The Interview Series Part 2 of 3: Dr. Joseph Flynn, AATC President

Our March Interview Series features a conversation with current AATC President Dr. Joseph Flynn, Northern Illinois University. In Part One, Dr. Flynn elaborated on how he became involved with AATC, this year’s conference theme of “Teacher Activism in Distressed Times”, and what he hopes attendees will come away with. In Part Two, he discusses his new book and the concept of White fatigue. He also reveals what has surprised him the most about being a father. Part Three will be released later this month. Dr. Flynn was interviewed by Jodie Wilson, AATC Executive Council Member.

Jodie: Given the current sociopolitical state of our nation—the Trump presidency, overtly racist acts being committed against Blacks, Muslims, Jews, homophobia and transphobia…the list seems to go on and on and only seems to be getting more shocking and disturbing as the days wear on.  I’m wondering–what sense (if any) do you make of these events?

Joe: Our current sociopolitical state is dismal, however, I also think that we all have a certain degree of responsibility in that.  Facebook came about and I think that for the average citizen once Facebook came around, it became this place where you are all but completely unfettered to say whatever you feel like saying—it really emboldened a lot of people.  The rhetoric of Mr. Trump on his campaign trail and of course, after, has been problematic, but Mr. Trump is nothing new for a lot of us.  It’s not like he’s the first presidential candidate or president to ever use dog-whistle politics, and I think that for many of us, what’s emerged isn’t really shocking.  It’s just like we’ve always known it was there, and now we’re just at a political moment where it’s in vogue for them to come out of the shadows. There’s a part of me that really frustrated about it because it’s hard to hear what some of these folks have to say, but on the other hand, I think it is a really optimistic moment because it allows the nation to get a much better barometer about how we as a nation really do feel about matters of equity and justice.  So, I appreciate that we’re seeing a much more honest picture of what identity relations in America really looks like and the lengths that some folks will go to sustain the status quo that is slipping away and not an opportune moment to live up to what we say we believe in our creed as Americans.  I guess depending on the day I wake up I’m really frustrated [laughs] and on other days I’m good with it and hopeful that the work that we’re all doing is not for naught. 

I’d like to talk about your social justice research, and in particular, your new book, White Fatigue (2018, Peter Lang). I remember going to hear Gloria Ladson-Billings speak and she called it “just justice”—not even “social justice.” Is that something you ascribe to—the word “justice” or do you adhere to the “social justice” phrasing?

Yeah, I’m actually in the process of moving away from the term “social justice” and just talking about justice.  It’s mostly because number one, as soon as you say “social justice” half the room stops listening.  So, social justice has become another buzzword like “diversity,” “multicultural,” on and on down the line, and so the power and gravity of the mission towards social justice has kind of been watered down and manipulated.  Now, I do believe in the value of social justice, and I do believe in the project of social justice, but at the end of the day, it’s just justice.  Much like the way Martin Luther King talked about civil rights—at the end of the day, it’s just human rights.  The way that Secretary Clinton talked about women’s rights are human rights, and if we’re going to talk about these things as just being fundamental aspects of being a human, and being allowed the space to be fully human, that’s justice.  Moreover, if we look at institutional and systemic forms of oppression like racism, sexism, paternalism, et cetera, you’re looking at a much larger history and therefore that history is the prelude to justice. We need to know—what’s the history of the domination, subordination, marginalization of women? What’s the history of the domination, subordination, marginalization of the LGBT community? Of the culturally and linguistically diverse community in the United States? I think when you situate folks within this larger history, and then talk about policies, practices, curricula, that speaks to that, you’re no longer just talking about social justice—that’s a matter of justice.  People in this country—using African Americans as an example—even after the Brown v. Board decision in 1954, which of course desegregated schools, the educational opportunities for African Americans were still far behind those of White Americans and became much more challenging. Now these kids, especially in the South, were being forced to attend schools that were outside their neighborhoods, that had no Black teachers, no Black principals, and no curriculum that was even remotely complementary to those Black students.  To ameliorate that isn’t just social—that’s just justice. Right up front.  To work to reclaim the dignity and respect of individuals and groups when they have been marginalized is just—that’s all it is—it’s just.  So, I’m trying to, in the advice of Gloria, I’m trying to move away from talking about social justice and call it for what it is—justice. 

