How to apologize: An advanced seminar

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Last week we wrote about our ongoing reflections on what it means to hold and wield power in academia. We both find it necessary to persistently examine ourselves and our relationships to make sure that we use our power responsibly and with care. But we didn’t talk about ways to repair harm once you’ve already done it. So this week we thought we’d share a series of blog posts written by a favorite scholar of ours, Adrienne Keene.

In the first post, Dr. Keene discusses Black Panther as an entry point into conversations about  indigenous futurism. If you read to the bottom of her analysis, you’ll see she added a quick note, two days after she posted her review (2/26), amending to acknowledge Afrofuturism. She thanks readers for their feedback, and takes the opportunity to recontextualize.

Well, she clearly continued getting feedback. The very next day (2/27), she wrote a blog post in which she apologized again. Titled “On Consenting to Learn in Public,” she provides a detailed history of how she grew up as a thinker and a scholar with the blog and with twitter. She says–beautifully, we think!–that

Once I entered the mindset that writing the blog was an exercise of consenting to learn in public, I became braver. I realized as long as I was genuine, and I was honest, and I was authentic to my own experiences, readers would join the journey with me. They would learn along side me. I didn’t have to have all the answers. I had plenty of questions, and that was ok.

It’s clear, though, that the feedback she was getting didn’t end there. She added an addendum to this blog post too, admitting that she removed a paragraph that was insensitive.

Finally, she wrote a whole new post on 2/28, this one simply titled “An Apology.” The apology comes first in this post and it is detailed, sincere, and clearly responds directly to interlocutors that maybe nobody but she heard from (we didn’t find direct critiques in the comments to “On Consenting to Learn” on her blog, for example). Even though the feedback she received was private, she learned (and apologized) in public. We also appreciated in this post the fact that she acknowledged the labor of the people who took the time to reach out and teach her.

There’s something graceful and admirable in her multiple attempts to really listen, to really learn, and to acknowledge that learning in this way was exhausting to those who stayed in dialogue and held her accountable. We think this is an amazing model (and hence an advanced seminar!) because Dr. Keene stuck it out, tried again and again, and came to a place of sincere apology and learning.

How now down brown, Take 2: The state of campus discourse

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We received this anonymous question and since we are not sure if the person is a student or faculty/staff person on a college campus, we decided to answer the question assuming it’s a student, though what we have to say can apply more broadly:

“I have become quite concerned with the state of social/political discourse on campus. There does not seem to be any room for any viewpoints which are not decidedly progressive. Even a mostly liberal viewpoint with a caveat is condemned. In many spaces on campus, the only acceptable viewpoint is the 100% fully liberal one with no caveats or references to complexity of the issue at hand. An example of this attitude: any difference between a privileged group and a marginalized group is 100% due to oppression/discrimination and if you suggest any other potential factor, you are complicit/unenlightened/inconsiderate. Only a portion of people perpetuate this culture, but they are the most vocal and end up dominating discussion spaces. What can we as a campus do to improve the state of our social/political discourse?”

Dear Quite Concerned,

Thank you for your question; we appreciate your concerns about the state of social and political discourse on your campus. As we began discussing your question, it became clear that it was open to different interpretations and expectations. We decided to  intersperse our answer with the moments of conversations we had as we discussed it.

First we want to try and unpack your question. The one thing we see in how you start and end is that you’re framing your concern as an institutional one–you’re concerned about the state of campus discourse. The middle, however, is chock-full of frustration about not being heard. In other words, there seems to be a disconnect between how you try to help us see the issue and the way you are experiencing the issue. The phrase “state of social and political discourse” is so broad. Are we talking about classroom culture or lunchroom conversations? Where is this discourse taking place? We emphasize this because, of course, there isn’t one “state of discourse” on any campus; rather, there are multiple spaces of discourse with multiple goals and norms. For example, if I’m in the Gender and Sexuality Center on campus and my goal is to advocate for gender neutral bathrooms, that is not a time when I want to have a conversation about whether someone thinks trans identity is “real or not.” Maybe at that point, someone trying to have that particular conversation would get shut down. In other words, we think it’s important to consider different discursive spaces and their expectations. In what contexts are diversity of viewpoints welcome and necessary and for what purpose? We’d go so far as to suggest that a diversity of viewpoints does not necessarily equal a “good” or “healthy” state of political and social discourse; it all depends on the particular discursive space and its –oftentimes unwritten– expectations.

