THE LONG VIEW: A Conversation with Dr. Marcia Alesan Dawkins (20 December 2012)

Over the last couple weeks, Professors Marcia Alesan Dawkins and Walter David Greason had a conversation about several of the issues in their lives, in their research, in the academy, and around the world.  They are proud to share their ideas with you.


WDG:   What inspired you to become a scholar?


MAD:  The idea that I could redefine the metrics of success inspired me to become a scholar.  For me, success is about having a good impact through educating and encouraging others, experiencing joy through writing and scholarship, and reaping financial rewards through entrepreneurial opportunities that can be created through my expertise.


MAD:     The terms “race” and “racism” are often used interchangeably even though they mean very different things.  What’s the difference between race and racism?  Why is it important to understand this difference?


WDG:  We actually can have an effective debate now about the differences between the terms “racial” and “racist.”  This conversation must move into the small towns and rural areas in the United States.  In this way, our generation has an opportunity to understand the relationship between various systems of racist thought (most notably, ‘white supremacy’ in Islamic, European, and northern Asian contexts) and profoundly healing thought systems like critical race theory.  In public forums where scholars, teachers, politicians, and industry leaders can talk frankly about the same data and differing perspectives on it, we can eliminate the confusion around terms like “race” and “racism.”  In fact, with every day that passes, the chances of ending this confusion increases because the openness for equitable conversation increases.


WDG:  In your recent book Clearly Invisible, which offers insight about racial passing and communication that’s been described by The White House’s Valerie Jarrett as “thought-provoking” and “an inspiration,” you argue that racial passing connects to wider social problems like identity theft, human trafficking and hacktivism.  How does this work?


MAD:  My research revealed that racial passing, trafficking and hacktivism are connected through legal definitions of personhood, which define our identities as property that must be protected.  In fact, legally speaking, racial passing was considered the first form of identity theft.  But that’s not how the original passers thought about what they were doing.  The passers themselves saw passing as a form of “hacktivism”, a way to pursue political ends like disrupting and dismantling racial categories and hierarchies by exploiting weaknesses in the system.  By hacking the racial hierarchy passers helped put an end to African American enslavement in the US and today’s passers are using this strategy to end human trafficking worldwide right now.



MAD:     What can we learn from African Americans’ struggles for freedom that can help us understand debates over today’s immigration policies?


WDG:  I just wrote a column on “the Chicano suburb” in world history and how important those spaces are for equitable economic development over the next century.  The Mexican model of urban industrialization offers many lessons about multi-use zoning and planning to allow for socio-economic integration on a macroeconomic scale.  Places like Newark, Detroit, Birmingham, and Jackson can learn a great deal from these alternative historical economies to transform the fundamentally unjust systems of finance and capital accumulation that we continue to use here in the United States.  


Opening the doors of immigration and carefully crafting policies that enable all Americans to become global entrepreneurs will accelerate our recovery from the present recession.  It will also craft a more stable growth model that can provide living wages across the economy, while facilitating autonomous local control for infrastructure development in southeast Asia, central Africa, and central America.


WDG:  Who are your professional role models, and why?


MAD:  My old-school professional role models are my parents, John M. Dawkins III and Olga Matos-Dawkins, life-long professors in the traditional sense who taught me about the importance of “edutainment” (education + entertainment).  My new-school professional role models are avant-gardists such as Baratunde Thurston (author/speaker), Veronica Belmont (media producer/tech reporter), Ahmed Alfi (media/tech investor), Matt Mankins and Harry Guillermo (web developers) and Marshall Mathers (executive/rapper), who create and utilize new media platforms to “edutain” global audiences about changing demographics, democratic communication, business and legal development, and cultural and technological innovation.


MAD:     In “The Path to Freedom” you write that struggle for black freedom and equality is a legacy that belongs to all Americans.  Do you think that “all Americans” actually see it that way?  Why or why not?


WDG:  More Americans share this perspective than I would have imagined five years ago.  I have often made the error of imagining that moderate to conservative white Americans must come to accept Cyril Briggs and the black radical tradition generally as a fundamental truth in the way that they subscribed to the American liberal tradition for most of the nation’s history.  Something more subtle has occurred.


