#BlackLivesMatter

(Image credit)

Our hearts are heavy this morning as we woke up to the news of yet another Black person being shot and killed by the police, this time in a location close to us in Minnesota. As we grieve, get angry, and stand in solidarity with our Black friends and loved ones, we wanted to highlight a recent speech by actor and activist Jesse Williams. The linked article provides an annotated examination of the speech to give more context to the historical, systemic, and ongoing discrimination, violence, and marginalization faced by Black folks in the U.S.

We know it’s hard to figure out what to do following senseless and systemic violence like this but we know it’s important to get educated and speak up, which is why we really appreciated Williams’ speech. One way you can start to do that is by getting involved in your local chapter of #BlackLivesMatter by attending events and donating money. Also check out the still relevant #FergusonSyllabus.

We speak of (our) glorious brownness

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“Soldaderas,” Yasmin Hernandez (2011)

(Note: Our blog posts are based on conversations that we have, conversations that we sometimes record. The format of this post is an attempt to demonstrate the dialogic nature of those conversations, and the spirit of collaboration and friendship that informs them. We would love for you to share with us the histories and experiences of your glorious brownness/blackness!)

AC: I was thinking, well, you know what I was thinking initially, that we write about whiteness all the time and we have to because that’s what we’re surrounded by. But we forget that there are these parts to ourselves that are not about Whiteness.

AE [laughing]: It cracks me up because it reminds me of this piece about what if authors wrote about white people the same way they write about brown people. Because when you read fiction, if there’s a brown person in the book, there’s always some discussion of their caramel colored skin or their chocolate tone [laughter].

AC: What do you think I am? [sticks out arm]

AE: I don’t know! I don’t think in food metaphors…You are like toasted almond.

AC: Oooh. That’s kind of yummy.

AE: I on the other hand…

AC: I feel like you’re like one of those vanilla flavors but with flecks.

AE: I feel I’m like French Silk Pie.

AC: Because we just got some ice cream and you got French Silk Pie.

[laughter]

This post is about exploring our brownness–what it means to us now, how we’ve come to understand it, and the people and contexts that have shaped our brownness. The exchange above captures some of what we associate with our brownness–joy, community, sisterhood, laughter, silliness, politics.

Skin color is a part of our brownness. Both within our families and in our Latinx and (South) Indian communities, there’s a range of skin colors and there are politics about which skin colors are desired and valued. Anita’s mom has told her the story many times about how the first thing an aunt said when she saw the newborn Anita was that her skin was so dark. There are many messages about lighter skin being better (skin lightening cream ads, for example. The one linked is an especially fascinating pseudo-feminist one where lightening her skin gives the daughter the courage and strength to tell her dad that she wants to wait to get married till she has a job and can be on equal terms with her husband!). Adriana grew up in a family that called her “güerita” and other cousins “morenita”–both endearments, but with different societal values attached.

Of course, though, our brownness is more than skin color.

AC: I did mean brownness in a larger sense, not just skin color [laughter]. We can always talk, though, about the gloriousness of caramel skin, and toasted almond complexion.

AE: We could talk about the glorious brownness of certain spaces; I’ve been thinking a lot about white space. When I was New York City recently, it meant being in spaces where, yeah, there’s a lot of whiteness, but there are other variations too. It feels so different to move through that city.

AC: It’s the relaxing part…when I think of brown spaces, I always think of community. I grew up in India so there’s that more obvious kind of brown community but even since moving to the U.S., that’s been important. For example, having the critical mass of black and brown folks at Swarthmore [Anita’s undergraduate alma mater] was really important. Not every brown person I’ve met is super supportive but all my supportive spaces are full of black and brown people.

AE: You’ve built them deliberately, especially in a place like Minnesota, to be full of black and brown people.

AC: I just feel like there’s a sense of not having to worry about what I say in those spaces that I feel like has never been true for me at Carleton or other white spaces.

