Language matters

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When Anita was a college student, she went to dinner at a white friend’s house. During dinner, the conversation turned to talking about the proper terms to refer to groups. Her friend’s dad insisted that it was okay to call Asians/Asian Americans “Orientals” because it was okay to say that when he was growing up. Anita and her friend tried to convince the dad that while it may have been “okay” at some point, the term was now offensive and that he shouldn’t use it. The dad wasn’t convinced then…but Anita hopes that perhaps he has come to rethink his stance since then. 

We wanted to explore in this post the same kind of reluctance and resistance that we see popping up in various ways around labels and terms that sees new or newly-popular language as a sort of performative wokeness that accomplishes nothing. In recent months, “white privilege” has come under attack and “Latinx” has been a controversial term since it began being circulated.* There’s a sort of knee-jerk skepticism about new language in cultural criticism–the “well, it’s just political correctness” discourse–that often seems to market or mask itself as a “holier than thou” or “smarter than thou” take. This push back seems particularly pointed when this new or newly-invigorated language comes from attempts by young people to change how we talk about identities and groups. We explored this topic before on this blog when we discussed gender identities and pronouns in our two-part conversation with our colleague, Tegra–you can check out those posts here and here

Challenges to vocabulary, dress, music, and ideas perceived as arising from youth cultures, especially when seen as originating from youth from marginalized groups, are, of course, not new. 

Social media exacerbates all of this, we think. We’d love to hear from sociolinguists or social media scholars to confirm our hypothesis: that we see and hear more resistance to new cultural studies language because platforms like Tumblr, Twitter, and TikTok have made it possible for young people to communicate quickly and effectively with each other about their needs, desires, and beliefs–and some of those needs are about being seen and heard the way they want to be seen and heard. In other words, if new language in academic circles is about emphasizing and experimenting with a new frame of knowing (which may or may not prove effective), new language that comes from the ground up (generally teens) emphasizes their right to be recognized in particular ways,  Part of what we see as the resistance is that in the age especially of social media shifts in language seem to happen more rapidly and diverse, often radically opposed opinions more easily occupy the same “virtual” public space.

We are sympathetic to the feeling of being overwhelmed by the ever evolving language and shifting consensus–it can be difficult to “keep up” and especially for us as teachers. We often feel pulled in so many directions as we attempt to create inclusive classrooms while pushing for institutional changes around racism and White Supremacy. We are also sympathetic to  critiques that these kinds of debates perhaps distract us from the kind of structural shifts that need to occur. However, at least in our experience, academics who are critiquing these kinds of language correctness are rarely doing the work of pushing institutions to move towards reparations and redistribution of wealth and resources. Instead, their complaints seem to evince a resentment of having to do the work of learning and admitting that we perhaps don’t know it at all. 

* Adriana recommends reading Richard T. Rodríguez’s excellent “X Marks the Spot” in Cultural Dynamics 29.3 (2017) for incisive insight into how Latinx has been used and what it can exclude. The essay finishes: “Some may feel that embracing Latinx is simply a trend. I, however, want to champion the X as drawing attention to and not overshadowing nonbinary and gender neutral and nonconforming individuals. But to do that, we cannot simply use Latinx without acknowledgment of its discrepant gender politics, nor can we map it on to people’s lives, histories, and bodies uncritically. For if the X is to simply become something to which anyone can easily lay claim, we will need to aggressively pose the question: Why adopt it at all if the ultimate goal is to cross out any traces of queer assertion and affirmation?”

Imagine Ourselves Out of Existence

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Note: We will be working on a series of posts centered around “changing our imaginations” about education, colleges, and all the things that the two of us love to think and write about, as inspired by Kandace Montgomery, a Minneapolis-based organizer for Black Visions Collective who, talking in particular about abolishing the police, said, “They’ve ruined our imagination and told us that policing is the issue [solution]. We need to change our imagination. We have to change what’s possible.”

We wanted to build on our last post which focused mainly on the radical possibilities of curricular change that responds to the current moment. This post comes out of the many conversations we’ve had with several friends (thank you Meredith, Thabiti, Wendy, Pao, Todd)  and out of what we’ve been learning from the many BIPOC intellectuals and activists we follow on social media. We’re grateful to all of them for encouraging and allowing us to dream big about what’s possible if we are willing to change our imaginations.

