Susan Naomi Bernstein

The Nice White Lady Searches Her Conscience

Blog Post created by Susan Naomi Bernstein Expert on Nov 21, 2017

The discussions around the 2018 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) convention in Kansas City, Missouri, are provocative and inspiring and offer substantial motivation for me to search my conscience on where I stand and why. Because of Missouri Senate Bill 43 and the NAACP Missouri Travel Advisory, CCCC caucuses and standing groups have announced plans to withdraw from face-to-face meetings in Missouri out of concerns for the safety of their membership, primarily people of color and other historically marginalized groups.

 

This post ends with a final writing project for the fall semester, a commentary on the call by James Baldwin and others for a boycott of Christmas 1963. I begin, however, with my reasons for boycotting the CCCC 2018 convention in Kansas City, Missouri. The more I researched the past and current histories of white supremacy and civil unrest in Missouri and the surrounding region (especially in my home state of Illinois), the more a boycott of the convention made sense.

 

The town of Ferguson, Missouri, is not unlike the town in Illinois where I lived until the age of seven. Both towns have shifted from majority white to majority black populations in the postindustrial years of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. My Illinois town, on the other side of the Mississippi River and far north of the Missouri border, was created after World War II. Private developers built a planned community to address a Chicago-area housing shortage. However, the developers decided that the new housing would not include black people, which at that time was legally permissible. From the late 1950s onward this plan changed so that Blacks were allowed in certain areas of the town, designated by the town city council members, one of whom was my grandfather. In the early 1960s, he was instrumental in adopting this idea of “planned integration.”

 

The town that was my early childhood home in Illinois is not unlike Ferguson in that years ago, it welcomed white people almost exclusively. Then, as industry and development moved elsewhere and gentrification increased in the cities, older suburban housing was left to deteriorate. The city of Chicago decided to implode its housing projects, without providing new housing equally available to displaced residents. This initiative was called The Plan for Transformation. Many of the houses in my Illinois town became part of Section 8 and the federal housing vouchers that followed. A divide grew in the town between the middle class white folks who remembered an idyllic past, and the newcomers who were often poor and often Black. The newcomers did not share in the nostalgia of the townies. How could they, when they were not allowed to participate in shaping the future of the town that they now called home?

 

My schools in that town were segregated. My classes, which included new and experimental programs for teaching reading and writing, were de facto for white children only. In that atmosphere, I learned how to read and write through alternative methods. Later, when my family moved to an older and more conservative school district (also segregated), I could overcompensate through reading and writing. Because of undiagnosed ADHD, I struggled in subjects that relied on rote memorization and small motor coordination. But I could write my way out of anything, a skill I acquired through white privilege.

 

Those years are long ago and far away. But as white adults raised in segregation, we may feel unable to act, and we may think that our boycott of CCCC in Kansas City, Missouri, will not have an impact on the problems of white supremacy in Missouri or elsewhere. If we attend CCCC, white privilege in hand, we will advance our careers and we will be able to talk to others in the field. That, we may believe, will have more lasting results than refusing to spend money in Missouri.

 

Nonetheless, it is significant to note that there is a precedent for boycotts in our profession, and that in two cases the boycotts were for causes that marked racial injustice. CCCC moved the 1993 conference out of Phoenix, Arizona, and NCTE in 2010 moved their conference out of Phoenix, Arizona—both in response to national boycott initiatives The two events that triggered these boycotts were Arizona’s refusal to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday holiday in 1993, and Arizona SB 1070, the 2010 anti-immigration bill, some of which was later declared unconstitutional.

 

I am boycotting CCCC because I need to take responsibility for my own actions that, unwittingly or not, contribute to white supremacy. I am using the word boycott because it was the word used by James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and countless others in times as troubled as our own. I am boycotting the convention because, for me, it is a matter of white privilege to assume that my presence as another nice white lady in Kansas City matters more than standing in solidarity with the caucuses and standing groups who choose not to compromise their safety by travelling to Missouri.

 

I also stand in solidarity with colleagues who are compelled by their employment situations to attend CCCC, regardless of the physical burdens and mental anguish attendance may incur. Matters of necessity and matters of conscience are deeply personal. As Adam Grant recently suggested in the New York Times, I also believe in the need to “make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective.” Over the years, CCCC has played a significant role in my professional development. I value CCCC as a venue for presenting new research and pedagogy, and for learning about Writing Studies projects that are taking place across the country.

 

It could be argued that many states are in the position of Missouri, and it also could be argued that not honoring a boycott allows us to bear witness to current conditions and to honor workers in Missouri, as well as the Executive Committee of CCCC who made the decision to keep the convention in Kansas City. I am not convinced by these arguments. Missouri’s ongoing issues with white supremacy and racism are evident, and provide a compelling case for the NAACP Travel Advisory and a boycott.

