This site is dedicated to the professional and academic work of Dr. Angela Dye.
Plantation Politics is about intrapersonal relations among black people inside of a racial system of power. Being located at the bottom of a racial hierarchy, black people are often lulled into competing with each other for limited access in a restricted pursuit to be fully human.
It’s an interesting concept– being human. As humans, we have individual subjectivity; the ownership of a full battery of thoughts and emotions; and a need (and right) to name and transform one’s world. We, in our human selves, want to feel powerful.
Being located at the bottom of a racial hierarchy, black people are often lulled into competing with each other for limited access in a restricted pursuit to be fully human.
To illustrate this point about a basic pursuit for being fully human (within a context for access and differential power), let me do a little story telling.
Once upon a time, a teacher (white male) said he felt offended that a principal (black female) advocated for students’ humanity. In a space where black students were seven times more likely to be punished for being human than their white counterparts, the person felt “disrespected” because, by focusing on his output, the principal did not acknowledge his supposed inputs. On another day, two different teachers — dealing with two different situations– reinforced this very point that the high rate of punishing black students was about the absence of their’ humanity– if for no other reason but to favor the humanity of adults. Each of these two teachers demanded that students submit to their authority and when students refused, each teacher came to leverage the position of power (along with the black body of the principal) to make their students comply. When the principal refused, an alliance was formed among all three and a campaign was started to say that the principal was soft on student behaviors but hard on teachers. There is more to unlayer here but the purview of this essay demands that I focus and resist the urge. The point most relevant for this discussion is that these teachers wanted to ignore students’ needs in exchange for honoring their needs as adults.
The late bell hooks often talked about the social world as racist- sexist-patriarchal- capitalism and that is because all of these systems are enacted every time we engage with another person. They are active byproducts of the socialization process. Unless we are consciously (and constantly) detangling ourselves from the narratives and choices that come along with these systems, we inherently perpetrate and reinforce them on a daily, minute-by-minute, basis. It’s the nature of psychology. We act out of our socialization and when such socialization treats power as though it is capital as opposed to inherent, then it is perceived as a fight. So the racist, sexist, patriarchal capitalistic social world that we are all part of will naturally exist as part of our internal wiring, and as we pursue or own humanity, especially when the pursuit is presented as a contest, we will use those systems to give us favor.
This whole story is about power. While these three teachers might refute such a finding, I want to draw attention to the contest at hand: respect, contrition, submission and authority. All of these attributes are about structures of power in that they determine who has “control, influence and independence” (Dye, 2014). Students fighting for their independence is on par with teachers fighting for their influence. Both want to maintain a position free of the other. And in that freedom, both want to remain whole.
All three teachers were encouraged to differentiate between the battle and the war and the difference between winning each. When you seek to win the battle, you enter into a winner takes all contest and both contenders are blinded by the self. When winning the war, both contenders walk away with the self all while keeping the self of the other in tact. This notion of keeping the self in tact really highlights the point about power and ultimately my thesis about plantation politics. We all want to be whole; however, when those most vulnerable have to sacrifice this basic need for those who have already held it, then this contest is not about both contenders remaining whole. It’s about some contenders maintaining a historical win with others maintaining a historical loss.
When winning the war, both contenders walk away with the self all while keeping the self of the other in tact.
This battle between teachers and students, in a fight to be fully human, is what black on black, plantations-relations are about. It’s a sociological consideration if nothing else. Black on black in predominately white spaces is a political pursuit to be fully human.
In that pursuit, we gravitate to any power point that will give us access. We can locate and leverage gender (in the system of patriarchy) where genetalia can give us access to power. We can locate and leverage sex (in the system of hetero- normativity) where sexuality can give us access to power. We can locate and leverage skin tone (in the system of colorism) where perceived white lineage can give us access to power. Finally, we can locate and leverage “standard” literacies (in a system of white supremacy) where mastery of the dominant’s language can give us access to power.
So while we are all without racial power, we use other power points to give us selective access to our humanity (although it still is only a partial state). This differentiation to access is what lays the groundwork to plantation politics. Through plantation politics, we take our place at the racial bottom, mimmick our oppressor, and create an auxiliary power structure so we are distracted from our true powerlessness.
It’s a sociological consideration if nothing else. Black on black in predominately white spaces is a political pursuit to be fully human.