In this post, we want to talk about how one part of changing our imaginations is shifting our listening practices and being open to fundamentally shifting our routines as institutions, even routine practices that we see as “good” and perhaps even contributing to lessening inequities on our campuses. Because reimagining and rebuilding requires being able to see that the normal that we had before the pandemic and the racial justice uprisings did not actually work for everyone. It just worked for enough of us that we were able to believe and trust that it worked for all. What we need to do now instead is to listen differently to the voices of those for whom the old normal did not work, rather than thinking that we just need more of the same normal. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor puts it, the pandemic “is a radicalizing factor because conditions that have been so dire, now combined with the revolts in the street, might lead one to believe that not only is society unraveling, but it might cause you to question what foundation it was built upon in the first place.” 

What we mean by “more of the same normal” is, for example, when students complain about feeling marginalized because of their class status on Carleton’s campus, we tend to imagine that we can fix it simply by giving students more financial aid, instead of thinking about the fundamental claim they’re making about Carleton’s status as an elite school in relation to the economic inequities in U.S. society. The problem with this easy fix is that those in power can then sit back and imagine that their job is done, while continuing to maintain the structures that keep those students feeling marginalized. What would it mean instead if, as we listen to their needs and worries, we introduce them to classes that tackle racial capitalism and the histories of working class movements? What if we invite them to see how their experience at Carleton is not unique and is, in fact, echoed at elite colleges across the nation? (See, for example, the myriad Instagram accounts started by Black students in predominantly white colleges and high schools.) By listening differently to our students who feel marginalized, we might also be able to see them as they are and their experiences as they are, rather than as who we imagine them to be and who the college wants to mold them into.  

Fixing it through financial aid is how we imagine our mission currently–to be an engine of opportunity for individual students. But what might the college look like instead if we imagined ourselves as an engine for societal transformation? 

What if all of us and all of our institutions took seriously that no individual action or effort “can mitigate 400 years of racial plundering” in this country, as Nikole Hannah-Jones says in her recent article about reparations? What if Carleton and other institutions took seriously that their wealth and their ability to provide financial aid is inextricably linked to these 400 years of racial plundering? 

Ultimately, we don’t have all the answers, and, in one blog post, could never gather all possible answers out there together. Our goal is to simply underline how vital it is to listen to the voices, experiences, communities of our students who are marginalized without assuming that we already know what to do to respond to them. How might their dreams for a different future help us reimagine our future, even if that future is one where places like Carleton don’t exist?

Perhaps it is our job at this moment to imagine ourselves out of existence.

P.S. We loved this article by poet Dionne Brand about this notion of the “normal” so do check it out if you haven’t come across it yet.

Crisis pedagogy

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Note: We will be working on a series of posts centered around “changing our imaginations” about education, colleges, and all the things that the two of us love to think and write about, as inspired by Kandace Montgomery, a Minneapolis-based organizer for Black Visions Collective.

“Did we connect curriculum to this moment? Or did we continue to show that the curriculum is totally irrelevant to our lives? Did we acknowledge trauma in this moment? The curriculum must be connected to the moment, must be relevant, must be impactful.” 

Kevin Kumashiro posed these questions in his brilliant recent seminar on how higher education must step up in a moment of crisis if colleges and universities are interested at all in being institutions that are about social justice. He started the webinar by saying, “What we do in the midst of a crisis should actually take us closer to the vision we have for higher education, not farther.”

While we started this series of posts inspired by the words of Black organizers, activists, and intellectuals calling for all of us to imagine a different future and society in the face of the racial justice uprisings, the COVID-19 pandemic had already set into motion discussions about how to re-imagine education in a moment of crisis. 

While neither of us had the experience of teaching online this year because of leaves, we did hear from many of our friends and colleagues about their experiences, and we engaged (sporadically) with conversations at Carleton this spring about what should happen next fall: Should students return to campus? Should faculty continue to offer online courses? What shifts needed to happen to our curriculum and pedagogy because of the pandemic? 

In line with Kevin’s questions about connecting curriculum to the moment, Anita had posted the following comment in May on a Carleton online forum about teaching in the fall in response to a comment about the potential for team-teaching: “This is perhaps a much more ‘out there’ suggestion but (sort of) building on this notion of team teaching, I’ve been thinking about how amazing it would be if Carleton used this next year to be completely bold and innovative. Rather than having traditional courses, what if we used a liberal arts interdisciplinary lens to create teams of faculty who could collaborate to create learning experiences for students around the theme of PANDEMICS! Maybe we would do shorter terms to give us a time to plan, or maybe we’d stick to the same groups the entire year and do it all online. I can’t think of a single discipline that doesn’t have some bearing on the topic in some way. What better way to show that the liberal arts approach matters, that subject matter expertise matters, than by actually tak[ing] on a topic that matters to/in the world in a more immediate, substantial way and by responding to the world as it is?”

