Author, professor and former drug dealer D. Watkins appeared in Mitchell Hall on Wednesday night as part of the university’s Center for Political Communication “Road to the Presidency” National Agenda series. With his book “The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America” in 2015, Watkins shook the literary scene through his firsthand depictions of life in inner-city Baltimore. More recently, Watkins earned a spot on The Oprah Magazine summer reading list for his latest work “The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir.”
Watkins sat down with The Review for a Q&A session after his talk.
Caleb Owens: Last week, The Review ran a follow-up article on an alleged noose scare and a Black Lives Matter protest that took place on campus last year. The events revealed student concerns about the racial divide on campus, and the student feedback in the follow-up article showed that, despite the protest and a university led diversity initiative, not much has improved. In “The Beast Side,” you say that the role of privileged people in helping oppressed people is to educate fellow privileged people about the problem. With approximately 75 percent of the university’s undergraduate student body being white, we happen to have an abundance of privileged, racially un-oppressed people. Despite the potential for the peer education and progress you mention, it evidently is not being utilized. How can this sense to duty be instilled within students, getting them to play a larger role in educating people around them?
D. Watkins: Well you can’t. You can’t create that climate. If a person is anxious and they want to learn they’re gonna do it. You can’t make people activists. The only thing you can do is help people become aware of their own social context, with the idea that their social context is not the only social context that exists. If you choose the role of an activist once you learn that there are people in this country not having an experience that is your own, then we can start there.
Diversity initiatives are like the diet that you start after New Years. It sounds good and feels like the best thing to do, but you’re doing it as a reaction to something. These things don’t normally transfer into inspiration or action. Students themselves have to take the initiative, and that will only happen when they have the opportunity to understand that every experience is not like their own. There are a lot of people in this country, white and black, who grow up thinking that racism doesn’t exist. They get indoctrinated with these thoughts and they can’t really bear the brunt of the people who have to deal with racist situations. Why are people going to put effort into enhancing social relations when they don’t really think it’s a problem?
CO: Along with racism, other social issues like rape culture are often associated with college campuses. As institutions of higher learning, can the kind of deeper thought required to help people understand these problems be taught in the classroom?
DW: Absolutely. There are kids out here on these college campuses raping people without knowing they’re raping people. They’re not taught about rape culture in this country. They don’t understand that no means no and how serious that is. Or they watch people like Brock Turner who faced up to six years of prison and only got three months. It’s almost like it’s a joke. I think it would be a good idea to have a mandatory class where students have the opportunity to learn about these issues and interact with some actual victims so all of these ideas can be put into context.
CO: You also write about how everyone has the ability to connect with anyone through “simple conversations.” Does the intellectual discourse at colleges and universities used to solve issues distance people from the actual problems?
DW: One of the effects of colleges is that it’s seen as an elite thing to do. It creates this divisiveness. A separation from the common man. I think that’s something we should change. Going to college doesn’t make you intelligent and not going to college doesn’t make you a moron. I think the stigma that comes with being a student and some of the things people pick up on in college prevents them from connecting with the blue collar brothers and sisters out there. I don’t think that’s a good thing.
CO: So how do you reconcile the two levels? How do you take the ideas generated at colleges and universities and spread them?
DW: That was my goal in “The Beast Side.” My goal was to create a book that dealt with complex issues in the language that a person with a third-grade reading level could understand. They teach that book in high schools across the country, and they also teach it in a sociology class at Harvard. I think it’s definitely possible. You just have to take all of that fancy language and those big ideas and put it into the context of an everyday person and how these issues affect them.
CO: What is needed in education reform right now? On the left, politicians like Hillary Clinton propose plans to bring quality education to every student in the country. How can this happen?
DW: Every school has similar problems, but every reason is different. Everybody needs something different. If I was going to use Baltimore schools as my case study, I would say that the problem with literacy is from content. They’re creating books that are uninteresting and non-relatable that make generations of students unexcited about reading and make students think that they hate reading. At one point I thought I hated words. But it wasn’t about the words, it was about the way the teacher presented the information and the context it was in. Identifying those issues, finding the things that work and aggressively pursuing those things is what students need. All of the solutions right now are too general. It depends on the school and it depends on how they need to find solutions.
CO: Does the same apply to higher education? There’s a widespread push right now to make college more accessible to everyone as a solution to the country’s employment issues. But in “The Beast Side,” you talk about how your own first college experience led you back to the streets. What needs to be changed in the current higher education model to make sure that students come out of it with lasting skills and knowledge?
DW: When I went back to the streets, I had only been in college for a couple of months. But when I went back to college and graduated I never went back to the streets again. I think we’re doing people in this country a disservice by screaming “go to college.” You know how many of the people I went to college with are working at, like, Starbucks right now? You can go to college and spend all of this money and you learn some things, but it goes back to the same thing: Where are the jobs at?
CO: In a couple of weeks, alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos is speaking at the university. Labeled by some as misogynistic and xenophobic, a debate around campus has been stirring over whether he should come speak or not. More generally, in instances such as this where some strongly object to one side or the other, how should students handle these situations?
DW: I’ve never heard of him, but I think he’s worth listening to. How are you ever going to defeat people like that if you don’t understand how they think, act and move? I think his rhetoric should be studied and mastered, because you’ll never be able to combat that type of mentality if you’re always trying to resist it. If you take the opportunity to learn where their ideas came from, it’ll be easier to combat them. It’s like a chess move. The smart thing to do, which isn’t always the easiest thing to do, is to figure out all of the moves try to understand where the ideas came from. That way, you have a million different ways to defeat beyond your own emotions and opinions. I listen to Rush Limbaugh sometimes. I watch Fox News sometimes. So the second I encounter one of these guys I know their moves and I can crush them. It’s kind of like Kobe Bryant watching video tapes. He can tell you what his opponent’s gonna do. You gotta study the people you don’t agree with.
CO: To wrap things up, what should a voter, particularly the college student voter, be mindful of this November as they make their choice?
DW: They should understand that if Donald Trump wins, we can potentially go to war. They should understand that this is life and death. Not just who’s popular versus who’s not popular. This guy is the pettiest person ever. He’ll do anything to prove a point. When the person who’s running your country is that petty and that ridiculous, someone who is responsible for some of the problems we have today is in office, you’re going to be the one to suffer.