“If time had a race, it would be white.”
A gender studies professor discussed the racial implications of time during an NPR interview last week, arguing that “if time had a race, it would be white” and that “White people own time.”
Speaking to host Guy Raz for the TED Radio Hour episode “Confronting Racism,” Brittney Cooper, associated professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers, expounded on her theory regarding the racial politics of time. Cooper’s conversation with Raz was centered largely around a 2017 TED talk she gave on the topic.
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During her TED talk, Cooper said that “White people own time,” citing as evidence the black community’s use of the phrase “colored-people time,” a long-standing joke about black people’s purported “perpetual lateness.” She even suggested that her own penchant for punctuality stemmed from her mother’s reaction to racism.
“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,” Cooper said, before declaring, “if time had a race, it would be white.”
Raz asked the university academic to explain.
“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,” she explained. “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,” she added.
Raz asked Cooper about her 2017 comments, in which she said that although we treat time “as though it is timeless,” it is actually “bound up with the plunder of indigenous lands, the genocide of indigenous people and the stealing of Africans from their homeland.”
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“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,” Cooper said back in 2017.
When a person – “usually” a white person, according to Cooper – accuses black people of being “stuck in the past,” they are evidencing the racial foundations of time.
At one point during the interview, Cooper mused that “exposing these operations of time should allow us to think about is that we don’t all have the same timescapes.”
She claimed that, in contrast to blacks, whites are taught that time is linear. For black people, time isn’t that simple.
“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 said.
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Raz, who throughout the interview was overwhelmingly sympathetic to Cooper’s argument, wrapped up the segment by asking Cooper why it was so hard for white Americans “to talk about the past in a frank and empathetic way.”
Cooper said that “white Americans see themselves as people who work really hard” but are “indoctrinated” into a “myth of meritocracy” that does not reflect societal reality. This makes it difficult for them when the black community and woke scholars, such as Cooper, shatter “a fundamental identity narrative for many white American folk about how they came to their prosperity.”
“Our ancestors were negotiating these conditions, and your ancestors positioned you to benefit greatly,” she argued, before criticizing white Americans’ inability to”take accountability for being beneficiaries of centuries of inequality” and failing to “recognize that no one is commenting on your personal morality.”
According to Cooper, in order to live up to America’s “stated creed of liberty and equality and justice,” white Americans might have to suffer “some personal discomfort.”
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