How now down brown Take 3: Social justice on campus

In today’s post, we take on a question sent to us by a Carleton alum: “How do you navigate higher education institutions and be committed to social justice when these spaces are often antithetical to social justice?”

Our first reaction to this question was “Higher education institutions in the U.S. are often spaces that are antithetical to social justice because U.S. society is often a space that’s antithetical to social justice!” A long line of critical social theorists, including Samuel Bowles & Herbert Gintis and Pierre Bourdieu & Jean Claude Passeron have argued that educational institutions reflect and reinforce societal inequities, especially along socioeconomic lines. Carleton College and other higher educational institutions are no exception.

There is, however, an additional factor that might make higher education institutions seem particularly antithetical to social justice and we think it might be due to what Angela P. Harris and Carmen G. González describe as “the contradictory culture of academia.” As they write in the introduction to one of our favorite books about higher education, Presumed Incompetent, “On the one hand, the university champions meritocracy, encourages free expression and the search for truth, and prizes the creation of neutral and objective knowledge for the better of society–values that are supposed to make race and gender identities irrelevant. On the other hand, women of color too frequently find themselves ‘presumed incompetent’ as scholars, teachers, and participants in academic governance” (p.1). Another contradiction might be the lofty rhetoric of diversity and inclusion that is commonplace these days in colleges & universities that sit alongside ongoing inequities and differences between the experiences of marginalized students, faculty and staff and those of race, class and gender privileged students, faculty, and staff. We’ve written in an earlier post, for example, about how our identities as women of color are valued and appreciated as bringing diversity of representation to the college but the diversity of ideas and experiences we bring and champion often is not welcome.

Now we get to the hard part of your question: how do we stay committed to social justice and remain part of these institutions?

First, while our commitment to working towards more socially just schools and societies remain steadfast, we know that we do not always live out these commitments. Often, we fail to speak up and act in ways that align with our principles for many reasons, including fear, fatigue, and ignorance. These moments of failure lead us to develop a sense of patience and generosity–we understand that people and institutions fail in living out their commitments to social justice, as we do.

Second, the key difference between being a student at a small, residential college and being an employee at such a place is that while work is a part, an important part, of our lives, we do have lives outside of the campus! We do not have to eat, live with and hang out with our colleagues in the way that students have to eat, live with, and hang out with fellow students. We get to create communities outside of work that sustain us in the ways that we need. We get to take advantage of being in or close to the Twin Cities with their diverse racial and immigrant communities. We get to be part of a community of women of color academics, for example, in the Twin Cities who provide support and critical perspective on our work lives.

Third, working at an academic institution differs from the student experience in another way: temporality. We are here for the long haul (whether at one particular institution or in the larger apparatus of academia). That perspective means that we can see and feel the change that does happen, and we can participate in small or significant ways in its propulsion. For example, academic freedom means that we can generally teach what and how we want. Both of us see our classes as spaces of interruption that ask students to examine the way systems, institutions, and even nations do their work; we ask them to be willing to see not just the aspirations, but the costs involved. Teaching often offers moments of joy as students start to see structure and can then imagine better possible futures. For Anita, getting tenure has meant that she can pursue more participatory and collaborative research like her recent project working with five Carleton students on student experiences in STEM departments. Honestly, students–their willingness to learn; their excitement to teach us; their energy and curiosity; their diverse range of experiences–are a big part of what helps us stay in higher education.  

Finally, our persistence in the institution leads us to invest in changing it in ways that are often  invisible to students. We sit on committees, participate in tenure reviews, read and review manuscripts by colleagues, help lead national conferences, get involved in reading groups, try out new ways of learning and teaching, and develop programs that matter to us (like Critical Conversations at Carleton). In other words, we contribute to the workings of the institution. Sometimes that’s frustrating, when the wheels are turning in ways that we cannot stop or shift, but mostly it’s empowering, because we have chances to question the status quo and contribute to change.

