White Mediocrity Empowers White Villainy: A Conversation with Koritha Mitchell

“Not only does whiteness empower folk to destroy entire communities; it empowers them to say to your face that the destruction doesn't have reverberating effects in the current moment.”
Koritha Mitchell

It takes courage and confidence in the truth of one’s perception to be the first to declare that the emperor has no clothes. It takes even more to call out the systems and structures that anointed and gave title to that promenading, naked fool. What I admire about Koritha Mitchell, a feminist scholar with a fierce intellect and awe-inspiring ability to read sociopolitical culture, is the way that she makes visible the too-often overlooked. A public intellectual, award-winning author, and leading cultural theorist, Mitchell is the ingenious creator of a set of influential critical concepts that simultaneously call out society’s willful ignorance and describe the structures that work against marginalized groups, such as “white mediocrity” and “know-your-place aggression.”

Koritha Mitchell is the acclaimed author of several books, including From Slave Cabins to the White House and Living with Lynching alongside an extensive list of major articles and essays. An in-demand public intellectual, Mitchell regularly delivers invited lectures and has appeared in such outlets as Time, the Washington PostMSNBC, CNN, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Good Morning America. She is also the creator of the C19 Podcast episode “The N-Word in the Classroom: Just Say NO.”

Recently, Koritha Mitchell was honored with the prestigious Women’s Media Center IMPACT Award. In recognition of that major honor, I sat down with Mitchell. In a wide-ranging conversation (which has been edited for length and clarity), we talked about the significance of that honor; the enduring violence that targets Black, Brown, and other folks of color; and her thoughts on the varying receptions of former First Lady Michelle Obama and current Vice President Kamala Harris.


Harvey Young (HY): Congratulations on your 2023 Progressive Women’s Voices IMPACT Award from the Women’s Media Center, which recognizes outstanding leaders and champions of women in the media. How did you feel when you received word that you were an honoree?

 

Koritha Mitchell (KM): I was absolutely stunned. It was such a gift in the midst of moving madness.

 

HY: You shared your acceptance speech with me. It was wonderful. You said, “My work is too important to speak only to people who have PhDs.” How do you think about your voice as a public scholar? Why is it important for you to reach a broad, general, inclusive audience beyond the cadre of PhDs in academia?

 

KM: That’s such a great question. As soon as I got to graduate school, I recognized that I had entered a space (academia) that only valued addressing one’s professional peers, other researchers. I have no problem with that, but I also believe my work is too important to speak only to other scholars. I understand how violence is woven into the everyday workings of pretty much every space we enter, and I want more people to understand how violence works and what its purpose is in a society that is so devoted to the unequal distribution of literally everything.

My commitment to public-facing work is about my wanting more people to truly understand that violence is about keeping certain people in their “proper” place. You don’t have to have done something wrong to be attacked.

I want to empower people to refuse to internalize the message sent when they become targets, whether the attack is undeniable or subtle. If I can give them the language to understand what’s happening, then they’re less likely to internalize it (as in “I probably did something wrong” or “How could I have adjusted?”).

 

HY: It has been wonderful to see your scholarship, your voice, embraced in everyday discourse. What is “know-your-place aggression”?

 

KM: It is the flexible, dynamic array of forces that answer the achievements of marginalized groups such that their success brings aggression as often as praise. Studying lynching taught me that you were most often targeted by the mob when you were successful in some way. You might need to be put in your “proper” place because you had financial success. Or, maybe you didn’t know your place as a Black man because you were trying to protect your daughter or wife from sexual harassment or assault.

The plays I study in Living with Lynching taught me what I argue in that book, that Black success beckons the mob. As importantly, Black people have long known that their success beckons the mob. These authors knew it, and the people they were writing about knew it.

Any time we’re studying Black art through the lens of protest, we’re missing something. Those plays about lynching were not about protesting. They were about saying, “Here we are, marching toward success, and here comes the mob to interrupt that march.”

 

HY: Yes, absolutely. Like Tulsa and the decimation of Black Wall Street. It’s the thriving community—across the board—that gets destroyed. Whether it’s Tulsa or highways literally put through prosperous middle-class and upper-middle-class Black communities to create the interstate.

Know-your-place aggression is like the wheel. It’s something a person invents—a concept or idea—that now you can’t live in society without. You start wondering, “How could we live in a world in which this concept, this creation, didn’t exist?” Last week, someone mentioned the old adage “You gotta be twice as good,” and I realized that it’s a less precise way of talking about know-your-place aggression.

