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.
Monday, 10 AM. Text from Adriana to Anita: “OMG I’m exhausted already. I hate this world.”
It’s been a tough week, y’all. There are the ongoing worries about policies and practices that negatively impact people and communities we love and on top of it, there’s been the onslaught of discussions about sexual assault and harassment brought on by the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings.
In light of that, we thought it might be good–maybe mostly for us!–to remember what makes us hopeful even in trying times.
- Our students. We know it’s perhaps a corny thing to say but we really do mean it when we tell people who ask us about our jobs that our favorite aspect are our students. We appreciate the energy, the questions, the skepticism, and the joy that our students bring to our classrooms. We don’t meant to say that we walk out of every class session feeling great about ourselves or our teaching, but in general, our students make our days and lives better. They give us hope. This is true for Carleton students we’ve taught and for the high school students we’ve taught in various summer programs on campus (Anita, for example, has taught for the awesome CLAE program for the past few years).
- Each other
- Our amazing community of friends who share our rage and our joys
- Our podcast buddies, Todd and Crystal
- Stories of resistance. For example, this interview with Dr. Barbara Ransby who organized a group of 1600 Black feminists to write a letter of support for Anita Hill…and she did that in a time without the internet!! The group had to organize themselves quickly without email or Twitter or Facebook. And now, “The Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign“, in support of Futures Without Violence, is leading a campaign for 1,600 MALE signatories that took out a full-page ad in the New York Times this Monday in support of Prof. Anita Hill and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.” (Good for the men, but it’s way easier now with the internet. Just sayin’.)
- Using our bodies in intentional and joyful ways: yoga, dancing, running, and even curling (well, those last two items are Adriana’s thing).
- Watching silly videos on social media, like this one and this one
We were asked a question about how do we know what strategies for social change are effective and after thinking long and hard about it, the first coherent thought we put together was, “This is such a big, hard question.” There are so many ways to dissect this issue (by strategies, by institutional type, by types of change). The person asking the question was mostly interested in larger, societal change, and not necessarily changes within college campuses or particular institutions so we decided to use this space to think through some of our ideas within that broader framework and offer suggestions for reading and resources about strategies for change.
At the broadest level, when we look at historical social movements, the strategies that seem necessary to make possible change are naming the status quo, interrupting it in visible, audible, material ways, and, to some extent, suggesting possible pathways forward. A lot of times, it’s easy to stop at the naming stage, because we expect that as soon as we name the problem, everyone will get on board with us and brainstorm solutions. But, of course, the status quo is the status quo for a reason: it works, mostly, and for most people. The naming strategy could work for those who benefit from the status quo but are empathetic to those from whom it doesn’t. But that strategy won’t work for those who cannot see or do not care to see the inequities. This is where interrupting the status quo matters because these interruptions make life difficult for those inhabiting and benefitting from the status quo. To be really effective, the interruption has to fit the particular ill being addressed; for example, segregation and policing of public space demands an interruption and eruption onto spaces not thought of as public. Finally, the common critique that is made of social justice movements is that they do not get to that third part–the suggestions of possible ways forward that will lead to substantial changes in the status quo. But, of course, movements often DO have action plans–but they might not be articulated or framed or visible in ways that are legible to those who benefit from the status quo (for example, this critique is leveled at the nascent Black Lives Matter movement, even though there are many concrete policy recommendations made by the group).
With shifts in technology (from broadsides to newspaper to radio to the internet and social media), different ways of gathering support and communicating actions and goals are available. But we’d argue that these changes in technology haven’t shifted the strategies meaningfully. Naming of the ways in which the status quo harms people in our communities still needs to happen publicly. If naming doesn’t receive an institutional response, there still needs to be interruption. Interruption gains strength by numbers. And having suggestions for change allows for the possible imagining of better, more equitable futures.
