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Wythe Holt

This commentary was first published by Alabama Public Radio.

A little over a year ago, a junior at Lee High School in Huntsville, AL, acknowledged her anger and decided she wasn't going to take it any more. She was tired of hearing the "n" word - that is, "nigger" - used to describe blacks by her white schoolmates. An accomplished poet, Kohl Fallin struck back with words. She wrote a poem.

"Your Perception, My Reality" speaks directly to the experience black folks have, and have had for hundreds of years, in a country dominated by white folks. "We are worth more than your pale white skin," she begins, refusing right from the start to accept the lower status that many whites think blacks are supposed to have. "Mediocre and below is what we are supposed to amount to in your mind," she says. "When I hear these words come out of your mouth it makes me want to slap the white off you and leave you with some sense."

White domination because of the accident of a pale skin color is absolutely senseless, as Kohl says. Taking away whiteness with a slap will, she thinks, bring her tormentors to their senses, because they will then no longer have their marker of superiority. "I have news," Kohl continues, "[W]e are already ahead. Some of us are strong, proud, sophisticated and more." With sense, whites will see the reality of equality, in multifold differences and multifold abilities among us all.

Moreover, such illicit power itself hurts the dominant, Kohl charges; it brings a submergence of the beauty of difference. "Birds of a feather flock together. Your flock has blond hair and blue eyes. The flock is exclusive and all the same, different identities are not allowed." In their whitewashing clubbiness, Kohl understands, whites lose their own individualities. Black is beautiful because it is thoughtful and independent, while white is mean, thoughtless, mindlessly conformist. Kohl Fallin has turned the white world on its head.

Wisdom, courage, perception, the ability to put hard truth into powerful words, are obviously not qualities reserved to those we perhaps self-servingly call adults. Kohl's poem is indeed mature and powerful.

Lee High School has a prize-winning in-school literary magazine, Expressions. Kohl's creative writing teacher urged her to submit the poem. She did, and the editorial board composed of black, white, and Asian students accepted it. The faculty sponsor of the magazine, however, refused to publish the poem. This act of censorship was backed up by the Principal and the School Board Superintendent, both of whom are African American. When Kohl's outraged parents tried to appeal to the whole School Board, they were denied on a gross technicality, the lone African American on that Board also solitary in dissent.

The only reason given for this censorship, so far as I can determine, is that "slap[ping] the white off" of her classmates might insult white high school students. This is an overtly racist reason, especially given the fact that her words were written in response to white use of the word "nigger," obviously and intentionally insulting to black students "mistreated in an awful way," as one of Kohl's African-American classmates and a member of the Expression student staff put it.

The problem is, many whites do not see what happened to Kohl Fallin as racism. Protecting white children from insulting racial statements is good. Protecting black children from insulting racial statements is impossible. This juxtaposition, this paradox, this craziness is - to most whites - just "natural."

Let me give you an example from my own neck of the woods. In Tuscaloosa, many privileges are given to or made available chiefly for white students - advanced courses in high school, the dismantling of a single all-city high school in favor of two new schools in mostly white areas (and one old school in a mostly black area), other new elementary and middle schools, busing from inner city white neighborhoods to these new schools in distant exurbs. Why? To "keep whites in the public school system." Little recognition is given to the miserable social and economic conditions which push blacks away from the system, or to the supposedly neutral policies which effectively segregate and miseducate most blacks once they are in that system. Money is spent, decisions made, courses placed into "tracks" - essentially to promote the well being of whites. And many whites I have listened to think this is "normal" and certainly not racist.

It is even worse than I have been saying. As in Kohl Fallin's instance, high-placed black adults go right along with this sort of racism, even facilitate it, probably to save their jobs and to appease an aroused white-dominated power structure. One outraged writer in the Huntsville Times found these African-American authority figures "miserable creatures, having to serve at the pleasure of the white establishment, even to the detriment of African American youth."

You heard me correctly. Blacks can participate in racist actions against blacks. What I am talking about is institutional racism. Racism built into the system, into the culture, into the hearts and minds of all of the folks who live in a nation whose history for many centuries has been shot through with racist decisions, racist attitudes, racist preferences, racist wealth allocation. Racism as a natural and inescapable part of a power structure which protects the wealthy and powerful, and which the few African Americans who have recently entered positions within the power structure oppose at their peril.

While rarely a matter of that overt intentionality so precious to individualists and liberals - mostly white - who smugly assure themselves that they have conquered their own racism, institutional racism nevertheless operates through people, and it chews up human beings and spits them out. Censorship is drastic, damaging to any student but especially to a brilliant one, violative of that most American value, freedom of speech. Censorship sets a terrible model for training young Americans to be open with their feelings, to express themselves, to think and act for themselves, to be active citizens in a free democracy. Yet racist censorship was visited upon Kohl Fallin by her high school authorities, and it has not been corrected despite her strenuous efforts and those of her parents and other allies. Racism is with us still.


Wythe Holt is a lawyer, historian, and writer who lives in Alabama, who is mad as hell and isn't going to take it any more, and who works to eliminate institutional racism.