Learning to talk about race

sywttar_3d-render_smaller

Image Source: Ijeoma Oluo’s book is out and you should read it!

This week we want to share with you two recent Friday Roundtables that Minnesota Public Radio’s Kerri Miller hosted; both deal with how we talk about race, racism, whiteness, anti-blackness, etc. We appreciate that both conversations offered examples of how we refine our vocabularies as we think through social structures, processes, and formations as well as how one can engage fruitfully with disagreement.

The first, “Was Ta-Nahesi Coates right to call Donald Trump ‘The First White President’?,” provides a thoughtful discussion around Coates’ work. It includes our fabulous Carleton colleague, Dr. Charisse Burden-Stelly, who asks the whole group to nuance the term “white supremacy” and to consider what language really helps us name structural inequities.

The second, “How to talk about racism,” centers around Dr. Ted Thornhill’s “White Racism” class at Florida Gulf Coast University. Because many of the questions from listeners focus on how/why White people might not want to engage in discussions about racism, the conversation works through a number of strategies for how to name and discuss racism.

Both of these conversations left us feeling better educated, better equipped, and with a  new appreciation for Kerri Miller who discusses openly how she is working on learning about her racial privilege.

(Note: you can find both of these discussions in your podcast app, under MPR News with Kerri Miller.)

How now down brown (aka Adriana and Anita become advice columnists), Take 1: Surviving grad school

Image source

Dear readers, Happy New Year! As we wrote in this post last year, we asked our readers to submit questions they may have about navigating race on college campuses and this post is our first attempt at being advice columnists! We would like to encourage those of you who have advice to share to post your thoughts here on the blog so that the person asking the question can benefit from your ideas as well as our own. Also, if you want to submit a question (with your name or anonymously!), please do so here. Finally, we’d like to thank our friend, Rini, for helping us brainstorm the name of our advice column!

The following question came from a Carleton alum who decided to pursue an advanced degree in a field focused on Western cultural traditions (we paraphrased and changed some details to maintain the person’s anonymity):

“My original plan was to apply for a PhD, but things have changed…none of the texts I read speak to my positionality as a non-Christian, non-American, non-white woman! While it is true that my positionality allows me to raise important questions about inclusion and diversity that challenge these thinkers, it has left me quite frustrated. Lurking on the periphery of my area of study has become both academically and personally exhausting. Because of how my chosen field is exclusionary in content, in method, and in voice, I’ve found that my only choice is to act as “challenger.” I started to look for new academic arenas of inquiry. In other words, I feel like I no longer have a strong, academic foothold and instead find myself swimming in a large ocean of possibility. My biggest issue however, is that I am spoiled for choice. Since I no longer feel anchored to my identity as a scholar of [field of study], I am not quite sure where to go from here, and how I would even begin that process. I am experimenting with other departments this semester, and while it has been a gratifying experience, a part of me feels like I have been pulled back to square one. There is so much information around me, and to be honest, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed and quite directionless.

I go back and forth between feeling free and feeling trapped, but mostly I just feel nauseous! How do I make this uncertainty productive?

Signed, Mostly I Just Feel Nauseous”

Dear MIJFN,

Your questions and concerns are meaty, indeed. First, we wanted to recognize that you’ve already stepped into some certainty by deciding to leave a field where your situated knowledge production was marginalized and you felt unmoored and tired. While this is a step into uncertainty, it’s also a step out of perpetual exhaustion and intellectual alienation. As you know, you are not alone in moving into an academic field with love and engagement only to find that these fields don’t love us back. Like other scholars, women of color are drawn to academic fields for all sorts of reasons: because we want to learn these tools and voices and histories–but often, as WOC, we open our minds and hearts to these ways of knowing only to find that these disciplines expect us to assimilate to their values and ways without ever being open to how our diverse bodies might bring diverse ways of knowing. Some of us make peace with that, staying in fields and making sure we find other places where we can be loved and seen. Others of us, like you, decide that participation in a field from a constant sideline, where the contributions you make may be superficially welcomed even as they reify you as an outsider… well, that that’s not worth it. You’ve basically recognized that a field that you love might, in some very real, vital ways, kill you, take away your joy of learning, minimize your ways of making sense of the world. [see footnote]

