Why individual change isn’t enough

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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!

 

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.

My best self

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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.

Refilling our wells

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Happy September! We’re back after a summer of reading, watching TV and movies, spending time with family and friends, writing, and, of course, confronting the darkness (ahem, I think we’re experiencing an eclipse–let’s hide in the basement!!).

As we sit here and plan out this post, we’ve been engaging in a vigorous discussion about “summer.” Summer is a curious space and time for academics (especially for those of us with tenure and the economic privilege of not having to teach over the summer). Within the labor expectations of academia, and given our pre-tenure experiences at a small liberal arts institution, we’ve been trained to use summers for our research work–thinking and writing towards publications. But given the pace and intensity of our academic year, which includes a juggling of teaching, service, and research, summer offers one of the few longer periods in which to really breathe and get a break.

We want to be very honest here. The work that we do on campus, in our classrooms and in our committees, is often exhausting and difficult, even as we believe in the importance of our focus on social justice. At the end of an academic year, we have drained our wells of patience and generosity of spirit that we feel is necessary for us to do this work well.

Both of us were struck by a post by Julia Jordan-Zachery where she talks about using her summer to avoid soul murder. What does it mean to take a break that refuses to participate in an academic exchange rate, where productivity and experiences become measures of our self worth?   

Taking a break for us often means being able to enjoy cultural productions, particularly those by folks of color, and we want to highlight some of the amazing work that we watched, read, and listened to that made us laugh, helped us reconnect to our communities, healed us, inspired us. In other words, we refill our wells. Like Jordan-Zachery, we think it’s vital for any of us who experience discrimination and marginalization based on our identities to take time to take care of our souls and bodies.

Our favorite song and video this summer

Immigrants (We Get The Job Done)

First, we both love Lin-Manuel Miranda, and anyone who knows Adriana knows that she lurves the musical Hamilton. Whatever you think about musicals, you will love this remix of parts of Hamilton into this music video. The images and lyrics portray a critical and complex view of immigrants and their communities in ways that seek to challenge the xenophobic discourses prevalent in America right now (and historically). We also love that the lyrics are both in Spanish and English.

Our favorite podcast

Another Round–of course. We can’t say enough about how much we adore and appreciate this podcast. Our favorite episode of the summer was their live show from New Orleans, featuring several black journalists, including April Ryan, and bounce music.

Our favorite movies we watched together this summer

Girls trip–we haven’t laughed that hard in a long time. We appreciated the exploration of women’s friendship, women’s sexuality, and the hijinks.

Set it off–there’s a moment in Girls Trip when there’s a quick reference to this movie that was also about women’s friendship and also starred Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith and it turned out that Adriana hadn’t watched it (wut?!). So we watched it as well—-and just a warning, it’s not the type of same comedic movie that Girls Trip is.

Step-it might be the case that Adriana loves step so much that she dragged Anita to this documentary. But we both loved following the three girls’ stories–set in a Baltimore high school–as they struggled to balance home life, academics, and their desire to win the big step competition before graduating. We cheered along with other audience members for their triumphs and cried (well, Adriana did at least) as they shared their lives with us.

Show we watched separately but talked about together:

Atlanta season 1
Insecure season 2
Queen Sugar season 2
The incredible Jessica James

Books we read and loved:

Roxane Gay Hunger
Yaa Gyasi Homegoing
Marc Lamont Hill Nobody
Waziyatawin This is what justice looks like
A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (an anthology of essays edited by Sun Yung Shin)
A final note: Like last year, we will be alternating original posts with round-ups of links. And as always, we welcome your feedback and thoughts on our posts.

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).