Why I support race-conscious admissions policies and racial diversity in schools

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Note: We occasionally feature posts written by just one of us or by a guest. This post is by Anita.

There have two recent cases relating to educational opportunity that have deeply involved and engaged the Asian American community. First, debates about Mayor Bill De Blasio’s proposals about how to make the specialized magnet high schools of New York City more racially and ethnically diverse and the second, the current case against Harvard’s affirmative action plan. Both situations have brought to the forefront the diversity of experiences and opinions among Asian Americans about how they view educational opportunity and privilege. As an Asian American who happens to be an educational studies scholar, I’ve read a number of articles written on the topic, I’ve watched Asian American friends and relatives discuss and debate the issue on social media, and I am one of 500+ signatories on an amicus brief submitted in support of race-conscious college admissions. That brief makes two main arguments: (1) that Asian Americans, like all applicants, benefit from Harvard’s whole-person reviews of applications and (2) the lawsuit makes arguments based on racial myths and stereotypes of Asian Americans. Additionally, as many others have pointed out, we should be spending our time thinking about educational opportunity and equity for all students, including Asian Americans, beyond elite K-12 schools and colleges.  

While the brief summarized my professional take on the matter, I wanted to write about these two cases–especially the New York City one–on a more personal level. I graduated from Stuyvesant High School, one of the specialized high schools in New York City. When I think back on my own K-12 educational experiences with a more sociological lens, I can clearly see how various forms of privilege played a crucial role in opening up educational opportunities for me even as I can recall how being a new immigrant student led to painful moments and experiences. I can also see vividly how interactions with peers and friends from diverse communities played an equally integral role in what I have learned over the years and who I have become.

As the child of class and caste privileged parents, and like many middle-class Indian children, I attended a private, English-medium school (English-medium is the term used to describe schools where English was the language of instruction). I had access to a rigorous curriculum, teachers with high expectations, a parent who herself was a teacher and a family who emphasized and celebrated educational achievement. By the time my family’s visa to the United States came through, my parents already had established lives. They owned a home, my dad had a well-paying, stable job and my brother and I were doing well in school. Yet, they decided to take a chance to move to the U.S. because they wanted my brother and me to have a wider range of educational opportunities than they thought was possible at that time in India. There’s a very good chance that if I had stayed in India, I might not have taken the path that I have in my career in terms of pursuing a PhD in a social science field and teaching at a liberal arts college. (In light of what’s happening these days in terms of American immigration laws and policies, I do want to stress that my family would have been fine if our visa hadn’t come through–our lives would not have been endangered if we had stayed in India.)

The fact that I had access to an education in English in India–a function, as I noted earlier, of class and caste privilege–helped ease my transition to American schools in many ways. While I might have spelled some words wrong (oh, color, not colour!), I was able to understand my textbooks, my teachers, and my peers. When my family moved to New York City a few months after we moved initially to the U.S., my parents could use their English-language knowledge and their social network of other Indian immigrants to ensure that I could go to a middle school outside of my neighborhood because they decided that my brother’s negative experiences in the neighborhood middle school meant that I should go to a different school.

Off to middle school I went, in a predominantly White neighborhood with robust curricular resources and well-prepared teachers;I was placed in the highest tracks of classes along with other Asian American students and White students, thanks to the preparation I had from my schools in India. My middle school counselor told me about and encouraged me to take the admissions test for the specialized high schools. I did and I was able to gain admission to Stuyvesant High School.

My parents’ decision to give up their comfortable lives in India and move to the U.S. opened up a new range of educational opportunities for me and my brother, but it wasn’t easy for them or for me. While my parents eventually got well-paying, middle-class jobs in New York City, they did struggle for quite a few years because their foreign degrees and accents meant that they weren’t able to find jobs commensurate with their education and experience. While I received a solid, rigorous education in my schools, I also remember the difficulties that came with being a new immigrant kid. I remember peers making fun of my Indian accent, my “weird” lunches, and my “funny-smelling” clothes. I remember arguing with my sixth grade teacher that I was right when I insisted that Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi were not related. I remember a classmate’s surprise that I had electricity and running water when I lived in India (though, of course, that access is also related to class privilege there and in the U.S).

Still, overall, the system worked for me and I’m truly grateful for my parents’ sacrifices and dedication to my education.

However, what I learned in my classes in my K-12 schools and beyond is only part of my story of education. I would not be the person I am today if I had only been educated through interactions with my mostly White peers and teachers in middle school and my mostly Asian American peers and White teachers in high school. What has made me a more thoughtful, compassionate, joyful person and what makes me so passionate about the need for diverse classrooms, K-12 schools, and colleges are the interactions I had with Black, Latinx, and Native American peers and friends in and out of school. In high school, for example, I had the privilege of writing stories for a teen-written newspaper, New Youth Connections, where I got to know teenagers from across the city who attended a variety of high schools. I learned more about myself and my world through discussions and debates with them. In college, I was lucky enough to be part of a class where 40% of students were students of color, which meant that I had the opportunity to discuss issues of race, identity, class, and privilege with peers who came from a range of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. They pushed me to think about my privileges and positionality, while supporting me and cheering me on. In graduate school, another South Asian classmate and I were welcomed into the student group for African American students. My membership in that group was crucial to my intellectual growth and social support throughout my graduate school career and beyond.

What Janelle Wong writes is definitely true for me: “I would not have succeeded as a scholar without the benefit of attending classes with students from diverse backgrounds who challenged me and made my thinking sharper.” And I would only add that my life wouldn’t be as joyful, thoughtful, or supported either.

