Brittney Cooper: How Has Time Been Stolen From People Of Color?

Mar 29, 2019
Originally published on March 29, 2019 10:13 am

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Confronting Racism.

About Brittney Cooper's TED Talk

Brittney Cooper reflects on racism, the history of time—and who owns it. She argues that for people of color, time has been stolen. In order to move forward, we must first acknowledge the past.

About Brittney Cooper

Brittney Cooper is a writer, teacher, and public speaker. She is an associate professor of Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University. Along with teaching, Cooper uses digital platforms and blogging as a virtual classroom to encourage conversations about racism, popular culture, and the patriarchy.

Cooper is a regular contributor at Cosmpolitan.com and co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective and blog. Cooper is also the author of several books including Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower and Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, and this is Brittney Cooper.

Hello, Professor Cooper.

BRITTNEY COOPER: Yes, mmm hmm.

RAZ: Hi, it's Guy Raz here. How are you?

COOPER: Hi.

RAZ: You are indeed, as you say in your talk, always on time, and, in fact, early.

COOPER: Yes, trying to be, always (laughter).

RAZ: Brittney is a professor.

COOPER: Yes. So I'm associate professor of women's and gender studies and Africana studies at Rutgers University.

RAZ: And Brittney's sense of being on time was something her mom taught her pretty early on.

COOPER: Well, my mom worked as a secretary, and so she was working her way up through this company. And so she was on very regimented time. And part of what she was trying to do was create a pathway into the middle class. And so that meant showing up and being professional. It meant speaking great corporate English, in many cases. And it had everything to do with the importance of professionalization and trying to create a pathway because we're a working-class, black family from very modest roots. And she wanted more for herself, and she was a single mom with only a high school education at the time.

And so these were some of the markers of trying to have class mobility. And so they're very small ways to think about it, but in my educational contexts that were predominantly white, we couldn't be late because we were trying to project a sense of excellence and that we were about business and that I should be taken seriously as a student and that she should be taken seriously as a parent.

RAZ: And this idea that time could be connected to something bigger, something intangible, was actually the focus of a talk Brittney gave back in 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

COOPER: What if I told you that time has a race, a race in the contemporary way that we understand race in the United States?

RAZ: Here's more from Brittney Cooper on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

COOPER: Typically, we talk about race in terms of black and white issues. In the African-American communities from which I come, we have a long-standing multigenerational joke about what we call CP time or colored people time. Now, we no longer refer to African-Americans as colored. But this long-standing joke about our perpetual lateness to church, to cookouts, to family events and even to our own funerals remains. I personally am a stickler for time. It's almost as if my mother, when I was growing up, said, we will not be those black people. So we typically arrive to events 30 minutes early. But today I want to talk to you more about the political nature of time; for if time had a race, it would be white. White people own time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Can you explain what you mean that time has a race?

COOPER: Yes. So when I say time has a race, I'm saying that the way that we position ourselves in relationship to time comes out of histories of European and Western thought. And a lot of the way that we talk about time really finds its roots in the Industrial Revolution. So prior to that, we would talk about time as merely passing the time. After the Industrial Revolution, suddenly, we begin to talk about time as spending time. It becomes something that is tethered to monetary value. So when we think about hourly wage, we now talk about time in terms of wasting time or spending time. And that's a really different understanding of time than, you know, like seasonal time or time that is sort of merely passing.

And so I wanted to think about, what does it mean if people are considered folks who, largely, are not impacting the flow of things, right? - which is often a racialized idea. So when we think about black and brown peoples around the world in Western frameworks, there is a way that black and brown people are seen as a lag on social progress. So they are seen as holding back the, you know, power of the West to modernize the world. And that becomes the pretext often to do all manner of violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

COOPER: Time has a history, and so do black people. But we treat time as though it is timeless, as though it has always been this way, as though it doesn't have a political history bound up with the plunder of indigenous lands, the genocide of indigenous people and the stealing of Africans from their homeland. When white, male European philosophers first thought to conceptualize time and history, one famously declared, Africa is no historical part of the world. He was, essentially, saying that Africans were people outside of history who had had no impact on time or the march of progress.

This idea that black people have had no impact on history is one of the foundational ideas of white supremacy. It's the reason that Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Week in 1926. It's the reason that we continue to celebrate Black History Month in the U.S. every February. Now, we also see this idea that black people are people either alternately outside the bounds of time or stuck in the past in a scenario where, much as I'm doing right now, a black person stands up and insists that racism still matters, and a person - usually white - says to them, why are you stuck in the past? Why can't you move on? We have a black president. We're past all that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: I wonder whether that question or those questions are another - it's almost as if the person, either implicitly or not, is sort of saying, I'm not interested in honoring or acknowledging your story.