So, for your new book, White Fatigue, which I read and really appreciated, you describe White fatigue as a “framing of the struggle White folks have in both coming to grips with and fully understanding the depth and complexity of systemic and institutional racism” (p. 65).  Can you talk about how White fatigue offers a more nuanced look at racism and White resistance, and how it is different from other terms like, for example, White fragility or Racial Battle Fatigue?

White fatigue is predicated on the notion that the person who is suffering a moment of fatigue is someone who already believes that racism is wrong and is interested in understanding how racism works. However, understanding racism is deeply challenging.  When I’m talking about it and when I mention it in the book, is that when we teach about these issues, we’re often—speaking specifically about race and racism—using theories and ideas from a wide interdisciplinary collection.  We’re using social theory, philosophical theories, anthropology, archaeology, cultural studies, legal history, history.  I mean, we’re really drawing on a lot and when we throw that much information at students, I think that for some students and people in general, it can get a little overwhelming and that overwhelming feeling can slip into frustration and fatigue.  I use the term fatigue to connote the idea that this is a long, slow struggle, this is a long process, and in understanding these ideas you can get tired and worn down on that path.  I think the big difference between White fragility and White fatigue is I think that people are just at different stages of their own identity development and their own understanding about how race and racism function. I don’t think the fatigued have a problem with engaging in the ideas or diving into them, I think that they just find their own wells of frustration that can cause them to show behaviors that might seem like resistance on its face, but aren’t resistance in the way that the fragile are resistant. The fragile are just rejecting everything outright, whereas the fatigued are actually not really rejecting, they’re just at a moment where they need to step back for a little bit and do some of their own processing and gain some of their own understanding before moving onto the next.  And I think it’s important to differentiate between the two because I think if there’s anything that really spins many White folks into a bad space, it’s being equated to or being called a racist.  I think when we hear, ‘oh that person’s just resistant,’ that kind of carries the connotation that they don’t care, that they’re not interested, and ‘whatever with all this social justice stuff,’ right? Whereas the fatigued do care and they are passionate, or at least concerned with matters of justice—racial justice or otherwise.  Again, it’s just a lot to learn and that is highly reflected in the fact that the American K-12 curriculum woefully underprepares us for having reasoned and informed conversations about these things.  I wish I had a dollar for every student that I’ve had that openly admitted that they don’t know very much about slavery, they don’t know very much about Jim Crow, I mean we’re at a moment right now where we’re still seeing people dressed up in blackface who actually have the audacity to get on television and say they don’t understand what the big deal is.  It’s like well, if you knew that history… I just recently wrote a chapter for a colleague’s book and the book is on the Black Lives Matter movement, and in my chapter I talk about how if White folks en masse really understood the nature and history of the relationship between the African American community and law enforcement, it becomes much more logical and easy to understand why folks would say “black lives matter.”  Because the historical record is far too clear that oftentimes Black lives did not matter. Whether that’s an indication of slavery and the depravity and humanity that happened under that institution, to the fact that law enforcement officers were oftentimes involved in White supremacy organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, and White Citizens Councils in the south, all the way to the fact that law enforcement was known for standing by and allowing lynchings to happen.  Or, even actively participating in them.  That’s not to say that White law enforcement never interceded and stopped lynchings because they did—however, a lot of them didn’t.  So taking all of that history together, it creates a different kind of picture.  But again, learning that and really understanding what it all means, and the implications that history has on today, that’s a lot. It’s a lot for anyone to take.  So I talk about learning about these issues not just this intellectual exercise, it’s also a deeply psychological and even more deeply spiritual exercise because now we’re really talking about the ways in which people see the world—a concept that is oftentimes overlooked in our day-to-day lives unless something happens.  But to come into a classroom as an 18-, 20-, 25-year-old, and never really having had any significant experiences—both interacting with and learning about difference—it’s a challenge.  And that person can walk into my class and say ‘I don’t think racism is right, I think it’s totally wrong,’ and then not really understand why mass incarceration is racist, or why housing policies today can be racist, and access to health care—how is that a racist issue?  And so, walking folks through that takes time, and oftentimes we as Americans tend to want things right away and these conversations aren’t quick—hour and a half professional development activities after school is not sustained engagement and that can get frustrating and cause fatigue.