One great resource to get a sense of the diversity of types of interruptive actions is the Global Nonviolent Action Database at Swarthmore College (shoutout to Anita’s alma mater!) . You can search the database by protest strategy here and in the various cases, you can find out more about how successful the particular method was. It can be a great resource to learn more about the great range of strategies used around the world to try and effect change. As this database shows, there is no ONE strategy that makes sense for all possible types of changes we are trying to effect in society (well, other than the fact all of these are nonviolent forms of protest.)
Neither of us is a scholar of social movements. But we’ve both participated in them and care deeply about ongoing movements…and from that perspective, we’d caution any of us to not attempt (always) to use the idea of “effectiveness” as the only or most important measure of the value and outcome of specific strategies. Sometimes there is a clear line between action and result, but most of the time, there is not. Rather, actions have ripple effects, and those waves often end up shifting values, hopes, and determinations in any number of unpredictable ways, making for circuitous routes back to the centers of power.
We have a few readings/case studies that we hope will also be useful:
Our colleague Dev Gupta (political science) recently published this great overview of the study of social movements.
Contemporary youth activism: Advancing social justice in the United States (2016). Edited by Jerusha Conner and Sonia M. Rosen.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (2016). From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.
We’ve been thinking about call out culture for a while now (here’s one example of what might be seen as a “calling out” of people with privilege). We’ve read think pieces that argue that call out culture in social justice circles is toxic and that we need to be more strategic about how we call out people’s troubling behavior, while others counter this notion that it is call out culture that is toxic rather than racism, sexism, or rape. Like other folks we’ve talked to about this topic, we were especially struck by the tone of some of the conversations we witnessed our students having online. We were sitting around, thinking to ourselves, with fingers on chins, “Oh, these young people, if only they’d learn how to be kind on the interwebs.” As we talked about more about it, however, especially in light of some of the reactions we’ve gotten to some of our blog posts, we came to some different conclusions.
We think that the binary between call out and call in culture is not nuanced enough. If we want to move to “call in” culture, what exactly does that mean and what needs to happen so that people can understand that we’re ‘calling in’ and not ‘calling out’? What if people don’t want to be called in? What if no matter how gentle or strategic you try to be, people feel called out? What if there’s a long history of someone feeling silenced or trying various ways to point out troubling behavior that gets ignored (“calling in”) until words and frustrations explode on Facebook or other social media?
One way to think about this that brings nuance, we think, is to remember that context matters for how and when we point out troubling behavior or language that reinforces racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, transphobic structures, policies, and systems. One context that we think a lot about is intergroup dialogue. In this context, people are encouraged to share their stories and experiences; the goal is not to convince people that they are right or wrong. The participants are not presented with a host of data or statistics. However, they are encouraged to situate their personal experiences within larger structures, to consider the impact of their words on their fellow participants, and to stay open to how their path to college and in college was made easier or more difficult because of the access their identities afforded them or not. And it is the job of the facilitators to help participants do this kind of work–to ask difficult questions, to point out patterns in what had been said, to push back. The facilitators are there to notice not only what is being said but also what is not being said, body language, and so forth. Agreeing to be a facilitator or to be a participant in this context means that you’re taking on a particular responsibility to being open to critique and to being generous and productive with how you push back. However, these responsibilities are not ones, we think, is fair to expect students, particularly students who hold marginalized identities, to take on all the time on campuses in all contexts.
We admire the work that some folks have taken on to have difficult conversations with people who fundamentally disagree with them, and perhaps even dislike or hate them. For example, Dylan Marron who has conversations with people who have written hateful, personal comments about him online. Or the musician Daryl Davis who, for decades, has taken on the work of talking with people in the KKK and has convinced many to leave.
We don’t think it’s possible, though, for everyone to do this kind of work or that it’s fair to have the expectation that our students will do this difficult work especially in contexts when they haven’t agreed to do so. While in the context of intergroup dialogue and in classes we teach, we do ask students to listen differently, to be generous in their critiques of readings and each other, we do think there are times when it is appropriate and necessary to call out individuals in a public way.
What is difficult, though, is figuring out when and why that’s necessary or appropriate. We’ve been asked the same question about some of our posts. We’ve been asked, given that we work at a small college, what was our goal in naming specific experiences in our blog posts?
