Tuesday Talk… with Corregan Brown, Part 1 (from Fenster on Education)
This week’s Talk is different than the typical interview I do each Tuesday. I “met” Corregan Brown through mutual musician friends, but we’ve never met and only began interacting on Facebook a couple of months ago. I considered doing a more conventional interview, but Corregan’s trenchant commentary is so good that I wanted to maximize our conversation time to focus on issues of racial justice. He didn’t disappoint, having so much important stuff to say that we’re going to do this over the course of two weeks.
Bob — I want to start with something you wrote a couple days ago. Many people, myself included, have praised your thoughtful, eloquent commentary on Facebook, often highlighting your “reasoned and calm” tone when dealing with issues of racial justice. You wrote, “Your patient Black friend is careful because they have to be to be heard.” How much of your need to be heard comes from your personality type versus the knowledge of what is effective/causes people to tune out?
Corregan — Honestly, Bob? That was partially a subtweet. I was dealing with a stressful situation in my personal life in this space, and something I learned writing poetry was that my poetry got better when I took my personal truth and universalized it to a common experience people are having. I try to do the same with some of my social media posts. I look at something that’s happening to me or to someone else and I ask what the larger truth underneath is that we should be thinking about.
A significant portion of my behavior would exist regardless; like I said, I am a peacemaker by nature. However, I think I take a particular kind of care with these issues because White people are largely so new to the conversation, and they’re so tender and sensitive about it. That can manifest in tears and running away, or it can manifest in defensiveness and rage. Either way, the question I’m asking is “what do I want to happen? Do I want to be righteous or do I want to be heard?” And it’s been a process learning how to stand firm and still be heard.
A friend of mine suggested on that same post that I should reframe my thinking from a high-power position rather than a low-power position. My calmness and control conveys strength, not the weakness of accommodation or the necessity of meeting the needs of the dominant group. I think that can be true, and I think that’s useful to remember. I exercise that strength as I decide which conversations to participate in, and which to avoid.
Now, all that said, I think it’s critical that we meet people where they are. We can choose not to go where someone is, but if we do go to where they are, we can’t yell at them for being miles away from where we think they should be. Not everyone can go to every place, but I have found it far more effective to accept the premise and play it out than to wag my finger at the premise.
I want to know your first principles. And if they are “Black people are inferior,” then cool, we don’t have anything to talk about. But if they are more like “Black people are the same but have a psychological or cultural barrier holding them back,” we can unpack that with childlike “why” questions until we get into some structural truths.
Bob — The first time I offered you a compliment I hesitated because we don’t really know each other and I didn’t want to sound like Joe Biden referring to Barack Obama as “articulate” (and “clean”!) back in 2008. I guess that’s not such a bad thing for a white person to think twice about how he speaks about a Black person.
Corregan — Compliments are good, and thank you, by the way. The problem we face in this society is how everything is layered because nearly every single thing, from the way streets are laid out to how schools perform to what ice cream people eat (yes, there’s a racist story behind vanilla ice cream versus butter pecan) has been racialized in this country. We don’t see it because it’s like the air around us, and also because our propaganda machine is very effective.
What this means is that White people have to be self-aware about when their feelings are being filtered through those race-colored glasses. I read a great post about sexism in the workplace that said “just pretend every woman you work with is The Rock, and act as you would if it were The Rock in front of you.” You can imagine as a heterosexual guy in that situation, you might compliment his work or invite him to lunch, but you wouldn’t tell him he’s pretty or touch him. (Obviously, we shouldn’t need to imagine a woman as a giant man to treat her with respect but it makes the point clear.)
It’s kind of the same thing for White people. I can’t think of a specific unproblematic figure that everyone knows, but let’s try George Clooney. You might compliment George Clooney on his suit or on his speech delivery, but you wouldn’t refer to him as articulate or well-spoken; he’s a smart and poised guy and those aren’t remarkable facts. But if there are particular details in how he talks about something that are good, you can refer to those.
