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TEDWomen 2016

Brittney Cooper: The racial politics of time

October 26, 2016

Cultural theorist Brittney Cooper examines racism through the lens of time, showing us how historically it has been stolen from people of color, resulting in lost moments of joy and connection, lost years of healthy quality of life and the delay of progress. A candid, thought-provoking take on history and race that may make you reconsider your understanding of time, and your place in it.

Brittney Cooper - Cultural theorist
With scholarship and incisive commentary that exposes the marginalized narratives hidden within "mainstream" history, Brittney Cooper writes at the vanguard of cultural criticism. Full bio

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What if I told you that time has a race,
00:12
a race in the contemporary way
that we understand race
00:17
in the United States?
00:20
Typically, we talk about race
in terms of black and white issues.
00:21
In the African-American communities
from which I come,
00:27
we have a long-standing
multi-generational joke
00:30
about what we call "CP time,"
00:33
or "colored people's time."
00:35
Now, we no longer refer
to African-Americans as "colored,"
00:38
but this long-standing joke
00:41
about our perpetual lateness to church,
00:43
to cookouts, to family events
00:45
and even to our own funerals, remains.
00:47
I personally am a stickler for time.
00:50
It's almost as if my mother,
when I was growing up, said,
00:53
"We will not be those black people."
00:56
So we typically arrive to events
30 minutes early.
00:58
But today, I want to talk to you
more about the political nature of time,
01:02
for if time had a race,
01:06
it would be white.
01:08
White people own time.
01:10
I know, I know.
01:14
Making such "incendiary statements"
makes us uncomfortable:
01:15
Haven't we moved past the point
where race really matters?
01:20
Isn't race a heavy-handed concept?
01:24
Shouldn't we go ahead
with our enlightened, progressive selves
01:27
and relegate useless concepts like race
to the dustbins of history?
01:30
How will we ever get over racism
if we keep on talking about race?
01:34
Perhaps we should lock up our concepts
of race in a time capsule,
01:41
bury them and dig them up
in a thousand years,
01:45
peer at them with the clearly
more enlightened,
01:48
raceless versions of ourselves
that belong to the future.
01:50
But you see there,
01:54
that desire to mitigate the impact
of race and racism shows up
01:55
in how we attempt to manage time,
02:00
in the ways we narrate history,
02:02
in the ways we attempt to shove
the negative truths of the present
02:04
into the past,
02:07
in the ways we attempt to argue
that the future that we hope for
02:09
is the present in which
we're currently living.
02:12
Now, when Barack Obama
became President of the US in 2008,
02:15
many Americans declared
that we were post-racial.
02:18
I'm from the academy
02:22
where we're enamored
with being post-everything.
02:23
We're postmodern, we're post-structural,
we're post-feminist.
02:26
"Post" has become
a simple academic appendage
02:31
that we apply to a range of terms
02:33
to mark the way we were.
02:35
But prefixes alone don't have the power
to make race and racism
02:38
a thing of the past.
02:42
The US was never "pre-race."
02:44
So to claim that we're post-race when we
have yet to grapple with the impact
02:46
of race on black people,
Latinos or the indigenous
02:50
is disingenuous.
02:53
Just about the moment
we were preparing to celebrate
02:55
our post-racial future,
02:58
our political conditions became
the most racial they've been
03:00
in the last 50 years.
03:03
So today, I want to offer to you
three observations,
03:05
about the past, the present
and the future of time,
03:08
as it relates to the combating
of racism and white dominance.
03:12
First: the past.
03:16
Time has a history,
03:19
and so do black people.
03:21
But we treat time as though
it is timeless,
03:23
as though it has always been this way,
03:26
as though it doesn't have
a political history
03:28
bound up with the plunder
of indigenous lands,
03:30
the genocide of indigenous people
03:33
and the stealing of Africans
from their homeland.
03:35
When white male European philosophers
03:38
first thought to conceptualize
time and history, one famously declared,
03:40
"[Africa] is no historical
part of the World."
03:45
He was essentially saying
03:50
that Africans were people
outside of history
03:51
who had had no impact on time
03:54
or the march of progress.
03:56
This idea, that black people
have had no impact on history,
