commentary was first published by Alabama
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.