Two weeks ago I wrote a piece about a Humans of New York (HONY) post which featured a white teacher talking about the challenges he faces teaching in Harlem. Following that piece I was approached, both online and in person, by a number of people with questions and (some) accusations, so I'd like to take this opportunity to answer and respond to some of those.
Of the accusations I received, the most common was that I deliberately set out to vilify him in order to make a point. Now, I thought I'd made it sufficiently clear in the piece itself that I wasn't out to vilify him. "I have nothing but immense respect for educators, especially those who go above and beyond for their students like this man," I wrote, but perhaps people thought I was being disingenuous because I still went ahead and used him as an example of how politics of personal responsibility are misguided, even if well-intentioned.
Contrary to popular belief, those things aren't mutually exclusive; someone can be a good person and have harmful and problematic politics.
The point is that this was a political argument, not some personal attack. I don't know this man, so there's no way for me to know if he's racist or not, but judging strictly from what he divulged to HONY, I do think that he's part of the problem - one of a politics of personal responsibility and white savior complexes - but this isn't about him or any one individual, it's about calling out problematic politics when one sees them in an effort to fundamentally change things for the better.
Which brings me to this question: why is it that most of the time the knee-jerk reaction to articles such as this is to flip the script on the person pointing out problematic politics instead of productively engaging in discourse about what makes said politics problematic? This, I think, illustrates the extent to which ideas of a post-racial society have permeated most liberal discourse about race.
Still, the comments that troubled me most came from people of color who have internalized white supremacy and bought into the color-blind delusion. Individuals who, though in agreement that the system is not entirely fair, continue to argue that the lack of academic success among Black and Latino students is due to a lack of personal responsibility; that there is a fundamental problem with the culture of expectation among minorities. Not surprisingly, this belief is most common among minorities who have managed to overcome institutional barriers and achieve academic/economic success and thus conclude that success or failure does, in fact, boil down to personal responsibility. The rationalization being, "If I could do it, why can't they?"
Blaming impoverished families who are struggling to survive for not prioritizing the pursuit of higher education is wrong. Anyone arguing otherwise is failing to acknowledge that structural inequalities are to blame and is therefore part of the problem, not the solution. Likewise, any argument which focuses on critiquing the culture of expectation of marginalized groups instead of challenging the policies and institutions which strip these groups of any real choices is an argument which should be confronted and shut down.
Those of us interested in affecting positive and fundamental change need to understand that politics of personal responsibility are not only offensive and erroneous, but also extremely dangerous because instead of identifying and challenging the structural and institutional conditions that marginalize and disenfranchise students of color, they label them failures for being unable to overcome them. We need to refuse to give validity to these politics until we have a leveled playing field and a society free of racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, and all other forms of oppression. Until then we need to refuse to blame oppressed individuals for their inability to overcome structural violence and instead focus our energy on overthrowing the system which produces these inequalities and forms of oppression.
Crystal Stella Becerril is a Chicago-based activist, writer, and journalist. She is currently a contributing writer for Socialist Worker Newspaper, Harold Washington College's The Herald, and Red Wedge Magazine where she was also a former editor. She is an undergrad philosophy student at Harold Washington College where her focus is on socialist/Marxist theory and intersectional feminism. Her written work focuses on covering political events and providing context and analysis, developing sociological and materialist perspectives on pop culture, and chronicling her experiences as a Xicana feminist.
Image via Bronx Alliance Middle School.