 

KM: Exactly, because the idea that I gotta be “twice as good to get half as far” doesn’t address the fact that being twice as good will make you a target for attack.

I’m gonna be honest, Harvey. I hope people notice that, as a term, know-your-place aggression is incredibly clunky but also incredibly precise. I want us to recognize how much effort it takes to deny and diminish the victories of marginalized groups. There’s a lot of effort that goes into “Here you are, with every odd against you, and you still keep succeeding … so, let me remind you of your ‘proper’ place.”


HY: In addition to know-your-place aggression, what also strikes me as being really impactful and powerful and field changing is the clarity with which you call out and name “white mediocrity.”

 

KM: Yeah, which I think is just as important, right? We have these false models of excellence. That’s why I am disgusted when people speak in terms of “inclusive excellence.” Oh, please! As if professional environments became monochromatic because white employees were actually the best and brightest. It would be funny if it weren’t so foul.

 

HY: We’ve seen many examples. People who are fractionally as good but allowed to go a mile.

 

KM: Thank you for linking them because the truth is that white mediocrity can only parade as merit because know-your-place aggression is constantly in motion. How do you make sure that a cisgender straight white man is always assumed to have earned his place? By making sure that the success and belonging of everyone else is constantly questioned and countered at every turn. Everyone is so busy asking whether a Latina earned her spot that no one ever notices how lackluster her white male counterparts (and so-called superiors) are.

Since I’ve been identifying white mediocrity so boldly and consistently for so many years, something else has become clear: white mediocrity empowers white villainy. When white people hold themselves and one another to low standards, they give one another the benefit of the doubt for absolutely no reason and turn the benefit of the doubt for one another into a weapon against people of color.

Examples are endless in our daily lives. But Donald Trump’s political ascendency provides an especially clear, ongoing example. How else do you have so-called “good and decent” white people never standing up at the moment when Trump is building his career by harassing Barack Obama? At the moment when he launches his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists”? At the moment when he makes fun of a reporter with disabilities? If we lived in a culture that had actual standards for white people to be considered good and decent, I believe that people who consider themselves good and decent would have mobilized.

 

HY: If you flip it and imagine a person with a different racial or ethnic background in that role, there’s no way they’d get that level of purchase. Imagine a Black person in bankruptcy, facing a large number of felony charges. People are not going to line up and say, “This is your next leader.” No one would ever say that. It’s shocking and horrific at the same time. This is where I think that your naming it is so impactful.

It calls out these moments like book bans as well. People under the frame of being “good and decent” enable banning to occur because they don’t want to have corrective histories out there. They don’t want white children to know that slavery existed, that their ancestors may have been part of that process.

 

KM: American culture allows for what I see as a perverse flex. If I go back to Tulsa, it is a perverse flex. Not only does whiteness empower folk to destroy entire communities; it empowers them to say to your face that the destruction doesn’t have reverberating effects in the current moment. American culture encourages a dynamic of “While we’re denying that the physical violence that robbed your community has effects in the present, we’re also going to dare you to call that denial violent.”

 

HY: Yes.

 

KM: “We’re going to dare you to call it violent because the moment you call it that, we’re going to deny it in your face.” That’s a perverse flex. It’s not inspired by shame about the violence that has been done. It’s about telling everyone—especially victims—that what most shapes American culture can’t be called violence because certain people always need to know their “proper” place. It’s about “Who gon’ check me, boo?” That’s clearly the message as the court has dismissed, with prejudice, the claims of survivors of the Tulsa massacre, despite piles of evidence and decades of testimony.

 

HY: Absolutely.

 

KM: “Not only will we do the violence, but we will do the legislative violence, the judicial violence, the discursive violence of denying that any of it matters. And we’ll do it all in your face.” This kind of perverse flex is built into American culture. The most common discourses and practices, the most common words and deeds, what is most commonly said and done in the United States—these are all designed to downplay and denigrate and dismiss anyone who isn’t in that vaunted category of whiteness.

What I want Americans to understand is that, when there’s nothing proactive you need to do to be considered “good and decent,” then society trains people who are considered white to never (on purpose) make this country less hostile for more people. Never (on purpose) to cultivate something like decency. I’m not even talking about justice. I’m talking about decency.

 

HY: Which is the base level.

 

KM: Yes. We have been watching that base level not even be approached! I believe the reason it is not even approached is that white mediocrity means no real standards, no objective standards for considering yourself good and decent.