COOPER: Right, absolutely. You know, the more generous thing that I can say is that part of what exposing these operations of time should allow us to think about is that we don't all have the same timescapes. And so if you're white in the U.S. context, typically you're taught that time is linear, that every day is a progression beyond the past, that we are not today where we were 50 years ago.

But if you are African-American in this country, time doesn't exactly work that way. You are, you know, living often with the residue of past historical trauma. You are living in a present-day system that is filled with racial animus, which often is overlooked by many white Americans.

And so you're also living with a sort of notion of a precarious future, that you can be - you know, it reminds me. In my book, "Eloquent Rage," I write about the story of Sandra Bland, who was killed in 2015 after an encounter with the police.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN ENCINIA: Hello, ma'am.

SANDRA BLAND: Hi.

ENCINIA: (Unintelligible) the reason for your stop is you didn't fail - you failed to signal a lane change.

COOPER: But what was most difficult for me was Sandra Bland is pulled over and arrested...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED FOOTAGE)

ENCINIA: You can step on out now.

BLAND: I don't have to step out of my car.

ENCINIA: Step out of the car.

COOPER: ...As she's driving into Prairie View A&M University down in Texas, which is her alma mater. So she can literally, like - the university is sort of right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ENCINIA: Now step out or I will remove you.

COOPER: And she has just gotten her dream job, and this was the whole purpose of this journey that she takes down from Chicago. And she is yanked out of that future through a police encounter that is so reminiscent of the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ENCINIA: Get out of the car. I will light you up. Get out.

BLAND: Wow.

ENCINIA: Now.

BLAND: Wow.

ENCINIA: Get out of the car.

BLAND: For a failure to signal? You're doing all of this for a failure to signal?

ENCINIA: Get over there.

COOPER: And it reminds me of the ways that past and presents and futures seemingly coexist for African-American folks. And so in that way, time doesn't feel linear. It feels like the past, you know, past narratives of race that are rooted in violence and rooted in a lack of freedom. They feel like they can become our reality again at any moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLAND: Stop.

ENCINIA: Stop moving. Stop now. Stop it.

COOPER: And it's why sometimes, when you talk to African-American folks - particularly young folks - you will see them say, well, things haven't changed very much. We're still not free. And that always irritates the liberal-minded. How can you say things have not changed much? We've had a black president. You are not enslaved.

But what they are saying is that the feeling that, at any moment, we could elect a white supremacist to the presidency again in 2016 - as we did - or that the police could do harm to African-American citizens and do so with impunity reminds us and recalls for us histories that we have been told that we are past but which we are still living.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #2: What is he?

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #3: I don't know. I don't know what white people see, you know, when they look at a Negro anymore. I do know very well whatever he was looking at, it wasn't me. It wasn't me.

RAZ: Racism isn't always obvious, but it can be found almost everywhere - in the language we use to describe certain groups, in the ways laws are written to protect those with power and in opportunities given or even held back. So today on the show, we're going to explore the effects of everyday racism and how to confront it and why one of the first steps towards defeating racism is to acknowledge its existence, both in the past and the present.

Why do you think it's so difficult for Americans - and, let's be frank, for white Americans - to talk about the past in a frank and empathetic way?

COOPER: It's a great question.

RAZ: Maybe better for me to answer the question.

(LAUGHTER)

COOPER: You know, look. I mean, I think that it is, you know, a certain form of opportunism because I think that white Americans see themselves as people who work really hard. And they believe in the myth of meritocracy. We're all indoctrinated into this myth.

It's the American myth, right? You come to this country, you work hard, and anything is possible for you. And so anyone who doesn't have the things that they say they want, they don't have them because they didn't work hard.

RAZ: Yeah.

COOPER: And so then, when you have to listen to people of color point out all the ways in which that isn't true, it disrupts a fundamental identity narrative for many white American folk about how they came to their prosperity. And really, it comes down to a very basic sense that - what I think white Americans hear often in conversations about race is that we are saying to them, you are bad people and everything you have you don't deserve, as opposed to saying, we are all, in this particular historical moment, born into a set of conditions that are not of our own making. Our ancestors were negotiating these conditions, and your ancestors positioned you to benefit greatly.

And so that inability to sort of both take accountability for being beneficiaries of centuries of inequality and also to recognize that no one is commenting on your personal morality but saying that America is about a system of justice. And if we're going to actually live up to our stated creed of liberty and equality and justice, then we've got to think at a systemic level about how to do that, and that might mean some personal discomfort.

RAZ: That's Brittney Cooper. She's an associate professor at Rutgers University and author of the book "Eloquent Rage." You can see Brittney's full talk at ted.com. On the show today, ideas about confronting racism. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.