So now that you’ve chosen you, how do you “make uncertainty productive”? As you can imagine, we’re not big supporters of the term “productive” – so let’s think about how that word is working for you and how it might be getting in your way. After all, what kinds of expectations are we pinning to the concept of “productive”? We’re guessing that you’ll feel you have been productive once you have chosen your next academic step; we’re also willing to bet that any kind of daydreaming, researching, mind-resting, sleeping, etc. that you do until then will make you feel not at all productive. And yet how are you supposed to make a choice about your next step unless you allow yourself to wander a bit, both metaphorically and literally?

We also want to say that the path to being in academia is only one of many paths one can take in life and our paths in academia are only two possible paths. We can only offer you what we have learned from our journeys, but we want to make sure that we don’t make it seem like academia is the only path to being able to do what you want to do. So we encourage you, and we’re sure you are doing so, to talk to people who are not professors, who are not graduate students, who didn’t graduate from college about their paths as well. Our view, like everyone else’s, is limited by the contours of our lives.

But back to what we do know some things about: we recommend you take long walks and allow yourself digressions. Wandering through the stacks of a library, looking at journals’ table of contents can be a great way of seeing what different fields are up to, what they’re prioritizing, what they’re arguing about. Wandering around a neighborhood can let your mind ask questions and notice things. Like they usually tell us in our yoga classes (we don’t really manage to follow directions, but we try): notice what you’re thinking and feeling, but don’t hold on to it or worry about it. Just notice. Pay attention to this mind and heart that you’ve developed; you’ve got skills. You are a scholar. Take note. See you. Know that there are others like you out there, even if they are not in your particular program or institution—try to connect with them through online or IRL networks.

Another way to think about this stage of uncertainty is that it is entirely normal. Most people go through it as college ends and they need to figure out which jobs to apply for. So your “big transition”–the one that requires you to go through some degree of personal crisis [who am I? what do I value? who do I want to be in 10 years] was just delayed a little bit. Now that you’re going through this transition, be kind to yourself, just like you were kind to all your classmates as they flailed about, emitting anxiety fumes, at the end of their senior years. What did you tell them then? What, then, can you tell yourself now? How we each “keep it all together” in times of chaos and uncertainty varies from person to person. Adriana writes stuff down and sings out loud. She makes sure she gets at least a hug a day from someone she loves. Anita believes strongly that one cultivates resilience and strength through community. She attends plays put on by community groups, supports friends who are performing their poetry or their music, and makes it a priority to build a network of support full of amazing people of color wherever she is. It’s these people and support networks that got her through predominantly White undergrad and grad schools experiences, and continue to support her as she navigates her way through academia as a woman of color faculty. You need people who will hear your anguish, your rage, and your joy without needing you to tone anything down even if you’re in a graduate program where you can find more of yourself in.

One last thought: to be able to sit in uncertainty–in not knowing–is an important skill. Adriana has long been a fan of Richard Feyman’s words on this issue: “You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things. But I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit; if I can’t figure it out, then I go onto something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell — possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.” (link below)

If you can be comfortable in uncertainty, you can ask bigger, more impossible questions. Asking bigger questions allows you to wander more, to dream more, while also being incredibly humble about your place in it all. Your uncertainty is also your openness to the world, to new ideas, to new directions, to paths that you could not see before. Best of luck as you chart your way!

Footnote: We do wish that academia would think more about this, because the question is a vital one. After all, how do we diversify our ranks, our perspectives, without in some way letting those perspectives and challenges shift the discipline? Maybe that’s why I (Adriana) love being a part of American Studies. In a recent interview, Kandice Chuh, the ASA president, says, “For me, ‘America’ is not the object of American Studies. It’s actually a space through which we think, to ask other kinds of questions, questions having to do with humanization, with materiality, with power, with possibility, with nation, with colonialism” (link below). That’s a really different answer than would have been given twenty years ago; American Studies has shifted from and “exceptionalist” logic (what makes America so great?) to one willing to see the contradictions between the idealized, imagined America and the lived one with all of its institutionalized cruelty.  

