Language matters

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When Anita was a college student, she went to dinner at a white friend’s house. During dinner, the conversation turned to talking about the proper terms to refer to groups. Her friend’s dad insisted that it was okay to call Asians/Asian Americans “Orientals” because it was okay to say that when he was growing up. Anita and her friend tried to convince the dad that while it may have been “okay” at some point, the term was now offensive and that he shouldn’t use it. The dad wasn’t convinced then…but Anita hopes that perhaps he has come to rethink his stance since then. 

We wanted to explore in this post the same kind of reluctance and resistance that we see popping up in various ways around labels and terms that sees new or newly-popular language as a sort of performative wokeness that accomplishes nothing. In recent months, “white privilege” has come under attack and “Latinx” has been a controversial term since it began being circulated.* There’s a sort of knee-jerk skepticism about new language in cultural criticism–the “well, it’s just political correctness” discourse–that often seems to market or mask itself as a “holier than thou” or “smarter than thou” take. This push back seems particularly pointed when this new or newly-invigorated language comes from attempts by young people to change how we talk about identities and groups. We explored this topic before on this blog when we discussed gender identities and pronouns in our two-part conversation with our colleague, Tegra–you can check out those posts here and here

Challenges to vocabulary, dress, music, and ideas perceived as arising from youth cultures, especially when seen as originating from youth from marginalized groups, are, of course, not new. 

Social media exacerbates all of this, we think. We’d love to hear from sociolinguists or social media scholars to confirm our hypothesis: that we see and hear more resistance to new cultural studies language because platforms like Tumblr, Twitter, and TikTok have made it possible for young people to communicate quickly and effectively with each other about their needs, desires, and beliefs–and some of those needs are about being seen and heard the way they want to be seen and heard. In other words, if new language in academic circles is about emphasizing and experimenting with a new frame of knowing (which may or may not prove effective), new language that comes from the ground up (generally teens) emphasizes their right to be recognized in particular ways,  Part of what we see as the resistance is that in the age especially of social media shifts in language seem to happen more rapidly and diverse, often radically opposed opinions more easily occupy the same “virtual” public space.

We are sympathetic to the feeling of being overwhelmed by the ever evolving language and shifting consensus–it can be difficult to “keep up” and especially for us as teachers. We often feel pulled in so many directions as we attempt to create inclusive classrooms while pushing for institutional changes around racism and White Supremacy. We are also sympathetic to  critiques that these kinds of debates perhaps distract us from the kind of structural shifts that need to occur. However, at least in our experience, academics who are critiquing these kinds of language correctness are rarely doing the work of pushing institutions to move towards reparations and redistribution of wealth and resources. Instead, their complaints seem to evince a resentment of having to do the work of learning and admitting that we perhaps don’t know it at all. 

* Adriana recommends reading Richard T. Rodríguez’s excellent “X Marks the Spot” in Cultural Dynamics 29.3 (2017) for incisive insight into how Latinx has been used and what it can exclude. The essay finishes: “Some may feel that embracing Latinx is simply a trend. I, however, want to champion the X as drawing attention to and not overshadowing nonbinary and gender neutral and nonconforming individuals. But to do that, we cannot simply use Latinx without acknowledgment of its discrepant gender politics, nor can we map it on to people’s lives, histories, and bodies uncritically. For if the X is to simply become something to which anyone can easily lay claim, we will need to aggressively pose the question: Why adopt it at all if the ultimate goal is to cross out any traces of queer assertion and affirmation?”

Diversity Rhetoric Obscures Structural Inequities

Image source. Students at UC Davis being pepper-sprayed at a 2011 campus protest.

After we published our post last week, an article by Cathryn Bailey came across our laptops that echoed some of our arguments about how the work that faculty do and the positions we hold at colleges tends to make us less able and willing to see ourselves as workers. Bailey takes this structural critique and argues that “It has perhaps never before been more obvious that the fissures that underlie the academic labor crisis are connected to broader concerns about diversity, inclusion, and social justice.”

Bailey makes a strong case for why the academic labor crisis and universities’ inability to make progress on social justice stem from the same structures that focus on individual efforts and rewards rather than on institutional change.

We highlight here some of the passages we found particularly insightful.

“It is perhaps when the class politics underlying academic employment are most naked that institutional propaganda about individual behavior, often couched in terms of civility, is most prevalent. Employment pressure, for example, makes faculty members ever more reluctant to speak openly about supposedly controversial matters or issues that test the bounds of ‘civility.’”

“Rhetoric swings predictably between the ‘we’ and the singular ‘you,’ which helps disguise the systemic nature of the problems. ‘Our’ campus community is set forth as a beacon of tolerance and multiculturalism. A communal ‘we’ takes credit for the mythic image of the university viewbook as an inviting Benetton ad. Yet when faculty members or students raise complaints—even those that point to long-standing patterns of discrimination or abuse—they are likely to be framed and handled merely in the very particular terms of individual rights and victimization.” 

“At other times, administrators who sing the praises of diversity goals, initiatives, and strategic objectives frame structural inequities as being only about particular individuals. A quite specific complaint by a faculty member of color—for example, that his diversity-focused sabbatical proposal has been unfairly dismissed—may be met with feel-good assurances from a dean or vice provost echoing the institutional diversity statement. Such polite responses effectively close down discussion. What response is available when the dean warmly replies that ‘the University of X values everyone’? Institutional accountability becomes clouded over in a puff of rhetorical rainbow smoke that disguises the constraints faced by actual individuals, especially those from marginalized groups, who are struggling to thrive. In its attempt to sidestep blame, avoid controversy, and appease aggrieved constituents, the administration’s ‘civil’ and ‘reasonable’ conduct upholds the status quo’s inequities.”