HY: Where do you find hope in all of this? Or is there not hope because it (“hope”) is an overblown concept?

 

KM: I believe, as Mariame Kaba says, “Hope is a discipline.” I believe hope must be a discipline; it doesn’t just come. I have always understood that doing my work includes figuring out how to avoid giving in to despair. I frequently remind myself that James Baldwin said we can’t afford despair. Not giving in to despair takes work; it requires practice.

Those are the two figures in my head that make me commit over and over again to hope as a discipline or at least to refusing to give in to the idea that this country will never be decent toward me and mine. But I admit that optimism is hard to come by when I feel like the main thing that has to change is the hardest thing to change: (a) all those “good and decent” white people who have been taught from birth that they’re good and decent for absolutely no objective reason, and (b) actually mobilizing those people so that we have a fighting chance against the villainy. That feels like the task at hand. It’s not as if people of color haven’t been mobilizing for centuries.

I believe when you focus on Black homes and how regularly they are attacked, it exposes the reality that meeting the country’s stated standards never produces safety.

 

HY: What excites me about your critical voice is your astute, sophisticated diagnosis of whatever the text is you’re reading, whether it’s a social text or a political moment. Let’s talk for a bit about an actual physical text, the play A Raisin in the Sun. In one of your critical essays, you write, “Beneatha’s future is sacrificed because, although Walter Lee shows little capacity for leadership, he is male and therefore his mother is determined to make a leader of him.” Absolutely true. Most other readings of the play miss this point in favor of the Mama-Walter dynamic or neighborhood redlining. At what point did you decide that you needed to speak out and shift how folks talk about this play?

 

KM: Thank you so much for that. The pathway to that insight was really using success (rather than protest) as my lens. When you use success as your lens, you see how much Black community members are always debating what success is because every measure of Black success will be countered. Black folk are constantly debating what success is and whether one has it, especially because it’s constantly being diminished (if not destroyed). When you’re not distracted by assumptions that everything is about protest, you see people hashing out how they’re going to define achievement for themselves and for the community. When you pay attention to those debates, that’s when you come to realize, “Okay, there’s a dynamic going on here that everyone has overlooked.” As you say, in A Raisin in the Sun, Beneatha is the key to that.

But the other issue you make me want to highlight is: Every victory is countered. Part of what Beneatha illuminated was the victories being countered. She wasn’t representative of a Black church definition of success. She didn’t follow the rules it was prioritizing: a kind of civil rights edict of being prim and proper with your straight hair and everything. Her victories included knowing she was worthy without abiding by that. So, she allowed me to see what the community was arguing about. When we pay attention, debates reveal the definitions of success that are being widely accepted in the community but also how being widely accepted doesn’t mean there’s no one challenging those definitions.

That’s what I believe Hansberry’s play was offering that wasn’t recognized. And it wasn’t recognized partly because, as she was doing interviews, people were denigrating Mama Lena, saying she was emasculating Walter Lee. Imani Perry’s great work in Looking for Lorraine helped me see that. Hansberry, in interviews, was finding herself having to defend Mama Lena. That is the reason I was able to say, “Okay, what is Hansberry’s text doing that some of her interviews don’t allow her to say outright?”

 

HY: Speaking of Imani Perry, I’m reading her Sing a Black Girl’s Song, a collection of previously unpublished works by Ntozake Shange. I’ve been thinking about your work with Harriet Jacobs and Frances Harper. These are all towering figures. Trailblazers. Forces. And they’re reaching a popular audience through you and Imani. What does it mean to you to be the person who introduces such towering figures to others?

 

KM: To be a guide to the work of towering figures like Harper and Jacobs is an honor, to say the absolute least. I begin the introduction to my latest edition with “Can you get pregnant?” because my approach to editing the text was thoroughly informed by my embodiment as a Black woman and my appreciation for Harriet Jacobs’s emphasis on embodiment as she explains the levels of injustice she faced. I’m convinced that it is my clarity about moving through this society, in the body I move through it in, that helps me see Jacobs’s rigor as she analyzes the discourses and practices that exerted violent pressure on her. I can understand just how brilliant and clear she was because reading those discourses and practices is exactly what has led to what we’ve been calling my “insights” today. While grappling with how the United States still treats Black women in ways that no one wants to be treated, I can keep going because these forebears are my guiding lights.


HY: What does it say about our society that guiding lights need a guide?