Part of it also comes back to just thoughtful use of language, race aside. “You did great!” is a fine compliment, but “I liked the way you explained X, that was helpful to me as a former Y-er” is even better and runs a low risk of offending.
Bob — That’s a helpful construction that certainly applies to other situations. I’ll add that to the list of things I need to work on! I was thinking of continuing work backwards in this conversation and seeing where it takes us. Demands for racial justice have come from a coalition of people after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and we’ve seen some surprising results already. Do you feel more hopeful about our current circumstances than after previous atrocities and calls for reform? If things are in fact different this time, what do you attribute that to?
Corregan — The obvious answer is “Because Pandemic,” and that’s definitely part of it. We’re all home, we’re stressed, many of us are less busy. These deaths would have been upsetting at any time in the modern era, and there would have been protests and action. But I think people actually having the time to think and act changed the dynamic.
There’s another part of this, which is Trump fatigue. We’ve been gaslit for nearly four years. Trump has led chaotically and given aid and comfort to the worst elements of American society, and we’ve been forced to pretend that this presidency is normal and the games the administration plays are legitimate policy decisions rather than marketing tests. Everyone’s tired, and then we have a pandemic that was made worse by that chaotic leadership, and here we are. The protests are against both the injustice and the climate that led to the injustice.
It’s not quite as clear to me what has caused this awakening around racial consciousness. My best read on it is that it’s an extension of the same issues. People have time to stop and think. They’re actually paying attention. And in some ways, I think the gaslighting is backfiring; Trump’s administration and the Republicans who are following in lockstep are trying to portray a White Christian minority who represents our true nation, but who is beset on all sides by leftists and immigrants and for some reason, Chicago crime. People see through this lie and in the face of incontrovertible evidence of injustice are starting to question other lies as well. I suppose it’s just a ripe climate for listening.
I do feel more hopeful about it all because I see White people asking questions they didn’t ask before, and people joining the conversation who used to hide from it or reject it. If people can avoid getting caught in a wokeness ouroboros, where the people who learned last week drive away the people who learned this week for not being aware enough, we can face the real history of this country, good and bad, and start to figure out which parts we don’t want to repeat.
Bob — Thank you for “ouroboros,” a word I love, but admit having to look up the spelling for every time I use it. Regarding your usage here, can you expand a little on that? Are you saying that you’re concerned that the newly converted White anti-racists are going to be calling out their brethren for their ignorance rather than calling them into the tent? I don’t want to downplay this, but it reminds me of the overzealousness and fervor of the new vegetarian or ex-smoker, who wants to make up for a lifetime of perceived malfeasance.
Corregan — So did I! I love some fifty-cent words not because I am trying to sound smart or show off, but because of their accuracy and specificity. And that is exactly what I’m saying here. Like the snake eating its own tail, some of the recent converts are eating up the unconverted-but-willing. Your analogy is also dead on. In some ways it’s similar to the person with a new healthy habit or article of faith that is zealous about converting everyone to experience what they’re experiencing. There’s another piece to it as well, which is I think that when you’re trained to behave in a dominant way due to your societal position, that doesn’t just go away because you had an awakening about what’s going on in the areas of race or gender. The tendency of new converts is to attempt to dominate and center themselves, and it can make it daunting for people who genuinely want to be helpful but don’t know where to begin and are deathly afraid of saying the wrong thing and ending up on a social media video.
Bob — A common phrase in the anti-racist community is that it’s the job of White people to stop White supremacy. The corollary is that Black people should not be expected to patiently answer ignorant questions or guide others to enlightenment. What practical steps do you think White people can take to help dismantle systemic racism?
Corregan — I tell people when they are beginning real work on racial reconciliation or anti-racism two things. For people of color, I tell them that the work will require them to be vulnerable yet again, and to trust and extend themselves yet again. For White people, I tell them that the work is going to cost them something.
