Resiliency and allyship

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Image source

 

At Carleton’s MLK event this year, one of the student speakers asked the audience if they were engaging in self-care, making sure that they were getting enough sleep and eating well, etc.

That speech got us talking about how that this notion of self-care can be extended to thinking about how we build the resiliency and emotional strength to react in productive ways when we are being “called out” for something we said or did, particularly around issues of identities.

We wanted to share first a couple of examples of how we have reacted in the past–sometimes well, sometimes not–when we were challenged about something we said or did.

Recently, Anita was talking with a friend who is biracial about the Whitewashing phenomenon in Hollywood (and hey, check out our post on this topic if you haven’t already!) and, at the end, she jokingly said, “Yeah, you’ve got to get your people to get their act together.” Her friend said, “What do you mean ‘my people’?”

Anita: “Well, I mean, you have a White parent, you grew up with mostly White family members.”

Friend: “But they’re not ‘my’ people. I don’t get seen as White.”

At this point, Anita should have just stopped talking. Instead, she tried to defend her statement: “I know but they’re your people in a way they’re not mine because you grew up with them.”

Friend: “But so what? That doesn’t make them my people because you and I are more ‘people’ together because we’re both not seen as White.”

And so on. Eventually, Anita admitted that perhaps she was wrong and the friend graciously moved on, and even joked about White folks being “their people” a few days later.

One lesson that we took from this: Anita’s need to defend her not-so-well-thought-out joke become more important in this moment than respecting her friend’s right to name their own experience, community, and identity. Her comment reinforced essentialized notions of racial identity, which can serve to reify and naturalize racial categories. As two of our favorite theorists Omi & Winant note, “‘Essentializing’ race is always possible–treating it as a fundamental, transhistorical marker of difference can reduce race to a sort of uniform people are made to wear, thus reproducing–however consciously or unconsciously–the stereotyping that characterizes racism itself” (p. 261).

Adriana’s experience occurred at a retreat a few years ago where everyone was talking about their racial, cultural, and gendered identities. It’s probably important to know that there were several black women, a few Latinas, a few Asian American women, and several white people. Adriana found herself–naturally, in her eyes–bonding with the other Latinas and feeling close with the other women of color. She wanted to, and did, affirm their experiences openly.

On the third day of the retreat, after the group had gone through a few highly-emotional scenarios, including a discussion of colorism and prejudice, one of the women of color confronted Adriana during a full group discussion, demanding to know why she could identify as a woman of color while presenting as someone so white. She was angry, and in pain. Adriana didn’t know how to handle it at first; her instincts were to shut down, or to leave, or to be angry in return. Whose instincts would be any different? But instead, using a couple of the skills learned in the workshop, she stayed and listened. And then she asked the woman to ask her a question, which she would answer. And then she did.

It’s not that important to know exactly what the woman asked. But it matters that, even though it had been a while since Adriana had been confronted about her whiteness directly, she had a long history and practice of thinking about what her whiteness meant for how she was perceived and how she could and would build trust within communities of color; she knew she couldn’t expect any individual or group to accept her just because she said she belonged. And she was willing to be vulnerable and share with the room her story of who she had learned she was so that they might be willing to trust her.

That moment was hard, but Adriana’s willingness to take a deep breath and listen through the understandable anger opened up the possibility of building connection by being honest and acknowledging her white-passing privilege. This move then made space for the woman to hear Adriana’s truth.

While it seems difficult in the moment to step away from one’s own feelings and logic, it is possible to do so as Adriana’s example beautifully illustrates. And we’d argue that it is not only possible but also necessary to do because we need to be aware of how we might be contributing to discourses and practices that perpetuate inequality or oppression.

We’re not saying it’s easy nor are we saying that it’s not necessary to process one’s own emotions in such situations. Clearly, it’s difficult to let go of wanting to defend oneself, the impulse to say “hey, no, this is what I really meant to say,” because, well, we’re human. We are suggesting, however, that perhaps that emotional processing should not happen with the person who has been brave enough to say something to you or ask a question about how your actions, words or ways of navigating the world are complicit in reproducing discourses, practices, structures or systems that are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist or classist.