Links:

Richard Feyman’s quote.

Kandace Chuh’s quote.

P.S. We saw that Roxana Gay has started an occasional advice column, which we are very excited about!

The one in which we talk about posters. Again.

Image source.

Reminder: here’s the link to ask your questions! We’ll be answering some questions we’ve already received in January. Also, this is our last post for the year–we’ll be back in January!

In this week’s post, we wanted to provide some links about the recent outbreak of posters that appeared on various college campuses last week (as well as in some communities and at some high schools), proclaiming that “It’s okay to be white.” These posters seem to have originated from a 4Chan group (we refuse to provide a link for 4Chan!), explaining their appearance at multiple sites across the country.

First, some articles about what happened: Washington Post provides an overview; InsideHigherEd connects these posters to previous antisemitic and racist posters.

Second, we appreciated this response by Concordia College President Craft about the posters that appeared on his campus. Craft’s statement was covered by MPR’s Newscut, which ends snarkily:

The school took the posters down; Craft said postings have to be approved in advance. But he’s not stopping there, he said.

He’s going to schedule a forum “about how we Concordia bring the very best of our minds and hearts to this conversation about our diverse identities and shared humanity.”

That likely is the last thing the person who put up the poster wanted to happen.

Finally, a big shoutout to Adriana’s awesome son, Nico, who said that if these posters appeared at his high school, he’d want to create posters in the same font with phrases such as “It’s okay to be Black,” “It’s okay to be trans,” “It’s okay to be Muslim,” “It’s okay to be short”…which we love because it responds in a creative way that doesn’t just shut down speech and because it reminds us of a fun children’s book.

A White Supremacist Walks on to a College Campus…

Image: Students at Harvard University protesting a speech by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (source)

and $600,000 gets spent on security.  When we read that, our immediate reaction was, “what else could we do with  $600,000?”

  • scholarships for low-income students;
  • a series of lectures by prominent historians of color, focusing on what really led to the Civil War;
  • supply needed books to the Carleton Textbook library;
  • laptops and other techy needs for students who don’t have the means.

In other words, this particular recent incident at the University of Florida had us thinking about how we might and should respond if, say, Richard Spencer were to speak on our campus, as well as about how our institutional and collective responses extract costs from our campus community–financially, emotionally, and otherwise–that are important to consider.

Truth be told, we went back and forth about whether we should write this piece, even though we have frequent conversations about the topic. We know that it’s a lot easier to diagnose and critique when you’re not in the middle of the fracas. So we don’t see our views as a critique of what other universities and colleges and student bodies have done; rather, what we do want to do is to remind ourselves of our core goals as an educational institution and then imagine what tactics match up with them. We do think that sometimes our tactics damage our causes, and that’s not useful for any of us as we fight against white supremacy, historical revisionism, and hate. To that end, we hope that readers will comment and add their thoughts and questions.

As we’ve said before, in general, we believe that more speech is better than less speech. For example, if Charles Murray wants to come speak to your campus about the supposed correlation between genetics and race and class inequality, perhaps you could also invite Lani Guinier to discuss how SAT scores correlate with wealth. In the case of Richard Spencer, perhaps you invite Daryl Davis to speak about his work getting KKK members to leave the group. This kind of response, we believe, affirms the goal of colleges and universities to provide opportunities for the contest of reasoned, evidenced arguments.

Sometimes it might seem like a responding speech will not be heard or respected. And sometimes there are no reasoned arguments to be made in the face of hateful, vile speech. We like the way Son of Baldwin puts this: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.” In these scenarios, we think that getting creative might be the way to go. We loved the way that the University of Florida professor Laura Ellis made sure that the school carillon tower bells rang out “Lift Every Voice” when Richard Spencer arrived on campus. And we couldn’t help but appreciate the way that Wunsiedel, Germany made sure that a neo-nazi march raised money for an anti-extremist organization; they made sure that the neo-nazis’ exercise of their free speech rights brought with it some measure of reparations.