That doesn’t sound like much, but White people often enter these conversations expecting to learn about someone’s personal pain, have a good cry and hold someone’s hand, and then be happy because reconciliation happened. Real anti-racist work looks like demanding hiring and pay equity on the behalf of employees of color. It looks like working with local governments to unwind systemically racist policies. It looks like redirecting your family’s spending toward good businesses owned by people of color. And most terrifyingly, it means not letting Auntie or Grandpa get away with that racist argument at the holiday table.
These kinds of sacrifices require significant expenditures of social, political, and economic capital. My running joke to my White friends is “you know you’re doing it right when you lose some White friends.” That means you’re not letting comments slide when you hear them. That means you’re doing advocacy work that makes people uncomfortable. That means you’re telling the truth about history.
The number one thing that White people can do to start dismantling systemic racism is to start with the structures in their own mind. Getting an accurate view of history, one that talks about the brilliant founders of the country and the thinkers and doers that shaped us, but that also talks about the Native relationship that ended in wars and genocide, the African mass enslavement and creation of a racial caste system, the othering of the indigenous peoples of the Southwest who had the border cross them rather than crossing the border, the Chinese and Japanese people with a long history in the West and their experiences. We often can’t talk about history because your George Washington was a great general and a demigod-like avatar of liberty, and my George Washington had slaves’ teeth in his mouth as false teeth. That doesn’t make him a bad general or a bad president, but that is something we should know as we assess the policies he and men like him put in place.
To your point about not asking ignorant questions, the second biggest thing you can do is to get an understanding of whiteness. Americans of European descent are frequently told that they “don’t have a culture” or that their folkways and customs are just “normal.” There’s specific identity work that White people need to do to understand what whiteness is and how the skin label and arbitrary grouping is tied in to systems of power. The Be The Bridge Whiteness Intensive is great for people serious about understanding this better.
Bob — So how about Black people? It’s not their job to fix the situation, but obviously it’s in their best interests to continue to advance the agenda. What can they do?
I think we have to start with history too. This does two things. First, it changes the view on what we have not been able to collectively achieve. For example, why is there so little Black wealth? Well, because we have been excluded from every major mass wealth building initiative the country has undertaken. FHA, GI Bill, the New Deal, you name it. On top of that, every time prior to the 1960s that we have acquired wealth in any broad sense, it’s been taken through terrorism. Lynching, rapacious arrangements like sharecropping or contract leasing, or “race riots” that were really ethnic cleansing massacres as brutal as any you’d see in other parts of the world. That changes one’s perspective and reduces the self-hating talk that is frequently encouraged that points to some cultural or other defect in the Black psyche as the source of the disparities rather than the immense pressures and headwinds of racial injustice and racialized policy.
Second, it ensures we are using the same language and grounding our arguments and policy prescriptions in facts as much as possible. Feelings matter, but I’m less interested in proving the psychological trauma, however relevant, and more interested in proving that a factual, measurable injustice has occurred, one of which you probably had no knowledge. I just found out yesterday that some study done in the American court system showed that over a thousand judges have recently, over the past twenty years, engaged in measurably biased sentencing and judgments. How does such knowledge change the way we look at police or criminal justice reform?
One other thing: if you can, meet the opportunities for dialogue with grace. Patton Oswalt has a great skit where he does an impression of a rural guy who’d probably be classified as a redneck. The guy uses all the wrong words, but when you listen to what he’s saying, his heart is completely in the right place. He then follows it with an impression of a polished urban fellow who has the language exactly right, but a heart full of nefarious intent. I remember this and try to listen through what people are saying to what they mean. If I’m tired or feel I’m doing too much labor, I call it out. But when I can, I try to be gracious and kind to people who are trying. It’s not an obligation, but it makes the work easier.
Bob — Do you see your role as helping speed up the process by making people think about these issues by using your social media presence?
Corregan — I did not get on social media intending to have salon-style dialogues on race all the time. I have a particular argument style that I think comes from my peacemaker inclinations. I concede as much ground as I can to the opposing side, then play the argument all the way out and see if it continues to make sense. I’m trying to get to the first principle underneath it.
