Tuesday Reading List: Eradicating the Symbols of Oppression, Fighting Bias, and Listening to Communities

On Sunday, HBO aired a film adaptation of Rebecca Skloot's landmark book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Panama Jackson of VSB puts Lacks's story in historical context:

Her cells have helped in the fight to cure and treat everything from polio to in vitro fertilization. Henrietta Lacks’ cells are an industry unto themselves. Johns Hopkins University, the famous research institution in Baltimore, MD, is where her cancerous cells were removed, studied, and discovered to have the reproductive properties necessary to do the type of research doctors had been attempting to achieve for some time ... the cells were harvested and then used without her consent (apparently some of her cancerous cells were taken during the autopsy) and then used far and wide by companies that profited because of them ... This begs the question: how exactly do you compensate for such a significant wrong that was done to a family, one in which money was being made hand over fist? And who cuts that check? This reminds me of another recent case: Georgetown University. Georgetown profited from slavery, recently acknowledging the sale of 272 slaves to pay off debts and basically keep the doors open. Once you acknowledge something so heinous, you have to do something about it.

If you haven't read the book (or seen the HBO adaptation), check it out. While the injustices perpetrated on the body of Henrietta Lacks are clear, not to mention documented, the use of her body for profit is symbolic of the broader harm inflicted on the Black community over the centuries. As the Associated Press reports in the New York Post, the city of New Orleans is finally starting to reckon with a different kind of symbolism:

Workers in New Orleans began removing the first of four prominent Confederate monuments early Monday, the latest Southern institution to sever itself from symbols viewed by many as a representation of racism and white supremacy. Trucks arrived to begin removing the first memorial, one that commemorates whites who tried to topple a biracial post-Civil War government in New Orleans, around 1:25 a.m. in an attempt to avoid disruption from supporters who want the monuments to stay, some of whom city officials said have made death threats ... Three other statues to Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard and Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis will be removed in later days now that legal challenges have been overcome.

The city's mayor, Mitch Landrieu, puts the statues in context:

“The monuments are an aberration,” he said. “They’re actually a denial of our history and they were done in a time when people who still controlled the Confederacy were in charge of this city and it only represents a four-year period ...”

That final point is critical: the Confederacy existed for the express purpose of preserving chattel slavery and only lasted for four years. The people who want to protect the symbols of that era are protecting white supremacy and little else.

Further north, Sharif El-Mekki, writing at Philly's 7th Ward, has some advice for white people who don't want to preserve white supremacy:

There are white people who have engaged in the lifelong and difficult work of deconstructing white supremacy and begin with working on themselves and their people. They read books, attend workshops, have difficult conversations and access resources that will help. Bias impacts us all, it’s like an infective cloud. Often, folks elect politicians who are unwilling to actively confront their biases. These politicians inevitably implement what amounts to racist policies that dovetails with the institutional racism that has oppressed communities of color forever. That’s one area that folks can start. One thing you can do to help is to commit to ending the political lives of those who oppress through policies.

I don't think I have to defend the notion that there are contemporary politicians who harbor racial biases. Those racial biases, when translated into policy, become institutional racism. Personal prejudice and institutional racism are two separate phenomena, but as El-Mekki demonstrates, they are deeply interrelated.

Finally today, Josh Benjamin - a teacher in Lawrence, Massachusetts - is in The Hechinger Report discussing how to be an effective teacher in a community that is not his own:

... know your community. I can’t overstate the importance of learning a community’s stories by asking questions from a stance of genuine curiosity and humility. Where do families come from? What languages do they speak at home? What are their hopes and concerns? What has been their past experience with school? If we continually look for the answers to these questions, then we can support families’ aspirations for their children and become a part of their stories. When we move from being outsiders teaching “other people’s children,” as Lisa Delpit put it, to being insiders rallying around a community’s dreams for its kids, we begin to narrow the cultural gap.

Shorter version: Listen!

Benjamin has other tactical advice, but the importance of knowing the community in which you work cannot be overstated. Many of the patterns associated with poverty, institutional racism, and privilege are recognizable from place to place. But whereas the patterns are familiar, the details and histories are unique. You can't empathize if you generalize. Get specific. Have a great day!