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

Image source

“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. 

Crisis pedagogy

Image source

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

Shout out (and congrats!) to the Yale Ethnic, Race, and Migration studies faculty

Image source. Stanford students striking in 1989 to call for Ethnic Studies programs. Ask Adriana about her role in it if you know her IRL!

In April this year, 13 faculty with appointments in Yale University’s Ethnic, Race & Migration studies program withdrew their labor from the program. These faculty, who represented 13 out of 19 faculty associated with the program, made clear that their decision came after years of trying to get the Yale administration to support the program more robustly. All 13 faculty hold positions in other departments and were doing the work of the program without any pay or recognition. They argued that while such programs face challenges in most institutions for reasons that include racism, the difference at Yale was the vast amount of resources that Yale has at its disposal, with its $29.4 billion endowment.  We wanted to highlight this move by Yale faculty as we appreciate deeply this collective action of the Yale faculty to push their administration to make true commitment to a program that has enormous intellectual, social, and political value at Yale and to many students and faculty elsewhere, especially those of color.

Earlier this month, the faculty announced that they were recommitting to the program, following Yale administration’s move to provide concrete support to the program’s status and permanence on campus by allocating five faculty positions to the program.

Congratulations to the Yale faculty and students on their accomplishment!

Speaking up against the Border Patrol

arizona3.jpgImage source: Sandy Soto, colleague at University of Arizona

We’re back! And we wanted to kick off our series of posts for the spring term by signal boosting the story of University of Arizona students who are facing criminal charges for boldly and bravely challenging the presence of two armed Border Patrol agents on campus to give a presentation to a student club. As seen in videos linked in this Washington Post article about what happened, the student is heard repeatedly calling the agents the “Murder Patrol” and “KKK.” As the student notes, Border Patrol agents have been condemned by humanitarian aid groups for routinely destroying water left for migrants in the desert.

For a longer story of the racist origins of the Border Patrol, check out this interview with Greg Grandin, author of The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. Grandin, for example, notes, “The Border Patrol, as a federal agency, was exempt from any kind of that oversight that either the FBI or the CIA was submitted to in the 1970s. There was no equivalent of the Church Committee. It really has been, in some ways, a rogue agency, both because of its nature, working in this kind of liminal area between the foreign and the domestic, and, you know, on these borderlands, with very little oversight. And it was founded in 1924. And it was founded the same year that the U.S. passed its nativist immigration law, which basically reduced immigration from Asia to zero, emphasized and privileged immigration from Protestant Northern Europe.”

It is impossible to separate out the criticism of the Border Patrol and the issue of free speech as they collide in this incident. In the same breath that the UA president proclaims his defense of free speech, he argues that the #Arizona3 were disrupting education. But what do we mean when we say that someone or something disrupts education? What measures are we using, what definitions are we employing, when we (or the UA administration) point to the students as disruption, but don’t acknowledge that the presence of the Border Patrol is also disruptive? It becomes important to ask: disruptive to whose education? on whose terms? When we consider what speech should be defended as free speech (the Border Patrol’s presence or the #Arizona3’s), shouldn’t we also recognize the conditions of power and the institutional power that hyperdetermine what speech we’re likelier to see as more worthy? And then shouldn’t we, if we truly believe in the value of free speech, make sure that minoritized, marginalized voices get heard?

The issue at UA is exacerbated, in our eyes, by the fact that it only recently earned the designation of Hispanic-Serving Institution*, positioning it to be able to apply for more federal awards and aid intended to foster and support the education of Latinx students.

At this point, you are hopefully wondering what is being done. And what you can do. Students there are protesting. Students, faculty, and staff are hand-delivering letters to President Robbins. Faculty in the Department of Mexican American Studies at the University of Arizona issued a statement earlier this week in support of the protesting students and against the charges they are facing.

You can send letters to President Robbins here. You can also start conversations in your departments and with your coalitions to develop a solidarity statement like that put forth by the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies, University of Minnesota.  Finally, we should all be asking hard questions about what it really means to provide an inclusive education–which isn’t just about admitting students to our hallowed halls, but must also be about recognizing (and then interrupting) the ways in which State policing mechanisms can intrude and disrupt these spaces and these students’ lives.

*Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) designates accredited institutions with 25% or more full-time enrolled Latinx students.

How now down brown, Take 4: Strategies for change

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[image source]

We were asked a question about how do we know what strategies for social change are effective and after thinking long and hard about it, the first coherent thought we put together was, “This is such a big, hard question.” There are so many ways to dissect this issue (by strategies, by institutional type, by types of change). The person asking the question was mostly interested in larger, societal change, and not necessarily changes within college campuses or particular institutions so we decided to use this space to think through some of our ideas within that broader framework and offer suggestions for reading and resources about strategies for change.

