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

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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

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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

Feminist formations, Part III: Our Friendship Meets the Bechdel Test ALL THE TIME

(What’s the Bechdel Test? Glad you asked.)

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We started the blog because as women, as women of color, we felt like we were constantly being told what to do — this was our way of carving out online space where we could write about what we want, the way we want. In today’s blog post, we write about a couple of examples of how the kinds of constraints we discussed in our posts about our feminist beginnings show up in our workplace now; about times we’ve been asked to accommodate to the existing structures and practices–and have been actively discouraged from being and doing “different.” For both of us, our gendered experiences at Carleton are very much intertwined with our racialized experiences. We were hired at least in part because we are women of color–we bring our “diverse” bodies to the institution so that the institution can be “diverse.” But actually wanting to do things differently based on our experiences, identities, and ideas isn’t always welcome. As Sara Ahmed puts it, “Universities often describe their missions by drawing on the languages of diversity as well as equality. But using the language does not translate into creating diverse or equal commitments” (90).

One place where this kind of reluctance about imagining that things can be done differently is when it comes to “traditions” on campus. When Anita first started working at Carleton, one of her favorite traditions on campus were the weekly convocation talks. Because part of what appealed to her was the idea of all community members sitting and being together, she did not particularly care for the tradition of “opening convocation” where faculty and staff had to wear their robes, line up by status, and sit separately from the rest of the audience. So she did at opening convocation what she did at other weekly convocations–she took a seat in the audience. Everything seemed fine until one year when she ended up sitting in the very front because she wanted to sit with a new faculty member. After that convocation, a senior colleague talked to her about how they, as well as a few other faculty members, saw Anita’s action as “an affront to faculty” and told her that she either needed to show up in robes and sit with the faculty or not show up at all. At the time, as an untenured faculty member, Anita ended up going to the opening convo in robes and sitting with the faculty. She decided to “pass institutionally”–“the work you do to pass through by passing out of an expectation: you try not to be the angry person of color, the troublemaker, that difficult person. You have to demonstrate that you are willing to ease the burden of your own difference” (Ahmed,131). But now that Anita has tenure…

Adriana arrived at Carleton with a lot of ghosts haunting her in the background. This would happen at any institution, and part of what tenure-track faculty struggle to figure out is which ghosts matter and therefore should be listened to carefully. One of Adriana’s specters was a very material, historical queue of those who had taught Latinx studies or been Latinx at Carleton before she got there; stepping into this queue, Adriana understood she had to figure out what the institution had appreciated or what had “worried” it about what each of these very different scholars had brought. What we mean is that people around her told her stories, and she knew she had to listen to these stories to understand what paths ahead were available. One set of circulating stories concerned a Latina faculty member who worked at Carleton in the 70s and 80s. In these stories, she was narrated as always asking the institution to think about race and gender which made her a burr in the side of the college. Adjectives stuck to her in these stories: difficult, angry, demanding, troublesome. While she made it through the tenure process and stayed at Carleton quite a while, this is not the way Adriana heard the stories, which instead always emphasized her leave-taking, in a flurry of disappointment and anger. Adriana was also regaled with tales of a beloved visiting professor; this set of stories emphasized how this professor had students over to their house all the time, creating a welcoming and warm environment for Latinx students. The subtext Adriana heard was that, in being hired to teach Latinx studies, it was also her job to make Carleton a home for Latinxs students. Adriana bristled at the implication that she should be always available to students in a way that felt particularly targeted and, because her son was four years old at the time, she knew that she couldn’t perform the particular kind of labor that these stories seemed to ask of her. With both these stories, Adriana came up against the fact that “an institution willing to appoint someone (to transform the institution) is not the same thing as an institution being willing to be transformed (by someone who is appointed)” (Ahmed, 94). The stories informed her of her place and, while she refused some of these expectations, they weighed on her and worried her until she earned tenure.

It’s exhausting to come up against these kinds of expectations and resistance to change or critique. A university administrator quoted in Ahmed’s book describes doing diversity work as a “banging your head against a brick wall job.” One thing that has been so important to our survival and persistence in academia and at Carleton has been our friendship. We are feminist killjoys together.

