It’s not about cookies: The politics of allyship

…if you think of yourself as an ally to us specifically or women of color more generally, please don’t ask for cookies in return. The time that we would spend making and baking those cookies and wrapping them in the perfect package of gratitude is time we need to plot the demise of the white supremacist, heterosexist, capitalist, transphobic, ableist patriarchal world we live in.

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Carleton faculty meeting 1958-59.

(Note: we’ve altered identifying details of some of our experiences to avoid pointing fingers at particular people, because we are about critiquing systems and institutions, and not about blaming individuals.)

Dear blog readers: you should know (or maybe you’ve already guessed) that we’re the kind of people who do a lot of “diversity work” at our institution. (Another way to put it is that the institution asks us to do a lot of that work. Or that, because of our bodies and our identities, some of the work finds us in ways that it doesn’t find others.) This is a story all about how “diversity work” makes us think and talk a lot about what it means to find, establish relationships with, and work alongside allies.

Case in point. Two emails sent out this year to all faculty and staff. One about a “Faculty Diversity Lunch” and one about an informal social gathering for LGBTQA+ identified staff and faculty. For the latter one, A was spelled out to indicate “asexual.” Both of these emails got responses (from different people!) that went something like, “Hey. I noticed that you didn’t include allies. Um, you didn’t include ME. Did you mean to do that?”

And yes, people, yes. Yes, there were conversations among both groups of organizers about whether allies should be explicitly invited. And yes, both groups decided that allies were not to be included in these spaces.

The “hey, what about ME?” response got us talking YET AGAIN about allies. We believe that if you consider yourself an ally, you don’t need to ask that question about whether allies are included, especially if the invitation does not explicitly include allies. We believe that allyship is a process, not an identity. We believe that sometimes allies just need to listen and not comment.

But apparently it is really hard for allies to not want credit–to not want to be seen and recognized as such. The curious, ironic result of allies’ self-declarations is that they end up centering the dominant identities they embody (#notallwhitepeople, #notallmen) rather than  interrupting or dismantling systemic oppression. It gets to the point where individual exclamations come together to sound like a collective gasp and refusal: “#notallinstitutions!” i.e., surely here at Carleton we’re better, kinder, and less racist.

We recall a conversation where, at one point, we felt the need to point to the imbalances of service work for faculty of color, especially in helping students (of all races and backgrounds) navigate complicated interrelational conversations around issues of race, gender, sexuality, and mental health. Please note: when we do this kind of testimonial work on campus, we’re not asking for pats on the back or sympathetic clucks. Rather, we’re making a case for why the institutional structures that we have now interpellate us–faculty and staff of color–differently. And the emotional labor that we expend is not inconsequential to the ways in which we can (or can’t) balance the rest of our workloads.

At this point, one of our white colleagues, perhaps in a moment of intended alliance, said, “Hey! I do this work too!”

Here’s what we heard when our white colleague said that: your critique of the system is incomplete because I’m not included; you’re not giving me credit for helping you with this work; you are critiquing your allies and our good intentions.

And here’s what we would like our colleagues to understand–that our testimony wasn’t a claim for recognition. Rather, it was a critique of the system that demands our emotional labor unequally, that produces the unevenness through racialized, gendered and sexualized processes that are already on the ground, and then refuses to see that system or that unevenness.

We were pointing out how that burden of supporting students to have difficult conversations about identity, power, and privilege falls unequally on faculty of color. Indeed, even if we’re all doing equal hours of work of supporting students dealing with racism, for example, it still feels different to do that work as a faculty person of color. For Anita, these moments always bring back memories of what it was like to be a student of color at a HWCU, memories that tinge her current interactions. Adriana struggles to figure out how to communicate useful strategies while recognizing that those strategies sometimes participate in girding the system. (For example, she certainly has catered to white fragility on more than one occasion, in order to help colleagues better hear and understand what’s at stake in conversations about race.) White faculty have a different experience. Even if you’re the most empathetic white faculty member, mentoring students of color and white students through interrelational issues won’t raise the same memories or lead to the same embodied responses. In addition, you often have more authority, something reflected in the better teaching evaluations that white faculty receive, particularly when teaching about diversity (see Schueths et al. and Jones-Walker).

In moments like this, the presumed ally wants to be different and wants to be seen as passing some sort of test. But look, we don’t need you to pass a test. We need you to listen, to acknowledge that you heard us, and to recognize that the points we brought up are worth considering. Instead, the White ally in our example said, “My department has great practices; you don’t know my department.”

It’s true. We are only two faculty and we are not everywhere. However, we hear about the experiences of many of our friends who are women of color on our campus and on campuses across the country, in many different disciplines and types of academic institutions. There’s also national data that shows that faculty of color (and women faculty with regards to gender issues) are spending more time and energy on this kind of emotional labor. So when someone  says, “You don’t know me or my department,” what we hear is, “Don’t judge me or hold me accountable. *I* don’t fit the national data.”

