How Has Time Been Stolen from People of Color?

Brittney Cooper, WSIU, Mar 29, 2019

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode Confronting Racism.


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?


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.

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. {snip}


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.


COOPER: {snip} 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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