03:58
is one of the foundational ideas
of white supremacy.
04:03
It's the reason that Carter G. Woodson
created "Negro History Week" in 1926.
04:06
It's the reason that we continue
to celebrate Black History Month
04:11
in the US every February.
04:14
Now, we also see this idea
04:18
that black people are people either
alternately outside of the bounds of time
04:20
or stuck in the past,
04:25
in a scenario where,
much as I'm doing right now,
04:27
a black person stands up and insists
that racism still matters,
04:29
and a person, usually white,
04:34
says to them,
04:36
"Why are you stuck in the past?
04:37
Why can't you move on?
04:39
We have a black president.
04:41
We're past all that."
04:43
William Faulkner famously said,
04:46
"The past is never dead.
04:48
It's not even past."
04:50
But my good friend
Professor Kristie Dotson says,
04:53
"Our memory is longer than our lifespan."
04:56
We carry, all of us,
05:01
family and communal
hopes and dreams with us.
05:03
We don't have the luxury
of letting go of the past.
05:08
But sometimes,
05:13
our political conditions are so troubling
05:15
that we don't know
if we're living in the past
05:17
or we're living in the present.
05:19
Take, for instance,
when Black Lives Matter protesters
05:22
go out to protest unjust killings
of black citizens by police,
05:24
and the pictures that emerge
from the protest
05:28
look like they could have been
taken 50 years ago.
05:31
The past won't let us go.
05:35
But still, let us press our way
into the present.
05:38
At present, I would argue
05:43
that the racial struggles
we are experiencing
05:45
are clashes over time and space.
05:48
What do I mean?
05:52
Well, I've already told you
that white people own time.
05:54
Those in power dictate
the pace of the workday.
05:57
They dictate how much money
our time is actually worth.
06:01
And Professor George Lipsitz argues
06:05
that white people even dictate
the pace of social inclusion.
06:07
They dictate how long
it will actually take
06:11
for minority groups to receive the rights
that they have been fighting for.
06:14
Let me loop back to the past quickly
to give you an example.
06:19
If you think about
the Civil Rights Movement
06:22
and the cries of its leaders
for "Freedom Now,"
06:25
they were challenging the slow pace
of white social inclusion.
06:28
By 1965, the year
the Voting Rights Act was passed,
06:32
there had been a full 100 years
06:36
between the end of the Civil War
06:37
and the conferral of voting rights
on African-American communities.
06:39
Despite the urgency of a war,
06:42
it still took a full 100 years
for actual social inclusion to occur.
06:45
Since 2012,
06:50
conservative state legislatures
across the US have ramped up attempts
06:52
to roll back African-American
voting rights
06:55
by passing restrictive voter ID laws
06:58
and curtailing early voting opportunities.
07:00
This past July, a federal court
struck down North Carolina's voter ID law
07:03
saying it "... targeted African-Americans
with surgical precision."
07:07
Restricting African-American inclusion
in the body politic
07:14
is a primary way that we attempt
to manage and control people
07:17
by managing and controlling time.
07:22
But another place that we see
these time-space clashes
07:26
is in gentrifying cities
like Atlanta, Brooklyn,
07:29
Philadelphia, New Orleans
and Washington, DC --
07:33
places that have had
black populations for generations.
07:36
But now, in the name
of urban renewal and progress,
07:40
these communities are pushed out,
07:43
in service of bringing them
into the 21st century.
07:45
Professor Sharon Holland asked:
07:48
What happens when a person
who exists in time
07:51
meets someone who only occupies space?
07:55
These racial struggles
08:00
are battles over those
who are perceived to be space-takers
08:02
and those who are perceived
to be world-makers.
08:05
Those who control the flow
and thrust of history
08:09
are considered world-makers
who own and master time.
08:12
In other words: white people.
08:17
But when Hegel famously said that Africa
was no historical part of the world,
08:20
he implied that it was merely
a voluminous land mass
08:24
taking up space
at the bottom of the globe.
08:26
Africans were space-takers.
08:29
So today, white people continue to control
the flow and thrust of history,
08:32
while too often treating black people
as though we are merely taking up space
08:36
to which we are not entitled.
08:41
Time and the march of progress
is used to justify
08:43
a stunning degree of violence
towards our most vulnerable populations,
08:47
who, being perceived as space-takers
