This semester in the LES Studies Course, we just finished Jennine Capó Crucet’s My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education. Crucet’s essays, in relation to what we have read from Lillian Smith and Ibram X. Kendi provide countless points for discussion, and I today I want to focus on one of those points: the ways that labels define others and construct power. I’ve written about this before in “‘That is medre alros’: Frank Yerby and Identity” where I talk about Yerby and his comments about his own identity.
Throughout My Time Among the Whites, Crucet explores her own identity and the ways that she navigates spaces. Specifically, she discusses how she passes, sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously, and she looks at the ways that the ways that we label others creates hierarchies. She points out, as well, that these labels allow whites to ignore our own positions within the systems.
In “Imagine Me Here, or How I became a Professor,” Crucet, as she does in all of her essays, weaves multiple narratives together. One of the narratives talks about how, as a first-generation college student, she did not know how to navigate academia. The other narrative details a book talk she gave at a college for her novel Make Your Home Among Strangers. In each of these threads, she zeroes in on he constructed systems that we exist within.
Upon entering college at Cornell, Crucet considered herself white due to her upbringing in South Florida. However, when she started college, she became, as Cuban-American, lumped together into Latinx, a term she did not use back then. Of this, she writes,
I was saying Cuban, because I thought every place was like the one in which I was raised, where distinctions about country of origin were extremely significant and thus were never, ever erased. But if I’d only counted Cubans on my campus, that number would’ve been even more discouraging. In college I became Latinx to find community, to survive. Except it’s an identity my parents refuse–they find it so broad as to be useless. Because of course a Cuban is not the same as a Puerto Rican, who is not the same as a Dominican, who is not the same as a Mexican, a Venezuelan, a Salvadoran, a Nicaraguan, a Guatemalan; to my parents, Latino/a/x is a white word, an imposed label that makes no sense to use somewhere like Miami.
Crucet highlights the ways that labels define individuals, and she echoes countless writers such as James Baldwin, Frank Yerby, and more who all point out that these labels exist to create and sustain hierarchies. Yerby, during an interview with James L. Hill in 1971, talked about how we define “black” writers or texts. He asked Hill, “Is a black writer a writer who writes about black themes?” If this is the case, according to Yerby, that Guy De Maupassant would be a “black” writer and Alexander Dumas would not. Yerby ended his answer to the question by stating, “I reject adjectives. Adjectives, which are the enemy of nouns, don’t mean anything.”
Labels are the adjectives. They come before the noun, obscuring the noun, causing it to become dependent on the adjective that precedes it. In this case, the noun, whether that be “writer,” “artist,” “musician,” “athlete,” or any other word, becomes subsumed underneath the weight of the label, a label that the noun did not create.
No one calls me a “white” scholar, or a “white” teacher, but they should. At the book talk, Crucet asked the students at the predominately white institution “how many professors they’d had (or would have) who looked like them.” She breaks the numbers down by saying that if someone takes four classes a semester, with two semesters in a year, then takes four to five years for the degree, the student will have about 32-40 professors. She asks, “How many professors did you have with whom you shared various easily recognizable identity categories: your race, your ethnicity, your gender identity, your physical ability? How many times did you see a version of yourself in charge of your learning community?”
The white students in the audience struggled to calculate the number of professors they had taken, or teachers they had in K-12 who looked like them. “The Black and Latinx and Asian and Arab students,” she points out, “knew their answers immediately: one, maybe two.” The white students had not thought about themselves as “white,” as part of the system that disproportionately skewed the numbers for their classmates from “one or two” to “thirty.”
A white male student stood up and pointed out the problem with the disparity, and he asked what he could do to change it. Crucet told him to act, working with other students to demand change, pressing the administration to hire more scholars of color. Later, a white female student stood up and accused Cruect’s position as racist. (I’ve written about this exchange before.) The student did not think of herself as “white” and of that label carrying any meaning outside of herself. That label, to her, was invisible. The male student, at least from his question, appeared to be thinking about his position.
For me, I never want to forget my position and what I can do to make this world a more equitable place for everyone. As such, I want to constantly remind myself of my whiteness by referring to myself as a “white” scholar, a “white” writer, a “white” male, a “white” whatever. As Ibram X. Kendi talks about in How to Be an Antiracist, even though race is a construct, refers to himself as “black” because the myths that these labels have created sink deep into our psyche.
It is because of these constructed myths and hierarchies that I, as a “white” person, must label myself as such. Adjectives, unfortunately, define us just as much as the nouns they modify, and even though they are the “enemies of nouns,” we need them because they have seeped so deeply into our very beings that we cannot, at this time, extricate ourselves from their grasp. The goal is to do just that, and part of that process is recognizing, as whites, our labels. Our whiteness has been invisible, but we need to see it for what it is, a label that maintains hierarchies. We must eliminate the adjectives and work towards an equitable society.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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