Both of us have gone through trainings to help us lead dialogues, so one of our first moves in discussions about identity and politics, if someone brings up the possibility that we are complicit, unenlightened and inconsiderate, is that we try to take a step back and consider whether we are complicit and inconsiderate. We try to see these moments as learning moments and not necessarily about proving our progressive credentials. We’re wondering if you’ve done that; have you been able to really listen to the stories that matter to people as they reject your point of view?

We ask this because the example that you give, “differences between privileged and marginalized groups,” is vague. We wondered what exactly you meant by that phrase. What differences are we talking about? We can imagine a conversation about, say,  racialized differences in educational outcomes where someone suggests that we should think about “cultural factors” or “IQ” without attending first to societal and structural factors. We would see this suggestion as being complicit in continuation of oppression because there is a long history of people ignoring historical and structural disadvantages. Because of our disciplinary training, we both see larger structural factors as having better explanatory power for the social, economic, and cultural differences we see among groups. We also think that we’re all always complicit in oppression–as individuals, we are embedded in structures and thus help to maintain and reproduce those structures of oppression, regardless of our positionality.

As we thought through your question and considered the ways in which conversations about oppression and privilege require us to consider our own individual complicity in these structures, we surmised that perhaps there are times when you feel a bit browbeaten by these interactions because you are recognizing that complicity.

You can see perhaps that we think it is important for individuals to consider their own resistances and tensions to conversations about power, structure, and racial/class/sexual/gender formations. But all that said, there are times when discussions can feel unproductive and unhelpful on campus; from our viewpoints as faculty,  some student-focused discussion spaces for students, in particular, seem to have become very fraught and divisive. From conversations with colleagues at other colleges, this seems to be a common refrain, reflective of the state of discourse at the national level.

Here’s how we proceed in these kinds of spaces: we recognize that we cannot change what is happening to us; we can only change our reaction. After all, we cannot necessarily change how another person engages in a discussion, but we can become better at listening.

We both believe that all of us can work on listening more closely and with less personal investment in any conversation that is about social justice, about structure. Listening helps us move away from shaming towards naming structures. In other words, shaming others or ourselves does no good when we are trying to understand. At the same time, we need to get better at recognizing when we have positions of power in institutions and societies, this naming of structure can feel personal. Especially for those of us with identity-based positions of privilege, we need to develop that ability to not react right away when you feel like something is challenging you.

One emotion that tends to paralyze a lot of people is anger. While we are worried that people aren’t able to talk to each other because of anger, we deeply believe that we all need to get better at listening to anger and why a person might be angry. People have stories and experiences of discrimination that they need to share, oftentimes without wanting or needing analysis or counterpoint. In one of the groups that we are both a part of, we use meta-language to mark the kind of conversation we need–“this is NOT a problem-solving conversation”–as a way to let our friends know that we want their empathy, not their fixes.

Perhaps we move towards having more productive conversations through such signaling of intent and, in general, if we got better at not just needing to make our point in a conversation– “No, but it’s not about oppression!”–and  just ask questions about stories and experiences.

Adriana: Yes! It’s about dialogue! Ask questions.

Anita; Yeah, but what if somebody says when you are doing all the right things, “Fuck you! You’re complicit!” what do you do at that moment?

