Alamo, since that was city property. But the DRT refused access inside the mission or its courtyard. Film crews constructed a fake Alamo set in nearby Bracketville, Texas, where most of the interior scenes were shot. I’m sorry to have to say this, but the movie is pretty funny. For example, Ustinov and Astin use codenames to gain entry to the mission, based on the stars of the 1960 film The Alamo.
“I’m John Wayne,” Ustinov’s character says, referencing the actor who had played Davy Crockett.
“I’m Richard Widmark,” Astin’s character replies, referencing the actor who had played Jim Bowie.
Maybe this stuff was only funny to people who had done some of their growing up in San Antonio, as was the case for Jim Lehrer. The distinguished PBS newscaster went to Jefferson High School in San Antonio, the same school my dad attended. Lehrer wrote the 1966 novel Viva Max!, upon which the film is based. Part of the comedy came from the ridiculous notion that Mexico could ever win back any of its former territory in Texas. It was the myth of the Alamo turned on its head. This wasn’t 1836! It was 1969, and it was the Mexicans who were outnumbered this time by the overwhelming power of the United States military.
It was funny, but was it racist? Was Jim Lehrer, respected PBS journalist, a racist? At one point in the movie, we learn that Max has invaded the Alamo in order to impress his girlfriend back home, who told him that “his men wouldn’t follow him into a brothel.” This makes the lead character seem pathetic rather than heroic. Where was the post-colonial rhetoric that might have linked Max to Che Guevara? There is one moment of nobility for the character. At the end of the movie, Max is shot while attempting to surrender by an armed militia of crazy Texans who think Max is leading a communist invasion. Max orders his men, who are unarmed, to attack the armed militia. His leadership has finally inspired them. Max’s men attack and the militia flees. Max uses the age-old military tactic of “advancing in retrograde,” as opposed to retreat. He mounts his white horse one last time and rides out of the Alamo and downtown San Antonio to the cheers of his soldiers, “Viva Max!”
It’s a cute movie. Maybe. I spend so much time on it here because it had such a huge impact on my understanding of Mexican-Americans and their culture—as did “José Jiménez” and the “Frito Bandito.” Even though I was surrounded by it, most of my knowledge of Mexican-Americans and their culture came from television and the movies.
The worst thing you could call someone when I was a kid growing up in my mostly white suburb, was a “Mexican.” This seems like an odd racial slur. Why not say “wetback” or “spic” or “greaser”? That’s because my mother taught us that those were bad words. That last one, “greaser,” was also used to describe Italian Americans in the 1950s and 60s. Maybe that’s what tipped mom off to the others. Either way, she would have washed our mouths out with soap if my brothers or I had used any one of them. “Mexican” was just the name of someone from Mexico. Completely innocent, right? But to us, “Mexican” meant lazy, stupid, illegal, possibly criminal. It was the perfect term to hide our elementary-school racism.
“You’re just a Mexican!” I would yell at my brother.
“I am not!” he would yell back. “Mom, Phil called me a Mexican!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” my mother would say. “You’re Italian.”
Man, was she tone deaf. And man, were we racist, in the way that only stupid, mean nine-year-old boys can be. To this day, I still have trouble using the word Mexican. I am able to say “For lunch, I had Mexican food,” without batting an eye. But if I call a person a Mexican, even if they come from Mexico, it brings up the horrible intent with which I used that word as a kid.
In his 1984 essay for Essence magazine, “On Being White ... and Other Lies,” Baldwin discussed how whiteness is constructed. Whites became white, James Baldwin argued, “By informing their children, that black women, black men and black children had no human integrity that those who call themselves white were bound to respect. And in this debasement and definition of black people, they debased and defined themselves.” A great example of this comes from Carl Zimring’s book, Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in America. Zimring relates the story of a Slovakian woman, recently immigrated to Connecticut, speaking to a researcher in the 1930s.
