Poet, journalist, and activist Kevin Powell urged Temple students, in the Owl Cove last week, to become leaders of multiculturalism in order to counter the institutionalized white racism in America.
“Everyone in this room is a leader or potential leader,” the former star of MTV’s “The Real World” said to the over 50 students in attendance.
Powell is the former senior writer at VIBE Magazine, and has also been a featured writer at Rolling Stone. He recently finished editing the book, “Step Into a World,” a global anthology of black literature. Copies of the book were available for sale and signing before and after his speech.
Powell, from Jersey City, N.J., currently lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. He attended Rutgers University, and referred to his experiences at college several times during the evening.
The focus of Powell’s speech, “Living in Multi-Cultural America,” was multiculturalism and education. He spoke of multiculturalism as a response to the institutionalized white racism in education. Powell illustrated such racism by discussing the places where a person is educated: schools, religious institutions, popular culture, and family and environment.
Powell said that “before we can ever have these conversations about multiculturalism,” people need to realize that they’re only taught one viewpoint in school, that of the white male.
He referred to always being taught that Columbus was a great explorer, who discovered America, when Columbus was really just a pillager who got lost.
Religious institutions, he said, were another place of institutionalized white racism. He described the type of church he grew up in where the whole church was black, rocking back and forth to a black spiritual in front of a picture of a white savior.
He also couldn’t identify with the saints depicted in the church who were always white.
Popular culture also has a great deal of influence, Powell said. He described growing up and watching “Good Times” on television.
Without a father of his own, Powell looked up to the strong father figure of James Evans. However, Powell said that the character was killed off after a couple seasons because Amos protested the show’s increasing focus on the demeaning “J.J.” character.
Powell said shows like “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son” and “The Jeffersons” affected black self-image. “This is part of our education,” he said.
His family was another source of institutionalized racism. His mother, who grew up in a poor two-room “shack” in South Carolina before moving to New Jersey, made the mistake, Powell said, of thinking he would get his best education at white schools. His mother also used to tell him that if a white person said he was attractive, than he really must be.
Powell told the audience about his experiences at Rutgers, an historically white college. He was the only black person in his dorm, and soon felt that he didn’t belong. He tried to blend in, but onetime an officer from the school asked to see his ID card at a bus stop. Powell realized that he had just become the victim of racial profiling.
“I’ll be honest with you I began to hate white people. Period.” Eventually, Powell realized that he shouldn’t hate anyone, but instead hates “all forms of oppression.”
Powell doesn’t consider his writing or his appearance on MTV as his most important achievements.
“What’s more important to me, brothers and sisters, is telling the truth,” he said. His most important job is as an activist, and not only against racism, but against gender, class, and sexual orientation oppression, as well.
He used to have an inferior view of women, but at one point had to ask himself, “If racism ended tomorrow, would I still treat women unequally?”
He likened institutionalized white racism to institutionalized male sexism. “We have to be serious what definitions we have bought into, not only in terms of race.”
“I love hip-hop, but there’s no way I can see what is going on now [in music videos] and not say anything, he said about the portrayal of women.
In closing, he offered advice for his audience, to read and study about their culture and other cultures, and to travel.
He asked, “What is your game plan for life?” He described his plan as being about a constantly evolving consciousness, a spirituality of consistency, and ownership of yourself.
“You gotta do something with yourselves,” he ended. “Be an activist in some way.”