There are three ways black people actually engage in racial politics. All three are necessary as we fight to be human and fully whole. The first way is to neutralize (try to) race and ultimately try to make racism not a thing. It’s not that they don’t recognize racism but in an attempt to be equally side by side to whites (as the racial elite), this orientation champions an unrestricted-access presentation. The impact of this equal, unrestricted-access disposition makes African Americans appear safe and non threatening. As a result, this group of African Americans (safe negros) are rewarded, creating a continuous loop that reinforces the comfort of the racial elite.
The second way African Americans engage in racial politics is to name and confront racism as a barrier. Some see these individuals as confrontational– perceiving the act of naming and confronting as an irrational event rather than it being a rational one. Such was the case once when a few students moved their teacher to tears when they accused her of being a racist. Trying to engage them in a social justice conversation about classroom behaviors, students perceptively picked up the real issue– their behaviors as black students were under scrutiny and not their teacher’s behaviors as a white woman.
In full transparency, this situation has many more layers as one of the assistants tried to get administration (expressly because they were black) to make the teacher whole by convincing her students that she was not a racist. They were being asked to neutralize race– to become safe negros that will prioritize her comfort. However, true to the second type of African Americans engaged in race work, these students were both naming their world and confronting it at the same time (shifting the power relations from being power over to being power with). There is nothing unintelligent that they did. The teacher’s tears were unintelligent as she had a bastardized framing for social justice and couldn’t emotionally handle its impact. This is the value of the second group of race workers (confronting negros). Their naming racism gets vilified within the context of comfort (someone else’s) — making visible the irrational.
The final way African Americans engage in racial politics is at the structural level. This is where they move beyond the immediate self and begin to transform systems that racially harm collectives. I’d like to believe this is where I was when I designed, launched and operated a charter school, engaging low- income, African American learners in higher order thinking and action. There, as the policy maker and the holder of the purse, I transformed the way race intersected with education… fundamentally changing what it means to teach and learn. My students (black) became power holders and my staff (white) became power sharers. Both were virgins to a different landscape of power. Both needed to learn a hidden essence of their being.
This is the point of the third type of racial engagement. Transformation. Like the first type, that focuses on positioning Blacks as equals, this African American (transformational negro) also doesn’t confront racism. She transforms it. But unlike the first type and much like the second, this type of race worker allows for the discomfort of the racial elite. While this discomfort has deep political and financial consequences, structurally abolishing systemic racism is what I believe to be the highest, yet under-represented, form of race work of our time.
This is the value of the second group of race workers (best understood as confronting negros). Their naming racism gets vilified within the context of comfort (someone else’s) — making visible the irrational.
While being human, accessing power inside of powerlessness, and navigating race can all be perceived as benign events, the sum total of plantation politics is ultimately shitty.
First, there is the hierarchy at the bottom of the hierarchy effect. With African Americans occupying the bottom of the racial caste system, as persisted across time, accessed units of power (as discussed above) inherently align to create an auxiliary power structure. This defaulted power arrangement is not only influenced by a desire for access. It’s also influenced by a desire for freedom. Ironically, (and unfortunately) the construct of freedom is modeled after the oppressor. When freedom is defined as the state of ownership and the ability to thingify humans as property, then those at the bottom of the caste system, even though they are oppressed, will engage in such practice simply in their desire to be free. This is why Paulo Freire said the oppressed have a dual assignment. Not only must they free themselves but they must also free their oppressors as well. This distorted treatment of freedom is at the heart of plantation politics. It’s how two African Americans can sit across from each other, use the same language of equity and justice and still cause and reinforce bondage.
The second shitty of plantation politics is a desire for the both change-and-comfort effect. Earlier in this essay I talked about the comfort of the racial elite. However right along side (yet at a significantly different degree) is the historical yearning for blacks to be comfortable as well. This is what I believe to be the value of the safe negro (the first type of African American engaged in race work). Their unstated agenda of keeping whites comfortable is a simultaneous desire for they themselves to be comfortable. It’s a strategy for equal comfort and it is the best illustration that white comfort, in what it requires to sustain itself, will never allow for blacks to have it. Because as much as safe negros try to denounce the racial efforts of the other two types of African Americans –because the other two don’t prioritize white comfort– they secretly bemoan their experiences amongst the racial elite.