 

KM: Ha! It says, “Don’t believe the hype. Black women are not superheroes. Black Girl Magic ain’t saving a sista!” It says, “I’m not made of Teflon.” I’ve learned from Chanda Prescod-Weinstein that melanin has exceptional properties, but my melanin doesn’t create a force field. I am human, and the beating up that I experience (because violence is woven into every institution I encounter) takes a toll. So, part of how I stay sane is to call on the strength of ancestors and remember what they went through. If they went through that (think about the fact that Harriet Jacobs endured everything she did and then had the nerve to write about it beautifully), then, girl, you better do something.

I tell my students all the time: My being Black and a woman is not the issue. The issue is that racism and sexism are always doing their thing, and they insist upon holding hands when they jump on me.

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Michelle Obama’s Embrace

By Martha S. Jones

 

HY: I have been thinking about the public presence of Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris. There’s a very different public embrace of these two leaders, of these two forces. Is the difference rooted in the status of first lady versus vice president? Or their individual self-presentation? If we could turn back the clock, I would have imagined a greater level of impact or awareness for the first Black vice president. Michelle Obama changed and shifted discourse. How do you read the different receptions of these two powerful people?

 

KM: Yes, the difference between first lady and VP is a very real difference. And, when you are a member of a marginalized group, your being in a position of authority actually makes you more vulnerable to attack. It’s so easy to turn whatever you do into some kind of impropriety. American culture teaches everyone to be suspicious of you, so whenever you don’t match whatever assumptions people have about what your “proper” place should be, painting you as somehow inappropriate is the easiest thing in the world.

I think about myself in the classroom. Having authority as the professor means that any perceived misstep can be treated like it was an assault. Because people of color get the opposite of the benefit of the doubt, my having authority actually makes me more vulnerable to all the ways that this society paints me—you know, as unworthy of anything I’ve achieved and as always somehow improper or even abusive.

When it comes to the vice president, the fact that she has actual authority is part of the reason that she doesn’t seem to have made the kind of cultural impact we associate with Michelle Obama as first lady. Because Harris is so close to presidential power, immobilizing her is more important, even for people who consider themselves allies. Everything in American culture says that it’s reasonable for citizens to be terrified of her becoming president, so she’s got to be perfect and, even when she is, her supporters often tiptoe. When she is attacked, the concern becomes “How do we avoid seeming like we’re defending her too much?” After all, everyone understands conservatives’ fears. A woman president? A woman of color president? That’s just not the American way.

The idea that Harris might be the next president is why limiting her influence is important. Who is prepared to insist that ordinary Americans, especially white Americans, hold themselves to a higher standard by noticing that they’ve refused to see merit when it doesn’t come packaged as a cisgender straight white man? Who is prepared to insist that they face how often they manufacture merit for cisgender straight white men, almost no matter what those men do or fail to do?

I think that’s why the cultural shift feels so different when you look at those two. Michelle Obama didn’t hold a position of actual power. The vice president does.

 

HY: And what has been the transformative effect of Michelle Obama?

 

KM: Hmm, I’m not sure if it was a transformative effect. She simply held up a mirror to American culture. She helped expose how much the victories of marginalized groups are countered at every turn. Small things, like her feeling free to wear shorts or a sleeveless shirt? Oh, that confident sense of belonging had to be put in check! Her every move led to aggressive attacks. Whenever I wrote about Michelle Obama, I would get so many monkey images and masculinized images in my mentions. Anything favorable about her always brought that out. To me, she holds up a mirror to American culture. And that culture is geared toward reminding marginalized groups that even if you garner praise for your achievements, you will encounter just as much aggression.

I guess the more honest way to answer your question is that I don’t think there’s a shift. The reason I titled my book From Slave Cabins to the White House was to show how Americans are encouraged to think that we’re making progress when we notice that Black people moved from slave cabins to the White House, but attacks emerge to counter every instance of success and every incremental measure of success. Big victory? Small victory? It doesn’t matter. Every single accomplishment is countered when American society works as it was designed to work. Those attacks endure from slave cabins to the White House. So, I guess I have to admit that I don’t really see a “shift.”


HY: In continuing this thread, one thing that seems like a through line within your work is an awareness of home. You show how lynching dramas provided occasions for coming together and reading aloud and sharing these stories. And then there are individual acts in terms of claims to citizenship that emerge through the proactive work of people in communities, in homes (especially domestic spaces). What does home, as a concept, mean to you relative to (not Black liberation and protest but rather) societal aggression.