Before Anita posted this comment, the two of us had exchanged a series of text messages where we had fleshed out some of the possibilities. We first started by expressing some of our frustrations about the framing of these conversations that faculty were being asked to engage in as well as the neglect of expertise about infectious disease (the college has since brought in an epidemiologist to campus). We provide here an edited transcript with some notes added in italics as we’ve learned more about the effects of the pandemic and people’s response to it (edited mostly for clarity…and um, colorful language!)

Adriana: The framing is just all wrong…it’s imagining that somehow things are “normal” in 6-8 months… or that there’s ANY WAY to bring students back to be in a college community that is SAFE. Nightmare scenarios don’t make for good learning. [A recent nationwide survey found that 18-25 year olds have been the least likely to follow pandemic hygiene.]

Anita: Also, why are any of us weighing in on this to begin with? Asking me for my view on how to do social distancing or whether it’ll be safe is like asking my students to “weigh in” on whether race is biologically real. I don’t have that discussion with them. I have them read social science research about the impacts of people having that false belief.

Adriana: YES. 

Anita: That’s what I wanted to write…this discussion is basically undermining any defense of why places like Carleton or universities in general are necessary. If we can all be “experts” because we’ve read a few things, then why should families pay us $70,000 for our subject matter and pedagogical expertise? We just need YouTube and TED Talks.

Adriana: The one thing I found interesting is some folks talking about team teaching online — I love that idea. 

Anita: Yeah, I’d love to do a version of the structured gap year but a cool, liberal arts interdisciplinary one where a team of faculty collaborate to create learning experiences around the theme of pandemics. And we would do shorter terms, to give us a month to plan and then two months to work with students.

Adriana: OMG – an AMST sequence on pandemics would be amazing.

Anita: What better way to show that we matter, that liberal arts matters, than by actually mattering to the world and responding to the world AS IT IS?

A couple of days after this discussion, Anita posted her comment to Moodle…mostly to silence (cheers to a staff member who emailed their support!). When Anita mentioned this idea to a friend who teaches at a large state university, they asked what such a scenario might look like in more practical terms.

Friend: Can you sketch out a more detailed plan? How do you see interdisciplinary work working?

Anita: The whole point is that we would need to do it together!

Friend: Sometimes you need to sketch out the idea so people can conceptualize it

Anita: Fine. It’s not that difficult to imagine scenarios. Let’s think about how the pandemic has made worse inequities through the disciplines of education, sociology, biology…Let’s think about the metaphor of pandemics in literature: English, Spanish, Latin, all the languages.

Friend: I make those kinds of suggestions in my program a lot. If I taught in a liberal arts school, I’d say let’s do it!

Anita: Exactly! We’re supposedly all about doing this kind of innovative teaching but we mostly do it on the edges, in small ways.

Friend: Yes. This would reconfigure how you approach a problem. I like the interdisciplinary approach because how else can you approach big problems? You could create interdisciplinary learning groups with students and profs. What’s the number of students versus professors?

Anita: 2000 students, maybe 200 faculty. And if we include staff (librarians, tech folks), maybe another 50 instructors

Friend: What?! That would only be like 10 students per instructor. If you grouped 3-4 instructors, you are still talking about a small student/teacher ratio. You could create an overarching framework to consider what should be accomplished but then each group could design their own learning plan and outcomes. That’s so totally doable! You could have a research fair at the end to highlight outcomes.

Totally doable, but only if we have the will to imagine it. 

For example, rather than each university bringing back their students back to campus, what if universities coordinated regionally to use dorms and dining services to serve people in the more immediate communities who need housing and food? One reason that Carleton cited for their recent decision to bring back 85% of students to campus in the fall were inequities in students’ ability to access online learning. Of course, this inequity is a much larger and systemic one. What if campuses opened up their spaces for students in immediate communities, including K-12 students, to access better Wi-Fi services? And if this kind of access was coordinated regionally and nationally, our students might have access to housing, internet, and other necessary services, along with the thousands of others in their communities with the same needs. Perhaps there are lessons we can learn from businesses that have pivoted to serve community needs, such as this Black-owned distillery in Minneapolis

We’re not arguing here that these ideas are THE ideas. As Anita noted to her friend, the point is to work on such ideas together as a community. Kevin notes in his webinar that the point is not to agree or disagree with the specific ideas that he proposes, but rather to ask different questions about what this moment allows us to do, compels us to do. Rather than asking how we can tinker with our curriculum and pedagogy to get us as close to “normal” as possible, what if we asked instead, as Kevin does, “How should universities better serve community capacity building, democracy building, and movement building?” How might we answer that question in this moment of the pandemic and racial justice uprisings? How might those answers then shift fundamentally our visions of who our institutions should serve and to what purposes?

