For White Folks Who Want To Do Better: When Anti-Racism Isn’t Enough

I’m writing this after several months of requests from white friends, family, colleagues, and online pals on what to read in these times of high visibility of anti-Black state violence. I almost wrote “escalating” anti-Black violence, but this is a misrepresentation of the history of racist violence in the United States, despite the September 22, 2020 Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping, which claims:

[M]any people are pushing a different vision of America that is grounded in hierarchies based on collective social and political identities rather than in the inherent and equal dignity of every person as an individual. This ideology is rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans.

Despite the historical revisionism occurring at the Federal level, it’s crucial that white allies, accomplices, and progressives practice self-education to develop a broad comprehension of the experience of Black Americans, from enslavement to contemporary ghettoization and white supremacist carceral logics. Upon reading the work of mostly Black scholars and writers, it’s evident that the claims in the above executive order are not just inaccurate, but part of a long-established pattern of white supremacist rhetorics including whitewashing, false objectivity, and systemic erasure of radical Black resistance.

Studying the history of oppression on the basis of race is fundamental to developing a thorough understanding of the roles of contemporary framings of white privilege, anti-racism, and allyship. The demands for white progressives to “do better” with regards to race have not emerged from a cultural vacuum, but Black activists have developed these concepts in their efforts to define racism and educate white people.

I am by far the first person to say any of this, and all of my growing racial consciousness has emerged from engaging with texts on the following list. Writing this is an attempt to signal-boost the work of Black scholars, especially trans and non-binary folks, women, sexual minorities, disabled people, and working-class and poor folks, and providing a growing resource for white people who want to do better.

This bibliography is by no means exhaustive. Instead, these are books and articles that have helped me gain a more thorough understanding of the systemic oppression of Black folks in the U.S.

Bibliography

Alexander, Michelle (she/her/hers). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2010.

Bailey, Moya (she/her/hers). “Work In The Intersections: A Black Feminist Disability Framework.” Gender & Society, 33.1, February 2019.

Bailey, Moya (she/her/hers) & Trudy (she/her/hers). “On Misogynoir: Citation, Erasure, and Plagiarism.” Feminist Media Studies, 2018.

Baldwin, James (he/him/his). Notes of a Native Son. Beacon Press, 1955.

Baradaran, Mehrsa (she/her/hers). The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap. Harvard University Press, 2017.

Bobb, Venessa. “Black Girls and Autism.” Girls and Autism: Educational, Family and Personal Perspectives. Eds. Barry Carpenter, Francesca Happé and Jo Egerton. Routledge, 2019.

DuBois, W.E.B. (he/him/his). Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Francois, Janine (she/her/hers). “Reparations for Black People Should Include Rest.” Vice, 8 Jan 2019.

Gumbs, Alexis Pauline (she/her/hers). Spill: Scenes from Black Feminist Fugitivity. Duke University Press, 2016.

—. M Archive: After the End of the World. Duke University Press, 2018.

—. Dub: Finding Ceremony. Duke University Press, 2020.

Hartman, Saidiya (she/her/hers). Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. FSG, 2008.

—. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford University Press, 1997.

—. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. W. W. Norton & Company, January 14, 2020.

Hogarth, Rana A. (she/her/hers). Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840. UNC Press, 2017.

Johnson, Cyrée Jarelle (he/him/his). “A Paradoxical History of Black Disease.” Disability Visibility Project. May 13, 2020. Web.

Jones, Ciarra (she/her/hers). “Grad School Is Trash for Students of Color and We Should Talk About That.” Medium. Nov. 8, 2017.

—. “The Race for Inclusivity: Race-based Conversations in Higher Education.” Huffington Post. January 19, 2016.

Jones-Rogers, Stephanie E (she/her/hers). They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South. Narrated by Allyson Johnson, Audible, 2019.

Kendall, Mikki (she/her/hers). Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot. Narrated by Mikki Kendall, Penguin Audio, 2020.

Lorde, Audre (she/her/hers). The Cancer Journals, Aunt Lute Books, 1980.

—. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ten Speed Press, 1984.

—. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Persephone Press, 1982.

Love, Bettina L (she/her/hers). “An Essay for Teachers Who Understand Racism Is Real.” Education Week, June 2020.

—. We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. Narrated by Misty Monroe, Beacon Press, 2019.

Moore, Leroy F. (he/him/his). Black Disabled Ancestors. Poor Press, 2020.

Morris, Monique W (she/her/hers). Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools. The New Press, 2016.

Natapoff, Alexandra (she/her/hers). Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal. Basic Books, 2018.

Nelson, Alondra (she/her/hers). Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

—. The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome. Beacon Press, 2016.

Noble, Safiya Umoja (she/her/hers). Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. NYU Press, 2018.