AE: In white spaces, there’s a series of second-guessing that I do. I might still be brave at some point like with these blog posts. But then, for example, I wonder if I say this, (a) are you going to listen (b) are you going to think I’m crazy, or (c) are you going to menospreciar what I’m saying? Are you going to actually care about what I’m saying?

AC: We don’t have to be brave in brown spaces. It’s exhausting being brave and there we can just be. And still be challenged in different kinds of ways. It’s not that we always agree on everything. But I never feel minimized. I always feel heard.

These brown spaces aren’t always physical ones or permanent ones. These spaces can sometimes be created online, temporarily, as in a Facebook post that Adriana wrote once about her annoyance about how a NPR story about Cuba centered Hemingway, a White American author. Her Latinx and other friends of color chimed in with funny, sarcastic pointed comments about the whiteness of NPR. A White friend wrote to Adriana saying that the tone of these comments made them uncomfortable.

AE: And we all had this understanding of why and what was useful about that move. I think the one thing that was so alienating for him was exactly that. It was not a white space.

AC: And that it’s brown snark.

AE: It’s the fear that brown spaces are anti-White. Which…

AC: Sometimes it is

AE: Sometimes it has to be.

AC: Maybe it’s more anti-Whiteness, not so much anti-White people.

This led us to a discussion of our White friends who are politically liberal and demonstrate that stance through articles they post on social media, for example. However, there is still the question of whether these intellectual discussions and stances make them cognizant of the raced influences on their daily lives and interactions.

AC: With some White friends, maybe it’s that I’m not the one who’s always bringing it up.

AE: You know, that is super big. It would be such a lovely thing if more White people in our lives said, “Bring me into your brownness.” And weren’t scared. What is that white people are scared of? White people have been trained to be scared of talking about race because often just talking about race feels to them like it’s racist. And of course for us, if you’re not talking about race…

AC: That’s racist.

AE: That’s racist, because we are living raced lives.

AC: Maybe that’s one of the things about being brown. We’re not so afraid to have these uncomfortable conversations.

AE: If we were afraid, we’d be passing. Like I would be White. And I’d be a f*&*ing different person.

AC: And I feel like the same would go for me. I couldn’t pass in the same way. But there’s lots of ways in which as a person of color, you can assimilate and accommodate….but also, I don’t know if my closest White friends say, “Bring me into your brownness.” [laughter]

AE: We will bring you into our brownness!

AC: Because we are magnificent and..what’s that word for being…magnanimous!

AE: We are magnificent and magnanimous in our brownness [laughter]! One of the things I love about my brownness is having a rich sense of what it means to be anchored in a particular history (related to the U.S.) and about valuing that past of my people and the strength that it takes my community to be here in the way that it is.

AC: I feel like I don’t have that same relationship to the U.S. but for me, reading Black feminist authors like bell hooks and Audre Lorde has been a big part of my intellectual history.

AE: That raises the question for me about when is the moment that you came into your brownness; can you remember what that felt or looked like?

AC: I think unconsciously, I don’t know if I would have named it as such at the time, but moving to the U.S., moving to Fort Collins, Colorado, where my cousins, my brother and I were the only brown people in the school. Or at least that’s what I remember. It was the first time I didn’t look like everyone else around me. I could feel it on my skin in this weird way but I couldn’t talk about it and it wasn’t until college really where I first self-identified as a person of color. I don’t think I had that language before then.

AE: Likewise. I definitely knew I was Mexican and American for the longest time and went back and forth. Had both of those homes. It wasn’t until college and late in college that taking Chicano literature with María Herrera-Sobek changed my life. Senior year, I read Lorna Dee Cervantes and she talks about being Chicana as this movement in between Mexico and the U.S., where you’re not home in either. It named me so deeply. I was floored.Then there’s Cherrie Moraga, Sandra Cisneros, Denise Chavez. Not every text mirrored me exactly. That wouldn’t have even been useful. But every text contained fragments of mirrors that I could use to understand better how to map myself into brownness.