That style stands in opposition to the standard social media format of responding to an argument by yelling your argument louder and more rudely, which is why I think people respond to it. It also demonstrates that I’m listening and asking to understand. I think that is why people have responded to my posts. Left or right, if they’re speaking from an earnest place and seeking to understand, they will get a fair hearing and engagement. And of course, there’s been a virtuous cycle as I’ve learned to ask better questions and listen better, which makes more people want to earnestly engage.
Bob — It’s been fascinating to see the various sub-topics that have gotten particular attention. The defund the police movement is the most obvious subject to come out of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor (and so many others), but the one that really surprised me was the rapid change on the issue of historic monuments. Richmond’s Monument Avenue is transforming as we speak, Mississippi just changed its flag, and two country bands even changed their names. Part of me is enthused by this, but I also wonder how important those things are in the grand scheme of things. I guess the cynic in me thinks it will be the old “Hey, we gave you this minor concession, why aren’t you happy about it?” What’s your take on this subject and the concern that it might be the wrong focus?
Corregan — I’m actually delighted about the removal of Confederate monuments. Anyone who has studied the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Lost Cause movement knows that the monuments were not about memorializing history but rewriting it with the Confederates as noble, doomed heroes fighting for a way of life rather than white supremacist planters rebelling against a nation that was putting their main means of production out of favor. I went to Princeton as well, and so the Woodrow Wilson School renaming is a big deal among my friends, several of whom are graduates. As a particularly racist man for his time, I think it’s reasonable to strip him of those honors. No one is in danger of forgetting Woodrow Wilson.
There is a bit of a panic happening in a more broad sense. People are scouring old TV shows and movies, changing names of bands and brands like you mentioned, and so on. For the people electing to change their own names, I think it’s good, even as I observe that this is also a politically safe moment to do it. If the Dixie Chicks’ mild critique of Bush was enough to marginalize their entire career, imagine if they had removed Dixie back then! That would have taken some real courage. That’s not to dismiss the significance, just to observe that it’s not a particularly difficult thing to do now, whereas it might have been even a year ago.
I share the concern that we can get lost celebrating the removal of a statue or a symbol and miss paying attention to a law or a policy that actually gets someone killed or locked away for far longer than necessary. That said, the way we understand things as humans is through stories. This rewrite is changing the story we tell ourselves about who we’ve been, and that’s important. For the TV shows and movies, I’d probably prefer warnings and contextualization over removal. But until we get the shared history right where we can receive it the way we receive the issues, say, with mid-20th century gender roles in old movies, maybe sit it on the shelf for a while.
Bob — This interview is unlike most of the ones I do which mix in more biographical information, but you bringing up going to college in my veritable back yard does converge with another relevant subject that will be hard to keep to a single question (but we’re going to do it, at least for this week!). There are huge disparities in educational opportunities in this country based on race. A large part of that has to do, of course, with some of the history you’ve referenced. I teach in a wealthy suburban town with the demographics roughly being 60% White, 25% Asian, 10% Latinx, and 5% Black. Even within the heart of suburbia there are disproportionate numbers taking our honors and Advanced Placement classes. In the past we used to rely on placement tests and teacher recommendations. Those were replaced by grades, which of course can be colored by teachers’ subjective grading, but in theory is relatively objective based on the types of assessments students have. And yet that isn’t making a difference in terms of the numbers. I’ve spoken to a few Black alumni who didn’t take higher-level courses to inquire why they weren’t in those courses. Some of it was their own fear of failure, some based on peer pressure, and some was because they chose to spend their time pursuing sports or holding down jobs. This is a crazy long introduction and you have no knowledge about my school other than what I shared, but it’s a widespread issue around the country even in our best schools. What do you think we can do to encourage more students of color to reach greater academic heights?
Corregan — I think we have to trace the problem backwards. Who are the students who pursue more advanced academics? What schools do they go to? What experiences do they share?