Labor, not love or loyalty: Our relationship to our employer

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“If ever there were a time to remember that professors are workers and that universities are workplaces, that time would be now. Administrators believe your job is worth dying for as they cynically use the bodies of employees to pad their bottom line.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Last fall, as part of her sabbatical, Anita had the chance to enroll in a course called “Working Class History” through the New Brookwood Labor College. The New Brookwood Labor Collegestrives to address racial, economic, and social imbalances of power by educating workers into their class. During the first class, Anita and her classmates, most of whom were union members or union organizers, discussed what “working class” meant. They talked about how class definitions were not about how much income you earn, but about how you earn your income. It’s about workers who work for someone else.  It’s about you creating profits for others. It’s about the exploitation of your labor, in the Marxist sense, and not just about how you are treated by your boss. A nice boss is still a boss.

Anita thought about this first class discussion this summer as we entered a phase of the fall planning at Carleton where there seemed to be a lot of decisions being made that had implications for faculty and staff health and safety without the full participation of faculty and staff. While we are concerned about the staff at Carleton and their ability to prioritize their health and safety and still keep their jobs, we will focus in this post on faculty because we feel like we can speak from/to that position since we occupy it. 

Recent conversations among the faculty about the fall planning process have included more direct discussions about faculty positionality as workers. While these discussions come out of particular frustrations about the process of decision-making this spring and summer about fall term planning, we were struck by how it was the first time the two of us have been part of discussions at the college where faculty members are identifying themselves explicitly as “workers” and administrators as “bosses.” 

There’s definitely something about working at a private SLAC that insulates faculty from thinking of ourselves as workers. This post reflects our attempt to work through what these factors are. But first, as we thought about all the reasons for why faculty generally do not foreground their positionality as workers, we thought it might be useful to reflect briefly on what has influenced the two of us to see ourselves that way. 

For Anita, a huge influence on her thinking about labor and economic justice was the fact that both of her parents were part of unions during their time living in New York City; her dad is still a member of the TWU Local 100, New York City’s public transit union and her mom was a member of District Council 37, New York City’s biggest public employee union. She remembers going to union rallies with her parents. While as a teenager she could not have articulated well why she thought collective organizing and bargaining was beneficial, she vaguely understood that, for example, she and her brother had access to a fuller range of healthcare benefits, including access to braces and glasses, because of her parents’ unions. 

Adriana thinks she was probably influenced by her parents’ labor precarity in her 20s (both lost their jobs during the economic downturn in the early 1990s) and by her general attention to the structures of academia in the last ten years. In working through the way race matters in academia, she has read broadly in Critical University Studies, an area of inquiry that, in analyzing and critiquing the neoliberal turn of universities, stresses the importance of thinking about the condition of adjuncts and what that says about universities.

Our top six list of why faculty at a SLAC don’t easily think of themselves as workers

1.

Universities have large populations of adjuncts and grad students who face precarious work conditions in academia, and both groups have been doing incredible labor organizing in the past few years (see, for example, the COLA campaign at the UC schools). The situation is different at Carleton: as an undergraduate-only college, we have no grad students and we tend to have far fewer adjuncts than large research universities do. From her time on the committee that is concerned with faculty equity issues, Anita recalls a conversation with non-tenure track faculty with long-term contracts talking about how they were mostly satisfied with their labor conditions. In addition, as a private school, our salaries are not publicly available which makes it difficult to know about disparities in pay and benefits across ranks of faculty, let alone the differences between staff, faculty, and administrators. Comparisons with visibly unequal institutions that are more clearly exploiting their grad students and adjunct faculty helps to produce a sense that we work at a relatively equitable institution where we don’t need to advocate for ourselves.

2.

Small colleges in small communities tend to promote the idea that our participation in the lie life of the college makes us a family member rather than a worker.* There’s a certain level of “sociality” expected from faculty that often includes evening and weekend social events. We have had many discussions about the social demands of our jobs as professors, which includes both the relationship-building work that we see both as necessary in certain contexts and as unnecessary remnants of a bygone era where all the professors were married men who lived within walking distance of the college with wives did not work outside the home who welcomed students in their homes with elaborate home-cooked meals [or at least that’s what Anita was once told by an older alumnae in response to the fact that she did not live in Northfield]. 

The actual degree of sociality required to create learning environments that are humane and safe enough for students to take risks is debatable. But we see many colleagues (and ourselves, well, at least Adriana!) baking brownies to bring into classes, holding office hours in the evenings or weekends, hosting department events at our homes, inviting students over for dinner… And students are told and sold on the promise that being a student at an elite, small, liberal arts college means they get these kinds of relationships–family-like–with us. Faculty are not just purveyors of content expertise, but facilitators of individual growth and communal care and consideration.

Of course, this is all still labor. Just because this work is affective and relational does not make it leisure, or our “own.” But because it is affective work, both the institution and its workers can forget to “count it.” Care work is historically undervalued and unpaid in a capitalist society, and in our case, this kind of work can be viewed as personal and individual, rather than being a part of the structural conditions under which we labor.

*lie was a typo… or maybe a Freudian slip. We’ve corrected it but left the original so that both lie and life can live on here.

3.

Because we are a small workplace, there is a kind of personalization where we fail to see structures because we are thinking about the particular individuals who occupy the positions of hierarchy. The fact that we get to address the Dean of the College or the President by their first name hints at a particular kind of intimacy (going back to that “family” rhetoric) that often obscures the hierarchical structure of decision-making.

The personalization of the structure also means that we can mistake the moments where we are seen and helped as individuals as indications that labor conditions are good. What we mean is that personal relationships and their relative health can make us overlook structural problems, perhaps because we don’t experience a problem or because we trust that the particular individuals in positions of power are doing their best. 

4.

Carleton has norms of departmental and faculty autonomy for curricular issues. What this means is that, even though there are pressures for pre-tenure faculty to conform to certain departmental and college norms, we do not generally have to get approval for our syllabi and pedagogical styles. Most recently, as the college delayed informing faculty about what our fall term would look like, faculty felt strongly that they should have autonomy to choose their mode of teaching (e.g online, in-person, hybrid). The administration has allowed faculty this autonomy. 

This arena of autonomy can obscure or overshadow the moments when we have less input into decisions. We’ve both been in conversations where concerns about decision-making structures and processes get short circuited by the line “but at least we got to choose our teaching mode.” In other words, this particular area of autonomy and control can make us feel like we employ ourselves and we have choices and autonomy about our laboring conditions, even though there are many other decisions being made–not by faculty– that will impact our teaching contexts. 