AC: For me, it was much more about my classmates. My class was about 40% students of color. I had classmates who already had the vocabulary

AE: And they saw you.

AC:  Yes.

AE: I was never really seen.

AC: I’ve never thought about that…

AE: I wrote a maudlin poem in college about how I’m so brown and blue. [laughter]

AC: We need to find it and publish it!

AE: It’s such a bad poem. Our embodiment is so different in the way we were seen and recognized as belonging by other members of our community.

AC: For me, there was definitely a sense of being a part of this students of color community in college. Not that there weren’t tensions because we were different kinds of students of color and we had to work through that. At least among the students who were politically active, we embraced that. It’s been interesting because I know that some of our students of color now don’t always like that language. I respect that, of course, but for me, it was so much a part of my own racialization and my own coming into consciousness. It makes a little sad sometimes. I’ve always had South Asian friends, for sure, but in undergrad and grad school, it’s always been a community of color. It’s never been just South Asian. So my own community feels like it’s full of people of color and multiracial. It’s been really important for me to think through my own privileges and what it means to be Indian American within that community.

I remember in grad school, there were two of us who were South Asian in my cohort. The head of the African American student group came up to us and invited us to be part of the group because at the time, there wasn’t really a student of color group. I felt very grateful that they took us in! We supported and were supported in ways that would have made my graduate school experience very different if I hadn’t had that.

AE: Yeah. Getting to grad school, it was fraught in a couple of ways. But I came into a community of Chicanas. We were all…marooned at Cornell. I felt like I didn’t know how to do it the right way and others did. It was still super important to have this community that was mainly Chicanas and South Asians as well, which is fascinating historically. There were not many Black students in the program.

AC: There is that whole history of Mexican-Punjabi families in California.

AE: It’s so true!

AC: Not that I’m Punjabi but I’ll claim it anyway. Close enough!

AE: Our connection was predestined is what we’re saying. [laughter]

AC: Our together brownness.

AE: It’s interesting that though we both came into our brownness in different ways, they’re both still mediated by texts. Moraga, hooks, and Lorde are amazingly important to me, too. I feel that the way I think about my brownness and why it was important for me to say Chicana, rather than Mexican-American, was to claim this political identity. My brownness is about this political attitude and inclination.

AC: YES! My brownness was never just about a social or cultural identity; it was always a political identity. I feel like especially as an Asian American, that’s very important to claim because a progressive political Asian American identity isn’t always visible to us as Asian Americans or to the larger society. Ways of being brown and yellow in a political way are often made invisible by how Asian Americans are portrayed in mainstream media and academia. That history is there but it’s so minimized.

AE: I think Latino brown and African American black bodies are seen as political a priori. They’re trouble for the nation. You’re right that with Asian bodies, this whole model minority myth becomes a way of seeing those bodies as apolitical and as accommodating to Whiteness.

AC: At the same time, there’s a whole history of Asian Americans being seen as perpetual foreigners. The Chinese Exclusion Act. A whole history of being excluded from the nation at the same time, once we were included, we were used as a wedge. I loved the “we are not your wedge” movement, a critique of how Asian Americans are often invoked in debates about affirmative action. I love that the younger generation is thinking about our positionality critically and taking that on. I did come to my Asian American political identity but for me, that came after I thought of myself more nebulous as being “of color.”

AE: And I think it was the opposite for me.

AC: Luckily, having 40% students of color meant that there was a good number of Asian American students who were political and it was awesome to grow up with them. Grow up politically.

AE: Talking about brownness in this way, in the sense of our glorious brownness, what does it mean to have brown people but not brown in our kind of way?

AC: Politically? For me, brownness isn’t just cultural, but it is also cultural. To me, there isn’t necessarily a dichotomy but I do understand how sometimes the kinds of cultural practices we engage in as a community reifies certain ideas about tradition and community that can hold back contemporary and more critical forms of cultural practices. When I’m with a group of queer, South Asian folks, sometimes it’s political, sometimes we’re just making fun of our reactions to Indian sweets. I appreciate that kind of brown space too.

