Let’s Talk About Race
By Meg Allen and Maria Zankey
Photos by Ann Blake and Yaba Blay, PhD
Yaba Blay, PhD, isn’t afraid to talk about race or racism. She isn’t afraid to say that she’s not sure “social progress” exists, but rather that we’ve grown more adept at “masking.” And she won’t hesitate to suggest that in the United States, we haven’t come as far as we’d like to think.
Instead of setting you at ease, indulging you with a conversation about our “post-racial” society, Blay discusses what she calls the “new racism,” and its pervasiveness in American culture, including our education system.
“Education is as much about what we don’t teach as it is about what we do teach,” says Blay, co-director of Drexel’s Africana Studies program and an assistant teaching professor in the College of Arts and Sciences. “People sit at tables and make decisions about what constitutes knowledge, and they’ve been doing so since the days of Plato and Descartes. From then until now, people of African descent—Black people—have not been at that table. We have been viewed as not important enough to be infused into a curriculum. You can’t teach children to value Black people if you don’t teach them about Black people.”
As a New Orleans native with West African parents, Blay says she has been inherently aware of the lack of racial perspective in U.S. curricula.
She rejects the sentiment that we live in a post-racial society. Instead, Blay says, the face of racism has merely transformed—a shift she says she tries to shed light on in her courses, Politics of Hip-Hop and Gender & Black Popular Culture.
“The new type of racism,” she clarifies, “is still the ‘old racism’… remixed and couched under the veil of ‘political correctness.’”
She says that whereas the “old racism” was overt in the oppression of Black people in America, the new type of racism is less obvious—so subtle that most people do not realize their seemingly harmless rhetoric and cultural appropriations perpetuate a system that holds one race as lesser. For example, well-intentioned White male students who enjoy and imitate hip-hop music, Blay says, are quick to recite hip-hop lyrics without fully appreciating the larger context of the words they’re repeating.
She often hears the argument in her Politics of Hip-Hop class: “If my favorite artist says ‘n—-r’ 3,000 times in this song, and I love hip-hop, then I’m saying it [as] a term of endearment.”
But according to Blay, that’s impossible. She says there are roots to slurs that cannot be erased. Thinking otherwise, she proposes, is just another way to glaze over racism, as though it were an issue of the past. Thinking otherwise ignores historical context—it ignores racial politics, she says.
It isn’t that Blay wishes people would stop listening or paying homage to hip-hop. It’s that she does not believe appreciating the music or memorizing lyrics adequately teaches “the value of racial difference.”
“We give ourselves too much credit as human beings. We don’t have the power to liberate these words from history,” Blay says, mentioning a series of slurs that wouldn’t survive a radio edit. “Certain words are off-limits. You cannot remove them from the historical context in which they were born. I don’t care who is doing it. You cannot remove them from that history or that pain.”
As a scholar, professor and social advocate, Blay pushes people to think critically about race, and in doing so, hopes to advance society’s understanding of the Black experience.
Blay explores the intricacies of Blackness in her (1)ne Drop Project, a multi-platform initiative illustrating the multitude of Black experiences, challenging the notion that there is a singular, monolithic Black experience.
The project—which consists of an online exhibit, traveling exhibition, lectures and a forthcoming book exploring identities of those who do not fit the prototypical model of “Blackness”—was the inspiration behind the fifth installment of CNN’s “Black in America” TV documentary series with Soledad O’Brien. Blay served as a consulting producer for the episode, which was screened at Drexel in December 2012.
A reference to and re-clamation of the age-old “one-drop rule”—the notion that one drop of African blood denotes a person as Black— the project will culminate this fall in Blay’s book (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race, purposefully slated for release on Black Friday 2013. The work includes 60 narratives and photographs of individuals who identify themselves as Black but who may not be recognized as such by others.
Blay hopes the book will prompt a conversation about the nuances of Blackness.
“We know racial difference,” she says, “but we don’t value it.”
The classroom plays a key role in furthering the conversation on race, Blay believes, and in teaching students to value racial difference.
“Children spend more time in school than they do at home,” she says. “If you’re not going to teach them about [Black culture], don’t ask them to care about it. Children care about the things you teach them.”
The solution, she adds, is not simply a month of Black history, which Blay believes teaches children that there is a limited amount of time to respect Black people and a limited number of Black people worthy of respect.
“Correcting” the way we speak for a month, she says, does not amend our hearts. Instead, she calls for an “infusion” of Black people, history, literature and culture into the curricula that have historically marginalized them.
Students, she believes, can be taught to value each other’s innate worth as human beings only when they are instilled with the culture and history of their fellow man. This sort of intentional weaving-in of the voices of people of African descent must be accomplished “at the table when you write the curriculum,” Blay says, not as an afterthought.
Blay envisions a future in which Africana Studies is integrally woven into the educational fabric of all institutions—from kindergarten through higher education. She believes only those institutions that value Africana studies can produce individuals who do the same.
In her own classroom, Blay pushes her students to critically examine everything. She doesn’t want them to change only in the span of her 10-week course; she wants them to go back into the world more open to being changed. And this is the measure by which she evaluates her efficacy as an educator: “If you watch TV differently, listen to the radio differently, interact with people differently…my job is done.”
While each quarter may bring the temporary respite of a job well done, Blay remains driven. As co-director of Drexel’s Africana Studies program, she continues to advocate for a central role for Africana studies, working to infuse an appreciation for Blackness into the University and ultimately society.
“I’m motivated by love: a love for my people and my culture and my history,” she says. “And it’s that commitment that keeps me going.”