We also wonder: when is silence a useful tactic? Silence on its own might be read as consent. But we were struck by how Bethune-Cook students organized a (mostly) silent but deliberately very visible response to Betsy De Vos’s commencement speech. They turned their backs on her and eventually some walked out, making a strategic statement about the value of her speech and their refusal to cosign.

In the end, though, we think that any of strategic responses against these singular performances of extreme white supremacy should not overshadow the work we have to do against the everyday forms of white supremacy that pervade our institutions. For example, it does us no good to shout down Charles Murray or turn our backs on him if we don’t question our institutions’ continued reliance on standardized tests as one way to measure our students’ potential. We worry that these individual events take so much energy that might be better spent on efforts to create inclusive, anti-racist institutions.

Those Awkward Questions

awkward-featured-image

As teachers, there are times when we find ourselves frustrated at the lack of flow in the discussion in a class–we realize that there are many reasons for why discussions can be difficult (e.g. students have difficulty understanding the materials; they might not have done all the readings; they’re feeling overwhelmed by all they have to get done; they’re sick, etc.) but we also suspect that sometimes conversations falter because students are worried about saying the wrong thing, and this kind of worry usually centers on discussions about social identities, power, and privilege. While we try to assure students that the classroom is a space for learning, and that learning means making mistakes sometimes, we understand why students can be reluctant to take risks. Later, we hear in emails or end-of-term evaluations all of the questions that they hesitated to bring up with their peers.

But of course, it’s not just our students who might feel inhibited to ask questions about what they don’t understand or about what they might perceive as “politically incorrect.” Faculty and staff–including us, sometimes–also hesitate and fumble with questions that intersect issues of race, because these kinds of worries are commonplace in a society where we often conflate saying things like “race” and “Black” and “Latinx” with being racist. As Beverly Tatum notes in her book on racial identity development, White adults “struggle with embarrassment about the topic [of race], the social awkwardness that can result if the ‘wrong’ words are used, the discomfort that comes from breaking a social taboo, the painful possibility of being perceived as a racist” (xvi).

Pop culture satirizes these socially awkward moments in uncomfortably hilarious scenes like when on 30 Rock Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) tells Elisa (played by Salma Hayek) that his mother doesn’t like any of the women he dates; it’s not that she’s… what does she call herself? She answers him: “Puerto Rican.” He replies, “I know you can call yourself that, but what should I call you?” Similarly, on The Office episode “Diversity Day,” notoriously clumsy and insensitive Michael Scott tries to get to know Oscar:


Michael: Um, let me ask you, is there a term besides Mexican that you prefer?Something less offensive?

Oscar: Mexican isn’t offensive.

Michael: Well, it has certain connotations.

Oscar: Like what?

Michael: Like… I don’t… I don’t know.

Oscar: What connotations, Michael? You meant something.

Michael: No. Now, remember that honesty…

Oscar: I’m just curious.

We believe in allowing space for awkward (anonymous, if necessary!) questions and thoughtful, generous, but also blunt answers. We’ve seen this done in a few spaces. You might have already come across the web show Ask a Slave. This series started on youtube and features the actress Azie Dungey portraying the actual questions she received when she worked at the popular historic site, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. In the less satirical vein, one of our favorite podcasts, Code Switch, recently had an episode where they answered “listeners’ most burning questions.” The Code Switch team is now planning to have an advice column (and you can submit questions right here!), suggesting that they’ve discovered–and we’re not surprised–that there’s a lot of desire for guidance when it comes to diverse, complex intercultural and interracial spaces and relationships. And we can’t forget Gustavo Arellano’s Ask a Mexican column in the OC Weekly, which fields questions from non Mexicans, but also from Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Chicanx, ‘cause sometimes we have questions we’re afraid to ask our own communities too.