AE: There’s something deeply political about these moments of self-care in a world that does not care of  you. But I wasn’t thinking of moments like that. I was thinking of the difficulties of living in a larger community where I expect alliances simply because we inhabit a similar kind of brownness. Then you realize that it’s not a given that my brownness is going to align with their brownness and that our interests can be divided.

AC: And I think this is also where critical mass matters. I learned that lesson at Swarthmore.

AE: You learned a lot at Swarthmore.

AC: Not because of the institution. Because of my classmates. Even if half the Asian American community wasn’t involved, didn’t want anything to do with us, it was okay…

AC: So…are we done talking about brownness?

AE: Yeah, I think we’re done. For now!

Being In and Not Of the University

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For your reading pleasure this week, we present you with a forum published in the Boston Review that highlights contributions from Robin Kelley, students activists, and other faculty. Titled “Black Study, Black Struggle,” the conversation aims to consider whether or not universities are appropriate or adequate sites of activism.

Kelley’s description of the kind of “betrayal and disappointment” that Black students experience once getting to the colleges they were heavily recruited to resonated with what we have heard from students of color on our campus.

Indeed, to some extent campus protests articulated the sense of betrayal and disappointment that many black students felt upon finding that their campuses failed to live up to their PR. Many students had come to the university expecting to find a welcoming place, a nurturing faculty, and protective administration. If they believed this, it was in no small part because university recruiters wanted them to: tours for prospective students, orientations, and slickly produced brochures often rely on metaphors of family and community, highlight campus diversity, and emphasize the sense of belonging that young scholars enjoy.

Kelley argues that students need to be careful about how they deploy “the language of personal trauma” in their activism and cautions student activists that “managing trauma does not require dismantling structural racism, which is why university administrators focus on avoiding triggers rather than implementing zero-tolerance policies for racism or sexual assault.” He also calls for the creation of intellectual spaces on campuses that use the resources of universities without being a part of them. He asks black students “to become subversives in the academy, exposing and resisting its labor exploitation, its gentrifying practices, its endowments built on misery, its class privilege often camouflaged in multicultural garb, and its commitments to war and security.”

The student respondents usefully take up and push back against Kelley’s critiques of their activism, demands, and framing of their experiences. Especially powerful was Charlene Carruthers’s argument that for today’s black student activists, “trauma is inseparable from the love that motivates activism. It is love in the face of repeated trauma that governs my work and the work of so many young black folks with whom I organize in communities across the country. We cannot separate our pain from our resistance.” Aaron Bady reminded us, two tenured professors, of the positions we occupy on our campus: “…if professors are in danger of acting on behalf of the institution—of mistaking its identity for their own—students tend to understand their place in this machine with much more clarity. Theirs is the exploited labor that makes the university operate; theirs is the debt that funds professorial salaries and endowment; theirs is the place that must soon be vacated to make room for fresher meat.”

 

Unstickiness and Emotions in the Classroom

 

Classical and Quantum Optics, Fall 2014
Photo Credit

(We will occasionally feature posts written by just one of us or by a guest. This post is by Adriana.)

In 2003, I, a white-appearing Latina/Mexicana/Chicana, arrived at Carleton after leaving the University of New Mexico, a HSI (Hispanic-Serving Institution). If I were to say that sentence at the Latinx Studies conference in July, I would not need to follow it up with anything. There would be nods of understanding and sighs. But following it up is important, because while my story is like many others’, it’s also mine, and full of rich detail that could easily be forgotten but that shouldn’t be. (Sometimes I think my poor memory is a survival mechanism, but that’s another story.)

I was and continue to be very glad to have landed at Carleton. I have grown a great deal as a teacher and a scholar, and I am blessed with wonderful colleagues across all disciplines. But even though the institution was generally welcoming, it was and still continues to be an HWCU, historically white college/university (or PWI- predominantly white institution). In those early years, I couldn’t have put my finger on what that meant for me, exactly. There were moments of minor “oh hey there” moments that mostly had to do with being reminded that I was not in New Mexico anymore. And then there was the day–about four years in–that, having become accustomed to teaching Latinx studies to mostly white students, I entered a classroom and found it to be 40% students of color… and my whole body relaxed.