I truly had to work hard to understand this paradox of publicly neutralizing racism all while privately (in secret underground conversations) begrudging it. But it is this paradox that reinforces the agenda of the other two types of African Americans engaged in race work (the not so safe negros– those that confront and those that transform). White comfort will never give us our freedom. If that were true, there would be nothing for safe negros to bemoan. Instead of secretly talking about harm at the extent of whiteness, they would be secretly talking about non-safe negros as a threat to black comfort. But safe negros don’t secretly critique non- safe negros. They publicly do it. Wait, let me clarify. They publicly do so with white audiences.– or, at least they did before the black lives matter movement. Now they do so discreetly with white audiences– quietly (yet still publicly) demonizing those that do not protect the comfort of the racial elite. And while this public profession is comical (well, almost) in that it is performative at best when in existence of their underground suffering, it is ultimately divisive, allowing us to collectively harm each other all in the spirit of sacrificing our comfort for someone else’s.
Similar to this divisive, paradoxical, and convoluted pursuit for comfort, the third shitty of plantation politics is the exclusive conditions it ultimately creates. Circling back to units of power for access (gender, sexuality, language, education, and perceived white lineage), combined with the contest for comfort, plantation poltics creates silohs within the community. On its face, silohs don’t present as problematic. They convey an overlooked truth about the black community which is that we are not a monolith. Silohs showcase our different beliefs, needs and expressions inside of our collective experience of what it means to be black. But the problem with silohs is not in the diversity they represent but in the exclusion they create. When we identify a likeness amongst each other around units of power, in the backdrop of our desire to be comfortable and safe, we begin to vilify others who look like us but don’t live like us. “Skin folk ain’t your kin folk” is a saying that gets tossed around within the black community. Truthfully, I deeply dislike this saying as it suggests that simply because we are black we should act and exist as family. And, in terms of being black and surviving generations of structural racism, access to collective care is the primary (if not only) way we have survived. So accessing collective care is fine but mandating it by way of shaming those who don’t act out care in the way that we need as individuals is a problem.
This is ultimately the point with the shitty side of plantation politics. Our silohs mandate a fixed orientation towards living– villifyng anyone not living according to our access points of power. In the south (and maybe in the north) there was a brown paper bag rule that dictated the exclusion of anyone darker than a certain skin color. This rule only applied to black folks amongst black folk, creating a ranking system that further dehumanized people living in an already dehumanizing condition. Silohs in the black community aren’t really about likeness as much as they are about exclusion. It’s a de facto ranking system that dictates care to those that have been deemed worthy of care and then not only removing care from those not in your siloh but actively harming them because they are different.
While being human, accessing power inside of powerlessness, and navigating race can all be perceived as benign events, the sum total of plantation politics is ultimately shitty.
This post could have been named Paternalism, Patriarchy, Capitalism, or Sexism but in that I inherently talked about each of these systems, plantation politics was the best way to frame the conversation and bring them all together.
As a wrap up, plantation politics was the best way to showcase all of these systems not just because they are implicated through these two words, but because together, they actually create a single phenomenon. During the antebellum period, plantations were epicenters for commerce, profit/ wealth, free labor, female infantilization and the brutal subhumanization of any person not white. The core problem with linking plantation politics to the antebellum period, however, is that it doesn’t really, with an untrained eye, showcase the interconnected conditions with being both infantiled and dehumanized (two conditions best understood through black womanhood). But, seen or unseen, this intersectionality exist all the same. Navigating all of it, as being advantageous or harmful, creates a set of politics that (whether on the plantations of the antebellum era or the office spaces of 21st century corporate America) singularly makes the pursuit to be fully human a contest.
Here is my central point. Blacks if not actively conscious and committed to the full humanity of other blacks in predominately white spaces can and will harm each other. Not because of self hate as much as it is about the absence of a unified commitment to be whole and fully human… as a collective. Our work isn’t just about racism as related to the racial elite. It is also about racism as it makes us compete with each other for our humanity. It’s a form of collective gas lighting. When we feel as though we have to access other systems of harm so that we can access more of our humanity (as opposed to all of it), we, at best, are striving to be at the top of the bottom.
There is a racial caste system. This is not the question. The question is about how those at the bottom survive (and thrive) side by side, next to each other while down there. Let’s not get blinded by an auxiliary power structure that offers partial access to our humanity. It’s the wrong type of structure for comfort and it’s the wrong type of comfort for being whole. We as a collective, and as individuals, are better than that. It’s just that simple.
Note 1: “White” was used in this essay as a political concept– not as a human one. This distinction is critical and, one day, warrants more discussion.
Note 2: “Thingify” is a word borrowed from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Note 3: My scope of power comes from my research: The Phenomenon of Powerlessness as Student Achievement (2014).
Note 4: While not academic or professional, “shitty” as my choice word to explain the negative impact of Plantation Politics was intentionally used because no other word could explain the conjoined and compounded nature of the experience being toxic, hurtful, betraying and tarnishing.