As we were writing, we thought that in not naming people but naming behaviors, we were not individualizing it. We believed that by placing particular interactions within structure, we might make it possible to shift behavior, or at least make it possible for other people to see our perspective more clearly.
In the conversation that follows we dig in a bit more into the question of context and goals when it comes to “calling out.”
Adriana: I’ve been thinking about how helpful it has been to me to think about higher education as a white space, through Sara Ahmed’s work for example. Spaces are racialized and therefore can be felt as less productive, less welcoming, depending on your background. Then I couldn’t help but see Carleton through that lens, on behalf of my classes and my students, and I think that’s what we try to do with our blog. We’re not trying to get people to believe what we believe. We’re discussing our own experiences: this is why our worldview is this way, and here’s some research for why we think our worldview is not just the two of us. Then maybe you (the reader) could shift your point of view a little bit.
Anita: Right. It’s our experiences of these interactions. But there is the other person in the interaction and clearly, they see it differently. One could argue that the way we’ve written about some of our experiences was ungenerous, unkind, unproductive. They could ask what was our goal in writing about moments that are specifically about Carleton and some of our colleagues, because even if we don’t name specific people, we’re talking about faculty meetings, we’re talking about White faculty, for example. What was our goal in presenting our side of the interaction?
Adriana: What do you think our goal was?
Anita: I think it was as simple as [or as complicated as!] interrupting that White space, the White take on things. Or this notion that we don’t have a problem. That we’re not a White space. We were pushing back on how we (the college community) don’t tend to name things. We don’t name Carleton or faculty meetings as these White spaces. We were interrupting that happy space, the happy Whiteness.
Adriana: It’s the killjoy moment. That’s the complicated part of call out culture. In being the killjoy in the moment, we may not intend to be so interruptive that things get shut down in particular ways. Of course, they never get shut down at the heart of the machinery. They get shut down in these junky, clunky ways that preserve the machinery,and that makes sure that the center keeps on running. We might think we’re being judicious and thoughtful about our call out but simply because it’s a killjoy call out, it gets perceived in these really painful ways for people. When students do it on Facebook, we’re sitting here, judging, and saying, “Why don’t you be a little bit nicer?” but maybe the students have tried to be nice and it got the same results for them as it has for us.
Anita: I think of the way that people were surprised by the blog, surprised by the tone, surprised by “what? You’re not happy here” or perhaps some people who felt called out might have reacted with a “but they never said anything to me!!” For our students, maybe by the time they get to Facebook (and sometimes this history is hinted at in their FB exchanges), they’ve already had these clearly unproductive exchanges in person. And then they get to this place where they’re frustrated not just by a particular moment but by a whole history of moments and they jump to pretty cutting language in their online exchanges. In the same way, even in the faculty meeting we talk about, there was a build up, there were earlier moments in which you tried to intervene, you had tried to be heard in person, and you weren’t heard. Again, if it was just that moment, we wouldn’t have written a blog post about it. But it’s hard to make visible that history of why that particular moment felt so frustrating. We do try to situate that moment in a history, in a structure, but perhaps that does not seem as obvious to others as it does to us. So then our post comes out in this way that people are surprised because they haven’t felt like we articulated our experiences of those moments to them in person or we have articulated it but people haven’t heard us.
Adriana: Then we do it in this somewhat direct way, in this culturally unacceptable way. It’s not that it’s wrong or vulgar. The fact is that it’s blunt and public makes it culturally inappropriate, and that means it gets read as spiteful, unproductive, personal, vindictive, ungrateful.