Fast forward to last year (my thirteenth year of teaching here). After many years spent being jealous of my American Studies colleagues at Macalester, who do an amazing job of bringing students of color into their program year after year, I entered the American Studies Methods and Theory classroom and, out of eight students, seven were of color. And my whole body relaxed. What does this relaxation mean?

When I first read Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included several years ago, it rocked my world. Describing the common experiences of faculty of color at PWIs in England and Australia, Ahmed uses the concept of stickiness to describe the way it feels, for example, to walk into a meeting and be one of the few people of color: “When you stick out, the gaze sticks to you. Sticking out from whiteness can thus reconfirm the whiteness of the space.” Ahmed’s language and descriptions helped to name my experience, giving me language for what I had inhabited. Let me note that this stickiness is not simply a Carleton experience for me, but a Minnesota one. Whenever I make my way home to the Bay Area (California) or to somewhere like New York City, Philadelphia, or Chicago, I feel myself rocked into health by the voices around me speaking so many different languages and the bodies around me that are all so very different. In contrast, in one Carleton meeting room, paintings of past presidents all look so much alike that, as we sit there discussing campus issues, I can’t help but feel unalike and sticky in the face of this “reproduction of likeness” that Ahmed argues tends to be assumed as an “institutional given” (38). Teaching in classroom after classroom of white faces, I try to use this stickiness of my racialized body to ground conversations about our raced identities and our raced practices. I don’t know how to say this gently: being brown in this way is exhausting.

Given this usual feeling of stickiness and exhaustion, walking into a room filled with students of color felt freeing. My racial identity was no longer something hypervisible or invisible, it simply was. When talking about discourses and histories of race, class, gender, and sexuality–key topics in American Studies–I didn’t have to explain, justify, or manage my racialized relationship to my field of study. Unpacking the relationship between whiteness and citizenship could be done without steeling myself for defensiveness.

And, after years of moving towards a pedagogy that attempts to guide students in learning that is affective, I finally felt comfortable enough to take some risks. I remember seeing 12 Years a Slave in the theater with a white friend. Afterwards, we tried to have a conversation where I asked him (spoiler alert) what he thought of the scene where we, the viewers, are not allowed to not see Solomon Northup, left hanging from a tree, in media res of the lynching. The camera cannot not look. The looking lasts. We wait an impossibly long time for the master to return and cut him down. How did it make you feel, I asked him. My friend got upset, in essence asking me how I could even talk about the film at an abstracted level. But, the thing was, I asked him how it made him feel. But this was all too much.

12 Years a Slave in the classroom is also all too much. But with my group of students of color, after we watched it, how we felt became a route into cognition instead of feelings getting cordoned off at the door. What I mean is that, historically, the U.S. classroom privileges rationality over emotion and, as we bring students into our courses, we implicitly and sometimes explicitly ask them to learn how to “gain distance” in order to learn. But this move –one I’d taken for granted for years– means that students who feel particularly affected by a topic like the physical and epistemic violence against people of color in the U.S. must do much more work to manage their emotions while other students skate easily into “rationality.” Or as Dian Million puts it, speaking of indigenous feminist scholarship, “academia repetitively produces gatekeepers to our entry into important social discourses because we feel our histories as well as think them” (her emphasis). Million makes the vital case that, to decolonize our knowledge production, we cannot divorce understanding from feeling.