“I always tell my children not to play with the nigger people’s children,” she said. “But they always play with them just the same … This place now is all spoiled, and all the people live like pigs because the niggers they come and live here with the decent white people and they want to raise up their children with our children.”
Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, I had similar experiences, though these only came into my consciousness as racist much later. At the age of about four, my biological father skipped town never to be heard from again. We lived with my maternal grandparents until I was about nine. Among my most vivid memories from that period was the annual Fourth-of-July trip I took with my grandparents and my two younger brothers from San Antonio to Kansas City, for a reunion with my grandfather’s large, extended family. Grandpa was the youngest of ten siblings, great uncles who pinched my cheek and great aunts who buried me with hugs in their large-bosoms. There were dozens of aunts and uncles, my mother’s cousins (though mom never came on these trips), and somewhere short of a thousand cousins of my own, all with good Catholic names like Michael and Anthony and Margaret Mary and Josephine. All the clichés of large Italian families were there for the taking. The women were constantly cooking, except for the barbeque, which the men tended to. Because I was named for my grandfather, I was called “little Phil,” a name still assigned to me in some circles.
In 1967, when I was nine years old, the men at this annual gathering were headed to the liquor store to get more beer and pop. I must have had some really pathetic look on my face because one of my great uncles asked if they should take me along.
“Little Phil?” another great uncle said. “Sure, why not?”
We piled into somebody’s station wagon and headed for the North Side, Columbus Park, the Little Italy of Kansas City. In those days, Columbus Park had a long history with the mafia. The crime boss Nick Civella was born there in 1912, the same year as my grandfather. In 1969, a Senate committee identified Civella as the leader of the Kansas City mafia, though Civella denied the existence of organized crime, stating coolly in a 1970 interview, “I’m not a joiner. I’m not even a member of the Knights of Columbus.” Civella was buried with full Catholic rites in 1983 in Columbus Park’s Holy Rosary Church. This was the neighborhood where my grandfather and great uncles went to buy beer and pop.
We went into a liquor store where the men greeted each other with hugs and handshakes. They talked about all sorts of things, without, as far as I remember, ever getting around to ordering the beer and pop. I was left to wander around the store. Peeking behind the counter, I discovered a two-way mirror, something I’d never seen before. I went back and forth, poking my head into the store room and looking through the mirror at my grandfather and great uncles, then back out to the store, where I only saw my own reflection.
“What is this?” I asked. “Why do you have this?”
“That’s so nobody robs the store,” the man behind the counter said.
“Has anyone ever robbed the store?” I asked.
The men rolled their eyes and winked at each other, in gestures meant to acknowledge my naiveté.
“They tried,” the store owner finally said, smiling at me. Then to the men, he said, “Couple o’ Black Panthers.” Everybody laughed.
“What happened to them?” I asked. At that point my grandfather hurried me out of the store and back into the car. “But what happened?” I asked again. “What’s a Black Panther?” No answer. It wasn’t until much later that I came to understand the meaning of their silence. Two black guys had tried to rob a store in a protected neighborhood and they got “taken care of.” Maybe they were Black Panthers and maybe they weren’t. I’m guessing to the bent-nosed Italians in that liquor store, and probably to my great uncles, all black folks were Black Panthers, or they might as well have been. Hey, the Italians were only protecting their own, they must have thought, and those two [N-word] got what was coming to them, etc. None of this was in my consciousness at nine years old. I did not heroically stand up to my elders and declare that “black lives matter.” I didn’t do anything but stupidly take it in. It’s remarkable to me that this episode from my nine-year-old life sticks out. I now understand it as one of my first experiences of how my people dealt with issues of race.
Less than a year after the encounter with the two-way mirror, in April 1968, there were race riots in Kansas City. Police fired tear gas on student protesters on the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral. The protest turned into a riot that included looting, vandalism, and arson. So many fire alarms went off that the Kansas City Fire Department couldn’t keep up. Joel Rhodes, a history professor at Southeast Missouri State University, wrote his dissertation on the riots.