Anita: But what can you disagree with when we write about our experiences? You can disagree with the fact that it wasn’t your experience but how can you disagree with our own interpretations of our experiences? Which is what I think is happening. Saying, “But that’s not what I meant” negates our experiences, it negates our interpretation, it negates the impact. In a world where everybody has equal power, we could have just said, “Oh, this is what I heard when you said this” and the other person would say, “Oh, I hear you, though that’s not what I meant.” But a lot of the times institutional power works in ways that we don’t even get to say that. Somebody says something, you object, but just in your head, or with your friends. You don’t actually feel like you have the power or the wherewithal in the moment to respond directly. What we’re trying to think through is what happens in interactions where there are clear institutional lines of power; with faculty, for example, it’s between tenured or untentured faculty that often map onto differences in broader societal power because of race, gender, class, etc. Because if they are my peer or my friend, then there are different ways of calling out that are possible when there isn’t a power imbalance.
Adriana: I mean, you just call me out directly. [laughter]
Anita: But we don’t have institutional power over each other. I assume that students also call each other in more gentle ways among their friends.
Adriana: The perceived violence of the call out is exacerbated when there’s greater power imbalances involved.
Anita: Yes, it’s about power but also about a lack of relationship. For us, and in the intergroup dialogue context, this is why you build a sustained relationship.
Adriana: Maybe in these FB convos, they are not interested in sustaining relationships and maybe that’s okay. Why are we afraid of moments that are not about building community in particular ways? I’m thinking of Miranda Joseph’s study of LGBTQ organizations, where she tracks how in their work, these utopic dreams of how things should be get in the way of actually doing the work of building community.
Anita: At Carleton, there’s this rhetoric of how we are already a community. It’s not an utopian goal. It’s presumed that it’s already there and so we don’t have to work at it. So by challenging what happens at Carleton, we’re breaking community rather than believing in it. But what we’re saying is that for some of us, that community doesn’t exist.
Adriana: Yes, there’s a superficial sense of community. But there’s a difference between choosing each other and thus calling each other in, and this idea that somehow just because we’ve all chosen to be in this place, we are part of a community. You know me. I’m an optimist. I’m into this idea of bringing people from all over the world and saying we want you to choose each other; think of yourselves as belonging to each other. There are ways that the institution tries to build that community, in orientation, at the beginning of year. But it’s also this idea that you’re now at Carleton. And you should get along. Or you will get along.
Anita: Why do people come to college? If you come to a small college, are you buying into some part of it’s going to be this utopian community? We’ve talked to some women of color alums who felt some level of betrayal of that idea because the community didn’t work for them, it didn’t support them.
Adriana: And for faculty, just because we have chosen to work at this place, there’s an expectation that we’d get along, we’d be friends. We are just choosing a job, a pretty good job, but it’s a job. It’s not like someone said, hey, there’s this utopian community, and you see that in the brochure, it looks amazing, and that’s why you get a job here.
Anita: No, but collegiality is a part of how we’re reviewed. And collegiality often gets translated to not challenging the institution or at least not challenging it in a way that actually changes anything. For faculty, it’s the notion of collegiality that’s invoked that ends up silencing dissent and for students, it’s the notion of community.
Adriana: I think the language of community gets used for faculty, too. When people speak up, sometimes the response is, “Don’t you remember our values about civil discourse?” Students are told that healthy exchanges of ideas is good. Civility is valued. But we don’t talk about social justice in our official statements about the college. We don’t state explicitly that we believe in justice, that we believe in racial equality.
Anita: Yes. And there’s no guidance about what to do when when different values clash. Yes, we value free speech and we value non-discrimination but what happens when those values clash in a particular incident? Is it a balance? Does one get valued over another?
Adriana: Part of that fake binary between call out or call in culture is related to this idea that we have a desire to build community, to build towards something we want to see. But what happens when there are differences in what we are building toward? It’s not like we all have the same ideas of a an utopian community. There definitely wouldn’t be enough crying in your utopia for my taste! [laughter]
As you might be able to tell from this post and our exchanges, we are still thinking through our ideas about the “call out/in” culture. We would love to hear from you how you’ve been thinking about these issues, within a college campus context, and also about how you’ve been navigating these issues once you’ve left that context. Please comment here if possible so that other readers can see your ideas!