rather than world-makers,
08:51
are moved out of the places
where they live,
08:57
in service of bringing them
into the 21st century.
08:59
Shortened life span according to zip code
is just one example of the ways
09:03
that time and space cohere
in an unjust manner
09:07
in the lives of black people.
09:10
Children who are born
in New Orleans zip code 70124,
09:12
which is 93 percent white,
09:17
can expect to live a full 25 years longer
09:19
than children born
in New Orleans zip code 70112,
09:22
which is 60 percent black.
09:26
Children born in Washington, DC's
wealthy Maryland suburbs
09:29
can expect to live a full 20 years longer
09:34
than children born
in its downtown neighborhoods.
09:37
Ta-Nehisi Coates argues
09:41
that, "The defining feature
of being drafted into the Black race
09:44
is the inescapable robbery of time."
09:49
We experience time discrimination,
09:53
he tells us,
09:55
not just as structural,
09:56
but as personal:
09:58
in lost moments of joy,
09:59
lost moments of connection,
10:01
lost quality of time with loved ones
10:03
and lost years of healthy quality of life.
10:06
In the future, do you see black people?
10:11
Do black people have a future?
10:16
What if you belong
to the very race of people
10:20
who have always been pitted against time?
10:22
What if your group is the group
for whom a future was never imagined?
10:26
These time-space clashes --
10:31
between protesters and police,
10:33
between gentrifiers and residents --
10:36
don't paint a very pretty picture
10:38
of what America hopes
for black people's future.
10:40
If the present is any indicator,
10:44
our children will be under-educated,
10:45
health maladies will take their toll
10:48
and housing will continue
to be unaffordable.
10:50
So if we're really ready
to talk about the future,
10:53
perhaps we should begin
by admitting that we're out of time.
10:56
We black people
have always been out of time.
11:01
Time does not belong to us.
11:05
Our lives are lives of perpetual urgency.
11:07
Time is used to displace us,
11:10
or conversely, we are urged
into complacency
11:13
through endless calls to just be patient.
11:16
But if past is prologue,
11:19
let us seize upon the ways in which
we're always out of time anyway
11:22
to demand with urgency
11:25
freedom now.
11:27
I believe the future is what we make it.
11:29
But first, we have to decide
that time belongs to all of us.
11:32
No, we don't all get equal time,
11:37
but we can decide that the time
we do get is just and free.
11:40
We can stop making your zip code
the primary determinant
11:44
of your lifespan.
11:47
We can stop stealing learning time
from black children
11:48
through excessive use
of suspensions and expulsions.
11:51
We can stop stealing time
from black people
11:54
through long periods
of incarceration for nonviolent crimes.
11:56
The police can stop
stealing time and black lives
12:00
through use of excessive force.
12:03
I believe the future is what we make it.
12:06
But we can't get there
on colored people's time
12:10
or white time
12:14
or your time
12:16
or even my time.
12:18
It's our time.
12:20
Ours.
12:22
Thank you.
12:24
(Applause)
12:25

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Brittney Cooper - Cultural theorist
With scholarship and incisive commentary that exposes the marginalized narratives hidden within "mainstream" history, Brittney Cooper writes at the vanguard of cultural criticism.

Why you should listen

Brittney Cooper spends her days in conversation with college students about everything from feminism to hip hop. During her other waking hours, she uses digital platforms and blogging as a virtual classroom to incite her national readership to have more robust and honest conversations about racism, popular culture and how to take down the patriarchy. She is an Assistant Professor of Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University.

Cooper's work and words have appeared on MSNBC, BET, NPR, PBS, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, TV Guide, New York Magazine, Salon.com, The Root.com and Al Jazeera America, among many others. She is a regular contributor at Cosmpolitan.com and co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective and blog. Cooper is author of two forthcoming books, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (University of Illinois Press 2017) and Never Scared: One Black Feminist's Refusal to Bow Down, Back Up, or Give In (St. Martin’s Press 2017) and editor of one co-edited volume, The Crunk Feminist Collection (The Feminist Press 2017). 

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