Airing Out: Washington to Iowa & University Inc.’s Transmission of Whiteness

The pervasive, pernicious reproduction of whiteness even in the name of antiracism, decoloniality, & like discourses

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Original painting by Leo Wyatt; Acrylic latex co-polymers on canvas (55 x 75 x 3 in.).

I’m driving a 1997 Plymouth Voyager van on Interstate 80 through the agricultural corridor of the plains.

Eastern Colorado’s scrubby grass & a few “dairy farms” extend toward a horizon whose event seems simply to be continued catastrophe for high margins.

The “barns” of the “farms” consist of two-story mounds of manure covered with hundreds of tires & a thousand head or so beneath a tin-roofed feedlot, chomping grain that ruins their stomach as it fattens them at a rate achieved after decades of market-driven pressures.

Nebraska’s corn & sandhill crane colonies (“The Largest in the World!”) are a white mass peppered with black & white that you can pick out even at 85 mph. They feed & nest in the pond’s shallow sand.

Iowa’s rolling hills bulge like vertebrae, emergences from glacial husks of a colossus & their skeletal remains, shards dragged across North American soil 10,000 years ago, leaving strange geological deposits & so dark it looks as if it were scorched.

I’m driving from Washington State, my home since 2007, during the undergraduate years, & for years after, living with my partner & doing any kind of labor one would excitedly gravitate toward, were one wise enough to study philosophy & creative writing.

I worked construction for my partner’s Christian uncles, for a terrified Catholic man, at a grocery store in Hilltop, Tacoma, & finally, in 2012, landed a solid job which involved cleaning up wrecked, foreclosed HUD homes (80 hour weeks, good money).

Often it felt like wading through ruined dreams.

Often it felt like wading through ruined dreams. One house had an inscription in lipstick on a bathroom mirror that, in all caps read, FUCK YOU / YOU FUCKING WHORE / GAVE ME HERPES / & HIV / IF I SEE YOU AGAIN / I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU.

Then there was the house with padlocks on the outside closet doors of children’s rooms, for example. Hundreds of sentences were inscribed on the inside walls of the closet.

I’m leaving Parkland / Tacoma, Washington, for Iowa City, Iowa, where the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop lives on & produces Booker Prize nominees & stalwart débuts with six-figure contracts. Somehow I’d been admitted into the poetry program.

There’d be no way to properly prepare for the ensuing five years, the shock of it. Having found a chosen family that stretched from Parkland to Tacoma to Gig Harbor to Olympia & Seattle, even Orcas Island, any change of scene was going to to fill with longing for so many good people.

They all seem like polymaths sometimes. They use Alaska mill chainsaws, rebuild bicycles, build furniture, captain boats, remove motors from 22-R pickups with cherry pickers while people strip & dance around the vehicle, make things out of clay, work at bars & restaurants, & generally lived in a poverty that operated at the interstices of bookstores, small farms, residential & city areas that the state & the private sector were wont to miss during their beautification project red ribbon-cuttings ceremonies.

Iowa City’s environment would largely fall away from the graduate student body, many of whom hail from the likes of Princeton, Yale, Harvard, Columbia, NYU, UCLA, Berkeley, & who go on to do big-time things. I’ve never been as compelled thoroughly by groups of humans, their vast knowledge, their ability to tell stories, to play hard in a dive bar & write a novel.

I would come to think of myself as cognitively disabled around them & find myself in a discursive tempest whose range & extent seemed hyperreal, realer than the real that was right in front of me.

The glass colludes with light & the tall buildings do the rest. The sun’s up. There are no clouds.

Light bounces off the middle of the blacktop near 20th street & its phosphorescent glare’s enough to make you look away. It’s 2021.

People walk by trees planted in concrete pots without leaves so, as you’d expect, when wind blows it sounds like brittle drumsticks that’ve been hollow’d out.

I’m on a bench with a friend, downtown Denver. A young black man in the throes of a full-blown psychosis oscillates between greeting people (& their mirage doubles) & angrily speaking beneath his breath. He lifts the imaginary rifle & aims across the street.

There’s a lucidity none of us yet understand.

He asks me for a cigarette. We all light up except the other handsome black man, maybe forty-five, wearing what looks like an all-black Dickies ensemble but the collar is clipped different, more stylish.

He begins telling my friend & me about how he did twenty years for what I assume was armed robbery; how a white boy — “who was cool, who we fuck’d with” — got two years of probation for the same crime. The white man was on camera. There were witnesses. The police had in their possession the weapon burnished.

No such evidence existed in his case.

He doesn’t deny the act; he communicates this with a calm oratorical precision, with a kind of poise that, were it left to the two white people’s horror, would get re-consumed & narcissistically re-woven as a treatise on their anti-racist know-how, thereby morphing effect itself another colonial weapon. The reproduction of white supremacy happens in universities everywhere even when it terrorizes itself to decolonize.

But he moves on, surprised almost, by our delay, our leakages of pain, our stupor & language failures.