“When you look at the looting and the arson and the vandalism,” Rhodes said, “people had specific reasons for why they targeted some businesses and why they didn’t hit other businesses.” I have no idea if that liquor store in Columbus Park was hit. By the time the riots ended, property damage was in the millions, over 100 people were arrested, and five black men and one black teenager had been killed at the hands of police.
We did not travel to Kansas City that summer for the family reunion.
I am not black. I am also not a woman. I am not a member of the LGBTQIA community. I am not a lot of things, but for the sake of this book, let’s focus on the fact that I am not black. I did not grow up experiencing the daily moments of racism that black folks face. Nor do I walk this earth with 400 years of the history of slavery, oppression, rape and murder of my people ever present in my consciousness. I can never fully understand what that must be like. Because my brothers and sisters of color are human, and I am human, I believe that there is a small window that I might peek through to empathize with their situation, past and present, perhaps by analogy or comparison, but I acknowledge that I will never fully “get it.”
The matter of privilege is complicated for white folks to understand, and I must admit that I’ve only started to come to grips with the concept in the last ten years or so. It’s difficult because it is so a part of us that we cannot see it. It’s difficult because it is masked by the myths that society and we ourselves perpetuate. Think of the myth of the “self-made” man, from Carnegie and Rockefeller to Gates and Zuckerberg. The myth is that these men worked hard to get where they are, that they had an idea that no one else had had, or saw an opportunity that no one else has taken advantage of, and they made their move at just the right moment, entering or leaving the market just in time to become wealthy beyond belief. All of that may be true, but it ignores how ordinary tax-paying citizens contributed to their wealth, by funding police forces to protect their factories and roads to transport their goods, not to mention the leagues of workers who labored for a much smaller piece of the profits than the bosses made, often at the risk of their health and lives.
That’s how privilege works, even if you’re not a “self-made” capitalist. I worked hard to get where I am, to get into and out of graduate school, to find a tenure track job, to rise to the rank of full professor. It’s hard to even know that it’s happening, but I must acknowledge that at every turning point in my life, there might have been someone else vying for the same prize and seeing that prize go to me because of some (conscious or unconscious) bias in the person awarding the prize. Many paths are closed to black folks because of the immutable characteristics of their skin color. Those same paths remain open to me for the same reason, because I’m white.
I don’t feel any guilt about being white. Why should I? I didn’t consciously pick the immutable characteristics of my being: my gender, my skin color, the family circumstances I was born into. But once you grasp the idea of privilege it’s difficult to hold on to the myths that say “I got where I am today just through my smarts and hard work.” Many black folks are just as smart or smarter, they work just as hard or harder, and the prize eludes them. This is how systemic racism works. And while I don’t feel guilty about being a white man, I do try my best to pay attention, to listen, to advocate when possible and to move out of the way when needed, so that my brothers and sisters of color might not be held back. I don’t say this as some misguided do-gooder with a “white savior” complex. I’m a white man who is trying to be an ally in a world that is totally fucked up, largely but not entirely due to the actions of white men.
If we look hard enough, we’ll find that all peoples across the globe and throughout human history have suffered from some sort of racism or ethnic hatred. My Italian ancestors, considered less than white when they arrived, suffered some of the effects of prejudice. But they were not black. And I am not black. To show the difference between the suffering of my people and the suffering of Baldwin’s people, I cede the last word to him:
I had my fill of seeing people come down the gangplank on Wednesday, let us say, speaking not a word of English, and by Friday discovering that I was working for them and they were calling me nigger like everybody else. So that the Italian adventure or even the Jewish adventure, however grim, is distinguished from my own adventure … by one thing. Not only am I black, but I am one of our niggers. Americans can treat me in a certain way because I am an American. They would never treat an African the way they treat me.
—James Baldwin, from James Baldwin and Margaret Mead, A Rap on Race (New York, 1971) 67-68.
