As I was thinking about texts for my Multicultural American Literature class this semester, parents in Katy ISD in Texas tried to ban Jerry Craft’s New Kid and other works from the schools. Last October, Craft was scheduled for a presentation in the district, and Bonnie Anderson, a white parent, started a petition to get the event cancelled. She told NBC News, “It is inappropriate instructional material. The books don’t come out and say we want white children to feel like oppressors, but that is absolutely what they will do.” When I saw Anderson’s attempts to cancel the event and get New Kid removed from the schools, I knew I had to use Craft’s graphic novel in my course, specifically because my course is for current and future educators.
When I taught New Kid, I asked Jonathan Flowers, Professorial Lecturer in the Department of Philosophy & Religion at American University, to discuss the book, and he introduced me to Shannon Sullivan’s concept of ontological expansiveness. In Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege, Sullivan argues, “As ontologically expansive, white people tend to act and think as if all spaces–whether geographical, physical, linguistic, economic, spiritual, bodily, or otherwise–are or should be available for them to move in and out of as they wish.” Sullivan’s description of ontological expansiveness hit home with me as I thought about New Kid and especially as I thought about all of the calls over the past few years to stop teaching “divisive concepts” in schools.
One of the characteristics at the core of ontological expansiveness, as Chris Corces-Zimmerman, Devon Thomas, Elizabeth A. Collins, and Nolan L. Cabrera put it, is “that it is fueled by a desire for master and control over space in all its forms.” That means, essentially, that “White individuals” seeks to maintain control over the spaces, either physical or culturally, and this desire feeds into the heart of white privilege. In this manner, whites do not interact with people of color, and as a result, they view themselves as the only ones navigating any space in which they exist. When others enter into that space, then two choices arise: either white individuals can learn from the interaction or reinforce their own beliefs and habits. The reactionary calls from Anderson over New Kid shows that she, and those who signed the petition to cancel Craft’s event, chose the latter.
Ontological expansiveness shows up throughout New Kid because Jordan Banks, his friend Drew, and other Black students such as Maury, inhabit the predominately white space of Riverdale Academy. We see various moments where white faculty or students, in their interactions with Jordan, Drew, or Maury, view themselves as the only ones who can navigate the space. A continuing example comes when teachers refuse to acknowledge and tell the three Black students apart. They constantly call the students by different names, and when corrected, they merely shrug it off.
Adding to this, fellow faculty members refuse to interact, apart from casual greetings, with Black faculty such as Mr. Garner and Coach Rick. When Jordan speaks with Mr. Garner in the hall, he tells his teacher that things at school are going okay, except for the fact that teachers keep calling him and Drew the wrong names. Mr. Garner tells Jordan not to think anything of it, and immediately following his comment, an older white faculty member walks by, waves, and tells him, “Good luck this season, Coach Rick. I hope we go undefeated.”
The final panel on the page shows the white faculty member walking away from Jordan and Mr. Garner. He has a smile on his face, oblivious to what he has just done. We see Mr. Garner in the background, arms crossed, staring at the faculty member, as Jordan asks him what he coaches. Mr. Garner tells Jordan that he doesn’t coach anything, and Jordan assumes, then, that Mr. Gardner must be, like himself, new. Mr. Garner responds, “I’ve been here fourteen years!!!”
The next panel moves outward and up, eliminating the lockers in the hallway, the lockers, and the floor. We see a white background with Mr. Garner and Jordan in the middle as white students walk around them. We see the shadows of all the students as well. Mr. Garner stands with his hands on his hips, looking down at the ground. In his shadow, we see his mouth curled downward in a frown, an inner sign of dejection. Key within this panel is that Craft removes the background and makes the panel white, except for the characters. Mr. Garner and Jordan inhabit the white space, maneuvering through it. Just like the white faculty member, none of the white students engage with them, not seeing their presence at all. The teacher and student are, for all intents and purposes, invisible to those around them because those around them view themselves as owning the space.
The above example is a pretty obvious moment where we see ontological expansiveness; however, there are other moments where its presentation isn’t so obvious. One of these occurs during the secret Santa exchange. This sequence is where Flowers introduced me to ontological expansiveness. Here, Ashely, a white female student, is Drew’s secret Santa. The sequence begins with Drew showing Jordan the three gifts he received from his secret Santa: a plate full of basketball shaped cookies, a gift certificate to KFC, and a chocolate Santa. With each gift, Drew feels as if the secret Santa is being racist, playing into stereotypes.
We discover, at the end, that Ashley is his secret Santa. When she tells him this, she also tells him that she made the cookies because she knows he like basketball since she saw a Knicks poster in his locker. She gave him the KFC gift card because everyone loves KFC, and she gave him the chocolate Santa because it was cute. Ashley’s gifts and her thoughts were genuine. She did not mean any malice or harm with them; however, she also did not think about the connotations with the gifts since they were anonymous and she did not consider that they could be perceived as anything more than generous gifts.
Ashely has no motive other than to be nice. She is not trying to be racist and she is not trying to change her unconscious biases. As well, she is unconsciously existing as if she, as a white student, owns the space, not considering the ways that Drew, Jordan, and Maury must navigate that same space. In this manner, we see ontological expansiveness.
There is more to say, and in a future post I’ll look at a few more examples from New Kid. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.