5.

Related to the promotion of our small, elite SLAC as a family, there is an incredible amount of messaging at Carleton about how “special” the college is. While we tend to think of this kind of marketing as being aimed at students, it is, of course, being consumed by faculty as well. And we get our own booster speeches at the top of every faculty meeting. We are told how especially dedicated and wonderful we are, how we are one of the “top” undergraduate teaching institutions, and how our work and dedication to our students and the college is much appreciated. Having colleagues in all kinds of institutions, including ones that have far fewer resources such as community colleges and tribal colleges, the two of us don’t really believe the hype. Are Carleton faculty dedicated? Yes, and so are all of our friends and colleagues who are teachers. But at Carleton, we also have access to an incredible level of human and materials resources. 

This pervasive discourse of how “special” Carleton elevates our labor to something remarkable and essential, which serves to slow or stall critiques of working conditions because “critique” is made to look interruptive, rude, or antagonistic. Within this framework, recognizing our labor and collective organizing to better our working conditions is an affront to the institution who values us and our specialness. Institutions demand loyalty and pretend to give “love and appreciation” as a way to obscure the fact that we are laborers, laboring for an institution with entrenched hierarchies of who holds decision-making power, especially over financial matters. 

6.

Lastly, our own sense of our identities as being highly educated and credentialed can get in the way of seeing ourselves as workers. PhDs can feel like credentials that set us apart from other workers. For faculty who come from working class or lower middle class backgrounds, becoming a professor offered social mobility and stability. At a college like this, the PhD serves to make us “special workers” deserving of special benefits. 

An example. Both of us remember how ten or so years ago the faculty had discussions about whether the “tuition benefit” (basically, certain college employees can get financial support from the college to pay for their children’s college tuition) should be expanded to all staff, including hourly paid staff. While many faculty spoke in support of the proposition, we can remember some faculty members talking about how their PhDs made them “nationally competitive” and therefore the tuition benefit would attract the “best faculty”–as opposed to thinking of the tuition benefit as a benefit that should be available to all children, regardless of how and how much their parents happened to get paid by the college. In the end, tuition benefits are still only accessible to faculty and certain groups of staff. 

These differences in salary, benefits, and status, along with a governance structure that tends to silo faculty and staff interests and concerns (for example, while faculty have faculty meetings and a “Faculty Affairs Committee,” staff have their own informational structure) means that there are few spaces where we can focus on issues that we all might have in common as employees of the college. We both had conversations with our staff colleagues about how frustrating the fall planning process was because of the separate meetings for staff and faculty, as if we didn’t have common concerns about our health and safety and about the viability of the plan to bring back 85% of our students. 

While the immediate concerns about the lack of faculty power in shaping the college’s fall plan has brought to the forefront our position as employees, like all other employees at Carleton and beyond, we hope that these concerns shift more fundamentally our sense of ourselves and our willingness to organize collectively as laborers, drawing inspiration from workers’ rights campaigns within and outside of academia.

Unfinished Stories

Photo credit: unknown. Photo description: Adriana’s mami holding a sign “Rise” in the middle of a crowd of protestors, trying to help rewrite the nation’s stories.

Note: We will be working on a series of posts centered around “changing our imaginations” about education, colleges, and all the things that the two of us love to think and write about, as inspired by Kandace Montgomery, a Minneapolis-based organizer for Black Visions Collective who, talking in particular about abolishing the police, said, “They’ve ruined our imagination and told us that policing is the issue [solution]. We need to change our imagination. We have to change what’s possible.”

This post is an updated  version of Adriana’s talk at the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at Carleton in 2017. We thought it was worth publishing now because of the focus on working towards our dreams even/especially while living in a daunting reality. It showcases Adriana’s persistent optimism, even in the face of anxiety and grief. 

—–

In his Farewell address, President Obama invited those listening to act as “anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy”; almost four years later, it is more clear what that meant and means for us, how we are all a part of the unfinished story that is this country. We all understand now, so deeply, so gutturally, so painfully that the United States of America that we thought existed, maybe not on the ground, but at least in the world of theory, available in founding documents… that the United States of America has never yet been. Obama, then, was asking for us to be the guardians of something still to come, still to be born, still to be imagined into being.

The burden of working towards a dream might already be clear to you–after, all, how are we supposed to be guardians of that which does not yet exist?, but I want to underline it anyway. First–history does not serve as a blueprint, but it does offer necessary red-ink-comments in our margins that might help us do thoughtful, substantial edits. In the New York Times (2017), historian Khalil Gibran Muhammed writes: “The Dr. King we choose to remember was indeed the symbolic beacon of the civil rights movement. But the Dr. King we forget worked within institutions to transform broken systems. He never positioned himself as a paragon of progress. Nor did he allow others to become complacent.” Muhammed worries particularly about the way individual markers of progress serve to simplify history and create a narrative of progress that is so very seductive. (After all, if progress is in process, am I needed? There’s been a black president, isn’t racism over?) Muhammed’s concerns are not unjustified, given that even in the comments section one of the most “liked” comments applies the “we must stop harping on the past in order to move on into the future” logic that imagines we can fix structural inequality and racism without examining its roots. Indeed, as our friend Kevin Wolfe would say (miss you much!), this logic imagines that racism and inequality are curious and singular deviations from the beautiful commands of our founding propositions, instead of emerging from them. The challenge is obvious for those of us who take seriously Muhammed’s call to “judge transformation by how our institutions behave on behalf of individuals rather than the other way around”: our attention to history only helps to the degree that it is clear-eyed and strong-hearted, willing to battle the myths that sustain this country’s most dangerous lies: that we have always and we continue to prioritize justice, equality, and liberty for all.

The second burden of working towards a dream is that it has no end. That protest sign that we’ve seen on social media–”I can’t believe I’m still protesting this shit?”–get ready to see it again, and again, and again. I don’t mean to disillusion you or to disappoint you, but rather to steel you for the road ahead: the destination is not yet written; we cannot yet imagine the fitting close to this story.  Martin Luther King Jr. warned us that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. It’s long indeed. As Anita Chikkatur and I wrote in November 2016, “You have to really put your shoulder to the wheel to bend the arc of the moral universe.”  So, right now, as we stand and sit and walk and run and kneel and march and close our eyes and feel called into action, it’s important to know this long arc so that you can keep going, knowing that it is unlikely that you will see the fruits of your labor. 

How do you keep going? How do you not get exhausted and shift back into complacency? I want you to think of cultivating a muscle within yourselves–your resistance muscle. Like any muscle, it needs to be flexed regularly; it needs to be trained; it occasionally needs rest in order to work harder. This muscle profits from alliances, from listening, and from risk-taking; it requires the attention of truth-seekers, visionaries, and organizers. At the heart of it, this resistance muscle needs love and narrative.

Yes, narrative. Let me talk about why narrative matters. One way to think about this problem of not having a blueprint, about not knowing exactly where we’re going, is just as I’ve started to do so, in the language of maps, a spatial metaphor for figuring out the necessary social, political, and economic reorganization to come. I think a more sustainable metaphor, when talking about our own participation-our calls to action- is narrative. In a talk he gave at Carleton in 2017, psychologist Corey L.M. Keyes talked about the markers of mental health; hearing two of them, “purpose” and “autonomy,” the inner literary critic in me couldn’t help but rescript what he was saying just a tiny bit. Purpose and autonomy grow in us as we feel like the story we’re living makes sense, that our part in the story matters, and that you have some degree of control over your part in the story.

 Lin-Manuel Miranda’s amazing musical Hamilton (now streaming! But this isn’t a commercial! Also like all art, it has problems!) is all about narrative–indeed, the character Hamilton as imagined by Miranda is so very sensitive to the purity and perfection of the narrative of him that he torpedoes it. There’s a lesson there for all of us as we begin to own our roles in this grand story about this country, this moment, the future: do not invest yourself in idealized heroes or perfect narratives. Be humble as you sketch your part in the story; be forgiving as you look back and wish you’d taken other steps; appreciate your fellow sojourners who also work to build the story. 

Of course, the true hero of Hamilton–my preferred role model today–is Eliza. In the final song, “Who lives who dies who tells your story,” all the other characters moan and lament, “when you’re gone who tells your story,” She’s the one who changes the mood and direction of the song, forcefully responding: “I put myself back in the narrative.” In many ways, so many of us have imagined ourselves beyond and on the edges of the national narrative. It is high time we write ourselves back into the story. The more that we work on inserting ourselves into this story, asking ourselves, as Eliza does, “when my time is up, have I done enough?,” the more we can feel our strength, be ready for the long haul, glory in the small victories along the way.

So. Narrative–your approach to the national version of it–matters. And love matters. I’m talking of the love that Dr. King hints at when he says, “Here and there an individual or group dares to love, and rises to the majestic heights of moral maturity.” Dares to love. Dr. King points out that love is, indeed, difficult, because it asks us to engage in “understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all men.” For King, daring to love during struggle and sacrifice makes possible–indeed, it is the only way–to “create the beloved community.” “Love is the most durable power in the world,” he proclaims. Solange adds to that, “what’s love without a mission?”

Yeah. We’re not talking about romantic love or some anemic, anodyne love. This cannot be a touchy-feely love. This has to be an angry, justice-driven love, a commanding love, a requiring love. It is a get-up-and-shout love and a do-you-see-me-now love. To create the beloved community, we need to be able to imagine it into existence, to be able to see and care about our neighbor, our enemy, our kin. We need to love, so as not to fall into tactics of exclusion, division, and separation. It’s important to know that love is not easy. If it ever feels easy, you’re probably not doing it right. Don’t shy away from this kind of hard, daring love–it is a love that helps us re-imagine the terms of our story.

You might be asking right now, “love seems hard. How does it keep my resistance muscle from getting tired? Why is hard love sustaining?” My answer is as follows: I do not love institutions. Or corporations. Or policies. I love people. Institutions, corporations, policies will never return your love. Demand from these entities justice, equity, fair measures and processes. Love is different. Love people, without expectation of return. Love fully, knowing they may not be able to. Love honestly, letting your light shine. Love people, because loving them makes you a better, stronger, wiser person. 

Imagine Ourselves Out of Existence

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Note: We will be working on a series of posts centered around “changing our imaginations” about education, colleges, and all the things that the two of us love to think and write about, as inspired by Kandace Montgomery, a Minneapolis-based organizer for Black Visions Collective who, talking in particular about abolishing the police, said, “They’ve ruined our imagination and told us that policing is the issue [solution]. We need to change our imagination. We have to change what’s possible.”

We wanted to build on our last post which focused mainly on the radical possibilities of curricular change that responds to the current moment. This post comes out of the many conversations we’ve had with several friends (thank you Meredith, Thabiti, Wendy, Pao, Todd)  and out of what we’ve been learning from the many BIPOC intellectuals and activists we follow on social media. We’re grateful to all of them for encouraging and allowing us to dream big about what’s possible if we are willing to change our imaginations.

In this post, we want to talk about how one part of changing our imaginations is shifting our listening practices and being open to fundamentally shifting our routines as institutions, even routine practices that we see as “good” and perhaps even contributing to lessening inequities on our campuses. Because reimagining and rebuilding requires being able to see that the normal that we had before the pandemic and the racial justice uprisings did not actually work for everyone. It just worked for enough of us that we were able to believe and trust that it worked for all. What we need to do now instead is to listen differently to the voices of those for whom the old normal did not work, rather than thinking that we just need more of the same normal. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor puts it, the pandemic “is a radicalizing factor because conditions that have been so dire, now combined with the revolts in the street, might lead one to believe that not only is society unraveling, but it might cause you to question what foundation it was built upon in the first place.” 

What we mean by “more of the same normal” is, for example, when students complain about feeling marginalized because of their class status on Carleton’s campus, we tend to imagine that we can fix it simply by giving students more financial aid, instead of thinking about the fundamental claim they’re making about Carleton’s status as an elite school in relation to the economic inequities in U.S. society. The problem with this easy fix is that those in power can then sit back and imagine that their job is done, while continuing to maintain the structures that keep those students feeling marginalized. What would it mean instead if, as we listen to their needs and worries, we introduce them to classes that tackle racial capitalism and the histories of working class movements? What if we invite them to see how their experience at Carleton is not unique and is, in fact, echoed at elite colleges across the nation? (See, for example, the myriad Instagram accounts started by Black students in predominantly white colleges and high schools.) By listening differently to our students who feel marginalized, we might also be able to see them as they are and their experiences as they are, rather than as who we imagine them to be and who the college wants to mold them into.  

Fixing it through financial aid is how we imagine our mission currently–to be an engine of opportunity for individual students. But what might the college look like instead if we imagined ourselves as an engine for societal transformation? 

What if all of us and all of our institutions took seriously that no individual action or effort “can mitigate 400 years of racial plundering” in this country, as Nikole Hannah-Jones says in her recent article about reparations? What if Carleton and other institutions took seriously that their wealth and their ability to provide financial aid is inextricably linked to these 400 years of racial plundering? 

Ultimately, we don’t have all the answers, and, in one blog post, could never gather all possible answers out there together. Our goal is to simply underline how vital it is to listen to the voices, experiences, communities of our students who are marginalized without assuming that we already know what to do to respond to them. How might their dreams for a different future help us reimagine our future, even if that future is one where places like Carleton don’t exist?

Perhaps it is our job at this moment to imagine ourselves out of existence.

P.S. We loved this article by poet Dionne Brand about this notion of the “normal” so do check it out if you haven’t come across it yet.

Crisis pedagogy

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Note: We will be working on a series of posts centered around “changing our imaginations” about education, colleges, and all the things that the two of us love to think and write about, as inspired by Kandace Montgomery, a Minneapolis-based organizer for Black Visions Collective.

“Did we connect curriculum to this moment? Or did we continue to show that the curriculum is totally irrelevant to our lives? Did we acknowledge trauma in this moment? The curriculum must be connected to the moment, must be relevant, must be impactful.” 

Kevin Kumashiro posed these questions in his brilliant recent seminar on how higher education must step up in a moment of crisis if colleges and universities are interested at all in being institutions that are about social justice. He started the webinar by saying, “What we do in the midst of a crisis should actually take us closer to the vision we have for higher education, not farther.”

While we started this series of posts inspired by the words of Black organizers, activists, and intellectuals calling for all of us to imagine a different future and society in the face of the racial justice uprisings, the COVID-19 pandemic had already set into motion discussions about how to re-imagine education in a moment of crisis. 

While neither of us had the experience of teaching online this year because of leaves, we did hear from many of our friends and colleagues about their experiences, and we engaged (sporadically) with conversations at Carleton this spring about what should happen next fall: Should students return to campus? Should faculty continue to offer online courses? What shifts needed to happen to our curriculum and pedagogy because of the pandemic? 

In line with Kevin’s questions about connecting curriculum to the moment, Anita had posted the following comment in May on a Carleton online forum about teaching in the fall in response to a comment about the potential for team-teaching: “This is perhaps a much more ‘out there’ suggestion but (sort of) building on this notion of team teaching, I’ve been thinking about how amazing it would be if Carleton used this next year to be completely bold and innovative. Rather than having traditional courses, what if we used a liberal arts interdisciplinary lens to create teams of faculty who could collaborate to create learning experiences for students around the theme of PANDEMICS! Maybe we would do shorter terms to give us a time to plan, or maybe we’d stick to the same groups the entire year and do it all online. I can’t think of a single discipline that doesn’t have some bearing on the topic in some way. What better way to show that the liberal arts approach matters, that subject matter expertise matters, than by actually tak[ing] on a topic that matters to/in the world in a more immediate, substantial way and by responding to the world as it is?”

Before Anita posted this comment, the two of us had exchanged a series of text messages where we had fleshed out some of the possibilities. We first started by expressing some of our frustrations about the framing of these conversations that faculty were being asked to engage in as well as the neglect of expertise about infectious disease (the college has since brought in an epidemiologist to campus). We provide here an edited transcript with some notes added in italics as we’ve learned more about the effects of the pandemic and people’s response to it (edited mostly for clarity…and um, colorful language!)

Adriana: The framing is just all wrong…it’s imagining that somehow things are “normal” in 6-8 months… or that there’s ANY WAY to bring students back to be in a college community that is SAFE. Nightmare scenarios don’t make for good learning. [A recent nationwide survey found that 18-25 year olds have been the least likely to follow pandemic hygiene.]

Anita: Also, why are any of us weighing in on this to begin with? Asking me for my view on how to do social distancing or whether it’ll be safe is like asking my students to “weigh in” on whether race is biologically real. I don’t have that discussion with them. I have them read social science research about the impacts of people having that false belief.

Adriana: YES. 

Anita: That’s what I wanted to write…this discussion is basically undermining any defense of why places like Carleton or universities in general are necessary. If we can all be “experts” because we’ve read a few things, then why should families pay us $70,000 for our subject matter and pedagogical expertise? We just need YouTube and TED Talks.

Adriana: The one thing I found interesting is some folks talking about team teaching online — I love that idea. 

Anita: Yeah, I’d love to do a version of the structured gap year but a cool, liberal arts interdisciplinary one where a team of faculty collaborate to create learning experiences around the theme of pandemics. And we would do shorter terms, to give us a month to plan and then two months to work with students.

Adriana: OMG – an AMST sequence on pandemics would be amazing.

Anita: What better way to show that we matter, that liberal arts matters, than by actually mattering to the world and responding to the world AS IT IS?

A couple of days after this discussion, Anita posted her comment to Moodle…mostly to silence (cheers to a staff member who emailed their support!). When Anita mentioned this idea to a friend who teaches at a large state university, they asked what such a scenario might look like in more practical terms.

Friend: Can you sketch out a more detailed plan? How do you see interdisciplinary work working?

Anita: The whole point is that we would need to do it together!

Friend: Sometimes you need to sketch out the idea so people can conceptualize it

Anita: Fine. It’s not that difficult to imagine scenarios. Let’s think about how the pandemic has made worse inequities through the disciplines of education, sociology, biology…Let’s think about the metaphor of pandemics in literature: English, Spanish, Latin, all the languages.

Friend: I make those kinds of suggestions in my program a lot. If I taught in a liberal arts school, I’d say let’s do it!

Anita: Exactly! We’re supposedly all about doing this kind of innovative teaching but we mostly do it on the edges, in small ways.

Friend: Yes. This would reconfigure how you approach a problem. I like the interdisciplinary approach because how else can you approach big problems? You could create interdisciplinary learning groups with students and profs. What’s the number of students versus professors?

Anita: 2000 students, maybe 200 faculty. And if we include staff (librarians, tech folks), maybe another 50 instructors

Friend: What?! That would only be like 10 students per instructor. If you grouped 3-4 instructors, you are still talking about a small student/teacher ratio. You could create an overarching framework to consider what should be accomplished but then each group could design their own learning plan and outcomes. That’s so totally doable! You could have a research fair at the end to highlight outcomes.

Totally doable, but only if we have the will to imagine it. 

For example, rather than each university bringing back their students back to campus, what if universities coordinated regionally to use dorms and dining services to serve people in the more immediate communities who need housing and food? One reason that Carleton cited for their recent decision to bring back 85% of students to campus in the fall were inequities in students’ ability to access online learning. Of course, this inequity is a much larger and systemic one. What if campuses opened up their spaces for students in immediate communities, including K-12 students, to access better Wi-Fi services? And if this kind of access was coordinated regionally and nationally, our students might have access to housing, internet, and other necessary services, along with the thousands of others in their communities with the same needs. Perhaps there are lessons we can learn from businesses that have pivoted to serve community needs, such as this Black-owned distillery in Minneapolis

We’re not arguing here that these ideas are THE ideas. As Anita noted to her friend, the point is to work on such ideas together as a community. Kevin notes in his webinar that the point is not to agree or disagree with the specific ideas that he proposes, but rather to ask different questions about what this moment allows us to do, compels us to do. Rather than asking how we can tinker with our curriculum and pedagogy to get us as close to “normal” as possible, what if we asked instead, as Kevin does, “How should universities better serve community capacity building, democracy building, and movement building?” How might we answer that question in this moment of the pandemic and racial justice uprisings? How might those answers then shift fundamentally our visions of who our institutions should serve and to what purposes?

Kevin calls out faculty, and we would say perhaps his challenge is especially relevant for those of us with the security of tenure, for NOT protesting more robustly against our institutions for failing to live up to social justice standards, especially in this moment of the pandemic and the racial justice uprisings. He urges us to organize and collectivize. There are small liberal arts colleges that have started to move in this direction.

We’ll admit that the two of us are at a loss about how to do so at Carleton. Given our own histories of feeling stymied in our efforts to influence systemic institutional change, we have focused instead on what we can do in our classes, with our research, and in our communities outside of Carleton. So we don’t have a neat, inspiring ending for you about what we have done or what you should do. 

We would, though, love for all of you to share with us your ideas or ideas that you’ve encountered from others that you find particularly intriguing, ideas that move us closer to dismantling educational systems that reinforce and reproduce White Supremacy and economic inequities.

More than a Reading List: Challenging Anti-Black Racism in the Field of South Asian Religions

Note: This guest post by the Auntylectuals asks scholars in their field–South Asian religions–to reimagine what it means to be an anti-racist scholar. While their call is to a specific academic community, we think that there is much to be learned from their post as all of us reimagine our teaching and research to become more anti-racist. You can contact the group at auntylectuals@gmail.com and find them on Twitter @auntylectuals. Take it away, Auntylectuals!

In response to recent horrific acts of murder and police brutality against Black people, we have seen a new interest in racism arise in the field of South Asian religions. On listservs, pedagogy forums, and elsewhere, colleagues have made some excellent suggestions of reading lists, films, and resources on racism. But this relatively new attention to race among scholars of South Asian religions also arouses some concern and frustration. There is something important missing from the well-intentioned conversations about racism and anti-Blackness that now pervade a small corner of our field. What is absent is deep self-reflection on the ways that white supremacy and anti-Blackness have determined who participates in our discipline and our institutions, and how racism factors into the ongoing power-dynamics and orientation of our work. The elephant in the room, virtual or otherwise, is that a large portion of our field is still made up of white scholars of Christian background, as well as South Asians who can leverage the privileges of caste, gender, and race. Our field is embedded in complex histories that cannot be disentangled from racist endeavors and agendas. 

In their recent “Down With Brown” post, Anita and Adriana have suggested that confronting our complicity and the ways racism permeates our work requires “changing our imaginations.” This includes revisioning how we position our scholarship. Rather than researching and writing in silos, what this moment and what being anti-racist require of us is reimagining the boundaries of our disciplines, seeing the intersections between various fields and their relationship to forms of power. As we reimagine, we hope to unearth and undermine racism, ultimately rebuilding our discipline. 

As feminist critical race scholars of religion who are also racialized academics, we are reflecting on our relationship to the study of South Asian religions. We have been informed by and continue to learn from the work of Black feminist scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Davis, Roxanne Gay, and Brittney Cooper, who have been engaging with and thinking through questions of race for decades. In 2018, after more than a year of exploratory discussions, we founded the seminar in Intersectional Hindu Studies within the American Academy of Religion, which is a collaborative five-year seminar with eleven other racialized scholars of Hindu studies. We see our work as being in conversation with similar interventions in Religious Studies and other fields that are challenging white supremacy in academia and beyond. Working from a feminist framework of collective labor and collaboration, we have carved out spaces for us to study and support each other. We have worked to create places for researchers of color in our field to talk about their experiences of marginalization and privilege, and to identify ways in which we have been complicit in the racist structures of academia. 

We agree wholeheartedly that we should integrate gender and race into our classes and research, but a reading list is not enough. Developing bibliographies is not new to academia; it is the bread and butter of our fields. But reading some new books cannot be confused with making personal or structural changes. In order to avoid the additive model, where we just augment our study of religion with readings on race, we must reflect back on how our discipline emerged as part of the colonial project that gave rise to categories of religion and race simultaneously. The formation of our discipline is predicated on white supremacy, brahminical supremacy, and hetero-patriarchy. Thus, racism, anti-Blackness, sexism, casteism, Islamophobia, and orientalism inherently inform the scholarship on and pedagogy of South Asian religions. 

As South Asian savarna (with caste) women, this reflection requires us to examine our own positionalities. We are aware that being perceived as “model minorities” shields us from the brutal violence that is so painfully common for Black people, granting us conditional privilege in the hallowed halls of academia. We also recognize that this model minority status is rooted in anti-Black racism. We need to look no further than United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923) to see how South Asians have leveraged race and caste in paving the road to conditional acceptance and citizenship in the US. Thind’s lawyers argued that “the High-class Hindu regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner as the American regards the negro, speaking from a matrimonial standpoint” explaining further that “[it] would be just as disgraceful for a high-class Hindu to marry a member of one of the lower caste as it would be for an American gentlemen to marry a member of the negro race.” Claiming that he was a member of the Aryan race, Thind invoked racial and religious purity narratives that undergird white (and brahmanical) supremacy by invoking white and upper-caste anxiety around miscegenation. Savarna South Asians in North America continue to participate in racist and casteist systems required to maintain our precarious privilege. 

As scholars of South Asian religions, we know that a tremendous amount of training is required to translate a Sanskrit or Tamil text, interpret a ritual practice, or conduct ethnographic research in India or Trinidad. That same kind of specialization is required to bring critical race theory, gender, and sexuality studies into our classrooms and our research. It is not uncommon for people to presume that simply because they are personally and politically committed to addressing issues of racial injustice, or other forms of marginalization, that they are prepared enough to raise these issues in classrooms. 

In no way do we wish to discourage people from working on these issues, but we ask that our colleagues proceed with care and caution. Critical Race Feminist Theory asks that we don’t just announce our positionality and situate ourselves with respect to our work and teaching; it demands that we engage in acts of critical self-reflection and scrutiny. It necessitates that we continually interrogate our positionality with respect to race, religion, caste, class, gender and sexuality as we take action. We are all complicit in forms of white supremacy, and recognizing that is difficult and uncomfortable.

Ibram X. Kendi invites us to think about antiracism as an active, intentional and ongoing action: “The heartbeat of racism is denial, is consistently saying, ‘I am not racist,’ while the heartbeat of antiracism is confession, self-reflection, and seeking to grow change.” 

The road to becoming anti-racist scholars requires an examination of whiteness and white supremacy in a transnational frame. Simply adding comparisons between caste in India and anti-blackness in the US may create the semblance of awareness, yet it does not do the work of anti-racism. It is imperative to do the labour of reflecting on how access to privilege has served, even unintentionally, to capitalize on and reinforce anti-Black racism in our classrooms, research, and institutions. One of the many ways that anti-Black racism is apparent is the near absence of Black scholars and students in our field, which is otherwise dominated by white and savarna South Asian scholars. 

The anti-racist work we are asking you to do may begin with a reading list or bibliography, but it may not be the one that was generated by people who are already in power. How can a discipline that still follows colonial parameters of knowledge production suddenly become aware enough to reorient the field and become anti-racist? In the oft quoted words of Audre Lorde, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

We ask our colleagues who are committed to challenging racism to resist simply adding race to a section of your course or designing a course on race and caste in South Asian religions, but to begin with serious study and self-reflection about the content of our courses, the nature of our research, and the state of our discipline and institutions. These first steps are critical since they reveal how white supremacy and anti-Black racism operate in every component of our society. It is a collective responsibility to do this labor and to unlearn the violence of white supremacy. We ask you to join us in this work.

Intersectional Feminist Hindu Studies Collective aka “The Auntylectuals

Shreena Gandhi, Sailaja Krishnamurti, Harshita Mruthinti Kamath, Tanisha Ramachandran, and Shana Sippy

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Reimagining K-12 schools in Minneapolis and beyond

Center High School students protesting mistreatment by school resource officers in May 2016. Photo credit: Andy Rathbun, Pioneer Press.

In this post, we want to signal boost a statement issued on June 7, 2020, by Education for Liberation, Minnesota Chapter, in support of the Minneapolis School Board’s recent decision to end their contract with the Minneapolis School Board. As this statement makes clear, taking cops out of schools is just a first step in moving towards developing curricula, pedagogy, and practices that truly educate and nurture Black and Indigenous students and students of color. 

Anita is a member of Ed Lib, MN Chapter, the first-ever local chapter of the Education for Liberation Network. Our chapter was started by core local organizers of the 2019 Free Minds, Free People Conference. Our goal is to be a network to bring together various constituencies in MN toward organizing for educational justice. Our membership consists of about 100 teachers, youth, activists, and academics. Our current emphasis is on designing a statewide mentorship network for BIPOC educators who are or want to teach Ethnic Studies.

Schools without police: Our vision for liberatory education in Minneapolis and beyond

The Education for Liberation Network, Minnesota Chapter, stands in solidarity with the youth, families, teachers, and community members who organized to push the MPS School Board to vote to end the district’s relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department. We specifically want to lift up the Black youth who led this effort despite being constantly targeted by police in schools. The vote was a testament to the will of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) youth in organizations like Black Liberation Project, Youth Political Action Coalition (YPAC), Young Muslim Collective, and YoUthROC, among others, who strive, each day, to implore the district to live up to its rhetoric of equity and to truly serve the children of Minneapolis by providing an education they deserve. Ed Lib Minnesota recognizes that the termination of the racist MPD is just one stretch of a long road to justice that will take courage, imagination, humility, and will among the district’s leadership and its communities.

Simply removing police from MPS, alone, will not ensure the safety and well-being of Minneapolis’s BIPOC youth and families. The path forward must take into account the educational paradigm that allowed for police to have a role in schools in the first place. MPS must question the nature of educational structures that seek to justify notions of meritocracy, standardization, ability, and competition. Ending the contract with MPD should not be seen as a way to save money. The money needs to be reinvested in programs that nurture BIPOC youth. MPS must take bold steps to center trauma-informed practices and ethnic studies, and address racial disproportionality between teacher and student demographics in order to create an ethic of care across the district. The district must take a reparational stance to address the decades of racial animus faced by generations of youth of color, including making substantial financial investments in historically underfunded neighborhoods and funneling the most effective educators to the students with the most need.  In addition to the elimination of police in schools, the district must terminate teachers who consistently remove youth of color from classes, and administrators who ignore the data showing the evidence of racist practices occurring each day.

The district must fundamentally change its curriculum across all grade levels to center the histories, cultural practices, knowledge, and skills of its diverse constituency. No longer is it acceptable for students to graduate without a deep and profound understanding of Indigenous, Pan-African, Pan-Asian, and Pan-American studies. No longer can multilingual youth be treated as though they are deficient against a monolingual English standard. No longer can racialized disparities in discipline continue to push students out of schools. Youth who consciously or unconsciously resist racist educational contexts are not behavioral problems. They are the barometers who measure the toxic atmosphere of a district with a deep history of anti-black and white supremacist logics. 

Ed Lib Minnesota stands with the people of Minneapolis, and other communities, to demand that the cops who are being kicked out of the schools be replaced with BIPOC counselors and educators, rich and vibrant ethnic studies curricula, transformative justice practices, and translingual classrooms. Our organization would like to be a resource to help MPS transition toward this vision. Every child deserves to be the subject of their own educational journey, and not the object of an imaginary white norm. Police in schools are just one piece of a much larger white supremacist puzzle that must be taken apart and exposed for the lie it is.

In Solidarity,

The Education for Liberation Network, MN Chapter

minnesota@edliberation.org

Divestment and (Re)investment

Photo by Anita; on Chicago Avenue between 37th and 38th streets, South Minneapolis. 

Note: We will be working on a series of posts centered around “changing our imaginations” about education, colleges, and all the things that the two of us love to think and write about, as inspired by Kandace Montgomery, a Minneapolis-based organizer for Black Visions Collective. This post is by Anita. 

They’ve ruined our imagination and told us that policing is the issue [solution]. We need to change our imagination. We have to change what’s possible. Concretely, it’s putting investment in things like making sure everyone has food, making sure everyone has housing…being in process together so how do we want to keep each other safe? How do we want to address harm? Because harm will happen. How do we do that without sending racists with guns who have no accountability? Kandace Montgomery, Black Visions Collective and Reclaim the Block.

Two weeks ago, an unarmed Black man was murdered by Minneapolis police officers. Murdered brutally, casually, for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill. 

Since then, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and cities and towns across the U.S. have erupted in protests against police brutality, calling for an end to racist policing and more importantly, an end to policing. Minneapolis is leading the country in reimagining community safety and community health and resilience beyond police. Thanks to the decades of organizing by Black activists and communities, especially Black youth, the Minneapolis School Board voted to end their contract with the Minneapolis Police Department and nine out of twelve City Council members have pledged to “dismantle the police department.”

During the first week of the uprisings in Minneapolis, I had a conversation with a friend that got me thinking about all the ways in which we need to divest and reinvest as we collectively imagine and build futures of justice for Black communities and for all of us. There’s the concrete divestment of money and resources from harmful institutions and the reinvestment of money and resources into community-led, justice-oriented solutions. What is also necessary is the divestment of my own thinking and ideas about safety and order. Or as Kandace Montgomery put it in an interview with Unicorn Riot after the community meeting on June 7, 2020, where the nine city council members announced their pledge to dismantle the police department, “We need to change our imaginations.” 

During a phone call with a friend the day after the 3rd precinct and many nearby buildings had burned down, we talked about how my first reactions watching buildings in South Minneapolis burn down were shock and horror. I talked about how I was raised to believe in the politics of respectability, to obey laws, to follow the rules, and to believe that the police were there to help us. I needed to be honest in naming that my first reactions might have been shock and horror, rather than pretending like I didn’t have those initial reactions. I needed to acknowledge that I needed a moment to reframe what was happening. That I had to understand what we were seeing through a different lens than the ones given to me as a child of South Asian immigrants to this country. That I needed to shift my focus to the kindling from the flame, as historian Carol Anderson described it. That I perhaps needed to learn more about what it means to abolish the police if I am to truly divest from what I have been taught to believe. 

To that end, a partial list of resources that I’ve found useful if perhaps you too need to divest from some of your previous ideas about what keeps us safe:

MPD150’s frequently asked questions page that answers questions such as “Won’t abolishing the police create chaos and crime? How will we stay safe?”

The first eight steps of abolition–what do we divest from, what do we invest in.

How to talk to children about the idea of abolition: a Woke Kindergarten reading of Wings by Christopher Myers 

The end of policing Alex Vitale

Are prisons obsolete? Angela Y Davis

Throughline podcast episode about the origins of American police

P.S.: Yeah, we’ve been on hiatus for a while…but we’re back at least for now. Given everything happening in our world today, we won’t promise that we’ll be blogging regularly or all the time, but we’ll try our best to put out posts on somewhat of a regular basis. As always, if you have a question about a race-related topic, particularly one pertaining to how we can imagine different, more just, more anti-racist ways of living, working, learning, and teaching on a college campus, you can write to us here.

P.P.S.: We’d love to have folks do guest blog posts for us around the theme of “changing our imaginations,” especially in the realm of education/higher educational institutions. So BIPOC folks interested in doing so, hit us up! 

Reality checks and necessary laughter

Reality check: it is the eighth week of a ten-week Carleton term, which means that it’s time to hang up the blog for a bit so that we can come back renewed and ready to write a whole bunch in mid-June.

But we wanted to leave you all with a lil’ something before this hiatus, an elliptical preview of some of our coming posts. We record some of our conversations, particularly when it feels like we’re getting somewhere good in our thinking. The cut below comes from a meandering convo about the concept of the marketplace of ideas, which quickly turned into a lot of laughter and tangents. If you want to hear us invent, play, and laugh–and we all need laughter–here you go. (It’s about 4:30 long.)