Black Student Activism and Slow Death: Revisiting the Effects of White Privilege

As is often the case for me, I started off writing about one thing and ended up with something completely different. This blog entry was to engage with white privilege discourse critically. But I wanted to do so with an eye toward understanding how privilege can be discussed without utilizing the affect of shame and at the same time be productive, informative, and critical of systemic racism. As a queer theorist, there’s enough shame to go around.

Then, quite by accident, I came across a recent piece published in The Nation called “The Costs of Campus Activism,” written by Lauren Lumpkin and Devan Cole. (All quotes and data referring to student activism come from that article via the above link.) And I found myself obsessed with how the article is implicitly dealing with the unanticipated emotional costs of non-privilege. I wondered how critiques of privilege fail to address these affective components, e.g., of nonnormative forms of life lived through education as it is felt as the only path to obtaining the good life.

[TL;DR: The first section is broken into various reflections about slow death and emotional recess in Black student life. There I contend that combatting racism within a neoliberalizing higher ed (increasing administration, on-campus security, rising costs) may lead to an ongoing state of self-dissipation. The last section is a reading that pairs Eve Sedgwick and Claudia Rankine. There I consider what it means to do reparative reading of privilege and nonnormative life without the affective weapon of shame.]

The Invisible Affective Labor of Black College Students: Scenes of Slow Death

I want to focus on the affective attachments brought about when “acts of racial bias draft black students into racial battles without warning, where they sustain evidence of battle fatigue, reporting skipping class, missing work, and sleeping less—all in service of making change at their schools.” So for Caleb Jackson, a Black student at American University, making life livable on a campus with several recorded incidents of anti-Black violence (most of which I would call twisted pieces of “DIY performance art for racists”) meant attending rallies, protests, and demonstrations to make the college administration pay attention. He felt making this point was necessary to making a life. His grades suffered. He missed final exams. And his financial aid was terminated. By doing what Jackson thought was both life-making and life-building, he was reprimanded by the very institution that, by contemporary norms, grants “access” to the good life. And yet, when asked how he felt about the situation, Jackson responded: “annoyed.” I think this this feeling is remarkable because I believe Jackson captures something essential to the attrition that Lumpkin and Cole are getting at. Exhaustion related to the practices of having to defend one’s sense of belonging, especially in a space toxic to that sense, is magnified for Black students. If we take America’s racist cultural and political history into account here (as I think we have a duty to do), then we might say that, if history hurts (as Fredric Jameson might say) analyses into anti-racist activism must attend to the historically cumulative fatigue that results when “the reproduction of life absorbs most of the energy and creativity people have” (Berlant 168).

It would seem that Claudia Rankine’s words in Citizencouldn’t be more timely here: “The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you” (63). That past is a sagging sensation that might often produce indignation or resignation. If Caleb’s story admits of anything, it is that the “affective stretch” produced by the new normal of neoliberal productivity should be re-framed, as I will argue below, as “slow death” or the attrition of nonnormative populations in their pursuit of normative fantasies of the good life. Consider, Steven Rose, a Harvard student who committed suicide in 2014. His death reflects the kind of racialized drama that harries ordinary life, inciting instability and everyday hostilities cruelly forbid solid affective footing. I don’t mean to dramatize a death for the sake of making a sentimental overture. I mean that college is symbolically linked to achievement, success, and self-worth–a proving ground for the passage into adulthood. So one can’t help but relate Rose’s suicide to Claudia Rankine’s words: “there exists the medical term–John Henryism–for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure” (11).

I struggle with the following questions. Where does one situate the singularity of Rose’s life-death within a genre that intersects two phenomena: (1) the perils of normative promises of hard-work-to-success within the racialized rancor of American culture and (2) the affective attachments of nonnormative existence that respond to them in order to make and sustain a life? Perhaps in recognizing, or situating the narrative, within the concept of “slow death,” (in Cruel Optimism) the patterns of fatigue for Black students (and communities of color more generally) illustrated in the article become a culturally induced (and self-reproducing) phenomena. For Berlant, “the phrase refers to the physical wearing out of a population in a way that points to its deteriorating as a defining condition of its experience and historical existence” (95). Because these populations are, to borrow Rankine’s word, erased from the social imaginary of mattering, “slow death” captures the affective attachments that reproduce the very conditions of a population’s deterioration, their being worn out, their self-dissipation.

Is this so for Black life under the American dream and its particular iteration in higher education? As Lumpkin and Cole illustrate, Black students on American campuses perform the unpaid (and over) work(ed) labor-as-activism against on-campus racism. They shoulder the pressures of an absorptive situation that enervates their creative and intellectual power, their bodies, their sense of self, and other life-building practices that ideally make college life manageable. Imani Ross, a student at George Washington University, admitted that, while bringing attention to a racist Snapchat image circulating the campus, “there were days when I was in class and in back-to-back meetings, and then we were doing organizing work. There were nights when we were up until three or four in the morning planning something or writing up something for administrators, or just organizing and trying to get our voices heard.” I get the sense that the work needed for Black students to have a voice is absorbed (rendered invisible) into the neoliberal situation of having to work in order to succeed (the visible).

