09 June 2012

The Racism of Brian Williams and NBC News

I understand that Americans - at least white Americans - have a very hard time with the concepts of "Colonialism," thinking, as they seem to inevitably do, of funny three-cornered hats and Williamsburg, Virginia and George Washington and stuff.

But Colonialism is not that.

Colonialism is what NBC Nightly News celebrated last week in their "Making a Difference" series. Colonialism is the racist assumptions which lie behind the piece of journalism described below, and it is the racism while lies behind the actions of NBC News, their anchor Brian Williams, their "Education Nation" series, as well as the efforts of US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (and British Minister for Education Michael Gove), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and just about everything which comes out of the mouths of Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, and their supporters.

British Empire, 1897 (above) American Empire, 1898 (below)
Colonialism, simply put, is the belief that a culture which has become dominant via military or economic force, has not just the right, but the duty, to convert all others into copies of themselves in order to make life for the dominant culture more pleasant and efficient. It works toward hegemony in ways both physically and economically forceful, as well as in complex forms of persuasion. Most effectively, it works via schools - by separating the young from their culture, their communities, their families, in order to make conversion easier.

Listen now, in the year of the Queen's Jubilee, as NBC Correspondent Shoshana Guy describes a 19th Century British widow deciding to devote her life to the poor and wretched children of British Colonial Africa...
"In the weeks after her husband died of leukemia, leaving her with three small children to raise, Deborah Kenny sought solace in books. 

“After he died I, like most people, couldn't sleep at night and so I started reading,” said Kenny.  
"Of all the books she read during those sleepless nights, it was the one written by a doctor who survived a concentration camp that changed the trajectory of her life.

“In ‘Man's Search for Meaning,’ [author] Viktor Frankl had this one line in the book where he said, ‘We had to teach the despairing men that it's not about what life has to offer you but what is life asking of you,’” said Kenny, 48. “That was the thing that uplifted me, because I thought, ‘Well, life is asking something of me.  I have to do something.’"
Oops, yes, wrong Queen on the throne at Buckingham Palace, wrong Diamond Jubilee, even, wrong Empire, and we're talking about 21st Century colonial Harlem in New York City, not Kenya, Tanganyika, Nigeria or Rhodesia in British Colonial Africa... but nothing else has changed one bit for NBC News and Nightly News Managing Editor Brian Williams. Nothing at all. Watch the story as it unfolded the evening of 6 June 2012... watch the visuals, watch the iconography, listen for the code words... There is nothing presented here which wouldn't gladden the heart of Cecil Rhodes. Not since Anna arrived to tutor the children of the King of Siam have we seen such selfless devotion to converting "the other" into someone "just like me."

"The process of colonization involves one nation or territory taking control of another nation or territory either through the use of force or by acquisition. As a by-product of colonization, the colonizing nation implements its own form of schooling within their colonies. Two scholars on colonial education, Gail P. Kelly and Philip G. Altbach, help define the process as an attempt "to assist in the consolidation of foreign rule" (Kelly and Altbach 1).

No longer a colony, but still learning to be white...
Saint George's Grammar School, Obinomba, Nigeria. Circa 1966
"In December 1965, We went to Agbor motor park and market to purchase school related items: uniforms, plates, spoon, fork, knife, Biro ball point pen, Bournvita (advertising slogan "Sleep sweeter, Bournvita"), Nescafe coffee, St. Louis sugar, Peak milk, Cabin biscuits, M & Ms Candy ("The milk chocolate melts in your mouth - not in your hand"), Horlicks ("Horlicks guards against night starvation"), towel, comb, Omo washing powder ("Omo adds brightness to whiteness"), a pair of sandals, tennis shoes, cutlasses. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven."
"The idea of assimilation is important when dealing with colonial education. Assimilation involves those who are colonized being forced to conform to the cultures and traditions of the colonizers. Gauri Viswanathan points out that "cultural assimilation (is)...the most effective form of political action" (Viswanthan 85). She continues with the argument that "cultural domination works by consent and often precedes conquest by force" (85). Colonizing governments realize that they gain strength not necessarily through physical control, but through mental control. This mental control is implemented through a central intellectual location, the school system. Kelly and Altbach state that "colonial schools,...sought to extend foreign domination and economic exploitation of the colony" (2). They find that "education in...colonies seems directed at absorption into the metropole and not separate and dependent development of the colonized in their own society and culture" (4). The process is an attempt to strip the colonized people away from their indigenous learning structures and draw them toward the structures of the colonizers.