At the broadest level, when we look at historical social movements, the strategies that seem necessary to make possible change are naming the status quo, interrupting it in visible, audible, material ways, and, to some extent, suggesting possible pathways forward. A lot of times, it’s easy to stop at the naming stage, because we expect that as soon as we name the problem, everyone will get on board with us and brainstorm solutions. But, of course, the status quo is the status quo for a reason: it works, mostly, and for most people. The naming strategy could work for those who benefit from the status quo but are empathetic to those from whom it doesn’t. But that strategy won’t work for those who cannot see or do not care to see the inequities. This is where interrupting the status quo matters because these interruptions make life difficult for those inhabiting and benefitting from the status quo. To be really effective, the interruption has to fit the particular ill being addressed; for example, segregation and policing of public space demands an interruption and eruption onto spaces not thought of as public. Finally, the common critique that is made of social justice movements is that they do not get to that third part–the suggestions of possible ways forward that will lead to substantial changes in the status quo. But, of course, movements often DO have action plans–but they might not be articulated or framed or visible in ways that are legible to those who benefit from the status quo (for example, this critique is leveled at the nascent Black Lives Matter movement, even though there are many concrete policy recommendations made by the group).

With shifts in technology (from broadsides to newspaper to radio to the internet and social media), different ways of gathering support and communicating actions and goals are available. But we’d argue that these changes in technology haven’t shifted the strategies meaningfully. Naming of the ways in which the status quo harms people in our communities still needs to happen publicly. If naming doesn’t receive an institutional response, there still needs to be interruption. Interruption gains strength by numbers. And having suggestions for change allows for the possible imagining of better, more equitable futures.

One great resource to get a sense of the diversity of types of interruptive actions is the Global Nonviolent Action Database at Swarthmore College (shoutout to Anita’s alma mater!) . You can search the database by protest strategy here and in the various cases, you can find out more about how successful the particular method was. It can be a great resource to learn more about the great range of strategies used around the world to try and effect change. As this database shows, there is no ONE strategy that makes sense for all possible types of changes we are trying to effect in society (well, other than the fact all of these are nonviolent forms of protest.)

Neither of us is a scholar of social movements. But we’ve both participated in them and care deeply about ongoing movements…and from that perspective, we’d caution any of us to not attempt (always) to use the idea of “effectiveness” as the only or most important measure of the value and outcome of specific strategies. Sometimes there is a clear line between action and result, but most of the time, there is not. Rather, actions have ripple effects, and those waves often end up shifting values, hopes, and determinations in any number of unpredictable ways, making for circuitous routes back to the centers of power.

We have a few readings/case studies that we hope will also be useful:

Our colleague Dev Gupta (political science) recently published this great overview of the study of social movements.

Sekou Franklin (2014). After the rebellion: Black youth, social movement activism, and the post-civil rights generation.

Contemporary youth activism: Advancing social justice in the United States (2016). Edited by Jerusha Conner and Sonia M. Rosen.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (2016). From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.

 

 

Power to the (young) people

Image by Lalo Alcaraz

As all of you likely know, last Wednesday, on February 14th, a 19-year-old shot and killed 17 people and wounded 14 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.   This school shooting is the 18th in 2018, which, as Amy Goodman points out, means that there has been a school shooting every 60 hours so far this year. The ongoing death toll is painfully large: since 2012, when 26 people–including 20 first graders–were killed in Sandy Hook Elementary School, there have been at least 239 school shootings nationwide and 138 deaths.

While young people are vulnerable to gun-related injury and death in many spaces beyond schools, due to the general proliferation of guns in U.S. society [1], school shootings provoke a painful cycle that we’ve now seen many times: outrage and sorrow; thoughts and prayers; calls for more gun control; no change in gun control laws; shooting forgotten till the next one happens.

What might make a difference and break the cycle in this case is that the young people directly affected by this latest shooting are organizing and demanding change, and they’re being joined by young people all over the country. Emma Gonzalez, whose impassioned speech inspired the photo above, called out politicians for their inaction and declared:

We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks. Not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because, just as David said, we are going to be the last mass shooting. Just like Tinker v. Des Moines, we are going to change the law. That’s going to be Marjory Stoneman Douglas in that textbook and it’s going to be due to the tireless effort of the school board, the faculty members, the family members and most of all the students.

Students have organized themselves to ask for change on the state and federal level: marching to Tallahassee, having a die-in at the White House, and walkouts and rallies on February 21st, the one-week anniversary of the Parkland shooting. More actions have also been planned: rally on the March 14th (one month anniversary of the shooting); a March on Washington on March 24th; and another walkout on April 20th (April 20th, 1999, was when the Columbine school massacre occurred.) There are a number of sites that are working to keep track of all the planned actions; March for our Lives’ FB page is one of those.

We are inspired by and stand with these students as we stand with all the young people who have long been organizing for change in their schools, including demanding more equitable funding; safe and supportive spaces for transgender and gender non-conforming youth; and culturally relevant curriculum including critical ethnic studies courses.

Footnotes

  1.  As Lindsay Nichols, the federal policy director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, puts it: “Children are also at risk in concerts, in movie theaters, and often very times at home. We have a epidemic of murder-suicides in this country, that are often preceded by domestic violence. And we need to look at that in that larger context and remember that schools are just—are actually, overall, relatively safe places for children to be, when you talk about the larger impact on children and on all members of our society.

P.S. If you’re a teacher or a professor, you most likely have your retirement funds invested with TIAA-CREF. Please consider signing this petition to ask TIAA-CREF to divest from gun manufacturers.