Kevin calls out faculty, and we would say perhaps his challenge is especially relevant for those of us with the security of tenure, for NOT protesting more robustly against our institutions for failing to live up to social justice standards, especially in this moment of the pandemic and the racial justice uprisings. He urges us to organize and collectivize. There are small liberal arts colleges that have started to move in this direction.

We’ll admit that the two of us are at a loss about how to do so at Carleton. Given our own histories of feeling stymied in our efforts to influence systemic institutional change, we have focused instead on what we can do in our classes, with our research, and in our communities outside of Carleton. So we don’t have a neat, inspiring ending for you about what we have done or what you should do. 

We would, though, love for all of you to share with us your ideas or ideas that you’ve encountered from others that you find particularly intriguing, ideas that move us closer to dismantling educational systems that reinforce and reproduce White Supremacy and economic inequities.

More than a Reading List: Challenging Anti-Black Racism in the Field of South Asian Religions

Note: This guest post by the Auntylectuals asks scholars in their field–South Asian religions–to reimagine what it means to be an anti-racist scholar. While their call is to a specific academic community, we think that there is much to be learned from their post as all of us reimagine our teaching and research to become more anti-racist. You can contact the group at auntylectuals@gmail.com and find them on Twitter @auntylectuals. Take it away, Auntylectuals!

In response to recent horrific acts of murder and police brutality against Black people, we have seen a new interest in racism arise in the field of South Asian religions. On listservs, pedagogy forums, and elsewhere, colleagues have made some excellent suggestions of reading lists, films, and resources on racism. But this relatively new attention to race among scholars of South Asian religions also arouses some concern and frustration. There is something important missing from the well-intentioned conversations about racism and anti-Blackness that now pervade a small corner of our field. What is absent is deep self-reflection on the ways that white supremacy and anti-Blackness have determined who participates in our discipline and our institutions, and how racism factors into the ongoing power-dynamics and orientation of our work. The elephant in the room, virtual or otherwise, is that a large portion of our field is still made up of white scholars of Christian background, as well as South Asians who can leverage the privileges of caste, gender, and race. Our field is embedded in complex histories that cannot be disentangled from racist endeavors and agendas. 

In their recent “Down With Brown” post, Anita and Adriana have suggested that confronting our complicity and the ways racism permeates our work requires “changing our imaginations.” This includes revisioning how we position our scholarship. Rather than researching and writing in silos, what this moment and what being anti-racist require of us is reimagining the boundaries of our disciplines, seeing the intersections between various fields and their relationship to forms of power. As we reimagine, we hope to unearth and undermine racism, ultimately rebuilding our discipline. 

As feminist critical race scholars of religion who are also racialized academics, we are reflecting on our relationship to the study of South Asian religions. We have been informed by and continue to learn from the work of Black feminist scholars like Kimberlé Crenshaw, Angela Davis, Roxanne Gay, and Brittney Cooper, who have been engaging with and thinking through questions of race for decades. In 2018, after more than a year of exploratory discussions, we founded the seminar in Intersectional Hindu Studies within the American Academy of Religion, which is a collaborative five-year seminar with eleven other racialized scholars of Hindu studies. We see our work as being in conversation with similar interventions in Religious Studies and other fields that are challenging white supremacy in academia and beyond. Working from a feminist framework of collective labor and collaboration, we have carved out spaces for us to study and support each other. We have worked to create places for researchers of color in our field to talk about their experiences of marginalization and privilege, and to identify ways in which we have been complicit in the racist structures of academia. 

We agree wholeheartedly that we should integrate gender and race into our classes and research, but a reading list is not enough. Developing bibliographies is not new to academia; it is the bread and butter of our fields. But reading some new books cannot be confused with making personal or structural changes. In order to avoid the additive model, where we just augment our study of religion with readings on race, we must reflect back on how our discipline emerged as part of the colonial project that gave rise to categories of religion and race simultaneously. The formation of our discipline is predicated on white supremacy, brahminical supremacy, and hetero-patriarchy. Thus, racism, anti-Blackness, sexism, casteism, Islamophobia, and orientalism inherently inform the scholarship on and pedagogy of South Asian religions. 