Roberts, Dorothy (she/her/hers). Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century. The New Press, 2012.

Schalk, Sami (she/her/hers). “Coming to Claim Crip: Disidentification with/in Disability Studies.” Disability Studies Quarterly 33.2, 2013.

Shakur, Assata (she/her/hers). Assata: An Autobiography. Chicago Review Press, 1999.

Strings, Sabrina (she/her/hers). Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia. NYU Press, 2019.

—. “It’s Not Obesity. It’s Slavery.” New York Times, May 25, 2020.

Taylor, Keeanga-Yamahtta (she/her/hers). From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Haymarket Books, 2016.

—. How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Haymarket Books, 2017.

—. Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

Washington, Harriet A. (she/her/hers). Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Doubleday, 2007.

AWP Is NOT Us

Over years of working on literary publications, I have never felt particularly compelled to self-disclose as a radical queer editor, instead hoping that the writers I support would make clear my editorial interests. Today, Red Hen Press editor Kate Gale’s tone-deaf, reactionary—perhaps satirical?—piece “AWP Is Us,” posted at Huffington Post, illustrates publishing’s implicit & explicit intolerance for critical engagement with intersectional oppression and its influence on art & literature. Today, I realize that my silence has been a mistake.

So here goes: I, Jesse Rice-Evans, hereby vocalize my ongoing commitment to seek out and publish queer & trans writers, authors of color, writers of varying dis/ability & class, and any writer similarly committed to dismantling the exclusionary fascist bullshit demarcated by Kate Gale’s oblivious editorial. As a queer, educated, white grrl-presenting poet, I am fully able to slip into privileged literary spaces, evidenced by my gatekeeper status as editor and writing instructor. It is of utmost importance to my practice in both of these spheres to remain committed to inclusion, challenging neoliberal & apologist discourses, and the act of becoming as necessary for any person of privilege interested in challenging the very real oppression within publishing.

The challenge of who discloses in submissions is also up for debate; I have not felt it integral to the experience of my work to self-identify as [whatever], but I am also questioning if this is misguided. Publishing is still incredibly insular, overwhelmingly white, cis, straight, wealthy, and otherwise paralleling normative, exclusionary patterns that dominate our cultural narrative. By neglecting to explicitly come out as an editor (or a writer) committed to rejecting those paradigms and publishing authors who challenge hegemony, I have done all writers who have submitted/will submit to Identity Theory and other publications I have worked for a great disservice.

I am deeply disappointed that an editor at an influential small press such as Red Hen would show her (racist) ass quite like this, but in truth, I am not surprised. (And I’m not surprised one bit at Gale’s affiliation with and blind defense of AWP, aka Apologist White Poets.) For my own well-being, I have elected to stay the fuck out of publishing as paid work for exactly this reason, but I am now doubly committed to signal-boosting writers of color and queers, and publishing them whenever I am lucky enough to have the opportunity.

I’m so pleased the online response to Gale’s willful ignorance of how institutions operate and her baffling writing style has been so strong. There are enough politically literate writers & publishing folks to push hard against these unacceptable incarnations of oppression in our community, and folks are out there fighting back. Let’s find each other! And buy each others’ books!

New

Did y’all know I was really sad in Seattle? This seemed too ironically typical at the time, since Seattle has a reputation for being depressing. Boy, was it ever. Chett and I arrived smack dab in the middle of a huge wave of gentrification, and in our naive millenial reliance on public transportation, we soon developed fraught and, in my case, furious relationships with Seattle’s ineffectual infrastructure.

Not to rationalize my emotional state: I was just flat-out depressed. I have long struggled with powerful mood shifts and anxiety brought on by not being able to tune anything out, but Seattle really cranked my freakouts up a notch. If I could help it, I wouldn’t leave the apartment for days at a time, for fear of overhearing some misogynist Amazonian bullshittery or having dozens of encounters with the same crew of hipsters who pretended we had never met after three or four conversations about their apathy, their band t-shirts, their expensive haircuts.

So, we hustled back to the east coast, to a place I’ve described on more than one occasion as miserableso over, and debilitatingly expensive: New York.

Some context: every trip I’ve taken to NYC has been overwhelming in great and terrible ways. My long-time best friend’s incredibly cool cohort all ganged up to laud the city after a wine-fueled dinner party. My ex had a full-on freakout and insisted on crashing in a Brooklyn Best Western and ordering Chinese take-out. It thunderstormed and I wept under an awning in Midtown, soaking wet with a deep gratitude for East Coast rainstorms.

Last May, at age 59, my mother took a job in Manhattan, rented a studio apartment, and solidified her status as the most badass, fearless human I’ve ever met.