When it comes down to it, we are both educators at heart. What we mean by that is that we believe in change. If we didn’t believe that individuals could grow or that committees could rethink their methods or that institutions could reassess their systems, then we would not be here. (Hmm, what else do you all think we would be doing if we weren’t teachers?) Our honest and deep belief in change keeps us going even when we get frustrated by these spaces that often seems antithetical to our commitments to social justice. In other words, what keeps us going is being together in the struggle …and having matching winter hats! 😉

Those Awkward Questions

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As teachers, there are times when we find ourselves frustrated at the lack of flow in the discussion in a class–we realize that there are many reasons for why discussions can be difficult (e.g. students have difficulty understanding the materials; they might not have done all the readings; they’re feeling overwhelmed by all they have to get done; they’re sick, etc.) but we also suspect that sometimes conversations falter because students are worried about saying the wrong thing, and this kind of worry usually centers on discussions about social identities, power, and privilege. While we try to assure students that the classroom is a space for learning, and that learning means making mistakes sometimes, we understand why students can be reluctant to take risks. Later, we hear in emails or end-of-term evaluations all of the questions that they hesitated to bring up with their peers.

But of course, it’s not just our students who might feel inhibited to ask questions about what they don’t understand or about what they might perceive as “politically incorrect.” Faculty and staff–including us, sometimes–also hesitate and fumble with questions that intersect issues of race, because these kinds of worries are commonplace in a society where we often conflate saying things like “race” and “Black” and “Latinx” with being racist. As Beverly Tatum notes in her book on racial identity development, White adults “struggle with embarrassment about the topic [of race], the social awkwardness that can result if the ‘wrong’ words are used, the discomfort that comes from breaking a social taboo, the painful possibility of being perceived as a racist” (xvi).

Pop culture satirizes these socially awkward moments in uncomfortably hilarious scenes like when on 30 Rock Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) tells Elisa (played by Salma Hayek) that his mother doesn’t like any of the women he dates; it’s not that she’s… what does she call herself? She answers him: “Puerto Rican.” He replies, “I know you can call yourself that, but what should I call you?” Similarly, on The Office episode “Diversity Day,” notoriously clumsy and insensitive Michael Scott tries to get to know Oscar:


Michael: Um, let me ask you, is there a term besides Mexican that you prefer?Something less offensive?

Oscar: Mexican isn’t offensive.

Michael: Well, it has certain connotations.

Oscar: Like what?

Michael: Like… I don’t… I don’t know.

Oscar: What connotations, Michael? You meant something.

Michael: No. Now, remember that honesty…

Oscar: I’m just curious.

We believe in allowing space for awkward (anonymous, if necessary!) questions and thoughtful, generous, but also blunt answers. We’ve seen this done in a few spaces. You might have already come across the web show Ask a Slave. This series started on youtube and features the actress Azie Dungey portraying the actual questions she received when she worked at the popular historic site, George Washington’s Mount Vernon. In the less satirical vein, one of our favorite podcasts, Code Switch, recently had an episode where they answered “listeners’ most burning questions.” The Code Switch team is now planning to have an advice column (and you can submit questions right here!), suggesting that they’ve discovered–and we’re not surprised–that there’s a lot of desire for guidance when it comes to diverse, complex intercultural and interracial spaces and relationships. And we can’t forget Gustavo Arellano’s Ask a Mexican column in the OC Weekly, which fields questions from non Mexicans, but also from Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Chicanx, ‘cause sometimes we have questions we’re afraid to ask our own communities too.

Long story short, we both love advice columns and we know that y’all have got to be simmering with lots of awkward (and thus edifying) questions about race, particularly as they relate to learning, teaching, living, and working on college campuses. So if you’ve got a question that you’ve been hesitant to speak, you can ask us here –anonymously!–and we’ll plan on doing a post next term where we attempt to answer some of your questions.

P.S. For more edification, you should check out Beverly Tatum’s book “Why are the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” and other conversations about race.