As South Asian savarna (with caste) women, this reflection requires us to examine our own positionalities. We are aware that being perceived as “model minorities” shields us from the brutal violence that is so painfully common for Black people, granting us conditional privilege in the hallowed halls of academia. We also recognize that this model minority status is rooted in anti-Black racism. We need to look no further than United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923) to see how South Asians have leveraged race and caste in paving the road to conditional acceptance and citizenship in the US. Thind’s lawyers argued that “the High-class Hindu regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner as the American regards the negro, speaking from a matrimonial standpoint” explaining further that “[it] would be just as disgraceful for a high-class Hindu to marry a member of one of the lower caste as it would be for an American gentlemen to marry a member of the negro race.” Claiming that he was a member of the Aryan race, Thind invoked racial and religious purity narratives that undergird white (and brahmanical) supremacy by invoking white and upper-caste anxiety around miscegenation. Savarna South Asians in North America continue to participate in racist and casteist systems required to maintain our precarious privilege. 

As scholars of South Asian religions, we know that a tremendous amount of training is required to translate a Sanskrit or Tamil text, interpret a ritual practice, or conduct ethnographic research in India or Trinidad. That same kind of specialization is required to bring critical race theory, gender, and sexuality studies into our classrooms and our research. It is not uncommon for people to presume that simply because they are personally and politically committed to addressing issues of racial injustice, or other forms of marginalization, that they are prepared enough to raise these issues in classrooms. 

In no way do we wish to discourage people from working on these issues, but we ask that our colleagues proceed with care and caution. Critical Race Feminist Theory asks that we don’t just announce our positionality and situate ourselves with respect to our work and teaching; it demands that we engage in acts of critical self-reflection and scrutiny. It necessitates that we continually interrogate our positionality with respect to race, religion, caste, class, gender and sexuality as we take action. We are all complicit in forms of white supremacy, and recognizing that is difficult and uncomfortable.

Ibram X. Kendi invites us to think about antiracism as an active, intentional and ongoing action: “The heartbeat of racism is denial, is consistently saying, ‘I am not racist,’ while the heartbeat of antiracism is confession, self-reflection, and seeking to grow change.” 

The road to becoming anti-racist scholars requires an examination of whiteness and white supremacy in a transnational frame. Simply adding comparisons between caste in India and anti-blackness in the US may create the semblance of awareness, yet it does not do the work of anti-racism. It is imperative to do the labour of reflecting on how access to privilege has served, even unintentionally, to capitalize on and reinforce anti-Black racism in our classrooms, research, and institutions. One of the many ways that anti-Black racism is apparent is the near absence of Black scholars and students in our field, which is otherwise dominated by white and savarna South Asian scholars. 

The anti-racist work we are asking you to do may begin with a reading list or bibliography, but it may not be the one that was generated by people who are already in power. How can a discipline that still follows colonial parameters of knowledge production suddenly become aware enough to reorient the field and become anti-racist? In the oft quoted words of Audre Lorde, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

We ask our colleagues who are committed to challenging racism to resist simply adding race to a section of your course or designing a course on race and caste in South Asian religions, but to begin with serious study and self-reflection about the content of our courses, the nature of our research, and the state of our discipline and institutions. These first steps are critical since they reveal how white supremacy and anti-Black racism operate in every component of our society. It is a collective responsibility to do this labor and to unlearn the violence of white supremacy. We ask you to join us in this work.

Intersectional Feminist Hindu Studies Collective aka “The Auntylectuals

Shreena Gandhi, Sailaja Krishnamurti, Harshita Mruthinti Kamath, Tanisha Ramachandran, and Shana Sippy

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Shout Out to the Black Latinas Know Collective

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On April 30, the Black Latinas Know Collective emerged publically into the world through a tweet:

Proclaiming that Latinx Studies is nothing without Black Latina experiences, their website offers an inspiring and challenging manifesto, a collective of impressive scholars in a range of fields, and a blog. When they burst into the world on twitter, they invited people to retweet their favorite lines from the manifesto, and wow, did people respond!

We’re both delighted to be able to signal boost the BLKC and the amazing work they’re doing.

And a couple more places to learn more about AfroLatinidad: