Being In and Not Of the University

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For your reading pleasure this week, we present you with a forum published in the Boston Review that highlights contributions from Robin Kelley, students activists, and other faculty. Titled “Black Study, Black Struggle,” the conversation aims to consider whether or not universities are appropriate or adequate sites of activism.

Kelley’s description of the kind of “betrayal and disappointment” that Black students experience once getting to the colleges they were heavily recruited to resonated with what we have heard from students of color on our campus.

Indeed, to some extent campus protests articulated the sense of betrayal and disappointment that many black students felt upon finding that their campuses failed to live up to their PR. Many students had come to the university expecting to find a welcoming place, a nurturing faculty, and protective administration. If they believed this, it was in no small part because university recruiters wanted them to: tours for prospective students, orientations, and slickly produced brochures often rely on metaphors of family and community, highlight campus diversity, and emphasize the sense of belonging that young scholars enjoy.

Kelley argues that students need to be careful about how they deploy “the language of personal trauma” in their activism and cautions student activists that “managing trauma does not require dismantling structural racism, which is why university administrators focus on avoiding triggers rather than implementing zero-tolerance policies for racism or sexual assault.” He also calls for the creation of intellectual spaces on campuses that use the resources of universities without being a part of them. He asks black students “to become subversives in the academy, exposing and resisting its labor exploitation, its gentrifying practices, its endowments built on misery, its class privilege often camouflaged in multicultural garb, and its commitments to war and security.”

The student respondents usefully take up and push back against Kelley’s critiques of their activism, demands, and framing of their experiences. Especially powerful was Charlene Carruthers’s argument that for today’s black student activists, “trauma is inseparable from the love that motivates activism. It is love in the face of repeated trauma that governs my work and the work of so many young black folks with whom I organize in communities across the country. We cannot separate our pain from our resistance.” Aaron Bady reminded us, two tenured professors, of the positions we occupy on our campus: “…if professors are in danger of acting on behalf of the institution—of mistaking its identity for their own—students tend to understand their place in this machine with much more clarity. Theirs is the exploited labor that makes the university operate; theirs is the debt that funds professorial salaries and endowment; theirs is the place that must soon be vacated to make room for fresher meat.”

 

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