{long thoughtful pause}

Adriana: I think a response to pain has to be empathetic. It has to be as open as possible. I’m struck by that moment in the documentary from Stir Fry when the White man says to the woman of color, “I just don’t understand your pain. I really feel terrible, I just don’t understand.” And she says, “Just sit with me. Just sit in my pain with me.” I think the difficult thing about what you were asking me right now is that I can imagine scenarios where someone is super angry with me and I’m just not getting it, I’m unenlightened. I don’t see it yet so I can’t apologize because it wouldn’t be authentic. It would be fake for me to say “I’m sorry” because I need to understand first, but that person can’t teach me because they’re not in that space. So I need to acknowledge that in some way what is happening, where I say, “I hear your anger and I’ll sit with you.”

Anita: Maybe the move you make  when you feel attacked is to listen more, rather than needing to respond more. The thing that we do sometimes…I do it all the time [we all do it!], I think about all the arguments I’ve had where I should have been better at stepping back, taking a breath, and sometimes, yes, I did, but also there are many times when I didn’t.  It’s hard to tell from this question where this person is coming from. I would want to ask them: Have you always been at places before coming to this campus where your viewpoints have always been validated? Imagine going through 12 years of schooling where you’ve had very few people validate your experiences and your perspective. Maybe this campus is the space, for whatever reason, that finally does feel like a space where you can take up more space than you have been able to before. Imagine that when people shut you down, sometimes it’s terrible and they should do better, but other times, where is that coming from? Can you have this moment of empathy, especially if you’re someone who hasn’t experienced being shut down before coming to this campus?

We don’t know, from your question, what campus you’re on, but we’re going to imagine you here at Carleton. We’ll imagine that you think of yourself as liberal. You’re going to all these events and you’re realizing you’re not as liberal as you thought. And you see that there are critiques of the liberal logic of the world which make it seem like this campus has no space for you. In the between-the-lines of your question, we hear that you want to feel like your voice matters too. And a lot of what we’re saying is that sometimes your voice doesn’t matter and that hurts.

But what we’re saying is perhaps your voice doesn’t always need to matter. For example, if people are talking about differences between privileged and marginalized groups, why do you feel the need to bring up other factors? Are you trying to solve a problem? Are you trying to think about other ways to change things?  As we mentioned earlier, we’re both structuralists. To us, saying that we need to change cultures or people, without changing oppressive structures, seems to us to be replicating a colonialist model that blames people for their own circumstances.

Because your example is vague, we thought through a hypothetical example that would apply to our positions as faculty.

Let’s say there was a review of tenure cases in the past 25 years, and we see a trend of faculty of color getting tenure at lower rates than White faculty. When the two of us would talk about it, we’d start by talking about the structures on campus that might be making it harder for faculty of color to get tenure. If another faculty member at that meeting said, “Well, maybe we should think about how faculty of color aren’t as good teachers. Maybe faculty of color have inferior publication records,” we would feel that this person was missing the point. We’d argue that they’re justifying discrimination against faculty of color and reinscribing minority status because we’re starting with the assumption that faculty of color are as qualified as White faculty. We probably would react with emotion, perhaps anger, and while that might make that faculty member feel like we’re attacking them, we’re actually just pointing to the fact that we need to get to the structural factors before jumping to the “faculty of color are deficient” narratives. We’re also well-versed on a large body of research on the long history of tropes of people of color not being as qualified as explanations for why there are so few people of color in institutions. We’re always trying to work against that kind of narrative.

Finally, the other thing we hear you saying is that making the case for structural factors/discrimination is a “simple” one. We would say that to talk about structural factors as we would in this faculty tenure example is to discuss a complex set of a factors that coordinate to reproduce the position of these faculty of color.

We want to end by commending you for caring so much about having these conversations, and trying to figure out what that can and might look like. In a future post, we plan to discuss our thoughts about call out culture in the age of social media and the possibilities of coalition politics. For right now, though, we’d just remind you and our other readers that face-to-face conversations matter. They’re hard. When you have them, you’ll see the look on people’s faces when you call them names or get really angry, you’ll see them shut down, and you’re hopefully going to think about whether that’s your end goal. If you just want to shut people down, go right ahead. But if the goal is –as we hope– to generate new communities and new systems of justice and a better future, we need to recognize that we live in a fucked up system, but we’re not going to make it any better by using the same fucked up ways of engaging with each other.