 

KM: I believe when you focus on Black homes and how regularly they are attacked, it exposes the reality that meeting the country’s stated standards never produces safety. Part of what that means for me is how important it is to define home on purpose in the exact same way that I believe we see Black communities debating success in order to define success on purpose. You’ve got to define these things deliberately because simply abiding by dominant ideas will never yield the outcomes the nation claims it will.

That’s why studying violence has shown me the parallels between lynching and attacks on LGBTQ communities. I’ve been able to see how, if you’re not the right demographic, then fitting everything the country says it’s going to respect simply does not work. When you pay attention to that, you understand that neither the heteronormative nuclear family nor its household has ever proven to be a saving grace. And it never will be. So, even as I focus on heteronormative nuclear families in From Slave Cabins to the White House, it is constantly with an awareness of what my queer kin have taught me, which is that the heteronormative nuclear family will never save us. So, defining family on purpose is crucial, too. There’s power in valuing chosen family. I learned that, in part, from reading LGBTQ authors.

Attacks are based on demographic more than on behavior. (The same goes for avoiding punishment. When the person committing a crime is considered white, the label “criminal” has a hard time clinging.) Clarity about the power of demographic in a society committed to inequity is what allows me to learn so many lessons from queer domesticities, queer intimacies, and chosen family. All of these configurations have become even more powerful for me because I understand how consistently and brutally certain people are attacked even when—especially when—they meet every standard Americans claim to respect.


HY: Looking back to the Summer of 2020, the COVID pandemic was at its height, and George Floyd activism was everywhere—in response to his murder, which was captured on video and shared widely. Four years later, what lessons have we learned as a society from that murder, if any?

 

KM: What’s most striking to me is what we haven’t learned. We haven’t learned that victories will be countered. Having people who are not Black show up to declare that Black Lives Matter was a victory, so it has been countered relentlessly. Education and inclusive media representations had made it possible for more people to insist that whiteness is not the only signal that someone should have rights and opportunities. The idea that ordinary citizens would care about nonwhite people is a victory. The response? “Oh, no, we’ve got to undo this! Let’s make sure that there’s less reading about people who don’t fit the purported norm. Everyone should know that there’s a very narrow category of person that should be considered fully human. Let’s go back to making sure that people don’t recognize that humanity comes in a wide range of forms.”

What we haven’t learned is that, if you’re not a cisgender straight white man, you don’t have to do something wrong to be attacked. Succeeding makes “other” people targets because this society is designed to make sure that only the archetypal citizen truly belongs. Even when he doesn’t meet standards he set up—basic things like decency or a strong work ethic—he is supposed to succeed and his right to belong should never be questioned. The only way to guarantee his spot at the top is to ensure that everyone else’s success and right to belong is challenged at every turn. But, because people think that violence only comes when you’ve done something wrong, they easily believe the lies about the unworthiness of marginalized groups that never stop being told. If we understood that violence is about constantly sending a message about who belongs and who does not, then we might better understand that violence is about reinforcing an unjustified hierarchy, about insisting that only certain people are legitimate citizens with legitimate success and a legitimate right to belong.

American citizenship has always been used to exclude and to do so violently, even if bloodlessly (as in, legislative violence that strips people of life chances). Not enough Americans understand that. Too many people think citizenship is warm and fuzzy and inclusive. They therefore miss what’s really happening all around us, all the time.

 

HY: I feel the same way. There was a moment at the height of the pandemic when people were saying, “I will stand shoulder to shoulder and push for and demand change.” To see the unraveling has been distressing. But it’s also predictable, right?

 

KM: Painfully predictable. I feel like 2020 taught me that I need to get more and more serious about teaching my students about white accomplices throughout history. Not enough information is circulating about how there has always been this kind of injustice, and there have always been people who were considered white, and who identified as white, while fiercely working for justice because they decided that humanity mattered more than whiteness.

If I’m going to practice hope as a discipline, I have to believe that continuing to work on people who consider themselves “good and decent” matters. I need them to know that American society discourages them from doing anything proactive to consider themselves good and decent, but they don’t have to take the encouragement to hold themselves to low (or no) standards. They don’t have to be persuaded by the incentives to embrace mediocrity. They can work deliberately to make every space they enter less hostile for more people. They can work deliberately toward making society more decent. icon

Featured image photograph: Koritha Mitchell, courtesy of the author.