Being in Class (3)

We are reading aloud a passage from Push, and the women can barely do this. They’re hating it, and what they’re hating most is the language of Precious, the young narrator who opens with “I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver….I got suspended from school ‘cause I’m pregnant which I don’t think is fair. I ain’ did nothin’!”1

In our reading there’s stumbling and laughter, embarrassment and rage: this is not proper English, how people talk not write, some people talk this way. If someone comes up to me talking this way, I don’t even talk with them. Talk about why Sapphire chooses this language, why she couldn’t tell it in “proper English,” why the grammar gets better in the course of book as Precious learns. But it makes me feel stupid to read it! This is supposedly how black people talk. I don’t talk like this, I mean I might with some people. What’s Black English? I’m not Black, I’m American. I teach my daughter proper English!

You don’t talk about how Precious, who is sexually abused by her father, can also feel sexual in those scenes; how he is portrayed as vicious and uncaring, the mother as also abusive, deceitful, a “welfare queen”; how learning to read looks like the answer, though surely doesn’t create jobs or equitable policies. Later you wonder whether our focus on language masked discomfort with other traumas, with charged representations of character and naïve presumptions about education.

You’ve never felt whiter; are full of heat now–-not about Push, which you could take or leave, but about language, real varied beautiful and nonstandard English, this language in the mouths of people disowned a second later, whispered in ears, breaths. You try to intercede on behalf of some “other” whose language you feel compelled to defend: you raise questions about who “owns” English, who gets to say what’s “proper,” what’s acceptable to put in a book. These questions ring false since they are not real questions, but rather your attempt to testify on behalf of this language that is not yours.

I teach my daughter proper English. But last time she got on the phone with me she’s all “I be this, that”–I’m like, what?! Let me talk to your father! 

Let’s just agree: we’re not talking about this book next week!

Franz Fanon’s concept of the “epidermalization of inferiority” traces “the metaphorical absorption of racial inferiority through the skin and into the mind.”2 Listening to urban students, Fine and Ruglis hear how external conditions “crossed membranes from what was outside the child, in the school building, to what was the child.”3

Prison educators take this on:

In his “Humiliation to Humility Pedagogy,” Gaskew draws on incarcerated Black men’s life experiences to investigate the “three dimensional elephant…racism, White supremacy, and White privilege.”4 In the Medea project, Rhodessa Jones and Shawn Reynolds aim to uncover “the connections between an individual and the system of power,” believing that “understanding social context, moving with others and not alone–will transform the oppressed and apathetic into people who believe they can think and thus act for themselves and also for others….”5

These are educators of color. Teaching while white, you speak the language of interviews, of commercial exchange, of the courts. You always see race–see colorfeatureshairtextures, see how racial difference animates a world of difference, see the daily risks of mothers, fathers, uncles of black children.

Except when you don’t.

In a recent essay in The New York Times, Nell Painter offers a chilling description of whiteness as a binary with a choice between bland culturelessness and venal racism, a “toggle between nothing and awfulness.”6 A third option eschews a visceral involvement, acknowledging race privilege and racism, trying to “comply with the new rules of diversity” as though this is someone else’s problem.7 Absent still: an unnamed option swimming insistently at the edge of your peripheral vision, an opportunity to bring into focus a whiteness that contends with what is real and what is possible, necessary.

What of the white women in prison and in this classroom, strangely invisible in both the media and the literature? So much of what’s being written is about men, African American and Latino, sometimes African American women and Latinas. These white women aren’t Piper Kerman. One woman, has to be from Northeast Philly, telling us about how she’s never been like that but now so in love with a woman in here. Another whose age is masked by her wispy hair around gone mouth folding in on itself, mumbling long stories about Catholic girlhood, ferociously grateful at the end of class. The woman with tangled white-hair dreads, from a years-ago class, headed back out with no home, no idea where her son-–labeled schizophrenic–is, last she knew on the streets, and who says outloud with almost a sense of just speaking her interior: you know, we all have one more crime in us.

  1. Sapphire, Push: A Novel (New York; Vintage, 1997), 3.
  2. Jason G. Izarrary and John Raible, “’A Hidden Part of Me’: Latino/a Students, Silencing, and the Epidermalization of Inferiority,” Equity & Excellence in Education 47, 4 (2014): 441, accessed May 20, 2016, doi:10.1080/10665684.2014.958970
  3. Fine and Ruglis, “Circuits and Consequences,” 24.
  4. Gaskew, “Developing,” 71.
  5. Fraden, Imagining Medea, 70.
  6. Nell Irvin Painter, “What Is Whiteness?The New York Times, June 20, 2015, accessed May 20, 2016.
  7. Jennifer Delton, “Escaping Whiteness,” the HuffPost Media, July 12, 2015 (10:28 p.m.), accessed May 20, 2016.