As all of you likely know, last Wednesday, on February 14th, a 19-year-old shot and killed 17 people and wounded 14 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. This school shooting is the 18th in 2018, which, as Amy Goodman points out, means that there has been a school shooting every 60 hours so far this year. The ongoing death toll is painfully large: since 2012, when 26 people–including 20 first graders–were killed in Sandy Hook Elementary School, there have been at least 239 school shootings nationwide and 138 deaths.
While young people are vulnerable to gun-related injury and death in many spaces beyond schools, due to the general proliferation of guns in U.S. society , school shootings provoke a painful cycle that we’ve now seen many times: outrage and sorrow; thoughts and prayers; calls for more gun control; no change in gun control laws; shooting forgotten till the next one happens.
What might make a difference and break the cycle in this case is that the young people directly affected by this latest shooting are organizing and demanding change, and they’re being joined by young people all over the country. Emma Gonzalez, whose impassioned speech inspired the photo above, called out politicians for their inaction and declared:
We are going to be the kids you read about in textbooks. Not because we’re going to be another statistic about mass shooting in America, but because, just as David said, we are going to be the last mass shooting. Just like Tinker v. Des Moines, we are going to change the law. That’s going to be Marjory Stoneman Douglas in that textbook and it’s going to be due to the tireless effort of the school board, the faculty members, the family members and most of all the students.
Students have organized themselves to ask for change on the state and federal level: marching to Tallahassee, having a die-in at the White House, and walkouts and rallies on February 21st, the one-week anniversary of the Parkland shooting. More actions have also been planned: rally on the March 14th (one month anniversary of the shooting); a March on Washington on March 24th; and another walkout on April 20th (April 20th, 1999, was when the Columbine school massacre occurred.) There are a number of sites that are working to keep track of all the planned actions; March for our Lives’ FB page is one of those.
We are inspired by and stand with these students as we stand with all the young people who have long been organizing for change in their schools, including demanding more equitable funding; safe and supportive spaces for transgender and gender non-conforming youth; and culturally relevant curriculum including critical ethnic studies courses.
- As Lindsay Nichols, the federal policy director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, puts it: “Children are also at risk in concerts, in movie theaters, and often very times at home. We have a epidemic of murder-suicides in this country, that are often preceded by domestic violence. And we need to look at that in that larger context and remember that schools are just—are actually, overall, relatively safe places for children to be, when you talk about the larger impact on children and on all members of our society.
P.S. If you’re a teacher or a professor, you most likely have your retirement funds invested with TIAA-CREF. Please consider signing this petition to ask TIAA-CREF to divest from gun manufacturers.
In today’s post, we take on a question sent to us by a Carleton alum: “How do you navigate higher education institutions and be committed to social justice when these spaces are often antithetical to social justice?”
Our first reaction to this question was “Higher education institutions in the U.S. are often spaces that are antithetical to social justice because U.S. society is often a space that’s antithetical to social justice!” A long line of critical social theorists, including Samuel Bowles & Herbert Gintis and Pierre Bourdieu & Jean Claude Passeron have argued that educational institutions reflect and reinforce societal inequities, especially along socioeconomic lines. Carleton College and other higher educational institutions are no exception.
There is, however, an additional factor that might make higher education institutions seem particularly antithetical to social justice and we think it might be due to what Angela P. Harris and Carmen G. González describe as “the contradictory culture of academia.” As they write in the introduction to one of our favorite books about higher education, Presumed Incompetent, “On the one hand, the university champions meritocracy, encourages free expression and the search for truth, and prizes the creation of neutral and objective knowledge for the better of society–values that are supposed to make race and gender identities irrelevant. On the other hand, women of color too frequently find themselves ‘presumed incompetent’ as scholars, teachers, and participants in academic governance” (p.1). Another contradiction might be the lofty rhetoric of diversity and inclusion that is commonplace these days in colleges & universities that sit alongside ongoing inequities and differences between the experiences of marginalized students, faculty and staff and those of race, class and gender privileged students, faculty, and staff. We’ve written in an earlier post, for example, about how our identities as women of color are valued and appreciated as bringing diversity of representation to the college but the diversity of ideas and experiences we bring and champion often is not welcome.