To think about these emotional reactions as part of our learning meant that we recognized that there is, as Lauren Berlant puts it, a “pedagogy of emotions” that has been unequally engaged and reproduced depending on our social identities. She says, “by the time you’ve been in primary school for awhile, or whatever, you have feelings about citizenship, you have feelings about race, you have feelings about gender and sexuality. You’ve been trained to take on those objects as world-sustaining perspectives.” In working through 12 Years a Slave, thinking and feeling about Northup and his absolute powerlessness opened the door for us to consider the empirical and emotional weight of current judicial and law enforcement systems. It allowed us to make historical connections without collapsing the differences in structure, raced lives, and workings of power in these eras.  And while eight out of nine bodies in that classroom were not white, we were not all the same “not white.” This made for various moments of cross-racial recognition but also times of productive dissonance, where someone or another’s voice would emerge to remind us of multiple silences. We held each other accountable to all of our frames of knowing and feeling.

Watching 12 Years a Slave, we claimed our entry into knowledge and history, through feeling. But it also mattered that, in these moments of strong feeling, we could all feel deeply without the worries that have accompanied me in other moments of racially-charged emotional revelation: will I be seen as irrational? can you handle seeing all of me?

Note: Some of the ideas in this post are being developed into a longer essay for the forthcoming collection Difficult Subjects: Radical Teaching in the Neoliberal University, edited by Badia Ahad and OiYan Poon.

Sources/Inspirations:

My students, who are also my teachers.

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

Berlant, Lauren. (2013)  https://societyandspace.com/material/interviews/interview-with-lauren-berlant/. March 22.

Million, Dian. (2009) “Felt Theory: An Indigenous Feminist Approach to Affect and History.” Wicazo Sa Review 24.2: 53-76.

Yancy, George and Maria del Guadalupe Davidson, ed. (2014) Exploring Race in Predominantly White Classrooms: Scholars of Color Reflect. New York: Routledge.

And always and forever, Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa, who opened doors for me into what it means to feel my way into knowing.

Recess – sumer is icumen in, yo!

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It’s summer! Grades are in, graduation is this Saturday, and well, we have other writing and reading on our plates! And some fun and relaxing, too! Consequently we’ll be on a biweekly (every two weeks) schedule for our posts; in the recesses between them, we plan to link to Things We’re Reading that we hope you’ll read too. We especially hope to provide a signal boost for the writings of women of color.

Without further ado, please meet Jenny Zhang, a poet whose essay “They Pretend to Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist” tackles what it’s like to be a woman of color in the literary world. She confronts moments like when Michael Derrick Hudson masqueraded as a Chinese American poet under the pseudonym Yi-Fen Chou in order to publish a poem.

She and the other white writers who marveled over my luck wanted to try on my Otherness to advance their value in the literary marketplace, but I don’t think they wanted to grow up as an immigrant in the United States. I don’t think they wanted to experience racism and misogyny on a micro and macro level, be made to feel perpetually foreign no matter how long they’ve lived here, and be denied any opportunity to ever write something without the millstone of but is this authentic/representative/good for black/Asian/Latino/native people? hanging from their necks.

Zhang documents the ways in which the voices of poets of color have been underdocumented, underheard, and, as in the Hudson case, appropriated and monetized. “When they wonder why I am still here I can’t help but suspect it’s very different from when I wonder why I am still here. I can’t help but suspect they are enraged there even has to be anyone like me here at all.”

Our pride is our survival and the white wounded ego does not get to ooze over our excellence anymore. We will not be colonized by white injuries scabbing over our words. The reparations white people claw for the minute they feel excluded from this world is not our problem.

Complementing Zhang’s essay beautifully and painfully, Jennifer Tamayo’s piece “When You Handle Poison” relates the cost of living within the white supremacy of  U.S. poetry communities, detailing the taxing emotional and economic tolls.

The handling of this poison — the labour to spot and deconstruct instances of capitalist white supremacist cis-hetero-patriarchy at work — is particularly venomous because it performs both personally and systemically.

Tamayo traces this work–how her “unpaid and unseen” labor fits within larger raced and gendered cultural and economic systems–through her body. She emphasizes, “Essays of this kind are written with the body. If I track the progress of writing, my body becomes the compass.” In this way, she charts the everyday resistances she engages in through the ways they harm and eat away at her.