Civility and Racism–Links roundup

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This week, we want to highlight an essay published this week, “I fought academia’s cult of civility and all I got was this lousy PTSD diagnosis” by Naima Lowe. In it, Dr. Lowe details how her efforts to defend students’ right to protest at Evergreen State College put her in the crosshairs of right-wing hate groups. Bombarded by hate mail and threats (some of which she reprints in this essay along with the graphic, racist images she was sent), she attempted to find institutional support. While her story reveals how institutions are not equipped to protect faculty members who are doxxed and threatened by outside groups, it also demonstrates how her institution was unwilling to help her and instead found ways to find her responsible: by deeming her behavior uncivil, by equating her anger about racism with the hate flooding her in-box, by claiming an institutional need to “remain neutral.” We were impressed by Dr. Lowe’s honesty and courage in publishing this searing account of her experiences. It is a singular story, but we think her analysis makes it useful for all of us, and we urge you to read it.

With great power comes great responsibility

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Spiderman is right.

Starting this fall, Adriana is a Full Professor, having been promoted this past spring (woohoo!!). As we celebrate this well-deserved recognition of her accomplishments, we want to take this moment to share some reflections on holding positions of power within institutions. As we’ve written about in other blog posts, earning tenure and now being promoted to full professor hasn’t been an easy process as women of color. First, there are fewer and fewer opportunities generally for people to obtain tenure-track positions, given the growth of contingent faculty positions. And given the racist and sexist history of academia, currently only a few women of color are full professors. Data from 2014 shows that only 28% of the full professors with tenure currently are women; there are only 143 Native American women in this category, 1,247 Latina women, 1,593 Black women, and 2,489 Asian American women. Adriana becoming a full professor is a big deal then for her, for Carleton, and for academia in general.

While our journeys to positions of power within academia have been difficult, we do now hold some power in our institution and we want to be thoughtful and mindful about what that means, especially in our interactions with folks who generally have less institutional power than we do–staff, students, and junior/non-tenure track faculty. This summer, we were surprised by the seeming lack of accounting for such differences in institutional power in the case of the sexual harassment case involving a full professor at New York University. While we won’t delve too deeply into our take on both Professor Ronell’s actions or those of senior scholars writing to defend her (we recommend this piece or this one for an insightful analysis), we were struck by the senior scholars’ apparent failure of imagination–could they have forgotten what it’s like to be a graduate student, to have little power, little access, and so much precarity?

As we discussed this case and our fundamental disagreement with how senior scholars responded, we had to admit that there were times when we, too, were not as mindful about differences in power at our institutions. Anita, for example, was reminded of the time when she sent an email to an untenured faculty member about a pedagogical tool used to discuss a text that she knew this faculty member was teaching in their class. From Anita’s perspective, it was just a friendly, collegial email–”Hey, you might be interested in this cool thing someone is doing”–and she was puzzled when she got back what she saw as an unnecessarily defensive email from the junior faculty member, explaining what they did in their class. When she chatted with Adriana about this, Adriana rightly pointed out that this faculty member probably was under a great deal of pressure during their tenure process where it can feel like everything you do and say is under scrutiny by students and senior colleagues. A “friendly” email from a tenured faculty member might not seem so friendly in that context.

Adriana recalled a time when she partnered with a staff member on a cool project. Adriana was very excited about the project, and she was eager to put in time organizing, strategizing, and making the project happen. She thought that if her partner had differences of opinion, they would just bring it up, and since that never happened, she plowed ahead. Of course, you’ve probably guessed that, actually, the partner had plenty of ideas, did not completely agree with Adriana, but never felt comfortable raising disagreements or areas of concern. When Adriana realized this, she felt terrible–she had failed to think about the faculty-staff power dynamic–and, more particularly, the institutional classism documented in the 2008 Carleton College climate survey. She hadn’t recognized her own power and, because of that, had bulldozed her colleague–she didn’t mean to do so, but the effects were the same.

These two examples are situations where we did become aware of how we were wielding power in unintended ways, but the damage had already been done. And we’re sure that there are other thoughtless uses of our power that we don’t know about. Going forward, the best we can do is to try and stay open to people’s critiques of our actions, especially from those who have less institutional and societal power than us.

The Ronell case also reinforced for us something we think about a lot and have written about before in this space. Researching, teaching, theorizing and writing about identity, power, and privilege does not make us immune to exercising power and privilege unfairly in our professional lives. In fact, sometimes being an “expert” in these fields can be used as a way to deflect reflection on our actions. Given that we both focus on issues on race and racism, for example, we know that saying that we are anti-racist isn’t a vaccination against being racist. We are not immune to acting passively or actively in ways that are racist just because we have friends of color, we are people of color, we can quote James Baldwin or Audre Lorde extensively…and so forth. It takes active, constant effort. Beverly Tatum describes this effort as walking against the flow of a moving elevator at a faster clip than the forward momentum. Jay Smooth talks about this effort as akin to daily, routine dental hygiene. Whatever metaphor you find helpful, it’s important to not fall back on the very tempting impulse to react to accusations of racism (or other -isms) in ways that make it seem like you’re somehow incapable of ever being racist. Because you’re not. Because we’re not.

Note: We’re back! As always, we will alternate original posts with links round up posts. We had a lot of fun answering your questions last year and would love to do that again. You can email us as dosprofx@gmail.com or submit a question anonymously here.

Learning to talk about race

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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

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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.

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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.