My brief Slate article about Tales from the Kraka Tower had to leave out–simply due to the demands of short-form journalism–most of my interview with series creator Aphrodite Kocieda. So for you smarty-pantses who enjoy reading smart longer-form things, I would like to present the rest of the interview. This has been edited from the original transcript, a) to make my own questions less rambly and stupid, and b) to cut out anything that I used in the article.
SCHUMAN: How far into college or grad school were you when [academia’s systemic racism] became readily apparent, and what were your initial reactions?
AK: My understanding of systemic racism was not initially fostered in college or graduate school. As a first grader at a predominantly white school, I intimately understand my second-class citizenship despite the fact that I didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it. The microaggressions I experienced in grade school became the blueprint for my experiences in college.
I never went to college just to get a degree. When I was a senior in high school I would read literature from Angela Davis and Assata Shakur. I developed a political, critical consciousness at an early age because I felt stifled in high school. I turned to feminist literature as an escape from the daily microaggressions I experienced as a brown woman. I have always desired activism and I assumed that the academy would be inundated with radical people who would just “get me.” I’m not saying those people are not there [because I’m friends with some], but I’ve just never really met too many.
The series highlights glaring hypocrisy in today’s higher ed: we’re ostensibly the industry that invented Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, Critical Race Theory, etc., and yet academia itself is structured and run like a 1950s suburb.
I like the analogy you use of a suburb. I think many radical students join programs that are progressive because they want to contribute to the scholarship and they want to be challenged; however, the academy disciplines you in a way where you can be political as long as you stay within the lines they create. In fact I remember a professor warning me about critiquing the academy. He said, “You have to be careful because you’re essentially biting the hand that feeds you.” [In reality, student loans feed me…so….]
For many students, it sometimes feels like we are working in a factory where we have to produce constantly. We feel alienated and separated from the work we’re doing. I absolutely love critical scholarship and I have professors that are like superheroes to me, however, I still feel like there’s this lurking silence where I’m not allowed to discuss microaggressions out of fear of being disciplined.
As an undergrad, I majored in Women’s and Gender studies. I was the only Black woman in the program [I went to three different colleges because I moved around a lot] and I was always upset that feminist history began with Susan B. Anthony. I vividly remember for one of my programs, the director wanted to “recruit” more women to the Women’s Studies program. So, she wanted to set up a booth with historical images of *only* white women and I remember being upset with that. I’m surely not saying that all Women’s Studies programs are like the ones I went to, but they do exist. Trust me.
How long was Tales from the Kracka Tower in development? Tell me more about the development process.
I’ve had Lakisha’s character in my head for over a year. Whenever I’m really stressed out, I write scripts because it’s fun to escape for a little. I thought it would be really funny to create a web-series that highlights my experiences as well as the experiences of others who I am friends with. I’ve been working on Sam’s character for a similar amount of time. It was hard for me to initially cast the characters I had because I only knew grad students. Most of us teach, take classes, and are really broke, so I was unsure as to how enthusiastic they would about my project. To my surprise, many of the students wanted to participate and even offered ideas. Many of them came to the meetings I organized at night and from there we just started filming the first pilot episode. Ariane Anderson, who plays Dr. Kimball is a close friend of mine in the program and she adds so much to the character. We seriously had to do like 13 takes of her scene because I kept laughing.
I met Kyle Romano (Sam) in my current master’s program and we became really good friends. Our humor is similar and he has his own awkward run-ins with able-bodied privilege so we decided to blend our narratives. Meeting him really helped me understand the privileges I possessed in terms of being able-bodied. I think that’s what is so unique in our show—we attempt to highlight multiple systemic issues at once. Oftentimes disabled characters are not featured in media projects, or they serve as inspirational props for able-bodied characters. Sam is frustrated, angry, and unfriendly. The audience will get to know more about Sam as the show goes on.
All of my characters represent people I have met in my life. I also have many friends who have told me stories about their professors, so I’ve added their narratives in as well. The amazing thing about this project so far [I released the pilot episode last week] has been the support I’ve received from other minoritized students in academia. Several students have messaged me to say, “I’ve had a professor like Dr. Kimball.” I think that’s the most rewarding part of all of this. I feel like I’m building camaraderie with others.
What is your current research project about? Do you have plans to stay in academia after your MA and pursue a PhD and/or a professorship (don’t worry, I won’t try to talk you out of it)?
I *just* finished my thesis and defended it. It centers on the Slutwalk marches and the racialized gender politics involved. Essentially, I was arguing that Slutwalk’s employment of postfeminist empowerment (actualized through a white-centered porn chic aesthetic) excluded Black women from the logic of the march. Additionally, the marches ignored the history of resistance and activism that Black and Latina women have previously engaged in.
As far as a PhD, you never know….I personally think it would be a dream come true to create more shows, lol.
Judging from the extraordinarily bizarre/defensive kerfuffles on Twitter in recent months, there is still a tremendous amount of defensiveness in, for example, white feminist circles, about systemic racism and about what it does or doesn’t mean to be an ‘ally.’ Can you tell me a little bit about how the tear-inducing hilarity of Dr. Kimball, the “diversity specialist” who doesn’t recognize Angela Davis, relates to this (if it does?)?
That’s a great question. So, I have to say that I’m actually pretty happy that the fractures between some white and Black feminists have been highlighted in such a mainstream way. I have specifically followed the twitter debates.
There’s this new trend where tons of white feminists talk about “intersectionality” without actually understanding how it operates. I don’t think many white women really understand how they can serve as oppressive agents to other women. They assume the main issue is patriarchy and men, rather than also exploring how they too contribute to the hostile climate. It’s hard for any group to admit that they’re privileged.
So, many uncritical white feminists want brown women in their crew and on their blogs without actually catering to issues that impact brown women. Similarly, Dr. Kimball represents the same problem. She actually tells Lakisha, “We need more people like you” but she doesn’t even know who Angela Davis is. She continues to ignore the knowledges that Black people have contributed to, but she wants their skin in her space so that her program looks more “diverse.” In this way, diversity serves as an instrument that reinforces whiteness.
Do you have any comment about the rather outsized defensiveness within the Tower (and its observers) that insists upon either ignoring or minimizing this respect gap [between white faculty and PoC, particularly WoC]?
I completely agree. I don’t think many really understand how it’s easy to internalize the disrespect you feel in a classroom. (Partly because some people won’t acknowledge “isms”). I think we assume that the classroom is a neutral space; however for many of us it can be stressful because of the power dynamics. I once had a long discussion with a friend of mine about this. She is a Black PhD student in a different program and she stated that ever since she started classes, she’s had an issue with stuttering. She became so insecure about her own thoughts and didn’t feel like she could contribute to the discussion. She even said that her professor never made eye contact with her. These are the conditions that *some* minoritized students have to endure. It might seem trivial to some, but when you feel like you’re “less than” simply because of the way you look-it can impact the way you view yourself as well as the way you perform as a student. It impacts your scholarship. You have to labor harder to make it through. (This is true for any space, not just academia).
I think the Tower doesn’t want to take this seriously because our narratives provide evidence of racism, sexism, ableism, and other systemic prejudices in the space. The tower has a reputation for fostering progressive intellectualism, so many of our narratives threaten its reputation. I think silence has been a tactic of survival for many minoritized individuals so it makes sense that there are many of us who don’t want to say anything publicly.
However, this discussion is becoming more and more mainstream which is exciting. I mean, think about films like “Dear White People” or all of the recent protests on college campuses.
Can you tell me a little bit about your decision to address the relationship between your title and the kind of whiteness you’re exposing in the contemporary university? OR, alternately, just tell me anything about the title or your play with the word “kracka” that you want to?
I think it’s important to mention that the U.S. is uncomfortable with talking about whiteness. Culturally, we prefer to talk about the groups most burdened by white privilege, but we don’t want to actually talk about those who get the privileges. Whiteness is difficult to discuss because it’s hard to define. It’s a framework; it’s a norm, it is territory that does not want to be mapped. It remains invisible which is why I wanted to put it front and center for the title of my show.
You’re right-I was angered by the fact that racial prejudice kept being downplayed in the Zimmerman trial. It’s postracism at its finest. We are so uncomfortable to just say the obvious—racism exists. If racism exists in our culture, why wouldn’t it exist in academia?
I also think it’s ridiculous how some white people try to act like they are racially oppressed in the US. In fact, there have been several studies that came out that highlight how white people think they are “more” racially oppressed than Black people. So, “cracker” somehow becomes just as offensive as “nigger.” That was the impetus for the title of the show. I wanted to change the spelling around a bit which is why it’s in the form of “kraka.”
Let me know anything else I should know about the series!
I hope this show serves as a way to reignite the activist spirit in any minoritized person who feels defeated or depressed because of daily microaggressions. I was initially insecure with the script because women, Black women in particular, are not seen in positions of power. I never knew about Black female filmmakers and producers, and I feel that the tide is slowly changing. The internet has provided a digital space for me to share my words and my art, and to connect with others who may feel similarly. Additionally, I think those of us who are tired of trite representations of minorities in the media should invest in smaller, guerilla-style projects that are doing just that. There are tons of web-series and low-budget films that offer new representations. Rather than highlighting how sexist, racist, and ableist the media is, we should spotlight work that challenges these messages.
*I also want to highlight that Lakisha is vegan and the viewers will soon witness her journey in that space*
So…any hints on what might happen with Lakisha and Sam?! Do they become BFFs? Or is Sam too busy holding his office hours in the elevator?
I think you’ll have to stay tuned to see what happens with Lakisha and Sam. Sam has already demonstrated (in a very awkward way) that he is curious about Lakisha’s presence in the Diversity department, so Episode 2 will delve into this further. Stay tuned.
Thanks again to Aphrodite! And watch the series!!!