"Much of the reasoning that favors such a learning system comes from supremacist ideas of leader colonizers. Thomas B. Macaulay asserts his viewpoints about a British colony, India, in an early nineteenth century speech. Macaulay insists that he has "never found one among them [Orientalists, an opposing political group] who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia". He continues stating, "It is, no exaggeration to say, that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England". The ultimate goal of colonial education might be deduced from the following statement by Macaulay: "We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect." While all colonizers may not have shared Macaulay's lack of respect for the existing systems of the colonized, they do share the idea that education is important in facilitating the assimilation process." -  John Southard, Fall 1997, Emory University

Dress white, speak white, sit white, act white...
Mission School, Ft. Totten Indian Agency, 1881 by F. Jay Haynes.

here we go: White woman teaches African-American children the "proper" ("white") way to chant, the "proper" way to sit, to dress, to be quiet, to fold their hands in obedience... (sorry about NBC's embedded adverts)

The conversion process, the "winning over" of a certain vulnerable group within the colonized happens many ways. It isn't just Deborah Kenny and her school and its celebration by Brian Williams. It's everywhere.

Here's a blogger discussing J. Crew advertising:
19th Century imagery
 "Whites saving Africans in danger. White school teacher saves the black kids from the ghetto, because you know black kids are always from the ghetto. White man steps onto an Indian Reservation and stumbles into a sweat lodge and discovers he’s a shaman and saves the tribe. White girl exposes the horrible work conditions of nannies in the mid-century South. The list goes on, and probably you’ve come to the conclusion that the image of the “White Savior” this is a personal pet peeve of mine. But the point of the story is there is a classic theme of Whites being the center of the story, in the J.Crew catalog you have White tourists being the center of what appears to be a celebration or a special occasion." Or, rushing back in time, "In South Africa in 1801 there was only one Hottentot who could read. Travellers thought that to civilise such savages was an impossible task. The missionary going forth to obey his Master's command " to preach the Gospel to every creature "has proved that the Word of God can reach and raise the lowest. It was not long, we are told, before " the Hottentot was seen poring over a tattered portion by the roadside, and the Kaffir shepherd on the veldt carried in his skin wallet a Testament, which he valued more than gold and silver."
21st Century imagery

Whether it is the Christian God, or the ability to read Roman alphabetical text (and thus be held more fully accountable for following the colonizers rules), or just buying the right clothes, "we" - the colonizers - make the wide world safe for trade and tourism and profit.

If Harlem is to truly be the fantasy land shown on Food Network Star - a Disney-like slightly ethnic space for the white and wealthy - Deborah Kenny's school is essential. "...education in ... colonies seems directed at absorption into the metropole and not separate and dependent development of the colonized in their own society and culture." The process is an attempt to strip the colonized people away from their indigenous learning structures and draw them toward the structures of the colonizers."

Colonies are, of course, not all external. The same intent which drove the English to outlaw the Welsh language in schools, the Irish language in schools, the Zulu or Swahili languages in schools, drove the Russians to try to wipe Ukrainian and many other internal languages during the Soviet era, drove Americans to attempt to drive out Native American languages in the "Indian Schools," drove Francisco Franco to attack Catalan and Basque during his Spanish dictatorship. And it is the same intent which drives the derision of indigenous speech patterns in contemporary America, from Spanglish to Black English.  That intent is to ensure that groups out of power begin school behind, and stay there. The cultural genocide is a by-product.