This sounds a lot like a double bind.

Perhaps what’s even more fucked up is that double bind is perfectly in sync with the mantra of American culture: individual responsibility. If you don’t like what you see, change it. It doesn’t matter that the normative “individual” is (uncritically) self-sustaining, (consciously) healthy, and (always) in the habit of making good decisions. (And we’re all thinking it–white.) You have to make the choice: learn or learn to deal with shit. In a way, that affective feedback loop (where attachments to belonging create over-achievement that inevitably requires more energy to sustain itself) was there all along. Students track this cultural sensation with them, exacerbated by distance from home or the direct hostility of others on campus. And so if you find yourself in a shitty situation, you gotta fight back. It’s the same in the “bubble” of college life as it is in the everyday worlds of “reality.”

So the fight was always already on Black students’ shoulders–assumed to be the sole arbiters of their own fate. But this fantasy is a kind of non-history that, itself, smacks of racism, sexism, and white privilege. So when change does come, there is a temptation to perform a kind of relaxing sigh, regardless of the contingent vigilance that inevitably follows. So we might rejoice that policy changes as a direct result of activism occur. Lumpkin and Cole report these include mandatory diversity training for faculty and incoming students; increased security on campus to monitor potentially problematic events; implementing a zero tolerance policy regarding racist acts; easier access for Black students to register complaints and communicate with administration; and expanding counseling services.

Here are my concerns about administrative victories (and its relation to slow death). It is evident that students of color, more so than others, “have been forced to adjust emotionally to the process of living with the political depression produced by brutal relations of ownership, control, security, and their fantasmatic justification in liberal political economies” (Berlant 261). But this adjustment, of fighting for a certain kind of freedom from bigoted assholes on campus, might also produce the condition of unfreedom that perpetuate self-dissipation. So when universities, like American University, corroborate with the FBI or engage in increasing security, I wonder what’s “more free” about campus culture. I know I’m sliding into the paranoid here. But if it’s the affect of belonging that we should all nurture, and not the institutionalization of security as such, my sense is that, taken together, such concessions erode the political possibilities for Black students. Trauma is further pathologized (counseling); security is a matter of, well, increased security (increased presence police or CCTVs); and even avenues of communication are bureaucratized through administrative channels.

Could the promise of administrative outlets for a more racially-just campus simply be cruel optimism. Do such goals implicitly take up the narrative that changing institutional practices will change the order of things more broadly? It’s cruel because we have the secret knowledge changing institutional practices will alway be spatially and temporally distant from our day-to-day lives. But if such anti-racist activism is about making life more manageable, to create a sense of security as a condition of belonging where it does not exist, then we must read these stories as indexes of crisis in lived time, whether of racial experience itself, or of ordinary affects of feeling at home, or even of the culture of higher education more generally. Policy changes could then be read alongside the persistence of attrition–not as solutions to it. That the crisis-ordinary is more complex and involves everyday iterations of self-reflexivity. Of the need for a kind of never-ending vigilance. Perhaps the objective is to read such indexes as ways that inform improvisational activisms that work outside institutional channels. As a focus on the strength of “ambient” democracy, a feeling or ethos of togetherness through shared practices. What does this look like exactly? You tell me.

Toward a Reparative Conclusion: Claudia Rankine Meets Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Isn’t this vexed visibility violent? That in order to fight erasure, one has to expend their energy to remain visible, and that energy expenditure (as a product of racism) goes unseen? Already precarious Black, queer, trans, brown, differently abled, or immigrant students are the ones who must unplug from the neoliberal culture of work in order to plug into the networks of social justice only to be reprimanded by the neoliberal culture from which they unplugged. Holy shit. Now I’m exhausted.

This means that self-extension, of realizing a future possibility for self-realization, is at best felt as an impasse in this historical moment. And that the (often white and male) privilege of never having to perform this exhausting cycle outlined above is either tamped down (“well, I’m not racist”) or is addressed by (frankly) unproductive projects that seem better equipped at making the “friend/enemy” distinction than any substantive cognitive or epistemic change amongst participants. Discourse on white privilege is rooted in paranoid criticism, strong theories of suspicion whose focus on what is invisibly negative tend to avoid what is lived, visible, and possibly life-sustaining.

For Sedgwick, the paranoid reader (or critic) “knows” something is up. In a sense, this is what a critic ought to be: by nature suspicious. She writes in Touching Feeling that “in a world where no one need be delusional to find evidence of systemic oppression, to theorize out of anything but a paranoid critical stance has come to seem naive, pious, or complaisant” (125-126). One can see the appeal. Paranoid inquiry speaks to the conspiratorial in all of us (especially for queers, women, and communities of color). Just survey the last hundred years or so of American history. The act alone appeals to this inner voice that seeks to indictment (rightly or wrongly): slavery, indigenous genocide, settler colonialism, sexism, racism, and homophobia. These were all but re-lived or reflected in moments like the Tuskegee Experiments, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, mass incarceration, or the war on drugs. If history is what hurts, then let’s hurt (blame, shame, discredit) the ones who did this in the first place.

