White Imagineers and the Perpetual Expedition to Violence Town
The white preoccupation with a curated past instead of a new future is very normal. And very dangerous
Guys, grad school is wild.
A couple of weeks ago, the course I’m in was scheduled to spend a class meeting focused on visualization as a tool in educational practice. For me, this is (was) old hat— I have worked in and around public school systems in cities since the age of 18, and literally 90% of any sort of professional development offered therein has long been focused on mindfulness practices. Ask one of the teachers in your life who works in a city public school, and they’ll tell you: when in doubt, ask an overwhelmed educator with a roster of seven 30-student class periods, “have you tried starting your day with a meditation?” And if said teacher in your life works for a city public school that serves predominantly low-income, racialized, or otherwise societally disserviced communities? Well, you (well, they) will have hit mindfulness kool-aid Yahtzee: have you tried doing yoga with your students who are often hungry when they arrive at school? Have you invited your students whose community lost a Black father to gun violence over the weekend to do a “happy place” visualization? Have you tried doing a guided meditation with students who do not feel safe around white adults, especially white adults prompting them to close their eyes?
So anyways. There I was in this class meeting, on Zoom, talking about visualizations. Or rather, our professor was. He gave an overview of mindfulness, and walked us all through a guided meditation. He asked for any of the career teachers in the course to put up a Zoom hand and share how they have used mindfulness in their classrooms in past, or put their reflections in the chat, before he sent us into breakout rooms to discuss practice more in-depth. One of my peers volunteered and began to talk about their use of yoga in classrooms. As they spoke, another peer’s contribute popped up in the chat window:
______ to Everyone:
I’ve used visualization to teach about residential schools with my class
No one said anything. Our peer who was speaking finished their thoughts, muted themselves, then there was silence. That message sat in the chat boxes on everyone’s screens. Do you see this? I texted a peer. What the fuck should we do? She wrote back quickly: yes, I see it. This is a violence. She’s being violent. Then our prof cleared his throat and said, “okay, I’m going to put you all in breakout rooms now.” And suddenly, we shot though Zoom space and crashed into four-person discussion groups.
If you are unfamiliar with Indian Residential Schools, please stop here and go familiarize yourself. Here’s information on the U.S. system of schools, here’s information on the Canadian system of schools and the work done by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, here’s a piece I have written on it/them.
Then come back.
My group mates and I stared at each other for a long moment upon arriving in our breakout space. We were supposed to be discussing potential uses of visualizations in classroom settings. But I knew that I, for one, felt like a pinball arcade had taken up residence in my brain. “I, uh—,” I false-started. “I, uh… I’m sorry, but before we get into this, can we just talk about the comment about visualizing residential schools that our peer just shared?”
Three pairs of eyes blinked at me. I took a deep breath. I didn’t want to have a conversation about someone who was not present. But I also didn’t know whether dialogue would be possible once we got back into the main Zoom room, and wanted to at least begin a conversation around what our peer had said. “I am,” I finally began, “really concerned about the idea of having kids visualize racialized trauma. We do not have our students do a guided meditation in which they envision being on slave ships during the height of the Atlantic slave trade. Why would we have them envision Indigenous genocide?”
“Oh, but I do that,” the one other white person in the group chimed in (we’ll call her H). “I do slave ship visualizations with students sometimes.”
“You… What?’ I asked, my brain spinning. Oh no, oh no, she has said the wildest possible shit, now I’m going to have to interrogate it because it’s the right thing to do from a White to a White.
“Yeah,” she continued. ‘I’ve done slave ship visualizations. Like, not with any students, obviously, but students I trust. And it’s sort of like a theatre activity.”
Okay, self, I take it back. She has NOW said the wildest shit.
“That’s… scary…” I replied slowly. “Taking that chance with kids of the color in the room, particularly Black kids, seems unbelievably risky to me.”
“I do it really carefully,” H countered. “You know, I…” And then she talked for awhile about her “theatre activity” of racialized violence, but I honestly do not remember what she said because I blacked out, and stayed blacked out until we returned to the main Zoom room, and I realized that the peer who had originally made the residential school comments was explaining herself to the class.
“I don’t say it’s residential schools,” she was saying. “I just tell the students to envision what home means to them, and to visualize home and family and love, then I have them envision being forced to leave their homes and families and to speak a different language and to be punished for not assimilating in the new place.”