Approximately 40% of white Americans have moved to an ideological, or even psychological, position where they see their lives and the world through a worldview shaped by (relatively conservative) African American entertainers ranging from Jesse Owens to Jackie Robinson to Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Bill Cosby to Whoopi Goldberg to Oprah Winfrey.  The experience of African American double-consciousness has been transcribed on to millions of white Americans so that people like Peggy McIntosh and Tim Wise can publicly lead the kinds of discussions that should have occurred during Reconstruction and after the urban rebellions of the 1960s.


In “The Path to Freedom,” there is an implicit lament about the loss of interracial intimacy between black and white families after the Civil Rights Movement.  The misunderstandings that turned the idea of racial integration into the rage against the prison-industrial complex reflected this profound rift that tore moderate families apart from each other.  We occupy a space and time where true reconciliation among a plurality of Americans, if not the majority, is possible.  I hope my work can contribute to efforts to find and expand the best possibilities of human community.


MAD:    In your new book, “Suburban Erasure,” you argue that studies of African American communities focused only on the experiences of enslavement, the Great Migration, and Civil Rights are limited in scope.  How should our current understanding be expanded?


WDG:  One of the core points we fail to teach in productive ways in K-16 education is the scope and breadth of knowledge.  The total amount of human recorded knowledge doubled between 1400CE and 1900CE.  It doubled again the twentieth century.  Because of computerization, recorded knowledge was doubling every 70 days in 2003.  That rate may now be as low as a few weeks.


History is no exception to this explosion of knowledge.  It is no longer enough to be transnational in our understanding of the human experience.  Synthesizing and organizing this infinity of data requires histories (and economics and biologies) that articulate multiple meanings simultaneously for more inclusive audiences.  


For “Suburban Erasure,” it means linking the traditions of historiography about Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement while shifting the geographic context away from the exclusive binary of the rural South and the urban North.  I focus on the rural North, yielding a deeper, metropolitan window on the African diaspora in the United States that provokes new insights about race and economic development in Vietnam, India, Mozambique, South Africa, Brazil, the Philippines, and the Caribbean over the last five centuries.


WDG:  If you could meet yourself at age 18, what advice would you offer?


MAD:  I would say five things to my 18-year-old self. First, that success often involves spectacular errors and failures, so don’t be afraid if things don’t always work out.  Second, that opportunity is a set of circumstances that can be manufactured so pay attention to your social environment and networks.  Third, that creativity is a renewable resource, so don’t be afraid to unplug sometimes.  Fourth, that emotional investment is the key to achieving your goals so do what you love.  Fifth, that there is compound interest in altruism so whatever you do must help to make the world a more just place.


MAD:    How do you feel the re-election of President Obama reflects race relations and demographics in the US? (Or, do you believe the GOP needs to rethink its image in the wake of changing demographics?).


WDG:  I have been fixated on Frederick Douglass’ proposal about the ultimate integration of African Americans as the realization of the promise of freedom in North America.  He believed that the process of mixing would lead to Americans as a new people — physically, morally, spiritually, politically.  Barack Obama, as a person, embodies the combination of Africa, Europe, and Asia in a single being holding enormous economic and political authority in the world.  As someone who grew up at the intersection of Scotland, Gabon, the Indian sub-continent, European Judaism, and Anglo-Saxon Quakerism, I feel enormous kinship with his sense of opportunity and ongoing dilemma of finding balance in representing a new tradition for the twenty-first century.


In the faces of emergent world leaders like you, Mr. Obama, Eminem, Jean Grae, and millions of other innovative minds, the range of traditional American leaders from Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton to Mitt Romney are increasingly irrelevant.  The Republican Party has an enormous cultural challenge to persuade a global audience to accept their nineteenth century vision of small government when our lives (our very existence) speak to the holocausts and genocides that ideology produces.  The President reveals the crisis of Western democracy that has unfolded over the last four generations since Woodrow Wilson’s proposal of the League of Nations — self-determination for all people threatens the capitalist institutions that negotiated two world wars, a Cold War, a War on Drugs, and the present War on Terror.


We have an unparalleled moment to move towards a more open, cooperative, and peaceful world.  It would be a mistake for young Americans to miss this chance.


WDG: Where do you expect to be in two years, in terms of your professional development?


MAD:  In two years I expect to be a full-fledged intellectual entrepreneur.  That means that in addition to being a professor I will be touring the world giving public lectures about my research and writingBy then I will also have published two more books in addition to Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity; these are Eminem: The Real Slim Shady and Mixed Race 3.0: Race, Risk and Reward in the Digital Age.  For additional information about these projects and more please see my websites – and



Author: waltergreason1

Public Figure.

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