Education is far from my specialty, but I would wager that the fear and peer pressure components can be mitigated with some knowledge of history. Understanding the experiences and the choices our forebears made would help with self-esteem and possibly encourage a culture where achievement was seen as a valid choice. I went to an all-Black high school and while I was picked on sometimes for being nerdy (I know that’s shocking, but hear me out), we didn’t really have a notion of “acting White” being synonymous with achievement. Some of the most popular students were also the most academically accomplished.
I can’t speak to sports, but the holding down jobs part is very relevant. Due to the FHA and GI Bill, there’s a lot of wealth that the country helped the White middle class build that simply isn’t there for Black people. In such a situation, students may have to work to cover costs or help parents out. My parents made a solid living when they were working, but everything they had they saved; nobody passed and left them a spare house, or gave them a small inheritance to help with a major purchase. Even I, with a solid education and a good salary, am still trying to consolidate and go from “having some money” to “wealth”, and none of my close Black friends are without a family member or relative in fairly dire financial need.
Getting back to the question of encouragement, it comes down to identifying the defining experiences and figuring out how to get those resources, or mitigating replacements, to people more equitably. Is it having a computer and broadband in the home? Is it having an educated parent? Is it being taken under the wing of a mentoring teacher? Mentoring, in particular, is a hard one, because teachers and especially administrators may unwittingly reinforce systems of injustice. We see this in who gets called on, who gets punished and how much when students violate codes of conduct, who gets advice about certain schools and who doesn’t.
Bob — I’m going to hold off asking about the topics of policing, the criminal justice system writ large, reparations, and electoral politics for part 2 of our interview as I think those are going to require a good amount of time and possible follow-up questions. But for now I’ll close today’s interview with another bit of concern trolling, in a sense. In a previous answer you talked about how people need to better understand our country’s history of racial oppression. I’ve been watching pretty carefully and I’ve seen a lot of discipline from non-Black minorities who appear to carefully be biding their time rather than interject “and brown!” into various conversations. There’s a lot of history of movements getting divided despite their common interests going back to the schism between white suffragettes and abolitionists and continuing throughout the years in different ways. My hope is that other activists recognize that their interests are inexorably linked and that a more self-aware and enlightened populace that can come from this process will apply the lessons to them as well. What’s your take?
Corregan — This is a great question. To the folks who are neither Black nor White who have been moving in patient solidarity with the current movement, thank you. We must remember that the country is heavily defined in an anti-Black context, because much of the political theory had to reckon with slavery and its implications. The founders were intelligent men and knew that there was an inherent cognitive dissonance between the institution of slavery and the ideals they were espousing. As such, dealing with the nation’s issues around Black people and Blackness will move us a great distance toward resolution of the rest of the problems we are facing. As you say, our interests are inexorably linked.
That said, this is why I advocate for Black people to learn a 360-degree view of history. I used to attend a predominantly White evangelical church, and while White evangelical Christian culture was dominant, Black Christian culture was what I’d call “sub-dominant.” There was at least some understanding and representation of Black culture, even if it was not considered quite as important or essential. The Asian and Latino attendees, though, saw very little of experiences that reflected them. We didn’t have any Native American attendees that I knew of, but that wasn’t reflected, either. In contrast, I do some music education work with the Lutheran church where we learn and sing songs from around the world, and we constantly ask the question, “who is not in the room? Who are we missing?” Part of our ongoing work is to find the missing people and get them to share worship music from their point of view.
I think as Black people lead the charge in working through these issues, we have to create space so that we don’t end up sub-dominant in a hierarchy that continues to “other” Asian and Latino people and erase Native American people. This isn’t a Terry Crews-like fear of Black supremacy I’m talking about. This is about whether we choose to accept second place in a racial hierarchy rather than completely dismantling it. There are corporations with Black or other POC executives that still conduct business in the same way without any particular consciousness, because they’re operating in the same systemic framework rather than interrogating or challenging it. Our liberation process must be holistic and render everyone visible, or it risks replicating the same systems with different faces.
Bob — Thank you for your thoughtful responses to these questions. I look forward to continuing the conversation in part 2!
Originally published at http://fensteroneducation.home.blog on July 7, 2020.