Now we get to the hard part of your question: how do we stay committed to social justice and remain part of these institutions?
First, while our commitment to working towards more socially just schools and societies remain steadfast, we know that we do not always live out these commitments. Often, we fail to speak up and act in ways that align with our principles for many reasons, including fear, fatigue, and ignorance. These moments of failure lead us to develop a sense of patience and generosity–we understand that people and institutions fail in living out their commitments to social justice, as we do.
Second, the key difference between being a student at a small, residential college and being an employee at such a place is that while work is a part, an important part, of our lives, we do have lives outside of the campus! We do not have to eat, live with and hang out with our colleagues in the way that students have to eat, live with, and hang out with fellow students. We get to create communities outside of work that sustain us in the ways that we need. We get to take advantage of being in or close to the Twin Cities with their diverse racial and immigrant communities. We get to be part of a community of women of color academics, for example, in the Twin Cities who provide support and critical perspective on our work lives.
Third, working at an academic institution differs from the student experience in another way: temporality. We are here for the long haul (whether at one particular institution or in the larger apparatus of academia). That perspective means that we can see and feel the change that does happen, and we can participate in small or significant ways in its propulsion. For example, academic freedom means that we can generally teach what and how we want. Both of us see our classes as spaces of interruption that ask students to examine the way systems, institutions, and even nations do their work; we ask them to be willing to see not just the aspirations, but the costs involved. Teaching often offers moments of joy as students start to see structure and can then imagine better possible futures. For Anita, getting tenure has meant that she can pursue more participatory and collaborative research like her recent project working with five Carleton students on student experiences in STEM departments. Honestly, students–their willingness to learn; their excitement to teach us; their energy and curiosity; their diverse range of experiences–are a big part of what helps us stay in higher education.
Finally, our persistence in the institution leads us to invest in changing it in ways that are often invisible to students. We sit on committees, participate in tenure reviews, read and review manuscripts by colleagues, help lead national conferences, get involved in reading groups, try out new ways of learning and teaching, and develop programs that matter to us (like Critical Conversations at Carleton). In other words, we contribute to the workings of the institution. Sometimes that’s frustrating, when the wheels are turning in ways that we cannot stop or shift, but mostly it’s empowering, because we have chances to question the status quo and contribute to change.
When it comes down to it, we are both educators at heart. What we mean by that is that we believe in change. If we didn’t believe that individuals could grow or that committees could rethink their methods or that institutions could reassess their systems, then we would not be here. (Hmm, what else do you all think we would be doing if we weren’t teachers?) Our honest and deep belief in change keeps us going even when we get frustrated by these spaces that often seems antithetical to our commitments to social justice. In other words, what keeps us going is being together in the struggle …and having matching winter hats! 😉
In response to our post answering a question about campus discourse, a reader posted a question that we thought might be a useful way to think through and write more in depth about some of the concepts we discussed in the post. We begin with a shorter version of the comments, you can read the full comment at the foot of the post.
“I am not sure what being a “structuralist” entails…It is people who produce structures. You can change the structure, but if the people do not change (i.e., if their attitudes and beliefs remain exactly the same), then another (bad) structure will inevitably replace the previous structure. Both individuals and structures have to change, which is exactly why discourse needs to improve. By talking to each other in beneficial ways, we come to understand each other. The hope is that such conversations will cause real change at the individual level. I am also not sure what you mean by saying that individuals are necessarily complicit in oppressive structures. There are always ways of opting out, though sometimes it requires serious sacrifices to opt out. A lot of structural changes have occurred on the heels of a single individual doing a powerful thing — e.g., Rosa Parks. Again, it seems like the way forward is both individual and structural change, because one bad structure will inevitably mutate into another bad structure, if people’s beliefs and attitudes remains fixed.”
Figuring out the relationship between structure and individual agency and how change happens encapsulates much of what the social sciences and humanities are all about (possibly also the sciences but we’ll speak for the two areas we’re most familiar with!).
