Assimilation, Consciousness, Afrocentricity, and Critical Race Theory

To Be

I was born in Washington, DC to African American parents who were empowered by the recent legislation resulting from the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s. My mother worked for the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone company and my father worked for Potomac Electric Power Company. I was their first child and they wanted me to have a “good” education. Hence, they moved our family to Landover, Maryland so that I could attend public school there.

I went to Kenilworth Elementary School in Bowie, MD. During the early 80s, bussing was still practiced in Prince George’s County, MD so I was bussed from Landover, a predominantly African American working class community, to Bowie, a predominantly Euro-American middle class community. At the time, I did not realize that I was a part of a desegregating initiative. I always wondered why I had to catch a bus to school when Glenridge Elementary School was a ten minute walk from my house. It was at Kenilworth Elementary School where I met white children for the first time. And it was at Kenilworth Elementary School where my racial consciousness began.

Awakening

Being bussed into Bowie challenged my self-esteem and caused me to question my self-confidence. Ms. Bailey, my first-grade teacher of European descent, gave the class a caveman cartoon coloring sheet. She directed everyone to color the sheet which would be hung up on display. I loved coloring, so I was happy to color my caveman. I took my brown crayon and colored his loincloth. Then I took my black crayon and colored his skin. I was quite proud of my piece until I looked at Pamela’s coloring sheet. Pamela sat at the desk next to me. She too had colored the caveman’s loincloth brown, but the skin of her caveman was peach. I looked back at my coloring sheet, flabbergasted. What had I done? How could I have colored the skin of my caveman black? I looked at my crayons. I had eight colors. I looked at Pamela’s crayons. She had 64 colors. Why didn’t my mother get me 64 colors? I thought. I asked Pamela if I could borrow her peach crayon. She approved. I took the crayon and began to color over the black skin of my caveman to no avail. I asked Ms. Bailey if I could have another coloring page. Her answer was no. I stood there, staring at the black and peach caveman I had colored before balling it up and throwing it into the trash can. I now know that that was the first sign of me having double consciousness in my life. Shuford (2001) submitted,

“While Du Bois considered double-consciousness to be distorting and damaging (“always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”), it also provided African Americans with a unique critical perspective that could be used to give voice to manifold experiences and to motivate collective action” (p. 316).

Since I had no choice whether to assimilate with the white majority or not, I was granted a unique critical perspective on race. Being immersed in a black community all my life up until the age of seven, my first encounter with white children was both uneasy yet familiar. I was familiar with European culture because of television and children’s books; however, talking to and playing with white children was uneasy. Their form of play and discourse was both foreign and alien to me which always placed me at odds with the white females in my class. For example, when I was in grade four, I realized that I was the only African American female in my class after having a dispute with Billy Jean, who was a white female that sat across from me. I looked for another female who could sympathize with me, only to discover that Donald, a male, was the only other African American student in my class. This was the first time in my life that I felt like an outsider.

Becoming

The great historian John Henrik Clarke ended almost all of his famous speeches by saying,

“history is a clock that people use to tell their time of day. It is a compass they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It tells them where they are and what they are” (Bourne, 1996).

American public education provided me with a defective clock and a disoriented compass. American public education closed my mind and shaped my dysconscious racism (King & Swartz, 2016). “Dysconscious racism is an uncritical habit of mind that lacks any ethical judgment regarding or critique of systemic racial inequity” (King & Swartz, 2016, p. 68). As a result, I was unable to discern race as a social construct in my reality and to critique my circumstance as an African American and as a female in the United States. Shuford (2001) submitted that, “racial categories and identities are reciprocally influenced intersections of ontological commitments, discourses, social perceptions, and embodied social activities reinforced by multilayered systems of rewards and penalties” (p. 303). If these racial categories and identities were to dissolve, then an existential fear would emerge within the white mind. As Asante (1993) asserted, “the fear that one might cease to exist without us to give them their sense of identity” is the deeper fear of the dominant group (p.135). Hence, in order to maintain race as a social construct, these racial categories and identities have to be believed as natural to humanity (Asante & Dove, 2021). As of today, I’ve spent 49 years of my life reinforcing racist and classist assumptions. My nescience caused me to agree to the “domination contract,” (Mills, p. 1386) and to maintain the “color-coded schedule of rights and prescriptions of justice,” (Mills, 2008, p. 1382).