Long story short, we both love advice columns and we know that y’all have got to be simmering with lots of awkward (and thus edifying) questions about race, particularly as they relate to learning, teaching, living, and working on college campuses. So if you’ve got a question that you’ve been hesitant to speak, you can ask us here –anonymously!–and we’ll plan on doing a post next term where we attempt to answer some of your questions.

P.S. For more edification, you should check out Beverly Tatum’s book “Why are the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” and other conversations about race.

Reckoning with Institutional Histories of Racism

Image source

The last couple of years have seen a number of colleges and universities reckon with their institutional histories of racism. Inspired in part by a comprehensive history of St. Olaf institutional racism researched and written by St. Olaf students, we wanted to compile here a links round up that recognizes the complicated and challenging work of institutional reckoning. One central theme we see is that are students definitely driving these conversations with their demands that their institutions live up to their current mission statements and educational ideals. We also note that figuring out what to do in the wake of seeing the depth and persistence of institutional racism is no easy task.

Georgetown University, notably, has made commitments to offer preferential admission to descendants of the slaves sold to benefit Georgetown, as well as “offer a formal apology, create an institute for the study of slavery and erect a public memorial to the slaves whose labor benefited the institution…In addition, two campus buildings will be renamed — one for an enslaved African-American man and the other for an African-American educator who belonged to a Catholic religious order.”

At Rutgers University, distinguished from other schools that have done this kind of work in that it is a public university, student organizing around improving the racial campus climate eventually led to a commision of a committee to examine and publish a report on the history of both the slave-owning founders of the university and the displacement of Indigenous committees on the land that was given to the university.

Christopher P. Lehman, a professor of Ethnic Studies at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minnesota, presented his findings on Governor William Aiken Jr.’s contribution to the University of Minnesota in the mid-1800s, which show that Aiken’s money came from the slave trade. At the time of his presentation in the fall of 2016, the Social Concerns Committee of the U. of MN questioned the findings; a follow-up letter from Professor Lehman argues that U. of MN should take these issues seriously. He suggests that the committee reconsider their decision not to pursue the question and, in particular, asks, “what will the University do to let its students, faculty and staff know this—students especially? As a professor, I teach my students to pursue the truth and present it with thoughtful and careful analysis, even if that truth is unpleasant and painful to read and is contrary to traditional narratives. The fact that the University is not discussing this matter further only highlights how much the University community at large needs to know what the University refuses to discuss.”

One of the considerations that makes it complicated to figure out what to do with the historical unearthing of violence that led to the creation of universities is the form of reparation that should be made. We appreciated the point made by R.L. Stephens on this issue: Harvard has a $37 billion endowment…[and yet] dining workers at the school were locked in a protracted battle for a living wage. Many of these workers are themselves descendants of slaves. The university was unmoved by their struggle. The dining workers spent the better part of a month on strike, before finally forcing Harvard to concede to their demands. The university was quicker to take the less expensive measure of admitting that the school was complicit in 17th century slavery than it was to pay its workers fairly today.”

An interview with MIT history professor Craig Steven Wilder, author of Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities, which examines the relationship between the slave economy and history of higher education in the United States serves as a sign of the increased attention to and need for historical reckonings, which makes us wonder:

How are your institutions dealing with their histories of racism, collusion with the slave trade, and/or displacement of Indigenous communities?

Shoutout to St. Olaf students

Students sitting in at Tomson Hall, St. Olaf College. Image source

Last Friday, videos of a student protest and rally at St. Olaf College started popping up on our Facebook feeds. As we watched the livestream and checked in with faculty friends who teach there, we were quickly impressed and inspired by the students’ organization and determination. Led by students of color at the school, the protests were sparked both by recent events (notes left on students’ cars that used racial slurs and threatened violence) and by longstanding experiences of marginalization on a predominantly White campus. With today’s brief post, we want to spotlight the students’ statement of their experiences, their demands, and their terms of engagement with the administration.

Here are some links to the mainstream local and national coverage of what was happening on the campus.

Minnesota Public Radio

New York Times

Washington Post