First, let’s go back to our hypothetical example of tenure cases at Carleton. If we found that a disproportionate number of faculty of color were not getting tenure, we would not jump to the conclusion that individual faculty of color just happen to be less qualified, and therefore faculty of color just need to do better. We would argue that the system of tenure is set up in a way that disadvantages faculty of color and therefore we need to examine that system and change the system, as opposed to arguing that individual faculty of color should change to fit the system. What is the system here? There is a set of evaluative moments that are understood to be neutral and objective; one of these is the student evaluations gathered by our institutional research office. However, at the national level, there is quite bit of evidence that there are disparities in student evaluations between faculty of color and White faculty. In other words, educational institutions depend upon any number of systems that are supposedly neutral but that actually invoke and use metrics based on the experiences of the White academic elite. We agree that we want to get to a place where such disparities don’t exist by changing the racist attitudes and beliefs of students about the capabilities of non-White faculty. And two of us certainly try to tackle racist attitudes and beliefs in our classes. However, we also think that advocating to change the system of tenure and how much value student evaluations are given are also important and more immediate steps to take.
More broadly, we agree with Dr. King’s take on the need for both legislation and education/dialogue as ways to combat the insidious effects of racism:
“If we are going to solve the problems facing mankind, I would be the first to say that every white person must look down deep within and remove every prejudice that may be there, and come to see that the Negro, and the colored peoples, generally, must be treated right, not merely because the law says it, but because it is right and because it is natural. I agree with this 100 percent. And I’m sure that if the problem is to be solved, ultimately, men must be obedient not merely to that which can be enforced by the law, but they must rise to the majestic heights of being obedient to the unenforceable.
But after saying all of that, I must go on to the other side. This is where I must leave [those]…who believe that legislation has no place. It may be true that you can’t legislate integration, but you can legislate desegregation. It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law can’t change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law can’t make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me. And I think that’s pretty important also.”
King’s answer to the question of what leads to necessary, immediate change and fairer structures is legislation, i.e. changing hearts and minds takes a long time; changing the legal structure can provide immediate relief to the oppressed.Your mention of Rosa Parks brings up some interesting questions about how change happens. You write about how Parks being an example of “A lot of structural changes have occurred on the heels of a single individual doing a powerful thing….” It’s certainly true that Rosa Parks’ decision on a single day did lead to more collective action. However, Parks was already part of a larger, collective movement of struggle and resistance at the time she decided to take a stance. She was the secretary of the local chapter of the NAACP and she has recently returned from attending the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee center for training activists for workers’ rights and racial equality. She absolutely did have to make a decision that day to take a courageous stance in light of all she knew about how she might be treated in the legal system as an African American woman–however, we do want to point out that her individual action had a greater impact because of her involvement in a larger structure of resistance.
Thinking about a larger structure of resistance brings us to the final point we wanted to discuss about your question–the question about whether it’s possible to not be complicit in histories and ongoing systems of oppression. We think that it’s pretty difficult, probably impossible, for people to live outside of oppressive systems. For example, we live, work, run, and play on land that was stolen from the Dakota people. The two of us were not responsible for the colonization of the Dakota but we benefit from it. It is not possible for us to make enough sacrifices to get ourselves out of being complicit in the historical and ongoing legacy of settler colonialism (maybe other than not living in the U.S. perhaps but still anywhere we could think to move to has been touched by histories of imperialism and colonization!). Similarly, living in the United States means that we are caught up in a capitalist system that is impossible to get out of.
Adriana was chatting (online) with a Jason Lewis supporter recently; he didn’t announce his political party, but he seemed to lean libertarian. As he denounced taxes and government, she pointed out that we all benefit from state and federal government oversight and funding of all aspects of our lives. Getting off the grid–making your own clothes, growing your own food, refusing to travel on state/federal roads, riding a bike–might get you closer to not being beholden to and party to these institutions. However, the histories of these lands, of these places, of these materials would still embed us within structural formations of race, capital, etc. In other words, hard as we try to extract ourselves from pre-existing structures, they are omnipresent and we are deeply rooted within them.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t take individual actions to live lives that are closer to our ethical and moral principles, and when our individual principles conflict with structural expectations, we do think that sacrifices are necessary. Rosa Parks lost her job, for example! Yet that sacrifice can’t remove a person from histories and systems of oppression and exploitation. Indeed, the loss of the job confirms the continued working of the system. And we both continue to believe that honest, critical dialogue can change hearts and minds, helping to fuel people to continue fighting for structural change.