P.S. A quick note about how we would address this question a bit differently if it comes from a faculty member: We would say that we have institutional power, so if a student is saying to us, “you’re a terrible person” we don’t have to take it so personally. We have to have more sympathy and empathy and even when we might feel attacked, our job is to listen. Also, in our classrooms, we can set up discussion norms to make sure no one is dominating for whatever reason. We can use our power wisely!

P.P.S. If you want to submit a question, you can do so here.

 

Allyship, solidarity, listening

Image: “We Speak Event, Black Students Alliance, 2007″ by Wing Young Huie

It can be hard for allies to figure out their role is social justice work. On the one hand, allies with privileged identities are asked to listen more, to allow marginalized voices to be in the center, and to be aware of how space they take up. On the other hand, they are asked not to be silent in the face of injustice. They are criticized for not speaking up, for not using their privilege to push for change. They are asked to show up to events to support causes but then are told that just showing up to an event is performative and not real allyship. They are asked to educate themselves and not burden the people they are trying to support but then are also criticized when they take it upon themselves to organize spaces of education that are centered on their role in social justice.

So what’s an ally to do? Both of us have spent quite a bit of time in our offices–with both students and colleagues–working through these contradictions. Oftentimes we leave these conversations feeling like allies are put in untenable positions as they struggle to live a life of social justice.

We do have some ideas, but we want to recognize that this is hard work, and we all make mistakes. (Stay tuned for a fall term post all about our mistakes!) First, we’d say that regardless of how much criticism you get, how well-intentioned you are, or how frustrated you are that you can never do the right thing, you need to remember that your frustrations of being an ally are never as frustrating and difficult as being a marginalized person in society. If you find yourself at a place where you think that you no longer want to support the people or the causes you want to support because you keep getting criticized, perhaps it’s a good time to take a step back and reflect on your motivations.

In his discussion of social justice ally identity development, Keith Edwards notes that an altruistic mindset leads to a situation where allies are unable to be critically self-reflective about their actions because they believe that they are “empowering” those they are supporting.  For Edwards, when allies rely on acceptance and praise from marginalized peoples, they get “easily derailed by critique” from them. (47) Though they aim to be “an exception from the system,” they ultimately perpetuate it.  Similarly, Jamila Lyiscott argues that we need to stop thinking that we are “giving” marginalized people “a voice”; instead, perhaps there are times when we can use our privilege to create spaces where these voices can be heard.

Second, when you know you need to learn, instead of relying on individuals, go to events sponsored by groups that you want to support. Board Members of the group CAUSE (Carleton Alliance of Undocumented Students and allies for Empowerment) spoke in Anita’s class recently about how one way allies can be supportive is by attending events that they organize, such as the events for the Undocumented Awareness Week. They also noted that it would be great if more allies came regularly to their meetings (though they cautioned allies against attending and trying to take over the meeting).

Third, we’ve experienced that sometimes viewing oneself as a “good ally” actually gets in the way of the work that one needs to do in allyship with individual people. We’ve both been in conversations with male friends who identify as feminist and, yet, when we critique their actions or what they say in a particular moment, they have heard us as challenging their self-identity as the “good guys.” The result has been frustrating circular conversations where we become the bad ones and they get to avoid taking responsibility for their actions or words. #notallmen but really yes, ALL men.

