White is the New Black in Neo-Civil Rights Language - Higher Education
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White is the New Black in Neo-Civil Rights Language

by Robin Hughes

Robin L. HughesI attended a CRT conference in education years ago, where a keynote introduced “White as the new Black.” She described, for example, how White supremacists often appropriate the language of oppression to describe their own place in the world—after having suffered some hyper-perceived loss of power. In other words, privilege and supremacy are so normal that the slightest perturbation is intolerable—and protected through revisionist versions of civil rights legislation.

What immediately came to my own mind is the person that describes discriminatory practices at the individual level.

For instance, in educational context, there is often the debate about how universities routinely hire and enroll people of color who are not qualified, thusly “stealing all the jobs” from more qualified and deserving people. This declaration is rarely completed with a description of the folks from whom the jobs were stolen. However, we can fill in the blanks, stealing all of the jobs from better prepared or qualified White folks. This insight is then followed by a poignant discussion about reverse discrimination. Never mind that the majority of organizations, throughout the entire United States, do not disproportionately hire, admit, enroll, etc., people of color. There is, however, a hyper-perceived loss of power and supremacy.

I began to think about the language that has been historically and is currently used to describe situations, events, dispositions and context about underrepresented groups and the struggle to be treated with human decency and civility in a country that is still polarized around discussions of racial equity and tolerance—yet claims to be post-racial at any given time. In the same vein, I thought about the newly invented metanarrative that describes the neo-oppressed and the language used to describe their human condition. Words like, qualified, “I work hard,” victim, aggression, civility, attacked, feeling safe, feeling comfortable, inhumane, marginalized, oppressed, protected class, are all a part of the new vernacular of the neo-oppressed.

The language of civil rights for underrepresented groups has been revised to describe the hyper-perception that the benefits and privileges received based on race have been violated. And, what better legislation to use to protect a class, privileged in this case, from “isms” than those of the civil rights?

Take for instance, civility. Civility has become one of the buzz words used by organizations to describe how individuals in organizations should “behave” in order to provide a positive and productive work environment. However, all too often conversations about civility and its hyper-interpretation seem to be coincidental with reactions from underrepresented groups who transgress against the many institutionalized “isms” in the organizations.

To the neo-oppressed, speaking out against the organization, whether it exhibits all of the attributes of institutionalized racism or not, would be uncivilized, aggressive, barbaric and downright attacking. Yet, I needn’t remind anyone that the civil rights movement included protest, sit-ins, boycotts, discussions, legal actions, and other transgressive forms of protest against White supremacy. Those were referred to as civil rights demonstrations or civil disobedience before “revising” the narrative and reality created by the newly oppressed. The uncivilized behavior included the beatings, tear gas, water hoses and the dogs—not fighting against incivility and savagery.

For the neo-oppressed, “attacks” tend to refer to a supremacist who claims to have been victimized and attacked when underrepresented groups push back against their own inability to understand and the naivety of structural and institutionalized racism. Paradoxically, the emotional and mental abuse that is inflicted on Black males in schools, in organizations, and as ordinary citizens while residing in the United States is rarely if at all described as attacks. When Black males are disproportionately identified as special education or as mentally ill, or suspended and expelled or imprisoned, they are not described as being under attack or victims of savagery or the uncivilized. In fact, the neo-oppressed with their revisionist history-making selves are there to help, by providing services—like prisons, contained classrooms, and alternate schooling.

The current historical context victimizes the perpetrators of violent crimes and dehumanizes young Black males by suggesting that they are aggressive, brutes who placed themselves in precarious positions that lead to their own demise. The perpetrators, who have now appropriated civil rights history and language then call for an end to violence, ask for a peaceful resolution, respect for one another and suggest that we all just move on—end of discussion.

So, what is the resolution? Forever the optimist, one of my colleagues often states that I always see the cup half full. This time, however, I don’t even see a cup.

I will say that “we could all get along” if it was important to our society and world order—like the concept of sharing. For instance, sharing can be a difficult concept for children who may have never been taught to share or who don’t have the opportunity to share. Yet, as parents, and as a society, we try to impress upon individuals that sharing is the right thing to do. It is a “character” trait that is highly valued, and there are many opportunities that one receives throughout their lifetimes to learn how to share. We can’t hide or live in most spaces without sharing.

Culturally engaging with people of color who may live within a 5 mile radius seems to be far more vexing. Yet many folks travel to other continents to “save” or come to the aid of folks who looked like the same folks who live a few miles away that we choose not to get to know.

It is easy to live in the United States totally disengaged from particular groups. There are housing patterns that clearly show that this is a reality. There are educational patterns that suggest the same. Think honestly about where you attended school or where you currently attend. Think more honestly about who attends and why you or your parents chose that school or your neighborhood. Think about your place of worship or spiritual space, events, family gatherings, gatherings with friends. What do the people who reside within those spaces tend to look like? Think about a simple trip to the grocery store or a “family” outing. Who have you been exposed to?

I routinely watch who eats lunch with whom and who gets what in my own space and it is telling indeed. While our society has done a pretty good job of teaching folks to share, we haven’t been successful or cared about culturally or “racially” engaging. Perhaps we, as a society, don’t value it.

One thing I do know is that we didn’t need legislation in order to force folks to learn to share. Yet, that dirty old word—affirmative action—was created to force individuals to engage culturally, to be fair and equitable, a “character trait” that we seemed to believe was important, at one time, to the entire society.

Was it perfect? No it was not. It was a start. Yet we still haven’t learned.