As we discussed this, we imagined what an ally might have done in this situation. First and foremost, your support shouldn’t require a thank you from us. As a self-anointed ally, standing up to support underrepresented voices should just be what you do. You don’t get cookies for being an ally. Really, if you’re asking for cookies, you’re not an ally.

Second, an ally might recognize the risk entailed in sharing racialized experiences in predominantly White spaces, and acknowledge our truth. It may not be your truth, you may not quite understand or see it yet, but trust and respect us rather than disbelieving and undervaluing our experiences. If we’re saying this is how we feel the burden as brown women faculty, you don’t say, as a White faculty member, you’re not alone, I totally understand, or I’m doing the same work–because you’re not doing the same work.

Third, if you find out that there’s a gathering of folks with a marginalized identity and you’re not included, feel free to write back (as some of our colleagues did) to say that you support the efforts, that you are willing to support any actions the group decides the campus should take to better support the group, and that you understand why that gathering isn’t for you.

In conclusion, if you think of yourself as an ally to us specifically or women of color more generally, please don’t ask for cookies in return. The time that we would spend making and baking those cookies and wrapping them in the perfect package of gratitude is time we need to plot the demise of the white supremacist, heterosexist, capitalist, transphobic, ableist patriarchal world we live in (thanks, bell hooks!).

P.S. We don’t want to imply that we have always been or will always be perfect allies. We have certainly hurt people we love and respect because of our refusal to see our complicity in oppressive practices or systems. We’re also always learning and we owe a million thanks to our friends and co-conspirators who have spent hours and hours educating us about our privileges and lack of understanding on various issues. We appreciate your love, labor, patience, and forgiveness.

Inspirations/Sources:

Sara Ahmed. (2012) On Being Included: On Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke UP.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2015) offers us the concept of the HWCU (Historically white college and/or university)

Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs and Yolanda Flores Nieman, et al (2012) Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia. Boulder, CO: UP Colorado. *particularly recommended for our White faculty allies*

bell hooks. (2008) “Cultural Criticism and Transformation.” Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KLMVqnyTo_0. Online.

Cheryl Jones-Walker. (2016) Teaching Difference in Multiple Ways: Through Content and Presence in Transforming the Academy. http://rutgerspress.rutgers.edu/product/Transforming-the-Academy,5886.aspx [Also, this book has a chapter in there by Anita…just FYI!]

Joya Misra et al. (2011) “The Ivory Ceiling of Service Work” http://www.aaup.org/article/ivory-ceiling-service-work#.VzZDQT9fmXe. Online.

April Schueths et al. (2013) “Passionate Pedagogy and Emotional Labor: Students’ Responses to Learning Diversity from Diverse Instructors.” Sociology Department, Faculty Publications. Paper 236. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/sociologyfacpub/236. Online.

Kathleen Wong. (2007) Emotional labor of diversity work: Women of color faculty in predominantly White institutions. http://gradworks.umi.com/32/88/3288033.html Online.

The One In Which We Talk About Defaced Posters

photos for poster
Not the poster from Carleton.

https://www.ohio.edu/orgs/stars/Poster_Campaign.html

While we have discussed the idea of a blog for a few months now, what finally led us to create the blog was a recent campus incident involving defaced posters. Made by a student for a class in the Fall, the laminated posters are Public Service Announcements for what not to do during Halloween. They hang in one of our academic buildings on campus. The two that we’ve seen both feature images of Carleton students (women of color) holding photos of inappropriate costumes with headlines such as “Culture is never a joke.” The latter was defaced with “Yes, it is. #Trump2016”; the second also had a Trump hashtag. Photos of the defaced posters were posted on Facebook by a student, eliciting a number of angry responses from other students that, to some degree, culminate in a consensus that the administration was informed about it and that they would take care of it.

In our earliest conversations about the posters, we both rejected the idea that “taking care of [the incident]” could be a singular act by a singular office, and as we figured out why we felt this way, we realized that, for both of us, the defaced posters bring up the complicated question of harm. Who is being hurt and how are they being hurt?

When we compare this incident to an earlier incident in 2015 involving a hate speech tweet, we found ourselves considering the way in which hate can be coded and produced in a number of ways. Neither the poster defacement nor the tweet targeted a particular individual (as opposed to an incident when a student found a note on his desk telling him, “Mexican, go home”), but target instead a wider set of actors, perhaps defined by common racialized experiences. One way in which the college has dealt with incidents of hate speech is through using restorative justice [RJ] practices. But because the hate and harm in the posters and the tweet is not localized, restorative justice practices seem inadequate, since it is easiest to bring someone into a restorative justice circle when the harm is concrete and individual and thus a story by the person harmed can be told. In other words, figuring how to repair harm in the wake of the poster incident is more complicated. After all, to the degree that RJ requires a small group or individual who is harmed, “all Blacks” or “all Latinx” or the entire Carleton community is just too big of a harmed collective for a circle. How are we to tell communal stories of harm in ways that justice can ensue?

