My previous blog post was a Never Again movement presentation I organized and led at the school I have been in attendance to since sophomore year. As I was preparing the presentation, I carefully embedded much needed commentary on gun violence towards Black and Brown people. It is crucial, in my opinion, that race be a central topic of discussion in this new age of White anti-gun violence movements like the Never Again initiative. Because I had seen such a lack of rhetoric on race in the Never Again movement, I felt it important to discuss the racial disparities in instances of gun violence in my presentation.
It was suggested to me by a teacher at my school to run through my PowerPoint with my AP English Language teacher to make sure that all was kosher. As I was showing this English teacher my PowerPoint, they stopped me and suggested that I stay away from phrases such as "Black and Brown students" and "Black and Brown communities", citing issue with the words "Black and Brown". The teacher asked me to use more generalized terms, such as "Communities of Color", indicating that the use of the words "Black and Brown" was not appropriate.
The way I have thought about this incident has recently changed. Today, I attended a seminar hosted by The Atlantic called #RaceJusticeTX. The seminar held many speakers, from local Black Lives Matter organizers to criminal justice reform advocates. The focus of the event was to discuss the intersection of race and the American criminal justice system. During this seminar, two statements made by two different people in two different contexts made me realize how problematic what my English teacher said was.
One of the statements was made by Brandi Holmes, a Black Lives Matter organizer in Houston,
"One of the biggest issues (we) are facing is...we have failed to name that the structures that exist currently are racist structures. They are systemic racial issues that exist in the criminal justice system here in Harris County. And we have yet to name those things. We have yet to name the ways which White Supremacy affects Black and Brown communities in the city of Houston. We've talked about the jail and the jail being populated by a certain person, but we have yet to quantify who that individual is. In the jail you're seeing 56% of those people who are currently housed in a jail are Black folks. You add in the figure and include our Brown brothers and sisters and that (raises) that number up to 75%. Seventy-five percent of...the population in the jail are Black and Brown folks. We have yet to name what are causes and conditions that exist to put those people there in the first place. They're systemic racist issues that have created these structures, and until we can name those things; until we can say the word "racism", until we can say the words "White Supremacy", until we can say the words, "structural racism" and "mass incarceration"... I think that is going to really restrict the ways in which we move forward."
In the context the previous quote as well as in the context of my experience with the presentation I showed to my English teacher, I ask the following: How can we even begin to name systems of oppression if we do not first name those being oppressed? It is not enough to say "Communities of Color", because I do not see Asian people being gunned down by police officers. It is not enough to say "minorities" because, technically, white men are a global minority, but they aren't being systematically abused or mistreated. In order to even begin to approach naming structures of injustice, as Holmes spoke about, we must first be able to identify who is being dealt that injustice.
The second statement was made by an audience member who failed to give his name, but he said this:
"I have a statement. Sitting here I'm with Windham School District out of Huntsville and sitting here is kind of a(n) out of body experience for me. Because at eighteen years old...I was that one — I was going to sit here and be quiet and just listen, but when you said something about those orange jumpsuits and those handcuffs that don't separate and all that kind of stuff... I'm from Beaumont but I moved to Houston when I was eighteen years old in 1986. And just that kid, Sunnyside, just kind of hanging around, and just kind of milling around even though I had a scholarship to UofH, I was still that young Black kid just flowing, just rolling around and got caught up...and wind up going to Harris County and doing about three months...This is my thing, my statement: education should be about the transformation of self and society. So, if we're going to work with our young black boys, our young brown people; I hate the word "minority", I hate the word "African-American", I'm an American, I just happen to be Black. So I was born here and that's the way it is, okay? So, if we're going to change it, where these young brothers and sisters are no longer becoming parts of these systems: this systematic White Privilege that we see all the time and the systematic racism, we have got to inform them from the womb. I have two boys who are clean and upright and strong, and I have a daughter who's now going to Sam Houston for music therapy. The reason they are the way that they are... We begin to educate them from the womb. So, if we're going to change this thing, then we have to do what? Educate them. Educate them in the school, educate them in the home, educate them so that when they go out and meet a police officer, they will know their own rights instead of having to be all polite, because they don't know what this Mr. Policeman or Policewoman is going to do to them. So, my only statement is: education."
I pose another question: How can we educate our youth without properly effective and specific terminology? How can we teach our children how to combat oppressive forces without telling them first who is affected by such oppression? Furthermore, there are modes of oppression specific to Black individuals and modes of oppression specific to Brown individuals.
To paint race with such a broad brush, to fail to specify who is being targeted by violent oppression, is not much better than asserting that "we are all one race, the human race"; both are forms of avoidance — avoiding tackling the specificities of race and thus avoiding the combatting of subsequent oppression. This in itself could be considered perpetuating further racism; erasing an individual's identity for sake of a more generalized term, especially when that specific identity is crucial to the conversation of oppression at hand (in my personal anecdote, that being gun violence), is effectively contributing to the continuation of the structural systems of oppression that continue to prevail in the United States.
This avoidance and this erasure seem to stem from existing racist tendencies: Fear of the identities themselves, fear of naming them due to objections to advocating for them. If my English teacher can say "Communities of Color", my English teacher does not have to voice support for Black and Brown people but can hide behind the broader implications of the generalized term. Maybe my English teacher will stand alongside one race but not another. The use of the generalized "Communities of Color" on the part of my teacher allows for a significant amount of freedom and wiggle room in terms of justice; in terms of who my teachers oppresses and who my teacher supports. It allows for a distance to be put between my teacher and accountability.
The institution of racism can not be fought without specific terminology imparted through education. By insisting on generalization, my English teacher insisted on erasure of identity. This then begets further oppression of Black and Brown folks. The fact that an educator is perpetuating such ideology is damaging to the Black and Brown students who will take their class. An educator has a responsibility to ensure that their students have the best access to the most information possible, information unaffected by personal bias. Furthermore, a teacher who teaches rhetoric and composition must know how to use specific terminology in order to build a cohesive and convincing argument.