Our feminist friendship is based on:

  • Laughing, often loudly and hysterically
  • Critiquing institutions when they uphold racist, sexist, classist dynamics
  • Holding each other up and believing each other when we tell stories about racism, sexism, classism, etc.
  • Our adoration of Shonda Rhimes
  • Butter and brussel sprouts cooked in butter
  • Our complicated brown families
  • Wordsmithing
  • Enthusiastic interruptions and then bashful recognition of the interruptions
  • Love of social theories that help explain structural inequalities
  • Rigorous debates about the role of love in justice
  • Board games
  • Adriana’s son’s love of Anita and her return of that love
  • Going to live performances (concerts, plays, etc.)
  • Negotiating our complicated relationship to Americanness
  • Music that makes us dance in many languages
  • Discussions about pedagogy, student-centered learning, reflective practices
  • The joys and frustrations of working in a HWCU and PWI
  • Gesturing wildly as we speak
  • Holding up a larger mirror for our students of color so that they can see that they are not alone, in which they can see us and them; being “possibility” models as Laverne Cox puts it.
  • Modeling vulnerability for each other and students
  • Being braver together
  • Checking each other
  • Passion for chocolate
  • Our love for Heben & Tracy
  • Being there for each other
  • Making room for our differences
  • Honest conversations about sex and sexuality
  • Non-heteronormative family formations
  • Movie marathons as alternative holiday celebrations
  • Talking about money
  • Idris Elba

Some of these may seem silly or like something superficial, but it is precisely the mix, the combination of the shared “pop” and the shared “serious” that create the strong glue that holds us together in the face of a world and institutions that pull us apart as individuals in order to ensure our institutional conformity.

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[Source: ETSY!]

Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Duke 2017).

Is the March Mine When the Pussy Hat is Pink? A Links Round-up of Responses to #WomensMarches by Women of Color

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This week, we are gathering here a few of the various voices we heard from women of color on their participation in the Women’s Marches that occurred across U.S. cities and cities across the world.

First, an interview with Angela Peoples, whose photo with her sign “Don’t forget, White women voted for Trump” went viral; it crossed our feeds many times, shared by our friends of color.

“Most were saying, “Not this white woman,” or “No one I know!” I’d say, “[Fifty-three percent] of white women voted for Trump. That means someone you know, someone who is in close community with you, voted for Trump. You need to organize your people.” And some people said, “Oh, I’m so ashamed.” Don’t be ashamed; organize your people. That’s why the photo was such a great moment to capture, because it tells the story of white women in this moment wanting to just show up in a very superficial way and not wanting to do the hard work of making change, of challenging their own privilege. You’re here protesting, but don’t forget: The folks that you live with every single day—and probably some of the women that decided to come to the march—voted for Trump, made the decision to vote against self-interests to maintain their white supremacist way of life.”

Next, a twitter thread written by an Indigenous woman (@sydnerain)that connects her disheartening experiences with white women who were disrespectful at the D.C. March to a larger critique of settler colonialism, stolen land, and indigenous sovereignty. The twitter thread includes responses to her narrative that mirror the disappointing interactions she had at the march, as individual women discount her truth and seem resistant to hearing her. We think the thread speaks to both the possibilities and limitations of trying to have a dialogue online.

One of the important interventions that many of our friends undertook after the marches was to challenge the celebration of the “peaceful” nature of the marches. This article uses powerful images of the state violence faced by Black and Indigenous activists, in particular, to ask what do we mean when we say “non-violence” and “peaceful.”

Finally, we end with Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, who asks whether anger and cynicism is helpful in terms of the practice work of moving forward politically. She concludes,

“If there was ever a time to activate our organizer super powers, this is it. I’m not going to argue that black people or other people of color need to stop holding white people accountable. White people are not going anywhere, but neither are we if we don’t start to think and do differently.

Hundreds of thousands of people are trying to figure out what it means to join a movement. If we demonstrate that to be a part of a movement, you must believe that people cannot change, that transformation is not possible, that it’s more important to be right than to be connected and interdependent, we will not win…If our movement is not serious about building power, then we are just engaged in a futile exercise of who can be the most radical.”

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