What I find difficult about these e-mails is the performance it asks of me — at times civil, or charming, or pleased, or excited, or careful — I am never myself. I am your social justice doll come to life. I distrust the invisibility of this kind of private conversation and what it demands of me.

Both of these  poets end with refusals to make nice, demanding that their experiences and their knowledges be recognized and heard…. so please do read these pieces and feel free to start a conversation in the comments.

Coddled or Resilient

We have little desire to reproduce in our classrooms the kind of educational spaces we mostly encountered as students.

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A few notes: First, we apologize for not realizing that the comments on our last post were disabled until halfway through the week; they’re fixed now! Second, our brief hiatus last week is due to the way Adriana’s NYC conference got in the way of our writing. Finally, feel free to contact us at dosprofx@gmail.com.

Echoing national conversations (see sources below), there has been a lot of discussion on our campus lately about whether today’s students are too coddled and/or sensitive. At Carleton, one focal point for these discussions has been in relation to the benefits and limitations of creating an institutional structure to respond to bias incidents. This year, a committee composed of students, faculty, and staff drafted a proposal for the creation of a college committee to respond to reports of bias incidents. Here, we want to think through one of the assumptions that seems to undergird some of the discussion around this potential institutional change: the notion that asking for support, by way of filing a report or writing to the administration, is yet another indication of our students being coddled, proof that, unlike us, our students are not resilient, not independent, and generally too reliant on adult figures to take care of their problems. In other words, one concern we have heard in the face of this proposal and want to address in this post is, why can’t students just learn to have difficult conversations about identity, power, and privilege? Why can’t they challenge each other when biased or offensive remarks are made? Why can’t they have thicker skin and learn not to be so offended by the inadvertent wrong word or the incorrect pronoun used out of ignorance rather than ill intent?

We absolutely believe that one of the critical skills that students can and should learn in college is how to talk about difficult issues of identity, power, and privilege across racial, gender, sexual, and class lines. We try to show our commitment to this belief through opening up space in all of our classrooms to talk about these issues and by providing students with listening and speaking strategies that allow them to do so more productively. We also do so through our involvement in the Critical Conversations program.  

At the same time, we see a few limitations of the insistence that students just need to learn how to take responsibility for confronting their classmates’ comments or behaviors without having recourse to institutional supports for when they cannot or don’t want to have those conversations. First, there’s the assumption that our students are needier, less resilient, less independent than we faculty were as students. To paraphrase Kiese Laymon’s longer, lovely post below, just ‘cause we didn’t ask for it doesn’t necessarily mean that we didn’t need it.

“The assumption that those of us who were educated in eras without the aid of robust psychological services, office hours and anti-oppressive institutional support are somewhat healthier because we were less entitled is tragic. I’m not convinced that our students need any more support than we needed. Many of our interior lives are proof that we needed a lot more help than we asked for. Our students ask for, and often expect and demand, support, care, compassion, justice partially because we – their teachers, administrators — didn’t get the support, care, justice and compassion we needed. Some of us failed to seek help and called that failure success. In a way that we should actually cherish, many of our students have been telling us, ‘We appreciate you and we love you, but we do not want to become you.’ (Kiese Laymon, public Facebook post, August 26, 2015)

Laymon and we are thinking in particular about the student experiences of faculty of color. For Anita, to the extent that she feels like a happy, healthy person in a racist and sexist world, it’s largely despite the formal educational spaces she was in, not because of them. For the most part, classrooms and our own mostly White faculty taught us how to navigate successfully these racist, sexist, homophobic spaces by giving us the skills, knowledge, and the cultural capital to assimilate into the predominantly White spaces of higher education. They did not teach us how to successfully challenge or change these spaces. We have little desire to reproduce in our classrooms the kind of educational spaces we mostly encountered as students. We want to learn from our students how to create different spaces and this means staying open to their critiques, even if we don’t always decide to change our classrooms based on those critiques.