I raised my Zoom hand, then.
Why, I asked my classmates and our instructor, must visualization in the classroom always mean looking backwards instead of looking forwards? Why do we ask students whose ancestors were brutalized by white people to visualize themselves experiencing that brutalization, instead of inviting them to envision a future that they would want to live in?
Western education commits myriad crimes against students every day, but one of the biggest ones is the crime of stasis, as exemplified by my peers and their visualization exercises with their students. Think about it: we call a collection of literature written in Western Europe between 1500 and 1900 our literary canon, while relegating all literature written by Black American authors to one category (books written by Black American authors), regardless of time and space. We generally teach math and science separately, and couch them in theory that was birthed by men hundreds (if not thousands) of years ago without consistently re-contextualizing the material in the present or in tandem with another subject (read: math and science nurture each other and should be taught as an interdisciplinary set). History content is situated in an unmoving past, curated to tell very specific stories that uphold some narratives, erase others, and ask all students and teachers to roll with that status quo. Altogether, school becomes a place wherein we romanticize the past, effectively alienating it from the present. My peer’s comment about prompting student visualization about Indian Residential Schools in what is now Canada encapsulated this perfectly: she felt fine guiding a classroom of students through a meditation on getting stolen from one’s home and forcibly assimilated into an alien culture because “it happened in the past” and thus was safe material.
Never mind whether some of her students were First Nations, Métis, Inuit, or other First Peoples.
Never mind if she had any Black students in her class who might reasonably wonder if, based on this visualization exercise (and what H in my small group had to say about it), a similar one focused on the Atlantic slave trade might be coming down the pike.
Never mind if she had any students who had experienced abduction, lived in a high-stress environment where assimilation was a violent necessity, or been separated from loved ones.
It was “just an activity.”
White imagination, both as it is embodied by white people but also as it is facilitated by white society, is in a constant state of turning its back on the present and future in order to fawn over a sliver of the past. It’s a very effective mode of preservation: it prevents any concrete examinations of connections between the past, present and future, keeps whiteness and its historic narratives centered, and thus severely impedes any efforts to envision a future that looks different from the way it has always looked. Non-white cultures, on the other hand, have long been able to imagine decolonial futurity. This is in part because non-white peoples and knowledge systems are anchored by the belief that it is the responsibility of preceding generations to prepare the world for the generations that have yet to come. We the Whites, meanwhile, have been living moment-to-moment on a capitalist wheel for thousands of years, telling the same repressive stories over and over again in an effort to come out ahead of as many people as possible before shuffling off this mortal coil and leaving generational wealth behind. Which brings me to the second act of this whole thing: it’s not just what stories white people choose to tell, but how we tell them, that keeps Western society and its rearview imagination at the top of the heap.
I have told this visualization story to several people, face-to-face, in the two weeks since it happened. The majority of the reactions have gone like this:
Me: Indian Residential Schools visualizations.
Them: … What…?
Me: I pointed out that we don’t teach slave ship visualizations, except apparently my peer does, and calls it a theatre activity?
Them: OH MY FUCKING GOD, WHAT?!