I imagine black people feel like this often, amazed at the ways in which whiteness offers incompetency & confusion while blackness must exceed entire formal systems or artistic traditions (jazz), making the fetish of “disruption” a joke while proffering innovations whose consequences are seismic & global.

I imagine black people feel like this often, amazed at the ways in which whiteness offers incompetency & confusion while blackness must exceed entire formal systems or artistic traditions, making the fetish of “disruption” a joke while proffering innovations whose consequences are seismic & global.

White culture then does what it does best when faced with unequivocal evidence of its mediocrity, or, if that’s to negative for our sensitive white readers, evidence that success was always made easier for whites than non-whites.

When given evidence, over & over again, of the carceral psychopathy of its subject endowed with reason & virtue & superior cultural productions, it injects; invests; promotes; extracts; reproduces; & it lays to waste its new fuel by absorbing everything it can.

During my time with the University, it became clear, quickly, that the more white people mastered the discourse of alterity, the higher one’s moral worth was. The conflations were pathological; the social webbing diseased, immature, grotesque to a degree that’s impossible to communicate. POC were fetishized & treated like unique objects or pets; white people exported pictures of their “besties” on social media with a regularity that suggested an exoticism, like hanging with POC friends couldn’t be until it was documented & projected out to the social media cesspool.

This is something that is true about universities: whiteness reproduces with the safest camouflage & distance from poverty, including white poverty, & labor broadly writ. There is a disturbing amount of leisurely ambling through life; discourse becomes more real than anything else. In the name of decoloniality, radical labor movements, protest & revolution, & antiracism, white people elevate themselves to what some of us called The Police 2.0, a cyber-capable network of marines who would be sure to enforce the proper discursive protocol. Often this amounted to white people speaking for indigeneity & non-white communities with abandon & then using a moral gauge by which to dismiss others or, better yet, to socially poison them.

Some of the sickest people I’ve ever known were writers I met in Iowa City. Manipulative, consumptive, almost an eros to the ways in which they’d pass around gossip & poison offerings in their creation of hierarchical social caste systems, despite their pointlessness & brutality remaining totally lost in the magic of their hip psychopathologies.

Get with the right discourse & your speech (which is the valued commodity) may gain value; you may wrangle some social, human capital. You might pretend, if you’re white, that you’re somehow outside of the systemic reproduction of white supremacy.

For so many so-called allies, I mostly witnessed a kind of emotionally regressed social jockeying reminiscent high schoolers whose value increased with each new enactment of trauma for others.

We’re still smoking cigarettes on the bench.

“How do you think Afghani immigrants run a million-dollar liquor store within three years of living here? How you think Fifty Cent runs an empire? Dre? Jay? Kanye?”

We offer hard-boiled leftovers: talent? sociocultural evolution? late stage capitalism? good “business” sense?

“It’s been in front of you the whole time, you’ve just never seen it. Some people aren’t capable of seeing it. It’s right in front of your face.”

The older man speaks with a rhythm that feels measured & patient, as if memorized. We’ve been talking for an hour already. The buildings’ windows flick light like mica at the edge of the shallows.

Their rectilinear simplicity heightens the sublimity (from the Latin sublimare, to rise, elevate) of short, plotless walks on the foothill plains of the Rockies.

There’s a grocery store nearby & I’ll walk every aisle of the Kroger Store just to marvel at how many young people populate every aisle. In Iowa I would go to the HyVee & Walmart just to be around people. I spent hours there every week. One day I fell asleep on the bench in front of the pharmacy.

I found it strange that white liberals, in their solidarity with low-wage laborers, banish’d the business & therefore the space & all those who moved in it, excluding one of the most ethnically & linguistically diverse areas in Iowa City & Coralville.

The sky above the parking lot at dusk looked like Hokusai’s rendering of blue folds of the Kanagawa wave.

The sky above the parking lot at dusk looked like Hokusai’s rendering of blue folds of the Kanagawa wave.

Other times I’d go the the Coralville Mall & sit in the food court watching families that seemed ostensibly happy or at least content that this was a good thing, the mall & the Panda Express, the Ice Rink & Movie Theater, the goods from China & the president’s America First policies.

Painted garbage cans replace groundcover that would’ve included columbine flowers & scrub oak, poison ivy in small clutches against orange tinted with white to a beige that glows as if undercoated with copper.

I couldn’t care less about the ecological blackmail factions or climate change moralists that presuppose idiocy on the part of the un-initiated. I don’t give a shit about white people simulating policy as if they’re service workers for POC communities. One doesn’t have to inscribe digitally your antiracist pro-indigenous perspective as if a kind of proof.

The largest heist continues: white people & white America still piratize cultures which are fundamentally other-than white culture.

I rely on, was taught or led by teachers & strangers to listen to music / discourse invented by black, indigenous, asian & / queer artists. I taught a unit about Asian American Civil Rights & my students would say things like: “I didn’t even know this existed.” & then I take the credit for being a “good” teacher? Without having access & guidance from Asian scholars, artists, & writers I’d be right there with my students.