Second, the idea that students should just learn how to take care of these conversations themselves is a very neoliberal one about individual responsibility and freedom. Among the many assumptions and assertions of neoliberal ideology is the notion that “personal accountability replaces government responsibility for collective welfare” (Pauline Lipman). Responding to the reach of neoliberal ideology in contemporary societal organization, norms, and practices, Henry Giroux makes the case that neoliberalism now functions as a public pedagogy that teaches us that we have “little to hope for–and gain from–the government, nonprofit public spaces, democratic associations, public and higher education, and other nongovernmental social forces.” So, understood within neoliberal ideologies, it does look like our students are coddled and sensitive. But one way we understand students’ demands for the administration to take responsibility for what happens on campus is that they are pushing for the “state” [the college] to take more responsibility for their individual and collective well-being, rather than leaving it up to individual students. As we noted in our post about the defaced posters, we do want to develop ways to come together as a community to address bias incidents and to empower all individuals of a community to feel the need to raise these issues; however, we also want to challenge notions of individual responsibility that dovetail too neatly with neoliberal notions that pervade our institutions and ways of thinking and that absolve the State and institutions from their responsibility to care for their publics.

Third, our expectation that students must and can become more resilient and independent in being able to engage in these conversations seems to rest on the assumption that we faculty know what we are doing. But based on our own experiences trying to navigate such conversations with fellow faculty and staff, we have to disagree with the idea that we know how to have these difficult conversations, or know how to teach an increasingly diverse student body. And why would we? Most of us went to HWCUs and were taught by mostly White faculty alongside mostly White students. And really, the U.S. at large finds it challenging to talk about race, whiteness, structure, and power and how we live them materially as discussed in this recent Codeswitch podcast episode.

In our experiences, we faculty also avoid difficult conversations that might lead to a breakdown of communication or challenge collegial relationships. For example, when faculty members were concerned about our blog post about allyship, most of them did not write to us or have a conversation with us. Instead, they wrote to the faculty president–who we’d argue is an institutional resource for faculty–to express their concerns. And this makes sense to us because these conversations are hard. So why should students not have an institutional resource to turn to when they feel concerned about a fellow student’s speech? If we as adults shy away from difficult and potentially divisive conversations, it seems unfair to tell our students that they should learn how to do so when we don’t do so ourselves. These conversations are difficult because it’s difficult for all of us–faculty, staff, and students–to go beyond “the reflex of taking it ‘personally’ when one’s position of structural privilege (and the habits of response that go with it) are called out by others” (thanks, AJ Scheiber).

While the line between personal responsibility and institutional accountability is undeniably a blurry one, we’d like to propose that our students’ requests for help should be understood not as a sign of being coddled or lacking resilience, but instead as a sign that they, and we faculty, live in a society where conversations about bias, privilege, and power are hard ones to have. Rather than dismissing their concerns, we should entertain the possibility that they might be asking for the right kinds of support and resources from institutions by challenging neoliberal notions of individual responsibility, and that they’re right in saying that our institutions have a role to play in providing these supports and resources.

Inspirations/sources

Chatterjee, Piya & Maira, Sunaina, Editors. (2014) The Imperial University : Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P.

Giroux, Henry. (2004) The Terror of Neoliberalism: The New Authoritarianism and the Eclipse of Democracy. Boulder: Paradigm.

Lafargue, Ferentz. (2016) “‘Coddled’ Students and their ‘safe spaces’ aren’t the problem.” Washington Post March 28: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/03/28/coddled-students-and-their-safe-spaces-arent-the-problem-college-official-says-bigots-are/

Lipman, Pauline. (2011) The new political economy of urban education. NY: Routledge.

Lukianoff, Greg and Jonathan Haidt. (2015) “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Atlantic Monthly September: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/

Roth, Michael. (2015) “Sick of hearing about pampered students with coddled minds? This university president is.” Washington Post Nov 20: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/11/20/sick-of-hearing-about-pampered-students-with-coddled-minds-this-university-president-is/

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.