Blogbook -- Chapter 1: Racism Is A Boat (Part 1 of 2)

Entry 7 

(part 1 of 2)

In the next few sections (and blog posts), I will discuss racism as a discourse in order to end on a heuristic of sorts for literacy and language teachers. That’s my goal of this chapter, to get to that heuristic. That is, I’ll end chapter 1 with a way to understand antiracism as an orientation to the world and our classrooms. We’re about half way there! But let me offer a taste of where we will end up. Antiracist orientations address racist discourse in the literacy and language classroom, whether that is high school English classrooms or college writing courses. 

To help with where we’ll go and why, let’s consider an extended metaphor. I think it will suggest ways to use the ideas and history I’m offering in this blogbook in your classroom -- that is, these ideas should help build your own antiracist orientations. Racism isn’t simply people treating others badly, or some kind of evil intention within us. It ain’t about nefarious and prejudiced purposes, or evil reasons for actions, behaviors, or beliefs that the worst of us enact. Sure, that kind of racism has existed and still does, but it isn’t the most important kind anymore. It isn’t the kind that antiracist teaching addresses, or rather not directly. 

Image from
Approaching the problem of racism by trying to address people’s attitudes, bigotries, and prejudices is like bailing water out of a leaky, sinking boat. The water in the boat isn’t the problem that really needs solving if you want a boat that floats and will get its passengers somewhere. You gotta fix the holes, which means at some point, you have to stop bailing and start plugging holes. Think of the boat as your classroom, and that boat-classroom is made up of your lesson plans, teaching strategies, readings, assignments, activities, lectures, as well as the language you use to respond to students in writing and in person. Meanwhile your students are the passengers in the boat.  

Now, this analogy is imperfect since our systems in society, schools, and classrooms are not riddled with racist holes. They are built strong with racist boards, racist nails, and racist wire and rigging. The boat is designed to sink, or rather it’s designed to drown particular passengers, or maybe some must dangle on the boat’s side like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic (1997). And we all know what happened to him. The analogy probably should be about building a new boat, one that fits the people we have, or finding different materials. Maybe we got the wrong kind of boat, one not able to accommodate all the kinds of people we got sailing with us, maybe we need an ocean liner, not a dingy? 

The point is antiracist teaching is about attending to the causes, not just the effects of racism. This means that in most cases, the racist system has to be dismantled and rebuilt anew. Usually, we need a new kind of boat, a new kind of pedagogy, a new kind of classroom. And so, to address racism in our schools and society, we have to understand the nature of racism in a nuanced way. We need to know how the racist boat we are in is made. To do this, we need better language for it, language that isn’t taboo. And that language has to help us understand racism as more than simply bigotry, prejudice, or evil intent. If racism was just about bad people behaving badly, we wouldn’t have the deep, stubborn inequality and unfairness we do today, especially if we really believe that most of us are good people, not racists. 

Let me give you an example that illustrates and explains why the racist boat-classroom itself is the problem and not the racist holes we think we see in our classrooms and their pedagogies. It illustrates why we need a robust understanding for racism, one that encompasses the material, the systemic, and the linguistic. I’m gonna start with some familiar history and economics, but I want you to consider it as a literature lesson, one about Edgar Allen Poe, and his poem, “The Raven.” Keep that in mind. But we won’t get to Poe until part 2 of this section (the post).

Why did slavery in the antebellum South last so long? Why did southerners hold so dearly to racist ideas and discourse? It wasn’t that people in the South were innately more evil or bad or racist, or even dumber, than those elsewhere. While there is a good measure of truth and historical fact to depictions of the old South like those we find in films such as Django Unchained (2012) or 12 Years A Slave (2013), but a system so pervasive and structurally important to Southern culture and economics could not be sustained by a few evil people doing evil things. No, instead it’s evil systems making evil conditions that create evil people, and all the evil racist stuff looks like good things or neutral ideas, or people trying to do the right things.

