This series is a platform for black authors to share personal accounts about their life experiences in research and academia, as well as reflect on the Black Lives Matter movement, the current state of affairs and where we go from here.
Our guest author this week is Dr. Adele N. Norris, a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy. Adele’s scholarship uses Black feminist frameworks to explore anti-Black racism and the criminalization of Black and Indigenous bodies.
A few months into the coronavirus quarantine, the murder of George Floyd by four police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25th triggered a mass uprising. Millions around the world mobilized in solidarity with Black Lives Matter to protest anti-blackness and systemic racism. As a Black-American university lecturer in New Zealand, I felt a heaviness. Yet, I was simultaneously energized by the movement and my students' thoughtful responses to the protests. Their ability to see anti-blackness and systemic racism as a longstanding pandemic further attested to the relevance of the uprising in New Zealand.
Black Lives Matter, from which some of my students correctly understood, brought the seemingly endless pandemic of state violence against Black people and systemic racism to the social and political foreground. However, this period of unprecedented turbulence characterized by a racial injustice movement and a global public health pandemic revealed sharp differences in responses to the two pandemics.
Shortly before mandatory quarantine, the University swiftly assembled resources to support the transition from face-to-face to virtual classrooms. Digital platforms had become the new norm for all social, work, and educational exchanges. Overnight it seemed people learned a new skill (a new language). For the technologically challenged, many institutions organized technical support teams and task forces to troubleshoot arising challenges.
The dynamic course of action demonstrated the University's commitment to educating and protecting students and staff during a global pandemic. Unlike the prompt response to the coronavirus, the racial injustice protests were met mostly with silence. Despite Black Lives Matter becoming the largest protests in several decades for many countries, the widespread movement was not met with an action plan. Nevertheless, the frequent circulation of emails providing the latest COVID-19 updates, including special calls for research and teaching tutorials, continued.
"Unlike the prompt response to the coronavirus, the racial injustice protests were met mostly with silence."
Conversations with students revealed them, too, had noticed the silence and perceived it as a missed opportunity to highlight and address systemic racism. The silence, for us, signaled an unwillingness to tackle an existing pandemic, white supremacy, through the process of exclusion. Having the authority to exclude is an exercise of power consistent with the maintenance of the status quo.
"Having the authority to exclude is an exercise of power consistent with the maintenance of the status quo."
Reflecting on the silence, I recalled the absence of white supremacy as a discussion point throughout my education despite it being a distinctive feature of the United States and many other countries. Even when covering topics such as the Civil War and the 1960s Civil Rights movement where white supremacy should have been the focal point, it rarely emerged, if uttered at all.
The passive response to the racial injustice movement represents a continuation of a casual approach to white supremacy. Where some may view the silence as a neutral position, I see it as a highly active response. Conversations of systemic racism are suppressed through the active process of having the power to exclude systemic racism as a contemporary problem of urgent concern. Through this process, whiteness is protected and preserved, which is a function of white supremacy.
Unpacking this silence informed my teaching during the racial injustice uprising. Specifically, I led students in discussions to examine the response from the government and other institutions, including the University, to both the coronavirus and Black Lives Matter using Cheryl Harris' 1993 seminal article, Whiteness as Property.
Harris conceptualizes whiteness as analogous to property—because of its dependence on the 'right to exclude'. Specifically, Harris traces the evolution of whiteness from color to race to status to property as a progression historically rooted in white supremacy and economic hegemony over Black and Native peoples. The origins of whiteness as property lie in the parallel systems of domination of Black and Native American peoples, out of which were created racially contingent forms of property and property rights.
Our discussion led to three significant takeaways.
(1) Whiteness is legitimated and protected through the legal system and state institutions. Inaction, in this case, serves as an affirmation of an existing order, which, in turn, masks the maintenance of white domination while presenting it as the legitimate and natural baseline of operation.
(2) Institutions operating as a proxy for whiteness is evidenced by its privilege to take a neutral position. Institutions' use of power produces and reproduces white identity through processes that are not critical of systemic racism and anti-blackness, thus exonerating the institution from any responsibility to actively identify and address systemic racism.
(3) White supremacy is operationalized through the power to exclude. To exclude systemic racism from political and institutional agendas - the essence of Black Lives Matter protests - is a response in opposition to the anti-racist. Anti-racist movements, after all, emerge to expose subtle ways racial subordination is reproduced through practices that subordinate and render racism and anti-blackness invisible.
The groundswell of support around Covid-19 illustrates the willingness of institutions to act on some issues and their unwillingness to act on others. For Black Lives Matters to resonate with the force it did, particularly among young activists around the world, proves that unpacking ways white supremacy is operationalized in daily decision making acts should be at the forefront of public agendas and classroom discussions. As a number of the Black Lives Matter protestors' placards articulate, "silence is complicity."
Dr. Adele N. Norris has authored the book "Neo-Colonial Injustice and the Mass Imprisonment of Indigenous Women"now available by Palgrave Macmillan.
Dr. Adele N. Norris is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy program at the University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Adele’s scholarship uses Black feminist frameworks to explore anti-Black racism and the criminalization of Black and Indigenous bodies.