Most importantly for both of us, being an ally means listening. We talk about this a lot because we think about it a lot, and we both continue to learn how to listen well. Listening without reacting (Adriana says: “with an open heart and mind” and Anita says, “oh geez. Cheesy!”)  when someone tells you that a term or a framework you’re using reinforces, rather than challenges, unequal power relationships and unjust structures, policies, and practices can be difficult. We thought that a recent episode of “Politically Reactive” provided a beautiful model for how to react when you’re called out on something you’ve said. On a previous episode (“Political Analyst Angela Rye Calls It Like It Is”), the hosts, W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, had used the term “spirit animal” and in this episode (“Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl on Rad American Women”), they spoke about how listeners criticized their use of the term as a cultural appropriation of Native culture. They not only apologized, they also talked to Dr. Adrienne Keene, a Native scholar who has the amazing blog, Native Appropriations, to get more information about their mistake. [Added bonus: On that same episode, their interview with  writer Kate Schatz and artist Miriam Klein Stahl who created the illustrated children’s books, “Rad American Women A-Z” and “Rad Women Worldwide” includes a discussion towards the end about white feminists and male feminists, which is relevant to our discussion about allyship.]

In other words, listening means not being defensive about past actions or words and leaning into the learning that now you need to do as an ally.

Speaking of listening, we appreciate all of your feedback, emails, and comments–both online and offline. Our goal has always been to create spaces of dialogue and learning, and we look forward to coming back in the fall with a number of posts that should continue this work. We have a line up of topics that include: the politics of language; what might coalition politics demand from us in terms of kindness and patience from all sides?; how do we not get so mired in attention to structure and system that we head towards activist paralysis? what are women of color alums’ experiences of Carleton and how has Carleton helped to shape their lives?

Happy summer full of reading, reflecting, revelry, and righteous action!

References

Keith Edwards. (2006). “Aspiring social justice ally identity development: A conceptual model.” NASPA journal, 43(4), 39-60.

How to engage in interracial dialogue when you have no friends of color

George Shuffleton Writing Seminar Class

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As you might know from our previous blog posts and from just knowing us, you know that we are supporters of interracial dialogue. We have been a part of our college’s Critical Conversations program for a few years now–Critical Conversation is Carleton’s version of Intergroup Dialogue. A key principle of intergroup dialogue is that there is a diverse set of participants in these sustained and structured dialogue about identity, power, and privilege. If a dialogue group is focused on race, for example, it is ideal to have half of the participants who identify as White and half who identify as people of color. At Carleton, our groups do not focus on race solely but the general idea is to have groups that are diverse along various identity groups. We believe that, in order to understand differences in experiences and identities, it’s important to have people in the room with a range of experiences and understandings of how their identities matter in the world.

However, these kinds of interracial settings for dialogue about race often have to be intentionally organized because of the high levels of racial segregation that continues to exist in the U.S. As one study found, 75% of White Americans have no friends of color. How then are these White folx supposed to engage in interracial dialogue?

One way that some folx have tried to do so is to reach out to people who are visible in the public eye for speaking about race. We want to highlight today two discussions about what happens when the only people of color a White person knows is a celebrity and how these folx of color feel about engaging in conversations about race with people they don’t know. Hmm, given the topic of our last post, we’re seeing a theme here, right? Shall we call it incidents of “Random Racial Interrogative Accosting”? RRIA, for short. Rhymes with diarrhea. [Shoutout to our buddy, Kevin Wolfe, for helping us come up with that! Thank you, brother!]

Both of these discussions feature one of our favorite media person who speaks about race–Gene Demby who co-hosts the podcast, NPR’s Code Switch.

First is a conversation published on Slate that starts with a particular incident of RRIA that happened to Gene Demby and the second discussion is on the podcast, About Race, where Demby talks more about this incident.

Check these out and let us know if you’ve ever had a RRIA experience yourself as a person of color!

P.S. Given the current racial demographics of the country and residential segregation patterns, it can be hard for White folx to figure out how to get started on these kinds of conversations. Here are a few resources and local organizations:

Curriculum for White Americans to Educate Themselves on Race and Racism–from Ferguson to Charleston

Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) MN

Workshops by YWCA Minneapolis’s racial justice department