What do we mean when we say that hate and harm are aimed at the community as a whole with the defacing of these posters? Anita sees this as a consequence of the fact that the graffiti violates our community standards that encourage some discourses and discourage others. She argues, however, that this is not about shutting down speech or about tone policing, but about standards of speech that encourage and invite conversation, rather than shut it down.

Intervention/necessary digression: At this point in our conversation, we noted that we wanted to be careful about how the two of us were talking about “acceptable” and “unacceptable” modes of discourse because we are aware of what happens when some discourse doesn’t seem to fit community standards that are historically coded as White and middle-class. For example: there were students who made posters in March with photos of two Black women students and asked “Dear White People” to know their names, that they are two different people, and that not all Black students are the same. These posters generated some negative responses from their fellow students, and the students who created the posters were told by administrators that the posters were not appropriate in tone or approach. So we want to recognize that these standards are certainly imbued with and produced through racialized and gendered histories of what counts as civil and productive discourse. Considering the ‘dear white people’ posters, we wonder whether particular claims about a failure to meet community standards are about an institution’s refusal to understand different cultural contexts and references being used by different members of the community. As a student told Anita, it wouldn’t take much effort to use the internet to figure out that the students were playing off a recent movie title (Dear White People) as well as a fairly well known Key & Peele skit about a Black substitute teacher mispronouncing White students’ names.

In other words, we believe that there is a difference between discourse that tries to intervene in dominant discourses and discourse that interrupts and halts dialogue.  In the case of the defacement of the posters, we both agree that the anonymity of the graffiti and the semantic leap it poses in relationship to the purpose of the posters stops dialogue.

For Adriana, the act of writing on or near the students’ faces terminates the dialogue rather violently. For her, writing on the posters also marks (without consent) the bodies of our students, an act that serves to erase their voices. The particular inscription of #Trump2016 emphasizes this erasure because, to the degree that there is dialogue one can witness here, it occurs in the relationship between brown bodies and faces confronted by and defaced by the hashtag, which has arguably come to be understood as a shorthand for the hate and xenophobia of the Trump campaign.

Anita sees a vital difference between speech as intervention versus interruption. Interventions, such as the “Dear White People” posters or Black Lives Matter activists asking Democratic presidential candidates pointed questions about racial justice, are meant to move the conversation forward. Even though the interventions might feel violent and irruptive, they are embodied and placed and ask for answers and response. #Trump2016, on the other hand, because of its anonymity, doesn’t make possible questions or reactions (except for fear and anger); to think of this within Butlerian terms, #Trump2016 injures through the way in which the hashtag has accrued meaning in its persistent political and discursive deployment this year.

The defacement also feels to us particularly violent because of the real people who were courageous enough to put themselves and their ideas out there in the public, only to be defaced by anonymous graffiti. They made themselves vulnerable. These factors lead us to see the defacement as more violent than if the posters just had words on them. We also want to note that the building where the posters were hung is a public space, so there is no telling who did the defacement.

What is clear to both of us is that it should not be just those students on the posters or “some students” who should feel unsafe or hurt; it should be all of us because those two students are members of our community. Part of the reason why we’re uncomfortable with the idea of the administration “taking care” of the situation (which for some seems to mean finding the perpetrator) is because it doesn’t matter WHO did it. The defacement of the posters raises the issue of how we respond –or don’t respond–as a community. Part of what we’re trying to figure out is how do we get people who are part of the larger Carleton community to see everyone as part of their community, and not just as subsets. How do more of us feel and or at least understand  the hurt and marginalization felt by, say, the two students on the posters and their friends when events like these happen? How do we became more empathetic as a community so that harm done to one is harm done to all?

Finally, we also want to figure out how we open up spaces for dialogue when such events happen, so that the ideas behind such events get discussed, and not just the individual incident itself. For example, with the hateful tweet incident, we suspect that there are many students (and non-students) on campus who might not have understood or empathized with what was happening in Baltimore. Rather than focus on punishing the individual who had sent out the tweet, what if we had instead had a teach-in on the terms “ghetto” and “riot”?

We will admit that, just like our students, we sometimes feel like it is someone else’s purview to capitalize on these teachable moments and move from individual incidents to community dialogue. It’s hard to figure out who is “in charge” and how conversations can be begun at large communal levels. We will end by inviting you to share your ideas and thoughts about how we move towards community dialogue and action.

Inspirations/suggested readings:

Butler, Judith. (1997). Excitable Speech. NY: Routledge.

Key, Keegan-Michael and Jordan Peele. (2012). “Substitute Teacher.” Key & Peele. Season 2, Episode 4, October 17. Comedy Central.

Pérez Huber, L., & Solorzano, D. G. (2015). Racial microaggressions as a tool for critical race research. Race Ethnicity and Education, 18(3), 297-320.

Simien, Justin. (2014). Dear White People. Lionsgate Films.