Southerners were no different from their abolitionist friends in the north, only they had a different culture and economy, different material conditions that made them, their ideas, and things around them differently. Slavery was an incredibly lucrative business, supporting the enormous and growing tobacco and cotton economies in the U.S. from the very beginnings of the American colonies. Labor in the form of slaves was valuable, and so represented a large economic investment. At its zenith (1850-1860), slaves represented half or more of the wealth in the South. And so, the economic systems of the South that made Black bodies into slaves also made Whites’ views of Blacks as less than fully human in order to be property. 

Real Price of Owning a Slave in
2016 dollars (from Williamson & Cain)
The racism of the South didn’t stop at the ubiquitous presence of slaves as property and not people. Our economic conditions influence our ideas and what we know and believe. The average cost of a slave in 1850 was about $400 in 1850 dollars. However, that’s not quite the value of a slave owned. A slave owner would be thinking about the maximum amount of labor that could be extracted from that slave, minus the costs it will take to feed, house, and take care of the slave over their lifetime. 

Over a lifetime, a single slave could be worth thousands, and more likely, tens of thousands of 1850 dollars in labor. Samuel H. Williamson and Louis P. Cain give some sense of a single slave’s purchased value to a slave owner in their economic analysis of slave owning in antebellum South. They emphasize just how valuable slaves were: 

the "real price" of $400 in 1850 would be approximately $12,000 in 2016 prices. We all can identify with what that amount of money would buy today, but hardly anything we would spend $12,600 on today was available 160 years ago. $400 in 1860 would have purchased 4,800 pounds of bacon, 3,000 pounds of coffee, 1,600 pounds of butter, or 1,000 gallons of gin. (note 43)

That single slave was valuable and represented real and potential capital to the White owner, especially since a slave’s value is worth far more than their purchased price, a price that was still initially very high. 

Furthermore, those in the South who made laws, policies, and the like were not ones who owned just one or two slaves. While 80% of Southern White citizens didn’t own slaves, the top .11% owned more than 100 each. Jefferson himself was said to have owned around 175 slaves. We are talking about the super-wealthy plantation owners, the ones with influence and who made the laws and rules, the ones fully invested in the tobacco and cotton industries. Jefferson’s Monticello plantation primarily produced tobacco and wheat, and his net worth was estimated to have been around $236 million in 2016 dollars, even though he died with mounting debt (note 44). Now, consider that if modestly one slave could earn their owner $10,000 in labor over a lifetime, then a plantation with 100 slaves is worth conservatively $1,000,000 in 1850. 

George Washington overseeing his Slaves
at Mount Vernon (Granger Collection)
This might explain why Jefferson, the primary architect of the Declaration of Independence, would hold so many slaves his entire life. It explains why the man who penned: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (note 45). All people have the unalienable rights of life and liberty. This means, no one can take these rights away, yet that’s exactly what Jefferson did his entire life, as did the other founding fathers. Freeing his many slaves in his lifetime would likely have meant watching millions of dollars in capital evaporate. It would have meant selling off his large estate just to pay his debts. It would have meant personal shame, losing the land his father bequeathed to him, and of course, no more extravagant lifestyle. 

Now, we are only considering the value of slaves to a plantation. We are not considering the land, the structures, or even the crops, all of which depend on the labor of slaves in order to extract their value. You can see how this kind of economy would encourage and incentivize racist language, and generate it in order to justify such profits and capital accumulation, which then cultivates a lifestyle that needs to be justified (note 46). With that lifestyle comes a culture, a language, stories, common practices, and sets of terms that make the world for those living in the South, slave owners, poor and working class Whites, and slaves. This language, which grows out of and supports the cotton and tobacco plantations and economies, also grows out of laws, policies, and economic arrangements taken as normal and common sense. All of these things define in numerous ways Black people as slaves, and White people as masters. 