At the end of 2022, one of Kanye West’s rants on the African holocaust gave me pause. I Googled African holocaust and the search results revealed a YouTube lecture of Dr. John Henrik Clarke. While watching that lecture, I realized that the version of history I knew was based on a defective clock and a disoriented compass. My Euro-American public education taught me that my ancestral history began with slavery. Using that faulty timeframe, the lessons my teachers taught ignored the antiquity of ancient Egypt prior to the Greco-Roman conquest. Hence, I was subliminally taught that persons from Africa were subhuman and worthy of being disrespected. The white children and the black children that I interacted with during my primary and secondary education would insult each other and me with phrases like African booty scratcher and you so black jokes. This caused me to distance myself from all things African which included my ethnicity and heritage. My historical compass was “misoriented by receiving and accepting false information” and disoriented by trying to act on it (Asante, 1993, p. 138).

Belonging

As I matriculated through primary and secondary education, I became more and more disenchanted with public education. In the late 80s and early 90s, individualism, materialism, and competition increased in popular culture. Consequently, one’s identity was not only associated with race and gender, now class and academic achievement were added to the mix of intersectionality. Fashion brands and GPAs contributed to the rung of the social ladder that was now more visible to me. In my colonized mind, the way up the social ladder was with my own merit. I now understand that even “meritocratic discourse is laced with racist and classist assumptions that ensure hard work alone is insufficient for marginalized groups to excel” (Patton, 2016, p. 318).

Regardless of my “hard work,” I was never recognized in school assemblies nor praised by my teachers. The white students on the other hand were always praised and paraded in front of me. By the time I reached the twelfth grade, the feeling of inferiority took hold of me even more. My father sympathized with my feelings of inferiority while my mother did not. Her tough love made me take the SAT and her tough love forced me to go to college. Tertiary educational opportunities were limited for me given my poor performance on the SAT. Nonetheless, I was accepted at Bowie State University, a historically black college in Bowie, MD. It was there where I finally felt like I belonged.

Critical Race Theory

“The codification of race is in reality founded on a clever, devious lie that focuses on differences as genetically determined” (Asante & Dove, 2021, p. 40). Critical Race Theory (CRT) as Crenshaw theorized it, “is a lens that allows one to see where power emerges and collides and where it interlocks and intersects” (Asante & Dove, 2021, p. 182). CRT unfortunately is not capable of combating the devious lie that race codification is based on. Still, CRT seeks to “raise questions, engage in conscientious dialogue, and produce research in which [it] would serve as a tool and framework to unsettle racelessness” in various sectors of society (Patton, 2016, p. 316).

Asante and Dove (2021) posed the question, “what happens if there is no race” (p. 182). They answer it by saying, “it destroys the need for discursive arguments related to rankings” (p. Asante & Dove, 2021, 182). In a sense, it removes the need for theories of race as a social construct, intersectionality, and interest convergence. I personally do not have any hope in CRT being able to cancel the domination contract that African Americans commit to daily under direst. As of now, it is the only tool that non-whites have to theorize race in a way that white contemporary political philosophers, who operate in alternative realities, could acknowledge.  I believe that CRT is an upgrade to the Civil Rights Movement. It’s the Civil Rights Movement 2.0. The Civil Rights Movement of the 60s was about getting everyone equal access, thereby ending legal segregation and overt discrimination, so that everyone, regardless of their race, had equal rights under the law.

Critical Race Theory, on the other hand, is more concerned with what happens once everyone has access. CRT represents a focus on substantive and material equality that goes beyond the legal framework. It interrogates the structures, practices, and beliefs that maintain racial disparities. It acknowledges that despite the progress made by the Civil Rights Movement, racial inequality persists and must be addressed at a deeper level. This for me illustrates the adage, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

References

Asante, M. K. (1993). Racism, Consciousness, and Afrocentricity. In Early G. L. (Ed.), Lure and loathing: essays on race identity and the ambivalence of assimilation. Penguin Books.

Asante M. K. & Dove N. (2021). Being human being : transforming the race discourse. Universal Write Publications.

Bourne, S. C. (1996). John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk. Black Dot Media.

King J. E. & Swartz E. (2016). The afrocentric praxis of teaching for freedom: connecting culture to learning. Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group.

Mills, C. (2008). Racial Liberalism. PMLA, 123(5), 1380-1397

Patton, L. D. (2016). Disrupting postsecondary prose: Toward a critical race theory of higher education. Urban Education, 51(3), 315-342.

Shuford, J. (2001). Four Dr Boisian contributions to critical race theory. Transactions of the Charles S. Pierce Society, 37(3), 301-337.

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