Author Interview: 'Black Appetite. White Food.'
Jamila Lyiscott agreed to answer some questions about her new book, Black Appetite. White Food: Issues of Race, Voice, and Justice Within and Beyond the Classroom.
Jamila Lyiscott is a social justice education scholar, nationally acclaimed speaker, spoken word artist, and educational consultant. She serves as an assistant professor of social justice education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she is the co-founder and director of the Center of Racial Justice and Youth Engaged Research. She also holds an appointment as senior research fellow within Teachers College, Columbia University's Institute for Urban and Minority Education.
LF: First off, can you talk about the meaning of the book's title, Black Appetite. White Food.?
Black Appetite. White Food. speaks to the tension of existing as a person of color in a world that insists on the pervasiveness of white supremacy at every turn. It speaks to the pain and power of knowing our own value but still being required to assimilate into white, middle-class values in order to be validated as worthy of access. It is the #oscarssowhite hashtag that indicted the Oscars and other national awards ceremonies for continually excluding people of color. It is asking to be at these tables that do not want us there. It is knowing that access to these tables is central in many ways to our survival in America. It is having to play the game anyway.
The title is inspired by [Frantz] Fanon's work. When I first came across Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks, the title alone spoke to something in my reality that I felt deeply but could not name. Then to learn through exploring Fanon's work that national issues of racial injustice, anti-blackness, and white supremacy mirror the pain of racial oppression in America, really helped me to situate what it means to be black into a global conversation.
LF: Many whites, including many of us who are educators, may not feel comfortable confronting this issue of our privilege. There are obviously many reasons why we need to do so, nevertheless [Author's Note: I did not include this next line in the original question, but should have: Of course, it's not anywhere near as "uncomfortable" as it is for people of color who suffer because of white privilege]. Can you explain how looking at our white privilege makes us better teachers to our students?
First, it is important to know that the choice to not confront your white privilege is a feature of white privilege. The way that racial oppression plays out in the lives of people of color means that it is not something we can choose not to see. We experience it daily and must deal with its ramifications as a method of survival. Black and brown parents of color must prepare them for the physical or psychological danger of how they might be seen if they are not careful. When white teachers do not confront the issue of white privilege, they blind themselves to the myriad ways that they become complicit with racial oppression in schools. White privilege creates a skewed view of the world. For example, one chapter in the book is entitled, "If you think you're giving students of color a voice, get over yourself," so named for a white educator who congratulated me for giving a group of black incarcerated youths voice through my teaching. This attitude is tethered to the abiding idea that white people have the burden of healing or saving others (i.e., colonialism and imperialism) and is sustained by uninterrogated white privilege and perspectives. Confronting white privilege makes you a better educator because you are confronting your role in a system of racism that impacts each and every one of your students.
LF: In the book, you talk about "intention" versus "impact." Can you explain what you mean, and what that could look like in the classroom?
Another feature of white privilege is centering the emotions, perspectives, or comfort of white people when people of color call out racism. When racism is called out, there is a pattern of white people who become defensive in their discomfort and insist that their intentions are not racist. However, the intent is not nearly as relevant as the stated impact of those who experience racism. This has been described in many ways by many people, but my favorite is an example of someone stepping on your toe. Whether or not they intended to step on your toe is not the point. The point is that it hurt! For that person to insist on their intent is to ignore your hurt so that they are not accountable for their (un)intentional actions.
LF: Many of us who teach English to new immigrants use some of Paulo Freire's methods. I was particularly struck by the section of your book where you talk about his idea of "culture circles" that bring "word to world." Could you elaborate on what that might look like in the classroom?
Many well-intentioned educators feel like they do not have tools for integrating issues of equity and justice into the curriculum in sustainable ways. Freirian culture circles are a powerful way to move through very difficult issues that bear on our classrooms and communities. Within a classroom, a Freirian culture circle would invite teachers and students to engage in dialogue together around a chosen cultural artifact such as a newspaper headline, a video, meme, image, etc. The idea is that the chosen cultural artifact is layered and provides the opportunity for rich dialogue. So a music video that students are used to casually watching might shift from entertainment to a critical text for rich analysis about youth culture and intersecting social interests.
The culture-circle approach invites participants to work through six steps beginning with analysis and ending with action. Each step gets deeper and deeper and provides opportunities for centering the background knowledge, experiences, and perspectives that each student brings into the classroom. The culture circle also requires participants to reflect on their positionality in relation to what is being analyzed. So everyone in the conversation must consider how they fit into the world of the issues on the table, whether they are complicit or have been victimized in various ways. What is helpful is that the dialogue begins with the cultural artifact, which is a distant object for analysis, but with each step, participants are invited to think more deeply and critically about how the issues hit closer and closer to home.
LF: Thanks, Jamila!