And so, it wasn’t just the economics of slavery that maintained racist ideas. It was a racist language and set of social, economic, and material conditions that reinforced each other. Why would a poor White Southerner care that super-rich slave owners maintain their slaves, especially since most White Southerners couldn’t afford slaves, and arguably lost jobs because of the presence of slaves in the labor marketplace? Seems there would be much skin off their White backs, right? (note 47

Now, while there likely would be more jobs for working class and poor Whites if slavery didn’t exist in the South, Whites would also have to compete with Blacks for the same jobs. But when you and all your White family and friends have lived your lives believing and acting like you were better than and above all the Black people around you, that you are a master and they are just slaves, that you are worthy, smart, and civilized while they are dark, savage sons of Ham, it may be hard to change your view of the social arrangement, one that is equally shaped by the economy of the South. 

Perhaps one illustration of the power and compelling nature of the structural racism that I’m speaking of is invoked through a scene from Django Unchained (2012). The scene comes late in the movie. The film’s protagonists, Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), are at the “Candyland” plantation, home of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the evil antagonist of this part of the film. They are trying to buy Django’s wife, Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington), but Candie has figured out their plan, and he gives them a lesson in phrenology. 

DiCaprio in Django Unchained (2012)
The lesson is that Blacks are naturally subservient because of three dimples in their skulls. The framing of this racial pseudo-scientific lesson by Candie suggests overdetermined elements of Candie’s life that makes him believe in it all. It suggests that he has to believe in it, if he is to accept the life he lives. If he questioned one thread of his racist discourse, it would lead to an unravelling of his life, his plantation, the value and ethical positioning of his father and family, everything in his life would come undone. 

In fact, symbolically this unravelling happens to Candie and Candyland, only not because Candie admits to anything, but because Django gets his revenge. In his discourse, Candie invokes his own life around slaves on the plantation as proof of his knowledge of Black slaves and their dispositions. The skull that Candie uses to demonstrate the dimples is from “Old Ben,” a former slave of his father’s, who shaved his father each week with a straight razor. Candie offers this as proof of Black subservience, and his own White superiority. At one point he asks, “Why don’t they kill us?” At another point, Candie explains that if he were Old Ben he’d have cut his father’s neck and killed him, saying that “and it wouldn’t have taken me no fifty years to do it neither.”  

While one might fault the film for many historical inaccuracies or problematic racial dynamics, these kinds of overlapping structural elements in Candie’s life that the scene reveals suggest the ways that such a racist set of ideas can seem quite logical, even scientific, for those in the South. They are not only hard to let go, but hard to see as a problem, when those same elements of your life provide so much abundance or psychological uplift for your life, for your family. Today, we have similar kinds of racist ideas that seem quite neutral, logical, good, and even helpful to the White central subject position in schools and literacy classrooms. 

Brave Work

Write for 10 minutes.

Consider three things in your teaching life that are important to who you are as a teacher, that is, three things important to what makes you a good teacher of language. These things could be ideas or practices that make who you understand yourself to be as a literacy teacher, or what you know or do that helps you be that good teacher. You may have been taught these things, or acquired them in books, or come to the ideas or practices on your own through your teaching experiences. Describe these three ideas or practices in as much detail as you can, even including sources or texts that help you articulate these ideas or practices. Then ask yourself: What would happen if these ideas or practices were called into question, invalidated, revealed as deeply wrong or harmful to some of your students in some way? How would that affect you as a teacher and as a person who identifies as a teacher?

Understanding racism not simply as a product of economics and not simply as a set of ideas in language can help us make sense of such racism. What I mean is: Racism, like White supremacy, is meaningfully understood as racist discourse. Racism isn’t just words. It’s the entire vocabulary and the alphabet and grammar that build sentences, and people, and things in the world, which includes the paper, distribution channels, and other technologies necessary to write racist sentences. This includes the structures around us that make classrooms and grading policies and institutional guidelines for hiring or curriculum design, like outcomes and how we assess and understand our own value as good places for education. Racist discourse is the boat-classroom, not simply a few racist holes in our assignments or readings.


This blogbook is offered for free in order to engage language and literacy teachers of all levels in antiracist work and dialogue. The hope is that it will help raise enough money to do more substantial and ongoing antiracist work by funding the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Read more about the endowment on my endowment page. Please consider donating as much as you can to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.