Thinking about how to build and practice resiliency in these situations led us to a few overarching suggestions. First, we think it’s important to recognize your privileges, so that you are better able to listen to and validate people’s experiences when they don’t have those same privileges.  Second, we both endorse the deep breath method. When you’re challenged by someone else’s emotional truth that counters your own, you’ve just received a kind of shock that might shatter your perceptions about yourself and what you take for granted. So take a deep breath, and let your whole system adjust to this new reality. Finally, like any other skill–and we both see resiliency as a skill–it gets easier with practice.

Resources

Sally Huang-Nissen, 1999, Dialogue groups: A practical guide to facilitate diversity conversation (Los Altos, CA: Corner Elm Publications). Chapter 2.

Michael Omi & Howard Winant, 2015, Racial formation in the United States, 3rd ed. (New York: Routledge).

Katherine Roubos, 2016, “Cultivating Resilience: Antidotes to White Fragility in Racial Justice Education.”

Saroful, 2017, “How to survive in intersectional feminist spaces 101,” Crossknit.

Jamie Utt, 2016, “Learn about common ally mistakes,Everyday Feminism.

The Another Round podsquad gathered ideas from their listeners about how to be better allies and, of course, listening is listed as one key move. While they were focused on racial allyship, we think their ideas apply more broadly.

 

The Day After

El Silencio Mata. Silence kills. Oaxaca mural.

(Image credit)

(Anita)

I went to bed early Tuesday night, not knowing the results of the presidential election. The first thing I saw Wednesday morning was a text from my brother: “Are you okay?” I knew then that Donald Trump had won. I logged onto Facebook: friends expressing surprise, sorrow, concern, anger, solidarity, love, and resolve. I appreciated white, straight friends promising to stand up for and with friends who are immigrants, queer, trans, POC–thank you and I’ll hold you to those promises. I appreciated the helpful reminders that the struggles against patriarchy, settler colonialism, racism, and xenophobia have been going for a long time; they have continued during the Obama presidency, would have continued during a Clinton presidency, and will continue during the Trump presidency.

(Adriana)

I had planned to go to an Election eve party on Tuesday, but a descending migraine kept me at home. In retrospect, that headache was an augur and a gift. At home, I sipped whiskey, ate Halloween candy, listened to the NPR stream, and read the 538 and NYT coverage. Slowly but surely I felt the world slip out from under me. At 10 p.m., heavy with a throbbing head and a growing sense of dread, I went to sleep, after texting with my son. “…” he first wrote. I knew exactly what that meant.

I woke up throughout the night. I would roll over, check my phone, fight to contain my fear and my sadness, then try to sleep again. Waking up to the day felt wrong. Mourning is like this. You look towards this possible future, the one you thought you were headed for, and you have to recognize it’s gone. Then somehow you have to keep on moving forward into the future you now realize you don’t understand or know or want. But this mourning is different, right? I’m grieving for the United States that I thought we could be, might be, and most importantly, should be.

How do we teach in sadness? I spent the morning running. Literally. I headed out to the woods and grounded myself in the feeling–ephemeral though it may be–that I have some strength, some power, and a world that makes sense to me. I wear a t-shirt for the day with the words, “El silencio mata” and make plans to hold space for my students. bell hooks prepares me for that: “I believe whole-heartedly that the only way out of domination is love, and the only way into really being able to connect with others, and to know how to be, is to be participating in every aspect of your life as a sacrament of love, and that includes teaching.” Love is not just a feeling. Love is a set of actions. Let us love deeply and radically; let us act wildly and meaningfully.

(Us)

We go to a rally on campus organized by our students. There are at least 300 students, staff, faculty, and community members in attendance. Students share their thoughts. They share their worries about feeling targeted in their women/queer/Black/Brown/immigrant bodies. They remind their peers that they had been so organized and involved in Get Out The Vote efforts, in supporting local progressive candidates, and in going out and voting. They talk about the practical steps moving forward to support those who might be affected most by policies and practices in the next four years–-getting trained as an escort for women going into reproductive health clinics, for example. They remind us to support and care for ourselves and each other. They make us feel hopeful and inspired.

To our students who organized the rally and who have been organizing and have been building bridges and coalitions across differences before the election and will continue to do so now: we see you, we support you, and we thank you.

To our former students who are now teachers themselves, working with children and young adults whom they are supporting and holding space for right now: we see you, we support you, and we thank you.

Teaching, learning, listening, and organizing trumps hate. Let’s get (back) to it!

Some suggestions for next steps:

Let us know if you have any other suggestions that we should add to this list.

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!

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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[image credit]

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/

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.