And so I’ve been forced to do some self-reflection. Because it’s not just that there’s been a stark difference in folks’ reactions to the enslavement of Black people versus the stealing of Indigenous children; it’s also the fact that when I wanted to really hammer home to my peers in my Zoom breakout group in class that guiding students through a visualization about Indian Residential Schools was an unconscionably ignorant act of violence, I decided to shore up my argument by pulling another marginalized group into the conversation and juxtaposing it with the colonial violence already on the table. I knew, based on the Canadian whitewashing of Indigenous history and Black enslavement history, that most of my classmates would not take the cruelty of our peer’s teaching choices seriously, but would almost definitely find any sort of similar teaching choice regarding Black American history as criminal. So I leaned into making that comparison, only to have it also dismissed by H. If everyone’s a super, as per the movie the Incredibles, no one is. So if everyone’s history of racialized violence and/or genocide is in the past…
This, this is what whiteness and its capitalism do best: nullify human worth such that individual people and their communities are pitted against one another in a fight for human rights. There’s even a term for it! First codified by scholar Cedric Robinson, and subsequently elaborated upon by Jodi Melamed, racial capitalism is, in effect, the true definition of capitalism itself:
Capital can only be capital when it is accumulating, and it can only accumulate by producing and moving through relations of severe inequality among human groups—capitalists with the means of production/workers without the means of subsistence, creditors/debtors, conquerors of land made property/the dispossessed and removed. These antinomies of accumulation require loss, disposability, and the unequal differentiation of human value, and racism enshrines the inequalities that capitalism requires. Most obviously, it does this by displacing the uneven life chances that are inescapably part of capitalist social relations onto fictions of differing human capacities, historically race. (Melamed, p. 77)
I urge you to explore racial capitalism further, and not only because I am doing a very low-quality job of introducing it. I hope that you explore what these systems mean, and how they determine all people’s worth— white people, too— because it will go a long way towards helping you to unlock larger understandings of how we devalue ourselves, each other, time and joy, all because of the larger apparatuses of accumulation we live in in this so-called “modern world” of ours. And learning about racial capitalism also aids all of us, particularly We the Whites, in our efforts to understand exactly how crucial racialized violence is to the preservation of white society and its dominance. How we do not see people as inherently having value, but being potentially valuable. How, by stripping specific communities and their histories of their value, they become interchangeable, and thus disposable.
How I wound up in a grad school Zoom room, holding up one example of historic violence in hopes of getting my peers to take another historic violence more seriously, only to have one person react by saying she is not upset by either, while others were far more upset by the comparative example I offered than by the original issue.
It’s much easier to stay floating in the ether of the white imagination and its backwards walk than to do the emotional labor of choosing “forwards.” In schools, we try to groom each new generation of students as future propagators of this romanticized past (and in some cases, the romance is literally just that something is past). We block out other stories, and the different futures that they might prompt us to envision based on what they say about history. We avoid the new narratives that non-white stories prompt us to make room for, because that’s probably what scares We the Whites the most: that what we have to do is make room for new, not get handed a blueprint and permission to oversee the new construction site.
We have to let go of the reins that we handed ourselves however many centuries ago, and let other peoples and knowledges lead a collective envisioning of something new. We hate that. We want to be the teacher at the front of the room, guiding our students through a meditation on genocide in order to prove that we aren’t racist, feeling like we’re One of the Good Ones, finding New Ways to teach what is essentially the same (genocidal) drivel that’s been propping us and our ancestors up for generations. We don’t want to be the teacher saying, “by being a teacher, I am a white person helping to extend systemic violence. I must change, which means I have to start over and learn again, accepting all the while that I will never fully change and never fully learn but that I must try.” We want change to be easy. But given how much blood has been shed in the name of whiteness in the last several hundred years, we need to accept the fact that “easy” is simply impossible, and that hard work and discomfort and pain and harsh mirrors are the only way forward if we’re going to be part of what comes next
One of my favorite books of all time is John Green’s young adult novel Looking For Alaska. Its final two lines are,
Thomas Edison's last words were "It's very beautiful over there.” I don't know where there is, but I believe it's somewhere, and I hope it's beautiful. (Green, p. 221)
This is how I am trying to retrain my brain, and to support others in the retraining of their own brains, when it comes to considerations of the future.
White people cannot imagine a decolonized future without panicking. We fear the loss of power and privilege that inevitably comes with the dismantling of white supremacy. But this is also a very white, Western way of thinking— to center ourselves in our current states, and the discomfort we anticipate experiencing. But what happens when we center the generations to come, and the joys that they might have? What happens when we ask a classroom full of kids, “I want you to close your eyes and visualize what home means to you. What love means to you. Now imagine what it would be like if everyone on Earth had that. How could we bring the world closer to that state of safety and peace?”
What happens when we stop saying, “but what if it’s not beautiful?” and start saying, “I don’t know where there is, but I believe it’s somewhere, and that it is beautiful?”
What happens when we step out of the way, release our stranglehold, and say, “I will commit to doing everything I can to help all of us find it”?
Green, J. (2006). Looking for Alaska. Penguin.
Jodi Melamed. (2015). Racial Capitalism. Critical Ethnic Studies, 1(1), 76–85. https://doi.org/10.5749/jcritethnstud.1.1.0076