So how does a white non-binary person who still is cis-gendered even speak to teaching that unit in a way that’s not piratized or fraught with appropriative speech?

So how does a white non-binary person who still is cis-gendered even speak to teaching that unit in a way that’s not piratized or fraught with appropriative speech?

There’s this sense that white academicians achieve purity & corresponding inclusion into the very minority groups the white majority has profitably terrorized. But what are the metrics for such purity routines? Why doesn’t the University just kill itself off already? Decolonizing the University means returning it to the Báxoje people. Baudrillard wrote about this in 1984, most famously in Simulations & Simulacra: that of capital’s reabsorption of every negativity & critique, profitably perpetuating anti-ethnologies or anti-psychologies, instantiating & cementing permanent residencies for the given discourse or academic field.

(Make no mistake: integration into the very architecture & institutions built for maintaining white supremacy will further perpetuate employment & profitability of white people.)

By amplifying black or historically marginalized voices they are lent the profitability that’s been denied them by white settler colonialism.

The value that indigenous, black, & POC + trans-queer artists & organizations create is a dynamic force & one unequivocally necessary. Full stop.

I fear that capital’s valuation of such artists & organizations will only funnel them into the broken exploitative system that only knows value if value increases over time.

There’s Black Spotify. Black Netflix. Black Hulu. We live in a universe where the amplification is a matter of public relations & profitability. Industrial responses to cultural & social change is a matter of profit.

It’s undeniably important that POC & trans-queer artists, businesses, & organizations thrive with a dynamism that heretofore has been denied. But if we know some of the mechanisms that extract value & produce profit are broken, what will prevent these profitable productions from perpetuating late capitalist enterprise’s annihilative movement toward peak profitable collapse & extraction?

What other “options” exist?

If you’re white & lucky enough to have found or you’ve been introduced to Sun Ra or Alice Coltrane, how exactly do you navigate their afrofuturist quantum sound, their indomitable genius & singular heterodox while remaining sensitive to the histories of grotesque appropriation & profiteering of black life?

How can the very vibrational signatures, the musical corpus of which were fundamentally of & for black people & black life but also improvisatory, invite those beyond the bounds of the black community to re-wire & tune their built-in acoustics to learn from & play with &, somehow, do so without reproducing the code that monetizes & piratizes that very offering?

This is how capital absorbs even the greatest critique or negativity. It develops industrial-grade architecture for speech, expression, leadership, a cultural hyperreal factory where everyone’s working to amplify speech, participation, action, where value is in the physical bodies of sound mobilized like a linguistic armada ready to challenge the hegemony of capital or the state, the difference between them no longer possible or distinguishable.

But no valuation from white people or institutions will ever know what non-white communities have always known. No elevation will repair the core historical realities that persist in obvious formats.

Isn’t this axiomatic? White people will never be able to speak for or from a position of knowing the suffering of indigenous & black people. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t learn the history, the discourse, but the learning of the discourse & histories should always be something gravitationally related to the wisdom gleaned from discourse invented, out of necessity, by non-white artists, thinkers, scholars, & teachers.

There’s a gulf that requires some attention: there’s a gulf between the discourse white academicians master & deploy & the fundamental protection from the suffering that indigenous & POC & queer-trans & poor white communities know. It’s profitable to learn the discourse & it also becomes a wedge that accelerates tensions between poor white communities & non-white people.

That unknowable universe is the very thing all Euro-colonial thought & science seeks to master & it is also that which in an absolute way can never be known.

If any of that has even a modicum or approximate legitimacy, it makes sense then to theorize & discuss what other means of sociopoetic (Fred Moten & Stefano Harvey’s term) (dis)organization is possible if the inclusion / amplification / integration model—where voice & representation are the profitable disseminated commodity—was rejected.

What is a hyperreal late capitalist subject’s relationship to the land itself? How can decoloniality proceed in the physical actual world? When no remaining identity groups want anything to do with white people, how are white populations going to develop a poetics from the ash pile of this country’s history that don’t rely on recapitulating racist identitarian models of whiteness?

Those who’ve left their teachings so some kind of relationship could be resurrected are I’m a fundamental way inaccessible to the colonial settler, even as decolonization studies blooms like a bright new cyst that will finally take coloniality out of the equation.

It is vital, decolonization. But what would it look like to move it beyond the parameters of neat academic discourse?

What does dissolving a republic look like?

What does dissolving a republic look like?

White academia weaponizes discourse, text, author, anything. It does so while benefiting from its dated subject position, systemically, & doubling down, accelerates its killed-off enlightenment subject, proving a discursive know-how lest POC everywhere think you’re inherently unable to speak to or for the kinds of oppression already schooled you by those whom for whom you speak.

“Wait but what’s the secret?”

The older man pauses, looks down at us, grinning.

“It’s right in front of you. It’s been right there your whole, entire life.”

Leo Wyatt is a painter, poet, educator, & founder of The Stout Industrial Co. Leo's homeless & lives in Denver.

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