Sedgwick is skeptical of this rather one-track method of inquiring into the effects of violence. She asks:

Why bother exposing the ruses of power in a country where, at any given moment, 40 percent of young black men are enmeshed in the penal system? In the United State and internationally, while there is plenty of hidden violence that requires exposure there is also, and increasingly, an ethos where forms of violence that are hypervisible from the start may be offered as an exemplary spectacle rather than remain to be unveiled as a scandalous secret (140).

And that, I think, defines Sedgwick’s plea for reparative reading, i.e., the unsettled question of what violence means when visibility itself is the violent act. If the making visible of the body forms a kind of violence–illustrated in the act of shaming social classes or criminals as spectacle–then violence has been in front of our faces all along. When I think of reparative critics of this stripe, I think of Saidiya Hartman or Michelle Alexander, whose works have illuminated the historically situated, culturally rich, and diverse practices of Blackness (Scenes of Subjection); or a powerfully descriptive and detailed account of mass incarceration, its visible institutional attachments, and the spectacle of Black bodies in the carceral system (The New Jim Crow).

Rankine’s work, Citizen, capture the sensation of embodied violence in the everyday–the invisible visible of the racialized ordinary. Citizen explores in “thick” detail Rankin’s own embodiment as a Black woman across times and places. I can only provide some examples from the text, but I do so with the explicit aim, circling back to Sedgwick, to bear witness to how “[reparative] practices are, perhaps, the many ways selves and communities succeed in extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture–even of a culture whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them” (151). Citizen is one archive illustrating that extraction.

Rankine textualizes self-care and violence in the most ordinary situations. In a car, her passenger passingly insults her by remarking that a new employee was an “affirmative action” hire. Inwardly she asks, “Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam in to the car ahead of you, fly forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind” (10). But her outward reaction is silence. Self-preserving silence. Or, a casual exchange between Rankine and a (white) friend ends with her friend making an off-handed remark about the existence of the “self self” and the “historical self” (14). The self self is being friends, being in the world. The historical self, on the other hand, presences whiteness and Blackness alike, recruits the long history of racial relations into any interaction. Rankine’s refrain throughout the text, “What did you say?” points toward the “letting things be” until they’re not OK–of already knowing something might happen because a culture has within it the narrative of racialized hurt. And here, she wonders, why it is that her white friend gets to narrate the historical self–why it is her white friend, in essence, gets to set the parameters relational entanglements as fragile? She recalls having to apologize for her friend’s presence at her house because her neighbor saw a “strange Black man” outside looking “crazy” (15). He was one the phone. The visible body not belonging. The visibility of not belonging. In another scene, Rankine is accosted by an otherwise surprised trauma counselor who, after opening the door to her home/office, wondered what Rankine was doing in her yard. Correcting her by telling her she had an appointment, the counselor responds “I am sorry, so, so sorry” (18).

What objects of culture could she possibly utilize as a means of sustenance, as a method of repair? Often it came in the form of decompression, of sitting at home with the TV muted–the “comforts” of ordinary life in her own privacy. Perhaps it was wearing sunglasses inside, though the need wasn’t there–it just felt good (61). Because feeling good when feeling bad seems to be the affective norm means doing what you can. “You take in things you don’t want all the time,” she writes. “The second you hear or see some ordinary moment, all its intended targets, all the meanings behind the retreating seconds, as far as you are able to see, come into focus” (55). So “sometimes you sigh,” (59) itself an act of self-preservation (60). Words are themselves “well-oiled doors opening and closing between intention, gesture” where the ordinary sensation of knowing the sound of your own voice uttering those words “is worth noting” (69). A joke about privilege (148) or the meditation on feeling, on sensing the worth of her body in and through language–its power–become methods of self-regulation (152).

The point is, if not to change the world, then to change the condition of your affective state. Of loving yourself in spite of a cultural impasse, especially when self-love comes at a high premium. Of learning a new poetics of the self and in doing so “unmasking” the open secret that the ruses of power was already there–that its visibility violently blinds us (hence the shades!) to life itself. And I imagine that is precisely Sedgwick’s point, too: that reparative inquiry is more important than ever not only because of the “brutal foreshortening of so many queer [and nonnormative] life spans” (148). As Lumpkin and Cole’s article painfully illustrates, Black youth are more likely to feel the material and affective squeeze in adjusting to a normative conception of the good life that never had them in mind. And if they are indeed experiencing (as I’m sure many nonnormative communities are) an approximation of slow death, then we might need a different kind of knowledge about activism, solidarity movements, and even the very the avenues for cultural, political, and economic change. Maybe it isn’t about suspicion and the underlying thrust to expose what may, in fact, be right there all along. Maybe it’s about the moments of ordinary exchange, or invested discussion, where we confer plenitude instead of instrumentalizing shame as our activism of choice, as our affective practice. I sense that we owe it to each other to offer lived pain the space to speak of its own realities and contexts without being anchored in a narrative that makes its plot more understandable. Is it there in the presence of others, within that space where pain of approximating the good life is allowed to unfold, that repair can emerge as so many practices of relational sustenance?

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