I noticed that your book is dedicated to your son Jacob. As a parent myself, I’m wondering– what has surprised you the most about fatherhood?

What’s surprised me the most? How flawed I am and how much I have no clue of what I’m doing [laughs]. Being a parent is… that’s life’s rich pageant right there! It’s challenging and it’s so fulfilling at the same time.  Jacob’s just a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful person. I think that’s like my favorite thing—to see him being such a warm and compassionate person on his own you know? And we really appreciate that.  Yeah, the thing that surprised me the most is how much I would learn about myself and what my own strengths and weaknesses and fears are, even more so than learning about him and who he is.  Being a parent—get ready! It is all a quest of self-learning and self-correction. 

You were born to a working class family in Peoria, Illinois, attended an all-Black church, and gained a real sense of the importance of Black identity and culture from your family. You write that “for all intents and purposes, I lived in a Black world with occasional White visitors” (White Fatigue, 2018, p. 3). What impact did this have on you, and how does it impact how you and your wife raise Jacob?

For me, when I was little, I don’t think it was all that uncommon of an experience—at least for a lot of the Black kids that I knew.  And this was…about mid-70s, mid- to late-70s, and so we were a part of that first, maybe second wave of Black families moving out to the suburbs.  We were, for a few years, the only Black family in the neighborhood.  And that was okay, as I said in the book, I don’t have any memories of any one really being ill toward me.  There were a couple of families in the neighborhood, but you knew. You knew who to be around and who not to be around.  Those families that were a little stank—for lack of better terms right now—you can print that! [laughing]. For those families and kids my age who were not as enlightened so to speak, we just stayed away from them, we didn’t really talk to them.  There were a lot of kids in my subdivision that were my age, and all of us kids pretty much got along really well with each other and had a great time playing together and growing up around each other.  Being outside my house, that is where I learned a lot about White culture in terms of movies…. for example, in about, I want to say, about 1979, “The Wiz” came out—the film with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson which of course is a remake of “The Wizard of Oz”–but it’s completely urbanized—it’s the Black version as we say.  And like a lot of my friends didn’t even know about it, my friends in the neighborhood.  But in the house, around my friends at church, every other place I went to, we all knew about it.  But my White friends didn’t know anything about it.  Now at the exact same time, there were things that I was learning from my White friends that my Black friends didn’t know anything about.  My Black friends didn’t listen to punk, you know, let alone rock n’ roll, so the unintended consequence of all that though, was that for a long time I had a very binary view of race—White folks do this, Black folks do that. I didn’t really grow out of that until maybe into my later twenties.  I think that in terms of raising Jacob, we wanted to make sure that he always had access to a lot of diversity, so now we live in a neighborhood that is highly diverse.  Jacob attends a very diverse school, he has friends that are Black, White, Pakistani, Filipino—he’s got friends from all over the world.  And so we just wanted to make sure that number one he understands what it means that he is a Black child in America and eventually a Black man in America.  We want him to know that history and know what that means.  At the same time, we want him to be a citizen of the world and understand that everybody from anywhere oftentimes deals with the same kind of problems—it’s all just human problems.  You can either support people or you can get in people’s way.  What kind of person do you want to be?