P.S. The whole structure/individual agency question is definitely one that sociologists obsess over, so if folks are looking for texts to read that address that question in a nuanced way, Anita highly recommends Jay MacLeod’s Ain’t no makin’ it!
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.
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.
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.
Note: We occasionally feature posts written by just one of us or by a guest. This post is by Anita.
A friend of ours recently posted messages on Facebook telling her friends what she appreciated and admired about them; another friend noted that what was lovely about these messages was that they spoke to the best selves we can be. I know that I am not always my best self. I usually strive to be and many times, I fail. I fail to be patient, I fail to listen, I fail to live up to my principles in big and small ways. One thing that my friend posted about me was that she admired my “courage in speaking [my] truth,” which made me think about the many times I don’t speak my truth, when my courage falters.
Because of the recent #taketheknee actions, my friend’s post got me thinking about a particular instance of when I wasn’t brave. The #taketheknee demonstrations began with Colin Kaepernick in the summer of 2016. There are many who have participated since then, both recently and over the past couple of years, with professional athletes, high school students, elementary school students, and others (e.g. cheerleaders, anthem singers) kneeling to protest police brutality, racial injustice, and now President Trump’s speech and tweets. Protesting racial injustice has a long history among Black athletes. While I’ve been reading about and following these protests through media coverage, I hadn’t seen them as being personally relevant to me, because as most people who know me know, I don’t really do sports.
I don’t like playing sports, I don’t like watching sports, I don’t care to read about sports teams or results…and it’s also rare that I’m in settings where the national anthem is played. But the one sports team I do support and will actually pay money to watch are the Lynx, Minnesota’s WNBA team, and their games are the one context in which I hear the national anthem played. Last summer, a friend and I went to a regular season game, and before the national anthem played, my friend told me that he was not going to stand for it. I looked around where we were sitting–we appeared to be the only people of color in our section. Lynx fans are a racially diverse group but also predominantly white (we are in Minnesota). I started to feel uncomfortable and expressed that to my friend, and he, out of courtesy to me, ended up standing. I later regretted asking him to put my comfort over his principles, and apologized. And I know that while I felt uncomfortable, I did not feel unsafe–I did not believe that anyone would harm us or even say anything negative to us if we sat down for the anthem.
While I was not brave at that time, and there are many such times, I do also think that we can change and grow in all ways, including in how courageous we are, especially when we have someone else to be brave with. The same friend and I made plans to go to Game 2 of the WNBA finals–the Lynx were one of the two teams in the finals–and we knew that at Game 1, the players of the opposing team had been booed by some Lynx fans when they decided to not be on the floor while the national anthem played. My friend and I talked about what we were going to do–and we decided that this time, we were going to sit, particularly in support of the members of the LA Sparks team. I steeled myself to be okay with feeling uncomfortable.
As it turned out, we once again were in a section where all the folks around us looked White. But a white woman had commented positively on the shirt I was wearing (“Demilitarize police”) and she was sitting in the row ahead of us, so I felt better. Many in the crowd booed again as the LA Sparks team left to head to the locker room before the national anthem was played. My friend and I did sit, as did the woman who had commented on my shirt, and an older white woman sitting next to us. No one said anything to us. We all also clapped in an effort to counter the booing as the LA Sparks came out of the locker room to start the game. We probably weren’t heard by the team, but later I did send a message to LA Spark via Facebook, letting them know that I admired their stance, and I respected their right to take such a stance.
I know that I’ve learned to be braver, act more courageously, and take more risks because I have friends who honor and recognize what I already do and friends who push me to be and do better, and I am deeply grateful for both.