As Michelle Foster noted in 1992, the Kenny/KIPP/TFA model is designed to shatter the connection of African-American students to their community, while guaranteeing that these students remain behind the children of the dominant culture. "A failure to employ, "a culturally congruent approach to teaching" (King, J.E. 1991, King, S.H. 1993) that leads to what is then described as a "failure to learn" (King, 1991)."1

There are, despite what those in power suggest, other choices. There is what might be called "The Black Panther Model," but which, in a bid for less controversy, I call "The Bank of America Model." (a SpeEdChange Post) That is, the creation of parallel system for out-of-power groups so that wealth can be re-circulated and power developed. There is the George Bernard Shaw Pygmalion model (another SpeEdChange Post), the ability to see the attempted colonization and to break free from it. There is the forcible liberation through Romantic Nationalism - the opposite of the "Common Core" - as in Ireland's embrace of the ancient Irish language and Gaelic Games, or Israel's embrace of the even more (at the time) antiquated Hebrew.

But Deborah Kenny, Brian Williams, and Arne Duncan will deny all this, they will not even acknowledge it as possible, because it suggests the possibility of a much more complex world in which, perhaps, their skills and their genetics do not get a free ride.

I haven't expected any response to my complaints from Williams or NBC, or from Kenny. If any were to come it would be in the form of angry indignance anyway. How dare I challenge a saintly missionary... a widowed saintly missionary at that. She is, "making a difference," though they will have a tough time explaining what that difference is, beyond scoring well on tests designed by their friends.

In my Pygmalion post I began with this... "Wendy Hiller is brilliant in the 1938 film of [George Bernard] Shaw's play when she realizes exactly how she has been played by Higgins and the British establishment. "Am I free?" she asks. When you have traded who you are for entrée into another culture, are you ever able to be free again?"

I might ask Brian Williams to go back to Kenny's colonial outpost and ask the kids that question, or better yet, find them in 15 years and ask...

The Wind that Shakes the Barley, opening scenes

- Ira Socol

1. Foster, M. Sociolinguistics and the African-American Community: Implications for Literacy, 1992


Anonymous said...

Hard sell for Americans... Sanctimony is notoriously difficult to see in oneself.

Good post tho.

For me the oddest part of that report is when Williams is talking to the kids. They're sitting on the floor arranged in and orderly fashion, while he's sitting in a chair higher than them, talking as if he's their bestest buddy. Such a disconnect and false familiarity.


Robert D. Skeels * rdsathene said...

Powerful commentary. I have to read the paper you cite, to add to the list of evidence against KIPP and their program of cultural sterilization, which you more appropriately call colonialism.

Dan McGuire said...

It's separate but not equal, so it's cool. Re-segregation makes the news.

Concerned parent said...

So well written and spot on. I watched B. Williams story on this the other night and felt so uncomfortable but couldn't verbalize exactly why. Now it's clear. The near-sterilization of the native American culture is happening again to another people of color. Remaking a people in our own image.

Jennifer Geiger said...

As a white Protestant female, how can I teach and "help" without functioning as the "white savior?"

This has been bothering me for a while now. When I shared Rudyard Kipling's "The White Man's Burden" with my students, I asked them if they thought he was being ironic. I teach in a predominantly white district, and I've often wondered how much my students (and parents) of color percieve me and trust me to have their best interests in mind. As I "prepare them for college and career" (those are the current New York State buzzwords) what am I really doing? Whitening them up? Ugh.

I looked at the links to the Black Panther or Bank of America ideas for local school control. But I'm white. Does that mean I can't have the pleasure of a heterogenous class? And will that mean my own children won't have the benefit of knowing, befriending and yes, as you say, sometimes clashing (in the Pygmalion post) with other kids from other sub-cultures?

Do you get what I am saying? I truly believe that I, as a white person benefitted from forming close friendships with my Black friends in school-- they taught me much about hair, speech, rhythm and the truth about American history, for starters. Without these friends I would still mistakenly believe that everyone *must* feel like me and believe like me because their culture and experience is just like mine. In other words, I'd be a Republican, ha ha, ha.

But seriously, I feel strongly that our destinies are tied up together, to borrow the words of Dr. King. And I feel that re-segregating our neighborhoods and schools would be to the detriment of our kids. I DO suggest that local districts have more control of curriculum, rather than state or national level, and that students, teachers, parents and communities discuss what education is for.