I am the oldest of five brothers, two of them half-brothers from my step-dad, but none of us use those terms or think of each other that way. Our professions range from 1) history professor 2) truck driver, 3) prison inmate, 4) warehouse worker, and 5) IT administrator. My dad likes to joke that we represent the full range of human accomplishment and misery. About three years ago my fourth brother’s wife was attending a conference in Minneapolis so they brought the entire family for a visit. This included their only child Evan, a bright boy who must have been 10 at the time. Because I live in the vibrant and progressive city of Minneapolis, most of my commuting is done by light rail or bus. Rather than always take a taxi with my tourist visitors, I invited my brother and his wife and son to do at least some of their sight-seeing by bus. Because they live in a gated community in the sprawl that San Antonio has become, riding the bus was completely foreign to them, in every sense of the word.
On one journey, we rode the infamous 21 bus—a line that also represents the full range of human accomplishment and misery. The front seats on the bus, the ones immediately behind the driver that face each other, were empty when we boarded. I sat with my brother and his wife on one side of the bus, looking across at Evan, who proudly occupied the long seat across from us. At the next stop, two Somali women got on the bus, both wearing their colorful hijab. I could see my young nephew stiffen up as they sat next to him. Poor Evan’s adventure on his first city bus ride was turning into an intercultural nightmare informed by the safe and sheltered life his parents had worked so hard to give him. He had never seen anyone resembling the women on the bus, except in movies with cartoonish portrayals of Muslim terrorists, or perhaps on Fox News, a channel that is always playing when he visits his maternal grandparents.
Young Evan quickly became so frightened that he came across the aisle and sat on his dad’s lap. I don’t speak Arabic or Somali, but I watched as the Somali women reacted to this 10-year-old being so frightened of them that he had to change seats. When we got off the bus, I turned to Evan.
“It seems like that was pretty scary for you,” I said.
“Yes,” he said with wide eyes.
“You know,” I said, “we have a lot of Somalis in Minneapolis. They fled a civil war in their country and lots of them came here. My neighbors on one side of my house are Somali. I have lots of Somali students. There are even five mosques in the Somali neighborhood around the college where I teach.”
“How do you know those people aren’t terrorists?” my brother intervened. “They’re Muslims. Don’t you think they’re dangerous? What about 9-11? Those people are just … I don’t think they should be here.”
“Listen,” I said. “That’s exactly what people thought about grandma and grandpa when they first came here. That they were dangerous. That they were Catholic! That they were different. That they didn’t belong here. Grandma and grandpa! That’s what people used to say about them.”
As with many such conversations on such sensitive topics, this one ended without resolution. We walked silently from the bus stop to our destination, and haven’t spoken about this incident since.
Here ends my positional preamble. It’s obviously much longer than anything I could offer in person, in a live discussion. Its length is its greatest disadvantage for oral discourse—who has the energy for any further discussion after all that? But it has the great advantage that you actually know something about me beyond “straight, white, cis-gender male.” After all there is just as much individual variation in that group as there is among the “lesbians of African descent” or the “LatinX non-binary” folks. In the end, these labels deceive us because we think they say a lot, but they actually say very little. I don’t deny the importance of these preambles, but only as a first step. To really get to know each other takes a lot more time, a lot more openness, and a lot more listening.
Some of you might be wondering if all this introductory stuff is intended to make me seem more sympathetic to the reader. Don’t forget how this chapter began: I’m the guy who said the N-word in his classroom, which caused his entire campus to explode! Am I trying to downplay my own whiteness by discussing my “not-quite-white” Italian ancestors? Did I tell the story of my nephew on the bus and my brother’s reaction to the Somali commuters just to show that I’m not the racist brother, I’m the woke brother? Don’t forget, there are students at Augsburg University who believe I hang out with white supremacists. Perhaps I’m just trying to pull a fast one.
But wait. The positional preamble isn’t over. Just as important as telling you who I am is telling you who I am not.