Fantasizing about a life without scooping ice cream, with some of the spectacular friends I’ve managed to accrue in my many ill-fated friend trysts, I started to get serious about abandoning yet another potential: did I want to reforge a life for myself in a sea of strangers and a super-white literary scene, or could I imagine being as poor as I have been for my entire adult life once again, but in the most wild and alive city in the country?

No question.

So, nine months into our service-industry soaked Seattle life, full of penance for being Southerners and East Coasters, Chett and I packed up our ample book collection and shipped it back across the country, sold our Ikea furnishings, and bailed on Seattle.

Since January, we’ve been settling into NYC-paced life, and despite all the anxieties about being slow-moving Southerners, we’ve done a pretty goddamn good job. In truth, the quick pace matches my own “get-shit-done” mindset, which was unusual in NC and fucking unheard of in Seattle. I never knew that spatial awareness was such an integral part of my human identity, but New Yorkers manage an incredible balance of doing a million things with getting out of each others’ ways, physically and psychically.

I’ve been working on striking a similar balance: work and writing, friends and sleeping. After a few weeks worth of freakouts about my future plans (I got into NYU’s perfect MA program but I couldn’t afford it; I’m working at a restaurant…again; what am I going to do now?), I have nestled into a great pattern of reading on the train, writing poems, sending mail, sleeping, and drinking shiploads of coffee. I’m still looking for exactly the right opportunity, the slippery but ideal mix of work and play, but that would be true anywhere. I’m grateful to not feel hemmed in by my surroundings, but rather, empowered to try stuff. The stuff is endless, and somehow, I am not overwhelmed. I am myself again: sassy, a serious bookworm, always seeking.

Personal

Personal statements are the worst nightmare of even a confident writer. A mysterious amalgamation of ego and sycophantry, decisiveness and open-to-influenceness, personal statement writing often begins with wild listmaking and doesn’t get much further until a panicked, last-minute rewrite at 1AM, wracked by guilt and accompanied by a bottle of Chateau Ste. Michele.

As a writing consultant, coaxing a sophisticated personal statement from a writer is one of the most difficult challenges we face. It takes a certain level of interpersonal connection, which is often not possible in our time-constrained work environment. What are your childhood dreams? how do they connect to the program at [insert school name here]? what conflicts have you faced that specially equip you to research croaking grasshoppers in Malaysia/androgyny in Renaissance painting/Marxist revolution in Harry Potter? 

My students know me well enough to know that I will always ask them to cut their work by at least a third. First-timers are always horrified, but returning students value my insistence on brevity, specific details, and illustrative examples.

Rarely, a productive session will leave a student invigorated to make revisions, and their engagement in the process of detailing their scholarly journey will thrill even the most jaded writing tutor.

More often, though, the student will resent the tutor’s suggestion to start from scratch through a thin veil of politesse, barely masking deep-seated panic. The tutor will notice the resentment and choose to ignore it, or acknowledge its presence and propose channeling that same energy into a stellar rewrite.

Recently, I met with a student outside of my formal tutoring space to go over what I was told was a personal statement. Actually, it was a 7 page letter petitioning the university that the student did not get accepted to the first time around. The student also sent me their detailed college and high school transcripts, their 5-page personal statement submitted with the original application, and various supplementary forms from admissions officers detailing the student’s graduation plan, course schedule, etc. Wow.

Without the auspices of the writing center to justify my non-directive pedagogy, I struggled to clarify what I could offer the student: comprehensive and supportive feedback, suggested edits, assistance in developing writing skills overall and not just for this assignment, blah blah blah. The student balked: couldn’t I just rewrite the letter for them?

In the writing center, I would have kindly explained that writing someone’s paper for them was unethical and wasn’t one of the services offered by the writing center staff. But I wasn’t in the writing center. People hire writers to edit work for them all the time, right? Why can’t I offer a variety of services for a variety of circumstances? The only thing holding me back was my deep-seated devotion to writing center pedagogy.

Further, while presuming competence is one of my primary ethics as a writing tutor/editor, this student was so riddled with what seemed like ADHD that I could hardly get them to answer a super precise question like, “why do you want to major in International Studies” without them going on a 10-minute diatribe about sports, the Korean military, and their favorite burrito place in North Seattle.

In the end, I elected to offer this student comprehensive edits, a full rewrite, and basically to remove them from the text except for their personal details. I wouldn’t offer this in every situation, but the extreme anxiety and lack of focus from the student forced me to choose an approach that worked best for my own wellbeing–once a student veers wildly from their own work, the amount of social & emotional labor that I have to put in directly affects the services that I will offer. When I can use writing center pedagogy to redirect, I will. And when the struggle is just too real, I will offer an alternative.

This realization is freeing as I continue to expand my freelance writing and editing responsibilities; I will continue developing my intuitive skills to accurately gauge which kind of writing help each client needs.