 

My perspective also is shaped by the difficult decision I needed to make shortly after the 2010 boycott of Arizona was called. I travelled to Phoenix to celebrate my father’s eightieth birthday. I bought my airline ticket before the boycott was announced, and I considered asking for a refund.

 

In that case, I was an individual travelling for family reasons, not part of a large group of people convening in that state to spend time and money for business and tourism. This reason is not an excuse, but a statement of our common dilemma. My decision to travel to Arizona was marked by frustration. Since 2010, I have learned a great deal more about the history of white supremacy, and the structural racism which may seem invisible, but in which so many of us participate everyday.

 

Indeed, my decision to travel to Arizona in 2010 informs my decision to boycott CCCC in Kansas City. My personal experiences of inconvenience and existential frustration cannot compare to the consequences of current and historical violence and oppression against people of color, which includes not only civil unrest in Ferguson and St. Louis and campus uprisings in Columbia, but also the 1917 East St. Louis Massacre in Illinois. The East St. Louis Massacre terrorized and devastated the lives of Black people on both the Illinois and Missouri sides of the Mississippi River. Blacks migrating from the south settled in heavily segregated East St. Louis because Missouri segregation laws limited available housing in neighboring St. Louis, and settled in Illinois suburb of East St. Louis. White workers felt threatened by job loss, and used this perceived threat to terrorize the black community in July 1917. As many as 100 black people died, perhaps more, while others escaped over a bridge to St. Louis, and after the bridge was closed, took to the waters of the Mississippi River separating the two states.

 

In attending CCCC, I would be choosing to travel on business to an event that brings in a substantial amount of money spent on site for food, lodging, and other expenses. This choice demonstrates to the business community in Missouri that I am comfortable to travel to and to do business with a state with a law that discriminates against marginalized groups in the workplace, housing, and public accommodations, and where violence toward communities of color is commonplace. If the business community earns less money than expected from CCCC in Kansas City, then perhaps attention will be paid.

 

That has proven to be the case in Arizona, and the results of the Arizona boycotts also matter in my decision. Although I did not live in Arizona at the time of either boycott, I moved here in 2013, and I have seen the difference that withholding business and tourist dollars can make. This difference was especially present in the veto in 2014 of a religious freedom bill. The governor vetoed that bill because another boycott was threatened. The previous boycotts had been financially difficult, and thus very sobering for Arizona’s economic interests. The threat of a new boycott was enough to convince the governor to veto the bill, and for no other religious freedom bills to be passed by the legislature, or signed into law by the current governor (as of 2017).

 

In 1963, when James Baldwin called for a boycott of Christmas, I was in Kindergarten and my family did not celebrate Christmas. But that did not exempt us from the benefits of white privilege. At home and at school, we did not discuss the murder of the four little girls in the church in Birmingham. Perhaps the community believed the murders were not an appropriate subject for young children. Indeed, when President Kennedy was assassinated a few months later, school was dismissed early and confusion left our community unable to address its shared sadness. This lack of attention to tragic consequences of terrorism shows the depth of what segregation does to all of us. We, as white people, are removed from an understanding of the situation and its relationships to the larger structures of power, and we are then unable to connect with the anger, pain, sadness, and helplessness evoked by such catastrophes.

 

So I will not see you at CCCC in 2018, dear readers. But like you I will keep teaching and writing and trying to make sense of a difficult world. With this in mind, here is the final writing project I will assign this term, based on James Baldwin’s call for a Christmas Boycott in 1963.

 

Writing Project 3: Presenting an Argument

For WP 3 you will need to read “Support Christmas Boycott,” an article by James Baldwin written with performing artists and writers Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Odetta Gordan, John O. Killens, and Louis Lomax. You also need to imagine that the readers for whom you write do NOT share your opinion. Your job in WP 3 is to respectfully invite readers to consider your opinion, and perhaps to persuade readers to change their minds. Choose one of the following prompts to focus your writing.

  1. In 2017, James Baldwin (who died in 1987) would have turned 93. Imagine that he is still alive and still writing strong—and that, as the 2017 holiday season approaches, he is considering republishing “Support Christmas Boycott.” In addition, imagine that Baldwin has written to you asking your advice on whether or not to post “Support Christmas Boycott” on social media. What advice would you give him? Why?
  2. Imagine that it is 1963. Write a response to Baldwin’s call for a boycott. Engage his most significant ideas. From this engagement, figure out your own position. Do you agree or disagree? Do you agree with some ideas but not others? Do you find contradictions? What would you do if you were an adult in 1963 faced with this decision?
  3. In 1963, James Unger, a Boston College student wrote “Santa Claus Boycott” for the Boston College newspaper In the Heights. Most significantly, Unger suggests that people have grown tired of reading about Civil Rights and that the situation will improve with time. It is better, Unger writes, not “to press too hard and too fast.“ 55 years have passed since the boycott proposal of 1963. Write a response to Unger from 55 years in the future, addressing how Unger’s predictions for the future actually turned out.
  4. Christmas 2017: Boycott—yes or no. Explain your response in detail.

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